If you’re looking for a beach vacation that doesn’t feel like you’re on vacation with the rest of the country, look no further. We found the low-key beach cities that are also big on coastal charm. So pack up the swimsuits, sunscreen and sunglasses, and head for one of these 18 beaches that are packed with family-friendly fun without being so, well, packed!
“Washington’s Beach Town” sits 70 feet above the shoreline, giving its community of over 300 nestled homes (the majority of which can be rented) stellar views and much to do all within a five-minute walk. There’s a park on the hill and down by the water and a slew of fun activities to be found throughout the town: community fire pits, horseshoes, bocce and volleyball courts, an indoor pool, and definitely a whole lot of bike riding. Shops and restaurants galore also await.
Good to know: For a little day trip, you’ll want to check out Olympic National Park (and it’s some million acres of mountains, coast, and rainforests).
Find out more: seabrookwa.com
Surfside offers families the best of both worlds: You get a small beach town feel with the excitement of Miami right at your fingertips. Located about 30 minutes north of Miami Beach, there's plenty to keep you busy: hitting up the paddleboard festival, seeing if you can spot all of the "Surfside turtles," riding a bike to the 96th Street Park and Playground, or spending the day at the Four Seasons Hotel's Surf Club. Food choices abound, and you can choose between pizza, steakhouses, healthy breakfast and lunch spots, Greek and more. Don't leave without stopping at locally-owned Serendipity Creamery for a scoop of ice cream.
Kure Beach, NC
Instead of heading for the Outer Banks, take a peek at Kure Beach, instead. Ocean Front Park is a hot spot for families, with the pirate ship themed playground, tot lot and rain gardens, with access to the dunes. Fort Fisher Recreation Area is the best place to find starfish and other ocean critters and the super popular North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher has a variety of hands-on animal encounters, including feeding lorikeets and touching a stingray. There are outdoor concerts all summer and a movie night at Carolina Beach Lake.
Good to know: Freddie’s Restaurant is a must-try, family-owned Italian joint known for their pork chops.
Find out more: wilmingtonandbeaches.com/kure-beach
Port Aransas, TX
Voted as one of Vacation Critic’s 2019 Best Beaches for Families, Port Aransas (known as Port A to locals) has made a full recovery since being battered by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Located on 18 miles of beachfront on Mustang Island, this sleepy island town has plenty of family-friendly activities. You can go birding at one of six sites along the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, take the ferry to San Jose Island, a former ranch that is now an uninhabited wildlife preserve or have a beach day at Mustang Island State Park or at the Padre Island National Seashore. If you vacation in Port A in July, be sure to catch the Gulf Coast’s oldest fishing tournament the Annual Deep Sea Roundup (Jul. 11-14). As far as food goes, this fishing mecca and foodie destination has 11 different restaurants that’ll cook up what you catch that very day.
From hotels to vacation rentals, lodging abounds. A few best-bet spots are the re-invented Palmilla Beach Resort & Golf Club (their new links-style golf course officially opens on Jun. 1st, 2019)—not only is there a restaurant and pool on site, but the resort offers one of the nicest beaches on the island—the Sunflower Beach Resort & Residences, which is nestled among 50 acres of protected dunes along Mustang Island and offers amenities like a beach club, bike rentals and restaurants, and Cinnamon Shore, which offers a ton of family activities like Movie Night at Town Center, S'mores night, surfing lessons and shrimp boils on the beach.
Find out more: portaransas.org
Park Point, MN
Duluthians know and love Park Point, a skinny shoreline that runs for six miles between Lake Superior and Superior Bay, bordering Wisconsin. Park Point Recreation Area, with grills and volleyball courts, is more popular (and lifeguarded) than other stretches, but with all six miles open to the public, there’s plenty of room to spread out, watch boats pass in the bay, and feel the winds as they dance over the dunes. For visitors, nearby Canal Park has plenty of hotels and restaurants. Be sure to educate the whole family at The Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center at the base of Canal Park’s Aerial Lift Bridge, which spans the entrance to Duluth Harbor. The museum is free of charge and is open daily.
Find out more: duluthmn.gov
Bay St. Louis, MS
Any community that had to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina is one strong community. That can certainly be said of Bay St. Louis, tucked onto the Gulf of Mexico some 90 miles east of New Orleans and as quaint as they come. When it comes to exploring the town, you’ll find good eats in the Depot District (as well as the Historic Train Depot itself, which is now home to Mardi Gras and folk art museums). Find more art, antiques, souvenir shopping, and the local library over in Old Town. Then follow Main Street right to the beach for all your favorite ways to have fun in the sand (including tossing a Frisbee to your pup as the beach is pet friendly). A bike path also extends for three miles between two piers, making for a fun pier-to-pier walk or ride challenge. When you’ve washed off the sand, check out McDonald Park’s impressive splash pad on Dunbar Ave.
Find out more: baystlouis-ms.gov
Rodeo Beach, CA
When it’s summer in San Francisco, “Karl the Fog,” as the city’s infamous weather condition is nicknamed, can often turn beach trips into bundled-up affairs. So head over the Golden Gate, take the exit for Rodeo Ave, and wend your way west to Rodeo Beach, a crescent crown of the Marin Headlands. Less well known than its sandy cousins—San Francisco’s Ocean Beach to the south or Marin’s Stinson Beach to the north—it’s the perfect spot to take in NorCal sun and surf.
Also known as Fort Cronkhite, its World War II military barracks add major character to the setting, while the cove is beloved by local surfers and rarely all that crowded. If the family wants to stretch its legs, hunt for colorful pebbles by the boulder wall, explore the lagoon or take in the view from the coastal trail above the barracks. Dogs are welcome, too! And dolphin pods have been known to frolic close to shore.
Good to know: There’s nothing commercial in the Marin Headlands, so be sure to pack a picnic or get back on Highway 101. Sausalito is just one mile north and great for grub.
Find out more: nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/focr
Holden Beach, NC
Holden Beach in the Brunswick Islands of North Carolina has small-town charm, but plenty of activities (check out the North Carolina Festival by the Sea) to keep your family busy. You can take the kids crabbing and fishing, and explore the island by foot, by bike, or by kayak or canoe excursion along the Intracoastal Waterway. And, there’s plenty of wildlife to spot: dolphins swimming offshore, endangered (and protected) loggerhead turtles making their journey from the nest to the ocean, and ghost crabs that make their way along the beach at night.
Good to know: All of New Brunswick Islands’ beaches are dog-friendly!
Find out more: ncbrunswick.com/holdenbeach
Ogden Dunes, Dune Acres, Porter Beach, and Beverly Shores, IN
The lakefront communities that make up the Indiana Dunes region have as much of a groovy vibe as any other beach town—the only difference being that the stretch of water belongs to Lake Michigan, rather than the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean. Families can enjoy hiking and birding along the Great Marsh Trail in Beverly Shores, dine al fresco at the lake view picnic area before walking miles of pristine, sandy beaches, or kayak the waters of Lake Michigan.
There are plenty of eats, including pizza made to order off the back of the Rolling Stonebaker, a food truck that can often be found near the entrance of Beverly Shores. There are plenty of public access points to the lake, and if you decide to rent a spot in one of the beachside towns, you’ll have access to private beaches, too.
Find out more: indianadunes.com/lakefront-communities
Avila Beach, CA
Not quite as populated as Pismo Beach but sunnier than Cayucos, Avila Beach is a quintessential California beach town. The shallow water and far-out breaks make play easy for the littles, there are BBQs and swing sets right on the beach, and a great Farmer’s Market on Fridays. The kids can head to Harford Pier to watch for whale and sea otters, and you can rent boats and paddle boards. There's also lodging for every budget: hotels, vacation rentals, and campgrounds.
Find out more: visitavila.com
Beavertail Lighthouse and Park is a must-visit in this quaint Rhode Island town, but Mackeral Cove is the hidden gem for family beach days. There are regular lifeguards on duty, a parking lot, and it’s within five minutes of downtown. If you need a break from the beach, there’s plenty of other water activities: sailing, fishing, kayaking. Also, history buffs can wander through historic buildings: the windmill, the house on the rocks, and the firefighter museum before heading over the Newport Bridge for a glimpse of those famous gilded-age summer homes.
Find out more: jamestownrichamber.com/useful-links
Gloucester is one of the sleepy beach towns in Cape Ann. We suggest heading straight for Wingaersheek Beach, a kid-friendly spot known for low waves. There are lobstering tours, sailing tours, kayak rentals, and the St. Peter’s Fiesta is a five-day festival celebrating the patron saint of fishing—a perfect event for America’s oldest fishing port. If there's time, be sure to check out the three(!) lighthouses, and the country’s oldest art colony.
Good to know: Starting in June, visitors can park at Stage Fort Park and take the free shuttle to the beaches on the weekends.
Find out more: gloucester.com
Owl's Head, ME
This region of coastal Maine is near the towns of South Thomaston and St. George. While there are several laid-back beaches, the best one is Birch Point State Park. It boasts mellow waves, rarely draws a crowd, and offers picnic and restroom facilities, making it a real gem for families. If your kids are tired of the sand and sun, check out the transportation museum, or the Owl’s Head Lighthouse, two other must-see spots in the area.
Find out more: visitmaine.com/owlshead
Bethany Beach, DE
Bethany Beach is all about family. It boasts a boardwalk just like its more frequented neighbor Rehoboth, but with fewer tourist attractions. The one-mile long, 150-foot wide stretch of sand is ideal for little kids and offers all sorts of fun activities: Monday night movies on the beach, Kids Nature Adventure Saturdays and the summer concert series. Especially sweet is the comfort station near Garfield Parkway. Open 24/7 with spots to change sandy little bottoms, the cool space (read: it has AC) is a welcome retreat from the blazing sun.
Find out more: townofbethanybeach.com
San Clemente, CA
A SoCal beach town that hasn’t been overrun by development? When can we go? With the coin-operated showers and clean bathrooms, San Clemente State Park offers one of the best family-friendly beach camping spots around, but North Beach is where it’s at when you’ve got the kids in tow. Easy access parking will get little piggies digging in the sandy stretches in mere minutes, the playground helps your wiggly kids release extra energy, and the Amtrak train that chugs by on occasion is an added bonus.
Insider Tip: You can easily make the trek from the beach to downtown, where the flip-flops and cheesy beach tees can be bought in bundles.
Find out more: sanclemente.org
Tarpon Springs and Dunedin, FL
You’ll enjoy Greek culture at its best in Tarpon Springs, with its bakeries, shops, shrines and cathedrals. This is also where you’ll embark on a unique experience: a boat tour that celebrates the “Sponge Capital of the World.” You’ll want to visit Honeymoon Island, a 385-acre secluded natural barrier island off Dunedin. Kids can fish, snorkel, ride bikes, picnic beneath a covered pavilion, hike on nature trails, visit a dog park and build sand castles. Adventurous families will love the four-mile kayaking trail through the shallow waters full of mangrove forests where mangrove crabs, osprey and other wildlife can be seen. The trail opens up to St. Joseph Sound into open water and sunshine providing a unique experience you can’t have anywhere else.
Good to know: One of the best places to stay, that also offers a shuttle to Honeymoon Island, is Innisbrook Resort, centrally located on 900 acres, not too far from the airport. Kids and families can take part in golfing, tennis, swimming (the Loch Ness Monster Pool has amazing water slides and one of the pools has a sandy beach), fishing and biking. The dining at Innisbrook is top-notch: Packard’s Steakhouse, Market Salamander Grille, The Market (for grab and go items) and The Grill at Loch Ness.
Find out more: visitpeteclearwater.com
North Beach, in Racine Wisconsin, has a beach vibe that makes you want to get lazy and not do much except snooze in the sun—or give those castle building skills a workout once in a while. Kid’s Cove is an awesome nautical-themed playground right smack dab in the middle of the 50-acre sandy stretch, and free parking makes access easy.
Good to know: You can head to the Racine Zoo when the kids need a break from the water and don’t forget to scout out family-owned Bendtsen Bakery for their famous (and super-tasty) Danish Kringles.
Find out more: realracine.com
Ocean Shores is a popular family vacation spot but Westport flies right under the radar, and it’s worth a visit for the razor-clamming alone (North Cove will be filled with kids and their buckets, trying to snag enough clams for dinner). Boogie boarding is also a blast, and the water is the best north of the marina. Want to take a hike? Strap on your boots and baby backpack and head for the docks. The 2.2-mile pedestrian trail leads to the Grays Harbor Lighthouse and the Maritime Museum, where you'll get your fill of old salty sea dog tales.
Good to know: Lodging ranges from cabins to bed & breakfasts and VRBO—family-friendly places abound.
Find out more: westport-graylandchamber.com
— Gabby Cullen & Jennifer Massoni Pardini