From the rugged cliffs of Oregon and the dunes of Lake Michigan to Carolina barrier islands and Cape Cod fishing villages, we’ve uncovered a host of beautiful little beach towns from coast to coast.
Some of our picks are charming shoreline spots with familiar names, while others are lesser-known seaside gems, but don’t be fooled by their small size—when it comes to sheer natural beauty, these destinations pack a real punch.
Whether you’re looking for somewhere lively or secluded, for surfing lessons or winding coastal hikes, what’s special about these tight-knit towns is the friendly atmosphere you’ll find there. By renting a cozy seaside cottage or spacious oceanfront condo from TripAdvisor, you’ll have the chance to experience these communities for yourself—to meet the locals, explore the neighborhood and discover why so many people return here, year after year, for their annual beach vacation.
Read on to see why these 14 beautiful little beach towns are some of the best in America! And once you decide on a destination, you can book all your tours, activities, and attractions right on TripAdvisor, too. Our new 24-hour cancellation policy (on experiences) means you can pre-book before arriving, but still have the flexibility to cancel if your itinerary changes.
This close-knit Carolina beach community teems with small-town charm and Southern hospitality. No matter how you decide to spend the week—lazing by the waves, kayaking near the coast or fishing in the Currituck Sound—you can’t leave the Outer Banks without paying a visit to the Spanish Mustang Reserve, an 11-mile stretch of undeveloped land where Corolla’s legendary wild horses roam free. Several small companies offer guided tours of the sanctuary, but if you want to get up close and personal with one of the horses, drop by the Wild Horse Museum during a live mustang visit. And while you’re in Corolla, treat yourself to a dozen fresh, made-to-order cake donuts at Duck Donuts; it’s a sweet and satisfying OBX tradition.
Recommended Activity: Wild Horse Adventure in the Outer Banks
Topsail Beach shares a 26-mile-long barrier island with two other sandy destinations: North Topsail and Surf City. Without huge hotels or glitzy attractions, Topsail is a place to enjoy the beach in its purest, simplest form—without the crowds or chaos of some popular coastal towns. If your idea of paradise involves long days spent relaxing in the sun, lazily casting a line or catching up on your to-read list, you’ll love the island’s private, cozy cottages and beachside retreats just steps from the ocean. Spend a rainy day at the Missiles and More Museum, where exhibits explore the secret missile testing program in Topsail during WWII and the pirate lore behind the beach’s name.
There’s so much more to this northwest Michigan destination than meets the eye. Located on the shores of Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City is home to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, a national park with wilderness trails and beautiful beaches like Esch Road and Glen Haven. It also happens to be smack in the middle of scenic Michigan wine country, and with two wine trails, 40 wineries and a smattering of microbreweries and distilleries nearby, you’d be remiss not to climb aboard a local tasting tour. Another unexpected attraction? The restaurants. From fusion to farm-to-table, foodies will revel in the incredible flavors Traverse City has to offer.
It’s only appropriate that Ogunquit means “beautiful place by the sea,” because this small town is quintessential Maine: fresh, salty air, wind-whipped coastline, jaw-dropping scenery and incredible seafood. Visit turn-of-the-century fishing village Perkins Cove for lunch, shopping and a few souvenirs; local seafood haunt Barnacle Billy’s makes a mean lobster roll, and Perkins Cove Candy Shop is a crowd favorite for saltwater taffy. Maine is known for its craggy coastline, but Ogunquit boasts two sandy beachfronts and seriously striking views. Spread out your towel and spend the day by the waves, or check out the nature trails at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge.
Whether you come for the hiking, the marine life or the stunning landscape, as the world’s smallest natural harbor and the whale watching capital of the Oregon coast, Depoe Bay is a tiny coastal town that packs a serious punch. Thanks to a pod of gray whales living offshore almost year-round, the whale watching charters here are a real treat; watch for shorebirds in flight and sea lions sunning themselves on bobbing buoys. If the weather turns sour, seek out the Spouting Horn, a cleft in the basalt cliffs that blasts seawater like a geyser when storm clouds roll in.
With lush forests, crashing surf and the iconic Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach is a truly spectacular getaway. It’s an easy day trip (90 minutes) from Portland, but you’ll need more than a few hours to explore all of the city’s art galleries and beautiful state parks. Book a rental here and take the time to discover quaint downtown courtyards, watch a glassblowing demonstration and trek across Ecola State Park, a top-notch hiking spot known for its clifftop views, coves and an abandoned lighthouse.
A peaceful village accessible by ferry from bustling Newport, Jamestown is dotted with working farms, rolling pastures, family-owned shops and lovely little galleries. As one of the state’s smaller towns, the friendly atmosphere and quiet streets in this one-stoplight community will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. Stop off at Beavertail State Park for saltwater fishing, excellent hiking and dazzling views of the coast. Kids will enjoy the sea life exhibits in the little museum at the Beavertail Light, the third oldest lighthouse in the country. Bring a Frisbee and a picnic; the park is a great place to watch the sunset.
Hampton is a large, spacious beach with good facilities, great entertainment and a classic boardwalk often named one of the country’s best. During the summer, the city regularly plays host to competitions like regattas, beach volleyball tournaments and sand sculpting contests; the Hampton Beach Seashell presents free outdoor concerts and movie nights; and on Wednesdays, the town puts on a free fireworks show. With no shortage of exciting events, plus kid-friendly attractions like mini golf and the nearby Seacoast Science Center, this lively seaside destination is a home run for families.
Recommended Activity: Smuttynose Brewery Tour
Sailboats, lighthouses, timeless architecture: Cape Cod is one of the most charming vacation spots in the country, and Chatham is a picture-perfect seaside destination for families and avid fishermen alike. Harding’s Beach is a fabulous spot for early morning yoga, beach volleyball and birdwatching; the warm and gentle water is perfect for swimming, and if you bring a pair of binoculars, you might spot seals frolicking in the distance. Beat the afternoon heat with a visit to Chatham Railroad Museum, catch a concert at Kate Gould Park or window-shop on Main Street.
Appropriately nicknamed “The Gibraltar of the Pacific,” Morro Bay is a beautiful village on California’s central coast known for the world-famous Morro Rock, a 576-foot-tall monolith that marks the entrance to the harbor. Nature enthusiasts will enjoy exploring the dunes and observing the wildlife at Morro Bay State Park, but if you’re more into watersports, surfing or sport fishing, there’s plenty of that here, too. Whether you choose to spend the day biking the coast or birdwatching at the Heron Rookery Natural Preserve, don’t leave town without treating yourself to dessert at Grandma’s Frozen Yogurt & Waffle Shop.
Located just east of Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach is made up of two different islands separated by two bodies of water. It’s a welcoming place where the water is clear, the sand is clean and the surf’s always up—yes, really. National Geographic ranked it one of the 20 best surfing towns in the world, and it’s a friendly spot to take a lesson or two. If you’re not ready to board it, boat it in style instead, on a guided yachting adventure. Beyond its well-maintained beaches, Wrightsville is also home to a bird sanctuary, plenty of charming restaurants and a historic namesake attraction, the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History.
A quiet, happy-go-lucky beach town just an hour from the bustle of Waikiki, this community on Oahu’s North Shore is known for its superb surfing and protected coastlines ideal for snorkeling and kayaking. Is courage your middle name? Book yourself a shark cage diving session. Itching to paddle into an epic wave? Make a break for Ehukai Beach Park, part of the longest surfable spot in the world. At two miles in length, it’s better known as “The Pipeline” because of the shape of the waves—just right for tube riding. Other awesome coastal spots include Laniakea Beach (good for an up-close look at Hawaiian green sea turtles), Sunset Beach (great for snorkeling), and Mokuleia Beach (the perfect spot to launch a kite).
Recommended Activity: North Shore Catamaran Charters: Snorkeling, Sunset Cruises & Whale Watching
Saugatuck is a vibrant, artsy town along Lake Michigan known for Oval Beach, a pleasantly uncrowded shore with drifting sand dunes, shallow water and gentle waves—great for kids. Nearby, Saugatuck Natural Area runs north of Oval Beach and features 173 acres of duneland with winding hikes overlooking the lake and Kalamazoo River Channel. The pristine area is known for its excellent fishing, sailing, swimming and blueberry picking, and with a quaint downtown filled with homey pubs and unique boutiques, Saugatuck is just the place to hit “pause” and escape the bustle of everyday life.
With four golf courses, freshwater lakes and more than two miles of white sand beaches, Pismo Beach makes an idyllic summer vacation or weekend getaway destination. Surfing, kiteboarding, fishing and swimming are all popular pastimes, and there’s no better place to watch all the action unfolding than Pismo Pier, a superb vantage point great for sightseeing, people-watching and snapping photos of the sunset. Don’t miss the Monarch Butterfly Grove, one of the area’s most unique attractions, the world-famous clam chowder at Splash Café, or Margo Dodd Park, where you might spot sea lions and harbor seals napping on the rocky shore.
Recommended Activity: Pismo Beach Dune Buggy Experience
Update: voting is closed as of August 1, 2016. Congratulations to Topsail Beach, North Carolina for winning our readers’ choice best little beach town in the USA! The coastal escape narrowly edged out Jamestown, Rhode Island, Traverse City, Michigan and Morro Bay, California to take the crown.