40 Best Sights in Orange County and Catalina Island, California

Aquarium of the Pacific

Fodor's choice

Sea lions, zebra sharks, and penguins—oh my! This aquarium focuses on creatures of the Pacific Ocean and is home to more than 12,000 animals. The main exhibits include large tanks of sharks, stingrays, and ethereal sea dragons, which the aquarium has successfully bred in captivity. The museum's first major expansion in years, Pacific Visions, features a 29,000-square-foot multisensory experience in which attendees can immerse themselves in humankind's relationship with the natural world through video projections, soundscapes, tactile exhibits, a touchscreen wall, interactive game tables, rumbling theater seats, and more. The aquarium focuses on its local environment in its refreshed Southern California Gallery, where you'll explore kelp forests, learn about local species, and learn about the aquarium's conservation efforts. Special events for kids, teens, and families abound; if you're interested in offsetting your travels with some local eco efforts, the whole family can join in local wetlands habitat restoration efforts held by the aquarium. Whale-watching trips on Harbor Breeze Cruises depart from the dock adjacent to the aquarium; summer sightings of blue whales are an unforgettable thrill.

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Balboa Island

Fodor's choice

This sliver of terra firma in Newport Harbor boasts quaint streets tightly packed with impossibly charming multimillion-dollar cottages. The island's main drag, Marine Avenue, is lined with picturesque cafés, frozen chocolate banana shops, and apparel, decor, and souvenir stores. There are bicycle and walking paths encircling much of the island for an easy and scenic visit. Rent a bike or walk the 2½-mile bike path and boardwalk that encircles much of the island for an easy and scenic visit.

To get here, you can either park your car on the mainland side of the PCH in Newport Beach and walk or bike over the bridge onto Marine Avenue, or take the Balboa Island Ferry, the country's longest-running auto ferry. The one-way fare is $1.50 for an adult pedestrian; $1.75 for an adult with a bike; and $2.50 to take your car on board.


Fodor's choice

Built in 1929, this iconic circular white structure is an architectural masterpiece. The entrance offers Spanish-inspired Catalina tile and painted murals in marine blue, sand, and sea foam green colors. This casino was named after the Italian word for "gathering place," not gambling. The circular ballroom with a soaring 50-foot dome ceiling once famously hosted 1940s big bands and is still used for jazz festivals and gala events. The Santa Catalina Island Company leads two different types of guided walking tours of the Casino. On the lower level is the historic Avalon Theatre with more than 1,000 seats; first-run movies show here on the weekend. Look up to see one of the most beautiful art deco murals by John Gabriel Beckman. 

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Corona del Mar State Beach

Corona del Mar Fodor's choice

This half-mile beach is actually made up of two beaches, Little Corona and Big Corona, separated by a cliff and rocky jetty. Both have soft, golden-hue sand to set up chairs and towels for the day. You can find a parking spot on the street on weekdays. Amenities: lifeguards; parking; showers; toilets. Best for: snorkeling; sunset; swimming.

Crystal Cove State Park

Fodor's choice

Midway between Corona del Mar and Laguna Beach is Crystal Cove State Park, a favorite of local beachgoers and wilderness trekkers. It encompasses a 3.2-mile stretch of unspoiled beach and has some of the best tide-pooling in Southern California. Here you can see starfish, crabs, and sea anemones near the rocks. The park's 2,400 acres of backcountry are ideal for hiking and mountain biking, but stay on the trails to preserve the beauty. The Moro Campground offers campsites with picnic tables, including spots designated for RVs and trailers.

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Disney California Adventure

Fodor's choice

The sprawling Disney California Adventure, adjacent to Disneyland (their entrances face each other), pays tribute to the Golden State with multiple theme areas. Take your park experience to the next level of fun with Play Disney Parks, a mobile app with entertaining games, activities, and trivia. Admire the vintage art-deco architectural shops and dining venues along Buena Vista Street and learn about movie magic at Hollywood Land.

Avengers Campus is home for a new generation of superheroes, focusing on the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ride on Web-Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure, where guests of all ages can help wrangle Spider-Bots while wearing 3D glasses and accumulate points. Screams can be heard around the park from the free-falling Guardians of the Galaxy--Mission: BREAKOUT! See your favorite characters from several hit Pixar films when crossing over Pixar Pier. Ride the superfast Incredicoaster, and collect points playing along the interactive Toy Story Midway Mania ride. Stop to win a prize playing games at the carnival area in Pixar Pier. The 12-acre Cars Land features Radiator Springs Racers, a speedy trip in six-passenger speedsters through scenes featured in the blockbuster hit. The Single Rider Lane saves time to experience the thrills quicker. At night the park takes on neon hues as glowing signs light up Route 66 in Cars Land and Pixar Pal-A-Round, a giant Ferris wheel.

Cocktails, craft beers, and premium wines from California are available in the Pacific Wharf dining area. This area in the park is being reimagined into San Fransokyo from the movie Big Hero 6, where East meet West. There is a place to meet Baymax, plus new dining and shopping venues. Live nightly entertainment features a 1930s jazz troupe and seasonal entertainers throughout the year. The MagicBand+ is a new way to unlock Disney storytelling. This hands-free wearable on your wrist enhances your park experience in exciting new ways with color-changing and gesture-recognition features. Certain rides have Lightning Lanes with Disney's Genie+ to save time in line. Be sure to stay for the World of Color-One, a light-and-sound show celebrating Walt Disney's 100 Years of Wonder storytelling.

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Fodor's choice

Disneyland is the only place where guests visit nine imaginative lands, from a galaxy far, far away in the Star Wars land; to a world of pirates in search of Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean series; and ride the Storybook Land Canal Boats, passing miniature replicas of animated Disney scenes from classics such as Frozen and Alice in Wonderland. Beloved Disney characters appear for autographs and photos throughout the day; times and places are posted at the entrances and on the Disneyland mobile app. Live shows, parades, strolling musicians, fireworks (on weekends and during the summer and holidays), and endless creative snack choices add to the carnival atmosphere. You can also meet some of the animated icons at one of the character meals served at the three Disney hotels (open to the public, but reservations are needed). Belongings can be stored in lockers just off Main Street while stroller rentals, wheelchairs, and Electric Conveyance Vehicles (ECV) are at the entrance gate as convenient options for families with mobility challenges. The park's popularity means there are always crowds, especially during the holidays and summer months, so take advantage of the Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane to spend less time waiting in lines. Some rides offer Single Rider Lanes which are also much shorter. Also be sure to make dining reservations at least three weeks before your visit to guarantee a table without a wait. The park is expertly run, with perfectly maintained grounds and a helpful staff ("cast members" in the Disney lexicon).

Downtown Disney District

Fodor's choice

The exciting Downtown Disney District is a walking promenade filled with international dining, shopping, and lively entertainment that connects the resort's hotels and theme parks. More than a dozen new and reimagined establishments include the popular Asian restaurant Din Tai Fung, specializing in Taiwanese soup dumplings, and grab-and-go Earl of Sandwich along with the sit-down Earl of Sandwich Tavern. Jazz Kitchen Coastal Grill & Patio offers Southern-inspired food and live music on welcoming patios, verandas, and dining rooms. Be sure to try their signature seasonal flavor beignets that can be dipped, drizzled, and sprinkled. Southern California's iconic Porto's Bakery and Cafe offering Cuban-California--inspired pastries, desserts, and specialty items is set to open later in 2023. Enjoy a cold beer at Ballast Point Brewery and gourmet burger at Black Tap Craft Burgers. Save room for sweet treats at Salt and Straw for gourmet ice cream flavors such as honey lavender and oat milk and cookies, and Sprinkles for decadent frosted cupcakes.

Disney merchandise, souvenirs, and artwork are showcased at the brightly lit World of Disney store. At the megasize LEGO Store there are bigger-than-life LEGO creations, hands-on demonstrations, and space to play with the latest LEGO creations.

All visitors must pass through a security checkpoint and metal detectors before entering.

Fashion Island

Fodor's choice

The ritzy Fashion Island outdoor mall is designed with a cluster of archways and courtyards complete with koi pond, fountains, and a mix of high-end shopping and chain stores. Multiple dining venues include Fleming's Steak House, True Food Kitchen, and Sushi Roku. Well-known department store anchors include Macy's, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale's, plus boutiques like St. John, Brandy Melville, and See's Candies. 

Los Rios Historic District

Fodor's choice

Take a walk back in time on the oldest residential street in Southern California, where houses date to the 1790s. The Silvas Adobe is a typical example of the dozen or more one-room adobes in the area. It's located near Mission San Juan Capistrano, the first Californian mission to allow workers to live outside the mission grounds. On the street you'll also find the Historical Society Museum and the ZOOMARS petting zoo for families. Shopping and dining options line this lovely community on the National Register of Historic Places.

Main Beach Park

Fodor's choice

Centrally located in the main town of Laguna Beach near multiple dining venues, art galleries, and shops, Main Beach Park has a fitting name. Walk along this soft-sand beach to Bird Rock and explore nearby tide pools or just sit on one of the benches and watch people bodysurfing, play beach volleyball, or scramble around two half-basketball courts. The beach also has a children's play area with climbing equipment. Most of Laguna's hotels are within a short (but hilly) walk. Amenities: lifeguards; showers; toilets. Best for: sunrise, sunset; swimming.

Mission San Juan Capistrano

Fodor's choice

Founded in 1776 by Father Junípero Serra (consecrated as St. Serra), Mission San Juan Capistrano was one of two Roman Catholic outposts between Los Angeles and San Diego. The Great Stone Church, begun in 1797, is the largest structure created by the Spanish in California. After extensive retrofitting, the golden-hued interiors are open to visitors who may feel they are touring among ruins in Italy rather than the O.C. Many of the mission's adobe buildings have been restored to illustrate mission life, with exhibits of an olive millstone, tallow ovens, tanning vats, metalworking furnaces, and the padres' living quarters. The beautiful gardens, with their fountains and koi pond, are a lovely spot in which to wander. The bougainvillea-covered Serra Chapel is believed to be the oldest church still standing in California and is the only building remaining in which St. Serra actually led Mass. Enter via a small gift shop in the gatehouse.

Newport Harbor

Fodor's choice

Sheltering nearly 9,000 small boats, Newport Harbor may seduce even those who don't own a yacht. Spend an afternoon exploring the charming shops and restaurants along the boat slips. California's shortest auto ferry takes visitors across to Balboa Island, which is popular with pedestrians, joggers, and bicyclists. Several grassy areas on the primarily residential Lido Isle have views of the water. To truly experience the harbor, rent a kayak or an electric Duffy boat for a pleasant picnic cruise or try stand-up paddleboarding to explore the sheltered waters.

Queen Mary

Fodor's choice

The beautifully preserved art deco–style ocean liner, the Queen Mary, was launched in 1936 and made 1,001 transatlantic crossings before finally berthing in Long Beach in 1967. Today, it is a unique and historic hotel, one of Long Beach's top tour attractions, and an impressive example of 20th-century cruise ship opulence. 

Take one of several daily themed tours such as the informative Glory Days historical walk, a traipse into the boiler rooms on the Steam and Steel Tour, or the downright spooky Haunted Encounters tour. (Spirits have reportedly been spotted in the pool and engine room.) You can add on a Winston Churchill exhibit and other holiday and special events, from a haunted Halloween experience to an annual Scottish festival. Stay for dinner at one of the ship's restaurants (call ahead to reserve), then listen to live jazz or order a cocktail in the Observation Bar (the sumptuous original first-class lounge). Even better, plan to spend the night in one of the 347 wood-paneled cabins. The ship's neighbor, a geodesic dome originally built to house Howard Hughes's Spruce Goose aircraft, now serves as a terminal for Carnival Cruise Lines, making the Queen Mary the perfect pit stop before or after a cruise. 

1,000 Steps Beach

Off South Coast Highway at 9th Street, 1,000 Steps Beach isn't too hard to find and actually only has 217 steps. It's one of the many coves in Laguna Beach offering a long stretch of soft sand, waves, and dramatic rock formations. Sea caves and tide pools enhance the already beautiful natural spot. Walking back up to your car, you will feel like you got a good workout. Amenities: showers. Best for: snorkeling; surfing; swimming.

Balboa Peninsula

Newport's best beaches are on a 3-mile stretch called Balboa Peninsula. The picturesque Newport Harbor is on one side, and sandy, broad beaches on the other. The most intense spot for bodysurfing in Orange County, and arguably on the West Coast, known as the Wedge, is at the south end of the peninsula. It was created by accident in the 1930s when the Federal Works Progress Administration built a jetty to protect Newport Harbor.  Rip currents and punishing waves mean it's strictly for the pros—but it sure is fun to watch an experienced local ride it.

Battleship USS Iowa Museum

For those seeking a more rough-hewn alternative or counterpoint to the genteel Queen Mary, the battleship USS Iowa in nearby San Pedro lets visitors of all ages clamber through hatches, peer through portholes, and climb into the seat of an antiaircraft gun, envisioning the past. The Iowa, the only such tourable battleship on the West Coast, was commissioned in 1943 as the lead of its class and served in World War II, Korea, and the Cold War. Volunteer "crew members," many of whom once served on the ship, happily offer their personal stories to kids and adults alike.

You're bound to be hungry after such an intrepid expedition. While many people might return to Long Beach or L.A., the nearby pedestrian-friendly, old-timey Downtown San Pedro strip, which centers on 6th and 7th Streets, boasts some outstanding dining options, from a British pub to killer Mediterranean and Italian options. There's also the tiny Little Fish Theatre.

Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve

Wildlife lovers and bird-watchers flock to Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve, which has more than 1,300 acres of salty marshland home to 200 different bird species—including great blue herons, snowy and great egrets, and brown pelicans. Throughout the reserve are easy-to-walk trails for bird-watching along a 1½-mile loop. There are two entrances off the Pacific Coast Highway: one close to the Interpretive Center and a second 1 mile south on Warner Avenue, opposite Bolsa Chica State Beach. Each parking lot connects to 4 miles of walking and hiking trails with scenic overlooks.

Bolsa Chica State Beach

In the northern section of the city, Bolsa Chica State Beach is usually less crowded than its southern neighbors. The sand is somewhat gritty and not the cleanest, but swells make it a hot surfing spot. The Huntington Beach bike trail runs along the edge of the sand for 7 miles north to the south of Huntington Beach. Picnic sites can be reserved in advance. Firepits attract beachgoers most nights. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; surfing; swimming; walking.

Casino Point Dive Park

The crystal clear waters of the Casino Point Dive Park are home to protected marine life. This is where moray eels, bat rays, spiny lobsters, harbor seals, and brilliant orange garibaldi (California's state marine fish) cruise around kelp forests and along the sandy bottom. It's a terrific site for scuba diving, with some shallow areas suitable for snorkeling. Equipment can be rented on-site next to the world-famous Catalina Casino. Water temperature ranges in the low 70s during the summer, with September to mid-October being the warmest. Glass-bottom-boat tours and a submarine tour take guests to the shallow waters of Lover's Cove, across the harbor, another spot filled with marine life.

Catalina Island Museum

Inside this local art and history interactive museum, visitors can learn about the island's native Chumash people, Catalina Island's owner and creative developer William Wrigley Jr., his baseball team, his Hollywood celebrity friends and and love for big band music. The exterior of the Catalina Island Museum is a beautiful Spanish Mission style with art deco enhancements. Upstairs the rooftop and gardens are a pretty event space with native plants and colorful glass art. There is a gift shop worth exploring for Catalina-themed souvenirs and reproductions of the island's signature colorful Catalina pottery tiles. The first Friday of the month they sponsor a "Culture between Cocktails" event from 5 to 7 pm.

Crystal Cove Promenade

This Mediterranean-inspired upscale strip mall is across the street from Crystal Cove State Park, with the shimmering Pacific Ocean in plain view. Crystal Cove Promenade offers a mix of well-known storefronts such as Williams Sonoma and Trader Joe's, plus unique boutiques, and popular restaurants that include Javier's, Mastro's Ocean Club, and Bear Flag Fish Co. 

Festival of Arts and Pageant of the Masters

An outdoor amphitheater near the mouth of the canyon hosts the annual Pageant of the Masters, Laguna's signature art event. Local participants arrange tableaux vivants, in which live models and carefully orchestrated backgrounds merge in striking mimicry of classical and contemporary paintings. The pageant is part of the Festival of Arts, held in July and August; tickets are in high demand, so plan ahead.

Green Pleasure Pier

Head to the Green Pleasure Pier for a good vantage point of Avalon Harbor. On the pier you can find a visitor information office, fish-and-chip snack stands, a bait shop, a tour boat ticket stand and gathering spot, plus rental boat and water sport rentals.

Heisler Park

One of the most picturesque parks in Laguna Beach, Heisler Park offers plenty of fun and relaxation. There is a picnic beach with tables overlooking palm trees and panoramic ocean views. Take the stairs down to Diver's Cove for snorkeling, scuba diving, and tide-pool exploring. Take the paved walking path along the cliff all the way to Laguna's Main Beach. There are public restrooms and outdoor showers. This is also a popular area for plein air artists to set up an easel and chair and paint for hours.

Huntington Beach Pier

This municipal pier stretches 1,856 feet out to sea, past the powerful waves that gave Huntington Beach the title of "Surf City U.S.A." Well above the waves, it's a prime vantage point to watch the dozens of surfers in the water below. On the pier you'll find a snack shop and a shop where you can buy fishing rod rentals, tackle, and bait to fish off the pier.

Huntington City Beach

Stretching for 3½ miles from Bolsa Chica State Beach to Huntington State Beach, Huntington City Beach is most crowded around the pier where amateur and professional surfers brave the waves daily. There are 100 fire rings, numerous concession stands, bike paths, and well-raked white sand. Surfboard rental shops make this a popular beach year-round. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; surfing; swimming; walking.

Huntington State Beach

This peaceful state beach offers 121 sandy acres and 200 firepits, so it's popular during the day and evening. There are changing rooms, and two new concession stands---the Huntington Beach House and Sahara Sandbar. There are year-round surf lessons, lifeguards, Wi-Fi access, and ample parking. An 8½-mile bike path connects Huntington to Bolsa Chica State Beach. Picnic areas can be reserved in advance for a fee depending on location; otherwise it's first come, first served. On hot days, expect crowds at this broad, soft-sand beach. Amenities: food and drink; lifeguards; parking; showers; toilets. Best for: sunset; surfing; swimming; walking.

International Surfing Museum

Just up Main Street from Huntington Pier, in an iconic art-deco building, the International Surfing Museum pays tribute to the sport's greats with an impressive collection of surfboards and related memorabilia. Exhibits are designed to encourage families to learn about the history of surfing. Highlights include Duke Kahanamoku's surfboard and the "World's Largest Surfboard" measuring 42 feet long, 11 feet wide, 16 inches thick, and weighing 1,300 pounds.

Knott's Berry Farm

This lively amusement park is fun for all ages. Once a 160-acre boysenberry farm, it's now an entertainment complex with close to 40 rides, dozens of restaurants and shops, arcade games, live shows, and a brick-by-brick replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Take a step back into the 1880s while walking through Knott's Old West Ghost Town. Ride on a horse-drawn stagecoach or board a steam engine to start your journey into the park; just keep your valuables close to you, as bandits might enter your train car and put on quite a show. Camp Snoopy has plenty of rides to keep small children occupied as they explore 15 kid-friendly attractions. There are awesome thrill rides in the Boardwalk area, including the zooming HangTime that pauses dramatically then drops nearly 15 stories, and the exhilarating steel moto-coaster Pony Express that goes from zero to 35 mph in less than three seconds.

Be sure to get a slice of boysenberry pie, as well as boysenberry soft-serve ice cream, jam, juice, you name it. There's even a Boysenberry Food Festival once a year. In the fall, part of the park is turned into Knott's Scary Farm, a popular activity for teens and adults. Buy adult tickets online for a discount. Buy a bundle for parking and food included with your ticket. FastLane wristbands give you quicker access to the most popular rides. Nearby Knott's Soak City is open during the summer for guests who want to float on the lazy river, go down waterslides, and swim in the wave pool.

Fun fact: In 1934, Cordelia Knott began serving chicken dinners on her wedding china to supplement her family's income. The dinners and her boysenberry pies proved more profitable than her husband Walter's berry farm, so the two moved first into the restaurant business and then into the entertainment business. 

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