On one side of Bristol Street is South Coast Plaza, whose annual sales of $1.5 billion are highest among the nation’s shopping destinations. On the other is the county’s center of culture—two concert halls and its largest repertory theater—and business high-rises.
Henry Segerstrom and his family founded South Coast Plaza in 1967 on a lima bean field where as a youth he’d driven a tractor. Today, South Coast Plaza and its Bear Street wing, connected by the Bridge of Gardens, offer hundreds of stores, boutiques and
restaurants. The state-designated tourist attraction boasts the nation’s highest concentration of elite retailers; Uniqlo and Scotch & Soda boutiques are new; excellent dining options include Marché Moderne and The Capital Grille.
It’s an easy walk to the “arts campus,” the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, South Coast Repertory and, in the not-too-distant future, Orange County Museum of Art. The Segerstrom Center for the Arts, built in 1986 mainly with Segerstrom money on Segerstrom land, includes 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, presenting a range of genres including dance and Broadway musicals, and the newer Renée and Henry Segerstrom Hall, a 2,000-seat facility designed by Cesar Pelli that hosts events as diverse as tributes to Mahler and Paul McCartney. There are two intimate venues within the venues, Founders Hall and Samueli Theater, respectively.
Renowned South Coast Repertory, with three stages inside its David Emmes and Martin Benson Theatre Center, opened at its present location in 1978, also with Segerstrom family donations. Among Town Center’s professional buildings is one of the nation’s premier collections of outdoor art. Start, or end, at the 1.6-acre California Scenario (near Anton Boulevard) by sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Metro Pointe and South Coast Plaza
Village—whose movie theater offers top foreign films—are a crosswalk away. All three centers are accessible from North or South County hotels by dedicated taxi and motor coach service, and Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner delivers visitors to the Santa Ana train station.
To the west is the South Coast Collection of design showrooms such as Design Within Reach and Pirch. Of note to foodies is Surfas Culinary District, Arc restaurant and the farmers market on Saturdays. The hip OC Mix features 30 vendors including Heirlooms and Hardware and the Stoned Jewelry boutique as well as Taco María and Shuck oyster bar. Dyln Inspired and the Mixing Glass are new.
South on Bristol are The Lab and The Camp. The Lab has the kinds of shops you’d likely find on L.A.’s hip Melrose Avenue; Klein Epstein & Parker for men and vegetarian Seabirds Kitchen are new. Opposite is the Camp, set amid woods, aluminum and piped-in sounds of crickets. Dining options include Ecco for fabulous pizzas, Taco Asylum for unusual tacos, Umami Burger and Wine Lab.
Dine-and-play center The Triangle unveils Costa Mesa 55 Tavern + Bowl bowling alley; restaurants include Black Knight Gastro Lounge, Saddle Ranch Chop House and new La Vida Cantina. The O.C. Fair & Event Center hosts events year-round, the county fair in July and concerts at the Pacific Amphitheatre.
Hip, arts-minded downtown Santa Ana offers the Artists Village, Santora Arts Complex and Grand Central Art Center. A centerpiece of the East End along historic Fourth Street is the Yost Theater, now a concert venue. The dining scene may be the county’s most exciting, thanks to Little Sparrow, Playground and Chapter One: The Modern Local. The bar scene is burgeoning, too. Historical highlights include the Queen Anne-style home of Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle, and the Old County Courthouse, a setting for numerous movies.
Bowers Museum, founded in 1936, offers blockbuster exhibitions mounted with the world’s major museums. Visitors can also view pre-Columbian artifacts, Pacific Island art or artifacts from American whalers two centuries back; a real gem is its permanent exhibit of local history.
The Discovery Science Center’s mammoth tilting cube is perched seemingly inches off Interstate 5; a $62 million expansion and renovation now underway will nearly double the center’s size. Westfield MainPlace houses Macy’s, Nordstrom and 200 shops. Intimate Santa Ana Zoo, in Prentice Park, is home to 250 species and features a primate exhibit, African aviary and children’s zoo.
Its Giant Wheel can be seen for miles along the 5, 405 and 133 freeways. But it’s the Irvine Spectrum Center’s 150 shops, many of them entertainment-related, top-notch restaurants including Cucina Enoteca and Paul Martin’s American Grill, and the nation’s most visited movie complex, that together draw more visitors annually than Disneyland.
Irvine Barclay Theatre, at UC Irvine, presents an impressive roster of music, dance and dramatic events; there’s not a bad seat in the house. Nearby is the UCI Arboretum (Jamboree Road and Campus Drive, 949.824.5833). San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (Michelson Drive between Jamboree Road and Culver Drive, 949.261.7963) offers 10 miles of trails through coastal fresh-water marshlands. The Irvine Museum houses Joan Irvine Smith’s collection of California Impressionist art on the ground floor of an office building.
The one developed corner of the Orange County Great Park offers a farmers market and other outdoor events, an arts complex and a carousel; you can ride 400 feet up in the iconic tethered orange balloon. The restored blacksmith shop and general store of Old Town Irvine (Sand Canyon Avenue and Burt Road, 949.660.9112), near Interstate 5, now house a hotel and restaurants.
Irvine offers a relatively problem-free world carved from the Irvine Co.’s land holdings. The vibe extends to John Wayne Airport, whose pleasant ambience and ease of departure and arrival make it vastly superior to LAX.
Forbes magazine recently listed Tustin in its Top 25 places “to live well.” The city, known for its fine parks and its century-old trees, has preserved many of its 1870s buildings along Main Street and El Camino Real.
The District at Tustin Legacy, at Jamboree Road and Barranca Parkway, is a sprawling shopping center with scores of shops. Draws include restaurants such as The Winery and Bluewater Grill, a cineplex, bowling at Bowlmor, outdoor fireplaces, a stage for bands and giant video walls. The nearby twin hangars are 1,000 feet long, 17 stories tall and have five acres of open space within each.
The Market Place (714.730.4124), on Jamboree Road off Interstate 5, is older and even more sprawling. Though often called Tustin Market Place, part of it is actually in Irvine.
The Marconi Automotive Museum (714.258.3001) displays 80 vehicles, notably Ferraris and historic open-wheel race cars.
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