Our research is editorially independent but we
may earn a commission for purchases made through our links.
With family living in the South, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring beach towns in the region from Virginia to Florida. The perfect beach town obviously provides sand and waves, but these idyllic spots are particularly stunning while offering lots of recreational activities and mouthwatering cuisine, including plenty of fresh seafood. Some are standouts for watching wildlife like dolphins and wild ponies too. No matter which you choose, these beach towns in the South are sure to make for an unforgettable summer escape.
Located about an hour’s drive from Virginia Beach, Cape Charles is a Victorian-era planned community that lies near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay on the Eastern Shore. This quintessential beach town in Virginia is ideal for families with the water calm, clean, and shallow along the bay near the confluence of the Atlantic. Poseidon Watersports offers paddleboard, kayak, jet ski, and boat rentals for all sorts of fun in the water, and the Cape Charles historic district is enjoyable to explore too, with everything from shops for sweet treats to art galleries, beachy boutiques, and enticing book stores. At the Cape Charles Museum, you can learn more about the history of the town and the surrounding region too.
Located on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast,” 20 miles southeast of Panama City, Mexico Beach is one of those lesser-known gems, but it offers everything you could want in a small Southern beach town, including a white sandy beach ideal for shelling with the highlight watching the dolphins that splash through the waves at sunset. At this underrated Gulf Coast beach town, there are no high rises or even traffic lights. However, you will find fabulous local eateries serving fried shrimp and other delights, along with abundant wildlife, with everything from pelicans, osprey, and bald eagles to loggerhead turtles.
Enjoy authentic Lowcountry in Edisto Beach, which boasts a pristine shoreline in South Carolina along the island of the same name, one of the state’s biggest barrier islands. Located about an hour’s drive from Charleston, the North and South Edisto rivers border two edges of the island that are linked by the Intercoastal Waterway and the Atlantic. It’s home to moss-draped oaks and unspoiled marshes, while the sandy beach is ideal for searching for shark teeth and all sorts of water sports. It’s also great for wildlife watching, with dolphins frequently passing by, while phenomenal Lowcountry seafood is on the menu.
Key West is a quintessential Florida Keys beach town and the farthest destination along the Overseas Highway. It’s famous for its connection to Ernest Hemingway, Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville,” sunset celebrations, and Duval Street nightlife. Brightly colored homes, sand-floored seafood eateries, and key lime pie complete the picture, which of course includes dazzling turquoise waters. Just about every type of activity on and in the water can be enjoyed, from swimming and snorkeling to sailing.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina, a 120-mile sliver of sand jutting into the Atlantic, is home to Ocracoke. One of the southernmost islands, it provides a tranquil escape as it can only be reached by air or water. Visitors can enjoy everything from clam digging, swimming, and sailing to biking and watching for the wild ponies that are believed to be the descendants of Spanish mustangs brought here hundreds of years ago. There are more than 250 historic structures here, many made using materials from scuttled ships, and the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the country is located here too. Erected in 1823, its beam is visible from as far as 14 miles away and provides an ideal photo op. You’ll find the usual wealth of restaurants for dining on fresh seafood along with plenty of shops too.
A classic, laid-back beach town in North Carolina, Wrightsville Beach is made up of two islands, easily accessible from the mainland. It offers gorgeous beaches that are especially popular with surfers, in fact, National Geographic named it one of the world’s best surf towns. The water is comfortably warm with the temperature averaging in the low 80s and if you don’t want to hit the waves on a surfboard, there are opportunities on the Intracoastal Waterway for standup paddleboarding. Bring or rent a bike, and you can pedal the Wrightsville Beach Loop Trail. There are surf shops, boutiques, retro beach bars, and fine dining restaurants, providing a little something of everything.
Orange Beach is home to some of the country’s most idyllic stretches of sand as it’s primarily made up of quartz, causing it to sparkle in the sun. The brilliant aquamarine sea that laps against this top-rated Alabama beach destination creates a spectacular contrast. There are nine miles of beaches, ideal for everything from swimming to parasailing, while cruises will bring you to see the many dolphins in the area up close. On land, enjoy golfing, hiking, biking, and The Wharf, an entertainment district with many shops and eateries, some of which serve delectable Alabama oysters.
Located just 20 minutes outside of Charleston, Folly Beach offers a barefoot kind of vibe on a six-mile-long sandbar. Colonial-style homes and palm trees can be found throughout, along with plenty of tasty food and drink, including the Folly Beach Pier, popular for cocktails that can be enjoyed at the open-air bar. Live music is offered nightly at several restaurants here too. When you’re at the beach, enjoy everything from surfing to paddleboarding. From the magnificent Lighthouse Heritage Preserve with its driftwood-strewn sands, you’ll enjoy a fabulous view of Morris Island Lighthouse.
The small town of Port Aransas is located along the Gulf of Mexico near Corpus Christi on Mustang Island, connected to the mainland by a bridge. It’s less crowded than popular South Padre Island while offering six miles of tranquil sands. Birdwatching, kayaking, paddleboarding, parasailing, and kayaking are all popular here, but it’s especially known for its outstanding fishing. Widely regarded as the fishing capital of Texas, it can be enjoyed from the pier and the bays and channels. During the summer months, fishing tournaments are often held here too. Just of few of the other highlights include golfing, shopping, delicious dining, and an interesting history – the island got its name from wild mustangs that once roamed the area for hundreds of years. Find out more at the Port Aransas Museum.
Tybee Island is a town and an island with lots of charms, combining marshy waterways, wide beaches, water sports, biking, shopping, and dining along with a rich history. The Fort Screven Historic District is home to one of the state’s first theaters that offered “talkies,” which were the earliest feature-length films with recorded sound, the Tybee Post Theater. Visitors can also visit Georgia’s tallest and oldest lighthouse, built in 1736, and paddle over to Little Tybee Island. An uninhabited nature preserve accessed only by kayak or boat, pirates once roamed its shores. You’ll find plenty to dine on after working up an appetite, including everything from shrimp tacos to seafood platters.
Fernandina Beach is a picturesque waterfront village along the north end of Amelia Island. One of Florida’s best beach towns, it offers a peaceful, laid-back beach retreat with charming B&Bs and opportunities to join guided horseback riding tours along the golden sands. Shelling, fishing, and boating are all popular too. Pirate culture is a way of life here, with residents occasionally dressing as swashbucklers just for fun. Trolley tours will reveal the town’s treasure trove of history, while nearby Fort Clinch State Park hosts a centuries-old fort facing the Atlantic along with sandy beaches.
Ocean Springs is a quirky beach town on the Gulf with a small historic downtown area jam-packed with funky art galleries, art studios, and hip bars hosting live music on outdoor patios. You’ll find plenty of independent shops to explore and fantastic restaurants serving lots of BBQ and catfish while the streets are lined with colorful, historic cottages and live oaks. Of course, it also has a beautiful beach with opportunities for paddleboarding and swimming in the calm Gulf waters. Boat trips to the barrier islands bring the chance to enjoy pristine, remote beaches unspoiled by tourism.
You’ve probably never heard the name Matlacha, but it’s one of the cutest and tiniest Florida towns. “Old Florida at its best,” the colorful town west of Fort Myers known for its brightly painted homes and buildings, was hit hard by Hurricane Ian, but it’s on the mend with most businesses open again. The popular Blue Dog Bar and Grill is among them, with an addition – a wave line on one of the walls to mark how high the water rose during the storm. Matlacha has long attracted the free-spirited, including many artists who’ve set up candy-colored shops and galleries, while fresh seafood is always easy to find.
Chincoteague is an island and town about two hours north of Virginia Beach. One of the most charming towns in Virginia, it tends to be quieter than many others, providing the perfect spot for nature lovers seeking tranquility. Watching the sunrise from the beach is a popular activity, followed by the island’s unique ponies. They’re the star of the popular Annual Pony Swim every July, which promises a great time while supporting a good cause with the funds raised used to take care of the herd. It’s also a great place for birdwatching along with the usual activities on the sand, with 37 miles of beach to choose from.