The 20 Greatest Beach Towns in America
Picture the perfect beach. Some details may vary from person to person: Maybe you’re envisioning bike wheels thunking along a boardwalk, or traipsing through dunes to find the ideal patch of sand. Maybe you're picturing surly hot-dog vendors and teenage taffy pullers, or butter dripping off a lobster roll onto your towel. Regardless, it's almost certain that your vision includes warm sand, blue waters, and a vibe that can only be described as “chill.”
The US has beaches for every taste. And the towns that grow up around these blissed-out beaches -- from the Mid-Atlantic to New Jersey, the West Coast to Michigan -- are world-class destinations unto themselves. The 20 below represent the best of the best, places where those sands give way to dreamy towns, where the locals vibe with the visitors, and the food and drink become the stuff of endless summer memories. Pack extra sunscreen.
Asbury Park, New Jersey
In the not-so-distant past, Asbury Park was best known as a dated Springsteen reference -- a once-great tourist destination turned as stale as months-old saltwater taffy. The tide has shifted. AP's iconic boardwalk vibes have now made way for a "Brooklyn on the beach" feel. That extends into the city's legendary music scene, which will hopefully come roaring back to life sooner than later, but until then there's still plenty to do Want to drink? Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten is on point for al fresco imbing, holding rank alongside the always-lively Johnny Mac's and the delightfully divey Bond Street bar atop the list of the 50-plus bars in town. You want… uh… vintage pinball? The Silverball Museum Arcade has more than 600 machines. A bustling art scene, a longstanding LGBTQ community, and (obviously) a beautiful beach make Asbury Park worth fully greeting again, boss.
Must eat/drink: For a solid middle ground between fancy and beachy-casual, check out Moonstruck for a mediterranean menu in a classic Jersey shore Victorian home. Asbury Park sneakily has one of the best pizzerias in the country in Talula's, and Pop's Garage is a cheap-as-hell beachside favorite, slinging two-for-$6 tacos and $3 happy hour beers.
Don't leave without: Perusing -- and posing in front of -- the many murals of Sunset Pavilion. It's a perfect (macro?) dose of AP's art community, and ideal beachside Instagram fodder. -- Wil Fulton
Nags Head, North Carolina
Nags Head has become the de-facto name for a power trio of beach towns in the Outer Banks: Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk. A haven for East Coast surfers, Nags Head proper stretches for 11 miles of beach and sound, which includes the tallest sand dune on the East Coast at Jockey’s Ridge State Park (before it sets, scramble up to the top and catch the sun sinking into the sound). Jeanette’s Pier is among the best spots to people-watch in this laid-back slice of the Atlantic, where fresh seafood from old-school family restaurants is unparalleled. Aviation geeks should check out the Wright Brothers National Monument in Kill Devil Hills, then lope up the 90-foot hill where the Brothers Wright conducted their glider tests. And in Kitty Hawk, the canals crisscrossing the village make for excellent kayak adventures.
Must eat/drink: Have them build you a colossal biscuit sandwich at Biscuits N’ Porn (yes, you read that right). Slurp down a dozen or so raw oysters at I Got Your Crabs (again, yes), where they pop open the bivalves right in front of you.
Don’t leave without: Taking a break from the beach and stretching your legs with a hike through the surprisingly hilly Nags Head Woods Preserve, which boasts a full 1,400 acres of pristine maritime forest. -- Jim Trotman
Saugatuck is to western Michigan what Provincetown is to Cape Cod. It is thoroughly a tourist's beach town -- invaded in the summer, but its character is also impeccably maintained. There are hotels, but the place isn't flanked by every brand of Marriott, Hilton, and Holiday Inn. Nicknamed "The Great Art-Doors," Saugatuck -- along with its sister city across the river, Douglas -- has gained a reputation as Michigan's premiere gaycation spot. It’s also a destination for the arts and antiques, thanks to ties to the Ox Bow School of Art, the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, art galleries like the Armstrong De-Graaf International Fine Art gallery, and the Saugatuck Antique Pavilion.
Must eat/drink: Start your morning off at Uncommon Coffee Roasters, a hip coffee house that roasts their own sustainably sourced beans. Hit the Saugatuck Brewing Company's pub for made-from-scratch pub food washed down with a blueberry lemon shandy. For dinner -- sorry, "supper" -- don’t miss out on the Southern hospitality from James Beard Award semi-finalist chef Matthew Millar at The Southerner. End with a nightcap at the New Holland Spirits Tasting Room.
Don’t leave without: In Saugatuck, your beach of choice is Oval Beach, rated one of the best freshwater beaches in the US etc. etc. etc. Climb the 282 steps to the top of Mount Baldhead (a giant sand dune, actually) for a gorgeous overlook of Oval Beach and the surrounding dunes. -- Nicole Rupersburg
Cannon Beach, Oregon
At once abuzz and sleepy, Cannon Beach is home to one of Oregon’s most recognizable icons in Haystack Rock, which rises from the Pacific like the centerpiece of a titan’s rock garden. That Goonies-famous landmark might be the postcard star, but tiny Cannon -- with its dog-thronged beaches, smattering of restaurants, wealth of breweries, and overabundance of galleries — is bursting at the seams with treasures. This is a highly walkable slice of West Coast pleasures, where the waterfront is dotted with cabin rentals and micro hotels that beg for extended stays. Here, you'll feel like a local after all of five minutes.
Must eat/drink: Get a sampling of the coast’s best breweries all in one place at Cannon Beach Hardware -- yes, it’s a hardware store, but also a taproom with fantastic burgers and seafood -- then bop over to Ecola Seafood for some fried fish straight off the dory.
Don’t leave without: Taking in a spectacular sunset, be it from the beach with a dungeness crab cocktail from the aforementioned seafood shack, or overlooking Ecola State Park's Indian Beach after a brisk hike through the thick forest. -- Andy Kryza
Ocean City, Maryland
This Mid-Atlantic shore town is forever trapped in the '80s, and that’s why people love it. The vast majority of motels, hotels, and rental properties around town sprouted up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and nothing -- from the outdoor cover band at Seacrets to the French fries at Thrasher’s -- seems to have changed. There’s even a cult film, Ping Pong Summer, that encapsulates the '80s-induced nostalgia of a kid’s summer spent on the OC boardwalk. If you’ve visited OC during Senior Week, maybe you can relate?
Must eat/drink: Do as the locals do and add Maryland’s Old Bay seasoning and some vinegar to your bucket of Thrasher's French Fries. Ocean City is also the birthplace of the Orange Crush, a fresh-squeezed, orange-vodka cocktail that’s mixed with Sprite or 7UP. You can find it at the Harborside Bar and Grill, where the drink was invented, but Marylanders debate who serves the best one. Best bar hop to decide for yourself.
Don’t leave without: Visiting the sprawling outdoor beach bar that is Seacrets, Jamaica, U.S.A. It’s a 5,000 person capacity complex -- some call it an adult amusement park -- usually filled with tiki-themed bars, music acts, and a lagoon where waiters serve frozen beverages to patrons on inflatable rafts. Obviously, much of that's on hold. But even if you're worried about reduced groups, you can tap into the bar's live stream. -- Tim Ebner
Anna Maria Island, Florida
The northernmost of three cozy beach towns on a seven-mile-long island, Anna Maria is packed with so much old-Florida charm -- from its sun-faded architecture and ice cream shops to beachside seafood shacks -- it’s essentially a 1950s time warp. Outdoor adventurers will be happy with its array of paddle boarding and kayaking tours, plus snorkeling trips to nearby spots like Passage and Egmont Keys, where you can see stingrays, manatees, sharks, and dolphins. But at the end of the day, this is a bonafide sleepy town (the speed limits seldom exceed 35mph), so be prepared to blissfully check out on its pristine, quiet white-sand beaches from sunrise to spectacular sunset.
Must eat/drink: Grouper sandwiches from the very waters you’ll be looking at from Rod & Reel Pier; anything on the menu (but it should probably be the mullet reuben) from Sandbar since you can literally dip your toes in the sand as you bite into your order.
Don’t leave without: Biking to Bean Point to frolic in the powder white sands of this lesser-known beach located at the northernmost tip of the island. If it wasn't for the sweeping views of Tampa Bay and the iconic Sunshine Skyway bridge, you’d think you were in Castaway. -- Liz Newman
Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii
This North Shore surf town is not not touristy, but it’s your entry point to some of Oahu’s most stunning beaches, like surfer paradise Sunset Beach, or the sea turtle haven of Laniakea. Parking sucks, so explore Haleiwa’s charming main drag on foot. The road is lined with colorful old buildings, an architectural nod to North Shore’s sugar industry past, and most of the boutiques, art galleries, and eateries are locally owned. Hawaii’s oldest surf and dive shop, the waterfront Surf N Sea, has groovy Haleiwa-emblazoned apparel, while Aloha General Store is overflowing with Hawaiian-themed tchotchkes (even if you do not want tchotchkes, stop in for the renowned shaved ice/ice cream bowls).
Must eat/drink: Food trucks park themselves around town daily, including plenty of the North Shore’s famous shrimp trucks. But don't sleep on some of the world's best mobile poke, either.
Don’t leave without: Hitting the Haleiwa Farmers Market on Thursday afternoons. You can peruse locally grown produce and artisan-made crafts and nosh on fish tacos, mac nut-filled baked goods, and a wildly good honey and fruit slushie you’ll wish you could find the mainland. -- Lizbeth Scordo
Rehoboth has a long-established LGBTQ community, and you’ll spot plenty of buff dudes strutting along the beach in supernaturally small speedos. But this upscale retreat on the Atlantic is plenty friendly for families as well, with its classic boardwalk, amusement park, and free summer concerts. While most of the youths and boozy beach parties keep to Dewey Beach three miles down the road, Rehoboth boasts the better bar and restaurant scene. It’s also a haven for craft beer nerds; Dogfish Head’s founder Sam Calagione can often be seen skateboarding around town, and his flagship brewpub and restaurant, Chesapeake & Maine, is one of the first signs you’ve made it to the beach.
Must eat/drink: Local favorites include The Cultured Pearl for sushi with a rooftop view, or Henlopen City Oyster House for a raw bar spread. Meanwhile, Blue Moon rages into the night, and it’s where you’ll find drag queen competitions and shirtless bartenders serving shots of Fireball.
Don’t leave without: Taking a chill bike ride around Silver Lake, a sleepy neighborhood with water views and ornate million-dollar beach homes you may dream of one day owning. -- TE
Rincón, Puerto Rico
Rincón’s Caribbean cred is strong, but its “hang ten” vibes are imported by surfers from all over the world. Waveriders, tourists, and longtime locals alike are drawn to this tropical outpost for some of the hemisphere's best surf and sunsets. Drive along the legendary routes 413 and 4413 and you’ll quickly see why Rincón is catching up to bustling San Juan in popularity: Surfboard-carrying dudes contribute a Boho feel unique to the island; lines of food trucks continue some of the best eating traditions in Puerto Rico; and there are plenty offerings for active travelers like world-class scuba diving, horseback riding, and whale-spotting.
Must eat/drink: Rincón has plenty of bars for relaxing with a drink, but the beachfront Tamboo Tavern's mojitos are the perfect cure to the ills of the world.
Don’t leave without: Scuba-diving around Desecheo, a small, uninhabited island paradise located just 12 miles off the coast of Rincón and home to a kaleidoscopic seascape of wildlife. -- Norbert Figueroa
Tybee Island, Georgia
You’ll find Tybee just 30 minutes from historic downtown Savannah at the easternmost point of Georgia, a barrier island of wide, sandy beaches and a laid-back vibe with just the right amount of weird. There are plenty of hotels, but the picturesque pastel-colored rental homes with white Bahama shutters and white picket fences will captivate you. What truly sets this tiny island (it’s just over 21 square miles) apart is its long, funky history. Pop in at a dive bar (Huc A Poos, Tybee Time, or the Sand Bar), grab a beer, and chat up a local, who will probably be eager to tell you all about the town or nearby Fort Pulaski, a Civil War monument you can explore on bike or foot.
Must eat/drink: For a good, old-fashioned seafood platter on a dock with a water view, head to the Crab Shack. Want something a little more sophisticated? The Deck is technically Tybee’s only beachfront bar/restaurant and serves up juicy shrimp tacos and fresh ceviche.
Don’t leave without: Grabbing an ice cream or an old-fashioned malt at Seaside Sweets and heading to the pier at sundown, keeping watch for sea turtles and their nests throughout the summer. -- Allison Ramirez
Santa Barbara, California
The palm tree-lined coast of this bougie SoCal oasis has a Mediterranean flair, and a magnificent backdrop of scenic mountains and crystal blue waters. Don’t skip the deservedly hyped Urban Wine Trail in the Funk Zone, a span of 10 colorful blocks where converted warehouses and art galleries operate alongside 20 wine tasting rooms (read: wine crawl). On top of all the delicious Mexican food (try Lilly’s Taqueria), Santa Barbara boasts some of the best produce on the West Coast, so hit up The Santa Barbara Public Market, a food lover’s paradise showcasing local food purveyors where you can get a little taste of everything under one roof. SoCal visitors can also ditch the car and take the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner for a scenic route that drops you off a stone’s throw away from the Pacific Ocean.
Must eat/drink: New England clam chowder from Brophy Brothers. It’s creamy, it’s comforting, and it’s chock-full of clams. And while it doesn’t come in a bread bowl, it does come with a sweeping view of the harbor.
Don’t leave without: Grabbing a cocktail and playing a few vintage board games at the Moroccan-themed library bar, Djinn, that just opened inside the Hotel Californian. The Funk Zone-adjacent hideaway also hosts a monthly full moon celebration called HOWL, with a DJ and Tarot card reader. -- Leila Najafi
Summer in Maine is a heartbreakingly brief affair, but oh so worth it, if only for three months of pure bliss. And Ogunquit, located right off Route 1 in the state's southern corridor, is the state's summer sweet spot. The three-mile sandy beach is consistently ranked one of the country’s best, thanks to warm tides from the Ogunquit River emptying right behind the sand dunes. Pepper in a strong LGBTQ+ presence, a walkable main drag of superb eateries and artsy boutiques, and its very own Museum of American Art, and you'll see why “a beautiful place by the sea” is still a fitting translation for Ogunquit from the native Abenaki language.
Must eat/drink: Grab Frenchified Maine fare at The Crooked Pine, a located in a 150-year-old Victorian mansion (don't miss the rooftop lounge). Follow it with knock-you-over cocktails at alfresco Brix + Brine.
Don’t leave without: Strolling the Marginal Way, a cliffside path (like a mini version of Sydney’s Bondi-to-Bronte walk) that leads to Perkins Cove, an impossibly photogenic harbor with snazzy seafood joints and galleries. Have a classic rum punch, steamer clams, and the lobster roll of your dreams at Barnacle Billy’s. -- Paul Jebara
Folly Beach, South Carolina
The two-dozen bars and restaurants dotting Folly’s main drag, Center Street, welcome the shirtless, shoeless, and thirsty masses on this low-key, six-mile long sandbar. Folly's waves are known for their steep drops, drawing surfers from around the state to the island's "Washout" break. To lose the crowds, both ends of Folly are nature preserves that harbor endangered seabirds, loggerhead turtles, and bottlenose dolphins aplenty. If you've got the stamina to hoof it a half mile beyond where the road ends, the 19th-century, candy cane Morris Island Lighthouse emerges directly from the surf at the island's east end" Its namesake island provides one of Charleston's most iconic views.
Must eat/drink: Bert's Market is a 24/7 staple on the island ("we may doze, but we never close"), and their Wooden Spoon deli presses a mean panini. By late afternoon, migrate to Surf Bar, where you'll find friendly locals stretched out on the porch with a signature Painkiller cocktail in hand.
Don't leave without: Walking 1,000 feet out over the ocean on the Folly Beach Pier. Grab a cocktail from the open-air bar for the stroll or rent a fishing rod and bait from the onsite tackle shop. -- Stratton Lawrence
Paia, Maui, Hawaii
A historic village turned surf town, Paia is well, everything a tiny Hawaiian surf town should be: funky, bohemian, and blissfully free of gigantic resorts . Most visitors breeze through town on the way to Hana, but sticking around for a night or two at the Paia Inn, mere steps from the sandy shore, has its rewards. (For one, you might see Willie Nelson; according to local lore he periodically shows up to play an impromptu show.) Browse the art galleries and endearingly hippie-dippie boutiques, take a class at the yoga studio, hit the “secret” clothing-optional beach, or just take advantage of the many prime surfing locales along miles of panoramic coastline. Be sure to visit the crystal clear blue waters and scenic beaches of Baldwin Beach Park, just outside town.
Must eat/drink: The plate lunches at Paia Fish Market (order the ono!), shaved ice and poke from Tobi’s Shave Ice, locally grown produce from Mana Foods, and the smoothies with bee pollen and super fresh acai bowls from Choice Health Bar.
Don’t leave without: Catching a glimpse of the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtles that make their way to the shores at Ho’okipa Beach like clockwork each day. Ho’okipa is known as the windsurfing capital of the world, and while the intense surf isn’t the best for swimming, it’s fun to watch the pros take on the waves. -- Lauren Reichert
Gulf Shores, Alabama
Aside from hosting the supremely fun annual Hangout Music Festival -- returning next year... hopefully), Gulf Shores is very likely the scenic highlight of Alabama, a picturesque mash-up of pastel houses and high-rises. The sand is perfect powdery white and the water is clear and blue, a big reason why this is one of the top destinations on the Emerald Coast. It’s generally cheaper than its Florida counterparts and offers the added bonus of Gulf State Park, with zip-lining and near-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 a Southern breakfast joint should be, decked out like your grandma’s kitchen. -- Matt Meltzer
Wellfleet and Provincetown, Massachusetts
Quintessential vacation wonderland Cape Cod is 77 miles of sandy shoreline, lobster rolls, and Rockwellian towns. Of the latter, few are more adorable than Wellfleet, on the Outer Cape, where things are quieter and the pace is slower. Marconi Beach, part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, has wide beaches dotted with massive sand dunes. The water is a bit cooler here, and the waves harsher as they roll on from the Atlantic. Bayside, at Duck Harbor Beach, the water is warmer and it feels like you’re at the end of the world.
Just a short drive from Wellfleet on Route 6 is Provincetown, at the tip of the cape. P-town is known for its LGBTQ community, but walk down crowded Commercial street and you’ll see a delightful mix of drag queens, families with kiddos, locals, and a young artsy crowd from all over. Visit one of the many art galleries downtown, duck into the shops, and then hit the Lobster Pot (a favorite of Anthony Bourdain) for some chowdah, or Pepe’s Wharf for a lobster roll.
Must eat/drink: Fried clams at Mac’s Seafood. Take Commercial street through town until you reach the pier overlooking Wellfleet Bay. Order clams and fries at the shack’s take-out window and sit at one of the communal picnic tables in the sand overlooking the harbor and Mayo Beach. This low-key, grassy, bayside beach is perfect for swimming and a great spot to catch a sunset.
Don't leave without: Biking the Cape Cod Rail Trail. The 27-mile bike trail runs from South Wellfleet down to Yarmouth through salt marshes, cranberry bogs, evergreens and pine forests. It’s completely paved and mostly flat. -- Jennifer Mattson
MORE: Clam rolls, anyone?
Narragansett, Rhode Island
Tiny but mighty RI happens to have the best surfing in New England, and the best place to do it is Narragansett. It’s also home to one of the best beach bars in America at the historic Coast Guard House, where views of Narragansett Bay pair well with a platter of oysters and an ice-cold can of, well, take a wild guess. Gansett’s population more than doubles in the summer as surfers, families, and college kids flock to some of the region’s best beaches. The always-lively Narragansett Town Beach offers dramatic views of the “Towers,” the iconic remains of the bygone Victorian-era Narragansett Pier Casino -- but if you’d rather skip the admission fees, opt for one of the state beaches like Roger Wheeler.
Must eat/drink: Seafood, le duh. Hit up Aunt Carrie’s clam shack 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. -- MM
Small and quaint x 1000, Carmel-by-the-Sea proudly displays its Spanish colonial roots in the smallest details, from Spanish tilework to cottages seemingly plucked from a fairy tale. Soak up California’s coastal beauty -- winding hiking trails, cypress trees and pristine white sand beaches -- as you wander this pleasantly walkable, transportive village where, for two years in the '80s, Clint Eastwood served as mayor. Don’t miss the sun-bathing sea lions at Point Lobos Natural Reserve, or poet Robinson Jeffers’ cottage he built himself, stone-by-stone. If you’re feeling bougie, hit the green at Pebble Beach. Or channel the area’s boho vibes at the Sunset Cultural Center, which typically hosts hosts hundreds of performances a year.
Must eat/drink: Cultura Comida y Bebida is your one-stop shop for bomb Oaxacan fare -- think 30+ mezcals and an array of tacos that includes chapulines (toasted grasshoppers)
Don’t leave without: Taking the 17-Mile Drive tour. There are no ugly views on this scenic drive -- think dramatic, majestic cliffs, secluded beaches, even magical redwood forests. -- Liv Lawson
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Beach is a destination with two faces. One has long lived as a laid-back, middle-class family summer vacation hub with a crowded boardwalk, high-rise hotels, and endless frozen-custard shops. The other face, which has emerged over the past decade, embraces the growing local arts community in the Vibe Creative District, drawing in a younger crowd that definitely wasn’t traveling to Virginia Beach before, and especially not in the off-season. Suddenly, Virginia Beach is a destination beyond the boardwalkers: Just ask hometown hero Pharrell, whose Something in the Water festival is expected to come back next year.
Must eat/drink: Check out the sustainable food scene at airy Commune and Esoteric, where the dishes like sky-high burgers seem made for Instagram. While teens head off to wander the boardwalk, you’ll find a congenial family vibe at Waterman’s Surfside Grill.
Don’t leave without: Partaking in Beach Street USA, the annual summer entertainment lineup that is free and open to the public. Magicians, chalk artists, stilt walkers, and other acts take over Atlantic Avenue, endlessly entertaining visitors. -- Keryn Means
Ocean Springs, Mississippi
This quirky hamlet on the Gulf has a tiny historic downtown punching way above its weight. Seemingly every block has a cool bar with live music on a sprawling outdoor patio, interspersed with funky galleries and artists’ studios, independent shops, a giant art museum, and seriously good, inventive restaurants. The streets are lined with live oaks and colorful historic cottages, there’s catfish and barbecue aplenty, and, oh yeah, the 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 Street and find some water-bound expeditions. -- Matt Meltzer