Travel

Coast Busters

From picturesque village greens to rustic lobster shacks, these 12 small coastal towns have it all
The Best Small Beach Towns USA
Photo: ymn/Getty Images

Perennial hot spots like the Hamptons and Miami may offer endless activities, but nothing beats the charm of a small shore town. Here, exploring quaint streets on your bike or strolling leisurely on the sand, confident you won’t be in the company of thousands, summer days feel longer. If that sounds ideal to you, we’ve rounded up a few of our favorite coastal towns that are as gorgeous as they are low-key.

Chatham, Massachusetts

This classic New England beach town has a village green that would’ve made a great alternative location for Gilmore Girls. Staying in an Airbnb? Do as the locals do and pick up the catch of the day at Chatham Pier Fish Market. Or head to Hangar B Eatery, a favorite for breakfast and lunch that serves made-from-scratch everything in an airport. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

Camden, Maine

This is the kind of town that makes you want to drop everything and start your life over. The harbor is stunning, as are the well-preserved buildings that make up the main drag. Be sure to visit Long Grain, a beloved restaurant that pays homage to Thai and Vietnamese street food, Singapore restaurants, and everyday dinners in Indonesia and Japan. If you’re visiting during August 2 to 6, make the 10-mile drive to Rockland for the Maine Lobster Festival.


Carmel, California

There isn't an ugly part of this picture-perfect town, whether you're strolling through the storybook buildings that make up the shopping district or enjoying its lovely beaches. Go for the Carmel-by-the-Glass Fiesta Garden Party (July 21), where you can sample local vintages while strolling the gardens of the historic La Playa Carmel hotel.

Bluffton, South Carolina

A cooler, under-the-radar Hilton Head, Bluffton sits right on the May River, offering a calmer kind of coastal vibe. Whether you're into fishing or eating fresh catch at one of the many great restaurants, there's a ton to do in this little town. No wonder it's been the population has been growing at a fast clip in the last 10 years. Go for the three-day eating extravaganza known as Music to Your Mouth at Palmetto Bluff in November.

Noank, Connecticut

It's a less-crowded alternative to Mystic with all the quaint architecture (and seafood joints) you want in a coastal Connecticut town. Build your day around sampling the catches of the day at Ford’s Lobster, Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough and Costello’s Clam Shack. Your visit isn’t complete without taking a seat at the counter at Carson’s Store, a café and ice cream shop in a building dating back to 1840.

 

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Spring Lake, New Jersey

This peaceful Jersey Shore town is the antidote to the crowded beaches found up and down the coast. It has a tiny main street and so many gorgeous mansions you’ll likely strain your neck from gawking. We recommend packing a picnic basket with goodies from Tom Bailey’s Gourmet Market and enjoying the picture-perfect beach or lovely gardens.

Grand Marais, Minnesota

This scenic town on Lake Superior has become increasingly popular for creative types, who are opening up small businesses galore. The best table in the area is by the windows (or on the deck) of the Angry Trout Cafe, which sits right on the harbor and serves locally caught fish. Just get there early: Reservations are not accepted.

Saint Michaels, Maryland

This sleepy Eastern Shore town knows how to have a good time, with a year-round calendar of festivals that salute everything from oysters to wine. The best ticket of the summer is Watermen’s Appreciation Day (August 13), when you can watch boat-docking contests, then feast on steamed crabs. Still not full? Head to one of the many Instagram-worthy restaurants tucked into great homes, like the refined French Bistro St. Michaels).

 

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Ocracoke Island, North Carolina

This gorgeous island is reachable only by boat, ferry or plane. But the trip is worth the trouble, rewarding you with wild beaches and a truly adorable village. It’s the kind of place where everyone pretty much knows everyone—so raise a pint to new friends at 1718 Brewing Ocracoke or bond over crab cakes at Creole restaurant Flying Melon Cafe.  

Caseville, Michigan

There’s plenty of natural beauty ranging from sand dunes to forests in this Saginaw Bay town, along with a cute Main Street. It’s also a bit quirky—you can celebrate Jimmy Buffett, pink flamingos and all types of cheeseburgers at the Cheeseburger in Caseville Fest (August 10 to 20).


Surfside, Florida

This small community is just north of Miami but has all the Art Deco and historic appeal of the major city to the south. Hang with locals at First Fridays, a town-wide picnic where everyone takes to the sand. Missed the monthly event? Head to the popular Josh’s Deli, a Jewish-style spot offering innovative takes on traditional fare, like duck-fat matzo balls and crunchy tuna latkes.

Cannon Beach, Oregon

This beach town is enchanting for its incredible natural beauty, including Haystack Rock, a landmark you might remember from The Goonies. Explore the dramatic beach by foot, then head “downtown” to Cannon Beach Hardware & Public House. No, it’s not a cutesy name—it’s a great pub located inside a two-floor hardware store.

Brie Dyas is a contributing writer for Tasting Table and an avid collector of your grandmother's fine china. You can find her occasionally sharing photos on Instagram at @briedyas.

  • Carmel, California

    Whether you're strolling through the shopping district's storybook buildings or enjoying this town's beautiful beaches, Carmel is a sight to behold.

    Photo: © Sergio Parisi/Getty Images

  • Noank, Connecticut

    It doesn't get more picturesque than the old buoys decorating Ford's Lobster Shack in Noank, CT.

    Photo: Nathan Benn/Corbis via Getty Images

  • Surfside, Florida

    Just north of Miami, this small community has all the Art Deco and historic appeal of its cosmopolitan neighbor—without all the crowds.

    Photo: JR-stock/Getty Images

  • Chatham, Massachusetts

    Fishing boats moored off Chatham Pier. This town couldn't be more New England if it tried.

    Photo: Photography by Deb Snelson/Getty Images

  • Saint Michaels, Maryland

    This Maryland town boasts year-round festivals celebrating everything from oysters to wine. And rest assured, a good steamed clam is never far away. 

    Photo: ymn/Getty Images

  • Camden, Maine

    Curtis Island Lighthouse, located in Camden Harbor just off the coast, is a beautiful beacon for all to see. 

    Photo: dhughes9/Getty Images

  • Caseville, Michigan

    A blue heron in the reeds on the Michigan shore.

    Photo: RiverNorthPhotography/Getty Images

  • Grand Marais, Minnesota

    Grand Marais on Lake Superior is a popular destination for creative types and nature lovers alike thanks to its many small businesses and outdoor activities.

    Photo: Jeffrey Greenberg/UIG via Getty Images

  • Ocracoke, North Carolina

    This gorgeous island, reachable only by boat, ferry or plane, is well worth the trip thanks to its wild beaches and adorable village, where pretty much everyone knows each other.

    Photo: SkeetShooterPro/Getty Images

  • Spring Lake, New Jersey

    Forget the overcrowded beaches on the Jersey shore and take a note from this solo surfer surveying the calm morning water in Spring Lake.

    Photo: Nine OK/Getty Images

  • Cannon Beach, Oregon

    The rock formations off Cannon Beach have become famous thanks in no small part to everyone's favorite '80s movie The Goonies. Seeing them in person is well worth the trip.

    Photo: jenmstrong/Getty Images

  • Bluffton, South Carolina

    Canoe Club docks at Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, South Carolina, which holds the annual Music to Your Mouth festival.

    Photo: Montage Palmetto Bluff

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