Beach bum? History buff? In several vacation-ready spots around the country, you won't have to choose. From Victorian homes to turn-of-the-century boardwalks and imposing old forts, we've found 20 coastal towns and cities that offer charm and must-see historic sites just a stone's throw from the water.
If you love period architecture, Cape May is right up your alley: The entire town is a National Historic Landmark thanks to its exceptionally well-preserved Victorian buildings, built mainly during the late 19th century. The beaches are also pristine, but note that you'll need to buy a "beach tag" to enjoy them. Daily admission is $6 for beachgoers 12 and older.
Key West has much to offer history buffs, including 19th century landmarks such as the Ernest Hemingway House, Harry S. Truman Little White House, and Key West Lighthouse. Don't miss Fort Zachary Taylor, built beginning in 1845. Just outside is a beach where visitors can lounge, snorkel, and fish.
One of the East Coast's best beach towns, Ocean City is known for its turn-of-the century boardwalk, which offers 3 miles of old-fashioned fun, including food, games, and shopping. Don't miss Trimper's Carousel, which dates to 1902. There are 10 miles of beaches — all free — and two are reserved for surfers. Fishing is permitted year-round, while horseback riding is allowed off season.
History lovers have plenty of top-notch sites to see in St. Augustine, the nation's oldest city. There is Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the United States, the 16th century Mission of Nombre de Dios, and the charming cobblestone Old City business district. For a more unspoiled beach experience, check out 1,600-acre Anastasia State Park just a few minutes from downtown.
The massive Gilded Age mansions lining Newport's coast are evidence of its opulent past. The best-known estate, The Breakers, was built as a summer home for the Vanderbilt family in the late 1800s and is open for tours. For sweeping views of the mansions and rocky coast, don't miss the 3.5-mile Newport Cliff Walk, which begins at popular Easton's Beach.
The historic European-style center of Carmel, built mostly in the early 1900s, is almost impossibly picturesque, as is the Carmel Mission Basilica, founded in 1771. The white-sand Carmel Beach is a haven for surfers, volleyball players, and dogs, which are allowed off-leash. Just a short drive away, 17-Mile Drive has been offering breathtaking vistas since 1881.
Visitors will want to check out Lubec, the easternmost town in the country, not just for its geographical fame but for some presidential sightseeing. At Roosevelt Campobello International Park, visitors can enjoy miles of scenic coastline, see FDR's summer cottage, and "have tea" with his wife, Eleanor. Bring your passports — though jointly maintained by the United States and Canada, the park itself is on Canadian soil.
Georgia's oldest city, Savannah, boasts one of the country's largest National Historic Landmark districts. Highlights include the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, several historic homes and estates, and countless squares filled with monuments and oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Nearby Tybee Island has three public beaches where visitors can enjoy the Atlantic surf.
The rocky shore and cold water off Mackinac may put off all but the hardiest water lovers, but this car-free island has irresistible historic charm. Get around the historic downtown by bike or horse-drawn carriage (no cars allowed), explore the revolutionary-era Fort Mackinac, and gawk at the classically elegant Grand Hotel, which opened in 1887.
One of North Carolina's oldest towns, Beaufort combines the beauty and beaches of the Outer Banks with a dose of historic charm. The Beaufort Historic Site showcases several notable buildings, the oldest of which dates to 1732. Check out the artifacts at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, and take a ferry to the iconic Cape Lookout Lighthouse and National Seashore.
South Carolina also has a Beaufort, and with its own storied history. Explore antebellum architecture in the city's historic district, replete with large old oaks. Notable sites include the ruined 1700s Old Sheldon Church and the Penn Center, the first academic school for freed slaves. Head to the beach at nearby Hunting Island State park, also home to the historic Hunting Island lighthouse.
This Martha's Vineyard town has roots in the mid-1600s. They're on full display at The Vincent House, built in 1672, which is open for public tours. Visitors will also find 19th century Greek Revival houses, once home to the town's whaling captains, and a picturesque harbor. Nearby Katama Beach offers a wide expanse of sand and surf for summer frolicking.
The vibe is low-key in Sag Harbor compared with wealthier Hamptons enclaves, and that's a good thing for history buffs, who will find the town's historic roots as a whaling port intact. There is plenty of 18th century and 19th century architecture on display, including Colonial, Victorian, and Greek Revival homes. Head to Long Beach for a few miles of powdery sand.
Jammed with Revolutionary War history, Yorktown is a must-see. Yorktown Battlefield showcases where the British surrendered to George Washington's armies in 1781, and the American Revolution Museum has a recreated Continental Army encampment. There's plenty of colonial architecture to admire, and Virginia Beach is nearby for plenty of sand and surf.
The third-oldest city in South Carolina is a historic hotbed of low-country charm on the Winyah Bay. For a taste of the revolutionary South, head to Hopsewee Plantation, a National Historic Landmark built around 1740. Travelers also recommend the city's Harbor Walk. Georgetown is just 20 minutes from the popular Atlantic beaches at Pawley's Island.
Though Galveston was ravaged by a devastating hurricane in 1900, its downtown historic district still has several gems, including a range of ornate Victorian storefronts. Also of note: The Elissa, a restored 1877 tall ship docked at the Texas Seaport Museum. Head to Galveston Island State Park to enjoy the Gulf beaches and barrier-island scenery.
Pensacola's history is varied and fascinating — it was one of the first European settlements in the New World, and is known as the "City of Five Flags" since it has been ruled by five different governments. Highlights include Fort Pickens, completed in 1834, and Historic Pensacola, a living history museum that includes landmark historical properties. For sugar-white sand, head to the Gulf Islands National Seashore.
There are must-sees from multiple eras in Wilmington: Explore the restored World War II Battleship North Carolina, check out the Civil War-era Fort Fisher State Historic Site, and gawk at the antebellum Bellamy Mansion Museum. Get a feel for the wide-ranging 230-block historic district via a horse-drawn carriage, then head to Wrightsville Beach for lounging or scuba diving among shipwrecks.
Located along the stunning Northern California coast, Eureka is a Victorian seaport that has a picturesque Old Town. Take a gander at the spectacularly ornate Carson Mansion or take a cruise on the MV Madaket ferryboat, which dates to 1910. Go sea kayaking or tidepooling at nearby Trinidad State Beach, or head further north to search for semi-precious stones at Agate Beach.
History buffs who want to learn about seafaring life won't want to miss Astoria's highly regarded Columbia River Maritime Museum. Another high point here: The Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, which often offers living-history demonstrations. Travelers say nearby Cannon Beach is among the most scenic in Oregon — don't miss the iconic Haystack Rock, made famous in "The Goonies."