A Historical Site And Museum Guide For Orange County

Whether you are a resident of Orange County or a visitor from afar, there is always something new and exciting to discover. From the ancient artifacts of the Mission San Juan Capistrano to the modern art installations of the Laguna Art Museum, Orange County offers unique museums and a host of historic landmarks and sites. This article provides a brief overview of the most important museums and sites for visitors.

By exploring these sites and museums, you can gain a deeper appreciation for the people, events, and ideas that have shaped this region and the world beyond. You can learn about the struggles and triumphs of early settlers, the art and architecture of different eras, and the natural wonders that make Orange County such a unique and special place.

Orange County broke from Los Angeles in 1889 and had a distinct and separate identity that offers large established museums for history and art, local community museums, and regional and local historic landmarks. The county seat in Santa Ana has a host of historic sites and landmarks, and due to the mild climate, each city has retained a significant number of houses and businesses that have been placed on the National Register for Historic Places. This article gives a brief tour of the most famous sites in Orange County.

Orange County Museums

Bower’s Museum in downtown Santa Ana on Main Street provides an excellent introduction to the history of Orange County. The Museum also offers guided tours and a year-round lecture calendar. The summer months have weekend concerts and performances in the museum courtyard and park areas adjacent to the Museum. Dioramas and displays illustrate the history of native peoples in the county in the main halls. Vintage art, including southern California plein air art, is on display in the mission revival museum and halls.

The Orange County Museum of Art began as a Newport Beach regional museum. Located near Fashion Island in Newport Beach, the OCMA offers permanent and rotating air exhibits. Lectures are offered monthly, and the Museum offers docent and self-guided taped tours.

Laguna Beach Art Museum offers a fine collection of local artists, as well as some major works by national and international painters. The city began as an art colony, and the Museum was established by a local group of prominent artists and community leaders. Expect to see notable works by Southern California artists in the permanent collections and traveling exhibits.

Laguna Art Museum

Sailors and water lovers will enjoy the Newport Harbor Nautical Museum. Explore the history of sport fishing and the early southern California coast at the former Reuben E. Lee paddleboat restaurant. Children will find the outdoor exhibits and offerings particularly exciting. A visit when a Tall Ship is docked at the Museum is a treat for both children and adults. The NHNM is located in Newport Harbor near the bridge to enter the Newport Peninsula.

Children will enjoy visiting two museums in Santa Ana. The Kid’s Museum is a short block walk from Bower’s Museum. A child’s science museum is a five-minute drive on Main near the Santa Ana Freeway (locals call it “The 5”). Both museums offer “hands-on” exhibits that keep kids entertained for hours.

Historians and fans of the late Richard M. Nixon will enjoy visiting the home of the former president. The private presidential library has an impressive display of the president’s legacy and artifacts from his time in office as both vice president and president. The Nixon Library and birthplace is located in Yorba Linda.

Churches and Missions

The Mission at San Juan Capistrano has been through several major restorations and is an interesting way to see what life was like in the area when the church was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1776. The city of San Juan Capistrano and Dana Point have a number of houses dating to the same period. The Mission has maps that guide auto tours past these adobe and wood structures. By far, the best-known event at Mission San Juan Capistrano is the return of the swallows.

One of the oldest surviving wooden churches is located in downtown Santa Ana on the corner of French and Olive Streets. In order to appreciate the wooden supports and artistry, visit on Saturday evening or Sunday morning when the church is being readied for services. Since the church is nonprofit and spends significant amounts on structural repair, a donation to the building fund would be well received, even though admission is not charged. Due to problems with fires, the church is one of the few remaining all wooden structures remaining in the nation.


While many towns in the East and Midwest United States have historic downtowns, Orange County has the picturesque towns portrayed in many movies. Freeway close to Hollywood, the downtown buildings of Orange have been featured in hundreds of movies and television shows. The Orange historic district, a National Register of Historic Places designee, has all types of architecture and styles, including Streamline, Prairie, Stick, Queen Anne, and various types of Mission architecture. The streets closest to the Plaza have the oldest architectural styles.

Downtown Fullerton’s historic district, also listed on the National Register, has hosted its fair share of movies. The most common style of architecture is bungalow and Italianate, although early Sears houses can be found in many of the neighborhoods.

Santa Ana: The County Seat

The first county courthouse was built of Arizona sandstone in 1900 and is the oldest surviving courthouse in southern California. Tours can be made of the courthouse and Museum of Justice at Santa Ana Boulevard at Broadway in Santa Ana. Arrivals depicted in period train movies are frequently filmed in the Santa Ana Transportation Center, which reproduces a 1920s station complete with a fountain and hand-glazed tiles. Just under a mile from the Transportation Center is an art center that comes to life on the weekends. Festivals and outdoor evening concerts are summertime events. Call the city to check online for a calendar of events.

Architectural Styles

Viewing famous architects is an easy task in Orange County. Newport Beach’s Lovell House is an early example of International Style built on the oceanfront in Newport Beach in the 1920s. One of the last wooden beach pleasure pavilions in the nation can be seen on Main Street in downtown Balboa. The structure was originally built in 1906 as a place for beachgoers to visit when they arrived on the Pacific Electric Red Cars but has served as a ballroom, grocery, and restaurant since the turn of the century.

Historic, modern architecture can also be seen in O.C. The Orange County Performing Arts Center, with new addition designed by Russell Johnson, is an easy drive from any location in the county. Eat lunch or enjoy the sun in the nearby meditation garden. 

Whether you are interested in the history of the Spanish missions, the impact of the aerospace industry, or the art and culture of Southern California, there is a site or Museum in Orange County that will satisfy your curiosity.

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About the author
Growing up in Detroit, Lindsey is a Michigan State University alumnus. She feels incredibly lucky to live in Detroit, and much more, to spend her days promoting the Detroit area as a travel destination.