Nat Geo Staff Picks: America’s Best Beach Towns

Is there a magic formula for the perfect beach town? No, but America could offer up more than a few candidates if they were doling out the title.

Here are just a few of them, recommended by Nat Geo Travel staffers:

  • Cannon Beach, Oregon: “At only an hour-and-a-half drive away, Cannon Beach was an easy day trip from Portland, where I used to live. With access to scenic hiking trails at Ecola State Park, great views of the towering Haystack Rock (which made a memorable appearance in the 1985 coming-of-age classic The Goonies), and a number of mom-and-pop stores and restaurants, Cannon Beach has a little bit of everything I look for in a beach town.” —Tyler Metcalfe, associate photo producer, National Geographic Travel
  • Pawleys Island, South Carolina: “About 70 miles from Charleston, this sleepy retreat is the home of the Pawleys Island hammock, an institution since it was first crafted in the late 1800s—and symbolic of the slow-down-and-hang feeling of the place. Fronting the Atlantic are rustic, sea-blasted cottages, many on stilts and spacious enough to accommodate several families at close quarters. Behind the beach is an inlet bristling with crabs. Tradition here: At night, ride inner tubes from the inlet through a narrow channel to the ocean and stir up the twinkling phosphorescence that trails you like a meteor shower.” —Keith Bellows, editor in chief, National Geographic Traveler
  • Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: “At first glance, this seaside town seems more akin to its saucy Jersey Shore counterpoints to the north (think saltwater taffy, soft serve, and the sensory assault of arcade bling), but steps away lies a charming village of tree-lined streets and weathered beach cottages. For the locavore: After a day at the beach, head to Henlopen Oyster House for a platter of briny oysters and wash it down with locally brewed Dogfish Head ale. Afterward, hit the recently completed 11-mile Gordons Pond Trail for biking, hiking, and bird-watching through pristine pine forests, salt marshes, and craggy dunes.” —Jerry Sealy, creative director, National Geographic Traveler
  • Cape May, New Jersey: “Anyone looking for the Jersey Shore of TV fame won’t find it in Cape May. The southernmost point of the Garden State (shorthand, Exit 0), this understated destination has the distinction of being America’s oldest seaside resort. Once a popular summer escape for U.S. presidents, a five-day fire destroyed much of the downtown in the late 1800s. The result? The city, largely rebuilt in the wake of the blaze, boasts the largest collection of Victorian homes in the U.S. outside of San Francisco. Sure, typical East Coast beach-town fare (boardwalk fries, taffy, paper-plate pizza) can be had here, but you’ll also encounter an outsize collection of top-rated eateries, like the Washington Inn and 410 Bank, among the colorful “painted ladies” and one of the most celebrated spots for bird-watching in the world. Cape May is a vital stopover for migratory birds, especially in fall.” —Leslie Trew Magraw, editor/producer, Intelligent Travel
  • Carmel-by-the-Sea, California: “My sister has a cute bungalow in Carmel. Lucky me, because often when my husband and I go home to California she invites us to spend time there. The beach is ruggedly gorgeous, with tide pools at the northern end adored by her kids. It’s typically too cold to swim, but we like to spread a blanket on the sand and watch the sun fall into the Pacific over a glass of Salinas Valley wine. In the morning, after a run along beachfront Scenic Road to Carmel Mission and back, we stop into Carmel Valley Coffee or—for a splurge—the most amazing French toast smothered in homemade cinnamon maple syrup at Em Le’s. Then it’s off to hike in Point Lobos State Park in search of sea otters and sea lions, admire art in the many galleries on and off Ocean Avenue, or perhaps wine taste in any number of tasting rooms that have popped up around town as we wait again for the sun to set.” —Barbara A. Noe, senior editor, National Geographic Travel Books
  • Beaufort, North Carolina: “Beaufort leaves the tattoo parlors and taffy shops to other resort towns. Here you’ll stroll through a historic district of 18th- and 19th-century West Indian-style homes and dine at indie eateries (like Blue Moon Bistro) that serve truly local seafood and veggies. And your beach? It comes with wild horses. The pristine and largely empty sands of Shackleford Banks are a ferry ride away, part of the protected Cape Lookout National Seashore.” —Norie Quintos, executive editor, National Geographic Traveler
  • Edgartown, Massachusetts: “As a Massachusetts native, I’ve always spent part of my summer on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, about an hour-long ferry ride from Cape Cod. Edgartown is a charming seaside village with a rich maritime history, evident in the stately homes built by 19th-century whaling captains that line the downtown. Thanks to a law banning chain-owned retailers from the island, there’s an authentic and timeless quality to Edgartown that makes it stand out from other popular beach spots on the Cape. For the perfect day, pick up sandwiches to go at Humphrey’s on Winter Street on your way to Katama Beach. After a day in the surf, spend a quiet evening watching the boats in Edgartown Harbor, or head cross-island to Oak Bluffs for a more lively nightlife scene.” —Ben Fitch, associate photo editor, National Geographic Traveler

  • Northern Lower Michigan: “At the top of Michigan’s “mitten” is a Midwestern summer paradise with idyllic waterfront lake towns—Petoskey, Charlevoix, and Harbor Springs—that harken to summer vacations in simpler times. Ernest Hemingway spent his boyhood summers here and captured the area in an early novella, The Torrents of Spring. Standout diversions include running down the towering dunes to the crystal-blue shores of Lake Michigan at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, biking the non-motorized, 26-mile Little Traverse Wheelway that links all three charming towns beginning in Harbor Springs. Native son and architect, Earl Young‘s mid-century mushroom houses in Charlevoix are worth a drive by, maybe on your way to Jesperson’s, a century-old, family-run restaurant in Petoskey that serves delicious homemade pie made with the region’s famous tart cherries.” — Susan O’Keefe, associate editor, National Geographic Traveler
  • St. Petersburg, Florida: “My favorite beach town has to be Pass-A-Grille, a historic district at the southernmost end of St. Pete Beach on Florida’s beautiful Gulf coast. A native of neighboring St. Petersburg, I could often be found in Pass-A-Grille, whether I was skim boarding with friends on its white sandy shores or sampling the unbeatable catch at Hurricane Seafood Restaurant. Loews Don CeSar Hotel (nicknamed “the Don” by locals) is a hotspot for beach weddings and it’s always fun to sneak a peek while you’re passing by.” —Rebecca Davis, production assistant, National Geographic Travel

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  1. Matt
    NYC, New York
    July 1, 2015, 2:31 pm

    The San Luis Obispo area (SLO), San Luis Bay (Avila Beach) and the surrounding areas are the most beautiful and picturesque places I’ve ever visited. The weather is amazing year round, the natural beauty from the ancient volcanic peaks (Morros), the rolling hills blending into white sandy beaches (Pismo Beach), to cliffs and tide pools in by Montana de Oro and Morro Bay, in the center of all this is San Luis Obispo and a cathedral of natural beauty and friendly people. Cayucos was so quaint and beautiful too. I work as a senior consultant in the travel industry and being to well over 500 beach towns/areas in the U.S. , I would say this area of California is the best kept secret / beach area in America.

  2. Maggie Caruso
    February 6, 2015, 11:12 am

    thanks for the Pass-a-Grille shout outs! Our local businesses truly appreciate it

  3. Kerrie
    August 30, 2014, 4:06 am

    If you are going to Cannon Beach, head north about 10-15 minutes and spend some time in Seaside. Their main street is classic and cool; a great place for a family to spend a day. Restaurants, arcades, elephant ears, bumper cars, amusement part rides, and some great little stores.

  4. Brice Partain
    Mesa, Arizona
    August 29, 2014, 1:58 am

    Prior to moving to Arizona I was living in Puyallup WA just south of Seattle. On many occasions I have driven the coast from Was to Ca. All that I can say is that from Malibu to Oregon that stretch of the Western United States is where God Vacations! My love is from Just south of Santa Barbara to just north of the highway that takes you to Grant’s Pass. Me and my girlfriend fell in love with it and each other on that drive. But its best if you start in the north and drive it south. Like the U2 song… Its God’s Country! But for the quaint beach town I offer Seal Beach CA I lived there for 5 years and it ROCKS!

  5. C N Viau
    Rancho Mirage,Ca
    August 28, 2014, 11:45 am

    Petoskey, Charlevoix, in N Michigan, are great little cities. However, while there you should drive up to Mackinaw City and take the ferry over to Mackinaw Island. And while in Mackinaw City, visit one of the best family owned and operated restaurants, Darrows Restaurant, famous for Lake Superior whitefish, and the best homemade pies.
    C N Viau

  6. Ruurd Abma
    The Hague, Netherlands
    August 28, 2014, 11:33 am

    For a combination of Beach activities and playing golf I find Gulf Shores, Alabma a unique place.

  7. Christina
    August 5, 2014, 10:28 am

    We like to spend our time on Lake Huron. The crowds are smaller and it’s much quieter and laid back on the Sunrise side. And petoskey stone hunting is much better!

  8. maggie
    August 4, 2014, 11:37 am

    I have had a small farm in Leelanau county since 1980.
    In the last 25 or so years, the growth of Mcmansions along the Lake Michigan shore line has been very difficult to watch and accept. Most of the lake view that was present while driving lovely M22 has been obliterated, and just to make sure that the people in the Mcmansions have nothing in their way of the view, a lot of trees have been cut down as well. Public beaches are crowded and dirty. And we know the deer don’t leave the trash.

  9. Matthew Carpenter
    August 4, 2014, 10:08 am

    How in the world could National Geographic, of all publications, be so irresponsible as to broadcast, via the internet, an advertisement for northern Michigan as a travel destination? One of the previous comments mentions the “quaint” fishing towns. Well, guess what? Ever since that irresponsible Grand Rapids resident submitted the same general area (Sleeping Bear Dunes) as the “most beautiful place in America” the place has been CRAWLING with people, and the park staff have even stated that the fragile dune ecosystem cannot support all the traffic. In Harbor Springs, the lakeshore is severely overdeveloped. There are McMansions everywhere, and more and more keep popping up all over the place. Can we not try to keep quiet about ONE fairly pristine area so that those who really choose to search the places out can enjoy a place that doesn’t feel like Pigeon Forge, Tennessee? I thought National Geographic might work to promote the idea of sustaining rare and fragile habitat (of which the duneland is a prime example). Instead, you acted the way most of the other rags out there have been acting lately.

  10. Valerie
    Charlevoix MI
    August 2, 2014, 10:50 am

    Yey! For Cannon Beach and Charlevoix!

  11. Billy
    August 1, 2014, 10:31 am

    The thing about San Luis is the Nuc Power plant right over the hill. They forgot to include a pic….

  12. Kurt Wiesemes
    July 31, 2014, 9:45 pm

    I’ve been to basically all of these places (or within a couple of miles) and the bottom line for me, is you have to WANT to see beauty in it’s natural, raw state. To feel the wind and sun, embrace the raw elements, perhaps even endure their wicked cold, heat, or sandblasting fury…that is what these beaches represent…nature at it’s best!

  13. Ben
    July 31, 2014, 8:57 pm

    While floating into an inlet at night seems a little crazy to me, Bioluminescence is a real thing and abundant in Pawleys and pretty much any beach in SC. “Especially” in creeks and brackish estuaries. Growing up it was a little easier to see before all of the yankees moved down and brought their light pollution. Still, on a new moon, the bright green does stir up like a meteor shower around clumps of spartina grass. As a kid I used to find clumps on Pawleys in the sand and paint my face.

  14. Michele
    Harbor Springs
    July 31, 2014, 6:27 pm

    I have visited quite a few of the towns on the list and while they are very beautiful, it is always good to come home to the equally comparable Northern Michigan area. Beaches, freshwater lakes, small quaint fishing villages, friendly people – it is all here! Even the taffy, fudge and ice cream!

  15. Maia Schneider
    United States
    July 31, 2014, 2:45 pm

    San Luis Obispo is not a beach town! But Shell Beach and Pismo beach are… for Nat Geo, I would have assumed you’d be “geographically correct”

  16. Cory
    Pawleys Island
    July 31, 2014, 9:11 am

    Bioluminescence in PI’s brackish creek? Floating into the open ocean on inner tubes from a south(ish) facing beach? Just because somebody did something exceedingly reckless on a night with a freakishly rare algae bloom does not make it a tradition. I agree with Aaron above. This review may have been mixed with another location. This shouldn’t take away from PI’s unique qualities, though. It’s a wonderful place.

  17. Ginny
    Northern Michigan
    July 31, 2014, 7:31 am

    As a native of Petoskey (but currently living much too far away!), I couldn’t agree more with Ms. O’Keefe’s praises of the area. Although the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is some 80 miles south of Charlevoix (beyond Traverse City) the fact of the matter is that the entire shoreline, from the “Tip of the Mitt” at the beautiful Mackinaw Bridge to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, offers a wonderous continuum from the glorious and powerful beauty of isolated beaches through the gentle cultural sophistication of the towns mentioned by Ms. O’Keefe.

  18. Kate
    Vacaville, CA
    July 30, 2014, 6:48 pm

    As a native Oregonian who has spent many a summer at the coast Cannon Beach is a cute town but too crowded, especially in the summer. Manzanita, 15 min south, Bandon, Pacific City, those are Oregon Coast towns that are perfect, and much more “real”

  19. Aaron
    Pawleys Island
    July 30, 2014, 10:52 am

    I have lived in Pawleys for several years and have never heard of this “tradition” nor have I ever seen bioluminescence in the brackish salt marsh. I asked a friend of mine who has lived her entire life here, and she also has never heard this before. Maybe that review was two different places mixed together?

  20. Kevin
    Nashville, TN
    July 30, 2014, 8:44 am

    San Luis Obispo, CA is one of your best beach towns?!? It’s a *great* city, and I’ve been there many times, but I’ve never seen the beach from there. It’s a good 10 mile drive away…