Most teens are itching to leave their hometowns after high school, opting for the farthest out of state school they can find. I was not one of them. Here I am, eight years post-graduation, and I’m still living in Orange County, California, where I was born and raised. I didn’t need to leave to realize I have it pretty darn good here. Beautiful beaches, an active art community, and an up-and-coming food scene make the OC a pretty sweet place to call home.
And now that summer is here, plenty of tourists are starting to see the appeal, too. And who can blame them? Which is why I wanted to share a local’s guide to Orange County in the summer. What to do, where to stay, and most importantly where to get a Michelin star quality meal on the cheap!
Where To Stay
Hotels in Orange County can get pretty pricey in the summer. If you want to stay in a decent hotel close to the beach or Disneyland, be prepared to part with $200 a night. An Airbnb or rental property is a much better bet and will get you a lot more space for your money. If you’re traveling with a large group, take advantage of your size and rent a gorgeous beach house.
Where To Explore
The Sawdust Art And Craft Festival
Every summer, Laguna Beach Canyon is taken over by the Sawdust Art & Craft Festival and Pageant of the Master’s show. Catch some live artist demonstrations, musical performances, and grab a few souvenirs from the local artists.
Corona Del Mar Beach
If you’re looking to get away from the craziness of some of the more central beaches, stop by Corona Del Mar State Beach. Little alcoves surround the main beach, and you can explore the tide pools, swim in calm water, and walk along the large jetty for some pretty outstanding views. Take a quick walk through the charming neighborhood of custom homes lining the beach on your way to some great restaurants and shops when you’re ready to take a quick break.
Beautiful views, water sports, arcade games, and more await you at Balboa Island. Highlights include riding the ferry from one side of the harbor to the other, paddle boarding with the sea lions, taking a Duffy Boat for a spin, and of course, indulging in a world famous Balboa Bar!
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts is an amazing hub of theatrical performances. With a rotating schedule of top touring plays and musicals, theater lovers should always find something to excite them here; there are plenty of great performances to choose from. After your show, grab dinner next door at Top Chef Chef Amar Santana’s Vaca. The vegetable paella really shouldn’t be missed.
If you don’t have time to do a full Disneyland day, Downtown Disney can satiate your Disney cravings. The dining and entertainment center is going through a massive overhaul this year and more and more adult-focused food and entertainment options are popping up, including a local favorite, Ballast Point brewery. If cocktails are more your thing, stop by the beautiful outdoor bar Uva Bar for the best pear martini you’ve ever had.
Lido Marina Village
What’s better than shopping? Shopping with a gorgeous harbor view. Lido Marina Village has some of the loveliest shops and restaurants around. Stop by Sugar Paper for the prettiest stationary in town and Alchemy Works: Harbor House for a chic curated selection of fashion and decor pieces. It’s also a great place to take some adorable vacation pics.
Where To Eat
Nick’s And South of Nick’s
Nick’s started as a southern comfort food inspired spot in San Clemente and has spread to a chain of restaurants up and down the coast in just a few years. Locals are obsessed, and you will be, too. I’m partial to South of Nick’s which is their more affordable Mexican inspired restaurant. You’ll be hard pressed to find better salsa in all of Orange County, and we have a lot of good salsa.
Zinc Cafe And Market
Zinc Cafe & Market has two Orange County locations conveniently located by major beach spots in Laguna Beach and Corona Del Mar, and it’s one of my favorite restaurants in the OC. This vegetarian restaurant has plenty of fresh, tasty, and healthy options for breakfast, lunch and early dinners. Order the Thai Salad, and I dare you to try not to come back for every meal.
Din Tai Fung
I probably shouldn’t even be telling you this because the lines are long enough as it is, but a meal at Din Tai Fung is a must when you’re visiting the OC. Multiple branches of this Taiwanese chain have been awarded Michelin stars. The Costa Mesa location hasn’t been dubbed the honor, but Din Tai Fung is known for keeping their menu and food quality consistent amongst restaurants. The family style dim sum is unbelievable and everyone I bring here becomes as obsessed as I am. The best part? The average entree is $10 or less! The only downside is that the wait time for a table can be extremely long and they don’t take reservations. However, the restaurant is located in South Coast Plaza, a huge mall that has over 250 shops to choose from. I normally request a table and then go do some shopping while I wait. They have a good mix of more affordable retailers like J.Crew and high-end designers like Dior and Chanel.
Anaheim Packing House
The Anaheim Packing House is basically an elevated food court with unique foods, fancy desserts, and craft cocktails. There are options for everyone, so if you have a picky party, you can all go grab what you want and sit in the communal area together! There’s even a speakeasy, The Blind Rabbit, that has extremely unique drink offerings. Make sure to check their website for instructions on how to enter or you just might not find it!
Coastal towns like Laguna Beach and Newport Beach have some really amazing food options, but on the weekends they can get packed. If you find a restaurant in a good location with great reviews, then it’s best to try to make a reservation or go at an off time. If I don’t have a dinner reservation I’ll usually pick a restaurant in a spot that’s good for walking around and enjoying the view, like in downtown Laguna Beach. Sometimes I prefer not to make a reservation so I have a good excuse to wander!
Bring Warm Clothes
In summer? By the beach? Yep. The days are generally warm, but if you are shacking up in any town near the coast then be prepared for a nice frosty marine layer in the morning and at night. Add in some ocean breeze and things can get pretty chilly. A pair of jeans for going out at night and a cardigan will do the trick.
Rent a Car
Orange County has many wonderful things to love about it, but public transportation options are not one of them. Short of taking the public bus, which is not as accessible as it should be, there aren’t any public transportation options. On top of that, most of the main attractions are spread out. Driving is the most time and cost efficient way to get around. Uber and Lyft can get expensive, especially on the weekends, so renting a car would be your best bet. Some of the smaller beach towns have free trolleys you can take around town in the summer. Keep an eye out for those so you can save on parking fees for quick trips!
OC freeways and highways like PCH, which goes along the coast, can get pretty jam-packed, even on the weekends. And the weekend traffic really picks up in the summer. Luckily, it’s pretty easy to avoid if you get out early enough. If you have any major driving trips to make, then it’s best to head out before noon and return after 3 p.m.