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.
Authentic Small-Town Charm
McClellanville, South Carolina
Less than an hour's drive separates this marsh front community from Charleston to the south and Georgetown to the north. McClellanville has Small-town charm and Southern hospitality; a family atmosphere; a quiet, resort-free waterfront; more than 350,000 acres of nature preserves; and excellent fishing.
Sense of Community
Ocracoke Island, North Carolina
Pamlico Sound separates this North Carolina barrier island from the mainland. For many, isolation is its best feature. Once on Ocracoke, however, hardly anyone keeps to himself. Unofficial Ocracoke motto: "We don't care what you do, but we want to know about it in intimate detail." Small towns are known for gossip, but residents here are genuinely interested in neighbors' ups and downs.
Eye on Preservation and Conservation
Montauk, New York
This town sits like a shingled island among the protected forest, rolling grasslands, and foamy breakers tumbling in from the Atlantic. It's a refreshing cocoon of preserved land. (Sixty-five percent of the town is protected in a preservation fund.) The community is driven by entrepreneurs, savvy business people, and conservationists—all dedicated to preserving Montauk.
Old Saybrook, Connecticut
A classic American Main Street and water everywhere, it's the kind of town you thought didn't exist anymore. A well-placed sandbar kept this area from developing into a major seaport. What developed instead was a tidy coastal New England town, where Main Street still has real stores, not just boutiques, and stately old hardwoods canopy the quieter avenues that meander down toward the sound.
Tiny Natural Oasis
Neskowin boasts 6 miles of pristine beach, unparalleled salmon fishing, heralded hiking trails, and a calm that exists despite the many winter storms. Neskowin's cultural scene might surprise some. For a town boasting only 300 full-time residents (the population swells to 2,000 in summer), the arts thrive here. Neskowin Chamber Music brings such talent as Russia's St. Petersburg Quartet to perform.
Gem of California
Once advertised as "The Gem of California", this San Francisco bedroom community sparkles, its appraisal always high. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, downtown Larkspur hasn't changed much in the past century.
Casual Great Lakes Coast
Between the tourist frenzy of Traverse City and the polished club-iness of Harbor Springs, the casual town of Petoskey has its own identity on the northeast coast of Lake Michigan. The vibrant downtown is compact and fueled largely by summer visitors, but the steep streets, historic architecture, and miles of waterfront make it a great place to settle year-round.
Hamptons Hide Away
Sag Harbor, New York
With whaling captains' stately homes and a bustling wharf, the Long Island enclave of Sag Harbor feels more like a New England fishing village than part of the ritzy Hamptons. Residents of this New York village cherish its maritime past and close-knit community. Locals and newcomers work together to preserve treasured vestiges of the past. Known as a retreat for writers such as James Fennimore Cooper and John Steinbeck, Sag Harbor remains a beacon for novelists and playwrights today.
World-renowned for country hams, Virginia's colonial seaport sets the stage for down-home charm on greater Chesapeake Bay. Although noted for its charitable heart (In 2004, Smithfield ranked fifth in its population group for U.S. contributions to Relay for Life), this county isn't rich. People are just eager to help.
Stunning Ocean and Mountain Views
San Juan Island, Washington
Though only 24 miles long and 9 miles wide, San Juan is the second largest island in an archipelago between British Columbia's Vancouver Island and the Washington mainland. Largely pastoral and wooded on the interior, the island has numerous beaches with prime views of the Olympic Mountains to the south and, in summer, migrating orca whales.
Boats of one size or another draw most first-time visitors to this town on Fidalgo Island, the easternmost of Washington state's San Juan Islands and the only one connected to the mainland by bridge. For some, it's a sailboat or motorboat. For others, it's the jumbo Washington State Ferry they catch here to launch a vacation in those islands or into Canada. It's the sense of community that makes many stay.
Classic California Coast
Pismo Beach, California
Say "California coast" and an image of surf, sun, and sand typically comes to mind. Add cute shops, divey restaurants, and a backdrop of oak-studded hills abutting vineyards just beyond view and you've got the recipe for Pismo Beach.
Great Lakes Fun
This small Ohio town is making waves with waterfront renovation and affordable real estate. The Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio is home to some of the tallest, fastest, most hair-raising roller-coasters in the world, the park offers visitors amazing views of Lake Erie―and allows thrill seekers to peer down onto one of the state's most historic Great Lakes cities.
Big City Getaway
Lake Bluff, Illinois
The aptly named Lake Bluff area borders Lake Michigan from a bluff top perch. Leafy and historic, this shore side village an hour north of Chicago cherishes its small-town ambience. Originally founded as a Methodist camp in the 1870s, Lake Bluff was modeled after Oak Bluffs on Martha's Vineyard and Chautauqua in New York as a place for religious contemplation as well as cultural education, social affairs, and recreation. Later, Chicago families found it a convenient waterside retreat from the city heat.
Catalina Island Retreat
Every American who has fantasized about living on a Mediterranean island can relax. There's a place much closer to home where you can enjoy the mild climate without changing currency or learning another language. Santa Catalina Island.
With cars restricted (it takes years to get a permit), this might be the only place in Southern California that has vanquished automotive tyranny.
Steilacoom (pronounced STILL-a-come), about 45 miles southwest of Seattle, was once a bustling frontier port. The state's oldest incorporated municipality, it celebrated its 150th birthday in 2004. The town wasn't always so serene. Saloons used to outnumber everything else. Today, the only night crawlers are sold as bait near the ferry landing, and you'll find few speed limits over 30. One of the best shows on Puget Sound, the Fourth of July celebration draws up to 18,000 people every summer.
Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin
Water dominates work and play on this irresistible Wisconsin peninsula boasting miles of shoreline with craggy limestone inlets and sandy beaches. Rustic charm and friendly neighbors make this a great city to settle in.
San Clemente, California
Built in the 1920s as a "Spanish Village by the Sea" San Clemente has about 300 sunny days annually and some of the best surf on this coast. Mediterranean architecture still rules in the quaint stucco-and-red-tile-roofed homes and civic buildings.
Fernandina Beach, Florida
Fernandina knows how to be a beach town. It's been doing so for almost 500 years, since its first French colonization. The quaint downtown bustles with locals moving between the library, offices, and the growing foodie scene. Don't let the town's age fool you though—younger residents are sure to find plenty of outdoor activities like camping and surfing.
Beaufort, North Carolina
This diverse small town is located at the southern end of the Outer Banks, this town (pronounced BO-fort) satisfies outdoor enthusiasts with endless beach activities.
Blue Collar to Blue Ribbon
Fort Bragg, California
Fort Bragg is a full-time working town. Though the wild and busy logging days are gone, industry lives on in small mills, construction businesses, and fishing fields.
A new Coastal Trail project will rehab a 45-acre bluff top area into a green space of native plants and a system of multiuse trails connecting the town to the beaches. A 400-acre former Georgia Pacific mill currently sits between the town and the shore, and an approved reuse plan will convert that space into 500 residential units, park space, an extension of downtown, and more ocean views.
Family Oriented Hometown
From the two main highways through town, Seabrook appears to be a place of small shops and strip malls, But to reach the real heart of the town, you must venture into the residential neighborhoods. There, you'll find America's suburban dream: well-kept brick houses, mostly new, often with boats in the driveways. You're never far from water. And you're never far from a park full of children or a hiking/biking trail full of adults.
Year-Round Water Fun
Founded in 1838, Galveston occupies most of a narrow, 30-mile-long barrier island. It's close to Houston's urban diversions yet far enough away to have a distinctive, history-steeped personality and small-town feel. The temperate weather (although hot and humid in summer makes water sports, including fishing and boating, enjoyable most of the year.
Community with Great Potential
Port Angeles, Washington
Port Angeles could become that next great coastal town. Lying smack between the gleaming Strait of Juan de Fuca and the magnificent mountains of Olympic National Park, the possibilities for this corridor seem boundless. Another bonus: Its sheltered spot behind the Olympic Mountains makes the area's weather an anomaly in a region famous for rain.