Southern California

6 Places to Go for a Weekend in Orange County, CA

Discover some of SoCal's most quintessential beach towns as well as fun attractions for the whole family

Fans of American reality television have likely experienced Orange County’s glamorous coastline and places to go as the backdrop to popular shows like Keeping Up With the KardashiansReal Housewives of Orange County and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County. And in real life, this county just south of Los Angeles is just a magical destination.

With its own airport and not far away from large cities, Orange County is the perfect weekend getaway with plenty of places to go, weather for a romantic getaway or a kid focused vacation. There are swanky seaside towns like Laguna Beach to explore and favorite family destinations like Disneyland to experience. And whether you are looking for shopping and spa time in Newport Beach or to learn how to surf in Huntington Beach, there is an OC weekend escape for all travel styles and budgets. Check it out:

1. Laguna Beach: One of the Most Beautiful Places in SoCal

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If you watched Lauren Conrad and Kristen Cavallari grow up on MTV’s Laguna Beach and The Hills, you’ll recognize Laguna as the sleepy town on the Pacific Coast Highway that started it all. With bluffs tumbling down into the Pacific Ocean andsun-kissed beaches protected by coves, it is no wonder Hollywood producers chose to cast their show here.

Not only is the landscape simply stunning, but there is plenty to see and do along Laguna’s seven-miles of coastline. It is easy to spend a weekend just chilling on the beach or exploring the sea caves and natural tidal pools by kayak or SUP board. Should you want to up the adventure ante, the city also hosts some 20,000 acres of protected wilderness area with mountain biking and hiking tails for all levels in the canyons behind the beach. The town itself is also filled with art galleries, boutique shops, and restaurants and bars.

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2. Anaheim: A Place to Experience Disney's Magic

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If you’re traveling with the kids, one of Orange County’s top places to go is Anaheim. The city is 30 miles southeast via I-5 from Los Angeles and home to Disneyland Resort. The resort features Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure Park, plus a downtown shopping and dining district, as well as a number of hotels.

Unlike Florida’s Disney World, however, the California attraction is much smaller. Top places to experience in the park include Tomorrowland, where you’ll find Space Mountain and Star Wars: Galaxy Edge, where kids can try piloting the Millennium Falcon.

There is more to Anaheim than the “happiest place on earth” (AKA Disneyland Resort), however. Spend some time exploring the Anaheim GardenWalk with its shops, restaurants, and live music performances. There are also opportunities to get back to nature with hiking trails through Yorba Regional Park and Oak Canyon Nature Center.

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3. Newport Beach: A Quintessential SoCal Beach Town

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Newport Beach is home to some great surf spots, including The Wedge, where swells can rise as 30 feet during the summer and fall—visit in winter for more mellow waves. If you don’t know what you are doing and want to learn, check out Endless Sun Surf School for private lessons. You can also just watch the surfers catching waves from one of the seafront promenades.

Beyond surfing, Newport is also home to the West Coast’s largest recreational harbor offering plenty of fishing, swimming and other water sport activities. Balboa Peninsula also features more beaches, as well as lots of restaurants and bars. The Balboa Fun Zone here is a retro amusement park. You can also take a ferry to Balboa Island. The manmade island features a boutique shopping strip along Marine Avenue, plus numerous restaurants and art galleries.

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4. Huntington Beach: A Great Spot to Learn to Surf

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Dubbed Surf City USA, Huntington Beach is one of the top places to learn to surf in Orange County. The city just south of Los Angeles on the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. 1) is home to a number of surfing competitions including the U.S. Open of Surfing. There are 10 miles of surf and sand to play along here, as well as numerous companies offering lessons. If you’d rather ride a bike, the Huntington Beach Bike Trail runs parallel to the beach and is a great leisurely day ride. If you are traveling with your pup, make sure to check out the Huntington Dog Beach.

Head to the Huntington Beach Pier, which is kind of the center of the city’s beachfront fun. Here you can catch one of the city’s equally famous sunsets, cast your fishing line, or to just watch the surfers trying to hang ten. At 1,800-feet, it is the West Coast’s longest pier. At the end is Ruby’s Diner, where you can grab a milkshake or a burger with fries. Main Street, which connects to the pier, is where you’ll find most of the city’s restaurants, shops and nightlife.

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5. Dana Point: Whale Watching Capital of California

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For a back to nature style weekend escape, head to Dana Point  at the southern end of Orange County. Surrounded by Doheny State Beach and Salt Creek Beach, the area offers plenty of places to walk along the sand or surf some waves. But Dana Point is also where to book a whale or dolphin watching cruise.

If you’d rather just hike, head to Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area, where trails wind across bluffs and offer panoramic ocean views. At the other end of the spectrum, the Dana Point Harbor, back in city limits, is where to head for boutique shopping and dining.

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6. Santa Catalina Island: A Weekend Getaway to Enjoy the Sea

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From Newport Beach you can catch the 90-minute Catalina Express ferry to beautiful Santa Catalina Island, just 26 miles off the coast. This is a wonderful and unique Californian destination, where you can do as little or as much as you want activity-wise. The island is filled with opportunities for outdoor adventures from sea kayaking to scuba diving, fishing to whale watching.

There is a public beach in the town of Avalon, but the less crowded choice is to pay to go to the Descanso Beach Club. You can rent a cabana and order food and drinks from the restaurant. Avalon is Catalina’s main town and where you’ll find many of its restaurants and bars.

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Photo: James Lee/ Unsplash