The 14 states that make up the East Coast of the U.S. offer up a wide range of climates, geographies and cultures. They include Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—and all have beautiful, special beach towns worth a visit this summer. You’ll find places as different as Cape Cod, the Outer Banks and the Florida Keys. Historic, charming, tropical, wild, the Atlantic seaboard has it all. Without further delay, here are a few of the East Coast’s best beach towns.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Much of Maine’s Mt. Desert Island is covered by Acadia National Park—home to climbs like Cadillac Mountain and a sophisticated system of carriage roads financed by John D. Rockefeller Jr. But on the island’s northeast corner, charming Bar Harbor is a destination in its own right. Skirting Frenchmen Bay, Bar Harbor began drawing visitors as far back as the mid 19th century when some of the Hudson River School, a group of artists that included the likes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, were taken with Maine’s Down East landscapes. Still picturesque, Bar Harbor is now a full-fledged tourist town with a bustling main street, whale watching tours, and of course, easy access to Acadia.
The North Shore, a group of towns in Greater Boston, is a culturally important swath of Massachusetts. The coastal region is known for its excellent seafood, beautiful beaches, and historic landmarks. Many a good film has been filmed here as well, such as Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester-by-the-Sea. There are many towns worth visiting, but Rockport is a favorite among travelers. Forty miles north of Boston, the town has a can’t-miss natural gem in Halibut Point State Park, from which visitors can spot Maine in the distance 80 miles away. Rockport is also beloved by art history buffs: it is home to Motif Number 1, a fishing shack with the superlative “the most-often painted building in America.” It was built in 1840, and was a popular subject because it represented New England’s nautical character. (And it didn’t hurt that the light hit it just so.) A replica was built promptly following the historic Blizzard of 1978, which destroyed the original. Gray Malin photographed it for his recent project on Boston.
Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts
Ferries deliver day trippers to this little Martha’s Vineyard town daily and the colorful gingerbread houses for which Oak Bluffs is known are straight out of a storybook. Visitors walk straight off their boats into Ocean Park, a circular green overlooking the sea, encircled by said houses, with a frothy, delicate gazebo sitting in the center. Oak Bluffs has a long history of welcoming Black visitors, and today it is home to the annual African-American Film Festival.
Newport, Rhode Island
Like Oak Bluffs, Newport is a beach town known for its houses, though a very different sort. Ten enormous, historic mansions—once the summer homes of the Vanderbilts, Nevada silver heiresses, and other Westerners of unimaginable wealth—remain standing along the famous cliff walk. Today however, they are museums. The most famous two are The Breakers and Rosecliff. The Newport mansions famously earned the ire of writer Joan Didion, who wrote in her essay The Seacoast of Despair, “To stand in the dining room of ‘The Breakers’ is to imagine fleeing it, pleading migraine.” Today, in lieu of the Great Gatsby-esque lawn parties of yore where swans roamed the grounds, Newport attracts visitors of all stripes for events such as the Newport Folk Festival.
Montauk, New York
The final stop on the eastern tip of Long Island, Montauk is appropriately known as the End. Due to strong winds, rough surf, and ample preserved land, it really does feel like the edge of the world, here. (Although some residents of Long Island’s furthest out town argue that if you really think about it, it’s actually the Beginning.) Montauk feels more remote and low key than its luxurious, sceney Hamptons counterparts. Every visit to Montauk should include a stop at the Montauk Point Light House, which was commissioned by President George Washington in 1796. It is still operating, and the panoramic views from the top are out of this world.
Cape May, New Jersey
The site of pink triple-decker Victorian homes and a lively, festive promenade which exists as a beach town ideal in America’s collective imagination, Cape May is the sort of dreamy summer destination one associates with trails of melted ice cream dotting the hot pavement and Fourth of July picnics. National Geographic also labeled Cape May as a World’s Best Destination for Birding, writing, “the narrow peninsula at Cape May acts as a bird funnel, bringing in songbirds during their spring and fall migrations. At dawn on a good day, legendary Higbee Beach offers front-row seats to a feathered fashion show… With a little luck, you can see 20 species of warblers, each in its own colorful costume.” Sign us up.
You won’t find bustling boardwalks, sleek hotels, or grids of cars with clunky bike racks trapped in traffic in Chincoteague. This coastal town is all about the wildlife—specifically its wild horses. Visitors flock to the island annually for the Pony Penning that has been held since 1925. The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department holds the event, and it consists of a pony swim—in which the animals cross the Assateague Channel—and a pony auction. No one really knows how this population of horses came to be, though there are competing theories. Some say they are descendants of Spanish horses shipwrecked en route to Peru in the 17th century. Others claim they were left long ago by pirates. Still others say they are runaways from mainland farmers. The quaint beauty of Chincoteague includes trails for hiking, beaches, and a red and white lighthouse. For the best pony views, cross over on a bike to the Maryland side of Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Nags Head, North Carolina
Nags Head is a beach town on the Outer Banks, a group of barrier islands and spits sandwiched between mainland North Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s known for its sand dunes in Jockey Ridge State Park, which comprise the tallest true sand dune system on the East Coast. Hundreds of shipwrecks nearby—caused by the region’s shifting sands and heavily trafficked waters—have given the surrounding waters the moniker “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and the nearby USS Huron is a popular scuba dive site.
Pawley’s Island, South Carolina
Pawley’s Island is so small that its year-round population hovers around 100 people. It was first settled in the 1500s, making it one of the oldest beach towns in the U.S. With that amount of history, there is, of course, a ghost story to go with it: There have been sightings of the Gray Man, a ghost whose appearance is said to warn of hurricanes as he paces up and down the beach, dating to a 19th century storm. Summer options on Pawley’s Island that are not at all spooky—besides flopping around on the beach—include golf, fishing, walking sculpture-filled gardens, and feasting on Lowcountry cuisine like She Crab soup.
Siesta Key, Florida
While we love the beach towns listed above, the only part of the East Coast which has a true tropical climate is the chunk of Florida that stretches from Stuart down through the Florida Keys. Naturally, the beaches in this area are very beautiful. We want to laud Siesta Key in particular for its fine sand, which comes from the Appalachian Mountains and is made up almost entirely of cool and reflective quartz, its waterfront dining and drinking, and its excellence for water sports like parasailing. The three beaches to visit on Siesta Key are Siesta Beach, Crescent Beach, and Turtle Beach.
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