Cape Elizabeth, Portland Head lighthouse.

6 Most Idyllic Small Towns on the Atlantic Coast

Peppered with charming small towns, the Atlantic Coast of the US is a destination to savor and remember as idyllic. These tiny towns offer something for every taste on top of Atlantic beaches for swimming, sunbathing, and shelling, like Hatteras, an island and a village. Onancock, a cool Virginia town, delivers a relaxed Eastern Shore experience for a vacation anytime, including beaches and wineries.

Next to loud Portsmouth in New Hampshire, over half of Rye is wetlands and marshes for adventurers, photographers, and artists to explore and capture the beauty of the watery canvas. Renowned for its Breakwater Beach, plan your escape at low tide for the infamous Brewster Flats, with clam beds, tidal pools, and some two miles of sandbars to explore in the Cape Cod town.

Brewster, Massachusetts

The iconic Brewster Store
The iconic Brewster Store. Brewster, Massachusettts. Image credit Arthur Villator via Shutterstock

Brewster offers a wealth of scenic activities over a varied landscape, including Cape Cod Bay’s beaches for lounging on the soft, sandy shores, like Breakwater Beach. At low tide, the receding ocean reveals the ocean floor, the infamous Brewster Flats, with clam beds, tidal pools, and some two miles of sandbars to explore. The Long Pond shoreline is great for lounging at the beach, freshwater swimming in the summer, and strolls along the six-mile shoreline, which extends into Harwich. The 1,900-acre Nickerson State Park features forested trails meandering between three ponds.

Cliff Pond, Flax Pond, and Little Cliff Pond are great for boating, fishing, kayaking, and swimming, while the 8 miles of bike trails link to the iconic Cape Cod Rail Trail, the longest paved trail on the peninsula. Stretching from Yarmouth to Wellfleet in the northeast, it offers beach access on a hike, bike, or horseback riding. In between the beach, trail, and woodlands, find nearby amenities like an amphitheater, playground, and restrooms. Downtown Brewster features cozy bookstores and cafés, as well as the family-favorite Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. From clam shacks to golfing greens and sportfishing charters, this small beach town is idyllic for outdoor lovers to enjoy Cape Cod's best nature without crowds.

Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portland Head Lighthouse at sunset at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Portland Head Lighthouse at sunset at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Cape Elizabeth, under 10 miles from Portland, may as well be another realm. Seemingly frozen in time, the small town with limitless photo opportunities is accessible even on a bike from the city to decompress against the most stunning views in Southern Maine. From oceanside parks and beaches to islands with woodland trails, Cape Elizabeth overlooks Casco Bay and an expanse of rocky shores, with its historic sites and recreational areas. Cape Elizabeth Light is a striking active lighthouse, while the Portland Head Light is Maine's oldest and most photographed touchstone to maritime heritage.

Commissioned by George Washington, Fort William operated with the lighthouse to defend the city and nearby islands at Portland Harbor. Nearby, visitors can enjoy the 90-acre park for picnics, hikes, and other recreation against majestic coastal views, four lighthouses on the horizon, and a small rocky beach, Ship Cove. Overlooking the ocean and the bay from its cliffside paths, the 41-acre Two Lights State Park offers picnic facilities, a playground, and panoramic views. Crescent Beach State Park is a hidden one-mile gem of a sandy cove with picnic tables and grills, a playground, concessions, and wooded walking trails. Enjoy swimming, boating, and lush wildlife this summer or fall, leaf peeping before the snow-covered trails turn into a wonderland for cross-country skiing.

Cape May, New Jersey

The waterfront in Cape May, New Jersey.
The waterfront in Cape May, New Jersey.

Oozing Atlantic Coast charm just 48 miles south of Atlantic City, Cape May is worthy of the hype, building a seaside lifestyle into its innate elegance and sophistication thanks to the stunning Victorian architecture from the past. The state's prized jewel, where seaside cultural heritage meets natural beauty, fosters a sense of an idyll for your new small-town wanderings, like the Cape May Historic District, home to the largest collection of Victorian-era buildings in the US. A large portion of the architecture hosts unique boutiques, restaurants, and classy bed-and-breakfasts, so no wonder it is a sought-after destination for every type of traveler.

The two-mile-long Cape May Promenade is a great place to start discovering, in the sea breeze on a leisurely stroll with spots to relax and soak in the Atlantic Ocean views. Drawing the water babies and sun worshippers, the beaches must be experienced, as many do, to feel the soft sands in between squishing between the toes in a family-friendly atmosphere. Birdwatchers have a hoot at Cape May Bird Observatory, and families with kids enjoy Cape May County Park & Zoo, while Emlen Physick Estate offers tours with insights throughout the mansion into the town's fascinating past.

Hatteras, North Carolina

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks in the town of Buxton, North Carolina.
Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks, North Carolina.

The barrier island of Hatteras, a hidden gem in the Outer Banks, is a long-time favorite destination for adventurers, romantics, and dreamers. Offering nature-centric experiences outdoors, with a lack of commercialization but plenty of coastal small seaside town charm to go around, including two nearby lighthouses, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest in the US. Visitors can climb to the top for panoramic views, enjoy sportfishing charters around the island, the "world’s blue marlin capital," or sunbathe and horseback ride at the beach. The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum reiterates stories of Hatteras Inlet, like pirates, Civil War battles, bombardments, and the rise and fall of commercial fishing.

On the southern tip, Hatteras Village is the epicenter for fishing, with family-operated fish houses for generations, seaside shopping for souvenirs, beach gear, rods, tackle, and sundries, and the hit Sonny's Waterfront Restaurant. Visitors can join with a rod and tackle box or soak in the views along its photogenic docks and the beach strand overlooking Hatteras Inlet. Got a spare day? Hop on the Hatteras-Ocracoke Ferry to Ocracoke Island, while Hatteras Landing is the last souvenir shopping stop with places for a bite and a self-serve marina.

Onancock, Virginia

Sailboat in marina at the center of Onancock, Virginia
Sailboat in marina at the center of Onancock, Virginia. Image credit MargJohnsonVA via Shutterstock

Nestled between bay and sea, Onancock is a gem of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, inspiring a getaway from back in the day. Having dazzled Captain John Smith over four centuries ago, Onancock, home to around 1,200, weaves the past into the present with notable landmarks, cuisine, and art. Its downtown district stays lively through pubs and five-star dining venues, while accommodations range from premium B&Bs to boutique hotels. With art galleries peppered throughout, culture fans can visit the Eastern Shore Watermen's Museum, the Ker Place, for history, and a number of artisan studios at the converted historic high school, while Roseland Theater hosts the International Film Festival.

Onancock, one of the coolest towns in the region, delivers a big dose of old-school charm for a relaxed Eastern Shore experience anytime and a unique beachside vacation this summer, including wineries. The local outdoor farmer's market, from May to October, features fresh offerings of art and crafts by local artisans and live music. Stock up for a picnic and hop on a ferry to Tangier Island, one of the Bay's most treasured experiences. Back in town, Onancock Creek is the best place to catch the sunset after a daytime paddle.

Rye, New Hampshire

Rocky coast and beachfront homes at Concord Point, in Rye, New Hampshire.
Rocky coast and beachfront homes at Concord Point, in Rye, New Hampshire.

Rye, a tiny town with a big personality next door to Portsmouth, delivers a dreamy beachscape for every group's taste, like swimming, sunbathing, and shelling. Comprising a peaceful seaside escape, its two public beaches, three miles apart, offer sandy shores along Jenness State Beach with a bathhouse, Summer Sessions Surf Shop, and the Jenness Beach Seaside Grill across the street. The second beach is further up Ocean Boulevard (Route 1A), between the coastal views and some real estate envy homes. Along the highway, tourists can pull over onto the side of the road and stroll along the wooden ramps to a rocky walking path along the ocean, or even step down the rocks to the beach.

Rye, home to the largest amount of the state coastline, which comprises just 18 miles (8 of which are in Rye), enjoys stunning ocean views, beautiful beaches, and delicious seafood. Over half of the 35.5-square-mile seaside town are wetlands and marshes, with easy access to nature for adventurers, photographers, and artists to explore and capture the beauty of the watery canvas. Rye is home to a charming little town square with a library, town hall, congregational church, and historical society. Just south, Lago's Ice Cream is a must-hit on a hot summer day. The famous Seacoast Science Center features aquariums to rub noses with sea creatures, indoor touch tanks, and other hands-on interactions and events empowering the marine environment.

From New England charm to Southern hospitality, the beautiful Atlantic Coast exudes fantasies of pirates, horseback riding along the beach, or sitting down with an easel at sunset to paint on a getaway of a lifetime. Blending history and culture against the undeniable natural quaintness, these towns pulse with seaside life.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse is the tallest in the US, while the Portland Head Light in the small town of Cape Elizabeth is the oldest and most photographed in Maine. Having dazzled Captain John between bay and sea, Onancock, a gem of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, inspires a getaway from back in the day.

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