Balboa Island is a tiny yet beautiful island that sits right off the coast of Newport Beach in Southern California. The small enclave was once nothing more than a sandbar near the small wharf that operated there in the 1800s.
As commercial operations wound down in the bay at the end of the 1800s, an enterprising developer transformed the tiny sandbar into a full-fledged island. Balboa Island, as it would become known, was a summer retreat for wealthy residents of nearby Los Angeles and Pasadena.
Today, Balboa Island’s lucky residents enjoy eternally beautiful weather, gorgeous views of the harbor, and a luxurious beachy vibe. If you’re spending any time in Orange County, you’ll definitely want to consider putting Balboa Island on your itinerary.
A few years ago, my brother moved out to Orange County, and lives not far from Balboa Island. Every time I visit, I head straight for the island to dine, shop, and scarf down a Balboa Bar.
From amazing restaurants to loads of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, the marina, and the Pacific Ocean, Balboa Island is a mini paradise off the coast of California, and everyone should get to walk its cozy streets at least once. Let’s explore some of the best things to do on Balboa Island.
- Most significant landmark – Balboa Island Museum
- Best park – Balboa Island Park
- Best free activity – Balboa Island Foot Path
- Best activity for kids – Balboa Fun Zone
- Best activity for adults – Champagne Brunch Cruise
- Best food – Snipe Island Crafthouse
- Best nightlife – The Royal Hen
- Best all-around accommodation – This Mid-Century Modern Beachfront Home
Best & Fun Things to Do on Balboa Island
1. Ride the Ferry to Balboa Island
Address: 510 Palm St, Newport Beach, CA 92661
The Balboa Island Ferry began operations in 1919, taking pedestrians, vehicles, and bicyclists across the water from Balboa Peninsula to Balboa Island in Newport. The crossing is only around 1,000 feet, but you may want to consider this mode of transportation because Balboa Island parking can get absolutely crazy.
It only takes a few minutes to cross the harbor at the ferry’s peak speed of four miles per hour, and the speed limit in the harbor is only five miles an hour. The ferry runs from 6:30 am to midnight every day of the year.
You can take it across the harbor and find a place for breakfast on the island before the crowds arrive, or you can take your time and enjoy a nice dinner on the island before ferrying back to the Peninsula at night.
Balboa Island is super walkable, just like much of Newport Beach and the Peninsula, so you might find a place to park your car and spend the rest of your time in Newport on a bicycle or on foot. Even if you don’t feel the need to park your car, the ferry remains a fun, old-school experience to cross the water.
See Related: Best Islands in the U.S. to Visit
2. Get a View of Balboa Island from the Fun Zone Ferris Wheel
Address: 600 E Bay Ave, Newport Beach, CA 92661
Seeing the Pacific Coast from the air is a beautiful sight, and one of the easiest ways to see Balboa Island from an elevated position is from the Balboa Fun Zone Ferris Wheel. Balboa Fun Zone is on the Balboa Peninsula, right next to Balboa Island.
One of the cool features of the Fun Zone is that it doesn’t cost anything to get into the park. Rather, the park charges a fee to use its various rides, like the Ferris wheel. Amazingly, the Ferris wheel has welcomed more than six million riders in its lifetime since it was built in 1936. The wheel got an update in 1986.
The best time to ride the Ferris wheel is close to sunset, Friday through Sunday, when the wheel operates until 7 pm. Check for the sunset times during your vacation, so you can try to time your ride for the right time. The Ferris wheel does get quite a line going sometimes, though, so be prepared to wait a bit to see your aerial view of the Pacific and Balboa Island.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Anaheim, California
3. Decide Who Really Makes The Best Frozen Bananas
Fans of Arrested Development will tell you that there’s always money in the banana stand, and they’d be right. The show itself is set in Newport Beach, and the whole banana stand bit is a nod to Dad’s Original and Sugar N Spice, two of the sweet shops along Marine Avenue.
Both of these stands claim to be home to the original Balboa Bars – frozen ice cream bars dipped and topped. Dad’s Donut & Bakery Shop also serves donuts and coffee, while Sugar N Spice focuses on frozen treats only. You can get any topping you want on the bananas or bars, but in my opinion, chocolate covered is the best.
There’s a lot of history behind these two banana stands – but there’s no clear answer as to who invented the Balboa Bar. Every summer, visitors to the island weigh in with their opinions as to which stand has the best frozen sweets, and you’ll find that locals tend to pick their favorites and stick with them, too.
As for me? I’m a fan of Sugar N Spice, and I get a Balboa Bar over a banana every time. Frozen bananas are good, but chocolate ice cream covered in chocolate dip coated with chocolate sprinkles and cookie crumbles? That’s more up my alley.
4. Shop at Marine Avenue’s Charming Boutiques
Address: Marine Avenue, Newport Beach, CA 92662
A stroll down Marine Avenue (the street you’ll take from the mainland should you choose to drive onto Balboa Island) is a wonderful way to spend the afternoon, especially when you want to engage in some retail therapy. Balboa Island is also small enough that you can easily walk from your Balboa vacation home and reach the shops along Marine Ave.
As you might expect, you’ll find beachy shops and restaurants and Southern California-centric stores like Balboa Surf & Style, as well as a children’s clothing boutique called Magnolia Charlie. Last time I was here, my mom and I spent way too much time (and way too much money!) at Magnolia Charlie, picking up gifts for friends with young children. The little hats and nautical outfits are so cute!
If your plans include a meal at one of Newport’s fine dining establishments, consider visiting Rue Du Balboa for upscale threads. Definitely visit the Balboa Candy Company, a family-owned establishment with THE BEST chocolate peanut butter cups on the planet. No matter how many you think you want to buy, double it!
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Laguna Beach, California
5. Eat at Delicious & Trendy Restaurants
Address: Throughout Balboa Island, Newport Beach
Balboa Island has a restaurant for almost every culinary taste out there, from delicious pub food and craft beer to fun and airy breakfast food. If you’re pressed for time, there are actually a few fun food tours you can try that will take you to some of Balboa Island’s top spots. But if you’re here for an extended stay, do yourself a favor and take some time to explore the island’s best eateries!
If you’re visiting Balboa Island in the late afternoon or evening, try a round of beer and a meal at The Royal Hen or Snipe Island Crafthouse. If you’re on the island at breakfast time, head to Wilma’s Patio Restaurant.
If you want something a bit more substantial, try Crocker’s, one of the best restaurants in Orange County with at least a dozen hot dog options and a sandwich menu that seems endless. Crockers is always packed.
Although you’ll find most of the commercial businesses along Marine Avenue, you’ll need to drive just a few blocks to the west to find the best coffee on the island. Head to Todos Santos Mexican Kitchen at 501 Park Avenue, where you’ll find excellent artisan espresso and delicious iced lattes. Relax at the small yet inviting Balboa Island Park with your coffee, which is right next door, or stay at a nearby island vacation home and stroll over to the coffee shop in the morning.
See Related: Best Restaurants in Dana Point, California
6. Walk the Balboa Island Foot Path Around the Island
Address: 1401 W Bay Ave, Newport Beach, CA 92662
One of the coolest features of Balboa Island is the walking path that runs the entire circumference of the island and into it along the interior grand canal. The path is one of the best ways to see all the beauty and views of the harbor from the safety of a sidewalk rather than a boat (let’s face it, not everyone wants to see Newport from a boat).
If you’re in a walking mood, you can take the Balboa ferry from Balboa Peninsula and then walk around the island, or you can park on Marine Avenue near the north side of the island and reach the path within minutes. It’s easiest to find parking in the morning. You can avoid parking issues entirely by staying in this awesome waterfront vacation home that’s right next to the footpath.
The full length of the path is about 2.5 miles, which may take you anywhere from an hour to two, depending on your speed and how many times you stop to take pictures. The parking limits on the road are usually two hours, so bear that in mind when you start your journey.
See Related: Best Hiking Trails in the United States
7. Ride a Bicycle Around Balboa Island
Address: 504 S Bay Front #102, Newport Beach, CA 92662
Enjoying Newport from the water is a popular and time-honored activity for Orange County residents, but you can also enjoy the sun and the surf from the comfort of a bicycle seat. Not only is Balboa Island and the surrounding region very friendly for walking, but Orange County is home to a rather enthusiastic cycling culture.
Most of the towns up and down the Southern California coastline have at least one place where you can rent a bicycle, so you don’t need to worry about bringing your own wheels. On Balboa Island, head to Cecil’s Cyclery at 503 S. Bay Front for an e-bike or pedal bike rental.
If you aim to circumnavigate Balboa Island on the cement path, bear in mind that the path doesn’t allow bicycles, so you need to lock your bike up before starting your journey around the island’s coast.
See Related: Pedaling Paradise: The Best Bike Trails in the U.S.
8. Go on a Whale Watching Tour
Address: Newport Beach, California
One of the classic activities for tourists visiting Orange County and beachside communities like Newport Beach is whale watching, and you’ll find several opportunities to get out onto the water with a whale-watching cruise in the Pacific.
According to the tour operators, whale-watching tours often feature huge blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales, and finback whales. The tours usually head out from the harbor and into the Pacific, where the boat will take you up and down the coast to search for whales.
When we went out with Newport Whale Watching, it was a blustery March day and the waves were intense! The Captain offered to reschedule, but we were leaving the next day, and so we decided to give it a shot anyway, even though it wasn’t likely to see whales with rough surf.
We saw seals and dolphins, but no whales. The Zodiac boat was hitting huge waves at top speed, and it was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. While it would have been nice to see whales, the experience itself was easily worth the ticket price.
Some of the whale-watching adventures run all year long, but others are seasonal, so you’ll need to make sure your preferred tour operates during your travel dates. Whales aren’t the only animals you’ll see, either. You may also spot dolphins and seals along the way.
See Related: Best Whale Watching Places in the World
9. Visit the Balboa Island Museum
Address: 210 Marine Ave, Newport Beach, CA 92662
To outsiders, Balboa Island is an exclusive enclave of expensive real estate, but the island actually welcomes an overwhelming number of tourists each year.
Many Southern Californians who are lucky enough to live within driving distance of the island will visit regularly, especially during jaunts between San Diego to the south and Los Angeles to the north.
As a first-time visitor, make sure to put the Balboa Island Museum on your itinerary. You can tour the museum pretty quickly and gain some insight into the famous surf culture of Orange County, as well as the history of the island and when it was built.
The museum’s gift shop is a great spot to grab a postcard, sticker, or other memento of your time in Newport Beach. In fact, I have a sticker from the Balboa Island Museum on my laptop!
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Irvine, California
10. Rent a Boat and Sail the Harbor
Address: Newport Beach, California
Many of the residents of Balboa Island are boat owners, and just about every private dock on the island has a boat attached to it when the owners aren’t otherwise galivanting out into the marina or the Pacific Ocean. You’ll see sailboats, yachts, and the unusual electric Duffy boat just about everywhere you look.
Duffy Boats are so synonymous with Balboa Island and Newport Beach that a local realtor went viral with his parody video, “Teach Me How To Duffy“. The video was a nod to the early 2000s club hit, “Teach Me How To Dougie”, and I’ll admit it gets stuck on my head when I’m out on the water near Balboa Island.
The good news is that you can join the exclusive club of boat owners in Newport by renting your own boat. Most of the companies operate along the edges of the marina that encircles Balboa Island. Use the boat to access one of the public docks on the island during a day spent on the water and exploring.
If you feel that you’re not a sailor or capable of controlling your own vessel, you might try a champagne beach cruise instead, which will leave the sailing to a more experienced captain and give you a chance to relax and enjoy the water with champagne or sparkling cider.
See Related: Best Getaways & Weekend Trips from Orange County
11. Go Stand-Up-Paddleboarding
Address: 201 E Bay Front, Newport Beach, CA 92662
Balboa Island is a harborside community and insulated from the Pacific since it sits entirely inside Newport Bay. Therefore, you’ll find that Newport Harbor and the marina areas offer perfect opportunities for non-motorized watersports in calm waters like standup paddleboard, kayaking, and canoeing.
Standup paddleboarding was invented by a Hawaiian man named John Ah Choy, who decided that he didn’t want to give up surfing when he got older but couldn’t ride the waves like he did when he was younger. As the name suggests, standup paddleboarding (sometimes abbreviated as SUP) is where you stand on a surfboard and use a paddle to propel yourself through the water.
Calm waters like those around Balboa Island are ideal for this sport, and there’s a public dock on the island where you can launch your paddleboard right into the bay. Drive (or walk) to the eastern end of Park Avenue, and you’ll see a dock with the words “public dock” painted onto the cement. You’ll find another public dock off Emerald Avenue on the northwest side of the island.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Santa Ana, California
12. Attend A Balboa Island Parade
Address: Balboa Island, Marine Avenue, Blaboa Island, CA 92662
Balboa Island is known for two parades – their annual Balboa Island Parade and the annual Balboa Island Christmas Boat Parade.
The “land” parade is a yearly event that occurs in June along Marine Ave. You’ll see decorated golf carts, marching school bands, island kids having fun on bikes, and even horses!
The parade usually features a theme each year, so check out the information page for the Annual Balboa Island Parade if you’d like to attend in a costume. The parade organizers close the bridge onto the island a few hours before the parade starts, so you’ll want to get past the bridge as early as possible that morning.
Balboa Island and Newport Beach in general is also known for the enormous Christmas Boat Parade that happens every holiday season. It’s been going on for more than 110 years!
The entire island is decked from tip to tip with Christmas lights, and dozens of decorated ships take to the water, playing holiday music and celebrating the season in the most colorful way.
Want to avoid finding a parking spot or getting across the bridge in time? Consider a stay in this modern mid-century beachfront home, so you can stroll over to one of the restaurants on Marine Ave for breakfast and then find the perfect spot right in time for the parade.
13. Explore Nearby Balboa Peninsula
Address: E Balboa Blvd. and B St. Newport Beach, CA 92661
The little Balboa Island community consists of only 0.2 square miles in size. The island has about 3,000 full-time residents but welcomes lots of tourists throughout the year. Since the island is so small, you might want to expand your explorations to the nearby Balboa Peninsula.
The gorgeous Balboa Beach is definitely the standout feature of Balboa Peninsula, and you’ll find a huge and convenient parking lot right next to the Balboa Pier and main beach, which you should definitely stroll onto during your explorations.
That parking lot is also a great place to park while you spend the day on a bicycle from one of the nearby bicycle rental shops or take the ferry over onto the island. Any time you can find a place to park your car and spend the rest of the day on foot, on the water, or on a bicycle is a good day in busy Newport Beach.
How long is the ferry ride to Balboa Island?
It takes just five minutes to cross the harbor from Balboa Peninsula to Balboa Island. The ferry docks at one side or the other every five minutes and runs all day long, every day of the year. Sometimes you’ll have a wait at the ferry, but the ride itself takes no time at all.
What are the best restaurants on Balboa Island?
It depends on the type of food you want, as to your ideal Balboa Island restaurants. Marine Ave, which runs north/south through the island features most of the island’s eateries.
Try Trattoria Restaurant for delicious Italian, The Royal Hen for an upscale pub atmosphere, Wilma’s Patio Restaurant for breakfast, or Sugar ‘n Spice if you’re craving a frozen banana or Balboa Bar, the island’s signature desserts.
Does Balboa Island have a beach?
Balboa Island is entirely surrounded by boat docks, so it’s not usually the easiest place to find a spot in the sand. However, all you need to do is go to Balboa Peninsula and head to Balboa Beach, which is just south of Balboa Island, as the crow flies.
What can children enjoy while visiting Balboa Island?
Children capable of standup paddleboarding and kayaking will enjoy an afternoon on Balboa Island. The island is also an excellent place for teenagers who like to shop, as there are some fun surf shops and apparel places on the island’s main artery.
For young children, taking the ferry over to the Balboa Fun Zone is sure to be a hit. There’s a rock climbing wall, bungee trampoline, happy swing, and a ferris wheel, all in one spot!