When Southerners close their eyes and imagine the perfect beach town, there's no shortage of inspiration. There will be sand, and there will be waves. There will likely be a salty breeze and a hankering for ice cream after hours in the sun. Yet from state to state and coast to coast, everyone sees something different. The scene could be set on the turquoise blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico, or on the wide, flat beaches of the Atlantic, or tucked away in the Lowcountry barrier islands, or even hidden along the Overseas Highway . The South is fortunate to contain some of the most charming beach towns in the country, and they all deserve a place on your bucket list. Consider your next family vacation, spring break trip, winter escape, or girlfriends' getaway handled.
Get ready for seashell-hunting, long bike rides, Bushwackers , and baskets of fried shrimp. Here are the South's Best Beach Towns.
20. Bay St. Louis, Mississippi
This quirky town on the Mississippi coast is a haven for creatives and an oasis for anyone looking for a quiet vacation. Just 51 miles away from New Orleans, Bay St. Louis couldn't feel further from the hustle and bustle. It's positioned on the Mississippi Sound, an embayment of the Gulf of Mexico, which provides an awe-worthy stretch of white-sand beach with virtually no crowds. Come happy hour, grab a seat at Daiquiri Shak for—you guessed it—daiquiris, which come in over a dozen different flavors. Then, grab a lobster roll from Thorny Oyster.
19. Dunedin, Florida
Turns out, Tampa's next-door neighbor can claim some of the South's prettiest beaches. Just about 24 miles west across the Tampa Bay, Dunedin has two island state parks within its city limits: Honeymoon Island State Park and Caladesi Island State Park . Beyond being chock-full of nature adventures waiting to happen, this beachy getaway is ready to help you enjoy your visit, starting with cocktail hour at the Fenway Hotel . Opened in 1927, it's an icon of the Jazz Age with Spanish Colonial architecture and a rooftop bar.
18. Delray Beach, Florida
Delray Beach is about 50 miles north of Miami on Florida State Highway A1A . The palm-lined main drag, Atlantic Avenue, is a statement piece that kicks off any trip with a starry-eyed bang. And while there's a level of sophistication to the boutiques, dining, and nightlife here that feels big-city, it's still compact enough to be considered walkable and quaint.
17. Cape Charles, Virginia
Previously coasting sneakily under-the-radar, this friendly town on Virginia's Eastern Shore is sure to win you over with old-school charm. The wide public beach on Cape Charles is the only one on the area's coastline that offers free entry and parking, with family-friendly waters that are shallow and calm. Don't miss the flaky croissants at husband-and-wife-owned The Bakery on Mason , or cool off with a scoop from local treat haven Brown Dog Ice Cream.
16. Ocean Springs, Mississippi
After Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal Mississippi in 2005, the community of beach towns moved towards a long period of recovery. Now, it's back and more deserving than ever to be included on your upcoming travel list. This creative-minded town—it gets along just fine with nearby compatriot Bay St. Louis—draws folks doing interesting things, so watch out for new restaurants and lodging, including stylish boutique hotel The Beatnik and downtown brunch spot Lady May. Grab a jar of their homemade pepper jelly on the way out. Trust us.
15. New Smyrna Beach, Florida
This beach town along Florida State Road A1A is so laid-back it might as well be reclined on a lounge chair somewhere. Fittingly, it's a popular surf town, as if the cool-kid vibes weren't already apparent. Flagler Avenue will be the place to start roaming to find entertainment, such as food, drink, shopping, and close access to the Atlantic Ocean. Book your stay at retro-cool digs, The Salty Mermaid , a vintage motor court renovated with style. Instead of a pool, it has a lawn area with lounge chairs and umbrellas overlooking the Atlantic.
14. Port Aransas, Texas
After sustaining major damage during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, this Texas-loved coastal town has come back, big time. It sits right on Mustang Island, a barrier island known for its wildlife and stretch of state-protected beach. Fishing is a popular pastime amongst locals and visitors alike, and you'll rarely find a place where flip flops and T-shirts aren't welcome, including favorite local haunts like Virginia's On the Bay and Shorty's . If you're going in April, don't skip Texas SandFest, a sand sculpture competition that started back in 1997. Choose rentals near town or within the Cinnamon Shores community.
13. Captiva, Florida
This gem in southwest Florida is quite literally perched on its own enclave of the Gulf of Mexico, which means you get all the views and plenty of opportunities for soaking up the sun. Captiva, along with its sister island Sanibel , make up the perfect warm-weather getaway to explore all year long, but especially in fall and winter months, thanks to mild temperatures. Spend time hunting for seashells, a favorite activity amongst visitors.
12. Sarasota, Florida
Situated on the picturesque stretch of coastline known as Florida's Suncoast, Sarasota knows how to host fun in the sun. It offers 35 miles of beach at your fingertips, which is spread out across the mainland and six barrier islands. Thanks to robust deep-sea fishing in the area, you always have access to the freshest daily catch. For that, head to old-school joints like Owen's Fish Camp and Walt's Fish Market Restaurant & Tiki Bar. For a full-service stay, visit Longboat Key Resort with its private beach and striped cabanas.
11. Edisto Beach, South Carolina
Experience the real Lowcountry when visiting Edisto Beach, a pristine shoreline on Edisto Island, one of South Carolina's biggest barrier islands. It's a great place to look for shark's teeth and other natural souvenirs, as well as an ideal spot for wildlife-watching, from osprey to dolphins. While there's not much in terms of hotels (it's purposefully been left only gently developed), there are beach houses available for rent where you can cozy up and watch the sunset from the porch. Really, that's the main event here. Then, head to Ella & Ollie's for phenomenal Lowcountry seafood dishes.
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10. Grayton Beach, Florida
As paper-white town squares and pastel cottages grew up just down the road along Highway 30A , Grayton Beach kept its shell-speckled roads, sea-weathered homes, and groovy attitude. And The Red Bar , of course. (The famed dive restaurant-bar made a rowdy comeback in 2020 after tragically burning down the year prior.) Start each day with freshly baked pastries at Black Bear Bread Co., and feel free to explore nearby Seaside and Alys Beach when you're not relaxing on the sand.
9. Ocracoke, North Carolina
The Outer Banks, that 120-mile sliver of sand that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, and its string of barrier islands boast wide beaches, quaint villages, and a relaxed way of life that can tempt even the biggest city slicker to relocate. Ocracoke, one of the southernmost islands, is a small, quiet escape accessible only by water or air. Here, the wild ponies (believed to be descendants of the Spanish mustangs brought over centuries ago) are one of the biggest attractions, as is the undeveloped Cape Hatteras National Seashore . Camping is a fabulous way to witness all the natural beauty.
8. Pensacola/Pensacola Beach, Florida
Nestled on the westernmost edge of Florida near Orange Beach and Gulf Shores , Pensacola features the characteristic blue waters and powdery sands of the Gulf, but is unique in having a historic side to explore when you're seeking a break from the beach. Established in 1559 by Spanish explorers, the town is recognized as the country's first settlement. The popular Pensacola Beach Pier is one of the longest in the Gulf of Mexico, and nearby Gulf Islands National Seashore (the longest stretch of protected seashore in the United States) is an ideal spot for biking, snorkeling, and kayaking.
7. Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina
Located conveniently midway between Florida and New York, this Atlantic Coast town is accessible for many Southerners and beyond. With a population of just over 2,500, this waterfront town across the causeway from the lively city of Wilmington is low on crowds and high on relaxation. Whether you're into surfing or strolling down the pier, you'll feel the stress of real life practically float away in the salty breeze.
6. Panama City/Panama City Beach, Florida
There's perhaps no beach town more recognizable than Panama City Beach, and for good reason. The Gulf of Mexico is home to some of the most gorgeous sand and water in Florida, and Panama City Beach (and its sister city across the bridge, Panama City) have a front-row seat. The area serves as both a longtime-loved family vacation spot, as well as where young college kids go to play when spring break season starts, and you'll rarely be bored, between the outdoor pursuits, shopping, and seafood joints that are more than accepting of visitors in flip-flops and baseball caps.
5. St. Augustine, Florida
Founded by the Spanish in 1565, this historic city on Florida's Atlantic Coast is anything but sleepy. Visit one of the most architecturally significant structures in the city, the waterfront Castillo de San Marcos, which also happens to be the oldest masonry fort in the country, as well as the statuesque Lightner Museum to see regional art and more. Walk around downtown to catch live music, settle into a snug restaurant, and perhaps join in on a ghost tour. You can also sample small-batch spirits in the St. Augustine Distillery , located in a restored ice plant dating back to 1907.
4. Key West, Florida
Brightly-colored houses, sand-floored seafood restaurants, and rogue rooster sightings are what awaits those visiting Key West, the farthest destination along the Florida Keys' Overseas Highway. The route to get there, surrounded by turquoise waters for 100 miles, is an adventure in itself. Wander over to Blue Heaven —a fan-favorite spot—and order anything that includes lobster. It's fresh. Then, let the rest of your worries slip away with a slice of chocolate-covered Key lime pie on a stick. It's a local delight.
3. Orange Beach, Alabama
There's a reason that you'll meet generations of families who have never strayed from this no-fuss beach town. Powdery white sands, warm Gulf of Mexico waters, and "world-famous" Bushwackers from Flora-Bama—this salty tavern has served up the spiked milkshake cocktail since 1964—tend to leave you wanting more. The area is also abundant in natural wildlife, and you can stay at The Lodge at Gulf State Park to fully enjoy untouched, protected shoreline and scenery. Head to Fisher's Upstairs for a half-dozen Alabama oysters.
2. Tybee Island, Georgia
Also known as Savannah's Beach, Tybee Island has a laid-back vibe. Located along a barrier island on the Georgia coast, it's got century-old lighthouses, dockside restaurants, and stunning sunset views to offer. Rent a pastel beach cruiser from Fat Tire Bike Rentals , and spin through the scenery. For your stay, there are lots of charming bed and breakfasts on Tybee Island, but you can also rent a cottage from the breezy offerings at Tybee Cottages .
1. Hilton Head, South Carolina
It's hard not to love this classic beach village on the Carolina coast. Serenity is waiting around every moss-draped, tree-hugged corner, from the wide, uncrowded beaches to the miles of shady bike paths. (Don't forget to rent a bike for your stay, preferably with a little gold bell.) It's almost a sin not to start the day with brunch at either The Salty Dog Café or Hudson's Seafood House On the Docks . On Hilton Head Island, eating seafood and ordering a cocktail is not only acceptable, but recommended, before noon.