Newport Beach is well known for its miles of sandy beaches, surfing hotspots, upscale shopping, and endless gourmet dining. But what it isn’t as well known for is Balboa Island, a tiny man-made island peppered with charming boutiques and restaurants completely surrounded by boats and yachts. Let’s explore the abundance of things to do on Balboa Island.
Balboa Island was originally a sandbar that developer William S. Collins turned into an island between 1905 and 1913. Today it’s home to about 3,000 residents. But on weekends and holidays, the population swells as visitors from Orange County and throughout Southern California venture out to explore Balboa Peninsula and the island itself.
A day trip to Balboa Island can be as simple as strolling through the local shops and restaurants. But if you’re looking for something more active, then get out on the water with a rented boat, paddleboard, or kayak.
9 Amazing Things To Do on Balboa Island
1. Take The Ferry to Balboa Island
There are two ways to arrive on Balboa Island; by road or by ferry. While it may take longer, the ferry is definitely worth the experience. Or split the difference and arrive by ferry and depart on the road. Starting in 1910, the ferry has been shuttling guests between the island and Balboa Peninsula in various vessels. Today it accommodates three cars at a time alongside pedestrians and cyclists. For a mere $2.50 per vehicle, riders are treated to a lovely view of Newport Harbor. Since the ferry is small, lines can be long, so approach it with patience. Or come early to avoid lines altogether.
2. Learn The History
Balboa Island, like the surrounding city of Newport Beach, has long been a celebrity magnet. Childstar, Shirley Temple, and her family were regular summer visitors to the island. Later actor, Buddy Ebsen, moved into the same house. John Wayne’s famous yacht, Wild Goose, was regularly spotted in the surrounding waters. These and many more stories are told at the Balboa Island Museum. Visitors can learn all about the making of the island, its famous residents, and popular pastimes at the free museum, located on the island’s main street, Marine Avenue.
3. Float Your Boat
Balboa Island is located in Newport Harbor, one of the largest recreational boat harbors in the United States. The best way to explore the harbor is on the water. In the absence of commercial watercraft, this is an easy place to rent a boat and float at your leisure. Locals often rent small electric Duffy Boats and ride around gawking at the impressive yachts and fabulous seaside mansions. No experience is needed to pilot a Duffy Boat, which can accommodate eight or 12 people. Voyagers Rentals is located on the island next to the ferry, making it easy to find. Grab some food from a nearby restaurant or pack a picnic to enjoy on the water. If you’re visiting in the evening with your loved one, add a bottle of wine or champagne for a really romantic experience.
If you’d prefer for someone else to pilot the boat, that’s just fine. Several companies offer narrated tours of Newport Harbor including The Fun Zone Boat Company. As you cruise the calm waters, the captain will share the history of the area and point out the homes of celebrities and industry tycoons.
There’s plenty of marine life in and around Newport Harbor, so consider booking a dolphin and whale-watching cruise. The types of whales to be seen depend on the seasons, but you may see gray whales, blue whales, humpbacks, and orcas. Davey’s Locker has operated in Newport Beach for over 30 years and has a variety of whale-watching cruises to choose from.
4. Be A Kid At Balboa Fun Zone
Across the water from the island is the Balboa Fun Zone. This seaside amusement park offers rides, games, and plenty of junk food. It’s long been a popular spot for daytime family trips or evening dates for couples.
The Ferris wheel has been providing lovely views of the harbor and the Pacific Ocean since 1936, so definitely take the time for this ride. Or head into the arcade for a few rounds of old-fashioned skeeball. And when it’s time to eat, you’ll find plenty of classic food, from hamburgers and corndogs to pizza and ice cream.
Before you leave, stroll to the end of the Fun Zone to see the historic Balboa Pavilion. This Victorian-style building was completed in 1906 and has long served as a navigation point for local boaters. Each night it’s lit up with 1,500 lights.
5. Go Paddling
The calm waters of the harbor are a great place to kayak or stand-up paddleboard. Whether you have experience in one of these paddle sports or not, it’s easy to get out on the water in Newport Harbor. In addition to Balboa Island, several other man-made islands result in endless sights and shores to explore. Newport Aquatic Center offers hourly rentals.
6. Shop ‘Til You Drop
One of the highlights of Balboa Island is the selection of charming shops along Marine Ave. Unlike the nearby Fashion Island shopping center loaded with big-name department and designer stores, here there’s a selection of locally owned boutiques selling children’s clothing, home decor, and surf gear.
Magnolia Charlie specializes in clothing for children and babies. Even if you don’t have a young one in your life, this beautifully decorated shop is worth a visit. Balboa Surf and Style sells men’s and women’s swimwear, sunglasses, sandals, and many other necessities for visiting the beach. For Danish-inspired home goods and gifts, pop into hjom. Its owner, Rachel Morrison, wants everyone to experience the concept of hygge or coziness while browsing the shop. If you want to feel like a kid, make a visit to Balboa Candy and walk down memory lane with its selection of saltwater taffy, Pop Rocks, Tootsie Pops, and much more.
7. Eat Great Food
The island is home to several excellent restaurants, all with a cozy vibe. If you’re around for breakfast, head to Wilma’s Patio, a longtime local favorite, easily recognized by the pink tablecloths. If the large menu looks overwhelming, just ask your friendly server for a recommendation.
Nearby is a popular lunch spot, The Village Inn. Snag a table in the garden and order the baked brie salad. If you’re here on a weekend, arrive early since this place fills up fast.
For a romantic dinner, try Ciao Balboa, a part of the island dining scene for over 25 years. Their Southern Italian food includes pizza, pasta, and calzones.
Wherever you eat, save room for a Balboa bar or frozen banana from Sugar ‘n Spice. For 75 years, this spot has been serving the local ice cream creation; a vanilla ice cream bar dipped in chocolate and rolled in your choice of toppings. On summer evenings, you’ll see the sidewalks full of people enjoying this cold treat.
8. Catch Waves At the Wedge
Balboa Island’s favorite spot among local surfers known as The Wedge is located at the furthest corner of the Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. It is an Orange County hidden gem you can’t miss. The colossal, wedge-shaped waves that rise to thirty feet and crash dramatically onto the shore offer a real challenge for skilled surfers and bodyboarders.
And if surfing is not your thing, you can still enjoy your time by the shore. Lined by multimillion-dollar beach houses and unique rock formations, this Balboa Island locale is an ideal spot for a lovely secluded picnic.
9. Stay On Balboa Island
Balboa Island isn’t home to any hotels so if you want to stay on the island, beach house rentals are the way to go. With features like Dutch doors, trimmed hedges, and cozy patios, they harness the appeal of a beach cottage and are ideal spots for a serene stay.
On the other hand, you can opt to stay in Newport Beach, which offers all types of accommodation and is within touching distance from Balboa Island. Newport Beach Hotel is right in the heart of the buzzing beachfront, well-placed for bright nightlife and long beach days, and a fun choice for families or partygoers.
Pro Tips: Getting Around Balboa Island
Parking is limited on Balboa Island, so if you’re coming for the day, arrive early to claim your spot. Another option is to rent a bike on Balboa Peninsula — where more parking is available — and cycle around the island. Weekends and summer can be very busy, so consider visiting on a weekday or during another season. Fortunately, the weather is nice year-round, so there’s never a bad time to visit the island.
What Is Balboa Island?
Balboa Island is a unique, man-made harborside community nestled within Newport Beach in Orange County, California. The charming island has been around for over a century and is a gem you mustn’t miss when visiting Newport Beach or Laguna Beach.
What Is the Best Way to Travel Around Balboa Peninsula?
It’s the Balboa Island Ferry that has provided service for drivers, passengers, and cyclists to and from Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula for nearly a hundred years. Crossing between Balboa Island and Balboa Peninsula takes approximately 3-5 minutes.
Where to Shop on Balboa Island?
With numerous boutiques, shops, and restaurants located along the strip, Marine Avenue fills your every need From apparel and accessories to artwork, decor items, sweet treats, and gifts, each store on Marine Avenue showcases its personality and eclectic flair.
Where to Go for Kids Entertainment on Balboa Island?
The must-do for families when visiting Balboa Island is riding the Balboa Ferris Wheel at Balboa Pier which is part of an entertainment district full of family-friendly activities like harbor cruises, bayside bungee jumping, a gigantic swing, and playing arcade games.
What is a Duffy Boat Used on Balboa Island?
Duffy Boat is a small electric boat that is very easy to steer. They are designed for small groups to hang out and navigate around the Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island at low speeds. Duffy Boats are perfect for a sunset happy hour or lunchtime cruise.