Even if you only have one day to spare, these stretches of sand guarantee a relaxing getaway.
A trip to the beach is a favorite leisure activity among Americans -- whether it's within driving distance of home or a flight away. And while tourism in beach and coastal destinations generates a whopping $285 billion in direct spending each year, free outdoor activities like tanning on the sand, swimming in the ocean and strolling along the boardwalk can make beach vacations relatively affordable. These 16 popular beaches along the East Coast's 2,000-plus miles of shoreline include activities for families, surfers, naturalists and other beachgoers to enjoy. (Note: Some of the destinations and events mentioned may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Check with the CDC, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Bethany Beach, Delaware
Mid-Atlantic families love the relaxed boardwalk in the coastal town of Bethany Beach, which can be found about 130 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., and less than 15 miles north of bustling Ocean City, Maryland. In this area, you'll also find the barrier island beaches of Delaware Seashore State Park, plus sand dunes and prime surfing conditions at Fenwick Island State Park. Pets, alcohol, boating and ball-playing are prohibited on Bethany Beach while lifeguards are on duty, ensuring a tranquil visit. Vacation rentals are relatively affordable, and the town hosts free live concerts, movie screenings, bonfires and weekly programming for kids between mid-June and Labor Day weekend.
Canaveral National Seashore: Titusville, Florida
Located approximately 35 miles northeast of Orlando, Florida, Canaveral National Seashore attracts space fans and nature lovers alike thanks to its proximity to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex and its 24 miles of habitat. The National Park Service offers free audio tours and nature recordings of the Seashore, which is home to 1,045 varieties of plants and 310 bird species. Kids can also enjoy a complimentary Junior Ranger activity book while visiting this pristine barrier island. Past travelers enjoyed seeing birds, alligators and turtles at the Seashore's Playalinda Beach. Keep in mind, there's a clothing-optional section at the beach that's accessible from parking lot No. 13. When it comes to lodging, Titusville's abundance of RV campgrounds and small motels make it a budget-friendly home base.
Cape Cod National Seashore: Cape Cod, Massachusetts
While Massachusetts' famous Cape Cod peninsula is lined with $25 million estates, bargain-hunting travelers may prefer the quieter, more affordable Outer Cape beaches near Cape Cod National Seashore. HI Eastham Hostel offers rustic summer cottages equipped with bunk beds and a community kitchen that sit close to the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which boasts proximity to top Cape Cod beaches like Coast Guard Beach on the Atlantic Ocean and First Encounter Beach on Cape Cod Bay. Families with teens may favor the HI Truro Hostel near Ballston Beach because it's close to artsy Provincetown, an LGBTQ-friendly town that's accessible by ferry from Boston.
Cape May, New Jersey
Head less than 48 miles south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, to get to Cape May, a popular New Jersey beach destination that's home to the country's oldest seaside resort. This charming, walkable town along the Jersey Shore is a National Historic District, boasting more than 600 preserved Victorian buildings. In this area, you'll also find a Coast Guard Training Station. With a year-round population of 4,700, Cape May welcomes upward of 40,000 visitors at its hotels and bed-and-breakfast accommodations on some summer weekends. Multigenerational families come for the untouched beaches -- including those situated inside Cape May Point State Park -- antique shops, historic house tours, carriage rides, outdoor concerts, golf courses and other low-key activities and amenities. Teens will appreciate the town's whale watching tours and the water parks available in nearby Wildwood, New Jersey.
Delray Beach, Florida
Visit Delray Beach for nightlife, shopping, sand and sun in one of the country's only downtown areas nestled directly on the beach. At just 2 miles long, Delray Beach earns accolades for its cleanliness and nicely restored buildings. Previous visitors praised the presence of lifeguards, showers and concrete walkways for jogging, as well as the abundance of restaurants throughout the downtown area. Bed down in wallet-friendly chain hotels like the Hyatt Place Delray Beach to spend some time window shopping along Atlantic Avenue and hunting for street murals in the Pineapple Grove arts district.
Folly Beach, South Carolina
South Carolinians appreciate the Southern charm of Folly Beach -- and you can, too. Known to locals as "the edge of America," this barrier island 12 miles south of Charleston, South Carolina, offers budget-friendly lodging options like low-rise hotels, beach houses on stilts and cute B&Bs. Visitors can rent fishing gear and find a spot along the 1,045-foot-long pier or catch some waves at The Washout, one of Folly Beach's most popular surf spots. For some extra family fun, sign up for a biking, kayaking, sailing or paddleboarding outing to enjoy the beautiful scenery in this top South Carolina beach destination.
Hampton Beach: Hampton, New Hampshire
Drive along New Hampshire's 13-mile coast until you reach Hampton Beach, a broad stretch of sand overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. A beloved seaside destination since the 1840s, the Hampton Beach Village District draws travelers with its well-maintained restrooms, playground and Sea Shell Stage, which hosts the annual Miss Hampton Beauty Pageant in late July and concerts every night of the week from June through August. Other amenities include casinos, marine life study centers and a historical society. In addition to local budget motels, Hampton Beach State Park provides campsites and RV hookups from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
More than 1 million summer visitors flock to Madison's 2 miles of sandy shoreline on Long Island Sound to enjoy swimming, boating, hiking and biking. At Hammonasset Beach State Park, you'll find more than 550 grassy campsites, a pristine beach and a nature center with live turtles and a touch tank. In town, you can go swimming and boating at three beaches. The Surf Club beach features barbecue and picnic facilities, while the East and West Wharf beaches offer fishing piers. Non-resident beach parking is limited; you may have the best luck finding spots during the week. Weekdays also typically offer cheaper nightly rates at the few in-town boutique hotels and B&Bs than weekends.
Mohegan Bluffs: Block Island, Rhode Island
Hold the handrail as you descend 200 feet to rocky, picturesque Mohegan Bluffs. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Montauk on Long Island. Block Island is known for its 17 beaches, including tranquil Mansion Beach, teen-friendly Scotch Beach and Surf Beach, which is a favorite for snorkeling. Baby Beach features shallow, gentle surf for kids to play in, and Fred Benson Town Beach offers amenities like a bathhouse, rental chairs, cabanas, umbrellas and loaner boogie boards. Visitors can take a ferry to Block Island from Narragansett and Newport, Rhode Island; New London, Connecticut; and Montauk, New York.
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Myrtle Beach sits at the center of 60 miles of South Carolina shoreline known as the Grand Strand. The tourist area opened its first hotel -- the Seaside Inn -- in 1901 and has since developed enough resorts and lodging options to attract more than 14 million visitors annually. The city's 10-mile-long beach is protected by lifeguards and monitored for water quality between May 1 and October 1, when crowds pack the boardwalk's revolving shops, restaurants and SkyWheel observation wheel. Pursue relaxation with a stroll through Brookgreen Gardens, practice your swing at one of 100-plus golf courses or explore the natural saltwater estuary at the Murrells Inlet MarshWalk. Lodging options range from campgrounds to rental homes to hotels, so you can easily find the right accommodation for you, regardless of your budget.
Narragansett, Rhode Island
Situated about 15 miles southwest of elegant Newport, Rhode Island, across Narragansett Bay, the town of Narragansett is home to popular Scarborough State Beach and other beloved strips of sand. Although Narragansett Town Beach charges fees for parking and admission, the spot welcomes up to 10,000 visitors daily during summer. Families especially enjoy visiting Sand Hill Cove Beach (also known as Roger Wheeler State Beach) because it offers a playground, hot showers, seasonal lifeguards and gentle surf. (The latter is a result of the beach's breakwater barrier, which helps shelter the shoreline from Block Island Sound.) Travelers can take their pick of budget-friendly vacation rentals, B&Bs and classic inns when choosing where to stay. Vacationers who also want to visit nearby Block Island can take the ferry from Narragansett's Point Judith terminal to the island.
Ocean City, Maryland
Choose bustling Ocean City for your next beach vacation if you want a lot of options: You'll find 10 miles of beaches, 3 miles of boardwalk, almost 100 restaurants, tons of shops and dozens of hotels, motels, campgrounds, B&Bs and vacation rentals to suit all lifestyles and budgets in this can't-miss destination in Maryland. Pets are welcome year-round, and horseback riding on the beach is available in the offseason. Depending on your mood, you can catch a sunset while listening to the "1812 Overture" at Fager's Island Restaurant and Bar, grab an ice cream cone at Dumser's Dairyland or rock out at one of 18 bars in the Jamaica-themed Seacrets nightlife complex.
Ocean City, New Jersey
Founded by a group of Methodist ministers as a Christian summer resort town in 1879, Ocean City is one of the Jersey Shore's quieter communities. A ban on alcohol adds to the unique appeal of this beach town and earns it the title of "America's Greatest Family Resort." Families also appreciate the boardwalk's Gillian's Wonderland Pier amusement park and the beach's summer lifeguards. Seasonal, weekly or daily beach tags must be purchased for all visitors ages 12 and older. A variety of affordable rental houses, B&Bs and hotels sit within easy reach of the shore.
Old Orchard Beach, Maine
Did you know that Maine boasts more coastline than California? While the pricey Kennebunk and Ogunquit beach areas are pretty, you may want to head to lesser-known Old Orchard Beach, which is located about 15 miles southwest of Portland, Maine. Its classic pier is packed with restaurants and summer entertainment options. This 7-mile-long stretch of sand becomes less crowded as you travel farther from the pier; however, the water is always cold. Maine's large selection of campgrounds make staying nearby affordable. Plus, patrons of all ages can enjoy the rides and massive indoor arcade at Palace Playland, a waterfront amusement park. Save on gas by taking Amtrak's eco-friendly, seasonal Downeaster train from Boston North Station or the Portland Transportation Center.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Spend your next vacation on the barrier islands that comprise the historic Outer Banks area (or OBX, to the locals) to enjoy some of North Carolina's best beaches, including upscale Corolla, Southern Shores and Duck, which are known for their charming art galleries and restaurants. Kitty Hawk and Kill Devil Hills -- the latter of which owes its fame to the Wright brothers' first flight in 1903 -- are located in bustling central OBX, where you'll also find Nags Head's "Millionaires Row." Despite this location's occasionally high price tags, you can preserve your budget by taking advantage of free activities, such as exploring wildlife refuges, fishing at various piers and touring old lighthouses. The ferry that travels between Hatteras and Ocracoke from Memorial Day to Labor Day is also complimentary. While top summer vacation rentals can book up as early as a year out, spring and fall are value seasons.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Named the "world's longest stretch of pleasure beach" by the Guinness World Records, 35-mile-long Virginia Beach is situated about 20 miles east of Norfolk, Virginia. Students and partygoers appreciate its affordable boardwalk packed with entertainment and casual dining venues, while families like the beach's wide shore, lifeguards and festivals, as well as the biking and camping opportunities available at First Landing State Park. What's more, the city enforces anti-cursing laws and a curfew to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere. Lodging options by the beach range from budget-friendly chain hotels to upscale resorts with programs for kids. Even lower rates can be found inland.