I was hosted by Travel Costa Mesa. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
About an hour south of Los Angeles, the city of Costa Mesa is buzzing with culinary, foodie, and artsy attractions. To be honest – when it comes to things to do in Orange County, Costa Mesa is at the top of my list.
I actually used to live in Costa Mesa after I graduated from college, and I specifically chose this city as my first home because I suspected it’d have great restaurants, a cool shopping scene, and easy access to the beach (hello, adulting done right?). What I found in my 2 years here was that Costa Mesa did in fact have all of those things… and so much more!
Known as the City of the Arts, Costa Mesa is Orange County’s hub for theater aficionados and fine art appreciation. This affinity for the arts spills over across the city in the form of murals, public art installations, and other local photogenic hotspots.
Recently, I revisited Costa Mesa to eat, explore, and remote-work my way through the city on a mini staycation, and my mind was blown with just how many new things there are to do here. Whether you’re from out of town or looking for the ideal Orange County staycation, keep reading for the coolest, tastiest, and most fun things to do in Costa Mesa, California!
First, Where is Costa Mesa, California?
Splitting the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego, Costa Mesa is a centrally located city known for its arts, food, and shopping scene. It’s often considered the heart of Orange County, and its location makes it the perfect home base for exploration. From Costa Mesa, you’re just 5 – 10 minutes from Newport Beach, 20 minutes from Disneyland, and 15 minutes from the Angels Stadium.
While many often associate Orange County with places like Laguna, Newport, and Huntington Beach, what I love about Costa Mesa is that you really do get the best of both worlds – all the coastal, laidback California charm, while conveniently marching to a slightly more urban, buzzy drum.
If you’re coming in from out of town, Costa Mesa is just 5 minutes from John Wayne Airport, 30 minutes from the Long Beach Airport, and an hour from the Los Angeles International Airport.
The Coolest Things to Do in Costa Mesa, California
Dive Fork-First into Costa Mesa’s Restaurants
Orange County’s food scene is pretty impressive – and increasingly so in the past few years – but Costa Mesa has really made a name for itself as OC’s Eatcation capital! You can find such a wide variety of establishments here, from cheap tacos and margaritas to fresh-caught seafood and some fancy Michelin stars. So, something that’s naturally high on my list for any visitor to Costa Mesa is a culinary romp through the city, diving fork-first into as many of these amazing restaurants as you can.
I have several favorite spots that I love, and I’ll list all of them at the bottom of this post, but for starters…
My favorite, go-to Costa Mesa restaurants are:
- Toast Kitchen + Bakery
- Habana Restaurant and Bar
- Playa Mesa
- El Matador
- Native Foods
- Pitfire Artisan Pizza
Chase Cocktails and Pints Through the City
The craft and micro beer scene is here to stay in California, and Costa Mesa is a shining example of this movement in motion. When I lived here more than five years ago, there were already a handful of breweries in the area I could pick from. Now? You can head down the Costa Mesa Beer Trail and experience five of Costa Mesa’s best breweries all within a stone’s throw from one another!
The Costa Mesa Beer Trail
The Costa Mesa Beer Trail consists of five tasting rooms in the SoBeCa District of the city. Only one of these requires a car or a ride-share to get to. The rest are all within walking distance. Here’s how I recommend doing the beer trail!
- Start at the Brewing Reserve of CA (Try the OC Vice with peach, or Hell Corgi!)
- Catch a quick ride over to Green Cheek Beer Co. (Try their Time Will Tell or Vanilla Please)
- Head across the street to Gunwhale Ales (Try A Juicy Tale)
- Hop Over to Salty Bear Brewing at The CAMP (Try Aloha Guava Kolsch)
- Visit The LAB and head straight to Bootleggers Brewery to finish off the beer trail! (Try their Raspberry Sour)
If beer isn’t your thing, Costa Mesa’s cocktail scene is not to be overlooked! From lounges and clubs to pubs and speakeasies, there’s a place here for most anyone looking to have a good time.
Here are some of my favorite places to grab a cocktail in Costa Mesa:
Appreciate the Fine Arts
The City of the Arts got its name largely due to the fact that Costa Mesa is home to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Orange County’s premier performing arts center that is a must-see for any first-time visitors to Costa Mesa. Henry Segerstrom, who the complex is now named after, was a philanthropist and advocate of the arts. Don’t be surprised if you hear his name pop up while you’re in town. It’s because of Henry Segerstrom that Costa Mesa became the lively, metropolitan destination that it is today.
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts boasts several world-class performance venues and frequently draws artists, orchestras, Broadway shows, dance troupes, and other incredible global talents. I have fond memories of coming here in college for events and shows myself, so I highly recommend checking the schedule to see what’s in town while you are!
If there’s nothing happening while you’re in Costa Mesa, I still suggest visiting the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to admire the architecture. It’s a beautiful venue and incredibly close to other popular attractions in the city, like South Coast Plaza across the street.
Explore Costa Mesa’s Vibrant Murals and Public Displays
Seeing a show isn’t the only way to bask in the City of the Arts! In fact, Costa Mesa boasts an extensive public arts scene that’s free for anyone to enjoy, and it’s blown up in recent years. There are a couple different ways to explore Costa Mesa’s public art scene.
1. Admire the Noguchi Garden
If you blink, you might miss it! I definitely did the first time I walked breezily by this place as a freshly minted college grad, not realizing the Noguchi Garden’s significance. Commissioned by, you guessed it, Henry Segerstrom, the Noguchi Garden is a minimalistic sculpture garden tucked away between towering corporate offices not far from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Created by Isamu Noguchi, the area – titled California Scenario – was crafted to symbolize various geographical characteristics found throughout the state: Forest Walk, Land Use, Desert Land, Water Source, Water Use and Energy Fountain. The entire public display is centered by a structure called The Spirit of the Lima Bean, a nod to Costa Mesa’s agricultural past and the Segerstrom family’s history as lima bean farmers in the area prior to its development.
This is a popular spot for photographers, because of its architectural simplicity and “hidden gem” quality. The way sunlight hits this sculpture garden varies dramatically from morning to late afternoon, but no matter what time you go your eyes (and phones) will be in for a treat!
2. Go on a Self-Guided Art Walk
Inclusive of the Noguchi Garden and so much more, you can actually string together more than 20 different pieces of free public art throughout the city using this handy guide and map provided by Costa Mesa’s local tourism board, Travel Costa Mesa. Again thanks to Henry Segerstrom, several different acclaimed artists have left their mark on the city, so you can enjoy one-of-a-kind works from the likes of Isamu Noguchi, Joan Miro, and more all while strolling around the city on foot.
As you walk from spot to spot, use the guide linked above as a reference point and click the “Listen Now” button next to each landmark to learn more about the art piece and what inspired it.
3. Hunt Down Public Murals
I definitely didn’t get to see as many cool murals throughout Costa Mesa when I lived here, so it was awesome to see such a colorful transformation take shape across the city! Today, there are several beautiful, vibrant, meaningful murals dotted throughout Costa Mesa, and if you’re a mural lover, you should absolutely make an afternoon out of going to hunt these down.
Here are some great Costa Mesa murals I recommend seeing:
- Costa Mesa Bloom: 1870 Harbor Blvd, at Triangle Square on the corner of 19th Street and Harbor Boulevard
- Have a Nice Day: 512 W 19th Street, on the side of SOCIAL Costa Mesa
- Kobe Bryant Memorial: 512 W 19th Street, on the side of SOCIAL Costa Mesa next to the “Have a Nice Day” mural
- Taco Mesa Skulls: 647 W 19th Street, on the side of Taco Mesa
- Dolly Parton: 719 W 19th Street, on the side of STRUT Bar & Club
Go Shopping At a Mall (or Anti-Mall)
When I think of my time lived in Costa Mesa, I immediately think about how much time I spent in three specific places: South Coast Plaza, The CAMP, and The Lab Anti-Mall. These three places, along with some other newer spots throughout the city, make Costa Mesa’s shopping (and dining) scene one that can’t be missed.
South Coast Plaza, as I mentioned earlier, is located right across from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. This shopping destination has been around now for more than 50 years and is home to a vast variety of retailers, from Forever21 to Hermes. During the holidays (and honestly year-round), there are often beautiful, ornate decorations on display as you walk through the mall, so even if you’re not actually shopping you can still enjoy a visual feast. Fun fact: while in college, I worked for Forever21 in a nearby shopping center called Fashion Island, though I almost transferred to work here!
Down the street, The CAMP takes on a bit of the opposite approach to South Coast Plaza. More laidback than posh, and set entirely outdoors, The CAMP focuses on independent retailers and restaurants. In fact, The CAMP is known as the first environmentally sensitive shopping campus in the entire US. I love coming here for a bite at Native Foods and drinks at the Wine Lab!
Across the street from The CAMP, The LAB (Little American Business) “Anti-Mall” is another hotspot that celebrates small, unique businesses and restaurants. Habana is a fantastic spot for delicious Cuban food here, and Ruin Bar next door is a fun little speakeasy-ish spot with delicious cocktails. The vibe is a bit shabby-chic here at The LAB, and again you’ll find tons more public art and installations on display throughout.
For a remote work option if you’re looking for a great coffee shop, The Den located at The LAB is one of Orange County’s original “alternative” cafes. That basically means it was one of the first spots in the area to serve up a robust menu of vegetarian and vegan options, and they’ve become a well-loved staple in the city for it. Plus, their coffee is tasty and they have wifi for guests!
Take a Stroll Through Orange County’s Parks and Trails
You might not think of a place like Costa Mesa as an outdoorsy destination, but there are definitely some hidden gems throughout if you love to get outside like I do. The Talbert Nature Preserve in Fairview Park is a beloved outdoor space in Costa Mesa featuring 210 acres of fields, hills, and leisurely trails. Some biking and walking trails here even lead out to the beach!
If you’re not opposed to driving outside of the city a bit, you should also check out Crystal Cove State Park and El Moro Canyon near Laguna Beach for some additional hiking opportunities and fantastic scenery.
Head to a Famous Orange County Beach
Speaking of Crystal Cove State Park, I can’t tell you about a trip to the heart of Orange County without also telling you about the beaches here! There’s no denying the popularity of (and pop culture love for) Southern California’s beaches. If you’re coming to Costa Mesa, you should plan on spending at least one afternoon heading to one of the many amazing beaches not far from the city.
Here are some of my favorite beaches near Costa Mesa you can get to in 30 minutes or less:
- Newport Beach (15 minutes)
- Corona Del Mar (15 minutes)
- Laguna Beach (30 minutes)
- Crystal Cove State Park (20 minutes)
- Huntington Beach (25 minutes)
Bonus: Rent a Duffy Boat!
There’s something so quintessentially Californian about renting a Duffy boat. If you didn’t know, a Duffy boat is a compact electric boat that typically comes with lounge seating, a table, and sometimes even a cooler and speaker system.
While some people own their own personal Duffy boats, it’s actually a popular activity to rent one for a couple hours and cruise around the harbor with friends (BYOB + BYOSnacks). Newport Beach and Huntington Harbour (near Huntington Beach) are two great places to do this! And no, you don’t need to be a pro at driving these boats – they’re pretty easy to pick up as long as you’re taking it slow and staying alert for other boats, paddleboarders, and kayakers in the area.
Huntington Harbour is one of my go-to spots not just for Duffy boat rentals, but for paddleboarding! The harbor here is centered around five man made islands with all kinds of bayfront houses, from modest to luxurious to downright quirky, and it’s fun to float along and admire. You can rent all kinds of watersports gear, from paddleboards to Duffy boats, from Huntington Harbour Boat Rentals.
Where to Stay in Costa Mesa
The Avenue of the Arts Hotel
During my time revisiting Costa Mesa, I stayed at the Avenue of the Arts Hotel, a Tribute Portfolio boutique-style hotel near the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. This hotel has been high on my radar for good reason – it feels incredibly whimsical and unique, taking every measure to serve up City of the Arts-style hospitality and visual appeal. From the moment you enter the tall, purple lobby area, you’ll see what I mean.
The Avenue of the Arts Hotel is centrally located and incredibly close to most of the places I’ve named throughout this post. In fact, you could visit Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Plaza in just a few minutes on foot, and even The CAMP and The LAB if you’re up for a longer walk.
If you’re exhausted after a long day of sightseeing and don’t want to go out for a bite, the hotel has an onsite restaurant, the Silver Trumpet, that serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Where to Eat and Drink in Costa Mesa
- Toast Kitchen + Bakery: A tasty fusion spot with some incredible brunch and cocktails. My favorites are their beautiful ube French toast, and their orange chicken and black sesame waffles! Toast donates a portion of their proceeds to local charities, too.
- Habana Restaurant and Bar: A popular spot for Cuban bites, buzzy cocktails, and conversation at The LAB Anti-Mall
- Playa Mesa: Voted the best margarita, you can’t come here without trying one. My favorite is the watermelon!
- El Matador: A favorite spot of mine post-grad, El Matador serves Mexican staples and generous portions.
- Native Foods: My all-time favorite place for vegan food that doesn’t taste like vegan food.
- Pitfire Artisan Pizza: Personal wood-fired pizzas with the best crust!
- SOCIAL Costa Mesa: My favorite cocktail bar in the city
- Ruin Bar: A speakeasy-ish cocktail bar in The LAB, next to Habana
- The Wayfarer: A bar and live music venue
- Wild Goose Tavern: Small-batch whiskey, beer, and gourmet sausages.
- Taco Mesa: A fast-casual taco spot that I would ALWAYS be at. Such tasty margaritas & food.
- Water Grill: A beautiful, large restaurant serving fresh seafood
- The Hall Global Eatery: Global food options, opened by a Top Chef alum!
- Sidecar Doughnuts & Coffee: The most mind-blowing doughnuts you’ll ever try. A must-visit.
- Breakfast Republic: Monster portions and all kinds of brunch options. I love that you can get “flights” of foods, like pancakes, in case you can’t decide on just one.
- Taco Maria: A popular taco restaurant in Costa Mesa
- Brewing Reserve of CA: A family-owned and operated brewery
- Green Cheek Beer Co.: A newer brewery to the city that’s already won global recognition for its delicious beers
- Gunwhale Ales: A brewery dedicated to traditional brewing methods, Gunwhale combines European tradition with bold California flair
- Salty Bear Brewing: A gorgeous brewery and beer garden, and you can get food delivered directly from restaurants at The CAMP
- Bootleggers Brewery: Located at The LAB, which you can also purchase and bring food from to enjoy with your beer
Tips to Know Before You Go
- WEATHER: Like most coastal Southern California destinations, the weather year-round is pretty fantastic in Costa Mesa, typically never exceeding or dropping far beyond 50 – 85 degrees. Southern California doesn’t usually rain, but be sure to check the weather forecast ahead of time just in case.
- WHEN TO GO: Because of the great weather Costa Mesa enjoys pretty much all year long, there isn’t really a bad time to visit! If anything, I will say that Costa Mesa (and Southern California in general) tend to experience “June Gloom” from May to June, which brings cloudy grey skies – though usually no rain. If blue skies are crucial for lifting your spirits, it may be best to plan a trip before or after June Gloom passes.
- TRANSPORTATION: Costa Mesa is a buzzy, centrally located city in Orange County, which means not only are you able to easily access this city and drive from place to place, but ride-sharing (Uber, Lyft) and taxis are also easily available if you’re visiting without a car. Public transportation does exist, but exploring by car, on foot, or even by bike are the best ways to go in my opinion!
What are you looking forward to most in Costa Mesa? Let me know below!
Book Activities In or Near Costa Mesa Here:
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