Our 10 Favorite Beach Towns for Food-Lovers

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Ewais / Susanna Hopler)

If you’re someone who likes to eat — and really, who isn’t? — then choosing the perfect beach getaway is just as much about finding the perfect place to chow down as it is about finding the perfect stretch of sand.

We’re here to help: These 10 picturesque beach towns are also fantastic dining destinations in their own rights, packed with everything from ritzy white tablecloth establishments to grubby beachside diners. Read on for our take on where to go, where to stay, and the delicious things you absolutely can’t leave town without eating.

1. Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Eat: The seafood here is some of the best in the country. Head to longtime institution Salty Dog Cafe for a steaming bowl of she-crab soup and crispy fried hush puppies slathered with homemade honey butter. Swing by Skull Creek Boathouse for a frosé (frozen rosé) on the relaxed creek-facing terrace before tucking into a creamy plate of Low Country shrimp and grits. Or hunker down in one of the dockside tables at Hudson’s Seafood House, family owned since the 1920s, and watch the pink-orange sunset while eating blackened local shrimp.

Do: Work up an appetite by paddling a kayak through serene marshland or biking down a breezy strip of pristine coastline. Horseback riding, golf, and good old-fashioned beachside sunbathing are all on the menu here, too.

Stay: Rest your head at the Sea Pines Resort — itself an oceanside oasis worth exploring for its golf courses, spa, and horseback riding excursions.

2. Key West, Florida

Eat: For straight-up, simply prepared seafood, head to the open-air Hogfish Bar and Grill on Stock Island, 10 minutes from downtown Key West. The house speciality is the fried hogfish sandwich on Cuban bread smothered in Swiss cheese, onions, and mushrooms, but they’ll also fry, blacken, or grill whatever you caught that day.

For something slightly more upmarket, reserve a table at elegant Cafe Marquesa, where you should order the Asian-inflected grilled spiny lobster tail and blue spot prawns in Thai butter sauce.

Do: Anglers come from miles around to fish the waters that surround Key West; others come to eat their catch. Required for literary-minded folk (and cat-lovers) is the perfectly preserved French Colonial home of Ernest Hemingway, today overrun by the furry descendants of the beloved author’s cats. Many of them have a strange anatomical quirk: an extra toe or two on either paw.

Stay: The Artist House is one of the most photographed homes in the area, and for good reason. Once owned by the famous painter Robert Eugene Otto and his musician wife Anne — and home to a famously creepy doll named Robert — today the expertly restored Colonial Queen Anne-style home is adorned with purple shutters and a sprawling veranda complete with rocking chairs. Take in the daily happy hour beside the on-site pool, set in a petite tropical garden.

3. Santa Cruz, California

Eat: Get your taco fix at El Palomar, a longtime Santa Cruz establishment slinging tacos, tostadas, burritos, and other Mexican classics. If you’re in the mood for Italian, make your way to neighborhood spot La Posta, which serves up fresh pastas, plus bread baked in the restaurant’s brick oven.

Do: Known as much for its majestic redwood forests as its fine beaches, Santa Cruz is ideal for those who can’t decide if they’re landlubbers or sea-lovers. Stroll along paths weaving through the towering trees of Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, or visit the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected natural wonderland stretching across 276 miles of shoreline. Also, be sure to make time to visit the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California’s oldest surviving amusement park.

Stay: The only beachfront resort in town, the retro-styled Dream Inn is just steps from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

4. Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

Eat: Classic beach fare rules the day in Rehoboth. Grotto Pizza is required eating, as are the towering swirls of custard at Kohr Brothers. Leave room for malt vinegar French fries at Thrasher’s, and a heaping bowl of creamy seafood bisque at Jake’s Seafood House.

Do: Beyond the usual beach bumming, a visit to Gordons Pond just north of town is well worth the 10-minute drive. Walk along the crushed stone path and keep an eye out for the local wildlife — pine warblers, seaside sparrows, piping plovers, loons, scoters, and even the occasional bald eagle. Back in Rehoboth, make sure to swing by the boardwalk carnival, Funland, for top-notch skeeball and a ride on the Sea Dragon.

Stay: Some of the beach’s most elegant accommodations can be found at the Bellmoor Inn & Spa, which offers a luxe bed-and-breakfast vibe in the middle of downtown.

5. Galveston, Texas

Eat: Head to longtime Galveston favorite Shrimp N Stuff for all manner of fried seafood — shrimp, oysters, crab, and more — plus po’ boys and tacos. Of course, you can’t leave Texas without sampling that state’s famous barbecue: Leon’s World’s Finest BBQ has you covered with classic ribs, brisket, and sausage links. Finish things off with the giant peanut butter and caramel chocolate cups at La King’s Confectionery, a frozen-in-time dessert shop founded way back in the 1920s that still looks it.

Do: No visit is complete without a trip to Moody Gardens, a botanical park featuring three glass-enclosed pyramids filled with all manner of aquatic animals, tropical plants, reptiles, butterflies, birds, monkeys, and two-toed sloths. Also at the park: Palm Beach, a pristine white-sand beach featuring freshwater lagoons, a lazy river, and waterslides.

Stay: At more than 100 years old, the Hotel Galvez is the jewel of Galveston’s hotel scene. The ornate common rooms are the big draw, with original marble columns and a beamed mahogany ceiling.

6. Cape May, New Jersey

Eat: The Red Store is a coffee shop by day and chef-driven restaurant by night. Argentinian-born Lucas Manteca dishes up seasonal cuisine inspired by his South American heritage. Leave room for a meal at The Ebbitt Room, which serves farm-to-table fare and craft cocktails on its front porch using ingredients from nearby Beach Plum Farm.

Do: As America’s oldest seaside resort, Cape May was famously the Victorian-era summer escape of choice for four Presidents and wealthy industrialists from New York and Philadelphia. One gets a sense of this past grandeur from the scores of 19th-century mansions, notably the Emlen Physick Estate, an 18-room estate unique for its avant-garde Stick Style. Come for the perfectly preserved furniture and interior design, stay for the ghosts, rumored to include the spirits of the former owner’s ebullient dogs.

Stay: Fully immerse yourself in Cape May’s Victorian past at Angel of the Sea, a 27-room Victorian mansion built in 1850 for a prominent Philadelphia chemist. Check in early so you have time for the complimentary afternoon tea.

7. Traverse City, Michigan

Eat: The Little Fleet is an open-air gathering space where you can pair local beer, cider, and various spirits with a rotating cast of food trucks serving fare ranging from tacos to barbecue. If you’re visiting between November and May, time your visit to the 20-year-old Cookbook Dinner series at Amical: For one week every month, the restaurant’s chefs choose a newly released cookbook and serve a menu devised from it.

Do: The largest city in Northern Michigan is also the country’s largest producer of tart cherries. In July, it hosts The National Cherry Festival, which celebrates the sour fruit with parades, the annual naming of a “Cherry Queen,” and, of course, plenty of cherries. Other times of year, visit the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on North Manitou Island, accessible by ferry, for freshwater beaches, miles of hiking trails, and staggering views of bluffs that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan.

Stay: The casino scene is a big part of Traverse City, so why not kill two birds with one stone at the Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel? It’s run by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, one of the first tribes to own a casino, and offers a wide range of accommodations, dining options, and entertainment options.

8. Edgartown, Massachusetts

Eat: Don’t be thrown off by the lines snaking out of Art Cliff Diner most mornings. It’s worth the wait: The country-style diner slings out-of-this-world almond-crusted challah French toast, codfish cakes with eggs, and other morning favorites. For something a bit fancier, settle into a table in the romantic tented patio at L’Etoile, where chef-owner Michael Brisson serves elegant French fare like steamed half lobster dressed with a roasted garlic and parsley sauce.

Do: Even if you’ve never been to Edgartown, it may look a little familiar. The old whaling port, located on Martha’s Vineyard, was the principal shooting location for Steven Spielberg’s 1975 blockbuster, Jaws. Don’t worry, there isn’t a murderous great white in residence just offshore, although you can take a Jaws-themed tour of all your favorite scenes from the movie with the Edgartown Tour Company.

Stay: The former home of a local whaling captain built in 1798, the Edgartown Inn offer cozy accommodations filled with antiques, wicker furniture, and plenty 18th-century charm. Fun fact: Author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote most of his short story collection, Twice-Told Tales, here.

9. Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Eat: It’s perpetually sunny in Hawaii, which is perhaps why shave ice — more like snow than ice — is the local of dessert of choice. Scandi’s, a longtime favorite in Kailua-Kona going on 20 years, offers a dizzying 45 flavors from green tea to root beer. Order it “snow-cap style” with a drizzle of condensed milk to amp up the drama. Afterward, get your poke fix at Da Poke Shack, where fresh cubes of silky ahi tuna are dressed however you like — spicy or sweet, spiked with avocado aioli or soy sauce, or any number of other preparations.

Do: Once a sleepy fishing village, today Kailua-Kona is a bustling town on Hawaii’s Big Island, famous for its white-sand beaches and black-lava rocks. It’s also the home base for Kona Coffee, which grows its Arabica Typica beans on the slopes of the active volcano Hualalai. After a morning of snorkeling and sunbathing, visit the cafe or take an aerial tour the farm in a chartered helicopter.

Stay: Located smack-dab in the middle of the historic Kailua Village, the Courtyard King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel is built on the grounds where King Kamehameha I, the first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii, spent the final years of his life. Luxuriate in rooms outfitted with plantation shutter screens and carved wood Polynesian furnishings before taking in a torch-lit luau on the beach.

10. Ocean Springs, Mississippi

Eat: Beach eats meet Southern charm in Ocean Springs. Snap up local catch like panko-crusted red snapper at Vestige, or opt for the legendary pulled pork at The Shed BBQ & Blues Joint.

Do: This Gulf Coast town is well-known as a destination for art-lovers. Hit up local galleries while you’re in town like The Pink Rooster, which spotlights local artists inside a historic 100-year-old home. Afterward, visit the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, which is dedicated to the art of that famous American painter, who spent years of his life in Ocean Springs.

Stay: Cozy up in pastel-hued rooms at the quaint seaside Front Beach Cottages. The artist colony vibe comes complete with private patios and hammocks.