From hip surf culture in the Pacific southwest, remote and rugged Hawaiian shores, sweltering bayou heat in the south and refined New England charm in the Atlantic northeast, America’s shorelines merit special attention. Their diversity and natural beauty are further enhanced by the range of charming beach towns and small cities that have developed there over the centuries. Here are 30 of the best.
Waves lap 88,633 miles (142,641km) of United States shoreline from the Arctic Ocean in the northwest, and the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean from west to east (according to the US Census Bureau). And all along these twists and turns of land, around the bays and inlets, estuaries and peninsulas, there are signs of human existence, from mighty cities like New York and Los Angeles, to remote towns and peaceful beaches. In all, 23 of the 50 States meet an ocean at some point, while an additional seven states have shoreline beach towns along one of the Great Lakes.
Therefore, we decided to ask a broad array of writers, travel bloggers, photographers and other in-the-know professionals to pick the five beach towns they consider to be the most charming in the United States. To be eligible for inclusion, a town or city had to have a population of fewer than 30,000 people. After totting up the votes, we now present to you, in alphabetical order, the 30 beach towns our survey deemed the USA’s most charming.
Asbury Park, NJ
Jersey Shore has today gotten itself a bit of a sleazy reputation, but few people realize that it is made up of 140 miles of direct coastline with plenty of diversity. For example, Asbury Park retains the traditional charm of the 1930s Jersey Shore, such as the boardwalks, arcades and water parks. Although not immune to The Shore’s post-war decline, Asbury Park has managed to pull off the phoenix from the flames trick more than once. First the city became a music hub, where locals like Bruce Springsteen got his start on the stages of venues like the Stone Pony and Asbury Lanes. The Garden State Film Festival brings filmmakers to Asbury Park every year, while the LGBTQ+ world enjoys a welcoming community and vibrant nightlife scene here too.
North Carolina’s Crystal Coast is 85 miles of gorgeous sand, most of which can be found forming offshore banks that shelter the mainland. Just inside this protective outer coastal layer you’ll find one of the first English settlements in North Carolina: the town of Beaufort, established in 1709. A slew of publications has awarded Beaufort accolades from the USA’s coolest small town, and even its favorite town. Now it can also claim to be one of the most charming beach towns in the US, thanks to its pretty waterfront docks and wild horses that live and roam freely through the Rachel Carson Reserve.
Cannon Beach, OR
The less-developed Pacific coastline often seems much wilder than the east coast, with its rambunctious waves and precipitous cliffs. Cannon Beach enjoys a real sense of watery wilderness, with large monoliths rising up above the surf and forest-clad hills plunging down to stretches of pristine, empty sand; apart from in June, when the annual sandcastle-building contest sees the beach transformed at the whims of imagination. To the north in Ecola State Park you’ll find isolated beaches and grazing elk. The town’s center exhibits an idyllic cluster of small eateries, shops and galleries hemmed in by Ecola Creek as it seeks the ocean.
Cape May, NJ
At the southernmost tip of New Jersey’s coast is the characterful little city of Cape May, which offers a decidedly different waterfront flavor to many of its Jersey Shore counterparts. The Victorian-era architecture is often exquisite, earning Cape May the designation as a National Historic Landmark. A look back at the town’s past is best captured by the museum and main Victorian-era building of Emlen Physick Estate. A walk along Beach Avenue reveals some of the quaintest buildings in the state, while the Atlantic rolls in opposite. Cape May Beach has regularly been voted one of the best in New Jersey.
California’s coastline, particularly the stretch between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is rightly lauded for its natural beauty. Throw a charming little city like Capitola into the mix and you have the recipe for a perfect beach getaway. There are plenty of pretty beaches around the city, like the more urban Capitola Beach, which is abutted by the quirky Venetian Court, a gaily painted set of condominiums designed in a Mediterranean colonial revival style. Further east, New Brighton State Beach is a pleasant and more secluded stretch of coast offering expansive views over Monterey Bay.
Further south of Monterey Bay, the coastline takes on a wilder, jagged and rocky aspect, the towns are more rustic and the general air is one of refinement. Carmel-by-the-Sea epitomizes this atmosphere, with its 18th century Mission, beautiful homes and penchant for attracting notable creatives to live there. Actors Clint Eastwood and Betty White, photographer Ansel Adams, and a bevy of literary icons including Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Robert Louis Stevenson and James Ellroy live or have lived in Carmel-by-the-Sea. They are no doubt attracted, in part, by the white sand beach, scenic coastal paths and largely rural-Pacific feel to the city’s layout. It’s certainly easy to imagine visiting and never leaving.
Wild, wild horses – or in the case of Chincoteague, feral, feral ponies – are one of the main reasons to visit this pretty Virginian island town. You can experience the rural vibe and learn all about Chincoteague ponies at the island’s history museum, or visit the various breeders located around town. This is a place to come and relax, grab an ice cream from the excellent Island Creamery, and hire a bike to explore Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, which lies just over the water on the outer bank between Chincoteague and the Atlantic. Here you’ll see the old red and white Assateague Lighthouse and no doubt encounter bands of horses pawing through the forest or wandering down the beaches.
Destin is a quintessential Florida Panhandle holiday city, with waterparks, coastal resort hotels and picture-postcard white sand lapped by turquoise Gulf of Mexico water. And of course, no self-respecting Florida city would be complete without its golf course, of which there are three nearby. Destin Harbor is packed with fishing boats, as well as homes with their own backyard dock. Word on the water is that it’s the luckiest fishing village around, but there’s only one way to test if that’s mere hyperbole. You’ll find dozens of fishing charters off Harbor Boulevard. Although quite heavily developed, the sand dune boardwalks at Henderson Beach State Park are a fine escape for the urban hubbub.
Hawaii has enough charming beach towns to fill out this entire list twice over but Hanalei is in a league of its own. The tropical town on the north shore of Kauai looks out over nothing but hundreds of miles of raw Pacific. The coast around here is remarkably beautiful, in part due to its isolation. You’re likely to have most of Lumaha’i and Wainiha beaches to yourself. Hanalei Bay itself is surrounded by verdant mountains that culminate in a wide, sweeping beach studded with lofty palm trees and water offering decent surfing conditions in the winter. Hanalei’s beauty has been acknowledged by all who’ve been there from Hawaiian royalty to various filmmakers and musicians over the years, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Lobster dinners and period architecture say a lot about the old shipbuilding and fishing town of Kennebunkport. Today it’s a well-to-do town with pretty wooden waterfront houses and a penchant for naming geographical features after animals, including Goat Island, Porpoise Cove and Goose Rocks Beach. Most restaurants serve Maine lobster, with crab and fish dishes also a popular feature at many of the excellent eateries in town. The best of the architecture can be found a little way inland at the Kennebunkport Historic District, such as the Greek revivalist building that houses the First Families Museum.
Key West, FL
Once you reach Key West, you can’t go any further. The pace of life at the end of the Florida Keys has attracted many notable individuals, including Ernest Hemingway, whose six-toed cat is said to have spawned the whole line of similarly dexterous felines that still live around Ernest Hemingway House Museum. Although home to 25,000 people, there’s always a sense of the rural pervading the streets of Key West, with chickens roaming freely through the streets and occasionally being shooed away from stores selling cigars and rum. Numerous museums and landmarks could keep a visitor busy at Key West for days, where you’ll also find the southernmost point of the Continental US, meaning that its southernmost beach town is one of its most charming.
Laguna Beach, CA
Plenty of people will already have heard of California’s Laguna Beach. The seaside resort city has been the setting for dramas and reality TV shows in the past and thanks to its proximity to Los Angeles, has been called home by luminaries from all walks including Buzz Aldrin, John Steinbeck, Bette Midler and even Warren Buffet. This self-professed artist colony has a little bit of everything, Orange Country charm, prime surfing beaches, coastal hiking trails and some wonderful beaches backed by low cliffs that conceal the odd boulder, arch and even a folly called the Pirate Tower.
Long Beach, WA
Washington State’s Long Beach is the kind of tiny west coast city that is ideal for lovers of the great outdoors. An excellent network of coastal trails passes through grasslands and forest, along boardwalks and up to clifftop viewpoints. Close to Long Beach town there’s a gray whale skeleton washed up on the beach. The town itself seems to specialize in eccentricities like the world’s largest frying pan, Marsh’s Free Museum, which is really a curio gift shop containing some unusual displays like a human skeleton and Jake the Alligator Man (pretty much what you’d imagine there). The World Kite Museum towards the south of the city showcases just how creative kite makers can be. You can also buy your own and make the most of that spirited Pacific breeze.
A name can say a lot in a short space of time. Connecticut’s Mystic, however is not the hubble, bubble, toil and trouble place that you’d expect. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; the historic shipbuilding village is New England’s premier destination for all things maritime. Aptly, it derives its name from the native Pequot people’s phrase ‘missi-tuk’, which is one of those delightful phrases with no direct translation in English. It refers to the moment when waves are formed on a large river due to action of the tides and/or wind. Naturally ships are common here, but are mostly of the historic sailing variety. Some offer cruises, others can be found at the Mystic Seaport Museum, while Mystic Aquarium concerned itself with all aquatic living things.
Nags Head, NC
Sounding more like a pub in England than a beach town, Nags Head is a long thin settlement on North Carolina’s outer banks. Early explorers would have seen high sand dunes here, but the outer banks are ever changing and now the only dunes remaining are at Jockey’s Ridge State Park, where you’ll find some good hiking and hang-gliding opportunities. Outdoor pursuits are the main attraction at Nags Head, with sea kayaking and dolphin spotting cruises the most popular trips. To the south of town is the 156-foot-high (48m) Bodie Island Lighthouse, and its 217-step climb to the top is open to the public.
Not only a place from where, allegedly, there once was a man, Nantucket is also a thoroughly charming island town. As one of the main destinations around New England’s Cape Cod region of Massachusetts, Nantucket enjoys a little less tourism thanks to its remoteness. Besides the historic lighthouses along its eastern shore there are numerous small museums and landmark buildings like the Neoclassical Hadwen House, making Nantucket one of the best preserved late-18th-century settlements in the US. The whole island is fringed with sandy beaches and, although roughly 17 miles from Madaket Beach to Great Point Lighthouse, Nantucket can largely be explored by bicycle.
Rhode Island may be the smallest state in the USA but it has plenty of contenders for the country’s top 30 most charming towns list. Leafy Newport, with its fine old Gothic buildings and impressive array of historic sites is certainly a contender for one of the very best in the country. Since its founding in 1639, Newport played an important and unfortunate role in the slave trade and the American Revolution. Fort Adams is the city’s main fortification and was used particularly during the War of 1812 and the Civil War. By the latter half of the 19th century, monied families such as the Vanderbilts built their Gilded Age mansions in Newport, with the city’s upper-class social life best depicted in Edith Wharton’s book The Age of Innocence. You can take tours of a handful of these mansions, including Chateau-sur-Mer and The Elms. Pretty beaches, cliff walks and the Tennis Hall of Fame are just some of Newport’s many other highlights.
Ocean City, MD
Maryland’s resort destination, Ocean City, is such a draw for visitors that during the summer months its population can grow up to 50 times larger. As such there’s a very definite off-season in Ocean City, although seasonal festivals like Springfest and the reduced crowds are great reasons to visit during the shoulder season. Ocean City has the air of the classic Jersey Shore town, but thanks to major refurbishments it feels fresher. All the classic elements are there: amusement and water parks, a 2.5-mile (4-km) boardwalk complete with its shabby-chic ocean gallery and fast food outlets, and a thick ribbon of soft yellow sand.
The Native Abenaki tribe’s word Ogunquit means ‘beautiful place by the sea’, and both the meaning and the name stuck. In the early 20th century, the town was equally popular with the fishing families as it was with artists and the subsequent creative colony’s work is now on show at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. You’ll find works by artists like Edward Hopper, Jack Levine and Marsden Hartley, among many others. The small settlement’s homes are spaciously scattered along the rocky coastline, with the rocks occasionally parting into coves with pebble beaches. The Marginal Way is a gentle walk over the clifftops connecting the town’s modest landmarks like the squat Lobster Point Lighthouse.
Paia is an idyllic little beach town on Maui’s northern coast, which enjoys a decidedly laid-back vibe. Buddhism and boards are the main draw of Paia, with the in-town Dharma center and the excellent nearby beaches of Baldwin and Hookipa. The latter beach is best known for windsurfing and many ardent windsurfers see this location as one of the best in the US. Paia is also a great place to begin and end a drive of the Road to Hana, a revered scenic route that circumvents Haleakala National Park and involves negotiating the narrow highway’s 617 curves and 54 single-lane bridges.
North America’s Great Lakes have shorelines too and it’d be remiss to ignore some of the charming lakeside settlements dotted around. For those who’ve never visited the Great Lakes, it might be a surprise to learn that sandy beaches are commonplace. Michigan’s Pentwater has Old Baldy, a sand dune located in Mears State Park, reachable via a 1-mile (1.4-km) hiking trail. The village’s residents are the key to Pentwater’s pleasant, easy-going charm, as you’ll no-doubt discover during a stroll along the peaceful streets. The main reason to visit though is the water, with the calm Pentwater Lake sheltered from the vagaries of the larger Lake Michigan, making it a popular spot for kayaking. In winter it often freezes over, to be commandeered by ice fishers. Boat charters are readily available for those who’d like to explore further out.
The profusion of golf courses and top-class resort hotels announce Kauai’s Poipu as an exclusive destination. But it’s really the natural beauty around the town that holds the real charm. The coastline here consists of a series of pretty coves and bays, each with a modest, sandy beach and near-shore coral reefs great for snorkeling. Turtles are often seen in this area as well, although should be respectfully left to get on with their business when coming ashore to lay eggs. To the east of town at shipwreck beach, the surfing is particularly good, as is the coastal hiking path that leads to Makauwahi Cave Reserve and a series of isolated beaches.
Cape Cod’s northern tip is capped by Provincetown, which marks the site where a large piece of American history was quite literally written. It was here in November of 1620 that the Pilgrims, aboard the Mayflower anchored in what is now known as Provincetown Harbor and signed the Mayflower Compact, which was to form the basis of law for the Plymouth and Cape Cod region thereafter. Provincetown’s 252-foot-tall (77m) Pilgrim Monument commemorates this. The real charm of Provincetown though is its pretty little harbor and exceedingly beautiful beaches, not least Race Point Beach with its 19th-century lighthouse. Furthermore, Provincetown’s open, accepting people have long provided a safe, welcoming space for the LGBTQ+ community.
Rehoboth Beach, DE
Rehoboth Beach, along with Dewey Beach to the immediate south, form the backbone of Delaware’s celebrated beaches. Known for their cleanliness, William Penn designated the beaches to the north of the city as a public space way back in 1682. Cape Henlopen State Park is one of the more curious nature preserves in the US because it was formerly a military base, having held a strategic importance since the American Revolution. Around Fort Miles you can still see observation towers and the odd piece of artillery. Rehoboth Beach’s boardwalk is one of the east coast’s best, and a number of times a year it becomes the focus for one of Rehoboth Beach’s annual festivals, including the jazz, independent film and the Sea Witch festivals, with the latter hosting parades, costumes and dancing.
Sanibel Island, FL
Located off the southwest coast of Florida, the barrier island of Sanibel is known for its shells. Beachcombers can pick their way along the long expanses of coarse sand, like those at Bowman’s Beach, looking for their own specimens. Alternatively, see the grand collection at the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum. Sanibel Island’s human story is largely one of first conquering the elements, by controlling the wetlands and building a causeway from the mainland. In recent decades however, the focus has shifted more towards long-term goals through conservation and protection of these delicate environments, with much of the island dedicated to wildlife refuges, particularly JN Ding Darling, where you might be lucky to see roseate spoonbills, mangrove cuckoos, pelicans, alligators, turtles and even a bobcat.
Pentwater may have one sand dune, but at Saugatuck there’s a whole state park dedicated to exploring the peaks and troughs of sand, that have been anchored in place by vegetation over time. With all that sand, it’s perhaps no surprise that Saugatuck also has Oval Beach, one of the best beaches anywhere on the Great Lakes. It is separated from Saugatuck town by the 794-foot-high (242m) Mount Baldhead, reached by steep wooden steps and offering scenic views from the top. Along the Saugatuck high street the profusion of galleries and a large Center for the Arts owe their existence to the long-standing presence of an art colony in town.
St. Augustine, FL
History-lovers will find St. Augustine to be one of the most fulfilling destinations anywhere in the US. After all, it is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited, European colonizer-established settlement in the US. Founded in 1565 under conquistador Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, it was long the capital of Florida and today it remains a small but fascinating city. Naturally, due to its age, St Augustine is a city of firsts for the US, including the first wooden schoolhouse and the oldest surviving colonial house, which is now a museum. The Colonial Quarter is effortlessly charming. Sandy beaches can be accessed at Anastasia State Park nearby.
Tybee Island, GA
You can tell how important the defense of Savannah, Georgia once was just by looking at the old military and maritime infrastructure around the coastal town of Tybee Island. Historic lighthouses and old forts, especially Fort Pulaski National Monument, are dotted all around the barrier island. Tybee Light also has a museum and the views from the top are worth the climb. Boardwalks connect the town to the gently shelving Mid Beach and North Beach, while to the south of town, Tybee Beach Pier is popular with fisherfolk. A good cluster of eateries specialize in fresh seafood.
The third Cape Cod area-town represented on this list, Wellfleet, is surrounded by the best of the region’s natural beauty. Enveloped by the Cape Cod National Seashore, there are numerous hiking trails, boardwalks and wildlife sanctuaries to explore, encompassing a broad range of terrains, such as saltmarsh, heath and deciduous woodland in a relatively small area. Wellfleet’s oysters are one of the main attractions however, with Wellfleet OysterFest taking place each October. And given that you are likely to be reading this article on the internet, it’s well worth noting that Wellfleet was the site where the net’s earliest precursor, the telegraph, had its first successful transatlantic transmission. The remains of Marconi’s Wireless Station can still be seen.
Wrightsville Beach, NC
If you ever watched the TV series Dawson’s Creek there’s a good chance that you’ll find Wrightsville Beach to be a very familiar place. Most of the series was filmed here, and in nearby Wilmington, particularly on the Harbor Island portion of Wrightsville Beach and around Banks Channel. Bluewater Grill was one such filming location and offers excellent waterfront dining. The beach itself is a lovely, broad expanse of sand that shelves gently into the Atlantic Ocean. Wrightsville Beach Museum of History depicts what life would have been like in the town a century ago.