In the heart of Orange County, California, is the city of Santa Ana, a place known for its Mexican-American culture, bohemian arts scene, and some seriously good, international food. It’s also been a date night destination for my husband and me for over 20 years.
Santa Ana is not one of Orange County’s swanky beach towns or carefully planned suburbs. Instead, it’s a bit gritty, noisy, and sometimes chaotic. But it’s also diverse, artistic, and creative. I come here to enjoy the food of a family-owned taqueria, stroll through the galleries of young artists, and shop for items I can’t buy anywhere else in Orange County.
1. Bowers Museum
The Bowers Museum is all about the intersection of art and culture, so while it’s sometimes referred to as an art museum, that doesn’t accurately describe it. I’ve been here to see an exhibition of the Walt Disney Archives and later saw tribal art from North America. Currently, there’s a returning exhibit featuring the couture art of Guo Pei — probably best known for designing the yellow dress Rihanna wore at the 2015 Met Gala. A sizable permanent collection is always augmented with a wide range of traveling exhibits, so allow a couple of hours for your visit.
Pro Tip: There’s a very good onsite restaurant called Tangata, but be sure to make reservations if you’re coming on a weekend, it’s quite popular in the area.
2. Lyon Air Museum
World War II History
While the Lyon Air Museum has been open for almost 15 years, I only recently discovered it. Located in a hangar behind the John Wayne Airport, the collection of aircraft and vehicles focuses on World War II. A dozen small, military aircraft are spread throughout the space, some of which visitors can climb in to explore. I took my adult son, Ryan, and we were both fascinated by the 1939 Mercedes Benz used by Adolph Hitler when he entered newly conquered cities and countries. There’s even a video of the vehicle in use during the war.
Pro Tip: Since this museum is in a hangar, it is not heated or cooled. Come prepared with appropriate clothing.
3. Blinking Owl Distillery
Blinking Owl might be the only place in California making the Scandinavian liquor called “aquavit,” so I couldn’t wait to check out this distillery. My father is of Swedish descent and always loved his aquavit. But that is just one of several spirits distilled here.
It began as only a distillery and expanded during the pandemic to an outdoor restaurant and cocktail bar. And both the food and drinks are really good. I highly recommend ordering the cacio e pepe bacon pizza.
Pro Tip: Don’t think your GPS fooled you. Blinking Owl is located in a neighborhood that is zoned for both residential and light industrial; it does not look like a place for a restaurant and bar.
4. Santa Ana Artists Village
First Saturday ArtWalk
For many years, my husband and I have been enjoying Artists Village in downtown Santa Ana during the First Saturday ArtWalk. About 20 galleries stay open late for visitors to browse while outside vendors sell small handicrafts. The whole experience is made even more lively with music and dancing.
The art on display may include paintings, sculptures, photography, textiles, and performances. It is never dull and often quite edgy.
Even if you can’t make it for the First Saturday, feel free to explore art galleries in Artists Village — and throughout the city — anytime. Here’s a list of every gallery in Santa Ana.
Pro Tip: Our favorite dinner spot for First Saturday has long been Lola Gaspar, a modern Mexican restaurant with great tacos, my favorite guacamole, and good cocktails.
5. McFadden Public Market
If you enjoy pizza and tacos accompanied by ‘80s video games and pinball, then head to McFadden Public Market. Downstairs you’ll see a few food vendors, with my personal favorite being Tacompadre. Opened in late 2022, this family-owned spot specializes in Mexico City-style tacos. Upstairs is a Tiki Bar and arcade. I’m always a sucker for pinball, so I Iove coming here.
6. Independent Coffee Shops
When it comes to independent coffee shops in Orange County, Santa Ana is king. This is a city that loves its caffeine and has the perfect spot for everyone. Consider taking a caffeine crawl through the city. These first three spots are located downtown and all within easy walking distance of one another. The fourth will require a drive.
Hopper & Burr
Hopper & Burr serves really good lattes topped with impressive designs. However, if you prefer beer and wine, they have that too. If you’re hungry, both their ricotta and avocado toast are delicious.
Describing itself as a contemporary Mexican cafeteria, Cafe Cultura is perfect for a city that celebrates its Mexican-American heritage. From horchata lattes to churro waffles, this is the place to go if you’re looking for abuela-inspired food and drinks.
Coffee Muse proudly roasts its own coffee and brews its own tea blends. They take their time with each drink making sure it is perfectly crafted, so be patient, it will be worth it.
Avatar Coffee Roasters
The newest addition to Santa Ana’s coffee scene is Avatar Coffee Roasters. In addition to the usual coffee beverages, Avatar also serves a nice variety of food, and in the evening, they offer beer and wine. Come between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. for happy hour.
7. Unique Restaurants
El Mercado Modern
Santa Ana has always had a great lineup of restaurants serving food from all over the world. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that its forte is definitely Mexican cuisine. And my new favorite in this category is El Mercado Modern. This is not a cheap taco joint, but instead an upscale restaurant serving modern interpretations of regional Mexican food. The pulpo a la plancha (marinated octopus) was flavorful and tender; a dish I will long remember. And the cocktails are really fun. The Italian Wolf, made of mezcal and marsala, is served under a glass filled with smoke.
Omakase By Gino
One of Orange County’s hottest sushi restaurants, Omakase by Gino is located in Santa Ana. There are just 10 seats and no menu, making for an intimate experience with Chef Choi Jin-Ho. It is also one of the toughest reservations to get, so plan to book a month in advance.
For a cozy pub vibe, head to Chapter One. This large restaurant and bar serves a diverse menu that includes burgers, tacos, and lumpia. We’ve been enjoying happy hour here for years. I always appreciate a place with a large selection of local, draft beers.
8. Willowick Golf Course
Orange County’s Oldest Public Course
Three generations of my family have golfed at Willowick, the oldest 18-hole public course in Orange County. My son, Ryan, and his friends took up golf during the pandemic and found this course to be ideal for beginners. It’s also very affordable compared to many of Orange County’s other courses. You’ll find a full-service restaurant and bar onsite to celebrate a great round.
9. The Frida Cinema
Indie, Classic, And Cult Films
There are plenty of places to see current, big-budget movie releases, but when you’re ready to see an indie, classic, or cult film, head to The Frida Cinema. Named for the famous Mexican artist, this nonprofit, two-screen theater is committed to sharing a wide range of films that aren’t being shared anywhere else. Its prices are far more reasonable than chain movie theaters and discounts are offered for children and students.