From West Coast to East, Great Lakes to Gulf, meet the 10 coastal towns that are sure to make you smile—for a weekend or a lifetime.
By Tracey Minkin
1 of 10Photo: Jessica Sample
10. Hermosa Beach, California
What began as a Southern California train stop has blossomed into a vibrant mix of homes and businesses strung along Pacific Coast Highway. Perhaps best known for its wide beaches, Hermosa Beach is also the home of nationally recognized nightclubs, including the Comedy & Magic Club (home of Jay Leno), and the The Lighthouse Cafe, Southern California’s legendary home of West Coast jazz.
Local hangout: Pier Plaza—the last block of Pier Avenue before the water—draws everyone both local and visiting to eat, drink, shop, and listen to music. It’s also the site of Hermosa Beach’s New Year’s Eve beach ball drop.
Cool event: Fiesta Hermosa is the largest arts and crafts fair in Southern California (more than 300 artists participate), held twice every year—Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend.
Best souvenir: A surfboard. Hermosa Beach is known as a mecca of surfboard making. Browse local wares at ET Surf and score used pro boards at Jack’s Surfboards.
Stay a weekend: The Ocean Front studio suites at Beach House boutique hotel overlook the sand and have fireplaces and balconies. Rates start at $289; 888-895-4559.
2 of 10Photo: Greater Portland Convention & Visitors Bureau
9. Portland, Maine
Nurturing its historic working waterfront right alongside a hip, high-tech, and creative economy, this port city on Casco Bay hums with art, culture, and an internationally known culinary scene. The compact downtown is filled with historic brick and stone architecture, and crossed with cobblestone streets, making it picturesque in all seasons. Plus, of course, there’s instant access to the freshest lobster going.
Local hangout: With no advertising and no sign, Lincoln’s is the ultimate insider hangout. Every drink at this basement speakeasy is $5 (hence the name)‚ and the actual entrance is a well-guarded secret—you need to get near 36 Market Street and look for a local to ask.
Cool event: While Portland hosts numerous high-wattage food, wine, beer, and art festivals, residents love Merry Madness, the city’s wine-fueled holiday shopping party.
Best souvenir:Sea Bags. Sewn on site in the waterfront studio/shop, these bags made from authentic sails are the go-to to take home.
Stay a weekend: A stone’s throw from the downtown action, the luxuriously redoubtable Inn by the Seais worth the short commute, with its sandy beach, pool, spa, and excellent on-site dining. Rates start at $229; 207/799-3134 or innbythesea.com.
3 of 10Photo: Gary Hayes
8. Seaside, Oregon
Perhaps best known as the end of Lewis and Clark’s epic expedition, Seaside is also Oregon’s oldest seaside resort town. (Vacationing Portlandites took a train out to the shore from the late 1800s until the highway was completed in 1938.) Seaside’s wide beaches have made it home to the world’s largest amateur beach volleyball tournament, and its historic aquarium is a fun family escape (feed the seals!). Downtown’s Broadway is a buzzing cluster of restaurants, shops, and classic summer amusements like bumper cars and an antique carousel.
Local hangout: Since Victorian days, the 11/2-mile-long oceanfront Promenade (known as “The Prom”) draws everyone to the shore for walking, biking, running, or just watching the waves roll in.
Cool event:Hood to Coast, the world’s longest running relay race, has its finish line in Seaside. Every year, more than 1,000 teams of 12 trade off running the 198 miles from Mt. Hood to the water.
Backed by rugged cliffs and with peaceful Soquel Creek running through its beachfront village, Capitola is California’s oldest seaside resort town. Its streets are lined with colorful hotels and homes, and its wharf on Monterey Bay hums with activity. Provider of 90 percent of the world’s begonia flowers from the 1930s to the 1970s, the town is home to the Capitola Begonia Festival (now in its 64th year), which includes flower-laden floats plying Soquel Creek.
Local hangout: All roads lead to the Esplanade, a waterfront promenade that passes shops, restaurants, and historic homes.
Cool event:Wharf to Wharf Race. Every July, 16,000 runners cover six miles from the Santa Cruz Wharf to the Capitola Wharf, with bands providing party breaks the whole way.
5 of 10Photo: Charleston Area CVB/explorecharleston.com
6. Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina
Along just 3.3 miles of Atlantic shoreline at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, what this tiny community lacks in size it more than makes up for in beauty and historic charm. What may be most stunning about Sullivan’s Island is its commitment to preserving its natural gifts—the town owns the land bordering its beaches, and has protected it under easements. The perpetual gift of public access to pristine shoreline, paired with easy access to the cultural wealth of nearby Charleston, makes this residential enclave with stunning mansions a prized Lowcountry address.
Local hangout: Writer Edgar Allan Poe was stationed briefly at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s, and the restaurant that bears his name, Poe’s Tavern, is the absolute hangout for regulars (and makes a great burger, to boot).
Cool event: The New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge spearheaded by Dunleavy’s Pub is not only a huge, fun-loving party, but also raises funds for South Carolina Special Olympics. Look for folks wearing white tuxedos with green ties and vests heading straight into the Atlantic.
Best souvenir: A sand dollar—as beachy, beautiful, and pristine as Sullivan’s Island itself.
Stay a weekend: With Sullivan’s being primarily residential, the place to stay is just one island over, at Wild Dunes Resorton Isle of Palms: great beaches, great golf, and proximity to both Sullivan’s and Charleston. Rates start at $199; 866/359-5593 or wilddunes.com.
6 of 10Photo: Michael Thomas
5. Fairhope, Alabama
Located on what’s known as the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, this gracious Gulf town has long been a destination for artists, writers (including Fannie Flagg and Rick Bragg), and vacationers. The historic downtown blooms—not just with independent cafés, bars, and shopping, but also literally: Colorful blossoms line the sidewalks, decorate street crossings, hang in baskets suspended from light posts, overflow from planters in front of shops, and even adorn the tops of trash receptacles.
Local hangout: Fairhope’s Municipal Pier and Beachfront Park serves as the city’s town square, drawing the community to the water with its marina, walking trails, duck pond, and benches.
Cool event: Mardi Gras. On a coastline with the oldest Mardi Gras celebrations in the country, Fairhope keeps pace with four colorful parades of its own, including the Mystic Mutts of Revelry. (Yes, that’s for pooches.)
Best souvenir: Because Fairhope was founded as an art colony, take home a piece of local art or pottery.
7 of 10Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/Tor Johnson
4. Hilo, Hawaii
A remarkable combination of urban pleasures like boutiques, galleries, and museums with surrounding natural splendor (waterfalls!), Hilo is a garden city within the garden that is the Big Island of Hawaii. It’s also home to a cluster of classic Hawaiian culinary experiences, from the nearby Mauna Loa macadamia nut factory to okazuya (old-school delis serving up Japan-inspired side dishes).
Local hangout: The Hilo Farmers Market happens daily, which makes it the perfect place to see your neighbors. On weekends, the market draws people from all over the island, creating a de facto casual party.
Cool event: Hilo’s weeklong Merrie Monarch Festivalevery spring celebrates the art of hula and features a dance competition, an arts and crafts festival, and a grand parade through town.
Best souvenir: Choose between an aloha shirt from Hilo-based international designer Sig Zane and a cornucopia of locally made food items—especially Big Island Candies’ chocolate-dipped shortbread.
Stay a weekend: Just 15 minutes from Hilo, you can surround yourself with gardens, bamboo forests, and waterfalls in one of 13 guest rooms at The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. Rates start at $179; 808/935-6789 or waterfall.net.
8 of 10Photo: Billy McDonald
3. Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Surrounded by the clear, cool waters of Green Bay and Lake Michigan, this historic harbor city on the fingerlike Door Peninsula is home to tugboats, commercial vessels, and a steady stream of fishermen lured by Sturgeon Bay’s abundance of bass. For land-lubbers, the pleasures are equally varied: a trio of shopping districts, plus parks, galleries, and a maritime and historical museum. Often called the heart of Wisconsin’s Door County, Sturgeon Bay, with genuine hometown pride, is full of hospitality—and heart.
Cool event: A songwriting festival, the Steel Bridge Songfest brings together more than 200 musicians for performances of just-written tunes.
Best souvenir: No one leaves town without a bag or two of fresh cheese curds from Renard’s Cheese.
Stay a weekend: Reynolds House Bed and Breakfast occupies a restored 1900 Arts and Crafts home with five charming guest rooms and a broad porch with a swing. Rates start at $100; 920/493-1113.
9 of 10Photo: Chuck Snyder
2. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Known as “the nation’s summer capital”— because the D.C. crowd has traditionally decamped here for vacation—this delightful and old-fashioned Mid-Atlantic town boasts a colorful boardwalk that’s a mile long and lined with food and amusements. In the off-season, though, Rehoboth Beach’s tiny size may be its greatest strength: Kids ride bikes down tree-lined streets, and everyone knows their neighbors.
Local hangout:Browseabout Booksis a hub of community activities all year, and for visitors in the summer, it’s a great way to get to know the town through its gregarious staff.
Cool event: Independence Day, of course! Local bands play at the city’s charming bandstand, visitors stroll the boardwalk, and at 9:30 p.m., 4,500 fireworks burst across the Delaware sky.
Best souvenir:Fisher’s Popcorn—a handmade Delaware beach tradition since the 1930s. Keep that souvenir tub; you can refill it at discounted prices.
Stay a weekend: Nestled among lively restaurants and shops, Hotel Rehoboth has a cheery lemon exterior and crisp black awnings that give way to well-appointed rooms and suites, some with terraces and fireplaces. Rates start at $159; 877/247-7346 or hotelrehoboth.com.
10 of 10Photo: Kinzie Riehm
1. Stuart, Florida
America’s Happiest Seaside Town of 2016 is on Florida’s Treasure Coast, and that location could not be more appropriate. Often referred to as a hidden gem just 45 minutes north of Palm Beach, Stuart is an Old Florida–style treasure. Nestled between two rivers and situated on the Atlantic, the town shares its waters with sea turtles, dolphins, and, most famously, the sailfish—its abundant local presence has led to the town’s reputation as the “sailfish capital of the world.” Mayor Jeffrey Krauskopf, surveying his town of tidy, landscaped streets, vistas uninterrupted by high-rises, and waterfront in seemingly every direction, sums Stuart up in one appropriately old-fashioned adjective: “We’re quaint,” he says, adding that the town’s relaxed, flip-flop approach to life is that special secret at the core of its celebrated happiness.
Local hangout: The Riverwalk, Stuart’s waterfront boardwalk along the St. Lucie River, is not only a destination for strolling and picnics, but also the home of Rock’n Riverwalk, a year-round weekly outdoor (and free) concert.
Cool event: Dancin’ in the Street is an all-day street party and Stuart’s oldest and best-loved music festival. The event draws crowds in August to hear 20 local bands in the historic downtown and Riverwalk.
Best souvenir: Artist Geoffrey C. Smith’s statue of a leaping sailfish is a local landmark, and 12-, 24-, and even 60-inch replicas are available at his downtown gallery.
Stay a weekend: In the heart of downtown, a short walk from the waterfront, the Old Colorado Inn has brightly updated its 1914 digs. Rates start at $139; 772/215-3437 or oldcoloradoinn.com.