Orange County has its own destination oasis that’s reinventing the grand public park for the 21st century

One Perfect Day in Irvine’s Great Park
Andrea Gómez Romero
The park's iconic balloon
Point me to the park: It’s smack in the middle of the O.C., near the intersection of the 5 and 405 freeways. What it used to be: El Toro U.S. Marine Corps Air Station, from 1943 to 1999. And now? 450 acres of green glory have opened since 2007, with nearly a thousand more acres opening in stages in the years to come. The park’s greatest hits: The art gallery, North Lawn, community gardens, soccer fields, and visitor center.
Forgot your wallet? No biggie—it’s all free. Balloon and carousel rides, movies on the lawn, garden workshops, working farm, outdoor concerts, everything. Years away: Wetland and forest preserves, cafes, and a military museum. See the future: The visitor center has completed park renderings. Ride in the big orange balloon: The park’s iconic balloon puts the orange back in Orange County, and from 400 feet up, you can see forever (or at least most of the O.C.). While it’s not quite an around-the-world-in-80-days ride, the 10-minute float in the tethered balloon’s open-air gondola is utterly charming. Sign-ups at visitor center.
Green up your thumb: The 12 demonstration mini gardens at the Farm+Food Lab, maintained by the UC Master Gardener program, will give you lots of ideas for what to grow at home. Your yard’s too small? Nonsense: Check out the square-foot plots of edibles for inspiration. Our other faves? The Pizza & Spaghetti Garden and the Fruit Salad Garden, with grapevines galore. Unorganized sports: It’s a kite-staging area, Frisbee field, reading lounge, family picnic spot—whatever you’d like it to be. The park’s designers want the 7-acre North Lawn to be the place where you can program your own outdoor activity. Croquet, anyone?
The creative side: The Palm Court Arts Complex turned two of the old military base’s squadron support sheds into a public art center. In one, a gallery hosts rotating shows, with exhibits on the base’s impact on the O.C. In the second, open studios let you hang with international resident artists as they paint, sculpt, or compose a symphony.
The best time to come: On Sundays, the Great Park Farmers Market rolls everything you like about your neighborhood markets into one outsize, blooming, buzzing event. Look for plenty of produce, tamales, popcorn, bakery stands, live music, food trucks—and, on the first Sunday of the month, an antiques market. 10–2, rain or shine. While you’re in Irvine: 3 under-the-radar spots worth a stop Not your average mall: Things you must do at pan-Asian strip mall Diamond Jamboree:
  1. Get a milk pudding, a soft custard-filled pastry, at 85º C, SoCal’s best Taiwanese bakery.
  2. Stroll the seaweed aisle at supermarket emporium H Mart, then check out the 37 kinds of rice stacked in 20- to 25-pound bags. 2700–2750 Alton Pkwy.;
Something old, something new: Yes, there’s something old in Irvine: the original Irvine Ranch, dating to the late 1800s. It’s now Irvine Ranch Historic Park, with a public library that’s a gleaming white replica of the main house. The palm allée, orange trees, and wooden buildings all exude a relaxed old-SoCal charm. 13042 Old Myford Rd.; For the kids but cool for you: Pretend City Children’s Museum touts its mission to educate kids—but educational, schmeducational. Pretending to live in this mock-up town (building houses, playing doctor, singing on the stage, or picking fruit at the farm and selling it to the grocery store) is good old-fashioned fun. $14;
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