In a vacation destination like Orange County with its stunning coastal setting, nearly every direction you look offers a great view, whether it’s the picture-perfect ocean, scenic hills or vibrant cityscape. But there are a few places that stand out for their novel location, impressive surroundings or other amenities that add to the experience. Of course, hiking to the top of Saddleback Mountain—two peaks that form the highest point in the region—offers a breathtaking panorama, but here are a few options that are closer to home and require less huffing and puffing to reach your reward. And some even have a menu of cocktails ready to sip while you watch the sunset.
Top of the World
3325 Alta Laguna Boulevard
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
With panoramic ocean views clear to Catalina Island in one direction and a broad expanse of hills and open space giving way to cityscape on the other side, the lookout point that locals have dubbed Top of the World offers captivating scenery from every angle. At an elevation of 1,036 feet in Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness Park, adjacent to Alta Laguna Park, this hilltop seems to rise above it all. It’s an ideal place for a romantic date at sunset or a quiet moment of reflection at sunrise. It’s also a jumping off point for trails leading into the wilderness park.
375 Cliff Drive
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
Take in sweeping ocean vistas along the cliff-top walking path in Heisler Park, a favorite of tourists and locals alike. At sunset, palm trees make the perfect silhouette against the sky streaked with hues of orange, pink and purple. Colorful landscaping and public art sculptures can be found along the way as you meander past plein-air painters and watch stand-up paddleboarders glide across the water. Picnic tables, benches and a gazebo offer plenty of resting spots, or follow the stairs down to the beach to check out some tide pools.
Sampson Overview Gazebo
Street of the Blue Lantern at Santa Clara Avenue
Dana Point, CA
This coastal overlook provides breathtaking views of Dana Point Harbor! Dozens of sailboats dot the marina, set against an impossibly blue ocean, making this place one of the best to take in some incredible views. Breathe in the salt air and feel the gentle sea breeze as you soak in the postcard-worthy scenery where travelers since the 1930s have stopped to rest on their journey between Los Angeles and San Diego. The gazebo is named in honor of Ken Sampson, who served as the longtime director of Orange County’s Division of Harbors, Beaches and Parks.
Orange Hill Restaurant
6410 East Chapman Avenue
Orange, CA 92869
Known for its Sunday brunch and impressive views, Orange Hill Restaurant combines the best of both worlds. Raise your Champagne glass in a toast to the stunning scenery as you savor made-to-order pasta, omelets, carving stations and tempting desserts. At night, come for the standout steak dinners paired with jaw-dropping panoramas of the city lights glittering below. This longtime local landmark, open since 1972, serves up prime rib, steak and seafood, plus a curated selection of wine and craft cocktails.
The Rooftop Lounge
1289 South Coast Highway
Laguna Beach, CA 92651
With blue ocean extending out as far as the eye can see, The Rooftop Lounge, atop La Casa del Camino hotel in Laguna Beach, is one of the best bets for dinner and a view—especially at sunset—at the umbrella tables that dot the wooden deck. Don’t miss happy hour with the tempting mojitos and appetizers like bacon-wrapped dates, barbecue meatballs, ahi poke and coconut-breaded shrimp served with a spicy mango dipping sauce. Lunch is also served, or come for Sunday brunch to soak up the views while sipping mimosas.
Great Park Balloon
6950 Marine Way
Irvine, CA 92618
With vistas of up to 40 miles in any direction when they sky is clear, the Great Park Balloon offers a remarkable vantage point. At 118 feet tall and boasting a volume of 210,000 cubic feet, it’s billed as one of the biggest tethered helium balloons and the nation’s first of this type. The big orange balloon—located in Irvine’s Great Park—can accommodate up to 30 passengers at a time in its gondola and rises 400 feet in the air while always remaining tethered to the ground. Rides are offered Thursday through Sunday for $10 per adult; kids ride free with a paying adult and teenagers may ride without a paid adult for $5.The balloon’s gondola is wheelchair accessible.
Giant Wheel at Irvine Spectrum Center
670 Spectrum Center Drive,
Irvine, CA 92618
Rising high above the shopping center below, the 108-foot-tall Giant Wheel provides a bird’s-eye view that captivates almost as much as the array of 52,000 LED lights on the wheel itself, which can project colorful displays in 16 million different combinations. While nighttime may afford the best scenery when Irvine Spectrum Center and nearby city buildings are all aglow, the daytime panorama—of nearby cityscape against a backdrop of mountains in the distance—is also worth a gander. This iconic Ferris wheel, which was built more than 10 years ago in Italy, operates every day and tickets are $5 per ride.
Laguna Niguel Labyrinth at Crown Valley Park
29751 Crown Valley Parkway
Laguna Niguel, CA 92677
Escape the city at the top of a hill in Crown Valley Park’s 18-acre Niguel Botanical Preserve, where a labyrinth and sweeping views out to Saddleback Mountain await visitors. Drink in the scenery or get lost in the meditative labyrinth, a brick walking path that meanders back and forth in loops within an oval shape. Notably, the design’s center features bougainvillea, the city’s official flower.
Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens
415 Avenida Granada
San Clemente, CA 92672
Home to art exhibits, music and dance performances, lectures and workshops year-round, Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens is also a great spot to soak in the views with the historic building’s arches framing the ocean and San Clemente Pier. The cultural center and botanical gardens encompass 2.5 acres including the one-time abode of San Clemente founder Ole Hanson, who no doubt enjoyed these same breathtaking views back when his Spanish colonial revival-style house was built in 1927.
Sharon Stello is a writer based in Orange County.