America’s 20 Coolest Beach Towns

by Amanda Machado

Where the living’s easy…

The 20 coolest beach towns in America are about drinks at sunset and living in flip-flops. They’re about waking up with sand in your sheets and going to work barefoot. Perfect days here are ones with the right wave, the right wind, or the right fish. And the people who live here know the one thing they could never live without is the ocean.

We picked our twenty favorite beach towns based on the following criteria:

1. Small: No major cities allowed.

2. Year-round energy: The town can’t pack up and leave after “the season”.

3. Entertainment outside of the beach: Music, breweries, galleries, museums, and festivals also play integral parts of the culture.

The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, Florida

Photo courtesy of The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel

There are more than enough reasons to love Fort Myers and Sanibel Island: great weather (the Gulf water averages 76 degrees, almost never dipping below 60 even in the wintertime), delicious food (it’s rumored that Jimmy Buffett wrote “Cheeseburger in Paradise” after dining at an area restaurant), fantastic outdoor sports. It has the best of Florida, without the over-development. It’s also been repeatedly voted as the #1 shelling beach in the nation by Travel + Leisure. 

Honor roll

Drinks: Peel ‘n eat shrimp and a cold beer at the Lazy Flamingo.
Eats:  Stop by Andy’s Island Seafood Mobile Truck. Also visit Sanibel Farmer’s Market and the Captiva General Store.
Coffee: Visit The Island Cow for a big breakfast or lunch. Try a slice of Key Lime Pie at the Key Lime Bistro.
Things to do: Visit Bowman’s Beach, one of the world’s best shelling beaches. Cheer on spring training baseball in Fort Myers. Visit the Edison & Ford Winter Estates Museum. Check out the the National Shell Museum and paddle in the JN “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. Explore the Matlacha Pass National Wildlife Refuge.

Stinson Beach, California

Looking for a beach town that embodies the slow life? You’ve found it. Stinson, a cherished staple of Nor Cal folks,   sits between the Pacific Ocean and Mt Tamalpais, an area with some of California’s best views and hikes through old growth redwood forests. The town’s main drag doesn’t have a single stop light and during the week, you might have the beach literally to yourself.

Honor roll

Drinks: Have a freezing cold Mirror Pond draft at Sand Dollar Restaurant.
Eats: Stop in for a gourmet meal at Parkside Cafe.
Coffee: Breakers Cafe.
Things to do: Visit Stinson Beach State Park and take any of the several hikes that stem from the beach.

Bar Harbor, Maine

Martha Stewart vacations in this artsy town that has access to Acadia National Park as well as some of Maine’s best sandy beaches.

Honor roll

Drinks: Cottage Street Pup has super interesting drinks, located in a hallway-sized space. Or, for an outdoor gazebo bar where the locals go, visit the Dog and Pony (they’re also the only place to get food late-night).
Eats: McKay’s Public House has a great lobster mac and cheese in a fabulous ambiance (a historical building with outdoor seating in the summertime, and fireplace tables during winter). The restaurant also has the town’s best local and international beer selection (they even have a cask-conditioned tap line). Ask for Chris ‘Rome’ Romero, their locally-famous bartender here; he knows all there is to know about beer and brews his own.
Cafes: Two Cats bakery has a huge outdoor covered porch and a really good breakfast burrito. Jordan Pond House is known for their homemade Maine blueberry jam. Cafe This Way also serves excellent bloody mary’s.
Things to do: Stay one night in the Acadia Yurts in nearby Southwest Harbor. Hike the peak of Cadillac Mountain, where the first sunrise in the United States is said to occur. Go whale watching. Visit the Abbe Museum for Native American artifacts from the region.

Cannon Beach, Oregon

Photo courtesy of Explorer Media Group

Only an hour and a half away from Portland, Cannon Beach has art galleries, seafood joints, and even its own distillery, in addition to beaches that have made cinematic history.

Honor roll

Drinks: The Warren House Pub offers locally brewed beers (or visit Bill’s Tavern and Brewhouse, its sister location in downtown). Cannon Beach Distillery produces small batches of gin, rum, whiskey and agave spirits. Two wine shops also offer wine tastings: The Wine Shack (offering a  good selection of Northwest wines) and Puffin Brand wines (named after the puffins that nest on Haystack Rock).
Eats: Splurge on fine French and Italian dining at Newman’s. Explore Northwest seafood at The Wayfarer Restaurant. For casual food in a nice setting, have a soup or sandwich at Seasons Cafe.
Coffee: Sleepy Monk Coffee features coffee roasted locally.
Other things to do: Take a picture near Haystack Rock–the rock from Goonies and the final scene of Point Break. Visit Ecola State Park where you can hike through rainforest and scenic beaches. Visit one of the dozens of art galleries in downtown.

Tybee Island, Georgia

Only a half hour from Savannah, this 2.7 square mile island (where Sandra Bullock owns a house) has the quiet, southern hospitality you’d expect from Georgia.

Honor roll

Drinks: Rock House Bar has kareoke Sundays and live music throughout the weekend. Go dancing during their “Seduction Saturday” parties each week.
Eats: Eat Pecan waffles at the Breakfast Club, the restaurant that famously catered JFK Jr.’s wedding. Try Low Country Crab Boil at the Crab Shack.
Cafes: Tybee Art and Coffee.
Things to do: Visit the Tybee Lighthouse. Watch dolphins on one of the area’s boat tours.

Santa Barbara, California

Sometimes called the “American Riviera”, this iconic beach town also satisfies mountain-loving beaching bums by having access to the Santa Ynez mountains nearby.

Honor roll

Drinks: Joe’s Cafe has been around forever and is famous for serving the strongest drinks in town. Visit Santa Barbara Brewhouse or get drinks right on the beach at Boathouse. Go wine tasting in the Santa Ynez Valley (check out Rancho Sisquoc winery).
Eats: Have breakfast at Mesa Lane Cafe or Summerland Beach Cafe. Have dinner at Brophy Bros.
Music Venue: Santa Barbara Bowl, home of Bob Marley’s last show.
Things to do: Hike or mountain bike off of Chumash Pass or just cruise down at Hendry’s beach. Dawn Patrol in the water at Rincon during a firing WNW swell.

Asbury Park, New Jersey

Photo Courtesy of Madison Marquette

Unlike a lot of the boardwalks on the Jersey shore, this town is neither douchey, tacky, or owned entirely by the 1%. And it’s got a bar, restaurant, and live music scene that’s better than most small cities.

Honor roll

Drinks: The Anchor’s Bend has drinks on the beach and great live alternative music. Or visit Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, Brick Wall, and Watermark before heading downtown for a cheap beer and greasy drunk food at Bond Street.
Eats: Start the morning with a pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwich at the legendary Frank’s Diner. Visit Happiness Luncheonette, Mogo, Taka, or the Speakeatery (try the cheesesteak: it’s better than anything you’ll find in Philly) for lunch.
Coffee: Asbury Park Roastery, Cafe Volan, and Lola’s European Cafe (don’t just get the coffee: try the sandwiches and gelato).
Music Venue: The Stone Pony, has a summer stage close to the beach and always a great line-up. You can also catch music at Asbury Lanes, the Saint, and Wonderbar.
Things to do: Check out some of the art galleries on Cookman. Get a cocktail on the beautiful Watermark Rooftop, and then hit up the weekly beach bonfire. Take your kids to the Splash Park on the other side of the boardwalk. Take your dog to the Dog Run Beach on the Northern end of town, or to Wonderbar’s Yappy Hour.

Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

This small coastal town has white sand beaches and Southern charm, but also a flourishing artistic community that helps build a full calendar of cultural events.

Honor roll

Drinks: Buoy’s Bar has live music and drinks right on the beach. Or, visit The Blind Tiger.
Eats: The Buttercup on Second Street.
Coffee: Mockingbird Cafe is a bookstore/town meeting spot/pub by night. Stay a while to see the whole town pass by.
Other things to do: Catch a show at Bay St. Louis Little Theater. Visit the artist co-op (Gallery 220) or Maggie May’s art gallery. Drive less than an hour to New Orleans to enjoy the city’s nightlife for the evening.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

This centuries-old town began as a fishing settlement for England’s Puritans and now has grown to attract renowned artists and a happening gay scene.

Honor roll

Drinks: Pied Bar is the longest continuously running lesbian bar in the country. Crown Anchor Provincetown is another popular gay bar in town. Aquabar has a great ambiance for cocktails on the beach.
Eats: A late breakfast at Manuel’s in Port Isabel (no need for lunch, that way). Head to Boomerang’s for a small lunch. Or grill lobster tails and shrimp from Dirty Al’s for dinner.
Coffee:  Joe’s Coffee and Cafe.
Other things to do: Sunbathe on peaceful Herring Cove. Visit Race Point Beach, the protection of the Cape Cod National Seashore. Visit the gallery-lined East End of Commercial street.

Paia, Hawaii

Hawaii without the hastle, Pāʻia (population only a little over 2,000) is the last town on the Hāna highway and has often been called the “World Capital of Windsurfing”.

Honor roll

Drinks: Cafe Mambo for happy hour. Rock and Brews Paia for the largest selection of craft beers on Maui.
Eats: Visit Paia fish market for the best fish lunch plate. Tobi’s Shaved Ice for dessert.
Coffee: Paia Bay Coffee.
Other things to do: Windsurf at famous spots Ho’okipa and Spreckelsville. Or, instead of going to Ho’okipa, the surf and play is just as good in Paia bay. The north edge of the bay also has countless sea turtles hanging out on shore all day.

Wilmington, North Carolina

Donald Lee Pardue

USA Today named Wilmington’s riverfront the best in America. The town is also a site for historic ships like the USCGC Diligence or the World War II battleship USS North Carolina.

Honor roll

Drinks: Front Street Brewery has craft beer. Hell’s Kitchen Bar is a sports bar during the week and hosts live music each weekend.
EatsManna Avenue for fine American cooking. The Pilothouse  is a historic building (built in 1870) turned into a restaurant famous not only for its menu, but also its romantic main dining room perched on a deck overlooking the Cape Fear River.
Coffee: The hangout spot for the town’s bohemians, the Juggling Gypsy has hookah, coffee, a bar and “fringe performances” on weekends.
Music venue:  Ziggy’s By The Sea.
Other things to do: Take a stroll through the 67 acre historic Airlie Gardens or take a walk down the Riverwalk.

Trinidad, California

Just 16 miles away from the college town of Arcata, Trinidad is noted for boasting ten public beaches in one small town of less than 500.

Honor roll

Drinks: Try award winning wines at Moonstone Crossing. Bergeron Winery also allows wine tasting with a view of the redwoods.
Eats: Seascape Restaurant and Pier
Coffee: The Larrupin Cafe.
Other things to do: Trinidad State Beach, Patrick Point’s State ParkTrinidad Art Gallery.

Block Island, Rhode Island

This tiny, seven-by-three-mile island was named the “Best Beach for Solitude” by Yankee Magazine and has a lively community that more than makes up for its size.

Honor roll

Drinks: Poor People’s Pub or Yellow Kittens for live music.
EatsFroozies Juice Bar and Cafe for a healthy breakfast burrito. Go to the Beachhead restaurant for New England classics like lobster salad rolls, Corn Neck calamari or Block Island clam chowder.
Shop: Visit Block Island Blue Pottery on Dodge Street or East of the River Nile Trading Company for quirky items from around the world.
Other things to do: Many people rent bikes to explore the island. Visit the Mohegan Bluffs (often compared to the cliffs of Ireland). Visit the well-photographed Southeast Lighthouse. Visit Spring Street Gallery for work by local artists.

Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina

Kill Devil Hills is the cultural and geographic center of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It has a rich history both as the birthplace of aviation (The Wright Brothers tested and flew their first gliders and airplanes in the huge dunes) as well as nautically: The Outer Banks are littered with shipwrecks (“The Graveyard of the Atlantic”) going all the way back to Blackbeard the pirate.

Honor roll

Drinks: Chip’s Wine University is the least snobby wine tasting you’ll find. The market sells a great selection and also offers unpretentious introductory courses on wines around the world.
Eats: Eat dinner at the Blue Moon Grill or Pigman’s BBQ.
Shop: Check out the Tanger Outlets at Nags Head.
Other things to do: Access the National Coastline from here all the way down to Cape Hatteras and on to Ocracoke via ferry. Visit the Wright Memorial museum for a look at the first brothers of flight. Hang out at the Avalon Fishing Pier. Visit Nags Head Woods Preserve.

San Clemente, California

Beautiful red-tiled roofs and adobe architecture give this small surf town south of Los Angeles a Spanish feel. It has access to some of California’s most gorgeous state parks while also having a vibrant downtown.

Honor roll

Drinks: Cellar for a wine and cheese bar.
Eats: Riders Club Cafe, a former gas station, sells craft beer and build-your-own burgers.
Shop: Casa Verde de Granada, an artists’ co-op that sells funky finds from estate and garage sales. For surf gear gone green, visit The Green Room downtown which sells only Earth-friendly merchandise (even board shorts made from recycled water bottles).
Other things to do: State Beach for swimming and bodyboarding. Calafia Park has steep sandstone cliffs that make a beautiful backdrop while sunbathing. Lobeiro Park is great for ocean-side picnics.

Cocoa Beach, Florida

The setting for the 1960’s sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, this town first gained popularity because of its close proximity to NASA‘s John F. Kennedy Space Center (only 15 miles away).

Honor roll

Drinks: Cocoa Beach Brew is the local brewing company.
EatsCoconuts on the Beach.
Coffee: Juice n’ Java Cafe for coffee, or ice cream at The Fat Donkey.
Other things to do: Visit the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame or attend the annual Eastern Surfing Festival which can draw over 50,000 visitors. Surf at Lori Wilson Park. See stand-up at Gregory’s Comedy Club.

Folly Beach , South Carolina

Twenty minutes from Charleston, Folly Beach is its own super chill beach community with one of the most consistent surf breaks (“The Washout”) on the US Atlantic Coast.

Honor roll

Drinks: Loggerhead’s, or go to the local dive bar: Planet Follywood.
Eats: Visit Taco Boy, the ultimate in fresh fish tacos and guac. Have a Margarita on their patio.
Coffee: Lost Dog Cafe for brunch or coffee.
Shop: Bert’s Market. Bert lost the keys years ago, but the 24/7, 365 grocery store lives by its motto, “We may doze, but we never close.” Good organic eats, drinks, beer. Surf wax.
Things to do: The Washout is where the surfers head in the early morning. Paddleboard through Folly’s estuaries. Take a boat tour to the the Morris Island lighthouse, and watch dolphins on the way. Fish, walk, or birdwatch on the Folly Beach Pier, the second longest on the East Coast.

Westport, Washington

This town has the Washington hit list- craft beer, great coffee, stunning mountains- coupled with its phenomenal beach.

Honor roll

Drinks: Bog Water Brewing Company or Westport Brewing Company (has a beer garden and backyard seating).
EatsHalf Moon Bay Bar and Grill  has marina-front dining (and is said to have Washington’s best Bloody Mary).
Coffee: Tinderbox Coffee Roasters for small batch roasted coffee.
Other things to do: Catch the yearly Blues Festival in September or the pirate festival in June.

Traverse City, Michigan

In addition to its beaches, this town is also home to several popular festivals and is considered one of the best small beer cities in America.

Honor roll

Drinks: Thrillest called 7 Monks Taproom one of the best beer bars in America.
Eats: Breakfast at The Omelette Shop. Lunch at Bay Bread Co. Dinner at The Cook’s House restaurant.
Cafes: Grand Traverse Pie Company is famous for their award-winning pie.
Things to do: The town is becoming the center for Michigan’s under-the-radar wine region. Attend Michigan’s largest film festival (hosted by Michael Moore) at the State Theater. The National Cherry Festival, held in July, hosts hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.

South Padre Island, Texas

Wind-surfing, fishing, kayaking, horse-back riding, paddle-boarding- you name it. No beach activity is left behind in this Texas gulf coast town that also throws a raucous spring break.

Honor roll

Drinks: Louie’s Backyard. Tequila Sunset for live music and a sunset view.
Eats: A late breakfast at Manuel’s in Port Isabel (no need for lunch, that way). Or, head to Boomerang’s for a small lunch. Grill lobster tails and shrimp from Dirty Al’s for dinner.
Coffee:  The Grape Vine Cafe. 
Other things to do: Explore the Padre Island National Seashore on an ecological tour. Go horse-back riding on the beach. Catch the Texas International Fishing Tournament which draws crowds each year.

  • Jean Prescott

    Bay St. Louis, Miss., thanks you.

  • Vintage

    You have to be kidding. Cocoa Beach………………..

  • tee hache

    You have to be kidding me about conservative, stuck up, San Clemente, right? It’s always from people who don’t live in these towns . . .

    • John Harrison

      San Clemente is stuck up? It’s one of the most laid back, non-stuck up places in California. Oh but there are conservatives here which is why it’s such a nice place to live.

    • BeachGirl

      “tee hache 8 months ago
      It took me 4 1/2 months to pass a urine test. 4 months! I couldn’t believe it. I quit again and it has only been a month. I know I still can’t pass. WTF?! And that’s only with the assistance of Milk Thistle, Coriander, etc.”
      ENOUGH SAID- Best of luck to you passing your drug tests tee hache. Stuck up San Clementian

  • Yolanda

    Thank you for including Bay St. Louis, MS. The word is getting out about our wonderful town! There is an error in the restaurant listing; those mentioned are actually in Kill Devil Hills, but we have lots of wonderful restaurants to please any palate in Bay St. Louis.

  • Vicki

    So proud of my little town, Bay St. Louis. We love our town and anyone that visits usually falls in love with this town, the people, and all the great food and fun. Thank you for including our little beach town.

    • Bria

      In 2008 I came down with a group for my college’s alternative spring break to help out with hurricane relief. I fell in love with that town and all the people that I met!!! I would love to visit again someday and even help out if there is still more to be done!!

      • Nona

        Come on back as a guest instead of a relief worker…you’ll love us even more!

  • Dawn Mason Thomas

    Cocoa Beach – Ron Jon orginated in New Jersey, but your spot on in the other info.

  • Wahoo Coffee Co

    When in Cocoa Beach, stop by Wahoo Coffee. Fresh roasted coffee on site…

  • Mary wright

    We have been visiting Bay St Louis since 1983 and made lots of wonderful friends over the. Years B. S. L.has a little bit of everything for everyone.We were there for a surprise 60th birthday party of our dear friend Dale in April this year 2015 all the way from Halifax W.Yorkshire.England. Him and his wife Terry really did get a surprise.

  • Janet Cherokee Glabas

    Two of my childhood vacation spots. I still love them both……………..Tybee Island,Ga. and Folly Beach, S.C.

  • Brittany

    Awesome, makes me want to pack up and hit the beach right now! I was just in Provincetown (locally referred to as Ptown) this past weekend and you’re right that it totally deserves a spot on this list. It’s beautiful and fun, whether the sun is out or not!
    [ ]

  • Marika Bolkvadze

    i’d like to visit any of them in my whole life… love the usa <3 <3

  • Amanda Belge

    My favorite summer place-Bay St.Louis, MS. Great place!!!!!!!!

  • Jack Boylston
  • Michele Guthrie

    Seriously? South Padre but not Galveston? Oh, you didn’t really mean that “entertainment outside the beach” thing. Ok, gotcha, wink wink.

  • Lauren McCauley

    Heading to Tybee in 5 days!! Can’t wait!!

    • Wendy Adams Lockcuff

      Tybee Is The Best!!! But Don’t Tell Anyone!!!

  • Cynthia


  • Debra Gregory

    Yay! for Bay St Louis, Mississippi!

  • Jackie Wood

    been visiting Westport WA for over 60 years. My parents honeymooned in that area in 1939, long before I was born

  • Tim Kuiper

    Your “Eats” section for Traverse City is comprised of places that aren’t in Traverse City.

    • Steven

      All of these places are indeed in Traverse City. I live here. Do you? H

      • Tim Kuiper

        I lived there for years, and they changed it. Last night they had The Crab Shack and some other place listed, both from Savannah.

    • scottbills

      Everything on the list is in Traverse City with the possible exception the “The Cook’s House.” Not sure where that is.

      • Tim Kuiper

        The Cook’s House is one of the more famous restaurants in Traverse City. They fixed the article.

        • scottbills

          Guess the menu is enough out of my league that I’ve never looked into it :). But I did just learn something new.

      • J.R.

        The Cook’s House is small and requires reservations most of the time to get in. It is listed on Chef Mario Batali’s Top 10 favorite restaurants in the world. I’d pick numerous other restaurants to list but hey that’s part of the beauty of Traverse City., so many wonderful independent restaurants to choose from!

  • Nancy Schneider

    Where is Delray Beach, FL?

  • Dragon Ed

    I’m kinda surprised that Poipu Beach, Hawaii (Kauai) isn’t part of that list. LIkewise the beachtown of Hanalei on other side of the island,, (as in Peter Paul & Mary’s: “Puff the Magic Dragon,, lived by the sea. Frolick in his otterness in a land called Hanalei!” (ROTFLMAO)! 🙂

    • Willie Rhodes Fess

      “autumn mist” ..not otterness..

  • Nancy

    Love love love seeing Bay St Louis, MS on the list! It’s so nice to be recognized this way…….BSL certainly fits all the requirements! Come see for yourself, you may never want to leave! I’m a weekender, and I’m torn every time I leave and cannot wait til I’m back again. Second Saturday of every month is the Art Walk, Yay! All of Old Town is open late for art, music, food, and friendships!

  • Awesome that Block Island, our hidden gem of an island made this list! Selfishly can’t say enough about the island and it’s beautiful beaches, the Mohegan bluffs and it’s commitment to protecting the environment. The Nature Conservancy once called it “one of the last 12 great places in the western hemisphere.” The people on the island are also always so welcoming.

  • Sarah Plainand Tall

    i use to live in cocoa beach, its a small town but i loved living there

  • Nona

    I’m am so proud to call Bay St Louis home. I’ve always said we have a lot to offer the community and the traveler’s and guests that come to our quaint town.

  • Gus Acevedo

    I drove on and swam Padre Island before any development whatsoever. At that time, it ranked as my favorite. I returned to find it partially developed. Oh, well.

  • Mark

    Tybee, Tybee, Tybee!!!! The people are great and there is always something to do….especially if you like sun, local pubs, beach, fishing, boating, kayaking, biking, great food with no commercial entities….to name a few. Did I say the people are great….everyone is happy with nothing bad to say….a very Positive Experience…Tybee!

  • ITDC Travels

    All beaches are really nice to see, I would like to visit america atleast once to visit all these beaches.

  • sia

    Wow wonderful beaches ..Thanks for sharing with us…

  • Katherine

    Yah !!! COCOA BEACH home to KELLY SALTER !!!!!

  • Kory Dobos Mészáros

    Wildwood New Jersey is the Greatest!

  • roccart

    As a year round resident of Provincetown, Massachusetts, I can honestly say… there is not a day that goes by where I am not grateful to call this beautiful place my home. <3

  • Keith Hadder

    Cape Lookout NC since I live only a couple miles from there by water

  • Beth Powers Lamm

    Hooray for Folly Beach! Our family’s favorite spot on the planet! Beth Lamm Owner “Lamm’s End Properties” on Folly.

  • Ashley Osborn

    Where is Sabbia Beach, Florida? I love the place. I even got a condo there with
    if you go there don’t forget to check the view from Hillsboro Lighthouse.