Disclosure: This post was created in partnership with Travel Costa Mesa and contains affiliate links, but all opinions are my own.
Despite growing up in Southern California, Costa Mesa was never really on my radar. Before spending a few days exploring this city, I thought the only cool thing to do in Costa Mesa was shopping at South Coast Plaza. Boy was I wrong. In addition to popular stores and hip boutiques, Costa Mesa is also home to an incredible arts scene, delicious and trendy restaurants, and plenty of cool events year-round. Although SoCal locals and visitors alike have a tendency to skip Costa Mesa in favor of neighboring Newport Beach, my guide to the best things to do in Costa Mesa will show you exactly why you need to add this OC city to your Southern California itinerary. Whether you’re visiting from out of town or looking for a quick staycation from Los Angeles, Costa Mesa is guaranteed to leave you wondering why more people don’t visit.
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Where is Costa Mesa CA?
Costa Mesa is about 40 miles south of Los Angeles, nestled between Irvine and Newport Beach. Spanning 16 square miles, Costa Mesa is no small town. Despite this, it boasts plenty of small, local businesses. John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana is just a few miles away, making it easily accessible for out of town visitors.
Why Visit Costa Mesa
Despite living closer to Costa Mesa than Los Angeles, I had no idea that Costa Mesa has a culinary scene that rivals that of Los Angeles. *Cue tears as I think about the cumulative hours I’ve spent driving to LA to try restaurants.* I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the inaugural TASTE Costa Mesa event in October (the first LA Times TASTE outside of Los Angeles) and I was blown away by all the diverse and delicious options. Costa Mesa is a foodie paradise!
I’m not one to go on vacations to go shopping, but I must admit that Costa Mesa has some of the best shopping in Southern California. I’m not just talking about large-scale malls, either (although South Coast Plaza is nothing to scoff at). I’m talking cute boutique shops, specialty shopping areas, and the occasional pop up shop.
Arts + Culture
Costa Mesa calls itself the “city of the arts” and it definitely lives up to its name. It’s home to some truly spectacular art centers including famous performance halls and theaters, impressive outdoor art installations, and plenty of interesting art galleries.
Fun things to do in Costa Mesa
What to Do in Costa Mesa for Art-Lovers
The Art Walk
Costa Mesa has over a dozen outdoor sculptures and art installations and you can catch ‘em all (…Pokemon!) by following this handy art walk map! Hands down one of the coolest stops is Noguchi Garden, an art installation hidden in a business park just off of Avenue of the Arts. It was easy to walk to from my hotel and it was an unexpected oasis of serenity amongst what’s an otherwise busy area. Most of the pieces are within walking distance from each other so you don’t have to figure out where to park your car all over the city.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts
It’s worth visiting the Segerstrom Center for the architecture alone, but this spectacular concert hall is the place to go to see a dance or musical performance. Many top Broadway plays are performed here as well. Check out their calendar for upcoming performances and get tickets on their website.
South Coast Repertory
If plays are more your speed, catch a show at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa’s Tony Award-winning professional resident theater. You can also support the local non-profit community theater, Costa Mesa Playhouse, which is more of an intimate venue. No matter which option you chose, there’s almost always a performance going on in Costa Mesa.
Shopping in Costa Mesa + Cool Hangouts
One of the coolest things about Costa Mesa is its large and varied collection of places to shop. I personally don’t ever visit destinations solely for shopping, but I must admit that I was particularly charmed by the collection of hip, independent boutiques in various parts of the city. Most of them are located in equally cool plazas and double as fun hangout spots for a quick bite or just to relax. For those who prefer to shop for big brand items, the enormous South Coast Plaza has pretty much every store you can think of. Keep reading for a quick guide to shopping in Costa Mesa.
South Coast Plaza
As one of Southern California’s premier shopping malls, South Coast Plaza has 3 levels and 250 shops and boutiques, meaning you can very easily spend an entire day here. They have everything from everyday brands to high-end shops. Shopping makes you hungry (or so I’m told, I prefer shopping from the comfort of my couch) but luckily, South Coast Plaza has 30 restaurants to prevent the hanger from kicking in.
The LAB Anti-Mall
Standing for “Little American Business,” the LAB is the antithesis of big-brand malls. It’s an outdoor collection of apparel shops, cafes, and pop-ups. The décor is very California desert, with a bright and comfy lounge and plants and artwork throughout the area. This is easily my favorite hangout spot in Costa Mesa, partially because I like all things hip and partially because there’s almost always some quirky event going on here (like that time I got my aura read. That happened). Seriously though, The LAB is pretty much the spot where hipster dreams come true and I am here for it.
Just across the street from The LAB is The CAMP, an eco-friendly retail campus dedicated to everything related to being green. All the stores are health conscious or fitness related, focusing particularly on environmentalism and an outdoor lifestyle. Like the LAB, The CAMP is also an outdoor collection of shops and cafes, but the ambiance and décor is distinct. It’s probably where your cool outdoorsy friend buys all their camping gear (or you, if you’re that friend). Whether you’re there to shop, eat or just hang out, the CAMP is guaranteed to inspire you to get outdoors.
SOCO Collection and the OC Mix
At first glance, SOCO and the OC Mix looks like a large outdoor shopping plaza, which it is. However, what many people don’t know is that inside The OC Mix is a food and shopping hall that’s every food lover’s dream. Not only are there plenty of specialty food shops here, but it’s also where you can dine at the famous Taco Maria. You’ll also find a variety of quirky boutique shops, selling everything from unique décor to custom hats. Spend a few hours here browsing and snacking or walk around the larger SOCO Collection and check out all the shops there.
Beaches Near Costa Mesa
If you’re visiting from out of state, chances are you’ll want to spend some time soaking up some of that SoCal sunshine and Pacific Ocean breeze. While Costa Mesa itself doesn’t have a beach, it’s conveniently located near several beaches including Newport Beach, Huntington Beach, and Laguna Beach. Each beach has its own distinct vibe depending on what you’re interested in but no matter which you choose, Costa Mesa is an easy access point to the shoreline. Check out some of the cool beach activities you can do below!
Best Restaurants in Costa Mesa
There are plenty of delicious places to eat in Costa Mesa – so many, in fact, that even sampling 15+ restaurants at the TASTE Costa Mesa event only served to show me that I’ve been missing out by not exploring the OC food scene. There are three main areas where the majority of my recommendations are located: The LAB and The CAMP, 17th Street, and SOCO & The OC Mix. That being said, there are great options all over the city, so make sure you bring your appetite when visiting Costa Mesa.
Who would have thought that the Los Angeles Times Restaurant of the year would be a somewhat inconspicuous Mexican restaurant located in Costa Mesa? Not me. The LA Times isn’t the only publication that thinks so either. Taco Maria has won countless foodie awards and with good reason. The food is fresh, creative, and most importantly, delicious. Having grown up in Southern California, my standards for tacos are high, but Taco Maria did not disappoint, with the arrachera taco being the highlight of the meal. The flavor and texture was drool-worthy and all the tacos are made on homemade blue corn tortillas, aww yeahhh. SO good. Taco María has prix fix and brunch menus in addition to the a la carte menu if making decisions isn’t your strong suit or if brunch > lunch. Read reviews of Taco María here.
Black Market Bakery
Contrary to what it may seem like in this post, I don’t actually have a big sweet tooth. It took me several visits to Costa Mesa to try all of these places. I stopped in for some coffee and cookies at Black Market Bakery on my most recent visit. Located at The CAMP, Black Market came highly recommended for homemade sweets and coffee. Yes, the coffee was good but the cookies were even better. They’re basically the size of your face (luckily I brought my sister and mom as reinforcements) and were baked to the perfect cookie texture I always aim for but somehow mess up. We tried chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and molasses but there are also plenty of other sweets (like cheesecake and scones) if you aren’t a low-key cookie monster like I am. Read reviews of Black Market Bakery here.
Silver Trumpet Restaurant
Hotel restaurants are usually subpar at best but they’ve been seriously stepping up their game over the last few years and not just in Costa Mesa, either. This was my experience in hotel restaurants in both Ireland and San Francisco, as well. Silver Trumpet is no exception to this. I came here for breakfast while I was staying at the Avenue of the Arts Hotel. I’d sampled the restaurant’s truffle tacos the previous evening during the TASTE Costa Mesa event, so I was eager to see what sort of breakfast offerings they had. Their lobster eggs benedict was to die for, as were the family-sized “side” of potatoes I ordered. I even had a chance to chat with the executive chef for a bit about his culinary background, which was a nice added touch to a solo breakfast. Silver Trumpet is big on seasonal menus made with local ingredients and a quick peek at their other menus makes me want to return to sample more. Read reviews of Silver Trumpet here.
Havana ooh nah nah. I still haven’t made my way to real Havana yet but Habana at The LAB certainly has some Cuban fusion vibes, with live music on Friday and Saturday nights and the traditional ropa vieja dish on the menu. It’s more of a nod towards Cuban food, mixing flavors from various Spanish-speaking countries and adding a bit of a SoCal touch. The food on its own can be a tad hit or miss depending on what you order. However, the creative dishes, combined with the overall ambiance and sparkly outdoor patio, make it the perfect late-night hangout spot. Read reviews of Habana here.
I heard about Sidecar ages ago from a friend who is a self-proclaimed donut enthusiast. I never bothered to drive to try them until I was in Costa Mesa and it was convenient. Naturally, I ordered five for uh “research” purposes. Clearly I take my menu sampling very seriously when making recommendations. The answer to your burning question: should you go to Sidecar and are the donuts really worth $4 each? Yes and yes. My brain wholeheartedly vouches for Sidecar, while my health is simultaneously grateful that it’s not conveniently located nearby. All five flavors I tried were delicious (and I promise I shared my donuts). I do recommend getting one of the fancy flavors rather than the more classic ones. The pumpkin one (pictured above) was my favorite. Read reviews of Sidecar Doughnuts here.
Nothing Bundt Cakes
I *still* remember the first time I tried Nothing Bundt Cakes back in 2011. Someone brought a cake to an office party (#corporatelife) and it was love at first bite. In fact, it prompted me to Google where I could find one near my house (it’s a bit of a trek, sadly) but imagine my delight when I found out they have a shop in Costa Mesa! They’re conveniently located in the same plaza as Sidecar if you really want to overdo your sugar intake. With moist cakes, plenty of flavors, and perfectly sweet frosting, they’ve earned their tagline as home of the most delicious bundt cakes ever. Read reviews of Nothing Bundt Cakes here.
Hotels in Costa Mesa: Where to Stay in Costa Mesa
If you’re looking for a unique design hotel to complete your artsy experience in Costa Mesa, look no further than the Avenue of the Arts Hotel. Located across the street from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and just a ten-minute walk from South Coast Plaza, Avenue of the Arts is the perfect place to unwind after a day of exploring. The rooms are chic and comfortable, with gorgeous views to boot. Additionally, the hotel is home to the impressive Silver Trumpet Restaurant, which is as delicious as it is convenient. Read reviews of the Avenue of the Arts Hotel here and book here.
Browse all hotel options in Costa Mesa below! Booking.com
Whether you’re a foodie, a shopper, an art lover or more, there are plenty of fun things for you to do in Costa Mesa. Not only is it an excellent staycation / weekend getaway from Los Angeles or San Diego, but it also offers plenty of great activities for anyone visiting Southern California. P.S. If you’re planning a California road trip and stopping in Central California, be sure to check out my post on Monterey.
Tell me: Have you ever been to Costa Mesa? If not, which place would you most like to visit?
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