With more than 2,000 miles of coast line, it’s no wonder that the American East Coast is chock-full of charming beach towns. While most people think of larger beach getaways such as Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head Island, and the Florida Keys, many of the Atlantic Coast’s smaller towns have established themselves as quality beach town destinations that any beach bum or ocean lover can appreciate.
The small towns on this list are some of the greatest beach towns on the East Coast. Each town has fewer than 20,000 full-time residents (according to the 2010 census), direct access to beaches and water, and notable family-friendly attractions.
1. Amelia Island, Florida
Located near the southern Sea Island in Nassau County, Florida, Amelia Island is rapidly becoming one of the region’s more popular beach town getaways — and for good reason! The small town consists of an amazing 13 miles of beach to be enjoyed. Some, like Main Beach Park, are especially geared towards families and are equipped with playgrounds and designated picnic areas. Visitors on a break from the beach can enjoy boating, golfing, deep-sea fishing, or Amelia Island’s unique and historic old district near the island’s center. Here, quaint shops and eateries abound, and window shopping is a favorite lazy-day activity.
2. Kennebunkport, Maine
Kennebunkport’s year-round population of just over 1,000 people dramatically increases each summer, when tourists and long-time holiday-makers flock to this treasure of a small town on the Atlantic coast of Maine. The town’s center is Dock Square, where delicious lobster restaurants (like the legendary Mabel’s Lobster Claw Restaurant) sit alongside homemade ice cream shops. Beach bums will love Kennebunkport’s sandy beaches, where sunbathing, swimming, and sailing are all popular pastimes.
3. Harwich Port, Massachusetts
Tiny Harwich Port, Massachusetts is known as a quiet, charming, and nostalgic summer getaway. An upscale town, Harwich Port remains home to seamen and fishermen — just as it has since before the American Revolution. Summertime in Harwich Port is especially charming, when visitors and locals alike flock towards the waterfront and downtown areas to enjoy music strolls, band concerts, craft shows, and much more. Harwich Port’s beaches are uniquely warm for the Nantucket Sound, making them an ideal spot for swimming. Nearby is another option, Red River Beach, where ice-cream and food trucks park for the day and cater to the variety of boaters and kayakers.
4. Tybee Island, Georgia
Tybee Island, Georgia, located a mere half hour from Savannah, is a unique beach destination with plenty to interest just about anyone. White sand beaches attract sunbathers, swimmers, beach volleyball players, and those just looking to stroll along the blue Atlantic waters. If you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of some of Tybee Island’s resident dolphins. Two military forts, one of which was involved in a Civil War battle, will fascinate history buffs, while those looking for a uniquely good time should be sure to get to Tybee Island in the fall, when the town plays host to a weekend-long Pirate Fest.
5. Cape May, New Jersey
Arguably one of the most iconic beach towns in the United States, Cape May, New Jersey is also one of the most popular family getaway spots on the East Coast. In the early 1800s, Cape May was a Victorian town through and through, compete with quaint shops and inns, relaxing bicycle paths, and a picturesque boardwalk and beach. Happily, not much has changed here over the years. The pedestrian-friendly downtown and boardwalk are perfect places for a stroll while enjoying a piece of homemade fudge or taffy. Many of those quaint Victorian shops have evolved into antique stores and high-end boutiques.
6. Jamestown, Rhode Island
Tiny Jamestown, Rhode Island might just be the epitome of charming New England beach town. The small town is bordered by the serene Narragansett Bay, across which spans the Claiborne Pell Bridge. Take a stroll down main Narragansett Avenue and watch the sailboats glide across the bay while you window shop. Besides sunbathing and swimming in the bay, kayaking on the salt marsh towards the Beavertail peninsula is one of the most popular pastimes here. Bike paths meander in and around town, ending at the unique 1856 lighthouse that’s worth a view.
7. Rowayton, Connecticut
One is likely to see more boats than cars in tiny Rowayton, Connecticut. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising considering this town of only 4,000 people consists of numerous rivers, coves, and shoreline along the Long Island Sound. The small downtown is about as charming as it gets, and formerly derelict buildings have been lovingly restored into mom-and-pop shops, a grocery, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. Many of the town’s impressive homes face the water, and evening porch sitting is a common pastime here. Interestingly, Rowayton has long attracted notable citizens, including 60 Minutes correspondent Andy Rooney, actor Treat Williams, children’s book author Ian Falconer, and Broadway producer Hal Prince, to name a few.
8. Old Saybrook, Connecticut
Thanks to an oddly located sandbar where the Connecticut River enters Long Island Sound, Old Saybrook, Connecticut never quite became the major fishing or shipping port as some of its larger neighbors. Today, Old Saybrook is home to fashionable boutiques, mom-and-pop stores, and — of course — water. Though swimming, wading, and sunbathing are all enjoyable pastimes here, boating and kayaking are the most popular water sports. For those interested in more of a water view, walking along the waterways, creeks, and shoreline are also lovely options. For these reasons, Old Saybrook is the perfect destination for relaxation and solitude while staying close to beaches and the calm, picturesque water.
9. St. Marys, Georgia
An ocean-front town located 45 minutes north of Jacksonville, St. Marys, Georgia epitomizes slow Southern charm. Downtown’s Osborne Street is lined with B&Bs, restaurants, and little shops selling everything from locally made crafts to fresh-baked treats. A short walk from downtown are fishing piers, a submarine museum, and stunning views of the barrier islands just off the Georgia coast. Beach bums will love Fernandina Beach, from which one can take a ferry to Cumberland Island National Seashore.
10. Blue Hill, Maine
Ocean lovers looking for quiet and relaxation need look no further than Blue Hill, Maine. This small town (it has one traffic light) has been attracting people from larger cities like New York and Philadelphia for more than a century, and even today the town does a wonderful job of welcoming those “from away.” Seasonal tourism is Blue Hill’s main industry, though the importance of lobstering in the Bay is evident to those who visit any of the town’s many restaurants.Visitors looking for tourists traps won’t find them here; local craft stores and art galleries are common, while one would be hard pressed to find a t-shirt or souvenir shop.
11. Montauk, New York
Known as “the other Hamptons,” Montauk, New York is well-known for its laid-back feel and natural backgrounds. Indeed, 65% of the town of Montauk is protected by a preservation fund that includes forest and rolling grasslands. When not swimming in the Atlantic or boating beyond the foamy breakers, visitors can camp or hike among Montauk’s beautiful nature, or enjoy the many family-owned restaurants, boutiques, or shops that line the main downtown area.
12. Portsmouth, New Hampshire
While one may not want to sit on the beach or go for a swim at every time of the year here, Portsmouth, New Hampshire remains an excellent beach town getaway for any of the 12 months. This is, in large part, because of the unique vibe that has been brewing in Portsmouth since its earliest history as a fishing and whaling community. In the summer months, enjoy the beaches in Portsmouth, or take a walk through the bustling downtown. When it’s too cold to swim, enjoy the beautiful water from afar and head downtown to take advantage of Portsmouth’s 12 indie theaters, six art galleries, and an annual film festival.
13. Isle of Palms, South Carolina
For Charleston charm without the crowds, head over The Intracoastal Waterway to Isle of Palms, a skinny seven-mile-long barrier island just off the coast of South Carolina. Here, enjoy a vibe that is both tropical and Southern; we’re talking screened-in porches, grill outs, sweet tea and bourbon, and evenings spent in equal parts watching the sunset and keeping an eye out for pods of dolphins. When not at the beach, take a stroll down Palm Boulevard, where one grocery store and a few more boutiques and other shops make for a nice afternoon of window shopping.
14. Hyannis, Massachusetts
Most people associate Hyannis in Cape Cod with the Kennedy family, who once spent every available moment at the family compound in Hyannis Port. The romanticism built up around these visits has only grown over the years, as Hyannis remains one of the most beloved family getaway destinations on the East Coast. Visitors are sure to find a laid-back atmosphere here, and locals pride themselves on the friendly vibe of the whole town. Kalmus Beach is the go-to spot for swimmers, though windsurfing is also a popular pastime here. Barnstable, another friendly town, is nearby and worth a day trip for some different views.
15. East Hampton, New York
It’s no wonder that East Hampton is such a favorite getaway spot for the rich and famous of New York. With its calm waves and year-round amenities, East Hampton is a great place to visit at just about any time of year. Even if you can’t stay in one of the Hampton’s mansions, the impressive neighborhood of Lily Pond is worth a drive by, as the houses are both massive and absurdly picturesque. When you are done window shopping Main Street, head to the perfect white-sand beaches at Main Beach, where the only thing more inviting than the blue waters are the tasty lobster rolls that await you at the nearby restaurants.
16. Ogunquit, Maine
Considering its name roughly translates to “beautiful place by the sea,” it’s no wonder why little Ogunquit, Maine is one of the East Coast’s best beach towns. Ogunquit is said to have the prettiest beach town in southern Maine, so not surprisingly, the beach here is a main attraction. The town’s summer theater is as much a draw today as it was when it was founded in the 1930s. Still, for a little more action, Ogunquit is also home to the 1.5-mile Marginal Way, a dramatic coastal trail that offers stunning water views.
17. Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Though one of the larger beach towns on this list, Martha’s Vineyard doesn’t skimp on the charm. In the summer months, crowds flock to central Martha’s Vineyard for the quaint shopping, top-notch eateries, and picturesque beaches. Luckily, various respites do exist. Those looking to experience this classic beach town without the massive crowds can escape “up-island” to Moshup Beach. Tucked beneath the Gay Head Cliffs, Moshup is an unspoiled paradise, complete with soft white sand and the red and brown cliffs as a backdrop.
18. Provincetown, Massachusetts
Situated on the northernmost tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown, Massachusetts has an interesting history that has gradually led to the eclectic vibe visitors to the small beach town can enjoy today. Once a Portuguese whaling and fishing community, Provincetown began its evolution into the artsy enclave it is today in the early 1900s. Indeed, visitors will enjoy the miles of art galleries, shops, and old mansions that line Provincetown’s main roads. For the beach lovers, the town boasts more than 30 miles of coastline, all of which are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore. The two main beaches are Herring Cove and Race Point, though those looking for a quieter beach experience can easily find a number of other options.
19. Kiawah Island, South Carolina
Kiawah Island is a small island located right off of the South Carolina coast. With its 10 pristine miles of beach and whopping 10,000 acres of natural woodland, Kiawah Island boasts amenities and activities to please any member of the family. While cabins and bungalows are available for rent, camping near the sound of the ocean is also an option. Daily activities include everything from hiking and biking, to sunbathing and swimming, to boating and other water sports. Inclusive resorts and golf courses also call the Island home. As a bonus, Kiawah Island is located only a short drive to Charleston, South Carolina’s quintessential Southern charmer.
20. Nantucket, Massachusetts
Over generations of beach-going families, Nantucket has become synonymous with words like “beach” and “charm.” Indeed, a visit to Nantucket — with its bright blue skies, picturesque ocean, and characteristic grey-shingled houses — is like a visit to someplace out of a book. Once a whaling community, Nantucket has kept the working-town charm while shifting its gears towards tourism. The quaint neighborhoods are all located right near the beach, and are well-liked by families for their wide sand areas (perfect for making sandcastles!) and calm waters.
21. Duxbury, Massachusetts
Spend even a little time in Duxbury, Massachusetts and you will quickly realize why the town is lovingly nicknamed “Deluxe-bury.” J. Crew and Lilly Pulitzer are practically citizens here themselves, and contribute to a preppy vibe that is more charming than pretentious. An easy day trip from Boston, Duxbury offers beaches, a ferry boat, boating lessons and rentals, tasty restaurants (we like Island Creek Oysters) and plenty of art galleries and performance groups. Best of all, this former shipbuilding town stays much quieter than its Cape Cod neighbors in the summer, making it the perfect option for families looking for seclusion and quiet.
22. Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
North Carolina is chock-full of great beach towns, but one of the most popular is Wrightsville Beach. A tiny town located near the outskirts of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach is known and loved for its wide beaches, soft white sand, and picturesque stilt houses situated right on the water, many of which can be rented out to summering families. While most visitors to Wrightsville enjoy the swimming and the sunbathing, those with boat access can head to nearby Masonboro for a good selection of restaurants, bars, and picnic spots.
23. Lubec, Maine
Located right near the border of New Brunswick, Canada, Lubec, Maine is a shoreside town that oozes elegance and a Victorian-revival vibe. Downtown, B&Bs exist in 1800s Federal-style buildings, and often include things like lush tea gardens or libraries with ocean views. There are plenty of choices for restaurants, including the local favorite Water Street Tavern, known for its chowder and lobster macaroni and cheese. Water babies will love Lubec’s beaches and seemingly endless shoreline. Two lighthouses await hikers at the end of paths, while the former Roosevelt summer home on nearby Campobello Island is now an international park and a great day trip option.
24. Bethany Beach, Delaware
So close, yet oh-so-far from the big touristy beach towns on this part of the Atlantic coast, Bethany Beach, Delaware is well-known for its picturesque beaches and quiet, relaxing hotels and resorts. Summer months, specifically between June and Labor Day, are the busiest times, when everyone from extended families to college buddies all make their way to Bethany Beach. Not to worry, though, as this place rarely gets rowdy or raucous. Rather, Bethany Beach evokes a certain mid-century charm that makes for a family-friendly, relaxing atmosphere at any time of year.
25. Ocean Grove, New Jersey
Quieter than so many other New Jersey shore towns, Ocean Grove isn’t necessarily a go-to place for drinking or partying. Rather, families flock to Ocean City to enjoy the beautiful beaches, family-oriented boardwalk, and unique lodging opportunities. Indeed, neat rows of pastel canopy cottages line the shoreline to make up what is fondly known as Tent City. Each summer, hundreds of families fork out thousands to spend a cozy summer living right on the New Jersey shore.
26. Lewes, Delaware
Located just across Delaware Bay from Cape May, New Jersey, Lewes, Delaware is an historic and peaceful town that draws surprisingly few tourists each year considering its extensive beach town charm. Situated on the best part of a 25-mile long beach, Lewes is the perfect place for sunbathing, swimming, boating, windsurfing, or just walking along the shore. On really hot days, head to the beach via the picturesque downtown area and pick up an ice cream cone at King’s. For a little variety, visitors can head 25 miles south to hit Maryland, or take the ferry across the bay to the much more popular Cape May.
27. Chatham, Massachusetts
Located well off the beaten path of Cape Cod’s more popular beach towns, little Chatham, Massachusetts is chock-full of classic charm. The town’s beaches are upstaged only by its downtown area, which is a mellow mix of high-end shops and boutiques, mom-and-pop restaurants and cafes, and local market-type stores. Despite the tourists, Chatham is still a commercial fishing town, and that remains clear through the selection of fresh seafood available in the markets and eateries. When they’re not sunbathing on the beach or strolling the downtown, visitors can enjoy the nearby wildlife refuge or play a game of croquet on the lawns of the luxurious Chatham Bars Inn.
28. Dewey Beach, Delaware
Dewey Beach, Delaware is a high-end beach town destination that seems as if it has come straight out of a classic beach movie. It is the perfect spot to enjoy some swimming or sunbathing, while breaks can be sought on the boardwalk with classic saltwater taffy or an ice cream cone. The little beach town is just as enjoyable on warm evenings, when the boardwalk turns into a lively art gallery scene and restaurants and dance clubs overflow from their quaint buildings out into the warm evening air.
29. Chincoteague, Virginia
Located just off the coast of Virginia, this small and peaceful island was made famous by Marguerite Henry’s classic children’s novel Misty of Chincoteague. Chincoteague Island is 7 miles long and a mile and a half wide. It is the gateway to Assateague Island, which includes the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and the Assateague Island National Seashore, a nature refuge for everything from herons and woodpeckers to foxes and ponies. Yep, ponies. Every summer, visitors and would-be pony owners flock to Chincoteague to see the great pony round-up, when dozens of these hardy little ponies are swum from their island home to be auctioned off to keep the herd numbers at a safe levels. But don’t despair if your visit to Chincoteague doesn’t come during pony round-up time. There is plenty of beach to explore, B&Bs to visit, and charming restaurants to try that are sure to make your visit memorable.
30. Duck, North Carolina
You would be hard pressed to find an East Coast beach town less crowded — or more charming — than tiny Duck, North Carolina. Located seven miles from Kitty Hawk, this Outer Banks town does not have a single public beach — a good thing if you are staying in Duck and looking for a quiet getaway. Duck has three lodging options, each of which is located a short walk from the beach. For something cozier, check out Duck’s single B&B called Advice 5¢: A Bed & Breakfast, while those looking for more of a resort atmosphere should enjoy the 88-room Sanderling Resort and Spa.
Published May 2016