Girls walking on Folly Beach. South Carolina.

13 Most Beautiful Small Towns On The Atlantic Coast You Should Visit

Along the Atlantic Coast, small towns have an undeniable allure, enticing travelers with their old-world charm and rich history. From the quaint charm of Kennebunkport, Maine, to memories of a bygone era in Cape May, New Jersey, the laid-back beach culture of Folly Beach, South Carolina, to the lobster shacks in Rye, New Hampshire, each town offers its own unique blend of attractions. Visitors can explore scenic lighthouses, wander along picturesque beaches, and fully experience the area's rich maritime history. Whether savoring fresh seafood, browsing charming boutiques, or simply relaxing by the sea, these beautiful towns provide the perfect backdrop for an unforgettable coastal getaway.

Kennebunkport, Maine

Historic buildings in Kennebunkport, Maine. Image credit Enrico Della Pietra via
Historic buildings in Kennebunkport, Maine. Image credit Enrico Della Pietra via Shutterstock

Kennebunkport is the quintessential New England coastal town. It is also a top-rated tourist destination, attracting visitors from all over the United States and Canada to its beautiful beaches, seafood restaurants, and scenic lighthouses. Goose Rocks Beach is the most well-known yet secluded beach, a few miles from downtown Kennebunkport in a residential area near Cape Porpoise, where visitors can see the iconic Cape Porpoise Harbor Light. Its most famous resident is the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush, who owns a summer home on Walker’s Point (known by locals as “The Bush Compound”).

To discover the town's rich history, take a tour of landmarks such as the 1853-built White Columns, a Greek revival mansion-turned-museum to learn about the sea-faring ship-building history of the town, or visit the Seashore Trolley Museum, the world’s first and largest Electric Railway Museum, and home to a fascinating collection of vintage streetcars. There are many unique shops in Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, where visitors can find ocean-inspired artwork and handcrafted gifts, books, jewelry, and clothing. After shopping, grab a coffee or a quick lobster roll lunch at places like Mabel’s Lobster Claw or The Clam Shack.

Cape May, New Jersey

Scenic buildings and beachgoers create a lively environment along the coast at Cape May, New Jersey. Editorial credit: Racheal Grazias /
Scenic buildings and beachgoers at Cape May, New Jersey. Image credit Racheal Grazias via Shutterstock

With streets of colorful Victorian-era buildings, it’s no wonder the pretty little town of Cape May has been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1976. Quieter than its Wildwood and Ocean City neighbors, strolling along the Beach Avenue seawall is one of the best ways to see the sights—landmark buildings like The Sea Mist, The Baronet, and Congress Hall, to name a few. Cape May’s beaches run 2.5 miles parallel to Beach Avenue and are named after the intersecting streets, like the popular body surfing spot at Beach & Madison Avenue. They are spotless, family-friendly, and close to restaurants and surf shops. It’s common to see bottle-nosed dolphins playing close to the surf most days.

The Washington Street Mall is a three-block pedestrian walk in the town center. It includes classic beach shops like The Original Fudge Kitchen and Fralinger’s Salt Water Taffy as well as souvenir and t-shirt shops. Grab a coffee at Coffee Tyme, lunch at The Ugly Mug, or take a long leisurely walk to The Lobster House to enjoy drinks and appetizers on the Schooner American, a 130-foot authentic Grand Banks sailing vessel that serves as their outdoor cocktail lodge.

Folly Beach, South Carolina

A young surfer riding a wave at sunrise on Folly Beach, South Carolina.
A young surfer riding a wave at sunrise on Folly Beach, South Carolina.

Just eleven miles south of Charleston, the laid-back town of Folly Beach (known as “The Edge of America”) is one of the top surfing destinations on the East Coast. The favorite spot for advanced surfers is known locally as “The Washout,” but other popular beaches include 10th Street East, the Old Coast Guard Base, and Folly’s Pier. Visitors can also surf at Folly Beach County Park, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Folly River, near Skimmer Flats—an important brown pelican rookery. Visitors tempted to hang ten in Folly Beach can check out McKevlin’s Surf Shop, which has been renting surfboards and bodyboards since 1965.

With some of the best saltwater fishing in the area, visitors can cast a line from the Folly Beach Pier (rebuilt in 2022), which stretches over 1,049 feet into the Atlantic Ocean. At the northern end of Folly Beach, the iconic Morris Island Lighthouse sits on a secluded barrier island off Charleston's coast and is accessible solely by boat. At 161 ft, it is the tallest lighthouse in South Carolina but is not open for viewing as it undergoes restoration.

Tybee Island, Georgia

Aerial view of the town and beach at Tybee Island, Georgia.
Aerial view of the town and beach at Tybee Island, Georgia.

Tybee Island is a barrier island along the Atlantic coast with a rich and fascinating history that stretches back thousands of years. It is renowned for its sandy beaches, including South Beach, the pier, and the pavilion, but remnants of the island’s storied past remain. Dating back to 1736, the still-functioning Tybee Island Light Station is Georgia’s tallest lighthouse and its original beacon still shines brilliantly. Visitors can climb the light’s 178 steps to view the entire island and the Atlantic Ocean and visit the on-site museum.

Established in 1898, Fort Screven played a significant role in protecting Savannah's vital port during the Spanish-American War and both world wars.

Today, Fort Screven is a historic landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and many of its original structures, including barracks, officers' quarters, and coastal defense batteries, have been reimagined as a tourist destination. Fort Screven’s Battery Garland is now the Tybee Island Museum and the Tybee Post Theater, which once screened “talkies,” shows recently released and classic movies. The Lighthouse Inn Bed & Breakfast, constructed over 100 years ago, was once the military bandmaster’s home.

Key West, Florida

Road to the ocean in Florida Keys.
Road to the ocean in Florida Keys.

Key West is a vibrant island town at the southernmost tip of the Florida Keys. A brightly colored, oversized buoy marks the spot where only 90 miles separate the United States from Cuba, and is a well-photographed icon in the town of about 25,000 residents. There is much to see and do in Key West, like learning about the town’s maritime heritage at the Key West Lighthouse and Museum, which dates back to the 19th century, or visiting any number of other museums, including the Key West Shipwreck Treasure Museum, the Key West Museum of Art & History at the Custom House, or the 1890-era Harry S. Truman Little White House where the former president spent 175 days of his presidency.

Visitors can explore many of Key West’s most popular destinations on their own or by booking an Old Town Trolley Tour. Lovers of literature won’t want to miss a tour of the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, see the stunning in-ground swimming pool, which was an expensive luxury during the 1930s, and meet the nearly 60 polydactyl (six-toed) cats who live there, and are descendants of Hemingway’s cat, Snow White.

Cape Charles, Virginia

Beach homes in Cape Charles, Virginia.
Beach homes in Cape Charles, Virginia.

Cape Charles is a charming waterfront town in Virginia—a historically significant state as one of the original 13 colonies and home to North America's first permanent English settlement. The town is known for its historic architecture, with a large concentration of turn-of-century buildings that visitors can see on a walk through its historic district. To learn more about Cape Charles’ railroad roots, visit the Cape Charles Museum to see its collection of railway cars, the Rosenwald School, the Tomb of Custis—one of the earliest settling families in Virginia—and Eyre Hall Gardens, home of the some of the oldest gardens in the country, dating back to 1800.

Over the years, the town has morphed into a laid-back beach community where visitors can swim in the calm waters or rent stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, and bicycles from SouthEast Expeditions. After a day at the beach, stop at the Cape Charles Brewing Co. for a tasting flight and some fish tacos or at Brown Dog Ice Cream for a scoop of Spotted Roxie. Explore the nearby Kiptopeke State Park, where visitors can paddle around nine partially sunken concrete ships known as the Ghost Fleet.

Ogunquit, Maine

Colorful view of fall foliage and boats docked in Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine.
Colorful view of fall foliage and boats docked in Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, Maine.

Ogunquit is a picturesque seaside village with scenic walks and a beautiful white-sand beach. Its name comes from the Algonquin Indians and means “Beautiful Place by the Sea.” It is indeed a lovely town on the Southern Coast of Maine. Its three-mile stretch of beach is one of the longest in the state and perfect for collecting seashells, kite flying, and building castles in the sand. While the Atlantic Ocean's temperature is not particularly warm even in mid-summer, it’s refreshing after a morning spent walking the 1.25-mile-long Marginal Way from the beach, past rocky cliffs, summer homes, and charming inns to Perkins Cove.

Perkins Cove is a fishing village renowned for fresh Maine lobster, oysters, clams, and crabs. It is also home to a hand-operated footbridge drawn when a tall ship moves into the cove. From the dock, you can watch the lobster boats moving in and out of the cove while enjoying the view from the patio at Barnacle Billy’s, where boiled lobster and drawn butter have been on the menu since 1961. If you go for lunch, enjoy Maine lobster rolls, clam chowder, or steamed clams, and be sure to order their signature Rum Punch.

New Shoreham, Rhode Island

Stairs leading to the Mohegan Bluffs and beach in New Shoreham, Rhode Island. Editorial credit: quiggyt4 /
Stairs leading to the Mohegan Bluffs and beach in New Shoreham, Rhode Island. Image credit quiggyt4 via Shutterstock.

New Shoreham, also known as Bock Island, is the smallest town in the smallest state in America. Despite its size, it is rich in history, natural beauty, and charming attractions. One of the most iconic landmarks on Bock Island is the South East Lighthouse. Perched atop Mohegan Bluffs—the breathtaking cliffs that rise nearly 200 feet above the Atlantic Ocean—visitors can tour the lighthouse, learn about its significance, and descend the stairs to the beach below. Popular beaches on the island include Crescent Beach, Ballard’s Beach, and Mansion Beach—all idyllic settings for swimming, picnicking, and beach combing.

New Shoreham is quieter than its neighbors like Newport or Narragansett, but it still has all the charm of Rhode Island. Explore the historic Old Harbor area, where visitors will find a bustling marina, charming shops, art galleries, and waterfront restaurants like Dead Eye Dick’s, Persephone’s Kitchen, and the Poor People’s Pub. The town is also known for its preserved Victorian architecture, with many historic homes and buildings dating back to the 19th century.

Hatteras, North Carolina

Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum sign in Hatteras, North Carolina. Image credit: Cvandyke via
Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum sign in Hatteras, North Carolina. Image credit: Cvandyke via Shutterstock.

The Outer Banks (OBX) has long attracted visitors for romantic getaways and family vacations, but Hatteras Island might be one of the most charming places on the East Coast. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore occupies 70 miles along the Outer Banks, where visitors can swim, beach comb, and view wildlife in the coastal wilderness. Visitors to the island can explore the iconic black and white striped Cape Hatteras Lighthouse—the tallest lighthouse in the United States at 208 feet, or spend time at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, named in honor of the thousands of shipwrecks that rest in the waters off North Carolina’s coast.

Less touristy than its neighbor, Nag’s Head, Hatteras is an appealing destination for outdoor enthusiasts, especially sportfishing charters, with the island once earning the title of the “Blue Marlin Capital of the World. In Hatteras Landing, visitors can peruse the shops, like Farmer’s Daughter, Teach’s Lair Marina, or Kitty Hawk Kites, and grab a bite to eat and sip on a Hatteras Halekulani on the deck of The Wreck Tiki Bar & Food.

Bar Harbor, Maine

Bar Harbor historic town center aerial view at sunset.
Bar Harbor historic town center aerial view at sunset.

Bar Harbor is on Mount Desert Island and sits right outside the stunning Acadia National Park entrance. It is a historic tourist town with soft sandy beaches, granite cliffs, and salt in the air. In the 19th century, it was the quintessential resort for the affluent who owned vacation homes in the town or vacationed there in the majestic hotels of bygone eras. Today, it attracts outdoor enthusiasts drawn to the city for the many outdoor activities, including hiking, climbing, swimming, canoeing and kayaking, cycling, whale watching, and more.

Spend a day browsing the boutiques along Main Street and Mount Desert Street in downtown Bar Harbor, with its laid-back flip-flop culture, or satisfy your sweet tooth at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium and choose from over 64 flavors of ice cream, including lobster. A stop at Maine’s oldest bookstore, Sherman’s, is a must for book lovers. There are a variety of inns and hotels in Bar Habor, including the luxurious Bar Harbor Inn & Spa or the elegant Bar Harbor Grand Hotel, which is a replica of one of Bar Harbor’s late 19th-century hotels—the Rodick House.

Madison, Connecticut

Blue hour after sunset at Madison, Connecticut.
Blue hour after sunset at Madison, Connecticut.

Madison is known for idyllic lighthouses on rocky outlets, and the long stretch of white sand at Madison’s Hammonasset Beach State Park is a throwback to the beaches of yesterday. At over two miles long, the park is popular for its calm waters and various water sports and has attracted visitors to its sandy beach, salt marshes, and hiking trails since its official opening in 1920. Walk down to Meigs Point to hear the "singing beach," when the tides wash over the thousands of shells, making a lovely tinkling sound, and visit the Meigs Point Nature Center while there.

Several notable landmarks are in Madison, including the Deacon John Grave House, built in 1685—one of the oldest surviving homes in the state. Its historic saltbox architecture is now a museum that offers visitors a glimpse into colonial life. The Madison Green Historic District is the town’s picturesque center, surrounded by thirty-three historic homes, churches, and the 1901-era Scranton Memorial Library. Visitors can take a self-guided tour, exploring the district on foot and outdoors, using a mobile device.

Provincetown, Massachusetts

Provincetown, MA, USA. Editorial credit: Micha Weber /
Provincetown, MA, USA. Editorial credit: Micha Weber /

At the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown (also called “P-town”) is one of Massachusett's most historic destinations. It is the site of the Mayflower's landing in the New World in 1620, and the landmark event is marked by the Pilgrim Monument, founded in 1892. Over the years, millions of visitors and locals have climbed the 252-foot granite Pilgrim Monument and visited the nearby Provincetown Museum, highlighting the Mayflower Pilgrims' arrival.

There are two popular beaches in P-town, which are part of the Cape Cod National Seashore: Herring Cove Beach and Race Point Beach. Both are breathtaking stretches of sand popular with anglers who like to surf fish there.

Downtown Commercial Street is the place to shop for art, with over 40 galleries. The Provincetown Art Association & Museum showcases the works of hundreds of artists who the town’s stunning scenery has inspired. To taste the town’s cultural heritage, visit the Provincetown Portuguese Bakery for sweet and savory bites or grab a craft coffee at the Kohi Coffee Company.

Rye, New Hampshire

The harbor in Rye, New Hampshire. Image credit James Kirkikis via Shutterstock
The harbor in Rye, New Hampshire. Image credit James Kirkikis via Shutterstock

Between The Hamptons and Portsmouth, Rye is a much more laid-back, charming coastal town that feels miles away with its rugged rocky shore, peaceful beaches like Jenness Beach State Beach and Wallis Sands State Beach, and scenic walking trails in Odiorne Point State Park, which offers stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Visit the Seacoast Science Center in the park to get up close and personal with sea stars and urchins or learn about the ecology of humpback whales and the science of seabirds.

For history buffs, the town of Rye includes over a dozen historical markers, including the site of the first Atlantic cable, laid in 1874, the Sunken Forest, the Breakfast Hill Battle Site, and Pulpit Rock Tower—a Battery Fire Control Tower built to protect Portsmouth Harbor and the Naval Shipyard during World War II. Another important landmark in Rye is the Rye Congregational Church, established in 1726. After working up an appetite touring historic sites, visit Petey’s Summertime Seafood or its close neighbor Ray’s Seafood Restaurant to compare lobster rolls.

Thirteen small, beautiful towns invite visitors with their seaside charm and rich history. From the sandy shores of Cape May to the colorful streets of Key West, each town offers a unique experience. Whether it's exploring historic landmarks, indulging in fresh seafood, or simply enjoying the ocean breeze, there's something for everyone to enjoy. With their laid-back atmosphere and picturesque scenery, these coastal towns provide the perfect backdrop for a relaxing getaway by the magnificent Atlantic Ocean.

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