Orange County’s second-largest city boasts a walkable downtown with an emerging arts and culinary scene
Things to do
Places to Eat & Drink
Not showy or sassy like some of Orange County’s more touristy towns, Santa Ana serves as the county seat and the home of John Wayne Airport. But government center and travel hub are only two of this city’s many personas. Longtime residents know that Santa Ana’s heart lies in its artsy cultural downtown, home to a surprisingly fun-and-funky collection of galleries, theaters, boutiques, and sidewalk cafés.
Arts in Santa Ana
Get to know Santa Ana’s artistic side at the bohemian-hip Artists Village, anchored by Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center, a partnership between the city and California State University. Filling an entire city block, the tri-level Art Center contains the Grand Central Theatre, dance studios, art galleries, and live-work spaces for artists-in-residence. Walk all 10 blocks of the surrounding Artists Village, or focus your gallery-hopping around Second Street Promenade’s central courtyard, gussied up with bubbling fountains and arching trees. ArtWalk happens on the first Saturday of every month, when more than 20 galleries open their doors, street vendors peddle their wares, and musicians play on street corners.
Where to Eat in Santa Ana
Strolling through this artsy neighborhood may leave you with an appetite, so drop by the nearby 4th Street Market Innovation Food Hall. This dynamic foodie magnet provides kitchen facilities for promising culinary talents, thereby eliminating start-up costs and encouraging chefs to test the waters and truly do their own thing. The result, by design, is a constantly rotating lineup of innovative food entrepreneurs serving up breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For a full-service dining experience, the options are many and varied. Feast on Spanish-fusion tapas and tacos at hip-and-moody Lola Gaspar, or wander into The Den for their vegetarian and vegan cuisine and funky vintage vibe. To make an evening of it, dine at Chapter One, where high, exposed-beam ceilings and stylish lighting set the stage for upscale takes on classics such as mac ‘n cheese, a steak sandwich on grilled sourdough, and fish and chips. Or go on a delicious tour of Mexico via the extensive menu at Perla, which has offerings such as Wagyu bone marrow and scallop aguachile in addition to deluxe interpretations of standbys like tacos (with short ribs) and lobster enchiladas.
More Things to Do in Santa Ana
Plan on a half-day to tour the Bowers Museum on Main Street, housed in a gracious Spanish-style complex built in 1936. Its permanent display contains 120,000 pieces—highlights of which include a collection of African wooden masks, personal items belonging to the Polish-American actress Madame Helena Modjeska, and a Papua New Guinea headband made of dog teeth.
Got more time? There’s plenty more to see and do, including Santa Ana’s East End Promenade near historic Fourth Street, where Queen Anne Victorians set the architectural bar high and musicians perform at the Yost Theater. Across the street from the Yost, score a reservation for a communal meal at Detention, owned by Great Food Truck Race winner Jason Quinn. Check the restaurant’s calendar to take part in a special meal next door at The Trust Kitchen—the restaurant’s “chef’s table” concept—where the only sign on the door reads “Trust,” giving an indication of what’s inside: a multi-course, themed menu that requires you to simply trust the chef.
On the city’s west end, check out the Old County Courthouse on Santa Ana Boulevard, built in 1900 of Arizona red sandstone and granite. You might recognize the dark wood and ornate paneling in Courtroom No. 1—it’s been used as a set for a number of Hollywood films. Kids will enjoy the 100-plus science exhibits at the interactive Discovery Cube Orange County. The building is Santa Ana’s most recognizable landmark, easily spotted from Interstate 5—a tall black cube made of solar panels, balancing on one corner.