What to Do in Anaheim that Isn’t Disneyland

Travel Lists anaheim
What to Do in Anaheim that Isn’t Disneyland

If California embodied the promise of “The American Dream” in the post-World War II era, few cities embodied that idea of California more than Anaheim. A sleepy farm community for most of its first century, Anaheim started to explode with the opening of Disneyland in the 1950s; its population increased almost 800% in the first six years after the park opened in 1955. It grew into its own city while also serving as an extended suburb for Los Angeles, summing up that mid-century view of California as the home of sun, cars, convenience, and opportunity. Orange County was the home of that illusion, and Anaheim was its capital.

You can chalk a lot of that perception up to naivety and marketing, and the view of car-dependent communities full of fast food restaurants and strip malls has darkened considerably over the last 50 years. Still, there’s something special about Anaheim, even if you don’t factor in Disneyland. There’s an echo of that mythic America that “won” World War II, that drove culture and science forward in the 20th century, that served as the “leader” of the free world and the ultimate global good guys. That perception was massively distorted and full of self-serving lies and embellishments, but sometimes it feels good to pretend, and few places do pretend better than Anaheim. Even if you aren’t into Disney or theme parks, and have no interest in ever going to Disneyland, there’s still a lot worth visiting Anaheim for.

Where to Go in Anaheim


Located in a mission-style building with a courtyard and a lush green lawn, the Bowers Museum focuses on the art and culture of early California, Mexico, and the South Pacific, among others. It’s a great way to get a sense of what Anaheim looked like before Disney blew up the scene, and to learn about the indigenous culture from hundreds of years earlier. A permanent exhibit of art and artifacts from Polynesia and Melanesia includes ceremonial masks, religious totems, ornately designed tools, and weapons and war shields from as recently as the 1990s. It’s an impressive, well-curated way to learn about the very real culture and people behind the art and symbols that have been co-opted by American tiki culture. From now through early September, 2024, the Bowers is hosting a traveling exhibit about the history and development of Asian comics; it’s the exhibit’s American debut, and it does a tremendous job of tracking how comics proliferated throughout Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, and pretty much all of Asian between the late 19th and early 21st centuries. You don’t have to be a manga or comics fan to be fascinated by the unique comics cultures of different Asian countries; Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines especially seem to have a strong tradition of gory, hallucinatory comics that really focus on fear and violence. Make sure your phone is well-charged and ready to take a lot of photos, because you’ll see so much you won’t want to forget, from Chinese art magazines from the ‘20s and ‘30s, to Papua New Guinea shields from the ‘90s. 

Andrew Carnegie paid to build over 2500 libraries throughout America between 1889 and 1929, including one in Anaheim that opened in 1909. Today this Classical Revival building is part of the complex for the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center. Although it does have a special interest in Anaheim, Muzeum’s touring exhibits aren’t always tied into Southern California; current temporary exhibits focus on Hugh Mangum’s photos of the Jim Crow-era South from the 1890s, Oscar nominee Kazu Hiro’s startlingly life-like sculptures, and Bob Damron’s guides to gay-friendly businesses from the ‘60s and ‘70s. If you are looking for some local history, though, the permanent exhibit Anaheim: A Walk Through Local History tracks the city and outlying areas from their ancient past up through the last century. 

If you’re more into action than museums, Anaheim has you covered. Do you ever dream of piloting a fighter jet, cutting through the sky like a knife and shooting down bogies hot on your tail, just like a certain ‘80s heartthrob did in a legendary Hollywood blockbuster? (You know, Hot Shots?) You can spend years in the Navy and hope to make the cut, or you can head out to FlightDeck Air Combat and Rogue Racing at the Anaheim GardenWalk outdoor shopping center. At FlightDeck you can climb into a cockpit and take flight into a midair dogfight in a simulation of an F/A-18C Hornet. Up to eight would-be pilots can try to shoot each other down in the simulator room, where each cockpit sits in front of a giant screen with a projection of a wide open sky. Find your enemies, lock on your target, and try to take them down with either missiles or bullets (which, honestly, is almost impossible). Whoever gets the most points during a session wins the round, and gets to wear the ceremonial King Jet Master sash for the rest of the day. Okay, that part about the sash isn’t true, but this simulation does a great job of making you feel like you’re actually fighting for your life against other fighter jets, even if the cockpit doesn’t actually move. You get to do all that cool fighter jet stuff, like turning and flying and hitting the throttle and firing missiles and dying a lot, and the realism of the cockpit and scale of the screen in front of you (it’s literally all you can see) really sell the illusion. You can also train on a Boeing 737 simulator so professional that Gerald Butler used to practice for his movie Plane, or sit behind three monitors in a specially rigged car simulator and blast through a handful of tracks in different souped-up race cars. Not gonna lie: the racing gave me a little bit of motion sickness, which worried me about the fighter jets, but the lack of motion in the cockpit means I was able to fly the friendly skies without upsetting my head. FlightDeck and Rogue Racing combine to make a cool activity for kids, families, and even adults.

There’s pretty much no bad time to visit Anaheim, but some of its biggest attractions only run at certain times of year. If you want to attend, say, WonderCon, a large comics, sci-fi, and fan convention that happens every year, you’ll want to make sure you’re in Anaheim in early Spring. This year’s event fell on the weekend of March 29 through 31, and hosted panels and signings from a who’s who of comic professionals, (And of course there was a massive contingent of cosplayers in elaborate costumes.) Next year’s con is scheduled for March 28 to 30, 2025, once again at the Anaheim Convention Center. WonderCon feels a bit like a throwback to the major comic conventions of the past, where the focus was pretty squarely on comic books instead of movies and TV shows; WonderCon’s owned and operated by Comic-Con International, the same people behind San Diego Comic-Con, and it still has a lot of the charm San Diego’s show was known for before it became so driven by media hype and promotion. 

You can also catch Major League Baseball and National Hockey League games in Anaheim if you head there during those seasons. Despite their current name, the Los Angeles Angels have played in Anaheim since 1966, and for much of its existence was owned by Hollywood hot shots like Gene Autry and the Walt Disney Company. About a mile away from the Angels’ stadium you can catch a hockey game with the Anaheim Ducks during the NHL season, which runs throughout the fall, winter, and spring. Neither team is currently all that good, but hey, that just means ticket prices might be cheaper than they used to be. I don’t know, it’s good to stay positive. There’s always next season, and so on.

Where to Eat in Anaheim


I don’t know about you, but doing stuff makes me hungry, and when I get hungry I eat food. That’s what it’s for. There’s no shortage of great, non-theme park places to eat in Anaheim, and we’ll start with breakfast at Lola’s by MFK. MFK stands for “Modern Filipino Kitchen,” and its brunch menu is an inspired combination of Filipino and Western traditions. The highlight is the Kamayan Feast brunch platter, which serves two to four people at a price of $55. Lola’s boasts that the Kamayan Feast is a “voyage into the heart of Filipino hospitality and unity,” and given how deliciously overwhelming it is, I can’t argue with that. Expect garlic rice, the Spanish bacon known as tocino, lumpia spring rolls, sunny side up eggs, chicken adobo (the Filipino national dish), beef tapa, and more. Also expect to be eating a late dinner after this feast. Lola’s also serves up decadent pancakes and French toast, as well as omelettes, breakfast burritos, chilaquiles, bang-silog, and so much more.

If, after working off all that breakfast, you’re in the mood for an even more luxurious dinner, head to The Craftsman 1904. Located in a brick house built in 1904, The Craftsman specializes in an eight-course tasting menu with accompanying cocktails. The focus is squarely on southern California, with local ingredients and dishes named after different bands from L.A. and SoCal. (Sadly they did not have a Minutemen course, but the No Doubt tiger shrimp ceviche on a blue tostada tasted much better than the band’s music.) Again, the sheer amount of food was overwhelming, but the tasting menu had a fine variety, with different courses highlighting pork belly, lamb, steak, and seafood, and a number of courses (and cocktails) I would happily order again. The quaint, homey atmosphere is also a plus.   

If the view is as important to you as the food, book a table at Top of the V, the rooftop bar at The Viv Hotel. (More on that in a little bit.) Top of the V looks out over all of Anaheim, letting you get a feel for the city as a whole. It’s also right across the highway from Disneyland, with great, unobstructed views of attractions like Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, the Incredi-Coaster, and the Pixar Pal-a-Round roller coaster. (Seriously, you’ll want to eat late so you can catch the fireworks from the comfort of a really good restaurant.) Of course you’re here to eat, not gawk at Anaheim, and Top of the V doesn’t skimp on the good stuff. A recent dinner there started with perfectly fried jamon serrano croquettes in bechamel sauce; a thin layer of crisp, crunchy breading surrounded a warm, gooey, delicious pocket of ham and cheese. The Iberico pork chop was carved into small slices about an inch thick, with a slightly seared exterior and a cherry gastrique that added just the right amount of sweetness and tartness. This was the best meal I had in Anaheim, even before factoring in the amazing view.

If you’re looking for something truly indulgent, Anaheim is home to a couple of Michelin restaurants—Poppy & Seed and The Ranch—with several more throughout Orange County. You can learn more here.

Where to Drink in Anaheim


I’ve raved about Strong Water Anaheim before right here at Paste, and a recent return visit only made me even more sure that this isn’t just one of the best tiki bars in America, but one of the best bars, period. And considering it was just named a finalist for a James Beard Award earlier this month, I’m clearly not alone. The ornate shipwreck-themed space has a top-notch drink list full of classic and original tiki concoctions, including a few that swap out the rum for tequila, mezcal, vodka, or bourbon, in case you’re looking for some variety. You’ll need a reservation to get in, and if you do, try to get a seat in the Captains Quarters; the small back room is as thoroughly decorated and detailed as a theme park attraction, but with its own bar, so you’ll never have to wait too long for a fresh drink.   

Before opening Strong Water, owners Ying Chang and Robert Adamson co-owned and operated The Blind Rabbit with Leonard Chan. This realistic recreation of a 1920s speakeasy prides itself on inspired cocktails with names like I Knew You Were Trouble and New Boot Goofin’, as well as an authentic French absinthe service with a spoon and a sugar cube. Like the best themed bars, it feels kind of like the real deal even though it’s not; still, it’s the closest you’ll get to clandestinely sipping on a Corpse Reviver #2 during Prohibition.  

If you want to sample Anaheim’s local craft beer scene, head to the Anaheim Packing District, where you’ll find Unsung Breweing Company and Villains Brewing Company. The comic-loving Unsung gives all of its beers its own superhero-like origin story, while Villains is adorned with artwork featuring some of the gnarliest bad guys ever spawned by pop culture. (It also has a pool.) And if you want to hit a nerd culture craft beer trifecta, hit up Gamecraft Brewing, whose gaming-inspired beers include a winter festbier called Mas Effect, the Mexican-style lager Los Santos, and a red ale named Kotor, which I’m pretty sure is a hat tip to Bioware’s Star Wars RPG Knights of the Old Republic and not the city in Montenegro.

Where to Stay in Anaheim


The Viv Hotel isn’t just a good place to eat. This Tribute Portfolio Hotel is tastefully designed to honor Anaheim’s history as a tourist and entertainment destination, with a large, stylized View-Master reel in the lobby, patio chairs that subtly reference Star Wars’ TIE Fighters, and art pieces made out of Lite Brite. In addition to Top of the V, it’s home to the traditional Mexican restaurant Valencia’s at the Viv, and also has its own bakery, deli and coffee shop, Melody’s Market. It’s a refined, luxurious place to stay whether you’re in Anaheim for Disneyland or not—close enough to the parks for families to get there quickly and easily, but remote enough for guests to avoid the Disney crowds that can swarm the city.  

If you do want to get a bit of that Disneyland feeling, without paying the steep rates for their on-property hotels, the Howard Johnson Anaheim Hotel is an ideal place to stay, as I’ve written previously. The authentic mid-century hotel from the once-dominant chain was refurbished a few years ago to really embrace its retro appeal, with numerous references to vintage Disneyland, its attractions and aesthetic. And it’s right across the street from the park, making for an easy walk to the front gate. Walking back at the end of a long day at Disneyland is another matter, of course, but hopefully you won’t destroy your feet too much at the Happiest Place on Earth.

Finally, if you are interested in Disneyland after all, check out our guides to the best attractions at Disneyland, the best attractions at Disney California Adventure, our Disneyland Hotel review, and a schedule of Disneyland special events for 2024.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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