From California contemporary art to the history of surfing and a semi-secret sculpture garden, Orange County has a bevy of fascinating museums and cultural spaces. We’ve rounded up six of the best to visit the next time you’re in the OC.
The Orange County Museum of Art was founded by 13 women with a shared vision in 1962 as the Balboa Pavilion Gallery. It changed names several times over the years before becoming the Orange County Museum of Art in 1997. Today, OCMA houses more than 3,000 pieces of modern and contemporary art—including painting, sculpture, photography, and video—with a focus on California art from the early 20th century.
Located in Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum aims to “celebrate world cultures through their arts.” The art museum operates as a cultural center and frequently showcases exhibits from museums around the world. The Bowers Museum has more than 100,000 works of art, with Native American, Pre-Columbian, and Pacific art among their largest collections. They also operate the Kidseum, a children’s museum with a focus on archaeology, located just a few blocks down the street.
Though small, the International Surfing Museum in Huntington Beach has iconic surfing items on display, including a surfboard owned by Duke Kahanamoku, who is considered to be the father of modern surfing. Even those who don’t surf will find the museum entertaining. The museum’s founder—Natalie Kotsch—never surfed but found herself drawn to surf culture when she moved to the U.S. from Canada and created the museum to preserve its history.
Set on 12 acres of luscious grounds, the Heritage Museum of Orange County is popular as a destination for school field trips and weddings. The main draw is a historic plaza with buildings from the 1890s, offering visitors a glimpse of California during that time period. The museum still has an operational blacksmith shop and holds regular classes for members.
The Discovery Cube science museum is geared toward children and features interactive learning activities, including a virtual helicopter tour over Orange County, an earthquake simulator, and a hands-on (healthy) cooking class. The original location in Santa Ana was so popular that museums in Los Angeles and Newport Beach have since opened.
Though not technically a museum, Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture garden, titled “California Scenario,” is definitely worth a visit. Designed to reflect California’s landscape, the garden is tucked into an unassuming commercial plaza in downtown Costa Mesa. Indigenous plants and materials are integrated into sections such as “Desert Land” and “Forest Walk.”