South Coast Plaza (Costa Mesa)

South Coast Plaza SignLocation: 3333 Bear St. (this is what Google lists as the address, though Bristol St. is a more popular entrance)

Parking: Free, though valet is available

For anyone who has lived in Orange County for any amount of time, South Coast Plaza needs no introduction. It’s the biggest mall in California, which comes as no surprise to those of us who have tromped throughout the entire plaza in one day. It is now a pretty upscale mall—but I remember a time many years ago when it was a little more affordable.

Carousel From Second Floor

South Coast Plaza has a memorable carousel horse theme, with carousel horse decor also being on the some of the signs visible from Bristol Street.

Either way, South Coast is a great place to visit. If you’re on a budget, it’s probably mostly a window-shopping trek, but there are stores at South Coast Plaza like Bath & Body Works, Sear’s, the Disney Store and more that are also found at typical malls. The really nice thing about South Coast is that though it’s mainly upscale and stylish, it doesn’t feel too stuck-up.

In addition to the many shops in South Coast Plaza, South Coast has hosted a lot of unique restaurants. Years ago, a restaurant called 20th Century Limited actually had a couple of dining cars (train cars) in the back; if you sat in the front, you’d be in a normal booth, but in the back, you could be seated in one of these dining cars. Another previous restaurant, the Magic Pan, featured the first mocha crepes that I had ever heard of (way before Nutella or anything similar came into existence).

Notable Shops

Just about all South Coast Plaza stores are notable in some way, so it’s hard to pin something down (their directory is available on the South Coast Plaza website). I will say, however, that if you’re into high-end makeup, this is the mall to go to. More upscale cosmetic stores that you don’t see many other places—Bare Escentuals, Fresh and Kiehl’s—are all here, and of course they have a Sephora and MAC store.

Bridge of Gardens

The Bridge of Gardens provides a walkway above Bear Street, leading to the add-on section of South Coast that was formerly known as Crystal Court.

An add-on shopping area to South Coast across Bear St. is accessible from the Bridge of Gardens, a walking bridge that goes above Bear St. if you don’t feel like driving there. I still think of this add-on as “Crystal Court,” which was its original name; I think a lot of people think of it still as Crystal Court, as I just saw a sign at a store in Mission Viejo that claimed it moved to Crystal Court not too long ago.

Everyone who enjoys shopping in the least must go to South Coast Plaza at least one time. The ultimate time to go is around the holidays, just because of the massive Christmas tree and holiday ambiance there—if you’re all right with crowds. I have had the experience of going the day after Christmas and will share the tip that this requires going extremely early to easily find a parking space. I went once between 7:00 and 8:00 a.m. and had no trouble whatsoever parking.

Get even more on South Coast Plaza’s website.

Nearby: O.C. Marketplace (weekends only)

My favorite parts of South Coast Plaza are the high-end makeup stores and browsing the fancy store windows. What are your favorites? —SoCal Shopping Place