Orange County Shopping & Restaurants

There are literally hundreds of Orange County shopping opportunities; how do we simplify things to help you with your vacation planning? Let’s think first about what kind of shopping you’re likely to do. If you just need to buy some pain reliever or sunscreen, you’ll find plenty of stores to help you, even within walking distance of the Disneyland Resort, for example.

So you don’t need our help with that sort of thing, although one of the links you’ll see at the bottom of this page will make it easier to find that retail store you need.

Similarly, you may want to do some mall shopping—and we have plenty of regional malls—but most of the malls in O.C. are pretty similar to what you have back home. So we’re not going to concentrate too much on conventional malls and community shopping centers, although we will steer you to a good link or two that will help you in the event that you do need to get to Sears or J.C. Penny. Also, if you just want an air-conditioned place to hang out with friends or relatives, most of the malls will do nicely, and they are scattered around the county.

Vacation Dining

Of course shopping, walking and hanging with relatives burn calories, and you’ve gotta eat and drink at some point. Maybe you’d like to find an interesting nightclub. When it comes to dining (and imbibing), you’ll usually find good restaurants and clubs near the better shopping destinations.

Orange County restaurants range from fast food up to the finest dining establishments and trendiest hot spots. Whether you just want a decent, moderately priced restaurant for the family or are looking for a special evening where you expect to drop a bundle, you can find that pretty much throughout the county. You don’t need to be near the beach to find a great dining or nightclub experience.

We could give you 50 recommendations and there would be another 50 that we had to skip, that are just as good. Instead we want to give you some tools to forage for your own food. Check the shopping links provided in the following paragraphs for some specific recommendations that include dining options. However, if you’d like to go straight to some ideas for restaurants and nightclubs click here.

Vacation Shopping

If your interest in shopping is for fun, and perhaps to acquire some souvenirs, then there are some great places to visit. Meandering through a well-designed shopping complex can be a fine way to spend time with relatives or friends, to break up your 3-day binge of bodysurfing at The Wedge, to escape Disney merchandise, or to find that special memento of your trip to Southern California. If you love antique shopping, there are some great stores for you.

We have a few malls with an entertainment or other specialty focus that meet the fun and novelty requirement, and we do want to introduce you to those cool shopping destinations—places that are different from what you might find elsewhere. For example, we understand that some folks deliberately choose Orange County as their vacation destination because of their desire to spend time at the world-famous South Coast Plaza mall in Costa Mesa. If that’s you, stay tuned as we’ll be covering that.

We also want to suggest several shopping districts in communities that might be worth a visit. These towns have an interesting atmosphere that will make your shopping, walking, dining and/or bar-hopping a very enjoyable experience.

Let’s talk first about some of the more interesting malls that could make for a nice afternoon or evening interlude.

South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa

We might as well start with South Coast Plaza, perhaps the most well-known of the Orange County retail centers because it offers shops and merchandise you’d otherwise find on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. It lies just north of the San Diego Freeway (I-405), within easy driving or bus access from anywhere in the county. There are a few smaller centers clustered around it, some of which are pretty good in their own right.

You’ll also see some large office buildings, restaurants, and the Orange County Performing Arts Center in the immediate vicinity. South Coast Plaza has its own web site, but it also makes a more interesting appearance on, a site devoted to tracking the migration habits and societal interactions of celebrities and movie stars. Click on the photograph to the right for a trip to South Coast Plaza through the eyes of the Hollywood elite. Once there, at the bottom of that web page you’ll find a link to the official web site.

This is a pretty big deal, so if you consider yourself a serious shopper, you probably ought to carve out at least a few hours to visit this, arguably the cream of the crop of O.C. shopping. And, you can stay within walking distance of the place! There is a Westin South Coast Plaza Hotel a couple blocks east of the center, and a Marriott Hotel another 2 blocks in that direction. You’ll find a Holiday Inn roughly the same distance south on Bristol, just over the freeway overpass.

Fashion Island, Newport Beach

Another mall that is also targeted more towards the upper crust is Fashion Island in Newport Center. This center is surrounded by commercial buildings—offices, hotels, restaurants. Whereas most of South Coast Plaza is indoors, Fashion Island is largely an outdoor facility. It includes many restaurants, a movie complex and some interesting shops and special events.

Of all the specialty malls discussed here, this is the closest to the water. It lies just up the hill from PCH between Balboa and Corona del Mar. Within walking distance of this project are some of the ritziest neighborhoods in Southern California. At noontime you’ll see folks from the nearby office buildings on their lunch break. Check out Fashion Island here.

Irvine Spectrum Center

We’ll stay near the beach and talk next about the Irvine Spectrum Center. This is the entertainment-oriented mall nestled among heavy commercial development at the intersection of I-5 and I-405. (Have you noticed the trend where these large retail centers coexist peacefully with dense office development, here in Irvine, at Newport Center and at South Coast Plaza? Some of that is master planning, where the big-time commercial development is confined to a certain portion of the city.)

The Spectrum boasts a Ferris wheel, a Dave and Busters entertainment center, movies and all the other cool stuff you’d expect from a mall with a Ferris wheel This is the newest of the centers discussed so far. Parking can sometimes be a bit of a challenge at busy times of the week, such as weekend evenings. Here is a link to the Irvine Spectrum Center.

Orange County Marketplace, Fairgrounds

Next we have the Orange County Marketplace, aka the Orange County Swap Meet. When you think of a swap meet, you envision guys with radio parts spread out on a blanket or VW wheel caps. Now there could be a little of that, but the Marketplace instead markets to small businesses (and some larger businesses) as a means to market their wares and services in an inexpensive setting with about 20,000 visitors on a weekend.

Along with a certain percentage of junk, there are quite a few good products; locally produced items, furniture, cars, hot rod golf carts, sponges that absorb a million times their weight, etc. There is a tremendous variety of stuff for sale, much of which is pretty cool. There is entertainment, food and hundreds of sellers. They open the Marketplace every Saturday and Sunday on the Orange County Fairgrounds (a couple of miles from South Coast Plaza) except during the middle of the summer. Why do they take a bunch of the summer off? Because they hold the Orange County Fair for several weeks starting in late June and into August. Check out the Marketplace at this link.

Downtown Disney, Anaheim

There aren’t many things around the Disneyland Resort that are free, but Downtown Disney is the exception (although you might need to pay for parking). Offering Disney and non-Disney shops and restaurants, live entertainment and a very lively and fun atmosphere, you can spend a part of a day here even if you aren’t going into one of the parks. There is some free parking for 2 hours or so, but you may find yourself in a pay lot.

This is a great place to watch people because of the tremendous diversity of guests visiting Disneyland. The restaurants are typically a bit pricey but you pay for the atmosphere I suppose. You can also check out the shops and restaurants at the Grand Californian Hotel and the Disneyland Hotel. Click here to be whisked away to the Downtown Disney web site.

GardenWalk, Anaheim

The Disneyland Resort District has expanded over the past several years, after the construction of Downtown Disney and Disney’s California Adventure. One of the newest retail/entertainment districts is GardenWalk, along Katella Avenue east of Harbor Blvd. and west of the I-5 Freeway. This stretch of Katella has been given a major treatment, making it part of the Disneyland Resort and, in fact, it does represent one of the major entrances to the parks.

You’ll find popular restaurants like Bubba Gumps, California Pizza Kitchen P.F. Changs and Cheesecake Factory, a couple of nightclubs, bowling, 14-screen movie theatre and retailers like Ann Taylor Loft and Tommy Bahama. There is some pretty good name-brand shopping here, but that is probably not the primary emphasis in this new and growing center. But it is a great place for food, drink, movies and bowling (after you pick up that slinky new gown at Ann Taylor Loft, high-tail it over to the bowling alley!). They have a large parking structure also, so parking typically should not be a problem. You can walk to GardenWalk from Disneyland. Click on the photo above to hit the GardenWalk web site.

Here’s an idea: if you like to walk and shop, especially if you’re looking for a little exercise, stroll through GardenWalk and then amble over to the Harbor Blvd entrance to Disneyland. Walk left into the Resort past the Pumba tram area, across the main plaza entrance between the parks and on to Downtown Disney. This would amount to a couple of miles overall, but will burn off some of what you eat at the Cheesecake Factory. Now, if you’re a little more ambitious, you can walk from GardenWalk down to Fashion Island; that’s about a 20 mile round trip; make sure your stroller has good wheels!

The Block at Orange

Deep in the bowels of Orange County is a well-known intersection of three busy freeways. Interstate 5 comes down “diagonally” from the northwest, meeting the Orange Freeway (State Route 57) and the Garden Grove Freeway (S.R. 22). This happy interchange, involving all three freeways, is known affectionately as the Orange Crush. In the shadow of the Crush (only in the morning when the sun is in the east) is The Block of Orange.

The Block is mostly an outdoor facility (that’s a good thing here in Southern California, given how nice the weather is most of the time), and is very cool, with interesting shops and restaurants. The imposing Van’s Skate Park is the most unusual feature, but it’s backed up with a Dave and Buster’s entertainment center, the AMC 30-screen theatre complex, Old Navy, Hollister and a bunch of other high-value targets. As you can imagine from the tenants and features, you’ll see a lot of younger people here.

The Block is seen from the 22 Freeway at The City Drive offramp. The center was previously known as The City, before a major reconstruction and coolness infusion some years ago. The Block is also easily reached by driving west on Chapman Avenue from the 57 Freeway (by the way, realize that there are two distinct Chapman Avenues along the 57 Freeway; one is up in Fullerton and the other is here in Orange. If you were to guess that the Chapman family was important in north Orange County history, you’d be right.). Going east on Chapman a mile or two will take you to the antique shopping near the Historic Plaza in Orange. For a link to The Block at Orange, click on the Alcatraz Brewing sign below. (At the bottom of that new web page will also be a link to the Van’s web site.)