America's Best Beach Boardwalks

From the honky-tonk hilarity of New York’s Coney Island to skateboarders and sea views in San Diego, these icons are freeways to fun.

Coney Island

Photographer: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Coney Island, New York

We’re madly in love with the sweet charm of small coastal towns, but we’d be lying if we said a weekend fling with Coney Island on the side didn’t give us a thrill. Fair warning: Like the big city of New York that it is a part of, you have to take the good with the tawdry. From hot dog–eating contests to snake charmers and fire eaters, this boardwalk is a little bit sideshow, a little bit burlesque, and a whole lot of fun. You come here to raise your arms into the air and scream on the 86-year-old Cyclone roller coaster and act out childhood fantasies like dressing up in “tails” for the annual Mermaid Parade. And if you look closely enough, you can even see behind the frills and the makeup: Sunrise over the ocean is utterly breathtaking and living proof that natural beauty is still here—buried beneath a few layers of honky tonk, maybe, but here nonetheless.

STAY AT HOTEL BPM BROOKLYN: This hipster haven embodies the Brooklyn renaissance with edgy decor and Frette linens; hotelbpmbrooklyn.com.

Hampton Beach

Photographer: Alan Briere/Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images

Hampton Beach, New Hampshire

This old-school boardwalk is more like a school of rock these days—80 free concerts are held at the waterfront Seashell Stage and Casino Ballroom. Melissa Etheridge and The Beach Boys are two of the headliners that promise to pack the venue among other live acts rocking out in lounges on the 1.3- mile-long boardwalk. When you’re not dipping your toes in the warm Atlantic waves, landlubbers will find that the boardwalk thrives with beach volleyball tournaments and talent shows, beauty pageants, and a seafood festival all the way through September.

STAY AT LAMIE'S INN: A five-minute drive from the boardwalk, this family-run (and pet- friendly) inn has been around since the late 1950s; lamiesinn.com.

Hollywood Beach

Photographer: Marvin E. Newman/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

Hollywood Beach, Florida

You’ll feel as though you’ve traveled back in time to Old Florida on this shoreline dotted with palm trees, tiki bars, and nary a high-rise condo in sight. Hollywood retains a small-town charm perfect for families or couples who crave a beach where nobody feels out of place. The 2½-mile boardwalk (called the “broadwalk” because the path is so wide) is active with joggers and young skaters—but it’s also the spot to kick back and order a great meal next to the beach, like the macadamia-crusted mahi mahi on the terrace at Latitudes Restaurant & Tiki Bar. And while you may not find a wizard at the end of this mellow brick road, there are plenty of adventures along the way.

STAY AT WALKABOUT BEACH RESORT: This throwback to the 1940s flaunts Florida Art Moderne architecture on the shore; walkaboutbeachresort.com.

Rehoboth Beach

Photographer: Stephen St. John/National Geographic/Getty Images

Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Sure, most boardwalks tempt with scents of popcorn and saltwater taffy, but there’s something especially sublime about the aromas and eats along this mile-long, wood walk on the Delaware coast. Here, you’ll happily rove back and forth from the Atlantic Boardwalk Grille, where fresh mussels rule, to time-honored beach munchies like Thrasher’s fries, Kohr Bros. frozen custard, and the more than 70 flavors available at The Ice Cream Store. Rehoboth’s melodic menu is just as eclectic: The Clear Space Theatre Company presents a summer-long slate of performances, from The Sound of Music to a tribute to current pop divas.

STAY AT THE BELLMOOR INN & SPA: Two blocks from the beach, The Bellmoor’s European decor lends the place a bygone feel; thebellmoor.com.

Santa Cruz

Photographer: Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Santa Cruz, California

Long before Disney, there was Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk—California’s original amusement park and still one of the best. Launched in 1907, the boardwalk has meticulously preserved its bygone ways. Whether it’s corn dogs and cotton candy or wooden roller coasters and screechy bumper cars, this stretch of sand 90 minutes south of San Francisco is like stepping into one of those old Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movies. Must-stops along the path include Momo’s Beach Shack, and Olitas Cantina & Grill for a margarita and fish tacos. As daylight fades, the Giant Dipper roller coaster offers an unforgettable view of the sunset over Monterey Bay.

STAY AT DREAM INN: This swank property sits right on the beach at one end of the boardwalk, with mod rooms and bay views; jdvhotels.com.

San Diego

Photographer: Richard Cummins/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

San Diego, California

“Cowabunga!” could easily be the motto of this outdoor sports oasis along the San Diego coast, the least known and most laid-back of California’s great boardwalks. If ever there were an endless summer, this is it, a length of sand that stoked both the surfing and skateboarding crazes, as well as a hotbed of other sports: beach volleyball, kite surfing, and over-the-line softball. Fully paved today, the meandering boardwalk stretches three miles from the grassy knolls of Palisades Park in Pacific Beach to the sandy volleyball courts at the bottom end of Mission Beach. Along the way are open-air bars and cafés, places where you can rent beach cruisers and surfoards, and a chance that you might bump into local legends like Tony Hawk or Shaun White freestyling on their skateboards down the boardwalk. But the biggest “celebrity” here is the Giant Dipper roller coaster at Belmont Park, a wooden behemoth that’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

STAY AT CRYSTAL PIER HOTEL & COTTAGES: The newly refurbished cottages at this 1936 Pacific Beach landmark offer a rare chance to sleep above the waves on the wooden pier; crystalpier.com.

Virginia Beach

Photographer: Ken Rygh Creative Art & Design/E+/Getty Images

Virginia Beach, Virginia

Live bands and buskers, bikinis and bikes blend easily along this 3-mile stretch of Mid-Atlantic coast during the summer months. It’s actually a double boardwalk: a pedestrian walkway along the outside and a cycling/skating path on the inside, with ramps that flow onto a golden-sand strand. We promise you will not be able to resist a photo op in front of the giant King Neptune statue—and if you’re up for a quest, Titus International Surf School’s buff instructors will teach you how to hang ten. In addition to preserving the maritime history of the Virginia coast, the boardwalk’s Old Coast Guard Station organizes eerie after-dark walks about the area’s ghosts and shipwrecks.

STAY AT THE HILTON VIRGINIA BEACH OCEANFRONT: One of the few full-service hotels along the boardwalk, the Hilton boasts oceanview rooms and a spa; hilton.com.

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