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Take jaunt back in time to California’s historic Old Towne Orange

April 6, 2017 GMT

There’s a magical place just south of Los Angeles, where the streets are lined with Craftsman-style homes that look straight out of a storybook — colorful and serene. Stores hark back to yesteryear, selling toys that require imagination and nary a battery. Sodas are still jerked, and the main streets are so clean you think they cannot be real. A day spent there is a complete escape.

No, it’s not that magic kingdom. This is real life. Old Towne Orange, as easy a ride from L.A. as Disney, offers up old town America in this must-visit California spot.

Founded just before the turn of the last century by land speculators and then grown thanks to the then hearty orange market, Old Towne Orange was, almost from the start, centered around a circular plaza (do not call it “the circle,” purists refuse to) and its “spoke streets,” four roads that jut out from it like, well, the spokes of a wheel. The plaza was created in the early 20th century. From it grew what became a robust but harmonious mix of business and residential.

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And here’s the cool thing: Despite the Depression, the crash of the orange market, World War II and modernization, Old Towne Orange has managed to remain pretty much the same. Sure, there are newer touches (a former corner gas station is now a restaurant called, natch, The Filling Station; what was a classic movie theater now stands as a church). But what makes Orange special — the architecture and vibe — remains intact. Pointing your car there or taking the train from L.A. is a step into a real-life small town. What could be a better escape?

What is now Old Towne Orange proper, about a one-square-mile area, stands as California’s largest historic district. This came from the multidecades’ work of locals who love not just the look of their town, but its story. Today, with strict regulations on the renovation of buildings and homes, Old Towne Orange lives on — modern and accessible, but frozen in time.

Visiting Old Towne Orange is simple: show up, meander and enjoy. There are tours (Old Towne Orange Walking Food Tours gives you a taste of all kinds of cuisine along with great stories as you go), but it’s simple enough to take it all in on your own. Parking is at a premium, but can be had.

Start your visit in the middle of it all, at the plaza that centers it. From there, go street by street, taking in the historic buildings (the town demands that all old store signs painted on buildings remain and be maintained). The local library serves as a historical reference, too: There you can find old photos and information on how the town grew.

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There are experiences not to be missed. The side roads of homes, for example, are walkable or drivable (but walking gives you more time to take it all in). A mix of Craftsman, Colonial and adobe homes are kept up meticulously. Orange is a friendly place; locals out tending their garden are often willing to share the story of their house.

The founders, rather than simply planting thousands upon thousands of acres of fruit trees, sold off 10-acre parcels, allowing settlers to farm their own fruit and share it in a cooperative. With the Santa Fe Railroad cutting through town, Orange was a prime spot for anyone looking to carve out a life. The former packing plants can still be viewed along the railroad beds.

In town, restaurants and businesses still hark back to those days. Exposed brick is the norm, al fresco dining is common. And just about every business, like the homes, has a story. Many — thanks to the historic district’s regulations — have to take great care and go to added expense to renovate. But most find it is worth it.

Take Wahoo’s Restaurant. Looking at the classic wooden white structure, it’s hard to imagine that just a few years ago, it was a large brick square. But when the owners went to renovate and tore down a brick wall, they were stunned to find an entire old building encased in it. It now stands as one of the oldest buildings in town.

Then there’s Watson’s Soda Fountain and Cafe. Watson’s Pharmacy was a go-to in Orange from about the turn of the last century. Owned by the same family throughout the years, it was recently taken over and reimagined into a restaurant with a decided nod to its past. The decor reads ’50s soda fountain, and some of the old pharmacy paraphernalia — the new owner found a treasure trove of it in the basement — is on display. There you’ll drink from the soda fountain (even some spiked creations) and nosh on such classics as tater tots and patty melts. How real is it? Southern California studios, with a wealth of sound stages to choose from, often turns to Watson’s and Old Towne Orange instead. It’s that good.

Ice cream is a staple here, and for added showmanship, you can check out A La Minute, where your treat is instantly created in a puff of liquid nitrogen. For a true blast from the past, sift through bins of vinyl records at Mr. C’s Rare Records. But most of all, just meander around and take it all in.

Old Towne Orange is accessible from L.A. via train or car.