Written by Brad Lane
A Southern California economic center, Irvine is a postcard destination of Orange County. Well executed city planning and diverse natural spaces provide tourists plenty of places to explore, including the Irvine Spectrum Center outdoor shopping center with a Ferris wheel. Outdoor attractions and cultural appeal collide at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, with unique park amenities in the form of sports complexes, art galleries, and a big orange balloon ride.
A popular day or weekend trip from Irvine, the neighboring city of Newport Beach provides the fastest route to the ocean and a scenic coastal getaway. From Newport Beach, the charming neighborhood of Balboa Island is easily accessible, adding even more scenic seaside appeal. Under an hour's drive from Los Angeles, Irvine provides a welcome getaway from the sprawl of the city. Find the best places to visit with our list of the top things to do in Irvine.
1. Irvine Spectrum Center
A sprawling outdoor shopping area, the Irvine Spectrum Center is lined with retail shops, landscaped fountains, and plenty of attractions to keep the whole family entertained. Several notable retailers are within the Spectrum Center, including The Denim Lab and Lululemon, and of the many restaurants available, popular eateries include Umami Burger and Afters Ice Cream. Dave and Buster's also tends to be a popular place to eat and play, featuring adult arcade games and American fare.
It's not just shopping and dining that define Irvine Spectrum Center—plenty of free or low-cost attractions add to the experience of visiting this new outdoor shopping mall. The hardscaping and manicured gardens add a nice touch to strolling around, and features like a carousel and giant Ferris wheel are popular with kids. Weekend entertainment also adds to the value of the Spectrum Center, including live music playing throughout the courtyards.
While a day visit is always recommended, the Spectrum Center really lights up at night and provides cooler temperatures for walking around. A brilliantly lit movie theater illuminates a large plaza adorned with fountains, across the way from the Irvine Improv comedy theater, where big-name comedians entertain a crowd every week. A virtual reality experience is also popular at the Irvine Spectrum Center, with SPACES arcade featuring an immersive experience battling robots á la The Terminator movie.
Address: 70 Spectrum Center Drive, Irvine, California
Official site: https://www.irvinespectrumcenter.com/
2. Orange County Great Park Editor's Pick
A top spot to spend time outdoors in Irvine, Orange County Great Park features a growing number of amenities and attractions that go well beyond running water and picnic tables. Encompassing over 1,300 acres on what used to be a former Marine Corps air station, Orange County Great Park features a multi-use sports complex, rotating art exhibits, and freshly picked foods. The centerpiece attraction of the park, the Great Park Balloon, takes tourists 400 feet into the air for a bird's-eye view of the park and surrounding region.
Other attractions of Orange County Great Park include a kid-favorite carousel and an airport hangar with preserved aircraft on display. Adjacent to the Great Park Balloon, the Palm Court Art Complex features the Great Park Gallery and a 10,000-square-foot event center converted from a former military hangar.
The Farm + Food Lab at the park has themed planters and interpretive information about the surrounding agriculture. For year-round public skating and events, Great Ice Park is the newest addition to Orange County Great Park.
Address: 8000 Great Park Boulevard, Irvine, California
3. San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
A popular spot for birders and photographers, the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary is a true wilderness area within city limits. The easy accessibility of this wildlife haven is a big draw, as well as the 10-plus miles of trails that navigate through the marshy terrain. Trails range from wide dirt roads to narrower foot trails farther into the sanctuary. Visitors need to pack out any trash they bring, as few human facilities exist in this wilderness space besides a few flushing restrooms.
Address: 5 Riparian View, Irvine, California
Official site: http://www.seaandsageaudubon.org/SJWS/sjws.htm
4. Pretend City Children's Museum
This non-profit museum and play space provide an interactive world for children to explore. Comprised of a large interconnected mini city, with facilities like a café, construction site, and grocery store, Pretend City has 17 exhibit spaces that allow young children to play around in adult roles. Focusing on early childhood development, professionally trained staff at the museum help facilitate a learning experience, as well as put on special events ranging from Father's Day celebrations to Dance Like a Chicken Day.
Address: 29 Hubble, Irvine, California
Official site: https://www.pretendcity.org/
5. Newport Beach
A 10-mile drive and the fastest route to the ocean from Irvine, Newport Beach is a charming coastal city lined with attractions and centered around one of the largest recreation harbors on the West Coast. There's numerous ways to take in the stunning beauty of Newport Beach, including rollerblading, walking along the shore, and enjoying a sunset cruise. Boutique shops and local restaurants line the harbor, as well as million-dollar mansions, and neighborhoods like Corona Del Mar are great for romantic dining experiences.
One of the most popular day trips from Los Angeles, the Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island are other popular neighborhoods to visit in Newport Beach. Accessible by ferry, Balboa Island features vacation homes, Ferris wheels, and pristine beaches that belong on a postcard. The three-mile stretch of land that is Balboa Peninsula lends access to the famous Balboa Beach and Balboa Pier, where weekend adventures like sport fishing, whale watching, and surfing are easy to accommodate.
6. William R. Mason Regional Park
Over 300 acres at William R. Mason Regional Park invite family fun and free outdoor things to do. Laced with hiking and biking trails, as well as a designated wilderness area ripe for exploring, other popular amenities at this regional park include a large lake, model-boat sailing areas, and three toddler play spaces perfect for burning off some extra energy. The on-site Strawberry Farms Golf Course is a championship level course that highlights the countryside surrounding Irvine.
Address: 18712 University Drive, Irvine, California
Official site: http://www.ocparks.com/parks/william/
7. Irvine Farmers Market
Blessed with yearlong growing seasons, the agriculturally rich region surrounding Irvine offers its produce at multiple farmers markets throughout the week. The Orange County Farm Bureau offers two certified markets in Irvine, one in Irvine Regional Park on Tuesday mornings, and the other on Saturday mornings near the picturesque Mariners Church. On Sundays between 10am and 2pm, the Orange County Great Park hosts a third certified farmers market with a collection of unique vendors.
Address: 5428 Bonita Canyon Drive, Irvine, California
Official site: https://www.ocfarmbureau.org/farmers-market
8. Tanaka Farms
A 30-acre agricultural attraction featuring family fun and u-pick fresh fruit, Tanaka Farms sprouts something new to experience in each season. A great way to experience this working farm is to hop aboard one of the Farm Tours, which occur throughout the day. Strawberry tours take place between February and June, while corn tours commence in the summer, and each tour includes a guided wagon ride and free samples along the way. Tanaka Farms is also a popular place for birthday parties, weekend harvest festivals, and pumpkin picking come October.
Address: 5380 University Drive, Irvine, California
Official site: http://www.tanakafarms.com/
9. Orange County Soccer Club
Located within Orange County Great Park, this championship soccer stadium is home to the Orange County Soccer Club, Orange County's only professional soccer team in the United Soccer League. This brand new stadium is a favorite for players and spectators, and the warm evenings of Irvine present the perfect time to catch a match. With a seating capacity for over 5,000 fans, the excitement on the field often keeps visitors out of their seats. The interactive fan zone and food truck concession stands also tend to keep fans roaming around.
Address: 8272 Great Park Boulevard, Irvine, California
Official site: https://www.orangecountysoccer.com
10. Irvine Open Space Preserve
This astonishing collection of natural spaces surround Irvine, providing numerous recreational outlets for community members and tourists alike. Hiking, biking, and horse riding are all popular forms of travel through the Open Space Preserve, and the area is well known for an abundance of wildlife sightings. A few different trailheads in Irvine access the Open Space Preserve, including the popular Bommer Canyon, which features self-guided exploration opportunities.
The Irvine Open Space Preserve connects to other natural spaces in Orange County to provide a surplus of public land that may seem surprising within the dense population of Southern California. The neighboring Crystal Cove State Park and Fremont Canyon Nature Preserve add to the total acreage, as well as the public space found in Irvine Regional Park. All combined, the natural space found in this region of Orange County totals over 20,000 acres.
Official site: https://letsgooutside.org/explore/iosp/
11. University of California Irvine Arboretum
Featuring special plant collections, including rare species from South Africa, the primary focus of the University of California Irvine Arboretum is Southern California flora. This lush natural space in the city is only accessible by UCI Biological Science students, or by guided tour, which are regularly scheduled during peak blooming seasons.
Other special collections at the Arboretum include species from the Channel Islands, Baja, and the Mojave Desert. A living classroom, all 12 acres of the arboretum play an important role for student's educational development.
Address: Campus Drive and Jamboree Road, Irvine, California
Official site: https://arboretum.bio.uci.edu/
12. Irvine Historical Museum
Adjacent to the Rancho San Joaquin Golf Course, and operated by the Irvine Historical Society, the Irvine Historical Museum is within the oldest remaining structure on the antiquated Irvine Ranch. The entire museum is dedicated to preserving the history of Irvine Ranch, once one of the largest private ranches operated in the United States. Guided tours are the best ways to soak up the history of the ranch. They take place on the second Sunday of each month, and reservations are required.
Address: 5 San Joaquin, Irvine, California
Official site: http://irvinehistory.org/