Things to Do in Newport Beach - for a Day or a Weekend

Fun and Sun on the Newport Beach Coast

Newport Beach Harbor
••• Newport Beach Harbor. ©2016 Betsy Malloy Photography. Used by Permission.

Newport Beach may be better known for its upscale shopping and high-end golf resorts, but I think its real charm lies along the coast. Where Newport Beach meets the Pacific Ocean, the Balboa Peninsula reaches out like a skinny finger from the mainland. It creates a natural harbor that's said to be one of the world's largest harbors for small yachts. The harbor is dotted with seven small, manmade islands.

Coastal Newport Beach is a quiet, relaxed place where you're more likely to meet the harbor patrol than the highway patrol, and you may hear more birds than automobiles.

Before I start talking about Newport Beach, it's a good idea to decide whether it's the kind of place you will like.

Why Should You Go? Will You Like Newport Beach?

When I take people off Pacific Coast Highway to Newport Beach's Balboa Peninsula and Balboa Island, they're always surprised and delighted. This little pocket of old-fashioned charm has managed to persist just blocks from the busy city nearby. It's a place where the kids still run around in summer like they did in the 50s and everyone seems laid-back and calm. In fact, they're so relaxed that it's infectious, and a couple of days here can do wonders for a bedraggled spirit.

The Newport Beach coast is a great place for water play. The Wedge at the end of the Balboa Peninsula is popular for bodysurfing, while traditional surfers cluster near the pier.

Everyone seems to enjoy the harbor tour and a stroll around tiny Balboa Island.

Best Time to Go to Newport Beach

Newport Beach is great almost any time of year, but like most of the California coast is susceptible to "June gloom." It's a meteorological thing that involves marine layers and inland temperatures, but the result is that the sun may not come out for days on end.

The gloom can start as early as May and is usually over by July.

Even in summer, nights can be chilly near the water.

Newport is also lots of fun at Christmas time when you can watch the community's version of a small town Christmas parade, featuring lighted boats in the harbor.

Whatever You Do, Don't Miss This

My favorite thing to do in Newport Beach is a simple pleasure. Park your car either on the peninsula or Balboa Island and go for a walk. Stroll along the waterfront. Walk onto the little ferry that crosses the harbor, have dinner at a local restaurant. You'll wish you could afford to live here instead of just visiting.

More Great Things to Do in Newport Beach

Balboa Island: You can drive to Balboa Island directly, but if you 're on the peninsula, take the ferry to Balboa Island. Once planned to be a racetrack, Balboa Island now teems with cottages arranged in neat rows. Marine Avenue, the island's only shopping area, offers a variety of wares, from handmade kites to resort wear.

Balboa BeachBalboa Peninsula's beach was named one of the top ten urban beaches in the United States by Surfrider Magazine. Should you spend your time on the ocean side or harbor side? It could be the most difficult decision of your day.

The Wedge, at the ocean side tip of Balboa Peninsula, is famous for bodysurfing. Nearby, Corona del Mar State Beach sits below protective cliffs; the sand littered with beachgoers.

Take a Walk on the Pier: Newport Beach has two piers. The Balboa Pier is near the Fun Zone on Balboa Island, and the Newport Beach Pier is just a little north. If you're an early riser, the Dory Fleet Fish Market near the Newport Pier is a fun sight. It opens at 6:30 a.m., when the fishermen bring in their catch.

Take a Harbor Cruise: It's a great way to get acquainted with Newport Beach Harbor. Soak up some sunshine while moving gently through the harbor's calm water. Float past waterfront homes, each with a private boat dock, and listen to the gossip-column stories of today and yesterday. Learn who owns that enormous yacht, and how they made their money.

You'll pass cottages so small you'd have to go outside just to change your mind, and million dollar mansions divided by sibling squabbles. The Fun Zone Boat Company (949-673-0240)  has been doing harbor cruises since 1948.

You can also take a sunset dinner cruise with Hornblower Cruise

Get wet - or not. You can enjoy all kinds of water activities on Balboa Island. Go parasailing with Balboa Parasail.  

Sherman Library and Gardens: Don't let the name fool you - it has more plants than books. This little jewel box of a garden is the perfect place for a relaxing stroll.

For an only-in-Newport-Beach experience, rent an electric Duffy Boat. Invented in Newport Beach, these cute little boats were designed to be quiet and ecologically friendly. They're easy to drive in the calm waters of the harbor. Duffy of Newport Beach is the original company, but you can also find them for rent along the Balboa Fun Zone or on the island. 

Annual Events You Should Know About in Newport Beach

  • January through March: Whale Watching
  • April: Newport to Ensenada Yacht Race
  • June: Classic Car Show, Art Show,  Jazz Festival
  • June: Balboa Island Parade
  • July 4: Fireworks (Catalina Passenger Service offers a fireworks cruise)
  • July: Character Boat Parade
  • September: Newport Beach Food and Wine Festival
  • October: There's no special event in Newport at Halloween, but homeowners along the waterfront between the peninsula and Balboa Island go all out to decorate, making an evening stroll feel like walking through a lighted carnival.
  • December: The Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade is a long-standing tradition that's well worth your time. If you want to see it, make hotel reservations early, and reserve a table at a restaurant along the route if you want to watch from there.

Isn't Newport Beach Romantic?

Newport Beach is a relaxing, romantic place filled with simple pleasures. Watch the sun rise on the beach, and then have breakfast nearby. Stroll hand-in-hand along Marine Avenue on Balboa Island. Take the little walk-on ferry over to the Balboa Fun Zone and win your sweetheart a stuffed animal.

Go on a romantic gondola ride. Some locals don't even know about Newport Beach's canals, but they make a perfect place for a sunset ride. You can take your romantic ride with Gondola Adventures or Gondola Co. of Newport.

A Duffy boat ride for two is extremely private, and a great idea for a marriage proposal. Or for a romantic evening out, use your Duffy to enjoy a Dock and Dine experience at these restaurants.

Newport Beach With the Kids

Your kids will love Newport Beach. One of the easiest things to do with them is to take the little ferry from Balboa Island to the peninsula. It's just long enough to be fun. When you get to the peninsula, they'll enjoy the Ferris wheel and amusement at the Balboa Fun Zone.

The whole family can rent bicycles, family cruisers or electric bikes and enjoy pedaling around town.

If everything else in town isn't enough, the playground at Marina Park is lots of fun. And the Lighthouse Bayview Cafe is super casual, with outdoor seating with a view of the harbor.

Local Treats

One of Newport Beach's claims to fame is the ice cream treat called a Balboa Bar. That's an ice cream bar on a stick, coated with chocolate and dipped in crunchy coatings to order. Two competing stands sell them on Balboa Island. Both of them also claim to be the home of the "original" frozen banana. 

Where to Stay

Even though Newport Beach is a beach town, don't expect every hotel to be right on the sand. Before you run off to search for a hotel on one of those online booking sites, find out how to find your perfect hotel in Newport Beach.

Where is Newport Beach?

Newport Beach is located in southern Orange County, south of the John Wayne/Orange County Airport. It's 44 miles from downtown Los Angeles, 428 from San Francisco, 430 miles from Sacramento, 90 miles from San Diego and 277 miles from Las Vegas.

You can reach the Balboa Peninsula, Balboa Island and the Newport Beach Harbor by driving south from I-405 and the airport on CA Hwy 55. If you're using a GPS system, it may try to take you there on Hwy 73. Unexpectedly, that's a toll road, and there's no need to spend your money on it. Just take Harbor Boulevard instead.