Looking for things to do in Costa Mesa? From the coolest shopping, delicious food, and unique art installations, here are all the things you must check out in Costa Mesa!
Whether you are looking for world-class shopping, award-winning dining, or an acclaimed arts scene, there are plenty of things to do in Costa Mesa!
Having grown up in nearby Los Angeles, I’d always been familiar with Costa Mesa, but had never really known much about it beyond the fact that it was home to South Coast Plaza. In recent years, I’d started hearing about the trendy vibe of Costa Mesa and I knew I’d have to explore it more (especially as I recently made the move from San Francisco to Orange County and it was now in my own backyard).
So, I was super excited when my friends over at Travel Costa Mesa invited me for a staycation weekend, and I finally got to fully experience all the awesome things to do in Costa Mesa. I had such an amazing time discovering all the unique independent businesses, discovering all the cool art and colorful murals, and most importantly – eating alllll the things (an Eatcation® is my favorite kind of vacation, anyone with me here?)!
Located in the heart of Orange County, Costa Mesa is often overlooked because of other destinations in the area, such as the beaches or Disneyland, which is a shame because it really has so much to offer – it is home to some of the best things to do in Orange County! It’s still got the feel of a hidden gem because even locals don’t know just how cool Costa Mesa is (yet).
Known as the “City of the Arts,” Costa Mesa has a renowned fine and performing arts scene, as well as colorful murals and public art installations scattered throughout the city. In addition, it is also home to Orange County’s only two Michelin-starred restaurants, as well as the nation’s third largest shopping mall.
It’s also only 30 minutes to Disneyland, as little as 15 minutes away to the nearby beach cities (such as Laguna Beach and San Clemente), and 20 minutes to historic San Juan Capistrano, making it an ideal place to center yourself during your visit to Orange County!
Want to know more about this cool little city? Keep on reading for all the fun and awesome things to do in Costa Mesa!
**Note: this post was written in partnership with Travel Costa Mesa. As always, opinions are all my own**
About Costa Mesa, California
Nestled in between Los Angeles and San Diego, Orange County draws more than 50 million visitors annually, who come to the area for its sunny weather, famed beaches, and Disneyland. At the heart of Orange County is Costa Mesa, known as the City of the Arts.
Costa Mesa got its beginnings as a semi-rural farming town, and was originally known as Harper. It got its current name, which means “coastal tableland,” in reference to the fact that the city stands on a plateau by the coast.
The city was incorporated in 1953, and has blossomed into a suburban city that is home to about 113,000 residents. In addition, it has developed a reputation for being a mecca for world-class shopping, renowned dining options, and an acclaimed theater and arts scene. It is also home to the OC Fair, which takes place every summer.
When to Visit Costa Mesa
As with most locations in Southern California, Costa Mesa enjoys year-round sunshine, so there is really no bad time to visit!
Summer brings the hottest temperatures and the longest days, which means more daylight hours to enjoy all the fun things to do in Costa Mesa! Keep in mind that Southern California is famous for its “June Gloom” in May and June, which brings overcast skies in the morning (bring a light sweater or jacket) – however, this usually burns off by afternoon.
Spring and fall are, well, pretty much like summer – California doesn’t get much in the way of seasons. It does sometimes rain in the winter, but temperatures stay relatively mild – highs usually hover around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and lows rarely get below the 50s, making Costa Mesa the perfect place to escape to for some winter sun.
Location and Getting Around
Costa Mesa is located less than an hour away (~40 miles) from Los Angeles, making it the perfect destination for a weekend getaway or day trip. It is also 86 miles (~1 hour, 15 minutes) away from San Diego.
It is also located in close proximity to Disneyland (~20 minutes), and just minutes from the beach (it shares its southern border with Newport Beach, and Huntington Beach is only 7 miles away). It is also located only 4 miles away from John Wayne International Airport, which connects it to many domestic destinations, as well as cities in Mexico and Canada. This makes Costa Mesa an ideal place to base yourself during any visit to Orange County.
Public transportation does exist but is not a very efficient way to get around, so having a vehicle is recommended for maximum flexibility. If you do not wish to drive, you can easily get around via Uber or Lyft. The theater district and downtown are also fairly walkable.
Things to Do in Costa Mesa
Go on a self-guided art walk
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa is to go on a self-guided art walk of some of the most notable public art in the city. It is a fun way to spend an afternoon, and the perfect (mostly) outdoors activity.
The tour takes you to 20 different sculptures, art installations, and other pieces that are nestled within the city’s theater district. Recently, a free audio guide was added to the tour, which gives you background information about the art and the artists who created them, as well as the history of Costa Mesa.
The pieces you will see on the tour were commissioned by Henry Segerstrom, a businessman and philanthropist who is seen as sort of the “founder” of Costa Mesa. It was super interesting to hear how he transformed the city from a humble farming town into what it is today, and how he left his mark on the city by donating land, financial resources, and creating a vibrant cultural life.
In addition, the art itself was super cool and represents a variety of styles and aesthetics, from the bright stained glass Sun Ribbon, to the colorfully abstract Ram’s Head, to classically styled fountain sculptures.
Shop til you drop at South Coast Plaza
Perhaps one of the most famous things to do in Costa Mesa is to visit South Coast Plaza, a world-class shopping center which draws visitors from all over the world (there’s even a currency exchange booth here, as well as multilingual signage).
Shopaholics will rejoice and find this one of the best things to do in Costa Mesa, as South Coast Plaza is home to over 250 shops. You’ll find everything from luxury boutiques like Chanel, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton, as well as everyday brands such as Uniqlo, Banana Republic, and Zara. It is the largest shopping mall on the West Coast, as well as the third largest in the US.
If you need some energy for your shopping extravaganza, South Coast Plaza is also home to over award-winning 30 restaurants, offering everything from fine dining to casual eateries. Some of my favorites spots here are Din Tai Fung (for the soup dumplings), Marugame Udon (for fast and CHEAP hand-pulled udon), Terrace by Mix Mix (small plates featuring Filipino fusion cuisine – also the space is beautiful!), and the Hall Global Eatery (international cuisine featuring three different concepts, helmed by a Top Chef alum).
If you happen to be in Costa Mesa during the holiday season, be sure to check out the holiday decorations here, especially the giant Christmas tree, which stands underneath the stunning stained glass dome in the Jewel Court, right outside Macy’s.
3333 Bristol St
Find some zen at the Noguchi Garden
Also known as California Scenario, the Noguchi Garden (also known as California Scenario) is recognized as one of the most important sculpture gardens in the US, as well as one of the most important public spaces in California and visiting it is one of the best things to do in Costa Mesa.
Created by famed sculpture artist Isamu Noguchi and commissioned by Henry Segerstrom, the Noguchi Garden offers a tranquil oasis in the middle of a bustling city. It is easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it – it is nestled within a cluster of office buildings, away from the street, and is a hidden gem within the city.
The garden’s minimalistic designs are intended to symbolize the diverse landscapes of California, and incorporate the use of native plants and materials. It is comprised of six elements – Forest Walk, Land Use, Desert Land, Water Source, Water Use and Energy Fountain. The garden’s centerpiece is the Spirit of the Lima Bean, made of 15 giant granite rocks cut to fit together, and symbolizing the Noguchi’s friendship with Segerstrom, who made his fortune in his family’s lima bean business.
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa is to have a little picnic here and enjoy takeout from one of the nearby restaurants. It is also a great spot for people watching and a popular spot with local photographers, so chances are you will see some kind of photo shoot taking place while you hang out here.
611 Anton Blvd
Check out the LAB Anti-Mall
What once housed a night-vision goggle factory has been creatively transformed into a trendy shopping center known as the LAB Anti-Mall. The LAB stands for “Little American Business,” and houses a collection of eclectic boutiques, cool cafes, and a variety of cool art installations. Visiting the LAB has always been one of my favorite things to do in Costa Mesa because I’ve always loved the colorful, hipster vibe!
The LAB strives to offer a unique retail experience which eschews monotony and embraces a vibrant community of art, music, and fashion lovers. You’ll find an array of trendy retailers here to cater to your inner hipster, such as Urban Outfitters, a vintage record store (Creme Tangerine Records) as well as fun little shops that are housed in vintage Airstream trailers. It also plays host to a number of events, such as live music and makers’ markets.
Foodies will also enjoy hanging out at the LAB, as it is home to some of Costa Mesa’s restaurants, cafes, and bars. Be sure to check out Habana for some amazing Cuban food, Bootlegger’s for some craft brews, and Good Town Doughnuts for some gourmet doughnuts. Cocktail lovers also should check out the Ruin, an eclectic speakeasy bar, and serious sushi fiends must check out Hana Re, one of the OC’s only two Michelin-starred restaurants.
If you are in need of some new Instagram photos, you absolutely must stop by the LAB, as it is chock full of colorful murals and Instagrammable backdrops! Two of my favorite photo spots here are the brightly colored paint cans and the CD tunnel.
2930 Bristol Street
Hang out at the CAMP
Directly across the street from the LAB is the CAMP, a retail campus which focuses on green, eco-friendly businesses. The shops and eateries here are dedicated to fostering an active, healthy lifestyle, mindful of the environment and with a strong connection to the local community.
Like the LAB, there is a strong focus on unique independent businesses, some of which are housed in vintage Airstream trailers. Green is the theme at the CAMP, and you’ll find this echoed in everything here from the abundance of plants found throughout the campus, to the environmentally friendly retailers and restaurants.
You’ll find lots of eco-friendly boutiques, many of which sell wellness products and promote ethical brands, as well as organic eateries and cafes, and fitness studios. Some of my favorite shops at the CAMP are Seed Peoples Market, which curates products from a mix of eco-friendly and ethical brands; and Organic Designs by Aggelige, an Airstream trailer that is an oasis of plants and succulents.
Hungry? The CAMP is home to tons of delicious restaurants, bars, and cafes, and visiting them is one of the most delicious things to do in Costa Mesa. Some favorites include the trendy Mesa Lounge, the award-winning Old Vine Cafe, Blackmarket Bakery, and the Wine Lab.
725 Baker Street
Go on a mural crawl
Costa Mesa has so many cool murals around town, representing a variety of artists and styles. I always love to check out the street art wherever I am, so this was one of the things to do in Costa Mesa that I was super excited about, and they sure did not disappoint!
If you’re looking for some cool backdrops for your Instagram photos, check out the below spots:
- Triangle Square (@ Harbor Blvd and W 19th St): This is the home of the pretty, floral Costa Mesa Bloom mural, which is by Aaron Glasson and was commissioned by Travel Costa Mesa.
- Canvas Costa Mesa (3090 Bristol St): You’ll find several murals and art installations inside this office park, including the City of the Arts mural on the parking garage, a geometric piece by Teddy Kelly, the Calypso mural by Charmaine Olivia (right across from it), and a cool floral stained glass panel, and the cool “Butter” mural hanging on the parking garage by Ali Sabet.
- Social (512 W 19th St,): Here, you will find the fun Costa Mesa, Have a Nice Day wall, and an amazing Kobe Bryant mural by Andaluz.
- Strut Bar & Club (719 W 19th St): You’ll find an amazing Dolly Parton mural outside
- Lion & Lamb Coffee (3186 Pullman St): There is a super fun floral + paisley mural outside, and a pretty pastel floral mural inside
Attend an event at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts
Costa Mesa is known for its renowned arts scene, and is home to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the premier performing arts and theater complex in Orange County. Attending a performance or an event here is one of the most popular things to do in Costa Mesa!
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts houses six performance venues, with the main two being the Segerstrom Hall and the Renee & Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The Center has played host to performances from many international dance companies, symphony orchestras, contemporary artists, jazz and cabaret performers, and touring Broadway shows. Some of the performers who have graced the stage here include Yo Yo Ma, Tony Bennett, and the New York City Opera.
The Center is also an architectural gem, with its jewel being the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. The hall features a magnificent Portugese limestone and glass facade. Within the glass walls is an impressive foyer and staircase, adorned with Swarovski crystal LED globes and 300 silver lavalieres hanging from the ceiling in graduated lengths. Also be sure to check out the impressive “Firebird” sculpture that is integrated into the design of the Segerstrom Hall.
Indoor events and performances are returning in summer 2021! The Center is hosting outdoor performances and events held in its Julianne and George Argyros Plaza. We attended the “Holidays Around the World” events, which included celebrated holiday traditions from around the world, with live performances, crafts, and activities.
For these outdoor events, each ticket is for a private viewing area, or “pod,” which holds 1-6 people. Each pod is spaced at least eight feet apart, to allow for a safe, enjoyable viewing experience. We loved the fact that you could still enjoy the city’s performing arts scene and experience one of the best things to do in Costa Mesa, while still observing local regulations and staying safe!
In addition, the Center also hosts various outdoor fitness activities in the Plaza. To see what events are coming up soon, check out the calendar here.
600 Town Center Dr
Check out SOCO and the OC Mix
Foodies and shopaholics alike will enjoy browsing the mix of unique retailers and restaurants at the SOCO and the OC MIx. This is one of the most fun things to do in Costa Mesa because it is part food hall, part design experience, and part pop-up retail experience.
The 70 curated shops and eateries are meant to inspire your inner foodie, designer, and creative spirit. You’ll find lots of unique specialty shops and artisan boutiques selling everything from cocktail supplies and barware, handcrafted cheeses, olive oil, spices, and more. You’ll also find home decor shops, clothing boutiques, and more. (Hint: it’s the perfect place to shop for some unique gifts!)
You’ll also find some of the places to eat and drink in the area, including Taco Maria, with acclaimed Michelin-starred fine Mexican cuisine; Shuck Oyster bar, with fresh oysters and seafood; and Portola Coffee Roasters, which has my favorite coffee in Orange County.
3313 Hyland Ave
Spend the day at the OC Fair
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa in the summer is to attend the OC Fair. In 2021, the Fair is back on Wednesdays-Sundays from July 16 through August 15 (do note that there is limited capacity and you must purchase tickets in advance online).
Going to the fair has always been one of my favorite things to do every summer, and the OC Fair is one of my favorites! You’ll have so much fun embracing your inner kid again and going on all the carnival rides, playing some games and trying to win a stuff (spoiler alert: I failed and didn’t win any), and eating all the outrageous food items (some favorites were the deep-fried Snickers bars and Hot Cheetos cheese tots).
They also have various events and concerts scheduled throughout the fair, perfect for some summer fun!
If you aren’t in Costa Mesa during the Fair, the fairgrounds also plays hosts to various events and festivals throughout the year, so be sure to check out their calendar for some cool things to do in Costa Mesa.
88 Fair Dr
Where to Eat and Drink in Costa Mesa
As I said earlier, my favorite kind of vacation is an Eatcation® and eating your way through the city is one of the best things to do in Costa Mesa! The city is a foodie haven, and there is something for everyone here, from Michelin-starred restaurants (the only two in the OC), celebrity chef-owned restaurants, hole-in-the-wall gems, and trendy cafes and dessert shops.
Here are some of my picks for where to eat and drink in Costa Mesa:
Located inside the CAMP, Mesa Lounge has a chic atmosphere that is reminiscent of a trendy nightclub, complete with a live DJ. We loved the vibe here and had fun pretending to be young, hip people instead of the old farts that we really are.
Mesa Lounge has a selection of adventurous small plates, intended to be shared over cocktails. We had the calamari and mussels here and both were delicious. We also ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert and it was to die for.
The star at Mesa Lounge is the cocktails, which were creative and well-made. Our favorite was the Offshore Account, which was made of rum, banana cordial, passion fruit, lemongrass, grapefruit, mint, and cinnamon, and came in a fun fish bowl!
725 Baker Street
I’d been hearing about Habana for awhile now and finally had the chance to try it – and it did not disappoint! Habana serves modern Cuban cuisine in an eclectic atmosphere. It has a beautiful patio space, and was named as one of the top spots for outdoor dining in the US by TripAdvisor.
The lechon asado (roast pork) is absolutely to die for here – the meat is super tender and almost melts in your mouth, and it comes slathered in an addictive, garlicky sauce (which I had to keep myself from licking off the plate).
The cocktails here are fantastic as well – be sure to try a sangria or mojito!
2930 Bristol Street
Old Vine Kitchen
Located inside the CAMP, Old Vine Kitchen features the very best of food, wine, and cocktails in a non-pretentious, casual atmosphere. The eclectic menu focuses on using fresh, seasonal ingredients.
We had brunch here (aka the best meal of the day), and it was amazing! We loved that Old Vine took the brunch classics and put a unique twist on them – for example, a savory French toast (absolutely delicious), or an omelette with lengua (which was sooo tender).
They also have fantastic cocktails and an awesome rooftop patio space!
2937 Bristol Street
Outpost Kitchen is meant to recreate the vibe of a 70s Australian beach cafe, with a focus on using fresh, organic ingredients. It was such a cool space, with upcycled furniture, and an amazing chevron display behind the bar!
The menu features a tasty selection of brunch items, such as pancakes, avocado toast, salads, and bowls. I had the Hawaiian bowl here, which came with pineapple, chorizo, spinach, cilantro, avocado, and a fried egg over brown rice and it was super fresh and delicious!
The cocktails here were soooo pretty! We had to order a second round just to see what they would look like (they did not disappoint). The best part was that they tasted just as good (or even better) as they looked, using fresh juices and ingredients in them as well!
3420 Bristol Street
Dessert + Coffee Spots
Dessert and coffee are two of my favorite things, and Costa Mesa has amazing options for both! One of my favorite things to do in Costa Mesa during my Eatcation® was to go on a little coffee/dessert tour. If you are a coffee/sugar fiend like I am, then be sure to check out these spots:
The Straw Modern Milkshakes
Best milkshakes everrrr! Travel & Leisure magazine rated the Straw as having one of the best milkshakes in the US, and I wholeheartedly agree! They have boozy shakes as well, and a fun outdoor space with fire pits. Also be sure to peek at the Ryan Gosling poster in the bathroom.
1215 Baker St. Suite A
Dough & Arrow
I first stumbled upon Dough & Arrow while grabbing some ramen next door, and I was definitely swayed by the sign advertising cookies and boba. intended to only get one, but couldn’t resist and walked out with five. You can’t go wrong with any of the cookies here, but you MUST try the Smookie – which is basically a s’more baked into a cookie (and yes, it’s as good as it sounds!). 3033 Bristol St. Suite Q
Sidecar Doughnuts makes some of the best I’ve ever had – they are super fresh and baked every hour. There are several Sidecar locations throughout So-Cal, but the Costa Mesa one is the original. The huckleberry is the signature doughnut here, but you can’t go wrong with any of the seasonal flavors either. 270 E 17th St #18
Stella Jean’s Ice Cream
Stella Jean’s Ice Cream is located right next to Sidecar and has a selection of unique flavors handcrafted using the finest ingredients. I got the mango sticky rice here and it was absolutely to die for! 270 E 17th St. #16
The best mochi donuts in the area! Fill Bakeshop has some unique rotating flavors such as white rabbit candy (sort of like a creamy vanilla flavor), guava cheesecake, halo halo (a Filipino dessert), banana chai, and more. They also have mochi cookies! 1767 Newport Blvd
Coffee with an attitude! Coffee Dose is “not your grandma’s coffee shop,” and offers therapeutic lattes and cold brews, infused with things like lavender syrup and collagen (they have “normal” coffee and espresso drinks as well). Each cup comes with a sleeve adorned with a cheeky statement. 116 E 18th St #3035
Portola Coffee Roasters
Portola makes perhaps the BEST coffee in Orange County, specializing in handcrafted, organic specialty coffee. Many of the baristas who have worked here have gone on to open some of the other great coffee spots in OC as well! |3313 Hyland Ave
Philz Coffee was always a favorite when I lived in SF, so I was glad to see they had a location in the OC in Costa Mesa. They specialize in individual drip coffee – you can choose from dozens of different beans, and customize the sweetness and cream levels to your liking. The mint mojito is a favorite on warm days, and I tend to go for the Tesora if I’m in the mood for something hot. The coffee is STRONG though – I’m always bouncing off the walls whenever I have one! 3420 Bristol St
Even More Places to Eat in Costa Mesa
Still need more suggestions for where to eat in Costa Mesa? Check out these spots below:
- Taco Maria: This Michelin-starred spot has won numerous accolades for its their elegant, modern Mexican cuisine, made from pre-Hispanic ingredients and heirloom products. I haven’t been there yet (but it’s at the top of my list), but my boyfriend has and says it is amazing – especially the pork belly taco! 3313 Hyland Ave
- Vaca: Authentic Spanish tapas with a modern twist, helmed by Top Chef alum Amar Santana. 695 Town Center Dr Suite 170
- The Hall Global Eatery: Also helmed by Santana and located inside South Coast Plaza. The Hall contains three different concepts under one roof – sit-down Mediterranean, a cafe, and a deli. We stopped in here for cocktails and appetizers and really enjoyed them! 3333 Bristol St Ste. 1876
- Din Tai Fung: Din Tai Fung is famous for its Shanghai-style soup dumplings, and has an outpost inside South Coast Plaza. Their pork and crab dumplings are an absolute must! 3333 Bristol Street South Coast Plaza, Space 2071 Upper Level
- Marugame Udon: When I lived in SF, I lived right next to a Marugame and I ate it at least once a week. They serve udon and tempura fast food-style, but make the noodles right in front of you. It is delicious, fast, and CHEAP. The South Coast Plaza location makes it as good as I remembered it! 3333 Bristol St #1073
- Hakata Ikkousha: You might know that I’m a bit of a ramen snob, and Hakata Ikkousha has some of my favorite ramen in the OC. The tonkotsu broth here is super creamy and flavorful. 3033 Bristol St
- Terrace by Mix Mix: Creative small plates with a mix of Filipino, French, and Italian flavors. The terrace here is absolutely BEAUTIFUL! 3333 Bear St #316
Where to Stay in Costa Mesa
We stayed at the Avenue of the Arts Hotel, and really enjoyed our stay! The property is conveniently located near the Segerstrom Center and South Coast Plaza, making it a central location for exploring all the best things to do in Costa Mesa!
The boutique hotel is also beautiful, and was named one of the most Instagrammable hotels in Orange County! Its design takes inspiration from the local arts scene, creating a space to be the very best expression of yourself. We loved the beautiful lobby area, the succulent wall outside, and the pool area.
The rooms are also stylishly decorated, with plush furnishings and comfortable beds. The best part was the view, though – our room was on the top floor overlooking the lake and it was a beautiful sight to wake up to!
Some of the current health precautions being taken by the property include: a minimum 24-hour vacancy in between guests, masks required in common areas by both guests and staff, plexiglass barriers at check-in, hand sanitizer stations throughout the property, only one party in the elevators at a time, and high-touch areas wiped down regularly.
Be sure to also check out the Silver Trumpet Restaurant. I tend to usually be wary of hotel restaurants, but this one exceeded all my expectations (and beyond!). We had a few appetizers and cocktails here one night before dinner, and they were awesome! It was also lovely to be able to sit and relax on their lakeside patio and take in the view.
We also had breakfast the next morning, and really enjoyed that as well – the eggs were super fluffy, and the breakfast potatoes were some of the best I’ve ever had!
Have you ever been to Costa Mesa? What are some of your favorite things to do in Costa Mesa?
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