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Irvine Spectrum Center

With a Ferris wheel and Spanish ambience, this shopping center expands the definition of “mall”

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Southern California is known for its sunny, open-air shopping centers, but this outdoor mall in the heart of Orange County ups the ante with carnival-style rides, pop-up eateries, and unexpected shops.

The fountain-lined Spectrum Center, which reportedly took its aesthetic cues from the Alhambra palace in Spain, offers solid anchor stores, from Nordstrom to Target, and SoCal-friendly storefronts like Lululemon and Quiksilver. There are also plenty of lesser-known names—like Chilli Beans, a funky Latin American sunglasses and accessories giant; Alex and Ani jewelry, made from recycled materials; and Rocket Fizz Soda Pop and Candy Shop, which sells a colorful array of sweets, indie-made sodas, and kitschy movie posters.

But the Spectrum “is not simply a place to buy things and eat,” says the mall’s marketing director, Kathy Anderson. “With its stunning architecture, gardens, fountains, and lighting, it’s not a typical shopping center.” Indeed, the landmark center of the mall is the state fair–worthy Giant Wheel, with its 52,000 energy-efficient LED lights, which runs until 11 p.m. and offers sprawling views of the county. Don’t like heights? Ride the antique-style Carousel or the Kiddie Train, which chugs around select mall pathways, or strap on skates to glide across the outdoor ice rink during winter.

For more entertainment, head inside to the jumbo recliner seats at the Edwards 21 IMAX & RPX movie theater or catch a live show at Irvine Improv—which hosts headliners like Daniel Tosh and David Spade—and order dinner from renowned L.A. transplant Umami Burger (also available at Improv). Other lunch or dinner options at the Spectrum range from mall staples to elegant eateries like Capital Dim Sum (which serves Peking Duck at dinner) and the first Orange County branch of sustainable and seasonal steakhouse Paul Martin’s American Grill.

One of the Spectrum’s biggest draws is even unique to the United States—the nation’s only Hello Kitty Cafe, a pop-up serving almost-too-cute-to-eat macarons, strawberry custard tarts, and Nutella hand pies in a pink, food truck–style café next to the Giant Wheel. 

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