Philip James Corwin/CORBIS
Chelsea Piers, New York, New York
Whatever your sport, it's here. These four piers on Manhattan's Lower West Side opened in 1910 as a passenger terminal for luxury liners. (Titanic was scheduled to dock here.) Today, the piers constitute a recreation complex where you can play basketball or soccer, roller skate, ice skate, hit golf balls, bowl, lift weights, box, kayak, swim, sail, fish―or relax in the spa; 212/336-6666 or chelseapiers.com.
Morey's Piers, Wildwoods, New Jersey
Nearby Atlantic City invented the ocean amusement pier in 1882. The Morey family has perfected it. From these three piers sprout thrill rides (including seven roller coasters) and all sorts of other diversions. There's even a pair of beachfront water parks; 609/522-3900 or moreyspiers.com.
Ocean City Pier, Ocean City, Maryland
Crowds line up for one of Ocean City's most popular attractions: Thrashers French Fries. Don't ask for ketchup; Thrashers doesn't serve it. Instead, try the vinegar. While at the pier, which is at the south end of the Ocean City Boardwalk, you can try amusements that include a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, and a Ripley's Believe It or Not! museum. A fishing center at pier's end sells bait and rents tackle; 410/289-3031 or ocpierrides.com.
Cocoa Beach Pier, Cocoa Beach, Florida
Restaurants and bars take up much of this 1962-vintage pier's length. Mai Tiki Bar (perched right at the end, 800 feet into the Atlantic) boasts sunset views looking back toward shore. You can also fish, buy clothing or souvenirs, and catch live entertainment. This is one of the East Coast's top surfing spots―or, for most of us, surf-watching spots; 321/783-7549 or cocoabeachpier.com.
The Pier, St. Petersburg, Florida
Dressed-up couples ready for a romantic dinner at the Columbia Restaurant (Spanish/Cuban food, soothing vistas) stroll hand-in-hand past chattering swirls of teenagers, deeply tanned fishermen, and solemn pelicans hoping for a freshly caught handout. The inverted pyramid at pier's end holds shops, restaurants, bars, and an arts center that showcases working artists; 727/821-6443 or stpete-pier.com.
Crystal Pier, Pacific Beach (San Diego), California
Crystal Pier Hotel's slogan says it all: "Sleep over the ocean." The hotel consists of 26 pier-top cottages, most of them built in the 1930s. All have been renovated. Each provides a bedroom, a living room, a kitchen, and, best of all, a patio for looking out over the magnificent Pacific Ocean; 800/748-5894 or crystalpier.com.
Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, California
Southern California leads the country in cool piers. Most started as cargo/passenger terminals. The coastline provides few close-to-shore anchorages, so shippers built their own. From its start in 1916, the Santa Monica Pier has never bothered with practicality. It's all about fun: an arcade, an amusement park, an aquarium, shops, restaurants, and a 1922-vintage carousel; 310/458-8900 or santamonicapier.org.
Santa Cruz Wharf, Santa Cruz, California
You could eat your way to the end of the wharf, but it would take awhile. Ten restaurants or snack shops line up along the half-mile-long pier. Not surprisingly, most specialize in seafood, and all offer great views. Just don't dine immediately before riding the nearby Giant Dipper roller coaster; 831/420-5270 or ci.santa-cruz.ca.us/pr/wharf.
Pier 7, San Francisco, California
Something about the restless rhythm of waves, the tickle of sea breezes, and the tangy scent of salt air can soothe your stresses away. Pier 7 is particularly good for that. There's nothing fancy here, just a 900-foot pier with lots of decorative, Victorian-style lightposts and benches. It's open day and night for fishing, strolling, or just admiring the panorama of the city's skyline; 415/274-0400 or sfport.com (click on "Visitor Information," then "Parks").
Bell Street Pier, Seattle, Washington
Seattle's harbor floor slopes so steeply that ships can snuggle up to the land's edge, so piers run parallel to the shoreline―and lack that "out there" feel. Still, this 11-acre complex offers seafood restaurants ranging from casual to classy, plus a kid-friendly interactive maritime museum and great views; 206/615-3952 or portseattle.org/seaport/waterfront.