The best things to do in Anaheim

Travelling is magic. It’s all about expectations and discoveries. And Anaheim California is where the magic really happens. Like the rest of the world, I know Anaheim as synonymous with Disneyland and the happiest place on earth.  And here’s what else I discovered in a two-day visit.

Road or rail

My expected southern California road trip changed to one by rail, an unanticipated delight. The Cali freeways can be daunting even for the locals, so discovering that I could easily take the Pacific Surfliner train without the need to rent a car was a big win.  For those arriving into Los Angeles International airport, although Anaheim is relatively close, the drive through downtown LA can still be a challenge and rideshare options expensive. With plenty of convenient stops and a comfortable and uncrowded business-class carriage the train offers a relaxing tour of the coastline and beaches that SoCal is famous for.  I was heading north from a stay in San Diego and enjoyed every minute of the journey to ARTIC, the futuristic Anaheim train station, just a block from Hudson Center and a 15-minute Uber from Disneyland Park.

The newest Anaheim accommodation

A ten-minute transfer to the newest hotel built in Anaheim, JW Marriott Resort, and not one stressed travel moment to report.  Opening in late 2020, the property has all the right elements to earn its stripes as a genuine resort; thoughtful light and modern design, plenty of spaces for relaxing inside and out, a gorgeous pool, creative interactive gardens, an award-winning restaurant, the highest roof-top bar in Anaheim and a lobby that doubles as a library. And location, location, location; on the Anaheim Garden Walk entertainment and dining precinct, the resort is a mere ten-minute walk from the main gate at Disneyland.

As Firoozeh Tahmassebi, a long-time Anaheim local explained, the very real drawcard of this proximity to Disneyland is just the beginning. Savvy travellers have discovered that a stay in Anaheim gives you access to so much of Los Angeles and destinations as far south as San Diego, and much more hotel bang for your U.S. buck than downtown properties.  So, basing yourself in Anaheim to ‘hub and spoke’ to attractions and other areas makes excellent sense to visitors, for so many reasons.

JW Marriott Resort Anaheim
JW Marriott Resort Anaheim

Shop the outlets

All your U.S. shopping dreams come true in Anaheim. Ten minutes whisks you from the Marriott to the Outlets at Orange for over 100 outlets, top brands and the best deals and discounts from stores including Nordstrom Rack, Saks 5th Avenue off 5th, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and all your American favourites. Even better, you can relax and sleep in, the outlets don’t open until 10 or 11am but stay open until 8pm most days. If you do get there a bit early there’s a Starbucks of course, with coffee and internet.

Anaheim Packing District, a local food haven

This is the find of all Anaheim finds, people! Want some local colour, flavour and boutique shopping? Looking to try food from true local provedores and chefs? And sample food from the melting pot of cultures that have brought authentic flavours, recipes, talents and passions to meet the incredible produce of California, all under one roof? The Anaheim Packing House is the place. The last former citrus packing warehouse in Anaheim underwent preservation and an adaptive and creative retro fit-out as a market, community food hall and dining space over two levels. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is home to over 30 family-owned eateries, bars, shops and services.

Caroline Smith at Anaheim Packing District; Zero Zero Pizza
Caroline Smith at Anaheim Packing District; Zero Zero Pizza


I tried my best but could only manage a few delicious food-tastings. Standouts for me was the sensational Indian cuisine at ADYA, Zero Zero Pizza for a slice of authentic Sardinian mushroom and truffle heaven, and Urbana Mexican Gastronomy for the most refreshing pineapple ‘agua fresca’ non-alcoholic cocktail I have ever tasted, accompanied by Urbana’s signature and deliciously satisfying wagyu soft taco. Add a craft tequila cocktail from Hammer Bar, and hammered I nearly was.

Breweries, distilleries and tacos

Nearby, the MAKE Building, a 102-year-old former marmalade factory, has been creatively reimagined with a modern design aesthetic to house Tacos El Gringo, the Unsung Brewing Company, Pali Wine Company and Stone Groove Still House distillery. The Packard Building (the former car sales showroom) now houses the Monkish Brewing Company. In the surrounding Farmers Park gardens, more eateries have flourished. 18 Folds Dim Sum is charming with outside dining amongst coloured Chinese lanterns and new Poppy and Seed restaurant, greenhouse and chef’s garden to open soon.

I suggest you aim to arrive hungry, thirsty and with plenty of time to explore the district and I guarantee you will still want more time here. With over 30 creative food and beverage artisans interspersed with the tiniest four-seat cinema, the Blind Rabbit hidden speakeasy, and a gift shop of eclectic local creations, the Packing House alone can entertain, feed and water you for many happy hours.

Explore the rest of the Packing District further for a true local, full day and night tour of gastronomic proportions with a backdrop of free live music some nights and artists’ mixed media displays.

Breweries and vintage trackors at the Anaheim Packing District
Vintage tractor at Hammer Bar in the Packing House © Caroline Smith

Honda Center and the Mighty Anaheim Ducks

Home of the famous Ducks ice-hockey team, the 17,000-capacity Honda Center stadium hosts the sell-out competition games of the NHL over winter. In between, there is a calendar of top-name concerts, sporting events and family entertainment such as Disney on Ice, again just a short hop from the JW Marriott Resort.

An ice hockey virgin, I was introduced to the physicality and talent of the local players (many from Canada) in an up-close pre-season fast ’n’ furious match, winning 4 goals to 2, against the Sharks. While it wasn’t the AFL grand final, from the spine-shilling rendition of the US national anthem to the cheerleader squad, the energetic motivating mascot (a giant, cartoon-style duck), the ra-ra whistles and sirens when a goal was scored, the fan commitment was real and the excitement was contagious. Tips for first-timers like me: wear something warm, the ice chills the stadium even if it’s warm outside, and you cannot take a bag or backpack into the stadium, so travel light.

Watch a hockey game with the Mighty Anaheim Ducks ice-hockey team
Watch a hockey game with the Mighty Anaheim Ducks ice-hockey team © Caroline Smith

Catalina Island: an ideal day trip

While not strictly a part of Anaheim, Catalina Island fits superbly as a day (or multi-day) trip from your Anaheim base, offering a range of recreational outdoor and water-based activities, in a gorgeous laid-back island setting.

A playground for the rich and Hollywood famous for decades as well as a well-known movie location and a holiday-home Shangri-la for locals, Catalina Island is just over 34kms from mainland California, still owned and preserved by the Wrigley family since 1919. The island and surrounding clear blue waters are a natural marine and wildlife haven including a surprising herd of 40 bison, once imported as a prop for a western movie and now living in the inland areas to the delight of visitors.

High-speed catamaran to Catalina Island
High-speed catamaran to Catalina Island

How to get to Catalina Island

After an easy premium transfer direct from the Resort to the Long Beach terminal with Karmel Shuttle, the Catalina Express’ high-speed catamarans (alternative terminals at Dana Point and San Pedro) make the trip to the island in just over an hour. Enjoy dolphins, sea birds, glorious ocean and coastline views, and the extra comfort of a Commodore Lounge ticket. Arriving at Avalon wharf, it’s a short stroll into the township nested in the hills around a small and picturesque Mediterranean-inspired harbour, crowded with pleasure craft of all types.

Things to do on Catalina Island

Exploring the island is easy with escorted tours. Try ziplining, rock climbing, bison-spotting, a tour of El Rancho Escondido’s vineyards or a glass-bottomed boat to view the unique marine life in its natural habitat. There is also a high-speed boat to take you to Two Harbors, the other town on the western side of the island. Or go it alone and explore in a rented golf buggy, it’s the locals’ preferred method of transport.

If you’re in a more relaxed frame of mind, enjoy the trip to the island, then wander the town’s excellent boutique shopping, take in the exhibits at the Catalina Museum for Art & History and a long leisurely lunch on the seashore at Blue Water Grill, as I did, sampling some of the best and freshest local seafood you’re likely to find. Or catch it yourself with pier-side fishing lessons, bait and tackle provided.

Independent activities are plentiful; camping, hiking, scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, spa treatments, beach lounging, golf, motor boating, parasailing, world-class sport fishing, boat rides down the coastline and more.

Avalon Overlook, Catalina Island

Catalina cinematic history

If Hollywood history is your jam, Catalina Casino is a stunning art-deco masterpiece – that has never been a gambling venue. A tour of this time capsule that will transport you behind the scenes of the silent movie era of the 1920s comes to life. Housed in this incredible showcase of Hollywood memorabilia is a circular, sprung-floor grand Ballroom, operating cinema and back-of-house dressing rooms. The location for over 500 movies such as The Ten Commandments (1918), Ben Hur (1925) to scenes in more recent blockbusters such as Jaws, Rosemary’s Baby, Apollo 13 and Pearl Harbor, the island was a stand-in for Tahiti and Hawaii.

Catalina was a favourite haunt of stars and movie-makers including Charlie Chaplin, John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and even Marilyn Monroe. More recently Ben Affleck, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift have all enjoyed a spell on the island to celebrate or simply relax.

Disney and more

Anaheim is world renowned for the beloved Disneyland theme park which has been creating magic for children and adults alike since it opened in 1955.  But expect more when you visit this surprising Southern California destination, and you will discover creativity and magic all around you. Very possibly, Anaheim is indeed the happiest place on earth.