It isn’t summer without a trip to the beach.
The sand is golden, the pace is slow, and at least five ice cream shops are within easy reach. That’s the life of a beach town, whether its vibe is funky, historic, trendy, or serene. So what are you waiting for? Here are some of America’s favorite beach towns.
In a state made for beaching, La Jolla (derived from joya, the Spanish word for “jewel”) offers the whole package. There are beautiful white-sand beaches, to be sure, but its tony village is filled with seafood restaurants, upscale boutiques, sophisticated cafés, art galleries, and even a playhouse co-founded by actor Gregory Peck back in 1947. Stroll along Girard Avenue and Prospect Street, peeking into Warwick’s (an indie bookstore), Legends Gallery (with paintings by Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss), and other one-of-a-kind shops. Be sure to time it so you catch the sunset from shimmering La Jolla Cove (where you’ll also find the famous seals and sea lions).
Here’s a two-for-one. Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are two little beach towns sitting on a sublime stretch of sand along the Gulf of Mexico. And while they’ve got all the beachy amenities (including fab seafood restaurants), this region is also a nature lover’s dream. There’s a 28-mile flat, paved biking and hiking trail through Gulf State Park. You also have a zoo; dolphin cruises (best at sunset); and multiple mini-golf courses, including the Wharf in Orange Beach. Come during one of the many festivals, including the Hangout Music Festival, with three days of music on the beach; the National Shrimp Festival; and the Hangout Oyster Cookoff.
Beachy cottages set against a sparkling blue sea provide the epitome of New England perfection. A turn-of-the-century artist colony and fishing village, Ogunquit still possesses an artsy vibe with galleries (including the Ogunquit Museum of American Art) and the long-running Ogunquit Playhouse putting on Broadway-worthy shows. The best way to soak up its wild-sea-coast views (and perhaps set up your own canvas) is to stroll Marginal Way, a paved footpath running from the harbor to Ogunquit Beach, meandering past tangled bayberry and bittersweet bushes and pink and white sea roses along granite cliffs.
INSIDER TIPNearby Perkins Cove has a lovely little harbor, complete with a draw-footbridge.
The island resort town of Chincoteague offers something no one else can: adorable wild ponies roaming its beach (which are actually horses, just small from their salty-marshland diet). Anyone who’s familiar with the child’s story Misty of Chincoteague knows that Marguerite Henry wrote the whole story right here, based on her real-life story of attempting to raise a wild filly. You can stay at Miss Molly’s, where, in 1947, Henry researched the tale. Spend long days at the beach, kayaking, and fishing, and enjoy fresh regional seafood at many local restaurants (try Bill’s Seafood Restaurant).
WHERE: New Jersey
Cape May may be the nation’s oldest seaside resort, dating back to the 1790s, but it’s no ancient relic. This charming beach town thrives, with pristine beaches, upscale restaurants and shops along Washington Street Mall, a full roster of year-round events and festivals, and even wineries popping up nearby. But what this town does best is its meticulously restored, garden-adorned Victorian houses—more than 600 of them, today occupied by romantic B&Bs, restaurants, and boutiques. The horse-drawn carriages carrying couples down the picturesque streets do not look out of place.
Cape May is on the Atlantic Flyway, with all kinds of feathered visitors during spring and fall migration. The Cape May Bird Observatory hosts the annual World Series of Birding in spring (among other activities).
On a small, piney island just off the Washington coast, this walkable town provides a snuggly refuge with local eateries, one-of-a-kind boutiques and galleries (dozens of artists make their homes here), and the San Juan Community Theatre. It’s not a beach town in the expected way; Jackson Beach, just 2 miles away, is all gravel and driftwood, better for strolling than swimming. But that’s the beauty of it. Go kayaking, hop aboard a whale-watching cruise (at Friday Harbor), or, if it’s too cold, simply seek out the nearest fireplace (perhaps at the cozy Friday Harbor House) and while away a most blissful day.
INSIDER TIPTake a sunset sail on the schooner Spike Africa.
Tarpon have long been a staple of this lively little fishing village on the Gulf Coast’s Mustang Island. President Franklin Roosevelt even sailed the presidential yacht here in pursuit of the “silver king.” He visited the Tarpon Inn, which still sits along the harbor, its shady porches and antique-filled rooms whispering of the past; you can find his signed tarpon scale on the wall of the main lobby. Pounded by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, Port A is slowly but surely reopening for business and the beaches were virtually untouched. Don’t miss Moby Dick’s with its iconic shark suspended over the entrance, and Shorty’s Place, the self-proclaimed oldest and friendliest bar in town.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to take a ride on the Port Aransas Ferry to/from Aransas Pass. You’re virtually guaranteed a dolphin sighting at sunset.
WHERE: North Carolina
Locals joke there are more waterways into this sweet maritime town than roads. One thing is sure: Poised where the Atlantic, the Intracoastal Waterway, and the Cape Fear River meet, there’s no shortage of watery views. History permeates the tree-shaded streets, once the realm of pirates, Southern belles, and blockade runners. These days, it’s more about galleries, shops, and seafood shacks. Be like a local and find a shady porch to while away the afternoon. Better yet, stake out a swing in Waterfront Park, taking in the idyllic view of barrier islands, two lighthouses, and boats large and small.
INSIDER TIPIf you think Southport looks familiar, perhaps it’s because it has served as the backdrop of many Hollywood films and TV shows, including Crimes of the Heart, Safe Haven, and Dawson’s Creek.
Looking every bit like a Scottish shore town, this windy little speck on the southern Oregon coast is a haven for outdoorsy types: Fishing, hiking, horseback riding, and golfing abound. And while the tiny town may not look like much, a few surprises await: Coastal Mist (artisan chocolate), Face Rock Creamery (award-winning cheeses), and Cranberry Sweets among them. Washed Ashore is an eco-art project using tidal debris to create larger-than-life marine sculptures; stop by their gallery and workshop to check it out. And Circles in the Sand is a unique beach labyrinth, created (and re-created, as the tides sweep in) by local artist Denny Dyke. Then, as the sun falls into the sea, take a seat at Alloro Wine Bar and enjoy seafood-inspired Italian fare and one of the nation’s best sunset views.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to drive the Bandon Loop Road, which parallels this end-of-the-world coastline, filled with sea stacks and caves, for 4.5 miles.
With candy-colored bungalows, seafood restaurants, and music-infused bars (literally hundreds of them, ranging from sophisticated jazz bars to local hangouts), this freewheeling, funky town certainly has a vibe all its own. In fact, it unofficially seceded from the US in the eighties, declaring itself the Conch Republic. After a day on the palm-shaded beach, join native Conchs at carnival-like Mallory Square for the ritual sunset watching, then hit the pubs and restaurants along lively Duval Street.
Nineteenth-century, well-to-do urbanites established this remote enclave on the Blue Hill peninsula overlooking Blue Hill Bay. Hence, its rich legacy of art, music, theater—and glorious “rusticator” summer homes along Main Street. Admittedly, Blue Hill’s symphony of pine trees and craggy coastline set against a royal-blue sea is enough to please any muse (which explains the density of artists and writers here today). Don’t miss the summertime Blue Hill Fair, complete with signature skillet toss. Barncastle, occupying one of Blue Hill’s “rusticator” homes, serves up farm-fresh Maine fare.
Rehoboth is all about its nostalgic boardwalk, complete with frozen custard (Kohr Bros!) and saltwater-taffy (Dolles!) shops to one side, beach-grass-dotted dunes and sparkling sea to the other. Fan out into the surrounding streets, however, and you’ll discover upscale shops (all tax-free), galleries, restaurants, and bars with an urban vibe. Salt Air serves fresh Atlantic seafood in an artsy-maritime setting, while Dogfish Head Brewpub is a must-visit for local brews.
New England beach dreams are fulfilled in this classic little beach town, dating back to 1656 at the elbow of Cape Cod. Sure, it has its share of chi-chi restaurants and boutiques, but the town band still plays in Kate Gould Park on summer Friday nights, and locals (with licenses) go clam digging in the surrounding ponds, lakes, and beaches. Chatham Bars Inn, dating from 1914, has a private quarter-mile beach, waterfront cabanas, tennis and golf, and sweeping Atlantic views.
A go-cart track, the plaster Jake the Alligator, and the quirky Marsh’s Free Museum maintain Long Beach’s old-timey vibe. But there’s a new spirit taking off, with the recent coming of North Jetty craft brewery, Adrift Distillers (featuring Starvation Alley Cranberry Liqueur), hip hotels (the mod Adrift and minimalist Salt Hotel & Pub), and humming restaurants (Streetside Tacos). What will never change (we hope) are its 28 miles of sandy shores, beautifully empty and wild.
INSIDER TIPThe Columbia-Pacific Farmers Market offers local produce and small-batch food products on Friday afternoons during the summer.
After driving dozens of miles over swamp and marsh, seemingly to the end of the earth, you’ll finally approach Grand Isle, Louisiana’s only barrier isle, where it’s all about the wildness: the cool salt breeze, primo birding, tropical flora, and seven lovely, long miles of empty, white-sand beaches. The small town is about as authentic as you can get, with most of its buildings on stilts to skirt stormy seas. Come here to hike, enjoy Cajun-style seafood at a mom-and-pop shop (try Starfish Restaurant), fish (amazing fishing, from the beach, the piers, a kayak, a boat, even a charter with a licensed captain), and fall asleep to the sound of the surf in a beachside cottage (called “camps” here).
INSIDER TIPBelieved to be the country’s oldest fishing tournament, the International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo takes place here every July.
As if a Thomas Kinkade painting sprung to life, English-style, flower-bedecked cottages fill this storybook village by the sea, about two hours south of San Francisco. Ocean Avenue is the main drag, edged with upscale galleries (including the Thomas Kinkade signature gallery), restaurants, wine-tasting rooms, and coffee shops. Yes, director and actor Clint Eastwood was once Carmel’s mayor; he continues to oversee his Mission Ranch hotel, where sheep graze on a salty meadow and where you’ll sometimes see him, hanging out in the bar.
INSIDER TIPBeautiful Carmel Beach, with its views of Pebble Beach, is one of the pet-friendliest around (as are the town’s restaurants and hotels).
You’re sure to get your surfer fix at this hang-ten town on Kauai’s North Shore, surrounded by misty green peaks and a shimmering tropical sea. Scores of cool businesses line the main road, purveying boards, fish tacos, poke, and pareos. Join the swimsuit-clad lines at JoJo’s, Wishing Well, and Shave Ice Paradise to judge for yourself which has the Islands’ best shave ice. What you won’t find here are any resorts or boutique hotels. Food truck dining is huge here. Seek out Kealia Poke, Pat’s Taqueria, and/or Café Tumeric (organic Indian).
WHERE: South Carolina
Just a shell’s toss from trim-and-proper Charleston, Folly Beach is a totally unexpected, super-chill kind of place. Board shops, beachy cafés, and late-night pubs line Center Street, beyond which sprawls a gold-sand beach. Stop into Lost Dog Café for shrimp and grits, Folly Beach Crab Shack for fresh seafood, and Chico Feo for beach-inspired tacos. For the best sunset-watching, plus dolphins, go to Bowens Island Restaurant (which also whips up some darned good Frogmore Stew); or head over to the Ship Store at Sunset Cay Marina.
A nature lover’s dream, Vero Beach has pristine beaches, more sandpipers and turtles than humans, and a lovely botanical garden. A network of biking and hiking trails make it easy to explore. But it also has fine art, theater, notable seafood dining, and beautiful beach hotels (Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s Costa D’Este is here). Stop by the first Friday of the month to browse local art and enjoy live music. Take the Sea Turtle Nesting Tour at Sebastian Inlet State Park between May and October.
Sparkling watery views grace Niantic’s all-American main street, running alongside the Long Island Sound. Grab lunch at Main Street Grille, which has the town’s best seafood. Buy a used book at the Book Barn, enjoy live music at the Black Sheep, and get some après-beach ice cream at Gumdrops and Lollipops. Or, simply do nothing.
WHERE: New York
Thrashed by Sandy in 2012, the City by the Sea once again thrives, perhaps best summed up by “Lost&Found.” After chef Alexis Trolf lost his restaurant to the storm, he built this tiny, tucked-away eatery that’s nearly impossible to score a table. Stroll cottage-edged streets, walk barefoot on the boardwalk, and enjoy a year-round social scene (movies on the beach, arts festivals, farmer’s markets). All this, just 50 minutes by train from NYC’s bristling skyline along Long Island’s South Shore.
INSIDER TIPA day pass to the beach will set you back $26, but Long Island Railroad sometimes has One-Day Getaway packages that include a discounted rail ticket, discounted beach pass, and discounts to local vendors, all for $23.75.
WHERE: New Jersey
When you get over the fact that you just saw The Boss himself make a cameo at the legendary Stone Pony—his debut album was Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, after all—you can enjoy one of the liveliest beach town scenes around. The funky downtown area around Cookman Avenue buzzes with places like Brickwall Tavern and Moonstruck (sip a cocktail on the front porch). Eclectic shops—Sweet Joey’s for custom jeans, Salt Designer Co. for unique housewares, etc.—are all locally owned. And the Asbury, a boutique hotel in the historic Baronet Theater building, isn’t just for sleeping; it has a rooftop movie theater complete with lawn chairs for seats. In addition to its live music scene, Asbury Park has a large arts scene, with galleries, exhibits, and a unique outdoor public art project called Wooden Walls.
Katrina hit this Gulf town hard in 2005, but it’s come back strong. Old Town, overlooking the marina, bay, and white-sand beach, thrives with buzzy restaurants (Starfish Café) and artsy shops (Bay-Tique, The French Potager, and Gallery 220, representing local artists). Instead of cars, many people get around town by golf cart, on foot, by bike, or even by kayak. Whatever your mode, keep an eye out for the town’s “Angels in the Bay,” created by chainsaw-wood sculptor Dayle Lewis from live oaks that died in Katrina’s wake.
The free Bay St. Louis Mardi Gras Museum features beautiful Mardi Gras costumes, and provides information on the history of Mardi Gras on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
This pretty lakeside village, complete with Victorian cottages and blooming gardens is seemingly straight out of Norman Rockwell. Boutique shops, art galleries, and outdoor restaurants fill the old-fashioned main street, with views over the mast-filled harbor. All this, with white-sand beaches—on both Lake Michigan and Pentwater Lake—a short stroll away.
INSIDER TIPFree band concerts take place every summer Thursday at the village green.
WHERE: New Hampshire
New Hampshire may have just a wee bit of coastline (17, 18, or 13.5 miles—estimates oddly vary), but you can bet it’s gorgeous. And this coastal town is the best place to perch yourself and enjoy it all. Settled in the 1600s, Portsmouth has a colonial flavor with its historic houses and cobbled center. That said, it’s firmly planted in the 21st century, with some of the state’s best restaurants (lobster is big, naturally), hopping breweries (Book and Bar is a used bookstore in the former U.S. Custom House that sells microbrews), and sophisticated culture (the Music Hall has been presenting music, dance, and cinema since 1878).