Sense of place: Between surf-centric Huntington Beach and posh Newport, the more suburban Costa Mesa never quite touches the coast.
At a glance: Strip malls, office parks, and car dealerships.
If you look a little closer: Hubs of creative start-up shops full of O.C. tastemakers in skinny jeans and flowy tops.
Birth of cool: The city’s first “anti-mall,” the Lab (2930 Bristol St.; thelab.com), opened 20 years ago. These days, a DJ spins tunes in the courtyard next to vintage clothing stores.
Next on the scene: The Camp (2937 Bristol; thecampsite.com), an alterna-mall across the street from the Lab, is especially good for lunch—from the pork bánh mì at East Borough ($) to the vegan chili of Native Foods Café ($).
Stop in a secret garden: Hidden between two office buildings, California Scenario sculpture garden, created by famed artist Isamu Noguchi, has areas devoted to the state’s varying geography: There’s a mini redwood forest, a tiny desert, and a little mountain stream. Though it was installed more than 30 years ago, few outsiders know about it, so it’s usually quiet. 611 Anton Blvd.
Fun on two wheels: At one of the OC Mart Mix’s newest stores, Nirve Sports, you can customize the cruiser bike of your dreams, complete with a decorated saddle, special tires (Hello Kitty treads, anyone?), and a basket with a liner that turns into a tote bag. The shop’s outer walls roll up to the ceiling, making it even easier to wheel a bike out the door. 3313 Hyland Ave.; 714/948-6199.
A department store with a green twist: Pop into Seed People’s Market, a one-stop shop for eco-conscious living at the Camp. Check out the handcrafted jewelry, organic cosmetics, reusable bamboo utensils, and wooden baby toys. 2937 Bristol St.; 714/708-2277.