June 13, 2024

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17 Best Beach Towns in the U.S.

17 Best Beach Towns in the U.S.

Come summertime, the longing for sea breezes and salt water rushing over your toes is powerful stuff. When the pull of the beach is strong, you may just adopt an “any beach will do” mentality. But there’s a big case to be made for seeking out the best beach towns in the U.S., where an easygoing vibe and beautiful coastal views make for an intoxicating combination. For beach lovers who prefer quaint cottages, custard stands, and historic wharves over beachfront go-karts and megaresorts, these are some of the best beach towns the American shoreline has to offer.

Block Island, Rhode Island

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A one-hour ferry ride from mainland Rhode Island, Block Island combines a quaint downtown area, breathtaking coastal scenery, and a rolling green interior crisscrossed with low fieldstone walls, reminiscent of a remote British Isle. The village-like Old Harbor has Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, quirky boutiques, and the island’s few grocery stores (there’s not a chain to be found). It’s all about the simple pleasures here: misty mornings, beach walks, ice cream on the front porch, bicycle rides, and afternoon hikes to mighty bluffs overlooking the Atlantic.

Ocracoke, North Carolina

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Before it was permanently settled in the 1700s, this tiny island was a hideout for pirates, the infamous Blackbeard among them. Today, the same remoteness that once drew buccaneers lures tens of thousands of yearly visitors. Accessible only by boat or ferry — this is one of the most distant of North Carolina’s Outer Banks — Ocracoke offers big sandy beaches coupled with wild nature. Around the harbor are slushy stands, surf shops, family-friendly barbecue restaurants and oyster bars, and old-fashioned hotels (cottage rentals and beach camping are popular alternatives).

Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands, Washington

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Catch the ferry or ride a seaplane into this sweet island village near Seattle. This isn’t the kind of beach for arcade games on the boardwalk or rummy drinks under a palapa, but rather natural-feeling beaches, independent bookstores and restaurants, and even a lavender farm with views of the Olympic Mountains. Hike along the rocky coastline and look for whales and other wildlife (foxes, bald eagles, dolphins) at Lime Kiln Point State Park, where a 1919 lighthouse keeps watch. If seeing an orca pod in the wild inspires you, a trip to The Whale Museum will tell you all about the marine mammals who call San Juan Islands’ waters home.

Edisto, South Carolina

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Edisto Island is perfect for a back-to-basics beach vacation. On the itinerary: exploring Botany Bay, the island’s one-of-a-kind nature reserve covered in driftwood and seashells; hiking or biking through live oak and palmettos to a 4,000-year-old Native American shell mound; meeting turtles and gators at the serpentarium; and swinging by roadside farmers markets for fresh produce, local Marsh Hen Mill grits, and Key lime pie. (Have one meal at Whaley’s, a former gas station serving fried oysters and crab cakes since the ’40s.)

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

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By the early 1900s, charming Carmel-by-the-Sea was already the preferred getaway for creative types. Even through decades of tourism and celeb-induced limelight (Jack London was an early fan, and Clint Eastwood is just one of its former thespian mayors), Carmel-by-the-Sea has held fast to its small-town charm. The small, walkable downtown feels out of a fairy tale; its streets are cobbled and lined with shops, galleries, wine-driven restaurants, magical 1920s cottages, and tucked-away gardens and courtyards. To see Carmel’s wind-chiseled cliffs and lovely white-sand coves, head to the town’s Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, Carmel River State Beach, and Garrapata State Park.

Sanibel Island, Florida

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Located on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico side, about 130 miles due north of Key West, Sanibel Island is a beachy paradise for nature lovers. The enchanting, off-the-grid-feeling island has an east-west orientation that makes it a natural repository for seashells, and collecting specimens on Bowman’s Beach is a favorite visitor pastime (official name: the Sanibel Stoop). A huge chunk of the island is protected, including a wildlife refuge perfect for bird-watching, kayaking, fishing, and picnicking. In terms of Sanibel commerce, there are a few local spots for custard and seafood and a local farmers market in the summer.

Port Aransas, Texas

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Clear across the Gulf of Mexico from Sanibel is Port Aransas, the self-proclaimed “Fishing Capital of Texas.” Lovers of the sport have 18 miles of beach and chartered deep-sea excursions at the ready. Beyond fishing, there’s swimming, kayaking, parasailing, golfing, dolphin spotting, and birding to enjoy. Port Aransas’ marshy nature preserves and estuaries are havens for hundreds of bird species, including pelicans, ducks, and the majestic roseate spoonbill, the destination’s flamingo-pink official bird. Padre Island National Seashore is a worthy side trip; the undeveloped barrier island offers 66 miles of pristine beach, rolling sand dunes, and lagoon-like waters.

Cannon Beach, Oregon

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What put Cannon Beach on the map is distinctive Haystack Rock, a basalt tower shooting 235 feet from the water’s edge. With Haystack and many other stacks scattered around the shoreline, Cannon Beach is one of the most striking and recognizable destinations in the state. Miles of beach offer a peaceful backdrop for swimming, walking, kayaking, and bird-watching. Time your visit to Hug Point (framed by cliffs and misty old-growth woods) for low tide, when the ocean recedes to reveal caves and marine life. Forward-thinking regulations have kept overdevelopment and chain commerce in check, helping the town preserve its under-the-radar vibe.

Capitola, California

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Escape crowded Santa Cruz for this colorful village with a beautiful bay and delightful waterfront scene. The town is very lively and colorful, with brightly painted houses, a historic wharf, and village shops. Food and drink options range from local pubs and taco joints to the multilevel Shadowbrook Restaurant, a wine-centric restaurant built from local redwood into a steep hillside overlooking Soquel Creek.

Bald Head Island, North Carolina

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The marshy coastlines of the Carolinas and Georgia are dotted with pretty, peaceful beach communities (see: Edisto), and North Carolina’s Bald Head Island is one of the dreamiest. The East Coast’s northernmost subtropical island, Bald Head is largely protected maritime forest, with beach rentals, nature trails, a few cafes, and miles of spectacular, unspoiled beaches. Cars aren’t allowed, so guests zip around in golf carts — and on bike, in kayaks, and on their own two feet. Between beach walks, bike rides, and board games on the porch, travelers can visit the state’s oldest standing lighthouse (named Old Baldy) and meet native loggerhead sea turtles at Bald Head Island Conservancy.

St. Augustine, Florida

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Not every beach vacation coincides with an Old World atmosphere. In centuries-old St. Augustine, culture and coastal nature go hand in hand. The Spanish-founded town is home to peaceful beaches, historic sites, like Castillo de San Marcos (the country’s oldest standing masonry fort), and quaint European-style shopping streets, such as St. George and Aviles. Other must-sees include the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, the local alligator zoo, and St. Augustine Distillery, open daily for tours and artisanal tastings.

Ogunquit, Maine

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The Algonquin translation for Ogunquit is “beautiful place by the sea,” and the town more than lives up to its moniker. Ogunquit’s wide, white-sand beaches are far from the typical rocky Maine shoreline. For a taste of classic coastal Maine, walk the clifftop Marginal Way, which boasts incredible sights and sounds of the pounding Atlantic. Explore the cute town on foot or courtesy of a summer trolley and check out its theaters, art galleries, antique shops, lobster shacks, wine bars, and breakfast cafes — and don’t leave without ordering a big stack of fluffy Maine blueberry pancakes!

Cape May, New Jersey

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Set on the southernmost edge of New Jersey, Cape May is a perfect destination for beach lovers with a penchant for history and architecture. The town is filled to the brim with textbook Victorians — cottages, hotels, summer homes — and the vibe is appropriately vintage. Stroll the brick sidewalks (or take a horse-drawn carriage tour) to see colorful gingerbread architecture and poke in the mom-and-pop shops for saltwater taffy and local finds. Even if you don’t stay at The Chalfonte Hotel, the town’s oldest hotel, plan a fried-chicken dinner on the wraparound porch with live music.

San Clemente, California

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Lovely Spanish Colonial Revival architecture, sandy cliff-backed beaches, and coastal trails are all part of this Orange County town’s appealing package. The gorgeous San Clemente coast is a mecca for swimmers, longboarders, campers, and hikers. The town itself has farmers markets, breweries, casual eateries, and an all-around mellow vibe that’s a nice contrast to some neighboring Southern California’s best beach towns.

Newport, Rhode Island

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This New England seaport shot to prominence when it became the chosen summer playground for early American titans of industry (think: the Astors, Morgans, and Vanderbilts, whose Newport “cottage” is The Breakers, a 70-room Italian Renaissance estate). Stroll past the legendary home and other historic Gilded-Age mansions on Newport’s Cliff Walk as it winds over coastal bluffs. Continue till Easton’s Beach, a family-friendly stretch of sand known as First Beach to locals. (Hit the lobster roll stand and the lemonade truck if refreshments are in order.) On the harbor side, brick sidewalks and colonial merchant buildings define Bowen’s Wharf, where you can eat oysters to your heart’s content. Newport’s thriving music scene is anchored by the famous Newport Jazz and Newport Folk festivals.

Solana Beach, California

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Yes, the best beach towns run up and down the California coastline, but Solana Beach stands out for its utter lack of pretension. Natural beauty is the name of the game in this laidback San Diego County town, where the best activities are simply sunning on the lovely beaches, exploring rugged hiking areas with ocean and lagoon views (Annie’s Canyon Trail is a favorite), trying homemade tamales and chocolate halvah at the farmers market, and enjoying casual food and drinks at Solana’s seafood restaurants, pancake houses, and wineries.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

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Perched on the tip of Cape Cod, this sleepy town with only about 3,500 year-round residents swells to six times that during the high season. Provincetown pulls in its bohemian-spirited summer crowd with a winning combo of stunning natural scenery, 19th-century houses, and an everyone-is-welcome cultural scene. Vacationers spend the days frolicking at commerce-free Race Point and Herring Cove beaches, biking through pine forests and dunes, or strolling downtown’s Commercial Street to visit its funky shops, galleries, and eateries. P-town’s vibrant LGBTQ+ scene shines with cabarets and drag shows (often with Broadway and RuPaul’s Drag Race vets at the helm) and a whole lot of dancing.