Costa Mesa is often overlooked by visitors for the coastal and beach towns in Orange County in Southern California. While many weren’t paying attention, Costa Mesa became the coolest neighborhood around with its incredible food scene, amazing shopping, and a fantastic local arts and culture scene. Costa Mesa is definitely has a locals-only vibe while out of towners flock to the beaches of Newport and Huntington Beach nearby.
Check out why you need to visit Costa Mesa on your next trip to Southern California. Here’s our guide for the best things to do in Costa Mesa.
Oh, and did we mention that Costa Mesa is an easy 20-minute drive to Disneyland?
Incredible Food Scene
Costa Mesa has become Orange County’s biggest culinary scene, with what seems like a new restaurant opening up every week there are several amazing places to enjoy a more than satisfying meal in Costa Mesa. Costa Mesa offers options beyond your typical plaza full of chain restaurants. Instead, you’ll find more independent restaurants with a huge culinary focus on quality and adventurous eats.
You could spend a really long time tasting your way around Costa Mesa, we recommend checking out the food hall at SOCO Collection & OC Mix, the restaurant and bar scene on 17th Street, and the independent eateries at both The Lab and The Camp on Bristol for some of the best spots to eat in Costa Mesa.
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa is take advantage of some of the best shopping Southern California has to offer. From the largest mall on the West Coast of the US, South Coast Plaza to small outdoor retail spaces and pop up boutiques – Costa Mesa has it all.
We recommend shopping at South Coast Plaza for your luxury and high end products or department store shopping, The Lab Anti Mall for your young, urban customers, The Camp for your outdoor enthusiasts, and the boutiques at SOCO Collection & OC Mix for fantastic culinary and household gifts as well as clothing, jewelry, and unique home furnishings.
Local Arts & Culture
Costa Mesa has an incredible local arts and culture scene. Locals take pride in bringing awareness to arts and culture in Costa Mesa, there’s even a committee that meets every month to discuss and help maintain and bring awareness to the local arts. I heart Costa Mesa wrote a great article about them and their efforts.
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa is to get a taste of the local art scene. You can do this best by seeing a performance at Segerstrom Art Center, popping by an exhibit at Location 1980 to see some local artists and their workspace, or enjoying the Costa Mesa Art Walk stopping at cool outdoor art installations like Noguchi Garden.
Best Things to do in Costa Mesa
The Lab Anti Mall
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa is shop and dine at The Lab, an anti mall. What’s an anti mall you may be wondering? The entire theme to this outdoor retail space is that its counter culture to combat retail monotomy. According to their website, LAB actually stands for, “Little American Business.”
The exterior of this small mall is decorated with scaffolding, art installations, and pop up boutiques set up inside and outside Airstream campers. There’s even a shoe store that sells shoes out of what looks like grocery store refrigerators. The stores here blend art with retail and of course, the biggest store in the plaza is Urban Outfitters.
One of the latest and our favorite spots at the Lab would be Facade Funhouse, a pop-up exhibit where there are several different instaworthy scenes for you to interact with and get photos. We had a little too much fun here ourselves.
Besides having the coolest shops, cafes, and restaurants there are also regular events going on here making it one of the best things to do in Costa Mesa.
Located directly across the street from The Lab is the Camp, an eco-friendly campus dedicated to nature related retail shops and restaurants. All of the shops and restaurants promote a healthy, environmentally friendly, and outdoor lifestyle and they also have tons of cute boutiques in campers like The Lab.
With stores like Patagonia, Seed People’s Market, and restaurants like Native Foods promoting healthy or outdoor activities.
While there are more eateries than shops at The Camp you will also find some of the best dining in Costa Mesa here. We dined at Old Vine Cafe, famous for their brunch and wine menu. We recommend checking this spot out for a brunch or lunch. Their eclectic menu is full of interesting options you can’t find at just any restaurant, including the rabbit mole I ate for my brunch.
The food is fantastic and they offer a diverse wine selection. We even had a chance to speak to the chef Mark, who we found out also has a knack for travel and hosts an annual culinary tour to Southern Italy, where he attended culinary school. He is launching an additional tour this year which also piqued our interest. So beyond serving great food and wine, you can also plan out your next vacation all at Old Vine Cafe. Talk about being a one-stop shop.
South Coast Plaza
One of the best things to do in Costa Mesa would be to shop at South Coast Plaza. This is arguably one of the best shopping destinations in the world and the largest shopping mall on the West Coast. It’s easy to spend a day in here shopping until you drop. There are over 250 stores, mostly luxury and designer brands split between South Coast Plaza and the bridge connecting to Crystal Court on the other side of Bear Street which also has designer retailers, restaurants, and many home furnishing stores.
With tons of restaurant and dining options, you can easily get lost in here for a day. If you have shopping to do, this is the place to be.
Want to get a free $100 gift card for South Coast Plaza? Check out the Indulge campaign going on until January 2018 here.
We love the arts & culture scene in Costa Mesa and especially the secret sculpture park that’s been under our noses for years and had no idea existed until recently. One of the most unknown artistic installments is in a business park off the Avenue of the Arts right along the freeway and close to South Coast Plaza. Noguchi Garden is a real hidden gem and a perfect spot to take photos. You seriously feel like you’re in another dimension or an alternate universe here.
Noguchi Garden was completed in 1982 by Isamu Noguchi and funded by Henry Segerstrom. The concept of this space is a California scenario with the use of geographic features and symbolic landscape found in the state of California used in an artistic way in the sculpture park. The entire park is 1.6 acres and featured indigenous plants from California.
If this interests you consider doing the Costa Mesa art walk in the area with 15 different public art stops including Noguchi Garden. You can download the map and get more information on Travel Costa Mesa.
Location 1980 is one of the best things to do in Costa Mesa if you’re into local art. We were able to pop in during studio hours and check out the local artists who work on their projects here. What was refreshing about Location 1980 was how unpretentious it was. You felt like you were hanging out in your friend’s garage who also happens to be and know the coolest artists in town. Being here made me wish I had some artistic abilities so I could hang out in this creative space and work on my art.
We really enjoyed the laid back non-judgemental vibe here. We were glad to have had the opportunity to be shown around and introduced to Location 1980 by artist and studio director, Jesse Fortune.
Eat Your Way Through 17th Street
Besides having one great restaurant after another, 17th Street is one of the best stops in the area and offers some of the best things to do in Costa Mesa. This area has become one of the best dining locations in Orange County with new restaurants opening all the time, boutiques and shops, great alcohol and wine stores, and even great fitness studios.
One of my best friends used to live in this area and there was never a dull moment when we would hang out in her hood. With great spots like Side Car Doughnuts who offer fresh made doughnuts daily in unique flavors from maple & bacon to doughnuts that have poached eggs inside! The flavors change daily and often times sell out, so you’ll want to make sure you stop by early if you want a chance at a unique doughnut flavor!
We were recently introduced to Oak & Coal, a Japanese yakitori specializing in meat skewers grilled over charcoal. They also have a great selection of craft beers on tap. We stopped by after a large meal so we just nibbled on some fantastic kimchi and pork gyoza which took us back to all our food memories of Korea and Japan.
There are honestly so many places to check out here that it could take you a year of eating out on 17th Street to determine your favorites. Other honorable mentions would include Pie Society, a speakeasy bar located at a secret entrance on the back end of their pizza place.
SOCO Collection & OC Mix
Another amazing foodie spot in Costa Mesa is SOCO Collection & OC Mix located right along the 405 freeway. This is high on our list for best things to do in Costa Mesa not only because they offer an incredible array of food to sample around but because they have some darling pop up boutiques you can shop around as you nibble.
We recommend coming hungry with a friend you can split and sample around the different eateries here. We loved splitting tapas at the Spanish restaurant Pueblo, the queso fundido and ceviche was the perfect combo to pair with our fresh margarita and Moscow Mule.
We also suggest trying a taste testing flight of the daily kombucha flavors at Farm & Culture Co. Our favorite ended up being Mango Habanero, yum!
There are also other great dining options like the award-winning Taco Maria, French cuisine at Bistro Papillote, and a great oyster bar Shuck to name a few.
There’s also a great olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting at We Olive & Wine Bar. And as the name suggests there’s wine available as well!
There’s even a great cheese spot across the way, a store specializing in spices from around the world, a specialty liquor store, and tons of boutiques that are perfect for gift shopping. I was so excited to discover that Bono Spera carried some of my favorite Korean beauty products!
Spend an afternoon with a friend here trying a dish at each place and browsing the boutiques. There are also fantastic home furnishing stores here if you’re wanting to give your home a new look.
Disclaimer: This post was in partnership with Travel Costa Mesa. As always all opinions, experiences, and photos are our own.
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