The South's Best Beach Towns 2020

Orange Beach, Alabama
Photo: Jim McKinley/Getty Images

In the South, we all have "our spot"—the annual family vacation destination where we fancy ourselves unofficial locals. More often than not, that spot is a beach town. Because if anything is universally appealing, it's a weekend spent sitting in a beach chair with your toes in the sand until you're ready to pedal a cherry-red bike to the closest ice cream shop, with maybe a basket or two of fried shrimp thrown in for good measure.

Where to book your sand-worn cottage rental? Which spot to make your own? Luckily, the South's coastline is dotted with charming, salty little towns. Whether you're drawn to Florida's blue waters or North Carolina's windswept dunes, Mississippi's endless mirror-like water views or the islands and Lowcountry mystique of South Carolina and Georgia, you'll find a Southern beach that makes you want to proudly wear your "I Practically Live Here" badge. Add every last one of our readers' picks for South's best beaches to your bucket list. You're bound to find your family's sunny, salty forever spot.

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10. St. Augustine, Florida

Saint Augustine (Florida)

Founded by the Spanish in 1565, this "Ancient City" on Florida's Atlantic Coast is anything but sleepy. Dive into some of the more interesting historical landmarks, from the country's oldest masonry fort, Castillo de San Marcos, to the century-old converted ice factory that's now home to St. Augustine Distillery and quirky bar-restaurant, Ice Plant. The city is famous for its gorgeous architecture, much of it commissioned by Gilded Age industrialist Henry Flagler.

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9. Isle of Palms, South Carolina

Isle of Palms, South Carolina
Chris M. Rogers

It might be only 17 miles from Charleston, but this quiet barrier island couldn't feel farther away. Isle of Palms has white sandy beaches along the Atlantic side and the marshy creeks of the Intracoastal Waterway on the other. Book a room at Wild Dunes Resort and then go, well, wild. Make sure you jump into a beach volleyball game (a favorite local pastime).

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8. Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Wrightsville, North Carolina

This getaway spot is for the experience-driven traveler. Sure, lounging on the wide beach is always an option, but people come for the watersports—like kayaking, paddle-boarding, and kite-surfing—easily embarked upon at this watery locale. Learn the nautical ropes at Blockade Runner's Sailing School or cast a line off of Johnnie Mercer's Pier.

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7. Panama City Beach, Florida

Panama City Beach
Visit Panama City Beach

For Florida beachgoers, the siren's call of Panama City Beach doesn't stop at the sparkling aqua-blue waves or pillowy white sands. It lures you more still with local seafood dives (try Dee's Hang-Out or Dusty's Oyster Bar), busy Pier Park shops, wild state parks, and even the nostalgic putt-putt courses. In 2018, Hurricane Michael hit PCB's sister city just over Hathaway Bridge painfully hard, but that only makes us pack our beach bags quicker. Southerners are a loyal bunch, and no one messes with the Gulf.

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6. Key West, Florida

Key West, Florida Sunset
Robbie Caponetto

This tropical paradise sells itself. Come by way of the Overseas Highway, a sunny 113-mile stretch flanked on both sides by turquoise waters, and then slow down. Have a slice of Key lime pie, take in the sunset at Mallory Square, visit the six-toed cats at Hemingway's former home, and grab a piña colada at Sloppy Joe's on Duval Street (open since the 1930s).

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Check Out The South's Best Beach Towns

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5. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Robbie Caponetto

It's hard to capture Southerners' love for this classic family vacation spot in shorthand, but we'll try. Ride the iconic SkyWheel, eat hushpuppies at Dead Dog Saloon and She Crab soup at Sea Captain's House, tip the house band at Myrtle Beach's beloved Bowery, paddleboard through Murrels Inlet with Crazy Sister Marina, and—for the love of Dolly—learn how to dance the Carolina Shag.

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4. Destin, Florida

Highest Well-Being Destin
Romona Robbins Photography/Getty Images

Destin has come a long way since 1984, when it was incorporated. Founded in the 1800s by a renowned angler, Captain Leonard Destin, this place lures you offshore. Follow the good captain's footsteps to enjoy some of the best charter fishing in the South for grouper, snapper, and amberjack—but leave plenty of down time for the Emerald Coast's powdery sand beaches.

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3. Tybee Island, Georgia

Tybee Island, Georgia
Getty Images

Known as "Savannah's Beach"—and home to Georgia's oldest lighthouse, dating back to the 1700s—this vacation spot is best seen while pedaling a beach cruiser with a tinkling little bell and a woven basket strapped to the handlebars. Boat over to wild, uninhabited Little Tybee Island to actually hear your thoughts, for once.

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2. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

The South’s Best Beach Town: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Peter Frank Edwards

We could go on and on about this grown-up beach village on the South Carolina coast, but we'll keep it short: Stay in a cozy bungalow inside Sea Pines Resort, eat at chef Clayton Rollison's place, Lucky Rooster, for upscale but soulful Southern seafood, and take advantage of over 60 miles of bike paths.

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1. Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Alabama

Orange Beach, Alabama
Jim McKinley/Getty Images

Don't let the semi-annual spring breakers and Hangout Music Festival attendees fool you. These neighboring old-school beaches are all about family fun. Some highlights include Doc's Seafood Shack in Orange Beach, where you'll find the "best fried shrimp in the civilized world," the baby sea turtles that make a flurry toward the rolling waves every morning, and—it should go without saying—Flora-Bama, the sandy bar that has been serving up world-famous Bushwackers since 1964.

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