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Santa Ana

Orange County’s largest city boasts a walkable downtown with an emerging arts and culinary scene

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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.

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.

Strolling through this artsy neighborhood may leave you with an appetite, so drop in for Spanish-fusion tapas and tacos at hip-and-moody Lola Gaspar. Or wander into Gypsy Den for their vegetarian and vegan cuisine and funky vintage vibe. To make an evening of it, dine at The Ranch, where grand cedar beams and flagstone floors set the stage for upscale cowboy cuisine—Kobe beef carpaccio, bone-in rib-eye, and Castroville artichokes. Work off your dinner by two-stepping and line dancing next door at The Ranch Saloon.

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 The Playground, owned by Great Food Truck Race winner Jason Quinn. Check the restaurant’s calendar to take part in a special meal next door at Playground 2.0, 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. 

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