Orange County is famous for tourist attractions like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, and for vast suburban sprawl. But, it actually has some really charming destinations that are ideal for a romantic date! Here are my favorites.
1. Laguna Beach
My pick for the best Orange County date area is Laguna Beach. Once a secluded beach town, the secret is out, and traffic and parking are a nightmare. But, for good reason, as the little beach community has tons of charm. Have dinner (make reservations) or lunch at one of the great restaurants there, then walk along the beach and up to the boardwalk in the cliffs. This place is mega-romantic.
One “must see” event in Laguna Beach is their famous Festival of Arts “Pageant of the Masters”, which happens in July through August. There, they re-create famous paintings with live actors and real sets. If this idea seems boring to you, take a look at the reviews on Yelp by reluctant husbands and boyfriends who were dragged to this event but ended up really enjoying it. Make it a whole day event and arrive early to avoid nightmarish traffic though.
2. Disneyland / California Adventure
One of the first articles I wrote on this site was on how to have a great date at Disneyland. My number one tip is go in the afternoon and stay till closing, because Disneyland is much more romantic at night. Plus, it will be cooler and there will be fewer screaming babies. Even the cheesy rides like the Jungle Cruise are charming and more believable at night. Oh, and don’t miss the fireworks show, which is excellent.. Yes, Disneyland at night can be a romantic, albeit expensive, date idea. Read all of my Disneyland date tips.
And let’s not forget about California Adventure, which is some ways a more “grown up” park with restaurants that serve alcohol and faster rides.
3. Downtown Disney
If you can’t afford the over $200 cost of doing Disneyland for two, have a low-cost “Disney experience” at Downtown Disney. There are no rides but the atmosphere is similar. As a bonus, they serve alcohol at Downtown Disney, which they do not inside the park. Sometimes they have live music as well. The general consensus is that Catal is the best restaurant in Downtown Disney, but you’ll definitely need reservations during the weekend. My backup restaurant is Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria, which generally has capacity if you don’t mind waiting a bit. Or, have dinner at one of the fine restaurants in Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel which is great to just walk through as well.
4. Orange Hill Restaurant
Orange Hill is one of those restaurants known more for its view than its food, but it is still one of the most romantic restaurants in Orange County. The view is spectacular, but I also enjoy walking the grounds after dinner. If you are a hard-core foodie, perhaps you should find somewhere else, but, if you enjoy good ambiance and are not too demanding about food, the ambiance of this place is unbeatable in Orange County.
5. Orange County Fair / OC Night Market
Located at the Costa Mesa Events Center, the Orange County Fair runs from mid July through mid August. This isn’t a quaint country-style fair. It’s bright and loud with amped-up EDM music playing in the rides with flashing lights. As with most amusement parks, I recommend going in the late afternoon and spending most of your time there at night, when it’s cooler and more romantic. Food is definitely not healthy but sinfully good, i.e., everything is fried (and not cheap!) Although admission is cheap ($14 on weekends as of this writing), the games, food, and rides all add up. So, it’s not exactly a cheap night out, but it can be fun if you’re into this sort of stuff. Look for half-off admission coupons on Groupon.
The OC Night Market is located in the same space as the Fair but happens only a few days in May, June, and August. The emphasis is on higher-end food-truck-type food. Lines can get insanely long so don’t arrive hungry (or arrive really early when the lines are short). Oh, and bring a lot of cash, because they don’t take credit. There are also lots of vendors and carnival-type games. This can be fun if you are prepared and know what you are getting into.
6. Newport Beach
Newport Beach has lots of great restaurants. Pick one, have dinner there, then walk around this charming town, whether you are at the waterfront, Balboa Island, Balboa Peninsula, or Fashion Island. Check out OC Weekly’s top ten essential Newport Beach restaurants.
Or depart from Newport Beach to go whale watching with Newport Whales. They have whale-watching and dolphin cruises that are 2-2.5 hours in length.
7. Huntington Beach – Bars and Bonfires!
There are two date night attractions that I wanted to highlight in Huntington Beach. The first is Main St. from PCH to a few blocks inland. This popular area has lots of restaurants and bars. These include Perqs, Gallagher’s, Baja Sharkeez, Hurricanes Bar & Grill and 2nd Floor.The crowd is young – mostly college or 20’s folks bar hopping. You could argue this is more of a place for rowdy singles and frat-boy types to hang out, but I thought it had charm as well. So, it may or may not be your cup of tea. On Tuesdays from 5-9PM they have “Surf City Nights” with a farmer’s market and live bands. Worth checking out!
The other attraction I like in Huntington Beach is the beach at night, because it’s one of the few So Cal beaches that allow bonfires! A few blocks south of the pier there are over 500 concrete “fire rings” where you can burn your own firewood at night! Bring a towel, a blanket, some snacks, and of course, some firewood.
Unfortunately, there is no way to reserve a fire pit – they are first-come, first-serve. I suggest scoping out the beach before you plan to go to get a feel for the crowds and how early you need to arrive. More info on Huntington Beach bonfires here.
8. Knott’s Berry Farm
If Disneyland is a great date idea, then Knott’s must be too. Knott’s offers real roller coasters as opposed to Disneyland’s kiddy rides. Oh, and the food is a bit better too. I highly recommend purchasing your tickets in advance, as there is a huge savings.
During Halloween, Knott’s Scary Farm is famous for having employees dressed up as monsters scaring the sh*t out of people. For a more relaxed experience, go during Christmas at night – the decorations are really nice.
9. Segerstrom Center for the Arts
You don’t need to go all the way to L.A. for a “cultural” night out to see a play or symphony. The Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa offers musicals, ballets, and classical orchestras. Check their calendar to see what’s going on.
10. The Anaheim Packing House
The Anaheim Packing House is a “food hall reminiscent of the great public markets of South America and Europe”. Built in 1919, it was originally a train loading station for oranges. Now, it houses some great restaurants and features live music on the weekends. Definitely a good place for casual dinner and drinks.
11. The Camp
This is a small outdoor mall in Costa Mesa with a different vibe: more Earthy, with bare wood and metal, and succulent gardens. Interesting restaurants and shops. If you’re looking for tons of excitement, go elsewhere. The Camp is a good “get-to-know-you” place for coffee and a pleasant stroll without too much commitment.
12. Angeles or Ducks Game
I’ve always felt that Angels Stadium was just a tad better than other baseball stadiums in terms of overall atmosphere and cleanliness. There’s a good selection of food too. If you’re not an Angels fan, go when they’re playing a team that you do like.
Similarly, Honda Center where the Ducks play is pretty nice and clean, as far as stadiums go.
13. Orange Circle
Step back in time and check out the vintage clothing stores, charming shops, and historical buildings at the intersection of Glassel and Chapman in Orange. There are plenty of charming restaurants, bars, and dessert places here. It’s a good place to grab a meal and walk around. Oh,this is another good place to check out during Christmas, with their massive tree.
14. Bike Riding
Orange County is not especially known for its bike trails, but you might be surprised by what it has to offer. OC Explore offers 5 Scenic Rides in Orange County and Where to Grab a Beer After. The most notable of these is the Fullerton Bike Loop. It’s not an “official” bike trail, but maybe that’s part of the allure. It even has a “Love Tunnel”!
15. Honorable Mentions
I hope you like these ideas. What have I missed? Please leave a comment below! – Brian