The Best Coastal Towns in the U.S.
Year-Round New England Charm
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
That a historic town is well preserved is a common claim, but Portsmouth adds a little spice to its legacy. In the months when the beach is only good for a short walk, 12 indie theaters downtown, six art galleries, and an annual film festival keep residents entertained.
Unlike Nantucket and Cape Cod further south, Portsmouth has predominantly full-time residents (about 20,000), which gives the downtown a year-round bustling energy. Citywide projects including Green Card—which offers discounts at 83 local businesses in the Green Alliance—have helped make Portsmouth one of the most sustainable towns in the country.
Old Florida Country
Pine Island, Florida
A slice of Old Florida "country" still thrives on this lush, green isle. Located northwest of Fort Myers and connected to the mainland by a causeway, the island includes the communities of Matlacha, St. James City, Bokeelia, and Pineland. It's a place with no traffic lights, where you can visit your neighbors by boat. Although the island has few beaches, several exist on nearby uninhabited islands. Residents love the neighborliness, nature trails, and renowned fishing. Relaxing, they say, can keep you busy here.
Stop and Go
Corolla, North Carolina
Corolla is the northernmost city on the Outer Banks. Corolla maintains a delicate balance between its unique surroundings and a recent housing boom. Each summer, thousands flock to the Outer Banks to enjoy rentals and second homes. Only about 500 people live in Corolla year-round. Residents love being surrounded by two bodies of water―Currituck Sound and the Atlantic―and say summers are worth the quiet winters.
Residents of this Renaissance-inspired seaside city like it small and slow. Venice, Florida, seems like a Mediterranean Mayberry set next to the Gulf of Mexico.
Diverse Island Escape
A popular sign around Maui reads, "Slow down. This ain't the mainland." Reverence for family at least partly explains the wide berth for tolerance on this island. Haoles (white people), Japanese, Hawaiians, Filipinos, Chinese, and Hispanics thrive on an impressive degree of cultural harmony. Newcomers are welcomed from around the world--Argentina, Chile, South Africa, and Canada.
Rumson, New Jersey
Settled in 1665, Rumson is in many ways defined by affluence. Residents cherish the quiet, small-town way of life―and the exclusivity. This well-to-do New Jersey town provides easy access to-and quiet refuge from-New York City. It’s located an hour south of the City and just one skinny barrier island away from the Atlantic Ocean.
Delaware Bay Beauty
It’s only a three-hour drive from D.C., Philadelphia, and New York, but this town is the epitome of small town charm. Most people know Cape May, New Jersey, the historic town that shares the mouth of Delaware Bay, and the ferry that crosses it, with Lewes. Lewes has the same coastal character and historic preservation tendencies as Cape May, only with fewer tourists and more affordable real estate. The local citizenry is dedicated to keeping the charm and history in balance.
New England in the North West
One hour north of Seattle, Langley has New England charm and a skip in its step, possibly due to the extra sunshine it receives behind the Olympic Peninsula’s rain shadow. Despite the island’s easy access, Langley has maintained its small-town calm and local character.
Small Town Security
Isle of Hope Georgia
Isle of Hope is that rare place where parents still feel comfortable sending their kids out to play early in the day and signaling them home at dark by ringing a bell. Youngsters ride bikes to the marina―the island's only commercial establishment―to buy Popsicles and ice-cream sandwiches. Boaters traveling along the Intracoastal Waterway often stop there as well. More than a few decide to stay. Relatively unspoiled, unchanged, and peaceful, the area offers close proximity to Savannah's great restaurants, shopping, and historical sites.
La Conner, Washington
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the town boasts an active arts community, upscale boutique and gallery shopping, a full-time marina, the Pioneer Market, ample restaurants, and easy highway and water access to two major cities and the San Juans. What's so appealing to newcomers as well as old-timers sounds like an oxymoron: connected isolation. It isn't a bedroom community, and it's not a second-home community, and that’s just how they like it.
California has a few surprises left along its popular coastline. This one sits halfway between L.A. and San Francisco. Sandy beaches and a balmy breeze usually translate into crowds. But the bohemian backwater of Cayucos has managed to operate happily below the tourism radar of California's Central Coast.
Gig Harbor, Washington
This Washington enclave astounds newcomers with its rare beauty and rich maritime history. Tucked into the south end of Puget Sound, Gig Harbor claims unparalleled views of Mount Rainier. The town's just an hour from downtown Seattle and a few minutes across the bridge from Tacoma.
Cannon Beach, Oregon
So no one lives in Cannon Beach for throbbing nightlife; they can find that elsewhere. Instead, the coastal activities―hiking, kayaking, surfing, and strolling the beach―and the community warmth captivate people of all ages.
Slow, Island Lifestyle
Edisto Island, South Carolina
Residents here ditch rush hour and embrace island time. In Edisto Beach, you'll find no chain restaurants, no stoplights, no motels or hotels, and only one grocery store. The town has more churches than restaurants and gift shops combined.
Outdoor Adventure Community
Natural beauty is just around the corner in this small Oregon town. Diverse outdoor recreation includes river and ocean watersports as well as hiking and biking. The size of the town, where everyone knows everyone and personal involvement can really make a difference in the quality of life, is perfect for some.
Historic Gulf Coast Charm
Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
For beach lovers with a penchant for old architecture, affordable renovation spaces, and a mix of Southern grace, mystery, and heat, Bay St. Louis is like a blank canvas at the junction of marsh, river, and Gulf of Mexico beach.
New England Prep
Despite its beginnings as a shipbuilding town, this seaside spot a half hour south of Boston is sometimes referred to as “Deluxe-bury.” Look for the old Yankee preppy factor, with lots of J. Crew and Lilly Pulitzer.
Beguiling Southern California beaches, neighborly spirit, and a relaxed pace appeal to anyone in search of the small-town good ol' days. Proud of its safe shores and year-round mild weather, Carpinteria is known for being family friendly.
Chestertown, a charming Eastern Shore village on an arm of the bay, is bounded on one side by the Chester River and otherwise surrounded by farm fields and even smaller hamlets. Exquisitely restored Colonial homes line the brick-paved sidewalks and oak-shaded streets. Home to Washington College, here a wealthy older generation lives along side a vibrant college community.
Unsung Socal Paradise
Encinitas sits in the sweet spot 25 miles north of San Diego and 95 miles south of Los Angeles. But the vibe here is decidedly more San Diego chill.
Florida's Space Coast
Cocoa Beach, Florida
In this Florida Space Coast town, a shared sense of pride forges a promising future. In such a vulnerable location, Cocoa Beach remained sparsely settled until Cape Canaveral's first rocket launch in 1950. Then, as in all of Brevard County, the town grew hot with space fever. By 1960, the population swelled 1,000 percent. Hotels and condos began to change the funky beach scene.
Dramatic Views and Small Town Appeal
Just southeast of Boston, urban professionals have discovered what shipbuilders, fishermen, and old-time actors already knew. Here, neighborhoods distill coastal New England's history and character―from a harborside plaque marking Capt. John Smith's 1614 landing site to the quiet lanes where The Witches of Eastwick was filmed.
Relaxing Small Town
St. Marys, Georgia
This waterfront Georgia town shines with smashing views and historic charm. Life rolls at a relaxed pace. For those in more of a hurry, big-league sports, an international airport, and cultural attractions of Jacksonville, Florida, await 45 minutes to the south.
This "sweet home Alabama" town charms new arrivals with its peaceful bay front and lively locals. Daphne, dating to 1763 (when it was commonly known as "The Village"), retains a small-town feel. Spanish moss-draped oaks shade quiet streets where preteens skateboard beside jogging parents.
Slow Island Living
Anna Maria Island, Florida
The island-wide speed limit never tops 35 mph, so bicyclists sometimes move at too fast a pace for this town on a tiny, white-sand sliver about 50 miles south of Tampa. Instead of a car, it’s more likely you’ll use your bike, kayak, or flip-flops.
Quaint, Quiet Florida
Genuine people and fabulous seafood attract newcomers and visitors to an out-of-the-way Florida fishing town. No wonder tourism promoters call this stretch of the Florida Panhandle “the Forgotten Coast.” Apalachicolans seem to embrace that as a badge of honor. Apalachicola possesses the easy-living qualities that New Urban communities such as Seaside, a couple of hours west, seek to re-create.
Just minutes from Boston, this historic community has a stunning coastline and classic small-town atmosphere. During the late 1800s, Nahant attracted Boston elite and Harvard's luminaries including poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. From the 1890s to 1940s, Nahant's popularity spurred a building boom responsible for most of the houses still standing. Today the town draws newcomers attracted to its relaxed pace and hilly, seaside setting.
Blue Hill, Maine
Out of the way but not out of the loop, this Maine village has a mind of its own. Don't let Blue Hill's sole, flashing traffic light fool you. While this compact seaside village hugging the western shore of Maine's Blue Hill Bay exudes a perfect small-town image, its residents are anything but provincial. The area has become a magnet for artists and writers attracted to both the peninsula's scenic beauty and the company of other creative souls.
Artists, entrepreneurs, and adventure seekers find nirvana on the shores of Alaska's Kenai Peninsula. Whether you come by land, air, or water, getting to Homer is an odyssey. All routes cross a region of extraordinary natural wonders.
Hawaiian High Life
Live the aloha dream in a city where urban glitz meets beachside relaxation. Hawaii's capital city has a small-town vibe as warm and inviting as its weather. It’s at once a cosmopolitan, Asia-influenced city at the crossroads of the Pacific, and a friendly town where people fiercely preserve traditional Polynesian values such as hospitality, humility, and family unity.
Aside from the drumbeat of the ocean, a hush abides in this Oregon community, a haven for those allured by calm. This is a walking town. Even in summer, when the vacationers come, there isn't much traffic to speak of because everyone would rather go anywhere by foot than by car.
New Smyrna Beach, Florida
This Florida city's split personality makes it twice as nice. Straddling the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, New Smyrna Beach is really two towns in one. It's part island and part inland, oceanfront and riverfront, complete with two downtowns. Surfers crowd the inlet when the waves are up.