16 top East Coast beaches to visit

16 top East Coast beaches to visit

Start planning your next day by the shore with this list of the best East Coast beaches.

Bethany Beach boardwalk and Boardwalk Fries are shown
Bethany Beach’s boardwalk includes places to grab a snack, as well as shops selling beach items. (WTOP/Colleen Kelleher)

Even if you only have one day to spare, these stretches of sand guarantee a relaxing getaway.

A trip to the beach is a favorite leisure activity among Americans — whether it’s within driving distance of home or a flight away. And while tourism in beach and coastal destinations generates billions of dollars each year, free outdoor activities like tanning on the sand, swimming in the ocean and strolling along the boardwalk can make beach vacations relatively affordable.

These popular beaches along the East Coast’s 2,000-plus miles of shoreline include activities for families, surfers, naturalists and other beachgoers to enjoy. Start planning your next day by the shore with this list of the best East Coast beaches.

Bethany Beach, Delaware

Mid-Atlantic families love the relaxed boardwalk in the coastal town of Bethany Beach, which is located about 130 miles east of Washington, D.C., and less than 15 miles north of bustling Ocean City, Maryland. In this area, you’ll find the barrier island beaches of Delaware Seashore State Park, plus sand dunes and prime surfing conditions at Fenwick Island State Park, just south of the town of Bethany Beach. Dogs aren’t allowed on the beach or boardwalk during the busy summer season; alcohol and boating are always prohibited, ensuring a tranquil visit. Vacation rentals start at relatively affordable prices, and the town hosts free live concerts, movie screenings and programming for kids between June and September.

Canaveral National Seashore, Florida

Located a little more than 50 miles east of Orlando, Canaveral National Seashore attracts space fans and nature lovers alike thanks to its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and its 24 miles of beach habitat. The National Park Service offers free audio tours and nature recordings of the seashore, which is home to more than 1,000 varieties of plants and 310 bird species. Kids can also enjoy a complimentary Junior Ranger activity book while visiting this pristine barrier island. Past travelers enjoyed seeing birds, alligators and turtles on the drive to Canaveral’s Playalinda Beach.

Keep in mind that there’s a clothing-optional section at the beach that’s accessible from parking lot No. 13 in this area. When it comes to lodging, Titusville’s abundance of RV campgrounds and small motels makes it a budget-friendly home base.

Cape Cod National Seashore: Cape Cod, Massachusetts

While Massachusetts’ famous Cape Cod peninsula is lined with multimillion-dollar estates, bargain-hunting travelers may prefer the quieter, more affordable Outer Cape beaches near Cape Cod National Seashore. Some top Cape Cod beaches to visit include Coast Guard Beach on the Atlantic Ocean for bird-watching and surfing, or Mayflower Beach on Cape Cod Bay for gentle waves and beautiful sunsets.

More budget-friendly hotel and vacation rental options are available around Eastham and Yarmouth, while The Breakers Resort in Dennis Port (a short walk from Inman Road Beach) offers comfortable studios and suites. The HI Truro Hostel near Ballston Beach offers shared dorms and sits close to artsy Provincetown, an LGBTQ-friendly town that’s accessible by ferry from Boston.

Cape May, New Jersey

Head about 50 miles south of Atlantic City to get to Cape May, a popular New Jersey beach destination that’s considered the country’s oldest seaside resort. This charming walkable town along the Jersey Shore has a historic district that’s been designated a National Historic Landmark, boasting more than 600 preserved and authentically restored Victorian buildings.

With a year-round population of less than 3,000, Cape May welcomes upward of 40,000 visitors at its hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations on some summer weekends. Families come for the unspoiled beaches — including those situated inside Cape May Point State Park — as well as antique shops, historic house tours, carriage rides, outdoor concerts, golf courses, and other low-key activities and amenities. Teens will appreciate the town’s whale watching tours and the water parks available in nearby Wildwood, New Jersey.

Delray Beach, Florida

Visit one of Florida’s best beaches for nightlife, shopping, sand and sun with a downtown area conveniently nestled directly on the beach. At just 2 miles long, Delray Beach earns props for its cleanliness and proximity to shops and restaurants. Previous visitors praised the presence of lifeguards and showers, as well as the abundance of restaurants throughout the downtown area. Bed down in wallet-friendly chain hotels like the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott, located within easy walking distance from the window shopping opportunities on Atlantic Avenue and street murals in the Pineapple Grove Arts District.

Folly Beach, South Carolina

South Carolinians appreciate the Southern charm of Folly Beach — and you can, too. Known to locals as “The Edge of America,” this barrier island 12 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, offers a variety of charming lodging options like low-rise hotels, beach houses on stilts and cute B&Bs. Visitors can bring fishing gear and find a spot along the 1,045-foot-long pier or head out on a deep-sea fishing charter for extra excitement. Otherwise, catch some waves at the Washout, one of Folly Beach’s most popular surf spots. For some extra family fun, sign up for a biking, kayaking, sailing or paddleboarding outing to enjoy the beautiful scenery in this top South Carolina beach destination.

Hampton Beach: Hampton, New Hampshire

Drive along New Hampshire‘s 18-mile coast until you reach Hampton Beach, a broad stretch of sand overlooking the Atlantic Ocean that’s considered one of the cleanest beaches in the country. A beloved seaside destination since the 1840s, the Hampton Beach Village District draws travelers with its well-maintained restrooms, playground and Sea Shell Stage, which hosts the annual Miss Hampton Beauty Pageant in late July and nightly concerts throughout the summer. Other amenities include a casino stacked with shops, eateries and games; a marine life discovery center; and a historical society. In addition to local budget motels, Hampton Beach State Park provides campsites and RV hookups from May to October.

Madison, Connecticut

More than 1 million visitors flock to Madison every year for its 2-plus miles of sandy shoreline on Long Island Sound to enjoy swimming, boating, hiking and biking. At Hammonasset Beach State Park, you’ll find more than 550 grassy campsites, a pristine beach, and a nature center with live turtles and a touch tank. In town, you can go swimming and boating at three beaches. The Surf Club Park beach features barbecue and picnic facilities, while the East and West Wharf beaches offer fishing piers.
Nonresident beach parking is limited at peak times and requires a pass from the Surf Club; you may have the best luck finding spots during the week. Weekdays also typically offer cheaper nightly rates at the few in-town hotels, cottages and B&Bs than weekends.

Block Island, Rhode Island

Hold the handrail as you descend 200 feet down the rocky, picturesque Mohegan Bluffs. Block Island is known for its 17 miles of beaches, including tranquil Mansion Beach, teen-friendly Scotch Beach and Surf Beach, which is a favorite for snorkeling. Baby Beach features shallow, gentle surf for kids to play in, and Fred Benson Town Beach offers amenities like a bathhouse, rental chairs, cabanas, umbrellas and loaner boogie boards. Visitors can take a ferry to Block Island from Point Judith (near Narragansett) and Newport, Rhode Island; New London, Connecticut; and Montauk, New York. Note that vehicles can only travel on the Point Judith ferry.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Myrtle Beach sits at the center of the 60-mile strip of South Carolina shoreline known as the Grand Strand. The tourist area opened its first hotel — the Seaside Inn — in 1901 and has since developed enough resorts and other lodging options to attract more than 20 million visitors annually. The city’s 10-mile-long beach is protected by lifeguards and monitored for water quality between May and October, when crowds pack the boardwalk’s shops, restaurants and SkyWheel observation wheel.

Pursue relaxation with a stroll through Brookgreen Gardens, practice your swing at one of dozens of golf courses or explore the natural saltwater estuary at the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk. Lodging options range from campgrounds to rental homes to hotels (including all-inclusive options), so you can easily find the right accommodation for you, regardless of your budget.

Narragansett, Rhode Island

Situated about 15 miles west of elegant Newport across Narragansett Bay, the town of Narragansett is home to popular Scarborough State Beach and other beloved strips of sand. Although Narragansett Town Beach charges fees for parking and admission from May to September, the spot still welcomes up to 5,000 visitors daily during the summer season.
Families especially enjoy visiting Sand Hill Cove Beach, also known as Roger W. Wheeler State Beach, because it offers a playground, hot showers, seasonal lifeguards and gentle surf. (The latter is a result of the beach’s breakwater barrier, which helps shelter the shoreline from Block Island Sound.) Travelers can take their pick of budget-friendly vacation rentals, B&Bs and classic inns when choosing where to stay. Vacationers who also want to visit nearby Block Island can take the ferry from Narragansett’s Point Judith terminal to the island.

Ocean City, Maryland

Choose bustling Ocean City for your next beach vacation if you want a lot of options: You’ll find 10 miles of beaches, a 3-mile boardwalk, a bucket load of restaurants and craft breweries, and tons of shops. For accommodations, beachgoers can pick from dozens of hotels, motels, campgrounds, B&Bs and vacation rentals to suit all lifestyles and budgets in this can’t-miss beach destination in Maryland. There are many pet-friendly hotels, though dogs are only welcome on the beach in the colder months between Oct. 1 and April 30. Horseback riding on part of the beach is allowed in the offseason as well (November to March).

Depending on your mood, you can catch a sunset at Fager’s Island Restaurant and Bar, grab an ice cream cone at Dumser’s Dairyland, or rock out at one of the bars and dancefloors in the Jamaica-themed Seacrets nightlife complex.

[Read: The Top Dog-Friendly Beaches in the U.S.]

Ocean City, New Jersey

Founded by a group of Methodist ministers as a Christian summer resort town in 1879, New Jersey’s Ocean City is one of the calmer, more family-friendly communities on the Jersey Shore. A ban on alcohol adds to the unique appeal of this beach town and earns it the title of “America’s Greatest Family Resort.” Families will also appreciate the Gillian’s Wonderland Pier amusement park on the boardwalk and the beach’s summer lifeguards. Seasonal, weekly or daily beach tags must be purchased for all visitors ages 12 and older. A variety of affordable rental houses, B&Bs and hotels sit within easy reach of the shore.

Old Orchard Beach, Maine

Did you know that Maine technically boasts more coastline than California? The New England state’s craggy tidal shoreline measures nearly 3,500 miles because of all its coves, peninsulas and islands. While the pricey Kennebunkport and Ogunquit beach areas are pretty, you may want to head to lesser-known Old Orchard Beach, which is considered one of Maine’s best beaches and located about 20 miles south of Portland. Its classic pier is surrounded by restaurants and summer entertainment options. This 7-mile-long stretch of sand becomes less crowded as you travel farther from the pier. Be aware, though, that the water is fairly cold year-round.

Maine’s large selection of campgrounds makes staying nearby affordable. Plus, patrons of all ages can enjoy the rides and massive indoor arcade at Palace Playland, a waterfront amusement park. Save on gas by taking Amtrak’s Downeaster train seasonally to Old Orchard Beach from Boston North Station or the Portland Transportation Center.

Outer Banks, North Carolina

Spend your next vacation on the barrier islands that make up the historic Outer Banks area (OBX for short) to enjoy some of North Carolina’s best beaches, including upscale Corolla, Southern Shores and Duck, which are known for charming art galleries and restaurants. Kitty Hawk — which owes its fame to the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903 — and Kill Devil Hills are located in bustling central OBX, where you’ll also find Nags Head’s “Millionaires Row.”

Despite this location’s summer appeal, it’s regarded as fairly affordable, and you can further preserve your budget by taking advantage of free and low-cost activities, such as exploring wildlife refuges, fishing at various piers and touring old lighthouses. The ferry that travels between Hatteras and Ocracoke is also complimentary. While top summer vacation rentals can book up as early as a year out, spring and fall are shoulder seasons with more availability and better deals.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Deemed the world’s largest pleasure beach by Guinness World Records, 28-mile-long Virginia Beach is situated about 20 miles east of Norfolk, Virginia. Students and partygoers will appreciate its affordable boardwalk packed with entertainment and casual dining venues, while families should like the presence of lifeguards and festivals, as well as the biking and camping opportunities available at First Landing State Park. What’s more, the city enforces anti-cursing laws and a curfew for minors to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere. Lodging options by the beach include budget-friendly chain hotels, some with programs for kids. Even lower rates can be found inland.

[See: The Best Beaches in Virginia.]

South Beach: Miami Beach, Florida

This portion of Miami Beach, the barrier island off the coast of Miami, is known as the quintessential beach vacation for the young, rich and famous. You can soak up the sun on the white sand, check out the historic art deco architecture and enjoy some oceanfront dining. When hunger strikes, consider The Bazaar by Spanish celebrity chef José Andrés, Joe’s Stone Crab or Stiltsville Fish Bar. Visitors describe the atmosphere of the beach as energetic and say the pathway that lines the beach is a great place for jogging, walking or even roller-skating.

As for accommodations, there aren’t too many budget options available (although with so many lodging options there may be deals to be had), but you’ll find plenty of upscale resorts right on the beach. In particular, The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach and the Kimpton Surfcomber Hotel are highly rated.

Kiawah Island, South Carolina

Kiawah Island, located about 25 miles south of Charleston, has 10 miles of beautiful shoreline across its East Beach and West Beach. Most of the island’s beaches are private, accessible only by property owners and their guests and renters. However, Beachwalker County Park, part of West Beach, is open to the public (parking fees apply). The park has a picnic area with grills and a boardwalk, as well as seasonal amenities like beach chair and umbrella rentals, lifeguards, and outdoor showers.
Kiawah Island is especially worth considering if you’re a golf enthusiast, as it’s home to some highly regarded championship courses. Visitors have also enjoyed sea kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, guided nature tours, biking, surf lessons and more. Because most of the island is a private community, your best bet for accommodations is either a vacation rental or Kiawah Island Golf Resort. But if you’re on a budget, it may be better to stay inland where there are more options.

Amelia Island, Florida

With 13 miles of beaches, this barrier island is a great place to spend a weekend or even longer for both visitors and residents alike. If you’re not the type to spend the whole day at the beach, Amelia Island has an abundance of wildlife you can see as you explore its rivers and marshes or hit one of the biking trails, such as the Egans Creek Greenway.

Don’t forget to take in some of the history of the island, which began when the Indigenous Timucua people first inhabited its shores. Since then, control of the island changed hands numerous times, with eight official flags having flown over the island. You can also visit Amelia Island’s museums to learn about the Black heritage here. The island is a great place for young adults, couples and families, with other activities including golf, shopping, dining, spas, summer camps, music festivals and more. Visitors love that the beaches tend to stay uncrowded. If you’re looking for a place to stay, the island has plenty of hotels, motels, resorts, vacation rentals, B&Bs and even campsites.

Cocoa Beach, Florida

Cocoa Beach is just 5 miles south of Cape Canaveral and 21 miles from the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, making it a top destination for space buffs. You can access the city’s beaches via four parks: Alan Shepard Park, Sidney Fischer Park, Lori Wilson Park and Robert P. Murkshe Memorial Park. Each park comes with a set of varying amenities, such as restrooms, showers, picnic pavilions, boardwalks and more.
You can eat fresh seafood at one of the city’s many restaurants or hire a deep-sea fishing charter to catch your own. Travelers and locals love the cleanliness of the beaches, with some saying they even got to watch a rocket launch from Cape Canaveral in the distance. The city has many hotels and resorts, and you can also rent beachfront homes or park your RV at the Joy RV Resort.

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

This Atlantic Coast town is the largest beach resort in the First State, with centuries of history — and one of Delaware’s best beaches. The city’s mile-long boardwalk is full of restaurants, funky shops and other amusements. You’ll also encounter festivals and other events year-round in Rehoboth Beach, from bonfires to outdoor movie screenings. You can also catch one of the dozens of bands that participate in the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand during the weekend summer concert series — admission is free. Travelers note that the sand is clean, but warn that if you’re visiting in the summer you can expect crowds. Depending on your budget and the experience you’re looking for, accommodations include boutique hotels, B&Bs, vacation rentals and campgrounds.

Fire Island, New York

This barrier island off the southern coast of Long Island is known as somewhat of an LGBTQ party destination, but stretching 32 miles long with 17 distinct communities, Fire Island offers plenty of tranquility too. Beaches and dunes line the entire length of Fire Island, meaning there’s no shortage of places to swim or sunbathe. Bring a bike or rent one to cruise around easily.
If you prefer to have some extra safety precautions, the beaches at Sailors Haven and Watch Hill are patrolled by lifeguards in the summer. At Sailors Haven, you can also take a ranger-guided tour through the Sunken Forest, an ecological rarity, while Watch Hill offers grill and picnic facilities plus a limited number of campsites. If you’re on a budget, it might be wise to book one of these; accommodations can be notoriously expensive otherwise. Cars are not allowed on Fire Island in summer, so you’ll need to take a ferry from one of three terminals on Long Island, or else pay for a water taxi or private boat.

Tybee Island, Georgia

Located less than 20 miles east of Savannah, Tybee is a barrier island with some 5 miles of public beaches on the Atlantic Ocean. Check out buzzy South Beach right by Tybrisa Street’s variety of restaurants and cafes; Mid Beach further up the island is a good option if you’re craving peace and quiet. You can also rent a kayak and paddle over to Little Tybee Island, a pristine nature preserve popular among bird-watchers.
Back on the main island, there’s also attractions like the centuries-old Tybee Lighthouse with formidable views from the top and the Marine Science Center — perfect for a dash of learning. The island is home to hundreds of vacation rentals that range from cozy cottages to modern condos, and you can also camp on Little Tybee Island or in the River’s End Campground.

Coney Island Beach: Brooklyn, New York

It may not be surrounded by natural beauty, but Coney Island is undoubtedly one of America’s most iconic beaches, thanks to its boardwalk, aquarium and amusement park. Coney Island Beach and neighboring Brighton Beach are patrolled by lifeguards from Memorial Day weekend until early September.

Coney Island has 3 miles of sand open to the public and concessions on site. There’s also courts for beach volleyball and basketball, or you can just stroll the boardwalk and people-watch. Be sure to grab a hot dog from Nathan’s or try out Eastern European food in the area around Brighton Beach. You can take the subway to the beach, with the Coney Island station just down the street, or there’s various paid parking options in the area.

Nantucket, Massachusetts

This island off Cape Cod is a veritable buffet for a summer trip, with numerous public beaches to choose between as most of Nantucket’s 110 miles of coastline remain open to the public. Jetties Beach on the island’s north is popular among families thanks to its shallow waters and amenities like restrooms and a playground, as well as its proximity to shops and restaurants. For something a little wilder and more windswept in Nantucket, explore the island’s south coast: Families often head to Surfside Beach (you can catch a shuttle from the town), while college kids hang out at Nobadeer Beach.

All that summery goodness does mean high prices, though. Rooms can go for hundreds of dollars a night, and camping isn’t an option, so it may be wise to make it a daytrip or visit in the shoulder season if you’re on a tight budget. Ferries to the island are available from Hyannis, New Bedford and Harwich Port in Massachusetts, as well as New York City.

Acadia National Park, Maine

This rugged national park (the easternmost one in the country) is home to craggy mountains, lakes and cliffs, but factor in some beach time while you’re visiting. The main ocean-facing option in Acadia National Park is Sand Beach, where swimming is allowed from mid-June to early September. Made of shell fragments deposited here over thousands of years, the beach is tucked in a picturesque cove and boasts views of nearby Thunder Hole. Be warned that the water here is chilly, even in summer.

For warmer water, there’s Echo Lake Beach, a freshwater swimming spot inside the park. Little Hunters Beach, meanwhile, provides something a little more out of the ordinary, as it’s made out of stones that have been polished smooth by the sea. Since you’re in a national park, there’s plenty more to do beyond the beaches, from hiking to boating to bird-watching. Several National Park Service-operated campgrounds offer seasonal accommodations in the park, while the nearby town of Bar Harbor has various inns, cottages and hotels.

Why Trust U.S. News Travel

Timothy Forster is a freelance travel journalist from Montreal, Canada. Having traveled the East Coast thoroughly from Miami up to the summer vacation spots of Maine, he’s explored many beaches in this part of the country.

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16 Top East Coast Beaches to Visit originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/22/23: This slideshow was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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