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Orange County Travel Guide: Where to Stay, What to Eat, and More

Disneyland may bill itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth,” but there’s plenty more to Orange County, California, that will turn that frown upside down. From 42 miles of spectacularly beautiful beaches to world-class dining featuring cuisine from around the world, it’s easy to lose yourself in this unique corner of California and forget about those bigger cities up and down the freeway. Find out where to stay, what to eat, and more in our Orange Country travel guide.

If you’re looking to make the most of your Disneyland vacation, or if you’ve simply come to Orange County (OC) to enjoy the sunny beaches, here’s what you need to know about the best that OC has to offer.

Why Go to Orange County?

A view of the Dana Point Headlands from the bluffs above Goff Island Cove in Laguna Beach, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey Andrew Davey/The Manual

Situated in between Los Angeles and San Diego,Orange County was once considered a chain of sleepy suburbs strung along the I-5, I-405, SR-55, and SR-91 freeways. Once upon a time, Californians elsewhere derided the cultural wasteland that lurked “behind the Orange Curtain.”

In the past 25 years, that conversation has completely changed. While OC continues to offer oodles of family fun with the Disneyland Resort and additional local theme parks, OC increasingly features exciting “adult playgrounds” with its casually opulent beach cities, its increasingly vibrant urban core, and a plethora of natural treasures that always invite you to come play outdoors. Here’s the full lowdown on the best highlights of this enchanted wonderland we call Orange County.

Where to Stay

When you’re looking for a place to stay, know where you want to go. Like the rest of urban Southern California, OC struggles with grueling traffic on the major freeways. If you’re planning to spend most of your trip at the theme parks, or if you want a place close to Amtrak and Metrolink trains that connect to more of the region, try a hotel or an Airbnb in the Anaheim area. If you already know you’ll need more time at the beach, look for a place in one of the beach cities.

If you prefer to use Airbnb or another vacation rental service, you should find plenty of available homes in Orange County. If you really want a full-service hotel, below is our shortlist of great hotels in the area.

Best Disneyland-adjacent Location: JW Marriott Anaheim

The rooftop bar at the JW Marriott Anaheim Resort hotel in Anaheim, California.
Photo provided by Marriott

Located about a half-mile from Disneyland, mere steps away from the Anaheim GardenWalk mall, and a short drive from the I-5 Freeway and the ARTIC train station, the JW Marriott places you deep in the center of the action. As a fairly new hotel, it feels very fresh and contemporary inside and out. Even though it’s so close to such an iconic theme park, it offers plenty of grown-up amenities, such as a rooftop bar, a walkable garden, and a wellness center with a yoga room, to keep you balanced. But with a great pool area and with such a short walk to the Magic Kingdom, it’s also great for families.

  • Nearest Airport: John Wayne – Orange County
  • Time: 20-30 minutes by car
  • Distance: 14 miles

Best Value: Doubletree Suites by Hilton Anaheim Resort

A standard king room at the Doubletree Suites by Hilton Anaheim Convention Center hotel.
Photo provided by Hilton

Located about a mile from Disneyland, the Doubletree Suites is your best bet for a nice hotel in the Anaheim Resort district that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. The area is served by Anaheim Resort Transit (ART) shuttles, and it’s within walking distance of multiple restaurants and shops. The rooms tend to be large, and the premises tend to be quite clean, but keep in mind that the hotel does charge for on-site parking.

  • Nearest Airport: John Wayne – Orange County
  • Time: 20-30 minutes by car
  • Distance: 14 miles

Best Style: Avenue of the Arts Costa Mesa, a Tribute Portfolio Hotel

A look inside a suite at the Avenue of the Arts Hotel in Costa Mesa, California.
Photo provided by the Avenue of the Arts Hotel

Located within walking distance of OC’s iconic South Coast Plaza luxury mega-mall and the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the Avenue of the Arts hotel fits very well with the neighborhood’s sophisticated vibe. Though the hotel building may appear somewhat bland on the outside, inside you’ll find fun music-inspired decor that’s fit for a rock star. Even better, the hotel rooms really stand out with unique wallpaper, eco-friendly hardwood floors, top-notch bedding, and floor-to-ceiling granite bathrooms. If you’re up for a splurge, you’ll discover bold colors and even more thoughtful touches of chic design in their larger suites. The hotel houses the cozy yet chic Silver Trumpet Restaurant on premises, and there’s no shortage of tasty eateries at nearby South Coast Plaza.

  • Nearest Airport: John Wayne – Orange County
  • Time: 10-15 minutes by car
  • Distance: Four miles

Best Hidden Gem: Renaissance Newport Beach

The lobby at the Renaissance Newport Beach hotel in Newport Beach, California.
Photo provided by Marriott

If you’re looking for a nice hotel that’s close to the airport, close to the freeways, close to the beaches, and far from insanely expensive, it’s hard to beat Renaissance Newport Beach. While this hotel is situated smack dab in a corporate office park that doesn’t have a lot of tourist-friendly attractions within walking distance, there are a few restaurants in the immediate vicinity, and it’s not that long of a drive or Uber/Lyft ride to the scenically upscale Fashion Island mall and the stunningly beautiful beaches of Corona del Mar. Back at the hotel, the rooms feel bright, colorful, and “beachy” without feeling too kitschy, and they have a pool and fitness center for you to unwind after a long day of sightseeing.

  • Nearest Airport: John Wayne – Orange County
  • Time: 7-10 minutes by car
  • Distance: Two miles

Best Luxury: Montage Laguna Beach

A view of the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island from the pool complex at the Montage Resort in Laguna Beach, California.
Photo provided by Montage Hotels & Resorts

Why settle for the rest when you can stay at the best? If money is no object, the Montage Resort has it all: A spectacularly scenic oceanfront location, sumptuous dining at its two delectable restaurants, timelessly elegant California Craftsman style, and rooms and suites so luxurious that you may have a hard time convincing yourself to leave. Yet once you lay eyes on the drop-dead gorgeous beaches of Treasure Island and Goff Island Cove, you’ll feel the urge to descend into the ultimate New World Mediterranean paradise. If you’re up for even more adventures, you can catch a Laguna Beach Trolley streetcar on Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) that connects to Downtown Laguna Beach and dozens of art galleries.

  • Nearest Airport: John Wayne – Orange County
  • Time: 35-45 minutes by car
  • Distance: 17 miles

Where to Eat

Long ago, Orange County’s culinary scene was best of the worst, known for fast food chains and strip mall holes in the wall. Interestingly enough, quite a few of those strip mall holes in the wall are where you’ll find OC’s best-hidden gem restaurants. While you can still find plenty of fast-food chains all over the place, OC’s dining scene has increasingly become defined by food halls that serve as local hubs of gastronomical innovation, as well as fine dining establishments and neighborhood favorites that specialize in utilizing California’s agricultural riches to their fullest.

Price Key

“$” = budget-friendly or cheap
“$$”= average
“$$$”= expensive

Mix Mix Kitchen Bar

A table with plates of food at Mix Mix Kitchen Bar in Santa Ana, California.
Photo provided by Mix Mix Kitchen Bar

While Mix Mix may be fairly far removed from the most touristy parts of Orange County, the Michelin Guide not only found this restaurant in Downtown Santa Ana (DTSA), but they also gave it a Bib Gourmand rating for its “surprising, subtle, and often ingenious spin on Filipino fare.” Mix Mix has a truly delicious mix of familiar dishes – like spaghetti and clams, and the house burger – and more adventurous dishes – like shrimp meatballs and Baja kampachi – that offer a bit of something for everyone. If you can’t make it to their DTSA location, try their Terrace restaurant at South Coast Plaza for some of the same dishes as their main location plus hot-out-of-the-oven pizzas.

  • Best for Dinner 
  • $$

Browse the Menu

Antonello Ristorante

The outdoor dining area at Antonello Ristorante in Santa Ana, California.
Photo provided by Antonello Ristorante

If you’re in the mood for a romantic Italian dinner, it’s hard to think of a better place to dine. Antonello has been an OC culinary powerhouse for over four decades, and it remains a South Coast Plaza mainstay thanks to owner and chef Antonio Cagnolo’s dedication to sourcing the freshest ingredients, developing and sticking to the tastiest recipes, and delivering the best service. Come for the stellar wine list, and stay for the mouthwatering pasta and Italian-style surf-and-turf fare.

  • Best for Dinner 
  • $$$

Browse the Menu

The Vox Kitchen

Food at the table at The Vox Kitchen in Fountain Valley, California.
Photo provided by The Vox Kitchen

The Vox Kitchen may be one of the newest kitchens on Little Saigon’s illustriously storied blocks, but it has quickly become one of OC’s favorites thanks to its creative and trendy Asian-Latin fusion menu. The menu itself isn’t huge, but it has several tasty options — such as the house garlic noodles, and crab congee — that are sure to please. If you decide to dine here, grab a reservation as early as you can – this place really is that popular!

  • Best for Lunch and Dinner 
  • $$

Browse the Menu

The Cut Handcrafted Burgers

A table full of food at The Cut Handcrafted Burgers in Irvine, California.
Photo provided by The Cut Handcrafted Burgers

There’s a reason why The Cut describes its grub as “intricately simple”: For such a seemingly simple burger joint in an Irvine suburban strip mall, The Cut truly is a cut above the rest thanks to its use of top-quality and all-natural meats (as well as great vegan meats!), and its excellent craftsmanship. Even if you’re not in the mood for a burger, come for their Nashville hot chicken sandwich and their mac and cheese. The Cut even has a full cocktail menu to turn your stop here into the ultimate lunch or dinner experience.

  • Best for Lunch and Dinner 
  • $$

Browse the Menu

The Beachcomber

A frittata at The Beachcomber restaurant in Newport Beach, California
Photo by Andrew Davey

Located in the heart of the historic village at Crystal Cove State Park, The Beachcomber is an ideal spot for a very scenic meal. It’s open from 7:00 AM to 9:00 PM, so you can stop here for breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. If you come for breakfast, order the beignets, and you’ll likely thank us later. Even if you’re not in the mood for a proper sit-down meal, you can order appetizers and cocktails at the Bootlegger Bar around the corner. Wherever you ultimately decide to grab a spot at The Beachcomber, you’re guaranteed to enjoy great views with your grub and brews.

  • Best for Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner 
  • $$

Browse the Menu

Carmelita’s Kitchen de Mexico

The seafood enchiladas at Carmelita's Kitchen de Mexico in Laguna Beach, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

For the last ten years, Carmelita’s has been a local favorite in Laguna Beach thanks to its embrace of natural and organic ingredients, as well as its menu full of tasty treats that pay loving tribute to traditional Puebla and Guadalajara Mexican dishes. Feast on their queso fundido and slow-braised pork carnitas, or indulge in ceviche and seafood enchiladas if you’re more in the mood for mariscos. No visit to Carmelita’s is complete without trying their signature margaritas: The cadillac and the pomegranate are our favorites, but you really can’t go wrong with any of their expertly crafted margaritas.

  • Best for Lunch and Dinner 
  • $$$

Browse the Menu

What to Do

For decades, Orange County struggled to emerge from Los Angeles’ movie star shadow. That began to change with the opening of Disneyland in 1955 and the subsequent surge of tourists to Anaheim. Things changed more dramatically about five decades later when TV shows like MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County made OC world-famous. Yet even when the reality TV camera crews are not filming in the area, there’s still plenty to do here. Whether you’re a theme park junkie, a committed shopaholic, an artistic free spirit, or a passionate ocean lover, there’s always something for you to enjoy in Orange County.

The Disneyland Resort

The Pixar Pier at Disney California Adventure in the Disneyland Resort.
Photo by CrispyCreme27, licensed under Creative Commons, and made available by Wikimedia

While it may not be Disney’s largest theme park anymore, the Disneyland Resort is its oldest theme park, and it’s the only park that was originally designed by Walt Disney himself. If you haven’t visited lately, note that the park has evolved plenty in recent years. The main Disneyland Park now has an expanded Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge land with a wildly immersive sci-fi experience, and Disney California Adventure goes deeper into the Marvel cinematic universe with the brand-new Avengers Campus. If you want to enhance your Disney day with a special lunch or dinner date in the park, you can now make reservations for restaurants in the park, and you can find more options in the Downtown Disney district between the two parks.

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Anaheim Packing District

The Anaheim Packing House in Anaheim, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

If you’re finally ready to head off-campus, the Anaheim Packing District is less than three miles from Disneyland. It’s a great place to shop if you’re looking for non-Disney souvenirs, and it’s even better if you come hungry and thirsty. At the heart of the neighborhood is a vintage 1919 orange packaging facility that’s been transformed into OC’s hottest food hall, where you’ll find everything from tacos to sushi, and from Japanese-style crepes to Moscow mules. If that’s still not enough, you’ll find even more to enjoy beyond the Packing House food hall, including Pali Wine Company’s tasting room at the MAKE Building, and Modern Times’ Leisuretown for the ultimate California craft beer experience.

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Downtown Santa Ana

Street art in Downtown Santa Ana, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Located about eight miles southeast of Disneyland, Downtown Santa Ana feels like another world. Instead of carefully curated theme park escapism, DTSA provides a wild and wonderful blend of art galleries in the Artists’ Village, street art near the historic Yost Theater, traditional Mexican restaurants and stores on Calle Cuatro, and an overall fun urban core experience that would have been considered unimaginable in Orange County a quarter-century ago. Even better, Santa Ana also has an Amtrak and Metrolink train station that makes for an easy ride to and from Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Diego, and elsewhere.

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South Coast Plaza and the SoBeCa District

A view of the stores at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

If you really want to shop ’til you drop, you must head to Costa Mesa. While LA has Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive for status shopping, OC has South Coast Plaza, and South Coast Plaza has over 250 boutiques and eateries to keep you busy. From Alexander McQueen to Zegna, it’s hard to find a designer who’s not represented here. If you seek a different flavor of retail therapy, head south to the SoBeCa District, where you’ll find everything from stores within a store at Mitsuwa Marketplace to lively creativity at The Lab Anti-Mall and cozy restaurants at The Lab’s sibling mall The Camp.

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Laguna Beach

A view of Goff Island and Catalina Island from the bluffs above Goff Island Cove in Laguna Beach, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Can life get any better than this? You may be asking yourself this question quite often in Laguna Beach, where you can explore one of Orange County’s best outdoor spaces at Crystal Cove, visit over 100 art galleries and the highly acclaimed Laguna Art Museum, choose from over 100 delectable restaurants, and simply explore Laguna’s seven miles of enchanting beaches. Even if you’re not staying at the Montage Resort, it’s worth stopping at Goff Island Cove to take a swim, admire the tide pools, and maybe even join the crew of local artists atop the bluff who utilize the charming land and seascape to paint the ultimate masterpiece.

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San Clemente

A child and a parent play at the beach in San Clemente, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

As the only Orange County beach city that’s directly accessible via Metrolink (every day) and Amtrak (on weekends only) trains, as well as the one OC beach city that the I-5 freeway runs through, San Clemente feels like a more easily accessible beach city, especially if you’re already planning to swing down to South Orange County to visit the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano. Even better, San Clemente has a 2.3-mile Beach Trail that’s perfect for hiking, biking, and simply hopping along from beach to beach between the Metrolink train station and Calafia Beach. At the heart of the city is the San Clemente Pier where you can try your hand at surf fishing, walk the pier and take in the majestic views of the Dana Point Headlands to the north, or simply wade in the water at the beach. If you’re an avid surfer, or if you’re a nature lover who wants to experience a more wild side of the California coastline, head south to San Onofre State Beach: It may officially be in San Diego County, but it’s closest to San Clemente, so OC locals love to claim this iconic surfing beach as their own. Once you lay eyes on the coastline, and especially once your feet touch the water, you’ll understand why.

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How to Save Money on Your Trip

A view of T Street Beach and Cotton Point from the San Clemente Pier in San Clemente, California.
Photo by Andrew Davey

Experiences

If you’re planning to spend a lot of time at Disneyland, you will be paying quite a lot inside the gates, but there are still ways for you to save money during your trip. Check Kayak for deals on tours, theme park tickets, and other local attractions. If you prefer exploring outdoors, state parks (like Bolsa Chica and Crystal Cove) don’t charge more than $15 for all-day parking, and many local parks are completely free of charge. If you plan on doing OC car-free, Metrolink offers scenic train rides at great prices — especially on weekends, when it’s only $10 for an all-day pass.

Hotels

As we hinted at earlier, the hotels at the most popular tourist hubs — such as the Anaheim Resort district, and Laguna Beach — often tend to cost a whole lot of pretty pennies. If you’re traveling on a weekend or during major holiday seasons, check the hotels in OC’s major business corridors, such as South Coast Metro and the Irvine Business Complex near John Wayne Airport. You may be surprised by the deals you find. Wherever you decide to stay, Kayak is a great site for finding the right accommodation for your budget and itinerary.

Vehicle Rentals

Since some parts of Orange County are quite far from Amtrak and Metrolink train stations, we can’t fault you for opting to rent your own car. Fortunately, Kayak offers plenty of great cars at amazingly low prices, so make sure to check them out when you’re looking for that perfect car to cruise down PCH and navigate the region’s freeways.

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