There’s more to Anaheim than Disney

RISE Rooftop Lounge at The Westin Anaheim
RISE Rooftop Lounge at The Westin Anaheim

If you associate the Orange County city of Anaheim with Mickey Mouse and not much else, you’re not alone. And yet, beyond the undeniable delights of Disney lies a slew of surprising experiences that make this Californian destination well worth a visit – whether you have kids or not

You’re in Southern California’s affluent Orange County area, just outside of Los Angeles, and all you know about the city of Anaheim is that it’s where you go if you want to visit Disneyland. You’re not wrong, but this is not the full picture. Anaheim might be known as the home of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but this manicured city has plenty to offer beyond the roller coasters and goodie bags of the entertainment juggernaut. Here’s where to go, eat and stay in the breath of fresh air that is Anaheim.


Where to stay

The Westin Anaheim

Luxury travellers looking for a sophisticated hotel in Anaheim, look no further than The Westin Anaheim, located behind Disney’s California Adventure on West Katella Avenue. Recently opened in 2021, this five star hotel is the obvious choice for those singles, couples and even families visiting Anaheim that aren’t necessarily interested in the splashy, kid-focused facilities offered by the official park hotels. 

Typical of the Westin brand, there is a slight corporate feel to the hotel, which holds a lot of conferences and conventions, but its design is nonetheless chic and elegant, with warm and neutral hues, metallic accents and calming artwork adorning the spaces. Arriving at the hotel after the smoggy intensity of Los Angeles is like entering an oasis, the stately horseshoe driveway lined with lush King Palms and Valencia Orange trees – a nod to Anaheim’s historic grove roots. 

The 618 rooms are elegant and refined, and the 121 suites are oversized, featuring the iconic Westin Heavenly beds along with fantastic views of Disneyland’s rollercoasters and ferris wheel. If you’re looking to splash out while in Anaheim, don’t hesitate to book the Presidential Suite. This sprawling space is the epitome of luxury, replete with two bedrooms and a dressing room, a huge living and dining room, its own kitchen and a balcony that spans the whole length of the suite and boasts direct views of the park.

Dining at signature restaurant Tangerine Room is a pleasant experience highlighting modern Californian cuisine, but for the wow factor, head straight to the rooftop, RISE, where you can take in those iconic Disneyland views while listening to live music and nibbling on Mediterranean morsels.

For those who fear it would be a sin to visit Anaheim and not check out Disneyland, don’t worry – you can walk there from The Westin Anaheim in just 15 minutes. 

Where to go

Catalina Island

Just a 1-1.5-hour ferry ride aboard the Catalina Express from Orange County’s Long Beach, Catalina Island is an absolute must-see while visiting Anaheim. Its cerulean waters and charming hillside houses resemble the rainbow-coloured towns of the Mediterranean, and it feels truly remarkable for an island of such serene and secluded beauty to be so close to bustling LA. If Disneyland is one for the kids, then Catalina Island is, without a doubt, one for the parents, and when I arrive here I wish I could stay for a week.

The heart of the island is the town of Avalon, where most ferries from Orange County arrive. Its picturesque harbour is peppered with yachts and the streets, with shops, restaurants and a handful of pint-sized hotels. The iconic Catalina Island Casino, a grand Art Deco structure built by William Wrigley Jr. (and not a gambling house at all), offers a VIP Backstage Tour that reveals the building’s storied past and takes you through the preserved green rooms once used by Hollywood legends like Errol Flynn and Cary Grant. The tour culminates in the famed circular Casino Ballroom, where Big Band music once filled the air, and spectacular harbour views offer countless photo opportunities.

While Catalina is often visited as a day trip, you will not regret staying on this idyllic island for a weekend or longer, if your objective is to relax and enjoy the beach and Californian sunshine. You can venture west to Two Harbors for outdoor activities like hiking, biking, camping, and water sports, or stay in Avalon and spend your afternoons at uber-cool Descano Beach Club, where you can hire loungers or a cabana (at a cost) and spend the day sipping and snacking in the sun. 

South Coast Plaza

I do not frequent shopping malls when I travel. I figure I am in a new destination, and I don’t want to be ‘stuck inside’ surrounded by shops I can access in my own backyard. However, if you like fashion, you would do well to set aside a few hours to explore South Coast Plaza. This sprawling shopping centre is one of the most luxurious in the United States, and with a whopping 250 boutiques – most of which are designer covering 51 hectares, it is also one of the country’s biggest.

Many designer brands consider their South Coast Plaza outpost to be their flagship store, because sales here often outstrip the rest of the country. Designer labels – many of which have some of the most creative and beautiful window displays I’ve ever seen – include Gucci, Cartier, Givenchy, Hermes, Christian Louboutin, Dior, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Bucherer 1888, Balmain, Van Cleef & Arpels, Balenciaga and A.P.C., with Giorgio Armani and others opening soon. The mall is indoors but is so expansive that it features an open-air walkway  called Bridge of Gardens connecting the mall’s two wings. You could easily pass a full day in this centre, if your wallet can handle the beating.

South Coast Plaza also houses more than 30 eateries including critically-acclaimed restaurants such as Michelin-starred Knife Pleat, Morton’s Steak House and the Wolfgang Puck Kitche, plus Aussie-loving Din Tai Fung  and a French bistro I particularly enjoyed dining at, called Populaire. 

Segerstrom Center for the Arts

A short walk from South Coast Plaza and technically on the same grounds (which is owned by the same family – the dynastic Segerstrom family) lie the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA), injecting any retail-focused day in Anaheim with a touch of culture. At the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, you can experience a refined evening of opera, symphony, ballet and even Tony award-winning theatre performances across its multiple venues.

Mere steps away, OCMA is a recently-opened art gallery designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect, Thom Mayne. The building’s architecture is incredibly striking, and the gallery comprises over 4500 works of art, with a permanent collection that focuses on art produced during the 20th and 21st centuries by artists with ties to California. The museum’s major holdings include early and mid-century modernism, Bay Area Figuration, assemblage, California Light and Space, Pop Art, Minimalism, and installation art. You can view up-to-date exhibitions here.

Where to dine

Anaheim Packing District

The Anaheim Packing District is another must-visit while in Anaheim, especially if you have an interest in wine and unique, independent eateries. The Packing House is the heart of the District; an historic building dating back to 1919 that was formerly an orange processing plant, when citrus was the symbol of Orange County. In 2014 it was rebuilt to become an edgy new-age food hall comprising 24 eateries and produce vendors. 

The vibe of The Packing House reminds me a lot of the Tramsheds in Sydney’s Inner West, with its undeniably cool design and diverse array of interesting vendors, if slightly less bougie – probably a good thing. 

My favourite place at The Packing House is the quirky, suitably secret prohibition bar, The Blind Rabbit. In fact, the bar is so well hidden that I couldn’t find it, despite having received the instructions to ‘follow the White Rabbit and check in at the counter on the lower level, to the right of the stairwell.’ I wandered around in circles before finally asking someone that worked there for help, and was greeted by The Blind Rabbit’s gatekeeper – a particularly tight-lipped young woman who wasn’t letting me in lightly. She told me some ‘house rules’, which are also explicitly laid out on the bar’s website:  stays not exceeding 90-minutes due to the small square meterage that only accommodates a handful of people at a time, no telephone calls and ‘no name-dropping’. 

Only after this spiel did she reluctantly open a thick door disguised by very realistic looking sake barrels (no wonder I couldn’t find it) to reveal a tiny, low-lit and cosy ‘rabbit hole’ – a neighbourhood speakeasy. There is some bar seating and a mere few tables and lounges that invite romantic tipples for two, hushed discussions with friends and the quiet savouring of what are truly delicious cocktails and tapas. The Blind Rabbit is pure fun – you feel as if you’ve truly discovered something secret in the heart of the city.

Still in The Packing House, if you like Asian food, be sure to order a bowl of 206 BCE’s Instagram-famous Anti-Gravity Noodles: egg noodles cooked with butter garlic sauce and topped with your choice of protein. As for what exactly makes them ‘anti-gravity’, it’s another mystery to be revealed at The Packing House (but it involves a sneaky structure inside the bowl). Garlic Butter Shrimp is another signature dish of the eatery.

For dessert, make a beeline for Popbar, located upstairs. The ice creamery offers creative, home-made stick ice creams in flavours such as Green Tea Kit Kat – green tea gelato half dipped in milk chocolate with waffle cone topping and white chocolate drizzle, and Strawberry Pocky – Strawberry sorbetto half dipped in milk chocolate with waffle cone topping and white chocolate drizzle. 

Across the road at the MAKE Building, Pali Wine Co is a chilled-out spot for a wine flight. This neighbourhood winery offers a menu of original Pali-brand wine from vineyards in the Sta. Rita Hills, with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay the company’s specialty. The experience at Pali Wine Co is laid-back, with TVs on the walls like many of the pubs in Australia, and a breezy outdoor courtyard. Pali Wine has five outposts throughout California, including those in LA, Santa Barbara and San Diego.

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