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The O.C, as it became known due to the popular TV show of the early 2000’s, has quickly become one of our favorite regions in California.
Before the teen soap series, it was simply Orange County, just as the locals like it.
Rumor has it if a local hears you calling it the O.C. drinks are on you!
There’s no denying those beautiful location shots from the O.C. put this part of Southern California on the radar of many travelers chasing the California beach lifestyle.
We all know reality is far better than fiction.
And as you’ll discover down below, there are plenty of places to go in Orange County Ca and things to do in Orange County with kids!
The O.C., I mean Orange County, sure gave us a lot of great memories on our Kidifornia Adventures with Visit California.
We visited on a paid partnership with Visit California to share the amazing family travel experiences you could have in the Golden State.
Our 10-day road trip incorporated San Diego, Orange County and Ventura County.
And what a base it was!
Here are our top things to do in Orange County with kids (that us adult’s love doing too) to experience nature and culture.
Huntington Beach (HB)
Surf City USA is where the laid back surfie culture meets a little bit of beach sophistication.
If you’re a Beach Boys fan (waving hand madly), HB is the beach lifestyle they sold you on so well in their groovy beach tunes.
Huntington Beach’s transformation over the years has been quite dramatic.
40 years ago, it was identified by the rows of oil derricks along the shore line. Now it’s boutique stores, classic cafes, fine-dining options and luxury hotels create a vibrantly fun atmosphere.
HB in the OC is the place to be seen.
Just look at whose handsome smiling face can be seen luring you in from the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway).
(Btw, did you see what I did back there? PCH in the H.B. in the O.C. lol. I promise I will not do it anymore Orange County!)
Huntington is one of the best beaches in Orange County and the most exciting beach destination we’ve been to in the US.
It’s on the edge of discovery and will soon become a destination that sizzles like a Raleigh summer in three ways only – hot, hotter and hottest.
Huntington Beach’s location makes it an ideal place to stay when exploring Orange County and even most of Southern California.
It’s 35 minutes to Anaheim, an hour to Hollywood and 90 minutes to San Diego.
We’ll be visiting Anaheim in September with Craig’s family and have started our Disneyland planning. I think we’ve convinced them to at least fit a day trip into Huntington Beach.
15 Things to do in Orange County with kids
1. Huntington Beach and Pier
There’s nothing like sitting at a pub with a Californian local talking about life in the old California days over a pint of local brew.
Huntington Beach Pier is where the local surfers used to jump off to catch a wave. I’m not sure if today’s society would let them be so daring, but the waves sure haven’t gone away in protest.
Huntington Beach, California is noted for its consistent waves that brings surfers from across the globe.
Many come here to artfully weave between the pier pylons. Only for those who know what they are doing!
Every August, the US Surfing Open is held here.
This massive professional surfing event has contributed to the beach town’s rapid growth and the storefront windows being plastered with images of Mick Fanning.
Hey, no complaints here. Keep that Aussie gold coming.
It’s not just the water that entices sport lovers.
Along the beachfront, you’ll find rows of beach volleyball nets, which are used by pros and Olympic gold medalists, and of course you!
Nets are free, and you can rent volleyballs from concessionaires down by the beach.
You can also rent stand up paddle boards and surfboards, bikes and surreys.
Want to learn how to surf? HB is one of the best beaches in Orange County for surfing and that would be one of the coolest things to do in Orange County with kids!
Huntington takes beach memory making a step further.
You can purchase firewood and smores to use in over 500 concrete fire rings available for free on the beach. It’s the Huntington Beach way and something I have never heard of any other beach in the world doing.
And the Huntington beach sunsets are pretty awesome – one of the best free things to do in Orange County California!
There’s 10-mile paved boardwalk runs the full length of the shoreline parallel to the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH as the cool kids call it.
Jump on your bike and go explore.
Huntington has plenty of Eco tourism and nature experiences with the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, Shipley Nature Center and Huntington Beach Wetlands.
Huntington State Beach is one of the cleanest in California.
On Fridays, 11am- 7pm there is a local arts and craft fair at the bottom of the pier.
2. Downtown Huntington Beach
Main Street Huntington Beach is where you’ll find your cafes, restaurants, bars and surf wear.
Plus, there is a surfing walk of fame, and the International Surfing museum, where we popped in for a short visit.
It’s small enough to not take up too much of your time, but there’s enough to keep you interested with its collection of old and new skate and surf boards.
I particularly liked seeing the Guinness Book of World Records this surfing town holds, including most amount of people riding a surfboard for 12 seconds – let’s make that count at 66!
You can even see this gigantic sized surfboard – the world’s largest – hanging from the building in the parking lot.
If you love all things surfing, this is one of the interesting things to do in Orange County with kids!
Both my girls love to shop (danger ahead) so they loved strolling up and down Main Street checking out the sales in the surf shops and making their own Havaianas in the Havaiana store.
Huntington Beach Events
On Tuesday evenings, Surf City Nights turns Main Street into a pedestrian farmer’s markets with live music, food samples and activities for kids.
3. Pacific City
Pacific City is a modern retail, entertainment and dining space overlooking Huntington beach.
And Pacific City was the original name of the early oceanfront village that we now know as Huntington Beach.
It was named in honor of that village to once again bring to life a vibrantly rich place that celebrated the unique and natural beauty surrounding it.
It’s a beautiful space and definitely has a vibrant and celebratory style while keeping in tune with the natural beauty of Huntington.
You get outdoor lounges, fire pits and Huntington Beach views from every plaza, patio and deck.
It’s a real gathering place of visitors and locals and I can see why.
Lot 579 is a modern food hall featuring burgers, and beer, coffee and our favorite the Pie Not, An Aussie bakery filled with meat pies, sausage rolls and lamingtons.
Tell Mick to pop in!
4. Stay at Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort
The Kimpton Shorebreak Huntington Beach Resort on the corner of 5th and PCH was so great, we’re dedicating a future blog post review of it.
There is too much to say about it and this post is already gigantic for you.
It was fantastic.
Not just for its beach front location, the views from our room, and its modern funky design.
And nor was it for the free wine social hour, free s’mores by the fire pits, ping pong tables, corn hole, an absolutely amazing restaurant, but for the social atmosphere.
It was like staying in a hostel, but with the lovely luxury comforts of a four-star hotel.
The vibe was relaxed and family-friendly.
We spent our evenings sitting around the fire pits chatting with strangers swapping travel stories and tips.
You’d greet each other the next day in the lobby or courtyard and catch up on the day’s activities.
If you travel with your pets; it’s also pet friendly.
The Kimpton Shorebreak Hotel is an absolute winner and definitely is in our top 5 favorite hotels so far in our America Unplugged road trip journey.
5. Eat at Pacific Hideaway, Kimpton Shorebreak
Breakfast or dinner take your pick, the food was exceptional.
Choose whether you want to sit on the deck with views of PCH and the palm trees leaning over to worship HB, (don’t worry they have Mexican blankets in case of evening chills).
Or inside on one of the swing bench chairs. They don’t actually swing, but they are darn cute.
You have Southeast Asian or Latin American influences in the Pacific Hideaway.
And the breakfast bowl was scrumptious. You’d never know it’s so healthy for you.
And the girl’s pancakes and French Toast were dished up with color and beauty to match the pretty bouquet of flowers on Frida’s Kahlo’s head.
How beautiful is this mural on the wall of the restaurant?
Want more suggestions for restaurants in Huntington Beach Ca?
We grabbed a takeaway lunch from famous Wahoo’s Fish Taco and ate down on the grass area next to the pier.
Another place that came recommended by many and seemed popular each morning was the Sugar Shack Cafe.
And for absolute beach front position check out legendary Duke’s.
Things to do in Orange County with kids, outside of Huntington Beach
Aw, do we have to leave Huntington?
Yes! Because Orange County is an exciting destination with plenty of fun things to do with the kids.
We’ll tell you more about that after September.
On this trip, we wanted to stay away from the theme parks and have more local Kidifornia adventures.
Those that showed us the natural beauty, a little history, and immersed us into the Orange County culture.
6. Ocean Institute Dana Point
Richard Henry Dana, the seaman who Dana Point is named after, described this place as solemn and romantic.
It’s a very pretty location with the harbor sitting under the cliff tops that you see so much of in Southern Orange County.
Dana Point is a departure point for sailing adventures and whale and dolphin watching excursions, but, it’s also the home of the Ocean Institute.
The Dana Point Ocean Institute uses the ocean as their classroom to inspire children to learn.
As we wandered through the various parts of the facilities that included touch tanks, and life-sized displays of whales, and the growing life cycle of the jellyfish, groups of children moved experimenting, playing games and interacting with the ocean on various summer camps.
What a cool way to learn about, and fall in love, with the ocean.
The girls really loved the behind the scenes tour. It was way better than me teaching them this stuff from a text book.
The Institute also teaches about maritime life and history. Outside in the harbor sits the tall ship, The Pilgrim, a full-sized replica of the brig on which Dana once sailed.
The girls were able to walk aboard the ship picturing what life was like as a sailor spending six months on board sailing around the Americas from Boston to California to trade for cow hides.
We put them to work raising the mast too! I don’t think they’ll complain about cleaning their room again.
The Ocean Institute is now open to the public seven days a week where you can tour the facility, participate in lab activities, go on a Whale Watching Cruise or head to sea aboard a historic tall ship.
Visiting the Institute is one of the best educational things to do in Orange County with kids!
On weekdays, a 1 tour ticket is $5. A day pass (2+ tours are $70)
On weekends it’s $10 for adults and $7.50 for kids (2-12) and seniors (55+)
7. Mission San Juan Capistrano
Orange County attractions are not just about theme parks and beautiful beaches.
There is also historical charm only a few miles away from the Dana Point coastline.
A worthy stop on your Southern California road trip, is Mission San Juan Capistrano, the birthplace of Orange County.
It was founded by the Spanish in 1776, at the same time the Founding Fathers were signing those important documents over in the East.
Mission San Juan Capistrano is stunning, especially when we visited in June with the flowers setting the stoned walls of the mission alight.
The 10-acre site is filled with bougainvillea covered walkways, lush gardens, fountains and exhibits.
It is so colorful and pretty inside with plenty of space to wander and relax.
A feature of the mission are the ruins of the Great Stone Church. It took six years to build and one minute to destroy in the 1812 earthquake that killed 40 people inside attending Mass.
It’s now a fitting memorial to the strength and resilience of the local community.
The Serra Chapel inside the mission is the oldest church in California. Mass is still held here.
Its notable feature is the gold plated Baroque altarpiece that is decorated with 52 angel faces – one for every Sunday of the year.
Don’t miss the Sacred Garden and the Bell Wall beside the Great Stone Church. As you can see it’s really beautiful.
The Mission is also a space for the community.
Events are held here year-round, including the historic bell ringing for special occasions, an annual battle of the mariachis festival and a celebration for the Return of the Swallows.
The mission is well known for the swallows that return here each March to nest.
I’d love to return and experience a summer concert series under the stars in the beautiful grounds of this mission, or the Native American storytelling that happens on the first Sundays and 2nd Saturdays of the month.
There is a sad Native American history attached to the mission. As you know the Missions were built by the Spanish in order to convert the indigenous in the area to their way of living.
So, amongst this beauty there is a heavy history.
I love how the Mission now celebrates the Native American traditions via different interactive exhibits inside and honoring their spirit through experiences like this.
This Mission is another one of the most interesting and educational things to do in Orange County with kids!
Admission & Tours:
Multi language audio tours are free with the $10 admission ticket or you can take staff guided tours.
To keep the kids engaged with the history of Mission San Juan Capistrano, they receive a Mission Passport, which is an activity book filled with historical facts and games.
8. Los Rios Historic District
Across the train tracks from Mission San Juan Capistrano is the Los Rios historic district, a pleasant place to stroll, eat, enjoy tea, and boutique shop.
There are 31 homes along Los Rios Street, the earliest dating to 1794, and they look as they did two centuries ago.
Many of the homes are still owned by the original families.
Browse the items that match the rooms they are displayed in. Tea Towels and oven dishes sit in the kitchen, clothes hang up in the wardrobe and outside are all your garden goods.
It was cute!
Pop into Ellie’s Table which is located in the 1883 Judge Egan House. It’s a delicious bakery and café perfect for a lunch break. And they even have gluten free goodies.
I was too full from my pumpkin soup and quiche to fit one of them in. The food here is homemade and exceptional. It’s reasonably priced and has a lovely local story.
The streets around the Mission display a variety of architectural styles.
Adobe, Victorian, Spanish and Revival, all of which house galleries, bookstores, boutique stores (Wildfire Mercantile is fun), restaurants and taverns.
9. Tanaka Farms Strawberry Tour in Irvine
Looking for fun places to eat in Orange County?
Did you know that California produces 80% of America’s strawberries?
We loved learning this and more on a strawberry farm tour at Tanaka Farms, Irvine, which is about 30 minutes from Huntington Beach.
Tanaka have been running tours of their farm here for 20 years.
The one-hour wagon ride tour goes around the 30-acre farm where you’ll learn about the farm’s history and farming methods and you’ll see what is growing.
Everything is organic so feel free to taste away.
Have you ever tasted corn straight from the ground?
I didn’t even know you could eat it raw and it was the most delicious thing I tasted on the farm. It was sweet and creamy and so fresh.
We also tasted carrots, onions (pass), bok choy, and coriander.
We then jumped off at the end to run through the strawberry fields and pick a container full of them. Of course, we ate a few as we went.
Strawberry picking was one of the girl’s favorite things to do in Orange County California.
Besides farm tours, Tanaka Farms also sell their produce in a small market out front.
10. OC Night Market in Costa Mesa
Looking for things to do in Orange County at night?
The Orange County Night Market is the largest event of its kind in the US! They are held every Friday night in the fairgrounds and attended by thousands of people.
The fairgrounds are lined with food trucks, merchandise, arts and entertainment, including men trying to hang off the monkey bars for 2 minutes in order to win $100.
Must be hard because the strongest looking man in the crowd only lasted 46 seconds.
You’ll see long queues for dishes like hot Cheetos-encrusted corn dog or nachos, or fried peanut-butter meatballs from Chick n Charlie’s.
The multicultural atmosphere at the OC Night Markets is fun and vibrant.
If you love quirky drinks and tapioca balls, then be sure to grab a giant baby bottle of boba milk tea. If that is not your style, they have drinks in giant light bulbs as well.
There is a $5 entry fee for the OC Markets. And parking is $8.
The entry fee left us a little bewildered as to why people would pay an entrance fee to eat from food trucks. But hundreds turn up each week, and as one local said,
“Oh, the OC night markets are so fun. I used to go every week when I was at college”
Newport Beach California
Newport is said to be California’s Riviera.
On one side of the Balboa Peninsula, you have waterfront mansions, yacht filled harbor and six resident islands of various sizes, one of which, Collin’s Island, James Cagney is said to have one in a poker game.
Another, Bay Island, is completely car free.
On the other side of the Balboa peninsula you have 8 miles of surfing beaches.
We only had one morning in, and I’m sure only scratched the surface on things to do in Newport Beach CA.
11. Duffy Boat Tour
What a wonderful way to start a day relaxing on a Duffy boat tour of Newport Bay.
Once you arrive in Orange County, you will quickly learn the term Duffy boat. It’s an electric boat, similar to a golf cart, which is perfect for the waters of Newport Bay.
To keep a calm waterway for the locals, you cannot go faster than 5 knots which meant Kalyra could play skipper for a bit.
Our guide, Carolyn, from Newport at your Feet, was full of energy and passion for Newport and Orange County and shared with us many stories about life in Newport.
Carolyn pointed out sites like Shirley Temple’s childhood home, and the beach where some of Gilligan’s Island was filmed.
She also pointed out the lot where John Wayne used to have his home.
There’s a new home on it now – which was one of my favorites on there – but they have kept the big sign out the front that said, Dukes Point.
I took a photo of it to send to my dad. As you may know from our post about the Alamo, he is the world’s biggest John Wayne fan.
Balboa is the most well-known of the islands and there is cute car and passenger ferry which transports people back and forth from the peninsula.
Apparently, the ice cream on the cute main shopping street there makes it a worthy visit.
We finished our Duffy boat tour of Newport Bay with a favorite local’s activity: Dock and Dine.
We docked in front of the Lighthouse Café for a spot of lunch. Fish Tacos, beignets and extraordinary views topped off an extraordinary morning.
You can rent a Duffy boat for your own self-guided tour or join a guided one like Carolyn offers.
12. Balboa Village Fun Zone
The Fun Zone on the harbor grabbed us for a trampoline jump and a Ferris wheel ride before leaving Newport.
This Ferris wheel may be smaller than most, but it is the longest Ferris wheel ride I’ve ever had. You’ll know from this post I wrote on being ride dizzy, I was ready to get off it.
Why do you get so dizzy on rides once you get older?
The girls absolutely loved it and we had gorgeous views out over Newport from the top.
Where else do you go after rotating through the air, but for ice cream?
Waiting for you are the refreshing flavors of a California summer at Cowafornia ice cream. All ice creams are made with real California milk.
Pineapple Coconut was my perfect fit for an afternoon ice cream in Newport Beach.
Cowafornia even have sugar free chocolate, which Craig said was delicious. No ice cream guilt needed!
Savannah went with cotton candy!
So, put the Fun Zone on your list of fun things to do in Orange County with kids!
We ran out of time to explore more of Newport, but if you have time be sure to check out Corona Del Mar Beach, Back Bay for hiking and biking trails, and The Wedge, which is known for big wave surfing.
The week before we arrived they had 12-foot waves.
But, they have been known to reach 20 feet! Wowzer!
13. Laguna Beach
Laguna Beach California is a popular vacation destination and is a little more upmarket than Huntington Beach.
There’s plenty of things to do in Laguna Beach and it’s popular for couples’ breaks, families and art lovers.
Around Laguna you’ll find seven miles of coves and canyons, offering you plenty of outdoor activities and Laguna Beach beaches to enjoy.
Laguna Beach has different beaches to the rest of Southern California, they are smaller and more sheltered rather than the wide sweeping beaches you find along most of the coastline.
Some of the best beaches in Laguna beach are also found at the bottom of steep cliffs, like the aptly named 1,000 Steps Beach recommended to us by locals, Megan and Scot from Bobo and Chichi.
I don’t think it has 1,000 steps but it certainly feels like it. It’s worth heading on down.
They also recommended Table Rock Beach for sunset and Treasure Island Beach.
Victoria Beach, and its natural pirate tower also comes recommended and then there is the main Laguna Beach, which will probably be more crowded than the other beaches.
Just across the road from main beach are winding streets filled with restaurants, boutiques and galleries.
14. Fete de LA Musique
One of my favorite travel memories is a night in Paris with friends at the Fete de LA Musique.
We were staying with a local Parisian and she suggested we walk around to check out the festival music playing in the streets.
Even though we didn’t understand a single word we had a ball moving from street corner to street corner listening to different music and dancing with the crowds.
What does this have to do with Laguna beach and one of the best things to do in Orange County with kids?
Well, if you are in Laguna Beach in June, the Fete de LA Musique is one of the top Laguna Beach events and brings the same experience to this Orange county beach town.
This music festival was actually conceived by American musician Joel Cohen in 1976 while he was working at a radio station in France.
He proposed an all-night music celebration during the summer solstice. It began as a recognized cultural event in 1982.
Laguna Beach is an artistic community, so it makes sense that it is held here each year to celebrate the coming of summer.
Walk around the streets of Laguna Beach downtown and the main beachfront to listen to a wide variety of music from local musicians.
My favorite was the band on the beach singing Purple Rain. Prince we love you.
As Laguna is an arts community, you may also want to check out the Laguna Art Museum, which collects, and exhibits works of art created by California artists or that represent California history and culture.
15. Eat at Las Brisas
When it came to Laguna Beach restaurants, Las Brisas was mentioned to us by almost everyone we spoke to about when visiting Laguna Beach.
It’s a restaurant on the cliff top at Laguna Beach and has incredible coastline views.
It also has incredible Mexican food as well. Craig’s rapture over his beef brisket tacos had me lamenting not ordering them.
Although my salmon choice, was just as delicious!
The cloudy skies cancelled our date with a Laguna beach sunset.
We went back to the Kimpton for smores and red wine around the fire pits instead.
More Southern California Tips
- 10 day itinerary for Southern California
- 16 things to do in San Diego
- Hyatt Regency Orange County Review
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Do you have any tips on things to do with kids in Orange County or suggest any more Orange County attractions? Please share in the comments.