Clear your mind, imagine a world map, and think about a country with great beaches. Who are you picturing? Australia, maybe -- possibly Mexico or Italy. Tell you what, though: bring it on, world, 'cause the United States is a beach behemoth. One of the top 10 countries on the planet for total coastline, and unlike some of coast-rich heavies ahead of it on that list (Canada, Russia, Norway), America pairs a little thermodynamic add-on I like to call "warmth" with its sand.
What about Brazil, you say. Or Greece. Well, the States has as much coastline as those two combined. And beyond sheer quantity, America has the diversity: four distinct coasts (we see you, Great Lakes), plus Hawaii. There's no better country in the world for scratching out your patch of sunny sand. The top American towns that grow up around these blissed-out beaches -- from the Mid-Atlantic to New Jersey, the West Coast to Michigan -- are almost by definition world-class. Narrowing down the best is no easy feat, but here are the 25 finest in the land.
Anna Maria Island, Florida
Why it’s great: It’s the antithesis of every overbuilt, condo-choked island along Florida’s Gulf Coast, full of nothing but cracker farmhouses, bungalows, art galleries, and old-Florida architecture. It all sits behind some of the best beaches in America’s beachiest state, which Anna Maria has fastidiously maintained by controlling development. The island is also packed with parks perfect for hiking, birding, biking, or other outdoor recreation that doesn’t involve tanning accelerator.
Must eat/drink: Burgers from the state’s two best burger joints, Skinny’s and Duffy’s.
Don’t leave without: Taking a boat tour around the island, where you’re likely to spot dolphins and manatees.
Asbury Park, New Jersey
Why it’s great: You know any other beach towns with postcards on the cover of a Springsteen album? Didn’t think so. The Boss was ahead of the curve: this remains one of the most underrated party towns in America, a one-time rock-band breeding ground that’s again launching big acts out of bars like Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony. It’s also grown into a town full of upscale restaurants and trendy bars, and has strangely become known for its concentration of art and design shops. Though a decade ago the town was pretty dilapidated and a sad relic of a bygone era, a trip here now is one of the cooler jaunts you can take down the Jersey Shore.
Must eat/drink: Anything in a shipping container along the boardwalk. It’s an only-in-Asbury Park experience probably best had with a Korean taco at MOGO or a mini-hoagie at Hoagitos.
Don’t leave without: Catching a live band at The Stone Pony. It’s where Bruce started, so who knows who you might see before they blow up.
Beaufort, North Carolina
Why it’s great: Among the American paradise that is the Outer Banks and the North Carolina's great mainland beaches, Beaufort's history stands out. Not to be confused with its golf-and-military cousin in South Carolina, this Beaufort was discovered by the legendary pirate Blackbeard when he ran a frigate aground in 1718. Now you can view artifacts from the wreck of that ship – the Queen Anne’s Revenge – at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, or dive to some unsurfaced wrecks at Crystal Coast. Its three fantastic beaches at Emerald Isle, Atlantic Beach, and the Cape Lookout National Seashore all are relatively uncrowded spots where you can enjoy the Atlantic in peace.
Must eat/drink: Dinner at sunset at the southwest Front Street Grill at Stillwater. Even if you miss the sunset, the view from this renovated marine house will have you looking at feral horses on Carrot Island and dolphins in Taylor’s Creek.
Don’t leave without: Strolling through the Old Burying Ground, the 300-year-old historic cemetery in North Carolina’s third-oldest town. Fun fact: the northwest section was re-discovered in a 1992 archeological survey.
Blue Hill, Maine
Why it’s great: Beach towns described as “art centers” typically are characterized by $45 olive oil and paintings that cost more than your car. Not in Blue Hill, the unspoiled beach town with textiles and household goods dating back to the 18th century at Blue Hill Antiques. Get out of town, and a hike up Blue Hill Mountain is one of the most spectacular treks in the state. Every summer the town hosts the Blue Hill County Fair, with its trademark skillet toss and livestock galore. Plus concerts from the local chamber music academy which attracts the top students from around the nation.
Must eat/drink: Pizza at Barncastle, topped with Maine farm-fresh ingredients. The place is situated in one of Blue Hill’s historic “rusticator” homes.
Don’t leave without: Taking a trip by the White family farm. As in E.B. White, the longtime New Yorker writer who authored Charlotte’s Web. Talking spiders not guaranteed.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
Why it’s great: It’s not Seaside. Kidding! But for the same beaches and tranquility as Seaside with a fraction of the crowd, the best place on the Oregon coast in Cannon Beach. It’s home to the famous Haystack rocks -- aka that rock from Goonies and Point Break. And Seaside’s quirky little neighbor is also chock-full of galleries and seafood joints, and even sports a distillery.
Must eat/drink: Eating or drinking pretty much anything at the Wayfarer, one of America’s best beach bars and a fantastic way to share your lunch with the Haystack rocks.
Don’t leave without: Hiking through Ecola State Park, the best state park in Oregon -- nine miles of coastline running from Seaside to Cannon Beach. Hike into the hills and get primo views of the rocks known as “America’s Gibraltar.”
Cape May, New Jersey
Why it’s great: It’s a national historic landmark, a distinction no other town on this list can claim, filled with more than 600 colorful Victorian-era houses. Cape May strikes the balance of grandeur and inclusiveness; on a given weekend you're as likely to run across a whole family as a group of young professionals. The beaches are quiet and serene, and not as crowded as other spots along the shore. Hit Sunset Beach for its famous nightly flag-lowering ceremony, or Cape May Point to tour its historic lighthouse.
Must eat/drink: A dog from Hot Dog Tommy’s. A hot dog is, typically, a hot dog, even if it is topped with mashed potatoes and Buffalo sauce. But proprietor Tommy Snyder also serves up big portions of jokes and friendly insults to the epic line that forms outside his shop, making this particular hot-dog experience unlike any other.
Don’t leave without: Staying at a historic bed and breakfast. It’s one thing to see the famous houses of Cape May, and another to stay there.
Why it’s great: Scientologists! Though if kinda-culty religions in naval uniforms aren’t your thing, this town just north of St. Petersburg is still worth a visit. Some publications have called it America's best beach, and among the best of Florida’s gazillion beaches by some other beach experts. Beyond the fine, sugary sand and turquoise waters, Clearwater is home to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where you can find Winter, the dolphin from Dolphin Tale. A short boat ride has you in Caladesi Island, one of Florida’s best unspoiled beaches. Wild card: there’s also a Hostess factory, so you can pad that beach bod with super-fresh Twinkies and Ho Hos.
Must eat/drink: Grouper sandwich at Frenchy's Rockaway Grill. This spot on the sand has some of the best grouper in the state. At nearby Frenchy's Original Café, the grouper cheeks are not to be missed.
Don’t leave without: Watching the sunset at the Pier 60 Sunset Festival. It's a free nightly celebration along the pier featuring street performers, artists, and musicians.
Why it’s great: Larger and more residential than most other Cape Cod towns, Falmouth contains several little villages, giving it a fantastic variety of atmospheres. There's Woods Hole, with its oceanographic institute and aquarium; Falmouth Village, the town center packed with restaurants and unique shops; marshy West Falmouth, with its historic homes. And on and on.
Must eat/drink: Lobster tacos at Quicks Hole in Woods Hole. The deceptively awesome Moose Dropping ice cream (chocolate mousse ice cream with crushed malt balls) at Ben & Bill's Chocolate Emporium. And legitimately great Indian food at the Golden Swan.
Don't leave without: Taking a panoramic photo at Nobska Light, exploring the salt marshes behind Old Silver Beach, catching live Irish folk music at Liam Maguire's. -- Adam Lapetina, Partnerships Editor
Fernandina Beach, Florida
Why it’s great: Typically anything associated with the greater Jacksonville area is considered about as genteel and historic as a Walmart. Not so with Amelia Island, and specifically Fernandina Beach -- they're a trip back to what Florida was like before it grew apart from the South. Old style-architecture dominates historic Centre St, giving it the feel of a less-debauched New Orleans. Victorian-era homes fill the town, fronted by trees dripping with Spanish moss, and carriage tours stroll the streets a la the colonial feel of Charleston. Main Beach is the hotspot, but you can stay not far away at North Beach for a fraction the cost, only a short drive to the action.
Must eat/drink: Burgers from T-Ray’s Burger Station. The city’s got loads of trendy spots but this burger joint situated in an old Exxon station is where the locals go.
Don’t leave without: Hitting the beaches all around Amelia Island, some of Florida’s best beaches that aren’t overrun with people.
Grand Haven, Michigan
Why it’s great: Some mitten-beach experts named it Michigan’s best beach town, for starters. But if you don’t believe us, take a trip to Grand Haven and step on the big, soft beach at Grand Haven State Park (AAA’s favorite in the state) and try to argue. If lounging on the sand isn’t enough to make the case, you can head Downtown and grab some beers at Odd Side Ales, or sip a rooftop cocktail at Snug Harbor looking out over the rare northern beach town equally enjoyable in summer and winter. Or take a walk out to the historic lighthouse and listen to Lake Michigan's waves crash the shore.
Must eat/drink: Fricano's pizza, among the 21 best pizzas in Michigan, razor-thin crispy crusts topped with a secret cheese. They accept only cash, and tell you to like it. And you will.
Don’t leave without: Taking your best friend to the dog beach. It’s a ton of open space where nobody is going to bother you for letting your mutt run free, and you can sit back and watch him enjoy the best afternoon of his life.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Why it’s great: Aside from being home to the Hangout Music Festival, it’s also possibly the scenic highlight of Alabama, a picturesque beach town filled with pastel houses and towering high-rises. The sand is perfect powdery white and the water is clear and blue, a big reason why it’s one of the top destinations on the Redneck Riviera. It’s generally cheaper than its Florida counterparts and offers the added bonus of Gulf State Park, with its zip-lining and empty beaches. Plus it’s only a short drive to the legendary Flora-Bama bar, where you can drink in two states at the same time!
Must eat/drink: Anything from Anchor Bar and Grill. It’s the kind of creative bar fare you’d expect in a big city gastropub, but in an unassuming waterfront spot.
Don’t leave without: Getting breakfast at Hazel’s Nook. It’s everything you’d imagine a Southern breakfast joint should be, decked out like your parents’ kitchen.
Why it’s great: Waikiki is a great beach, if you can manage not to share it with about 10,000 other people. Once you've gotten your fill of outdoor malls, head to this town about an hour north, known as the “gateway to the North Shore.” Haleiwa is filled with local style and country ambiance, with streets lined with cool surf shops, boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries. The town is also full of history, dotted with plantation-era buildings that hark to an older, sleepier Hawaii. And it’s the perfect stop off before hitting the waves at Waimea Bay, Ehukai (Banzai Pipeline), and Sunset Beach.
Must eat/drink: A bowl from Haleiwa Bowls. Everything in their açaí fruits bowls and smoothies is grown by farmers within a short drive of the town.
Don’t leave without: Hitting the waves. Or, if you have the balance of a three-legged elephant, watching other people hit the waves. It’s like Endless Summer on loop.
Laguna Beach, California
Why it’s great: If introducing the world to Lauren Conrad isn’t enough to vault onto your list of 25 best beach cities, that list is sincerely flawed. Though if you need more than MTV reality stars to make your beach vacation, this upscale artists community tucked behind a canyon in Orange County still qualifies. The streets scale the side of a mountain, and are filled with art galleries, wine bars, and innovative restaurants. Affordable? Probably not without your own reality show and makeup endorsement deal. But still a beautiful place to spend a day.
Must eat drink: Driftwood Kitchen, a mostly outdoor fine-dining establishment at the Pacific Edge Hotel. It might have the best view of the ocean, but still maintains a casual vibe.
Don’t leave without: Driving -- with your windows/sunroof/convertible top down -- the Pacific Coast Highway. The undeveloped cliffs and unobstructed ocean views you’ll get heading here from Newport Beach are vintage Southern California -- traffic included, on weekend mornings.
Morro Bay, California
Why it’s great: California’s central coast could be considered the most scenic place in America without much argument. And while Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park might be the best places to take it in, Morro Bay is the town for visit appreciating the coast’s beauty. The natural options extend far past the famous Morro Rock, into the Morro Bay Natural Estuary and up into Black Hill. There’s also hiking through Montaña de Oro State Park, which gets you some vertical perspective on the coastline, or just lounging at the Coleman Park Beach. No matter how you want to take in the central coast, there’s a way to do it in Morro Bay.
Must eat/drink: Seafood at The Galley Seafood Grill and Bar. It’s one of the best restaurants along the PCH, thanks in part to its unequaled view of Morro Rock. But also because it serves up fresh Pacific seafood, at not-eye-popping prices.
Don’t leave without: Walking through Morro Bay’s Mural Mile. It might be the best collection of small-town street art in America.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Why it’s great: We can hear you mumbling something about bike week and rednecks and scrolling down to the comments to say “unsubscribe.” But when was the last time you actually went to Myrtle Beach? Right. So you probably haven’t strolled down the new-ish 1.2-mile boardwalk and promenade Downtown. Or had burgers inspired by local artists at Art Burger Sushi Bar, or experienced Southern molecular gastronomy at the Chemist. And while you might have seen the new Myrtle Beach SkyWheel on some cable-TV B-roll, you probably didn’t know it was the tallest observation deck on the East Coast. So much like with any misunderstood city, take a trip to Myrtle Beach before you roll your eyes at its claim as a legitimate beach town.
Must eat/drink: Big Mike’s Soul Food. Healthy? No. Perfect for your beach body? Only if you’re a sea lion. But it is the best, most authentic soul food you’ll find in Myrtle Beach, and an immersive cultural experience if you’re from another part of the country.
Don’t leave without: Finding an isolated part of the beach. The area near Downtown might be crowded but the Grand Strand stretches for 60 miles of uninterrupted coastline, meaning you won’t have to go far to get a little piece of it to yourself.
Nags Head, North Carolina
Why it’s great: You heard it here first: the Outer Banks are America’s next huge vacation destination. Why? Places like Nags Head, which even without its spectacular ocean views would be a great town to visit. For history/aviation buffs, it’s right next to Kill Devil Hills -- where the Wright brothers made their historic first flight – and is home to iconic lighthouses at Bodie Island and Cape Hatteras. It’s also got the tallest dune system on the East Coast, and high winds that make it a great place to surf, kiteboard, or finally learn to hang glide.
Must eat/drink: Grab a beer at the Outer Banks Brewing Station, America’s only wind-powered brewery. It’s got live music every night and the menu boasts a seared tuna with local Kill Devil Rum in the crust.
Don’t leave without: Driving on the beach. It’s legal here, and not in the trashy Daytona way. Pack some beers in your truck and head out to Coquina Beach at the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
Narragansett, Rhode Island
Why it’s great: That giant wave on the old Rhode Island license plate wasn’t just there because a rooster would have invited too many cock jokes. It’s because the Ocean State has the best surfing in New England, the best of which is at Narraganset. It’s also home to one of the best beach bars in America at the Coast Guard House, and the iconic Victorian watch towers that were once a casino. The town has not one but two of the best beaches in the region at Roger Wheeler State Beach and the Narragansett Town Beach. And, of course, the famous Narragansett Brewing Company, whose beer tastes just as good from the roof of the Coast Guard House as it does from the tap room.
Must eat/drink: Seafood. It is the Ocean State, after all. Hit up Aunt Carrie’s or Iggy’s Doughboys and Chowder House, both classics with dining rooms and takeout windows. They’re not right Downtown (a little closer to Point Judith) but absolutely worth the trip.
Don’t leave without: Strolling the seawall along Ocean Rd, then grabbing a drink at the Coast Guard House. It’s fun even if the weather isn’t perfect.
Why it’s great: Whether you’re into nature, or avoid it completely, you’ll be hard-pressed to get bored in Newport. For outdoorsy types, there are tidal pools rich with marine life, beaches full of barking sea lions, respectable surfing, and endless opportunities to fish and crab. Rather duck nature entirely? That’s cool, Newport’s Downtown is packed with shops, bookstores, restaurants, and even a hotel with a Harry Potter-themed room. Plus two historic lighthouses where you can steep in the splendor without actually having to go, you know, outside.
Must eat/drink: Hit the taproom at Rogue Ales. You’ll get a full tour of the facility and an opportunity to taste some brews you can’t get elsewhere.
Don’t leave without: Touring the historic lighthouses. It’s probably the best view of the area you’ll get, and you actually might learn something about Pacific Coast history. Enlightening!
Ocean City, Maryland
Why it's great: The south end has everything a northeastern beach town should: mini golf, midways, T-shirt shops, greasy food, a Ferris wheel, ice cream, more T-shirt shops, and other shamelessly tacky boardwalk nostalgia. The north end is filled with new beach houses and condos. It's not exactly a place you’d describe as “charming,” but it does have rockin' views of the Assawoman Bay and Atlantic Ocean. And staying there certainly doesn’t prevent anyone from enjoying any of the fun a couple miles away.
Must eat/drink: Thrasher’s french fries. They just taste like summer.
Don’t leave without: Spending an evening at Seacrets, a Jamaican-themed bar that’s ground zero for Ocean City nightlife.
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
Why it’s great: The tiny Downtown, where every block has a creative bar with live music on sprawling outdoor patios most weekend nights. Those bars are intertwined with Southern barbecue and inventive restaurants, a giant art museum, and, of course, a beach. The Gulf here is calm, and after you’ve had your fill of culture and nightlife, you can take a paddleboard out to enjoy Mississippi’s natural beauty. Or take a boat out to the barrier islands and see beaches so remote and pristine they’ll make a Floridian jealous.
Must eat/drink: The pioneering gourmet biscuits at The Greenhouse on Porter. This converted greenhouse is doing for biscuits what Voodoo did for donuts, serving up stuff like jalapeño chili biscuits alongside weekly live music and yoga.
Don’t leave without: Getting out on the water. The town is so fun you might forget the beach is even there, but hit Paddles Up on Government St and find some water-bound expeditions.
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Why it’s great: The Natural Resources Defense Council consistently rates the beach here among the country's cleanest, always a good start. But this town dubbed “The Nation’s Summer Capital” is also home of an iconic boardwalk, historic hotels like the Hotel Rehoboth and Boardwalk Plaza, and boutiques full of stuff with NO SALES TAX! Its most famous resident, of course, is the Dogfish Head brewery, but once you’ve gotten your fill of suds Rehoboth Beach has great places to eat, like a(MUSE.) (owned by a James Beard finalist) and Cultured Pearl, a surprisingly great joint with some of the best sushi you’ll find in the Mid-Atlantic.
Must eat/drink: Chesapeake & Maine, a sister restaurant to the Dogfish Head brewery, full of food and cocktails inspired by the Delaware coast, where Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione spent his summers.
Don’t leave without: Getting saltwater taffy at Dolles. It’s another must-eat, so long as you don't make it a meal.
Santa Cruz, California
Why it’s great: Santa Cruz has all the makings of a quintessential California beach town. It’s home to some of the country's best surf spots, like Pleasure Point and Steamer Lane. As expected from a town situated on the Pacific Coast, it has an insane amount of natural beauty, and the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains are only about 20 minutes from the beach. Surf-and-skateboard semi-pros, hippie drop-outs, UC Santa Cruz students, and a fair share of tourists hang at the boardwalk amusement park. And sea lions bark all day long.
Must eat/drink: Marianne's for ice cream. Go with the cantaloupe.
Don’t leave without: Walking (or driving! or biking!) along scenic West Cliff Drive, which runs along the Pacific Ocean from the Santa Cruz Wharf to Natural Bridges State Park. There's no beach access, but you'll pass Steamer Lane and Lighthouse Point, a surfing museum inside a lighthouse. At the end, Natural Bridges State Beach offers a natural preserve for monarch butterflies between October and February. - Elaheh Nozari, Restaurant Venues Editor
Why it’s great: It’s the sunniest part of Washington! Which sounds kind of like being the smartest person in Florida, but, hey, it’s all relative, right? This town sits in the shadow of the Olympic Mountains, a location that shields it from rain, creating a microclimate no rainier than Southern California. Make no mistake: it’s still not a spot to head out for a pickup game of volleyball. But if you want to wander through oyster and clam beds or walk the longest sand spit in America at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge, you can do it without packing all your rain gear.
Must eat/drink: Like to see your food growing on the vine before you eat it? Walk the path up to Nourish, a literal farm-to-table spot on an old pioneer farm from the 1800s.
Don’t leave without: Heading over to Olympic National Park, the best place in the lower 48 to experience the temperate rainforest that stretches along the Pacific Coast. And whatever you do, don’t let anyone drag you to Forks.
Traverse City, Michigan
Why it’s great: We didn't name it one of the America's best small towns for spending the weekend because we’re big on historic cinema houses. Yes, the State Theater is definitely worth a visit, but Traverse City offers all the allure of a big city in a Downtown that’s only a few blocks long. Whether it’s getting breakfast at Frenchies Famous or eating all-local stuff at the Cooks' House, the culinary scene here can hold its own. And though the area is known for beer (Short’s Brewing is only a short trip away in Bellaire), the wine in this region has become just as much of a draw in recent years, thanks mostly to the unique varietals grown in the region's two dozen vineyards.
Must eat/drink: Pretty much any beer at 7 Monks Taproom, one of the 33 best beer bars in America.
Don’t leave without: Enjoying the coastline on the entire Leelanau peninsula, from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, to the smaller beach towns of Empire, Northport, and Suttons Bay.
Why it’s great: OK, so going to Alaska for its beaches sounds kind of like going to New Orleans to detox, but if you’re more into surfing than tanning this tiny town known as “Far North Shore” is tough to beat. Though the town boasts fewer than 600 residents it’s a destination for wave riders looking for something out of the ordinary. Even if you’re not so much in for spending the day in sub-arctic waters, the fishing here is also a huge draw. Which is a good thing, because the town’s only got two restaurants, and you’ll probably need to catch your dinner.
Must eat/drink: See above.
Don’t leave without: Submerging yourself in the water. Even if you don’t surf, one doesn’t go all the way to Alaska and NOT do some kind of polar plunge. And if you’re cold there’s a nice sandy beach – by Alaska standards anyway – for you to “warm” up.
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