Steeped in history, culture and natural beauty, the New England coastline stretches for hundreds of miles from Connecticut to the Canadian border. Outside major cities like Boston and Providence, much of New England's shores are dotted with quaint villages, complete with vibrant art communities, kitschy clam shacks and an impressive selection of unspoiled beaches. Given the variety of choices, we've compiled a list of the best beach towns in New England, whether you're visiting with the whole family, looking for a romantic retreat or wanting to reconnect with nature.
1. PROVINCETOWN, MASS.
Located on the very tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown's thriving cultural and restaurant scene, pristine beaches and bustling nightlife draw a diverse crowd of artists, LGBTQ+ travelers and families. Provincetown is surrounded by water on three sides, while sand dunes occupy the inland terrain. During the summer high season, there's still plenty of room on the expansive Cape Cod National Seashore if you stretch your legs and head east to Long Point Beach. Rent some wheels at Ptown Bikes or The Bike Shack to find a secluded spot and beach hop along the Province Lands Bike Trail.
Away from the surf, there are superb hiking trails in the Beech Forest nature preserve, as well as the Dune Shacks Trail, which traverses the scenic sandy topography. Back in town, you'll find dozens of galleries, shops and bars to peruse on Bradford and Commercial Streets. For dinner, head to The Canteen to enjoy fresh seafood while dining alfresco in their back garden. For a rowdier evening, check out Post Office Cafe & Cabaret or Boatslip Beach Club.
Our Provincetown hotel pick: The Red Inn
2. NEWPORT, R.I.
One of New England's most extravagant locales, Newport emerged as a summer playground for wealthy business leaders in the mid-19th century. Today, Newport still maintains a well-heeled yacht crowd, but its colonial-era architecture, opulent mansions, compact downtown area and beaches are certainly accessible to any visitor.
Located just outside downtown, Easton's Beach is a great spot to grab a cabana and people-watch. Farther afield, finer stretches of sand can be had at Gooseberry Beach, Bailey's Beach, and Second Beach — the latter being a popular surfing spot. The three-and-a-half-mile Cliff Walk trail connects Bailey's and Second Beach as it traces the shoreline past scenic overlooks and some of the island's grandest manors.
The Breakers, a lavish 19th-century estate commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, features Italian Renaissance splendor and its original furnishings. Visitors can tack on another Newport mansion property as part of the admission fee or opt for a five-house ticket for just a few dollars more. Other Newport highlights include the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the Newport Jazz Festival, which is set for Friday through Sunday at Fort Adams State Park. If visiting outside the festival dates, Fort Adams still merits a visit, thanks to the United States' largest coastal fort and pleasant setting on Narragansett Bay.
Our Newport hotel pick: The Chanler at Cliff Walk
3. NANTUCKET, MASS.
Occupying an island of the same name 30 miles south of Cape Cod, this seaside town boomed under the whaling industry before emerging as a trendy summer retreat. To get a glimpse into Nantucket's past, don't miss the Whaling Museum, which includes an impressive exhibit of scrimshaw — a style of whale-bone carving — in a former candle factory. Today, this compact island offers extensive beaches, natural beauty and historical sites that can easily fill a weeklong itinerary.
For calmer waters, stick to north shore spots like Jetties Beach and Steps Beach, which are conveniently within walking distance of downtown. Meanwhile, the southern coast receives larger waves, especially at the aptly named Surfside Beach. On the southwestern edge of Nantucket, Madaket Beach is a prime location to admire the sunset. Although there are multiple ferry crossings from Hyannis each day, be sure to book your transportation well in advance. That being said, there are plenty of opportunities to find seclusion once you've arrived here.
Our Nantucket hotel pick: The Wauwinet
4. OGUNQUIT, MAINE
Located on Maine's southern coast along scenic Route 1, Ogunquit delivers an ideal blend of small-town charm and quirky culture right on the beach. At low tide, be sure to head to Maine Beach, where a sandy strip emerges across the mouth of the Ogunquit River. The calm, river-fed water here is noticeably warmer than the frigid Atlantic, so grab an inner tube and take advantage. Farther north, the wide stretches of sand at Footbridge Beach are ideal for escaping the crowds.
Back in town, Main Street and Shore Road are lined with numerous galleries, shops, and restaurants. The collection of local work at Abacus is worth a visit. Pick up the Marginal Way pedestrian walkway from downtown and head south to Perkins Cove to explore more galleries and feast at one of the neighborhood's no-frills seafood shacks. Come nightfall, the Ogunquit Playhouse puts on some of the best summer theater performances throughout New England. As an arts hub, LGBTQ+ travelers will be warmly received in Ogunquit as well.
Our Ogunquit hotel pick: The Anchorage by the Sea
5. KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE
Ogunquit's northerly neighbor, Kennebunkport, is known for its boutique-packed town center and preppy atmosphere. Though the shops at Dock Square are a mainstay for many visitors, Kennebunkport's quieter corners and coastline should be prioritized, too. Head south down Ocean Avenue past the marinas to Colony Beach, a small section of sand with gorgeous views of shore rocks and boats entering Kennebunkport harbor. To the east, Cape Porpoise remains Kennebunkport's more laid-back enclave. Here, you'll find the town's finest beach, Goose Rocks Beach, which provides calmer swimming conditions and powdery white sand, thanks to Goose Rocks barrier reef.
Another plus: The distance from downtown keeps the tour bus crowds away. After a day of beachcombing and exploring the marshes at Goosefare Bay Wildlife Refuge, choose between one of the casual, yet delectable, seafood spots, like Nunan's, or treat yourself to a waterfront view at Pier 77.
Our Kennebunkport hotel pick: Hidden Pond
6. ROCKPORT, MASS.
Located on the tip of Cape Ann, Rockport has come a long way from its origins as a fishing village and shipping hub for granite. The town's magnificent boulder-strewn coastline attracted artists, such as painter Fitz Henry Lane. A red shack on Bradley Wharf, widely referred to as Motif Number 1, is a restored replica of what has been the subject of hundreds of professional paintings and photographs. The original shack collapsed during the blizzard of 1978, and since being rebuilt, Rockport goes to great lengths to preserve its picturesque weathered aesthetic. The Rockport arts community continues to thrive today, with numerous galleries along Upper Main Street and out onto Bearskin Neck — a small peninsula that divides Back and Rockport Harbors. Bearskin is also home to many of Rockport's boutiques and eateries. For a casual bite, head to Roy Moore's Fish Shack for lobster rolls, or indulge on the inventive seasonal offerings at Feather & Wedge.
Also, if visiting during June or July, check the performance schedule for the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, hosted at the Shalin Liu Performance Center. Though it may not be the beachiest town on the list, Front Beach presents a picturesque — albeit small — stretch of sand right beside downtown, while Old Garden Beach and its adjacent park are well-suited for picnics and looking out over Sandy Bay.
Our Rockport hotel pick: Bearskin Neck Motor Lodge