Published May 7, 2020 5/7/2020

America’s 21 Best Beach Towns

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It’s that time of year again when we start thinking about those wonderful summer days at the beach. If you’re dreaming of a vacation in a seaside town, these spots offer something for everyone, whether you just want to enjoy an idyllic stretch of sand and solitude or to take in a host of amusements along with the chance to spend a day at the shore.

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Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island
Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island

Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida

Florida is full of charming beach towns, but Fernandina Beach, a small town on Amelia Island, a barrier island off the northern coast of Florida, has been luring in visitors for nearly 500 years. It offers a lively beach culture, seaside charm and a historic downtown bustling with a growing foodie scene. It’s also home to Fort Clinch State Park, the largest natural shoreline area on the island with 8,400 feet along the Amelia riverbank and 4,000 feet on the Atlantic coast. The dunes are perfect for taking a stroll, and you’ll also find a half-mile long pier for fishing and spectacular waterfront views. The brick fortress itself is one of the best-preserved 19th-century forts in the nation. Visitors can stand on its outer walls and take in more breathtaking views overlooking Cumberland Sound and the Atlantic shoreline.

Long Beach, Washington Long Beach, Washington
Long Beach, Washington

Long Beach, Washington

In Southwest Washington, not far from the Oregon border where the Columbia River empties into the Pacific, the Long Beach Peninsula offers a ton of fun for just about every one, along with lots of great seafood and colorful shops. In addition to 25 miles of gorgeous public beaches and state parks, the area is home to a new national park, two historic lighthouses, cranberry bogs and oyster farms. The charming streets of Long Beach are lined with amusements, including a carousel and carnival rides, game parlors, bike rental shops, quirky museums and candy shops, in addition to a variety of dining options from oyster burgers and fries to upscale dining featuring Northwest regional cuisine. Long Beach is also world-famous as the host of the Annual Kite Festival and a kite museum.

Provincetown, Massachusetts Provincetown, Cape Cod
Provincetown, Cape Cod

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Provincetown, situated at the far tip of Cape Cod in intensely beautiful surroundings including vast sand dunes and more than 30 miles of beaches, is known for its especially warm welcome to people of all types. Enjoy sunbathing on tranquil Herring Cove, strolling the sands of Race Point Beach and exploring the colorful downtown area with everything from great seafood shacks and fudge shops to art galleries, grand mansions, fine eateries, bookstores and coffee houses. It’s also a great spot for whale watching.

Pescadero, California Bench and view of Piegon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California.
Bench and view of Piegon Point Lighthouse in Pescadero, California.

Pescadero, California

Set between Santa Cruz and San Francisco, this charming town in the rolling hills along the coast makes a perfect weekend beach getaway with its fresh, clean air and pristine, uncrowded beaches. Visit Ano Nuevo State Park, known as the home for elephant seals who use the sand dunes here to rest and mate, as well as the multitude of wonderful beaches in either direction where you can explore tide pools teeming with all sorts of sea creatures. Enjoy off-road bicycling and hiking trails that wind through majestic redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains and take in downtown Pescadero’s many colorful shops and eateries. Don’t miss Pie Ranch, a sustainable working farm shaped like a slice of pie, offering a farm stand with fresh produce and seasonal pies along with picnic tables.

Santa Cruz, California Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is the perfect beach town for those who want lots of excitement along with time in the sun and the sand. Adventure seekers and outdoor enthusiasts will find practically an endless number of attractions, including hiking in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park just a few miles out of town, surfing at Pleasure Point, kayaking and paddleboarding at Santa Cruz Main Beach and riding thrill rides like the Giant Dipper roller coast at the Beach Boardwalk. The Santa Cruz Wharf is ideal for watching sea lions frolic in the water, shopping for beachwear and enjoying fresh seafood at any one of a number of restaurants while taking in beautiful ocean views.

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California Carmel-By-The-Sea
Carmel-By-The-Sea

Carmel-by-the-Sea, California

Carmel-by-the-Sea, a former artists’ colony on Monterey Bay, may be the ideal beach town for romance. Enjoy the blissful sounds of the waves crashing into the rocks and snuggling up with your loved one by a bonfire along the shore as well as indulging in one of the many wine tasting venues downtown. You’ll also find a multitude of romantic eateries with gourmet cuisine and ocean views as well as high-end shops and jewelry stores like Tiffany & Co. A wide array of accommodation options perfect for setting the scene for romance also await, including the chateau-style L’Auberge Carmel and Mission Ranch, an old dairy farm saved from developers by the city’s most famous former mayor, Clint Eastwood.

Kennebunkport, Maine Kennebunkport, Maine
Kennebunkport, Maine

Kennebunkport, Maine

Most people associate this Maine beach town with the shopping and dining at Dock Square, known for its colorful eateries like the legendary lobster at Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant, but the true highlight of a visit to Kennebunkport is driving on the backcountry roads searching for lobster traps piled high on Cape Porpoise, the small strip of sand at Goose Rocks Beach. The fortunate 1,200 residents who live in the area know that it’s one of New England’s true beach town treasures. While you’re here, you can enjoy one of the best meals in all of New England at The White Barn Inn Restaurant, west across the river in neighboring Kennebunk Beach, serving an incredible four-course prix-fix menu.

Bandon, Oregon Bandon, Oregon
Bandon, Oregon

Bandon, Oregon

The spectacular seaside beauty of Bandon, Oregon has been drawing visitors since the mid-19th century, some of which decide to never leave. This tiny town on the southern coast of Oregon is a quintessential beachside destination with shorebirds, ospreys, geese and bald eagles hanging out in a pristine salt marsh just east of downtown, while tufted puffins, murres and cormorants frequent the waters of the ocean just off Coquille Point. Gray whales migrate here and orcas are sometimes even spotted in the estuary. Bandon’s Old Town is filled with restaurants, galleries, boutiques, and bookstores, while the tidal flats just south of town are ideal for beachcombing.

Treasure Island, Florida Treasure Island Beach Florida
Treasure Island Beach Florida

Treasure Island, Florida

While Treasure Island used to be a treasure-seekers destination, today, this island on Florida’s Gulf Coast near St. Petersburg is known for its three miles of pristine, white sandy beaches. The barrier island offers the ideal beach getaway for swimming, snorkeling, parasailing, beachcombing and just kicking back and watching the sun dip below the water’s edge. During the summer, the town sponsors a sunset festival featuring street performers, artisans and live music. Sway to the sounds of the steel drum, watch magicians and fire eaters, all leading up to the grand finale: a glorious sunset.

Lahaina, Hawaii Paddleboarder in Napili Bay, Lahaina.
Paddleboarder in Napili Bay, Lahaina.

Lahaina, Hawaii

This former whaling village on Maui’s west side is a spot where the island royals hung out in the 19th century. It offers historic charm with colonial architecture buildings that proudly display their date of origin. Take a walking tour to visit many of its landmarks, like the local prison, built in 1853 to lock up delinquent sailors. Surrounding streets are lined with art galleries, cafes and trinket shops. It’s also a great spot for whale watching from December to May, and for picnicking any time of year, particularly under the town’s epic banyan tree which shades nearly an acre in its own park. Kaanapali Beach, just a few miles north, offers an ideal three-mile stretch of white sands at the edge of crystal clear azure waters.

Tybee Island, Georgia Tybee Island
Tybee Island

Tybee Island, Georgia

Tybee Island has been called the perfect beach town with plenty of white sand and great seafood eateries, including The Crab Shack, which claims to be the place “where the elite eat in their bare feet,” as well as North Beach Bar & Grill with its delicious sautéed shrimp and crab cakes. Visitors can also take tours to see the resident dolphins and explore two military forts. One of the best ways to explore the island is to rent a beach cruiser from Fat Tire Bike Rentals and cruise around at a leisurely pace. Check out the 239-year-old Tybee Lighthouse and ride the flat McQueen’s Island Historic Trail. If you visit in the fall, don’t miss the annual Pirate Fest, an event held every Columbus Day weekend that brings pirate enthusiasts from around the nation.

Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington

Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington

Friday Harbor, the county seat of the San Juan Islands, just a ferry ride away from Washington State’s mainland, is an ideal getaway for those who prefer cooler summers (high temps in the 70s), getting active and enjoying an abundance of wildlife. A number of beaches can be found throughout the island, including Jackson Beach, just two miles from the ferry landing, offering access to the calm waters of Griffin Bay. Visitors can also rent a bicycle or a moped and explore the gallery-filled downtown, paddle a kayak around the waters or take a whale-watching cruise for the chance to see the local orcas and other marine life like otters, porpoises and seals. You’ll also find a number of outstanding eateries offering gourmet farm-to-table cuisine.

Corolla, North Carolina Corolla, North Carolina
Corolla, North Carolina

Corolla, North Carolina

Corolla, the northernmost city on the Outer Banks, is known for its wide clean beaches with fine sand that gently slopes to the Atlantic as well as its wild horses. These mustang ponies are descended from equines brought here by Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago. A top beach town in North Carolina, you can take an off-road safari tour in a caravan or try to find the majestic horses on your own. In this angler’s mecca, you can also enjoy great fishing as well as take part in a variety of water sports including kayaking, jet skiing and surfing. On land, you’ll find a number of local golf courses, hiking trails and great seafood eateries. While it lacks “superstores,” shopping lovers are sure to enjoy the interesting locally-owned shops.

Newport, Oregon Newport, Oregon
Newport, Oregon

Newport, Oregon

Newport, on Oregon’s picturesque central coast, and is a great beach town for families. It’s home to numerous kid-friendly attractions like the Oregon Coast Aquarium and the Hatfield Marine Science Center along the Bayfront. You can also watch sea lions and spend time on idyllic sandy beaches building sandcastles, flying kites and all the other usual beach-type activities. Literary types will love it here too, with a bookstore on just about every block in the city’s oceanfront district, Nye Beach. While you’re here, you won’t want to miss visiting Yaquina Head, the site of Oregon’s tallest and second oldest active lighthouse. The lighthouse, which stands 93 feet tall, was completed in 1872, built at a natural area created by lava flow over 14 million years ago.

Beaufort, South Carolina Beaufort, South Carolina
Beaufort, South Carolina

Beaufort, South Carolina

This friendly town near Hilton Head on Port Royal Island is renowned for its historic antebellum architecture and mouth-watering local cuisine. It offers a perfect blend of southern charms and urban refinement as well as being a great base for exploring the surrounding natural environs like Hunting Island, a 5,000-acre state park with over three miles of unspoiled beach, known as some of the most appealing sands in the state. Enjoy leisurely strolls with mandevilla-perfumed breezes while taking in the slower pace of life in Beaufort. The walkable downtown boasts bookstores, art galleries, antiques and eateries with classic Lowcountry cuisine, including thick and spicy gumbos.

Ogunquit, Maine Ogunquit Beach
Ogunquit Beach

Ogunquit, Maine

Oquinquit translates to “beautiful place by the sea”, and it just happens to be known as the home of the prettiest beach in southern Maine. In the summer, locals and visitors alike plan their day according to the tides. In between high tide and low tide when the current of Ogunquit River flows out to the Atlantic, people head to the flat stretch of sand that rolls down the river bank carrying an assortment of floatation devices like inner tubes and rafts. The town is also known as the birthplace of summer stock theater, with its Ogunquit Playhouse still thriving after more than 80 years. No matter where you stay, you’ll be within easy walking distance to the beach, classic seafood shacks and boutiques filled items made by local artisans.

Cape May, New Jersey Cape May, New Jersey
Cape May, New Jersey

Cape May, New Jersey

Cape May is both an ideal destination for families and those who are looking for a romantic getaway, with its host of charming B&Bs, horse-drawn carriages and some of the most beautiful beaches in the country. Year-round, you can find entertainment, art shows, go boating, visit the zoo, sample a taste of craft beer at local breweries, take a self-guided wine tour or spend some time at the arcades on the promenade. It offers beach resorts as well as romantic inns and family-friendly hotels, along with great shopping at the Washington Street Mall.

Carpinteria, California Carpinteria, California
Carpinteria, California

Carpinteria, California

Santa Barbara’s southernmost town offers quintessential Southern California beaches, a relaxed pace, year-round mild weather and a wide sandy beach with beginner-size waves, perfect for learning to bodyboard. While mornings can be foggy, that can make for a perfect time to enjoy the pleasures of Linden Avenue, shaded by palm trees and lined with cafes, galleries and clothing stores. Enjoy breakfast at Esau’s, renowned for its fantastic chile relleno omelet, and when it’s time for lunch, stop for a burger at The Spot. This eclectic, artsy town is one of California’s few remaining beach communities that hasn’t lost its original flavor.

Haleiwa, Hawaii Haleiwa, Hawaii
Haleiwa, Hawaii

Haleiwa, Hawaii

This town on Oahu’s North Shore is the Hawaii you’ve envisioned, with clean, white sand beaches, palm trees and perfect surf. It’s also the social and artistic hub of the area, and it’s long been known as a surfer’s paradise, with great waves and a relaxed, laid-back attitude. The waves definitely do not disappoint – surfers and spectators gather here October through April for the thrilling daily water show. Whether you’re an expert or beginner, Haleiwa has waves for you. The town itself is filled with local style, cool surf shops and boutiques along with charming art galleries and restaurants.

Bar Harbor, Maine Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor, Maine

Perched on Mount Desert Island at the gateway to Acadia National Park, this historic resort town still maintains its Victorian splendor of bygone days. It’s filled with Victorian mansions converted into elegant restaurants and romantic B&Bs. The downtown area is especially walker and bicycle-friendly. Cycling enthusiasts will love the miles of trails in nearby Acadia National Park, with more than 40 miles of unique carriage trails ranging from easy to challenging.

Chincoteague, Virginia Chincoteague, Virginia
Chincoteague, Virginia

Chincoteague, Virginia

This small, serene island off the Virginia coast was made famous by a children’s book, but travelers of all ages will want to check out this beach town for the opportunity to see the wild ponies and enjoy access to the 37-mile-long Assateague Island National Seashore. In addition to being home to wild ponies, you’ll find foxes and a bird watchers’ haven with more than 320 species of birds, including herons and woodpeckers. Every year at the end of July, the ponies are rounded up to swim across the channel, one of the most unforgettable sights to experience. You can also enjoy filling of on baskets of fried seafood like shrimp, scallops and flounder at the Chincoteague Diner after a day of play on the beach.

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