Travel

Beach, Please

Lobster shacks, mini golf and ice cream are just the beginning in America's 11 best beach towns
The Best Beaches in America
Photo: Image Source/Getty Images

With miles of coastline and plenty of lakes with sandy shores, the U.S. isn't short on beautiful beaches. But a great place to lay out doesn’t always come with a town that’s fun and interesting in its own right.  

So we’ve rounded up 11 of our favorite beach towns across the country that have it all: surf, sand and so much more, whether it's a fascinating history, a hidden artist hub or, our favorite, delicious food. Here are America's best beach towns.

Shelter Island, New York

Known as the “un-Hamptons,” this unpretentious island has everything you could want in a beach town: Uncrowded beaches like the narrow curl of shorelines that are Shell Beach and Sunset Beach (take in that sunset while sipping a cocktail at Sunset Beach hotel); freshwater ponds that make perfect swimming holes; and Whale’s Tale, which combines summertime staples miniature golf and ice cream. Mashomack Nature Preserve boasts a kayak trail, walking paths and a historic plantation with a working farm—so you can stay active after diving into brunch at the seasonally focused Red Maple or dinner at the Italian-inspired 18 Bay.

Saint Petersburg, Florida

Though neighboring Clearwater may get all the attention for its pristine, white-sand beaches and warm Gulf waters, St. Pete has an identical shoreline, plus the added bonuses of high-quality restaurants like The Mill and Sea Salt, longtime local institution Ted Peters Smoked Fish, and casual Cuban sandwich spot Bodega. You can also find an impressive art scene with world-class institutions like the Salvador Dali Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Morean Arts Center. And when you're ready to get outside again, you'll find easy access to Fort De Soto Park, where you can spot pelicans, herons, egrets, plovers, dolphins and, in summer, nesting sea turtles.

Order window | Photo: Courtesy of Bodega

Cannon Beach, Oregon

Cannon Beach’s landscape—with its massive rocks jutting out of the water, long sandy stretches of beach and National Wildlife Refuge with colorful tide pools and nesting seabirds like Tufted Puffins—understandably gets a lot of love. But the town itself is also pretty perfect. Known as an artist haven, Cannon Beach is filled with galleries, glassblowing studios and public art installations. The food’s not bad either. Start the morning with a coffee and homemade pastry at Sea Level Bakery, have a bowl of clam chowder for lunch at Mo’s and enjoy fresh-caught salmon with a local brew for dinner at Wayfarer.

Holland, Michigan

This Dutch-founded town on the shores of Lake Macatawa takes its heritage seriously: It’s home to a centuries-old windmill, a tulip festival and Dutch-inspired food, like the classic pastries from deBoer Bakkerij & Dutch Brothers Restaurant. Non-Dutch options range from The Biscuit's creative breakfast dishes to Boatwerks' elegant waterfront dining. The beautiful lakeshore includes Holland State Park, Laketown Beach, Tunnel Park, a charming red lighthouse and sand dunes that provide sweeping views.

Basket of lobsters on the beach | Photo: EJ Johnson Photography/Getty Images

Ogunquit, Maine

Maine is home to some of the most beautiful shoreline on the East Coast, but its craggy cliffs and cold, rough waters often make it hard for swimming. But Ogunquit—which was named by the Abenaki tribe and means “beautiful place by the sea”—has swimmer-friendly beaches, streets lined with charming shops and classic New England lobster shacks. Hiking trails and farms surround the town, including Beach Plum Farm, which hosts more than 50 community garden plots.

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Santa Monica, California

Santa Monica has it all: perfect weather, an amusement park on a pier and a classic boardwalk. Impressive eats range from beachside corn dogs at the original Hot Dog on a Stick and stellar baked goods at Huckleberry Bakery & Cafe to the iconic Michael’s, which just got a revamped menu by Miles Thompson, and delicious pizza at Milo & Olive. Top it all off with ice cream from Sweet Rose Creamery—a must.

Milo & Olive's aperitivo cappelletti & bianca pizza | Photo: Rick Poon

Chatham, Massachusetts

Cape Cod is full of picturesque beach towns, and, truthfully, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Chatham, for one, boasts a classic lighthouse, beautiful beaches and a quaint Main Street. There are also various historic homes, a historic railroad museum and a grist mill from 1797. Eat at the Impudent Oyster or at one of the four restaurants at Chatham Bars Inn, which sources ingredients from its own farm.

South Padre Island, Texas

This barrier island on the Gulf of Mexico has powder-soft sand, kid-friendly waves and plenty of sunshine. If you're into bird watching, take a stroll along the boardwalk to the Laguna Madre wetlands. You might even spot an alligator or two. Food-wise, Yummies Bistro is the place to go for fluffy pancakes and quality coffee in the morning, while Ceviche Ceviche offers tasty Latin American fare and Dirty Al’s is a must for seafood; get the fried shrimp. Bonus: The fishing is superb on South Padre Island, with snapper, grouper and tarpon ripe for the catching—and eating.

Folly Beach, South Carolina

Just a few miles east of Charleston, Folly Beach is a classic Southern beach town with world-class hospitality, perfectly fluffy biscuits and palmetto-lined streets. Shrimp and grits are practically a way of life here—head to Rita’s Seaside Grille for some of the best—and if you’re craving biscuits and gravy, Lost Dog Cafe is the place to go. Then walk along the picture-perfect pier, surf the crashing waves and relax with a sweet tea on the beach.

Smoked sausages | Photo: Courtesy of Northern Waters Smokehaus

Duluth, Minnesota

When you drive north into Duluth from Minneapolis, you can’t help but be awestruck by the sudden appearance of Lake Superior’s bright-blue waters and the sailboat-filled marina. Continue north and you'll hit the classic Split Rock Lighthouse jutting out on the pier. Indeed, rocky cliffs, sandy shores and pristine forests with miles of trails might make you forget about the beach altogether. Add to that a historic brewery, replicated logging camp and the Judy Garland Museum about an hour's drive away, plus restaurants like Northern Waters Smokehaus and New Scenic Café, and it becomes clear Duluth is like no other beach town in the country.

Hanalei, Hawaii

Laid-back Hanalei on Kauai’s North Shore is surrounded by green mountains, dripping waterfalls and surf-perfect waves. Add in the weekly farmers' market full of tropical produce and the robust food truck scene, and this resort- and chain-free town spells the ideal beach destination. Those food trucks serve everything from poke, which can be found at year-old Kealia Poke, to Indian fare from Cafe Turmeric, which happens to be organic and gluten free. When temps rise, make a beeline to Wishing Well Shave Ice or JoJo’s Shave Ice.

Devorah Lev-Tov is a contributing writer for Tasting Table who travels the globe—and traverses NYC block by block—in search of her next amazing meal. See her latest adventures on her Instagram at @devoltv.

  • Cannon Beach, Oregon

    Photo: David Gn Photography/Getty Images

  • St. Petersburg, Florida

    Photo: mariakraynova/Getty Images

  • Shelter Island, New York

    Photo: iShootPhotosLLC/Getty Images

  • Holland, Michigan

    Photo: standret/Getty Images

  • Ogunquit, Maine

    Photo: Oleg Albinsky/Getty Images

  • Santa Monica, California

    Photo: Ed Burns/Getty Images

  • Chatham, Massachusetts

    Photo: Image Source/Getty Images

  • South Padre Island, Texas

    Photo: Hundley_Photography/Getty Images

  • Folly Beach, South Carolina

    Photo: Gary Carter/Getty Images

  • Duluth, Minnesota

    Photo: gkuchera/Getty Images

  • Hanalei, Hawaii

    Photo: ejs9/Getty Images

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