Irvine in Orange County has been my home for nearly two years and I have been loving my life as a Southern Californian much more than I expected coming from Northern California. The easy access to beautiful beaches, the diverse food options nearby including plentiful options of Mexican (Santa Ana) to Vietnamese (Westminster/Garden Grove), plenty of outdoor space, not to mention being around an hour’s drive from Los Angeles and San Diego. If you are in the area, here are the best things to do in Irvine that you should not miss.
A Brief History on Irvine
Irvine is a master-planned city, with development beginning in the 1960s and the formal incorporation in 1971, making it a relatively new city. The Irvine Company (the company that owns most of the city’s commercial areas, appartments, etc.) divided the city into villages (townships), which each have their own commercial centers, schools, and places of worships. Each village has a distinct architectural design, for example the Irvine Spectrum, the main outdoor mall complex has a contemporary/Moroccan design.
Basically this translates into a clean, quiet city that is a great place to raise a family, but does not have the thrill of larger cities like Anaheim. In the beginning Irvine was a sleepy suburb in the midst of orange groves, but has been growing at an impressive rate with the Irvine Business Complex as the commercial and industrial hub, as well as areas like the Irvine Technology Center.
The Best Things To Do In Irvine
Irvine excels in the Great Outdoors due to hard work of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy which provides plenty of places to hike, bike or walk around within the city. Be aware there are rattlesnakes on the hiking trails, especially during the warmer months. Here are some that you should not miss:
Limestone Canyon (The Sinks)
Known as Orange County’s miniature Grand Canyon, this impressive sandstone formation is one of the most popular Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks to visit. Public access is limited, where visitors can join various group activities hosted by the Conservancy in the form of hiking, trail running, mountain biking and horseback riding. There is also Wilderness Access Day in Limestone Canyon that opens the trail to the The Sinks for a certain time period. The hike to the Augustine Staging Area is eight miles round trip from The Sinks viewing area. For upcoming events, click here.
Turtle Ridge Viewpoint Trail
Situated in this older, idylic Irvine neighborhood that is surrounded by rolling hills, this is a short, but steep hike with a rewarding view at the top. The trailhead is located in Chaparral Park right next to Bonita Canyon Elementary School-just be on the lookout for a staircase leading up the hill. There is plenty of parking in the residential neighborhood next to Bonita and you can walk through the school to get to the trail on weekends or if school is in session you can walk along Sundance Road and turn right onto Turtle Rock Drive and walk on the sidewalk until you reach the park.
Located near Turtle Ridge, this open space preserve offers plenty of trails of varying levels for hiking and biking on 16,000 acres of land. Spring is one of the most scenic times to go, with all the flowers in bloom. Note that none of the trails are shaded, so bring plenty of water during the warmer months. Single track trails for self-guided hiking and biking are only open to the public during Wilderness Access Days for Bommer Canyon hosted by the Conservancy. There is a small parking lot, as well as street parking.
Quail Hill Trailhead
This dog-friendly 1.8 mile loop is ideal for those who want an easy hike (including those with small kids) and does not skimp on the view. The longer 3.5 mile Quail Trail offers a more challenging hike, but does not allow dogs. There is no shade, so plan accordingly. There is a free parking lot that tends to fill up on weekends, but you can always park up the hill, across the street from the community center.
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary (bird watching)
For a less strenuous outdoor activity, this 300-plus acres of freshwater wetlands has 12 miles of trails for visitors to enjoy. Owned by the Irvine Ranch Water District, the marshland sits just above the Upper Newport Bay. Before it was a wildlife sanctuary the land was used as farmland and a ducking hunting range. There is free parking available and when driving in make sure to come off of Campus Dr, not Michelson Dr, since the Riparian Gate is closed.
One of the longest running farms in the area, this family-owned farm has been around since the 1940. It was started by a first generation Japanese-American who came to California in the early 1900s. I love how community-driven it is, known for it seasonal events like The Tanaka Pumpkin Farm and Hikari, a Festival of Lights during the holiday season where you can pick your own pumpkins and Christmas trees. They have adapted really well during the pandemic, with a drive-through produce stand and curbside pick-up for produce. There is also wagon tours of the 30-acre property that include u-pick strawberries and other produce.
Orange County Great Park
The largest park in the city, this is the home to the Great Park Balloon that can be spotted from the I-5 and transforms into a jack-o-latern in October. It’s free to go up in the balloon (registration starts 30 minutes beforehand) which goes up 400 feet over Irvine and boast views 40 miles away on a clear day. The park also has plenty of walking/biking trails, carousel, a farmer’s market on Sundays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., and a farm + food lab.
Irivne has an impressive 60+ miles of biking trails that wind their way through the city and is considered a bike-friendly community by the non-profit organization League of American Bicyclists. You can rent bikes from various local outfiters, including Rock N Road Cyclery for a variety of bikes, and Groove E-Bikes for electric bikes. Check out this detailed map of all the bike trails here.
This reputable public university is a great place to walk around the campus, especially during spring when all the flowers are in bloom. UC Irvine is one of the newer Universities of California, along with UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz. At night, catch a play or concert at the Irvine Barclay Theater.
The University Town Center that is across the street is a lively shopping center with some decent places to grab a bite like Blaze Pizza and Breakfast Republic, as well as the ever-busy In-N-Out. There is also a Trader Joe’s if you wanna grab some snacks for later.
This mega outdoor mall is beautiful to just walk around with its Moroccan-style archways and fountains. Along with the usual stores, there is also an Improv Comedy Club and a movie theater. There are plenty of decent restaurants beyond the fast-casual chains, like Habana for Cuban food and late night cocktails, Fogo de Chao for Brazilian BBQ and Silverlake Ramen to warm up on cold nights. For dessert, there’s Hello Kitty Cafe for themed treats, The Alley for boba, SomiSomi for soft serve and taiyaki and 85C for Taiwanese baked goods. Take a spin on the Giant Wheel, where you can get a good aerial view of the surrounding area. During the summer, there are free outdoor family movie nights and in the winter there’s an ice skating rink.
Irvine is known for it sizable Asian population and naturally has tons of delicious food, from Taiwanese comfort food to Korean BBQ. Here are a few of my favorite go-to spots:
- Baekjeong(Korean)-excellent BBQ, where the staff cooks seasoned short ribs and brisket to perfection in front of you. There is no shortage of banchan, as well as cheese and corn. Get there early, since the line can be quite long, especially on the weekends.
- HiroNori Craft Ramen(Japanese)-known for their delicious homemade tonkotsu ramen and vegan ramen that is as equally good as it’s meat counterpart. This is another place where you want to get there early if you want to avoid the long line.
- A & J Restaurant(Taiwanese)-warm up a chilly night with any version of their spicy beef noodle soup and some side dishes like their cucumber salad, pickled cabbage and bean curd.
- Saffron and Rose(Persian)-I first tried this popular ice cream shop in Westwood at the original LA location and was trilled to find out that there was a branch in Irvine. My go-to-flavor is almond.
I feel like boba should get a separate category, since there is no shortage of great boba spots around Irvine.
- Sharetea-this has been a favorite since I moved here, there is a branch at the University Town Center.Go-to drink: Peach Tea with Aiju Jelly.
- 7Leaves-I just recently discovered this spot and am a big fan for their convenient ordering app and delicious fruit teas. Go-to drink: Sunset Passion Fruit Tea with Grass Jelly.
- Orobae-their handbrewed teas make them stand out and their fruit slushes are very refreshing on a hot day. Go-to drink: Taiwanese Guava Fruit Slush, Rising Phoenix Milk Tea with boba.
Runners up: Omomo (strawberry green tea with aloe vera) and Bambu (Thai Ice Tea)
Where is Irvine located?
Irvine is located in Southern Orange County, about 30 minutes from Newport Beach inland. It’s about an hour away from downtown LA and a hour and twenty minutes to downtown San Diego. Within a half an hour drive or less is San Clemente, Dana Point, Laguna Beach, and Huntington Beach. An hour away is San Diego’s North County, with beach cities like Del Mar, Carlsbad, and Encinitas.
What is the best time to visit Irvine?
Irvine climate is ideal year around and coming from rainy and cold SF Bay Area I will never take for granted mild winters with limited rain (although we need as much rainfall as possible). Although it does get cold at night and you will need a jacket during the winter months. The summers can get hot, especially in September and October when the Santa Ana winds blow through creating an extra hot and dry climate and unfortunately wildfires. Spring is my favorite season, since everything is blooming and what little rain we have is usually gone and temperatures are in the 60s-70s.
What fun things to do in Irvine would you recommend?
Photo sources: Quail Hill