The 21 Best Beach Bars in America
Sure, with a little bit of ingenuity and a cooler you can have quite the DIY drinking experience at the beach, but the combination of your inherent laziness and the stringency of most local liquor laws dictates that it's so much better to have a bartender provide it for you.
When scouring America for its best beach bars (and we do mean scouring -- there's even an entry from Alaska) we didn't want to rigidly rattle off the most popular choices from Florida and Hawaii, though rest assured those particularly beachy states are well-represented. These 21 watering holes represent everything from forward-thinking tiki havens to ramshackle trailers parked on the charred remains of a burned-out tavern. But they're all the kinds of places where you want to park yourself with a view of the water and lose track of how many times you signaled the bartender to send another round over. And really, that's all that matters.
One of America's premier party islands, Block Island puts forth a welcome lack of pretension relative to certain other New England destinations (stares daggers at Martha's Vineyard). Don't get us wrong, you're still definitely paying a premium when you hit Ballard's, the island's premier option for beachside imbibing, but once you wrap your hands around a Rum Runner-filled pineapple and survey the sea of umbrellas while pondering whether or not to go full Maverick out on the volleyball courts, you won't be worried about such trivialities as money. You might even fork over a few extra over to the band in exchange for a little Kenny Loggins.
Beach bars aren’t always flip-flop-featuring, cold-beer-and-cornhole shacks. Sometimes they’re swanky, rose-sipping, see-and-be-seen kinda places. The undisputed king of that second category is this Malibu hideaway, where what they lack in accessibility they make up for in glamour. The lounge addition to the legendary Moonshadows is the best place to go if you really want to feel Malibu, where you’ll see the Pacific crashing into the cliffs while you sip on a drink that costs more than a steak at Applebee’s. The ocean breeze cools you from the blazing afternoon sun, and the place is filled with the kind of tanned, beautiful people you picture every time that Miley Cyrus song comes on. And though a bargain it is not, it is as close to living like Hollywood royalty as you’ll get at a beach bar in the United States.
South Padre is one of the nation’s biggest party islands, and Clayton’s is most likely the biggest beach bar there. By biggest, we mean that the place has a maximum capacity of 5,000 people, and often sits at capacity, with bikini- and board shorts-clad revelers doing Turbo Piña Coladas and frozen Blow Pops in the sun. Oh, and you’re likely to spot somebody famous, considering this is also a venue that has hosted folks like Lil Wayne and Nelly. Still doubting the Southern hospitality (sorry, we had to)? Every Friday and Saturday the place blasts off its own fireworks display. It’s the 4th of July every weekend, and the fireworks are just the beginning of the blissful chaos that is Clayton’s.
The history at the Coast Guard House goes back so far it actually predates the organization for which it's named (the structure was built in the late 19th century when it still had the catchy moniker "United States Life Saving Service"). The building took a turn towards the hospitality industry during the '40s, and today the granite outpost's roof deck doubles as one of the most sought-after seats during a Rhode Island summer. The views of Narragansett Bay pair ideally with a platter of oysters and littlenecks and an ice-cold can of a beer whose name you can probably guess if you think really hard.
For a state blessed with an abundance of gorgeous shoreline, actual beach bars are in relatively short supply in Michigan, with marina-set drinkers and dockside boozing far outnumbering places where you can just kind of amble over to the sand (or, if you’re in the Upper Peninsula, the rocky shores of Lake Superior). Muskegon’s The Deck, though, sits right on the the beautiful Pere Marquette Park beach, where the smoke that instills its house-made BBQ with flavor wafts over to the waters of Lake Michigan, beer is paired with live music, and the sunsets serve as their own show. Also, there’s a landlocked pontoon. This is a lower-Michigan beach bar, after all, and a rare one at that. Just be sure to wait 30 minutes to swim after your meat and three.
While the Dock is a perfectly suitable beach bar for any tropical-leaning relaxation, what makes it truly remarkable is its location: sitting on the banks of Lake Michigan, just a stone's throw (well, if Khris Davis is throwing the stone…) away from Lake Shore Drive. It's a slice of summer paradise in the middle of the Windy City. You have live music every day, a palatial deck ideal for day drinking, and a surprisingly good plate of fried pierogies. Hey, it's not a traditional beach food. But then again, Chicago isn't a traditional beach city. That's why the Dock is so essential.
Far removed from the traditional grease and grime trappings of your standard "Shore Bar" (but not far enough away that it ceases to be fun, of course), Donovan's Reef is a sprawling mecca of summer bliss, conveniently located in the heart of one of the best small towns in America. Featuring seven individual bars -- including multiple tiki outposts on its beachfront area -- a constant array of live cover bands, and enough fried food fare to ruin any beach bod, Donovan's is the rare vacation town bar beloved by locals and tourists alike. After their original, legendary spot was completely leveled during 2013's Hurricane Sandy, Donovan's took almost four years to make their triumphant return. And return they did -- bigger, and better than ever. Simply put: There's no better place to sip an Orange Crush on the Jersey Shore than Donovan's Reef. If you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of the Boss, working on his tan.
Admittedly, if you stroll up to the bar at the most famous drinkery in Honolulu, you might find yourself next to a sunburned tourist or five. But those folks are all there for a reason: This bar is exactly where you picture yourself when you use the phrase “having a drink on the sand at Waikiki.” Set in the back of the Outrigger Waikiki Resort, this landmark bar sits smack in the center of the bay, with spectacular views of Diamond Head to the left, the Pacific to the center, and sunsets to the right. But the bar is much more than just a bar. It also serves as the jumping-off point for the annual Duke’s OceanFest, an August celebration with surfing competitions for people and dogs, a canoe regatta, paddleboard races, and beach volleyball. And if your idea of people watching involves more than watching them sit on the sand, OceanFest is the weekend to go.
The best place in America to drink in two states at once straddles the Florida/Alabama line on the Gulf of Mexico. This iconic roadhouse on the sand looks like the result of M.C. Escher's Redneck Period, with staircases, hallways, bars, and music stages all arranged with no apparent order, but still in perfect harmony. It’s one of America’s great unrefined treasures, while bikers, sailors, and snowbirds drink bushwhackers side-by-side with nary a mention of any of their differences. Its annual highlight is the mullet toss, a competition to see who can throw a fish furthest across the state line that has spun off an entire weekend celebration complete with a triathlon. But like any self-respecting Southerner, though it spends the week sinning, Flora-Bama still reserves Sundays for church, when it plays host to the weekly Worship on the Water services.
Anyone surprised to find an entry on this list situated in the middle of Missouri clearly knows nothing of the charms of the Lake of the Ozarks, a serpentine man-made wonder that's home to one of America's greatest redneck parties and also Franky & Louie's, which can hold its own against any oceanfront watering hole. Between the 100-some tons of white sand (and palm trees!) they hauled in, the boats fueling up right there on the dock, and the WaveRunners available for rental, you could be forgiven for thinking a bit of the Florida Gulf Coast might've crept north. Instead it's just proof you can create a fantastic beach bar anywhere as long as you have a whole bunch of sand and a massive Depression-era public works project at your disposal.
For rum connoisseurs, there is simply no better beach bar in America than this spot behind the JW Marriott in Marco Island. Though at first it looks like another luxury hotel attempt at a tiki bar, it’s actually home to one of the best collections of rum in Florida. And certainly the best collection that comes with a front row seat to a Gulf of Mexico sunset. A rum flight here is like traveling the world via fermented sugar cane, boasting rums from 13 countries including hard-to-find Haitian and Venezuelan varieties. If you’re not into sipping the straight stuff, the menu of rum cocktails extends far beyond daiquiris and mai tais. And the food -- inspired by Asian street specialties -- are the best beach bar eats you’ll find in Florida.
Like the mythic sea creature it's named after, the Kraken is loud, it's wild, and it's not exactly laid back. The Kraken is more like a rock bar that happened to be dropped on one of the most beautiful beach towns on the West Coast. The bar caters to bikers, surfers, musicians, and heavy drinkers (which basically encompasses all of the above). The music you'll find here -- nightly -- is more Black Sabbath than Jimmy Buffett. And if you're looking for anything more than standard pub fare, you are best served elsewhere. The Kraken might be best described as the ideal beach bar for people who don't really love the beach. But that's OK. Flip flops and leather jackets don't really go together anyway.
Downing big, beautiful drinks is definitely a large part of the Hawaiian vacation experience. But so is lounging in the sand. And snorkeling. And sea turtles. And the one place where you can experience it all within a few hundred feet is this bar on serene Anaeho’omalu Bay on the Big Island. If enjoying the sun from your table in the sand gets a little slow, you can stroll straight down to the beach and into some of the best snorkeling in the islands. Once you’re done with fish, take in the Pacific sunset then walk a short way from the bar to see sea turtles pulling up on the beach. Though it’s not what we’d describe as a “locals bar,” it is the odd resort bar where locals go. And on the Big Island it’s your best bet for having drinks on the water.
Overlooking the stunning, rocky Pacific shores of Cape Kiwanda, you’d be hard-pressed to find a seat in the enormous Pelican Brewpub, the patrons of which come close to doubling the population of Pacific City itself while dining on fresh-from-the-water fish & chips. But that doesn’t matter, because the prime real estate is in the back, where the sandy beaches butt up to an enormous sand dune that looks more and more tempting to tackle after a few pints of the joint’s award-winning beers, among them the legendary Kiwanda Cream Ale and the classic seasonal Bad Santa. Grab a growler and explore the beach, or just plop down on a chair right outside the pub at one of the Pacific Northwest’s most picturesque breweries.
“Those bushwhackers there, they’ll put a hurtin’ on ya,” a salty Gulf Shores local told me when I was considering a trip out to this little beach shack on Perdido Bay. “But they’re not too thick, so you won’t bust a blood vessel trying to drink ‘em like at Flora-Bama.” While the frozen, coconut-chocolate drinkable heaven that is a bushwhacker is the main draw here, even those who don’t want to drink their week’s worth of calories should make a trip. Driving to Pirates Cove isn’t advisable, both because of the aforementioned hurtin’ the drinks put on you, and because getting here by water is half the fun. Those without boats can rent a pontoon at Tacky Jacks, then commence with a big, floating party complete with waterslides for the trip there and back. Add in an off-leash dog area and a menu with one of the best burgers in the state, and you’ve got a must-hit if you’re ever on the Alabama coast.
A decent beach bar in New York City may sound as plausible as quality sushi joint in Montana. But Rockaway Surf Club (and, the adjacent Rockaway Beach) bring the beach town-feels out of city kids from every borough. The admittedly so-hipsterific-it-hurts beach bar features Instagram-ready murals, a revolving door of live bands (think whammy bars and reverb), tacos they tout as "The Best in Town!!!" (they're good, but not the best), and an always rowdy, ready crowd. And, it's open year round -- though, the vibe is decidedly different when the temperature drops below 70. We like it so much, we'd get married in the place. And hey, you can actually do that, if you want. If you're going to say "I do," you might as well be in next to a "Live, Surf, Die" mural, right? That's class.
Despite being "Situated" on the Jersey Shore (see what I did there? Yea, sorry…) Cape May has a stronger rep for being a quaint beach town fit for the whole family than a booze-drenched sea of spray tans and Red Bull vodkas. But that doesn't stop the southernmost town in NJ from having a quality beach bar: the Rusty Nail. For lack of a better phrase, it's charming as shit. From the moment you walk into its ivy-laced brick entrance and slide your way through the sand out to the expansive patio -- featuring the now iconic blue and orange beach umbrellas and central fire pit -- you'll feel like you're attending the most idyllic beachside BBQ this side of an OC episode. Get a frozen daiquiri, pair with a cone of fried shrimp, and never be scared to bring the kiddos with you. Don't worry, you don't need a sitter -- or a tetanus shot -- for this one.
We recently named Seacrets as the most fun bar in the entire state of Maryland. And yes, it is a good time. Perhaps too good of a time. Seacrets Jamaica USA (that's the full name, so most people just call it Seacrets) is essentially a concentrated dose of Spring Break shenanigans in the center of Ocean City, Maryland -- a beach town known as much for it's party scene as its boardwalk. A tiki bar. A nightclub. A restaurant. And a… um… place where you can sit inside inner tubes and drink (there's not really a name for that). Seacrets is the platonic ideal of a booze-soaked beach bar. If you want to relax, perhaps stay at home. If you want to turn up, cancel your plans the next day. Beer just tastes better in an inner tube.
Sure, the name "Surf Bar" may sound a little generic, but that's missing the point. This is a beach bar so outwardly innocuous, so "locals-only," that the patrons probably resent the fact that it's even included on a list like this. Well, sorry. But this is a spot that deserves (at least some level of) blowing up. Surf Bar has a Warriors-esque dynasty in the local "best beach bar" rankings, and a SoCal surf shack vibe right in the middle of SoCa (a made-up name for South Carolina) so strong you can smell the patchouli. You'll find infinite tchotchkes and surfboards lining the walls and ceilings, cheap beers on deck, an actual deck, and about 4,000 dollar bills tacked up around the vicinity, signed by previous guests. Make sure to carry an extra buck to make your own mark inside Surf Bar -- and you too might just be considered a "regular," one day.
Think your speakeasies are hard to get to? Try taking a boat 15-minutes (or a seaplane, if you’re feeling frisky) just to get a drink. No, for real. Do that. Because while Alaska doesn’t muster visions of idyllic beach bars, Sitka’s Talon is here to completely set you straight: It’s located on a private island that includes one of the limited natural sand beaches in the entire region, where you can sip cocktails made with herbs and fruits fresh from the place’s garden. Oh, and while it might be lacking in bikini-clad partiers screaming LMFAO lyrics incessantly, it does include gorgeous views and the potential to see whales and bald eagles doing their thing. Spend a late afternoon here and every sunset you see afterward will be a dud in your mind.
It's not just a clever name. There really is a Tom, and Tom managed to create one of America’s singular beach-bar experiences out of the ashes of a previously standing bar after it burned to the ground. All it took was a trailer, a whole lot of beer, and a seemingly endless collection of sardonic signage and other oddities that would rightfully intimidate any late-’90s TGI Friday’s.
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Senior food editor Matt Lynch will fight anyone who thinks the Midwest can't have great beach bars. But only on Twitter @MLynchChi, because he isn't particularly strong.
Matt Meltzer is a contributing writer to Thrillist who thinks cold light beer always tastes better with a little sand in it. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.
Wil Fulton is a staff writer at Thrillist and a passionate doer of other stuff. For more info, you'll have to do a free background check.