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8 Places to See Orange County’s Gorgeous (and Free) Art

Public art lines the parks, hotels, and shopping malls of these Southern California towns

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Orange County has many well-known charms, thanks to its flair for bucket-list theme parks, luxury resorts, and world-class beaches. But the Southern California region also has a lesser-known artistic side. If that surprises you, it shouldn’t—after all, one OC town started out as an artists’ colony, and the area’s gorgeous scenery has inspired plenty of brushstrokes over the years.

It’s incredibly easy to explore the area's art scene—even while many museums are still temporarily closed—because hundreds of pieces of great public art are hidden in plain sight at an array of parks, hotels, and shopping hubs. Add a self-guided art tour to your next visit to these eight towns, listed north to south:

Anaheim

Not far from Disneyland Resort, the Anaheim Garden Walk offers shopping, dining, and a compelling assortment of local art. Its Art on the Walk program features murals and art installations, as well as an ever-changing selection of pieces for sale. Don’t miss Kate & Ella, a nod to the Anaheim walnut farmer who named his ranch “Katella” after his two daughters. (Today, Katella Ave. is home to the Anaheim Convention Center and runs along one side of Disneyland.) Nearby, check out the shimmering, award-winning sculpture, The Harvester, situated outside the new JW Marriott Anaheim Resort: It seems to disappear, depending on your angle while viewing it.

Huntington Beach

In the town known as Surf City USA, there’s naturally a predominant theme among its 43 pieces of public art. At the heart of Huntington Beach—the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Main Street—stands a bronze statue of surfing’s founding father, Duke Kahanamoku. A few blocks away, at the corner of Huntington Street, another bronze surfer deftly navigates a wave in The Ultimate Challenge. On the PCH itself, Paséa Hotel & Spa boasts two exterior murals: One is a giant tile depiction of an ocean wave and the other is a digital wall that changes constantly.

Costa Mesa

The heart of Costa Mesa's arts district is found at Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which is anchored by four performance halls and guarded by Joan Miró’s bronze bird sculpture Oiseau. That piece is part of the Costa Mesa Art Walk, which stretches two blocks south from the Segerstrom. Take the free, self-guided audio tour, which features more than 20 sculptures, as well as the 1.6-acre Noguchi Garden, a stained glass dome inside South Coast Plaza, and pieces such as The Spirit of the Lima Bean, a sculpture of rust-colored granite that marks what was once the Segerstrom family’s lima bean farm. While you’re exploring, keep an eye out for murals and painted utility boxes around town, including a few at the LAB Anti-Mall.

Irvine

Once a sprawling rancho, today Irvine is a business and shopping hub, and home to the University of California, Irvine—a perfect spot for a nice art walk. Start at the campus’ Aldrich Park and its neighboring Humanities Plaza to see the Jao Family Sculpture Garden, populated by sculptures of notable Chinese philosophers. Not far away, one side of the Ayala Science Library features 12 massive marble sculptures lining a pathway. Off campus, explore Irvine’s Great Park, where the Palm Court Complex offers rotating exhibitions such as Suburban Ecologies, a collection of panoramic photography, videos, and sculptures.

Newport Beach

Some would say that Newport Beach’s dipped-chocolate Balboa Bars are works of art themselves, but to see more permanent pieces, head to the town’s Civic Center Park, just east of Highway 1, to see a rotating collection of 10 sculptures. Current pieces include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, made of red bicycle wheels, and Dude Ascending, a play on Duchamps’ Nude Ascending a Staircase No. 2. A few blocks away, Fashion Island has its own piece of vintage art: The World’s Largest Wind Chimes, created by mural artist Tom Van Sant in 1967, still adorns the exterior wall of Macys.

Laguna Beach

More than 100 pieces of public art dot this beach town, which started out as an artists’ colony. Most are found in the local beachside parks: Heisler Park has its own sculpture garden, including a whimsical whale and a 9/11 memorial, while Treasure Island Beach Park hosts Repose, five bench-style sculptures that you can sit on to watch the waves. (The beach park, which neighbors Montage Laguna Beach, is also a nice spot for tidepooling.) Brown’s Park, right next to The Cliff restaurant, has another take-a-seat-style sculpture—the bronze Tranquil Moment—and a stained-glass fence, inscribed with a poem. For a fun selfie, pose with the statue of the bearded man outside The Greeter’s Corner Restaurant, named after the legendary local who long stood on that corner to greet passersby.

Dana Point

Two pieces of public art say a lot about the history of this beach town at the southern end of Highway 1. Start in Dana Point’s downtown Lantern District, where the Hide Drogher statue depicts one of the 19th-century sailors who used to toss cowhides off the bluffs of Dana Point to trade with ships below. Then, head to Waterman Plaza, across from Doheny State Beach, to see the statue of Hobie Alter, the pioneering surfboard maker who opened his first shop in Dana Point. His statue keeps company with other surfing notables, such as surfer legend Phil Edwards and Endless Summer filmmaker Bruce Brown. On Doheny State Beach, take the Whale Walk to check out sidewalk paintings of minke, blue, and orca whales, along with other marine life. Don’t look down for too long: This is a great spot to see actual whales breeching and spouting in the distance.

San Clemente

Walk along San Clemente’s Avenida Del Mar—which heads west from I-5 to the San Clemente Pier—and you’ll learn the history of the town, depicted in the tile murals of Landmarks on Del Mar. Start at Café Calypso—where you can enjoy breakfast or take a coffee and bagel to go—and see what the Hotel San Clemente looked like when it opened on this spot in 1928, when it was considered one of the fanciest places to stay in Southern California. Keep walking to see murals of the town’s old-school movie theater, a beach club, a ballroom, and more. Along the way, see how many utility boxes painted by local artists you can find (the town boasts 14 in all).

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