The 25 Greatest Beach Towns in America
Clear your mind and picture the perfect beach. There’s probably a bustling boardwalk -- with the requisite Ferris wheel and hot dog stand -- while the signs of an endless summer are everywhere: flip-flops and sun burns, half-finished sand castles and a kaleidoscope of umbrellas. The air is fresh and salty, and the overall vibe can only be described as “chill.”
The US is downright lousy with beaches just like this one. From Hawaii to the Atlantic seaboard, with four distinct coasts (we see you, Great Lakes), there's no better country in the world for scratching out your patch of sunny sand. 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. Narrowing down the “best” is no easy feat; we considered everything from the quality of the beaches and year-round attractions to the local character, food scene, and charm factor. In no particular order, here are the 25 finest in the land.
Asbury Park, New Jersey
In the not-so-distant past, Asbury Park was best known as a dated Springsteen reference -- a once great tourist mecca, turned as stale as months-old saltwater taffy. Now, to call Asbury Park a beach town on the upswing would be selling it insultingly short. AP's iconic boardwalk vibes have now made way for a "Brooklyn on the beach" feel. You want absurdly good live music? The Saint, Wonder Bar, and the Stone Pony are three legendary venues that would all get top billing in any other beach town. You want to drink? Asbury Festhalle and Biergarten, the always-lively Johnny Mac's, and the delightfully divey Bond Street bar top 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 (with two ESA competitions held here every year), Nags Head proper stretches for 11 miles of beach and sound. It’s home to 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 and get your lure closer to Big Jake.
A laid back, feeling-fine attitude pervades the OBX, even as the area grows a bit more popular and a bit more sophisticated each year. Being so close to the Gulf Stream, fresh seafood is king here, and old-school family-run spots like Owens Restaurant are the move. 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 from small farms around the world. 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 newly-opened 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 U.S. 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
The rugged Pacific Northwest coastline is gorgeous beyond belief, though not exactly ideal for laying out on a beach towel. It’s here that you’ll find Haystack Rock -- aka that rock from Goonies and Point Break -- a towering 235-foot sea stack at the edge of Cannon Beach. Imposing geological features like this, and dramatic capes and headlands across Oregon’s 363-miles of free and public coastline, formed millions of years ago from lava flows. At low-tide you can check out all the colorful tidal-dwelling creatures like starfish, crabs, coral, green anemones, and sea slugs clinging to the rocks of the tidepools. The area is also flush with seabirds; a whole colony of Tufted Puffins calls Haystack Rock home.
Must eat/drink: Like any solid beach town, Cannon Beach is brimming with cute shops, galleries, and local haunts. Wayfarer, a beachside seafood joint (with its own whiskey lounge, I might add) provides primo views of the iconic scenery from its dining room. Seeing as how this is Oregon and all, you can find outstanding craft beer at Public Coast Brewing and Pelican Brewing Company. And definitely cannonball into a sourdough bread bowl filled with clam chowder from Mo’s Chowder.
Don’t leave without: Exploring the sea caves at Hug Point. The caves (and waterfalls too!) are only accessible during low-tide, so check the tide charts before your chart your trek. Ecola State Park is a not-to-be-missed PNW gem that’s absolutely worth the entry fee. -- Lauren Reichert
Ocean City, Maryland
This Mid-Atlantic shore town is forever trapped in the 1980s, 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 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 -- try it at M.R. Ducks, Fager’s Island, and Macky's too.
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 -- filled with tiki-themed bars, music acts, and a lagoon where waiters serve frozen beverages to patrons on inflatable rafts. -- Tim Ebner
Ocean Beach, San Diego, California
Ocean Beach is a laid-back, super-chill, sleepy beach town (OK, maybe it’s technically a neighborhood, but whatever.) This is one of the last places in SoCal where true SoCal vibes still exist in excess. There are plenty of tourists, but they're mostly unobtrusive, unlike at La Jolla or Coronado. Spend the morning body surfing before hitting one of the many oceanfront restaurants that specialize in fish tacos for lunch: Blue Water Seafood Market & Grill and South Beach Bar & Grille are the favorites. Hop between nearby breweries and eventually end up at the glorious underwater-themed dive bar Pacific Shores. Oh, lest we forget: The beach itself is beautiful, with long, wide expanses of sugar-soft sand.
Must eat/drink:You are in San Diego, aka Beer Town USA. Head to Pizza Port for hop-bomb IPAs, and pizza (this goes without saying, yes?) You may have to elbow children out of the way to make room for yourself at the communal tables. Also hit up Mike Hess Brewing Company in the hip 'hood of North Ocean Beach for some of San Diegan beer lovers' favorite beers (plus, it’s puppy-friendly). And because it bears repeating, you MUST spend a long night or two at the 75-year-old mermaid bar Pacific Shores.
Don’t leave without: Heading to Sunset Cliffs Natural Park and the adjoining Point Loma Ecological Reserve. The drive down Sunset Cliffs Boulevard alone is worth the trip. -- Nicole Rupersburg
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 almost always 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 sunset (arguably the most Insta-worthy one in the state).
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, especially on weekends, so explore Haleiwa’s charming main drag on foot. The road is lined with colorful plantation-era 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. You can’t go wrong with a fresh poke bowl from Hawaiian-Japanese truck Hale’iwa7, which also doles out excellent udon, curry bowls, and hearty hand rolls.
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. It’s also a required pitstop for Chesapeake crab cakes and oysters, or lobster flown in from New England.
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. -- Tim Ebner
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 (aka casual, never-ending roadside noshing); and there are plenty offerings for active travelers like world-class scuba diving, horseback riding, and whale-spotting.
Must eat/drink: Rincón boasts plenty of bars for relaxing with a drink, but Tamboo Tavern more than deserves a mention. At this beachfront bar and restaurant, the horizon stretches to infinity, while the classically prepared mojitos -- featuring a local rum you may or may not have heard of called Bacardi -- 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
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Each October, Myrtle Beach's Hawaiian Rumble hosts the "Masters of MiniGolf," drawing the world's best putt-putt wizards to this 60-mile stretch dubbed "the Grand Strand." That's the essence of Myrtle's charm -- all kitsch, all the time. It's a place to gorge yourself at pancake houses and seafood buffets, ride go-carts at breakneck speeds, and play the best darn mini golf of your life, over and over. Of course, there's also the sprawling, beige-sanded beach, anchored by a mile-long boardwalk that transports you back to the mid-20th century era of beachfront amusements. It's all lorded over by the SkyWheel, a 200-foot tall Ferris wheel with gondolas rocking A/C on hot summer nights.
Must eat/drink: Myrtle is a place to let go of culinary pretensions, but it's not totally lacking in kitchen creativity. Art Burger Sushi Bar manages to please an array of palates with a dozen burgers, generously proportioned rolls and steaming-cold cocktails infused with nitrogen. At the boardwalk's north end, Pier 14 packs an oyster po'boy that's worthy of its oceanfront view.
Don't leave without: Dancing the shag, the South Carolina state dance that originated here. The best shag clubs (we like Fat Harold's) are in North Myrtle Beach, where the beach music flows until after midnight as an all-ages crowd spins across the dancefloor. -- Stratton Lawrence
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. Locals stop by Sunrise Restaurant for its budget-friendly diner fare. Think all the pancakes, sunny-side up eggs and bacon you need to fuel up for a day in the sun.
Don’t leave without: Grabbing an ice cream or an old fashioned malt at Seaside Sweets and head to the pier at sundown, keeping watch for sea turtles and their nests throughout the summer. -- Allison Ramirez
Santa Barbara, California
The American Riviera is getting its groove back after recent wildfires and mudslides, as swanky new hotels and restaurants pop up everywhere in this luxurious-yet-homey city. The palm tree-lined coast 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 -- farm-to-table cuisine at its best. 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 so you can immediately kick off your shoes.
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 view of the harbor which can’t be beat.
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
Summertime in Maine is a bit like eating a lobster dinner. You gotta muscle your way through winter’s spiny shell to get to that sweet summer meat, and the reward is heartbreakingly brief -- sometimes just a fleeting three-month affair. Enter Ogunquit, located right off Route 1 in the state's southern corridor, a sweet spot that often gifts balmy Indian summers. 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: Frenchified Maine fare at The Crooked Pine, a brand spanking new restaurant in a 150-year-old Victorian mansion (don't miss the rooftop lounge). Rounds of knock-you-over cocktails at alfresco Brix + Brine -- specifically Sky is Pink, a silver tequila, fresh lime, and grapefruit shrub concoction crowned with an upside-down can of Italian Ramona grapefruit wine spritzer.
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 Center Street, Folly’s main drag, 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 has largely eroded, providing 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 (go for the turkey with Granny Smith apple and pepper jack). 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, complete with fresh grated nutmeg over the cool amalgam of pineapple, coconut and spiced rum.
Don't leave without: Walking 1,000 feet out over the ocean on the Folly Beach Pier (note: it'll be closed for renovations over winter 2019). 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 plantation village turned surf town on the North Shore, Paia is, well, everything a tiny Hawaiian surf town should be: funky, bohemian, blissfully free of gigantic resorts and over-priced tourist traps. 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 (catch it next year May 14-17), 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 (also lovingly referred to as the Redneck Riviera). 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
Cape Cod has everything you want in a beach vacation: miles of sandy shoreline, cute little towns, and, of course, lobster rolls. It’s why so many people flock here despite the horrendous summer traffic, and why rentals book out a year in advance. This 77-mile stretch of land has about a dozen towns, and 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 -- in August, P-town turns into one big Pride celebration during Carnival Week -- 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
Port Aransas, Texas
The Texas Gulf coast is littered with beach towns, each with their own quirky personality. Head to South Padre to party, to Crystal Beach for pristine vistas, and Galveston if you don’t mind a melee. Port Aransas, with miles of beach, colorful bungalows, fantastic fishing, and a big food and drink scene, is more of a choose-your-own-adventure. Though deeply impacted by Hurricane Harvey, Port A has rebuilt, reclaiming its place as one of the top Texas beaches. It’s inexpensive, unpretentious vibe makes it ideal for families and groups, bachelorette parties and birdwatchers. Kids have fun here too -- sailing on a replica pirate ship, riding horses on the beach, and taking dolphin tours. Once the sun goes down, people bounce from bar to bar on bikes or rented golf carts, looking for live music, cold beer, and karaoke.
Must eat/drink: Get your morning eye-opener at Coffee Waves, dig into the tropical fusion of Irie’s Island Food, enjoy a frozen beverage with a view at Back Porch Bar, and slide onto a stool at the “oldest, friendliest” bar in Port Aransas, Shorty’s.
Don’t leave without: Go to The Gaff for their legendary “belt sander races” the second and fourth Saturday of the month. It’s quite literally indescribable. For something potentially tamer, time your trip one of the charming festivals like Beachtoberfest, Harvest Moon Regatta, or Texas SandFest. -- Kelly Stocker
Narragansett, Rhode Island
They don’t call it the Ocean State for nothing, boys. Tiny but mighty RI happens to have the best surfing in New England, the best of which is at 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. -- Matt Meltzer
Are we still in California? 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 village that, for two glorious years in the ‘80s, Clint Eastwood presided over 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 world-famous golf course, Pebble Beach. Or channel the area’s boho vibes by hitting up the Sunset Cultural Center, a vibrant performing arts center that hosts hundreds of performances a year, or the beloved Carmel Art Walk.
Must eat/drink: Cultura Comida y Bebida is your one-stop shop for bomb Oaxacan fare and over 30 different mezcals. Don’t miss the tacos, even the chapulines, toasted and seasoned grasshoppers. Trust us on this.
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
Who knew environmentally conscious bohemians and some of the most affluent people on the planet (ahem, Tiger Woods!) could coexist in perfect harmony? Seaside Stuart -- aka the “Sailfish Capital of the World” -- knows no other way. Just north of Palm Beach, this town wrote the book on quaint: pastel-colored shops, waterfront sidewalk cafes, preserved 1800s homes-turned-Old Colorado Inn (seriously, don’t miss this place!). This refreshingly untouched portion of Atlantic Coast and its surrounding lagoons are home more than 4,000 species of plants and animals, making it the most bio-diverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere. It won’t take long before you feel like you're in an episode of Planet Earth -- the community has a strong shared commitment to keep it that way.
Must eat/drink: Locally caught oysters, smoked fish dip and one of the signature rum punches from the legendary beach bar, The Twisted Tuna.
Don’t leave without: Visiting Blowing Rocks Preserve, a 73 acre protected area known for being the largest Anastasia limestone shoreline on the Atlantic Coast -- and the giant near-50-foot waves crashing against it. -- Liz Newman
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Beach is a destination with two faces. One has had a long life as a laid-back, middle-class family summer vacation hub. Think high-rise hotels crowding the boardwalk; kitschy Atlantic Avenue shops selling custom t-shirts and hermit crabs; rowdy late night bars; and a Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard shop (we prefer the mint chocolate swirl) on every other block. 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. But even the stars are in on the secret: Pharrell recently brought Something in the Water to his hometown, featuring huge acts like Travis Scott, Missy Elliott, and Dave Matthews Band, further livening up this beachy community.
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. Or relive the ‘90s when bands like the Gin Blossoms and Toad the Wet Sprockets come out to play the concert stage at Neptune Park, home of the giant statue of Neptune that has become synonymous with this beach in postcards and family photos. -- Keryn Means
Grand Haven, Michigan
So, we may or may not have named Grand Haven the best beach town in Michigan, but sink your feet into the sugary sand at Grand Haven State Park and judge for yourself. There’s plenty to see and do downtown: grab some beers at Odd Side Ales, sip cocktails on the rooftop at Snug Harbor, suck down oysters at The Grand. This is the rare northern beach town that’s equally enjoyable in summer and winter -- popular with day-trippers, but not so much the summer vacay crowd, so you’re rubbing elbows with tried-and-true locals here. But at the end of the day it’s all about that big, beautiful beach, with its historic lighthouse pier, crashing waves, and Lake Michigan air.
Must eat/drink: Fricano's Pizza. Nothing fancy -- just 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. -- Matt Meltzer
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