Irvine, California surprised us with its parks, diversity, and family-friendly fun. As we drove by its perfectly manicured office parks and shopping centers, we weren’t quite sure what to expect. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll discover that there are never-ending things to do in Irvine.
We soon discovered that Irvine is the perfect place to enjoy the outdoors. They proudly boast the largest amount of open space in all of Orange County, and with fresh air, wide open trails, and family-friendly fun scattered throughout, Irvine is a welcome diversion from the concrete jungle of Los Angeles.
Come read why Irvine is great for families and what we loved about it.
Things to do in Irvine - Orange County's Outdoor Playground
Top Irvine Attractions
- Orange Country Great Park
- Great Park Balloon
- Great Park Carousel
- Irvine Spectrum Center
- Giant Wheel
- Luckey Climber
- The Spectrum 21 IMAX
- Pretend City
- K1 Speed
- Tanaka Farms
Places to get outdoors in Irvine
Top places to eat in Irvine, CA
Other top attractions in Orange County
Where to Stay - Hotels in Irvine, CA
Disclosure: Please note that this post contains affiliate links, meaning we earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. We worked in conjunction with Visit Buena Park, who hosted us for two nights and sponsored many of our activities in order to bring you this post. Thanks for reading!
The Best Things to do in Irvine, CA
Top Irvine Attractions
Orange County Great Park
At 1,300 acres and counting, Orange County Great Park is a massive place for families to hang out and enjoy the outdoors. The former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro is being developed into an amazing space to host a wide variety of activities, including professional sports, playgrounds, sports fields, a farmers market, and – our personal favorite – the Great Park Balloon.
The Great Park Balloon
The Great Park Balloon takes riders up an incredible 400 feet above Irvine for sweeping views of the city and the surrounding mountains. On a clear day, you can see 40 miles in all directions. We had a blast on our trip, so if you’re visiting Irvine, put this right at the top of your list.Great Park Balloon Hours:
Thursday–Friday: 10 a.m.–3 p.m.; 7 p.m.–10 p.m.
Saturday–Sunday: 9 a.m.–3 p.m.; 7 p.m.–10 p.m.
Great Park Balloon Prices:
Adults (19 and older): $10
Children (18 and younger)*: $5 without paid accompanying adult
Children (18 and younger)*: Free with paid adult
Family & Friends Pass: $40 for five adult flights
Great Park Carousel
While you’re at the park, be sure to pick up some tickets for the carousel. An all-day pass is only $3! The Balloon and Carousel are definitely must-do Irvine activities!
Irvine Spectrum Center
Shop ’til you drop at the Irvine Spectrum Center, one of Southern California’s most popular shopping, entertainment, and dining destinations. We had a fun afternoon and evening exploring this enormous outdoor shopping venue, and even if shopping isn’t your thing, there are many other things to do to keep families busy.
The Giant Wheel at Irvine Spectrum Center
The Giant Wheel was handcrafted in Italy and is a great way to get a great view of Irvine. Be sure to stick around after sunset to see all 52,000 LED lights flash and light up the wheel with mesmerizing shapes and colors. It’s one of the best things to do in Irvine at night!
Right next to the Giant Wheel is the Hello Kitty Cafe, the only permanent cafe of its kind in the US. Sit down for a super-cute pastry, or try their signature hot mini donuts. They’re the cat’s meow!
Carousel and Luckey Climber
Two other attractions that the kids will love are the carousel and the Luckey Climber. Check out the description from luckeyclimbers.com
“Made of bent plywood or rotationally molded plastic climbing platforms suspended by steel pipes and cables, Luckey Climbers are visually elegant works of art, part jungle gym, and once alive, they become fountains of children.”
Spectrum 21 IMAX Theater
After burning off some energy, head inside for some popcorn and a movie at The Spectrum 21 Theater. We took some time out of our day to watch Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald – because Harry Potter – and enjoyed the comfy recliners and awesome screens.Irvine Spectrum Center Hours:
Hours are generally 10 -10 but can vary, so check the schedule here before you go.
Pretend City is Orange County’s Children’s Museum, so naturally it’s the perfect place for families to visit. The museum has 17 exhibits themed after jobs and organizations around town. Each one is designed to teach skills and foster curiosity in a unique and fun way. Kids get to play “grown-up” through role playing and hands-on experiences like working at the Trader Joe’s grocery store. If you have younger kids in particular, Pretend City is a cool place to learn and have fun at the same time.
Pretend City Hours:
Sunday – 11:00AM-5:00PM
Monday – 10:00AM-1:00PM
Tuesday – Saturday 10:00AM-5:00PM
Pretend City Tickets:
Children over 12 months – $13.75
Adult – $13.75
Military & Family – $10.50
Infant to 12 Months – Free
K1 Speed in an indoor kart racing track that puts your driving skills to the test. We had a great time zipping around the track and whizzing past each other at nearly 45 mph! Two different tracks let slower racers have their own track with slower karts.
Our daughter raced for the first time and didn’t have any trouble driving her own kart. Racing helmets are provided for all drivers, and the staff did a great job explaining how to safely drive and operate the karts.
If you’re in Irvine, be sure to stop by K1 for a drive. Kids 48″ and taller can drive the junior circuit, and kids and adults 58″ and taller drive on the adult circuit.
K1 Speed Hours:
Mon-Th: 12:00 p.m. – 10:00 p.m.
Fri: 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
Sat: 10:00 a.m. – 12:00 a.m.
Sun: 10:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m.
Boomers! is part carnival, part water park, and part arcade. Outside, families can enjoy a round of miniature golf, bumper boats, carnival rides at King Arthur’s carnival, a rock wall, or take a spin on the Thunder Road go kart track. Inside, enjoy arcade games, laser tag, or grab some Dippin’ Dots at the snack bar.
Feel like cooling off? Take your swim suit and head to Buccaneer Cove where you’ll find a super-sized splash pad with water slides, water cannons, and a splash bucket.
Boomers! Irvine Hours:
Hours vary so be sure to check the schedule here before you go.
All-day attraction passes at Boomers! Irvine are $44.99 online.
Tanaka Farms is a family-owned, 30-acre urban farm in Irvine offering public tours and workshops.
“Our 30-acre farm produces fruits & vegetables that supplies our produce stand, provides for our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, and our various educational tours.”
Be sure to check out their calendar of events to find something interesting (it won’t be difficult). Their farm-to-table meals and u-pick tours are a great way for kids (and adults) to learn more about where our food comes from, and just to make sure the kids stay engaged, Tanaka has partnered with Hello Kitty to bring the super cute factor to the farm.
The Tanaka Farms Calendar of Events can be found here.
Related: World-class roller coasters and lots of family fun are just a short drive away in Buena Park, CA. After you’ve explored Irvine, spend a day or two in Buena Park. Read all about Buena Park here.
Places to get outdoors in Irvine
Irvine has the most open space in all of Orange County with 16,000 acres of parkland, which is impressive. We love being outdoors as a family and wished we had more time to explore the parks and trails around Irvine. Here are some places to enjoy some fresh air during your visit to Irvine.
Orange County Great Park
We’ve already mentioned Orange County Great Park, but it’s worth mentioning again. With 1,300 acres to explore and play in, Great Park is a fun spot for some fresh air and exercise.
Irvine Regional Park
We took a morning to explore Irvine Regional Park and were impressed with its enormous oak and sycamore trees (some of the oldest in Orange County) and beautiful setting. As the oldest park in Orange County, it’s easy to see why residents come here to play and enjoy nature.
Families will love taking a paddle boat out on the lake or renting a surrey bike and taking it for a spin around the park. We had fun riding and letting the kids take turns driving.
Irvine Regional Park is also home to the Orange County Zoo and the Irvine Park Railroad. The train is a 1/3-scale locomotive that takes riders on a 12-minute tour of the park, and during December, it gets all decked out for the Christmas season.
If you just want to relax, the park is full of shady spots for a picnic, and pond full of hungry ducks to entertain the kids, and even horse stables for riding. The park has nearly 500 acres of hiking and horseback trails ready to be explored.
Irvine Regional Park Hours:
Fall – Winter Hours: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Spring – Summer Hours: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Admission is $5 on Saturdays and $3 the rest of the week.
Adventure Playground park features a tree house, sensory garden, climbing poles and stumps, slides, an art wall, kids’ fort zone, meadows, and even natural play areas. It’s designed for exploring, imagination, and free-play. If you have younger children and are looking for fun things to do in Irvine, give Adventure Playground a try.
San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary
San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is comprised of more than 300 acres of restored coastal freshwater wetlands, and is one of Southern California’s largest coastal freshwater marshes. We took a walk along some of the trails and spotted several different birds in the marshes, along with plants and flowers along the way.
Besides walking the trails, visitors can explore several restored ranch houses, the Duck Club, and the Audubon House – home to the Sea and Sage Chapter of Audubon. If you like plants and flowers, pay special attention to the demonstration garden around the visitor center and watch for butterflies!
The San Joaquin Marsh and Wildlife Sanctuary is open from dawn until dusk and is free to the public.
Quail Hill Trailhead
Explore some of Irvine’s spectacular trails beginning with the 2-mile loop at Quail Hill. This natural-surface trail covers about 3 acres and is a good starting point for exploring the extensive trail network in Irvine.
Be sure to have your phone with you so you can listen in to the interpretive guided tour. Just dial in to hear natural resource interpreters and researchers explain important features along the trail. The tour is free.
How to listen: Dial 949-743-5943. Listen to the greeting and then enter the number of the location you are interested in, followed by the # key. They are numbered 1-5. The prompts can be listened to in any order.
The audio tour is also available in a podcast format, which you can download to your device. Download here.
The trail is open from dawn until dusk.
Newport Beach, CA
Looking for other things to do near Irvine? Newport Beach is just a short half-hour drive away. Just take Jamboree Road south and you’ll end up right on Balboa Island – one of our favorite places to grab a treat!
Families can head to the pier and walk out to watch the surfers or rent a bike and cruise up and down the boardwalk.
For some tasty seafood, try the Rusty Pelican. Be sure to get a table down by the harbor for views of the yachts and paddle-boarders. It’s one of our favorite place to splurge on some fresh fish. Their famous buttered bread is totally worth it!
Top places to eat in Irvine, CA
With an Asian population of nearly 40%, Irvine offers foodies some amazing global cuisine representing China, Taiwan, Japan, Vietnam, and others. The culinary diversity here is pretty astounding, and we were amazed at all the options.
As a family, we’ve grown to love trying new cuisines, and Irvine delivered. Here are a few of our favorites, along with a few that we’ll be trying during our next visit!
This Taiwanese coffee shop and bakery opened its first cafe in 2009 in Irvine, and it has been going strong ever since. 85°C refers to the ideal temperature at which to drink coffee, and we aren’t arguing – their signature Sea Salt Coffee drinks are amazing!
We ate here twice (once wasn’t enough!) and loved the pastries and treats. From savory to sweet, they have something that everyone will enjoy.
85°C Bakery Cafe is located in the Diamond Jamboree retail center.
85°C Bakery Cafe Irvine Hours: Most days from 6:30am – 11:00pm
Also located in Diamond Jamboree, Tokyo Table is serving up a unique twist on Japanese cuisine that was approachable and delicious. We ordered the gyozas, ramen, and curry, and it was all worth ordering again.
Service was friendly, their menu extensive, and if you’re a sake fan, their list is impressive.
Tokyo Table Hours:
Sunday – Thursday 11:30 a.m.-1:00 a.m.
Friday – Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:00 a.m.
Hello Kitty Café Irvine made its transition from pop-up to permanent, and is also the the first-ever café complete with spirits in addition to desserts, coffees and teas. Try a super-cute creation from the bakery and some signature mini-donuts, hot and fresh from the fryer.
Check them out over at the Irvine Spectrum Center and take a ride on the Giant Wheel while you’re there!
We got so distracted by the Asian food that we didn’t get a chance to try Johnny’s, but we’re a sucker for a good slice of NYC pizza. Throw in some authentic New York Italian Ice and it’s a no-brainer. Next time for sure!
Johnny’s Real New Your Pizza Hours:
Sunday – Thursday 11:00 a.m.- 10:00 p.m.
Friday – Saturday 11:00 a.m.- 11:00 p.m.
Made from scratch Mexican food is always on our list. If you feel the same way, then check out Café Rio. Fresh, farm-to-table ingredients and hand-made tortillas are enough to get our mouths watering, and their simple menu has something for everyone.
Café Rio Hours:
Mon – Sat: 10:30 a.m.- 10:00 p.m.
Sun: 11:00 a.m.- 9:00 p.m.
Other top attractions in Orange County
Knott’s Berry Farm
We had a blast exploring Buena Park and Knott’s Berry Farm. If you’re into roller coasters, this is the place to be!
Read more about Buena Park and Knott’s Berry Farm in our post here.
Knott’s Berry Farm Hours
Knott’s opens at 10:00 a.m. but closing hours vary. Check their calendar here before you go.
Knott’s Berry Farm Buena Park Location
8039 Beach Blvd, Buena Park, CA 90620
If a visit to Disneyland is on your list, Irvine would be a good place to make your home base. Anaheim is only about a half-hour drive from Irvine, so it’s easy to drive over for the day.
Whether it’s shooting down the Matterhorn in a bobsled or laughing at the hi-jinks on Jungle Cruise, Disneyland is sure to be a great day trip for your family. Grab your mouse ears and enjoy the magic!
Disneyland Resort Hours
The park is generally open from 8 a.m. to midnight, except for Extra Magic Hours. Check the calendar here for hours during your visit.
Disneyland Resort is located at 1313 Disneyland Dr, Anaheim, CA 92802, and is easy to get to by car. Click here for directions.
Disney California Adventure
Located right across the plaza from Disneyland, Disney California Adventure takes the Disney magic to a new level. Rides like Incredicoaster, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT!, and the amazing Radiator Springs Racers will have the kids squealing, and have Mom and Dad #winning.
Disney California Adventure Hours
Disnney California Advventure is generally open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., except for Extra Magic Hours. Check the calendar here for hours during your visit.
Disneyland Resort is located at 1313 Disneyland Dr, Anaheim, CA 92802 and is easy to get to by car. Click here for directions.
Where to Stay – Family Hotels in Irvine, CA
We stayed at the Homewood Suites during our visit, and we love them for the spacious rooms and kitchens with full-sized appliances. The kids loved the heated pool, and if you want, you can even use the BBQ grills to cook on.
The proximity to the airport is nice and makes a great home base to explore Irvine. Free hot breakfast is a definite plus for families.
If you’re looking for a full-service hotel, DoubleTree hotels are good options. Anytime a hotel
bribes greets you with a warm chocolate chip cookie, they’re doing something right. #earningmybusiness
The DoubleTree is located near the Irvine Spectrum Center, giving you access to tons of shopping, food, and activities for the entire family, and it’s only about 10 minutes from Newport Beach.
The Hyatt House brand is Hyatt’s apartment-style hotel similar to Homewood Suites. The rooms are designed for comfort, and families will love the room. Full kitchens, a pool, and hot breakfast in the mornings are great reasons for families to stay.
The Hyatt House Irvine/John Wayne Airport is located very close to the airport and Jamboree Road giving you easy access to all the fun in and around Irvine.
Getting to Irvine, CA
The greater Los Angeles area has no shortage of airports and options for families, which is great. It gives you the chance to shop around and find the cheapest option. For our trip, we flew into John Wayne International (SNA) which is in Santa Ana (nearest to Irvine), but flew out of Bob Hope International (BUR) in Burbank/Hollywood.
Other airports in the area:
– Long Beach (LGB)
– Santa Barbera (SBA)
– Ontario International (ONT)
– San Diego (SAN)
Irvine is a fantastic city for families to explore!
Have you visited Irvine before? What was your favorite thing to do?
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