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15 Best Beach Towns in the South

6 min read
15 Best Beach Towns in the South

These are the best Southeastern beach towns to visit this year.

<p>Nick Heinemann/Getty Images</p>

Nick Heinemann/Getty Images

In a region notorious for its humidity, Southern beach towns are often a welcome reprieve from the otherwise suffocating weather. That’s not to say they don’t get their fair share of sweltering days — particularly in the height of the summer — but salty breezes, extraordinary sunsets, and year-round charm create unforgettable coastal escapes that beckon repeat visitors and newcomers alike.

Whether you’re visiting in the hottest months or experiencing the peace and magic of the off-season, beach towns in the South are as special as they are varied. Take Sullivan’s Island in South Carolina, for example. Its flat beaches are perfect for picturesque bike rides, and its stretch of top-tier restaurants draws crowds from nearby Charleston and beyond. The unspoiled wilderness of Chincoteague, Virginia couldn’t be more different from the Spanish colonial architecture of St. Augustine, Florida, but each has that distinctive hum of relaxation and delight you can only find in a Southern beach town. No matter where you go along the coast, you’re guaranteed to spot old-school ice cream shops, stores filled with nautical knickknacks, and can’t-miss seafood shacks advertising the catch of the day.

Below, we’ve rounded up 15 of the best Southern beach towns — see if your favorite made the list.

St. Simons Island, Georgia

<p>KAdams66/Getty Images</p>

Each of Georgia’s Golden Isles — a group of barrier islands that includes St. Simons Island, Sea Island, Little St. Simons Island, and Jekyll Island — are majestic and visit-worthy in their own right, but none encompasses the idea of a beach town quite like St. Simons Island. Approximately equidistant between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, it’s a coastal enclave outfitted with moss-draped oaks, bike-friendly paths, and plenty of shops and restaurants (make sure you try the pancakes at Palmer’s Village Cafe) to keep you busy when you’re not taking advantage of the nearby beaches.

Mexico Beach, Florida

Sitting 25 miles southeast of Panama City, Florida, Mexico Beach embodies everything you’d expect in a small Southern beach town. It has colorful homes that line the white-sand beach, local restaurants with fried shrimp on the menu, and a passionate community that’s worked hard to rebuild the area in the aftermath of 2018’s Hurricane Michael.

Ocracoke, North Carolina

<p>tmersh/Getty Images</p>

The Outer Banks of North Carolina made a name for themselves long before the eponymous Netflix show premiered in 2020. Ocracoke Island is a particular brand of beach town that’s hard to replicate. Sure, there’s shopping, restaurants, and must-see attractions — be sure to snap a photo of the second-oldest operating lighthouse in the United States — but visitors are also encouraged to take up sailing, clam digging, and exploring the island by bike.

Gulf Shores, Alabama

<p>felixmizioznikov/Getty Images</p>

felixmizioznikov/Getty Images

The white-sand beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama are half of the inspiration behind the area’s motto, “Small Town, Big Beach,” and luckily, the pristine stretches of sand and surf can be enjoyed all year round. If you need a break from beach time, Gulf Shores also has plenty of other activities for the whole family. Head to nearby Gulf State Park, where you can camp, fish, and explore 25 miles of paved walking and biking trails, or spend a few hours wandering around the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo.

Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina

<p>Daniela Duncan/Getty Images</p>

Daniela Duncan/Getty Images

If you’re visiting Charleston, you’ll have your pick of beach communities — from kitschy Folly Beach to the more private coastline on Kiawah Island. Sullivan’s Island, a favorite among locals, is that perfect in-between beach town, with 2.5 miles of beachfront views and an assortment of local shops and eateries. After a long day on the beach, try to grab a table at The Obstinate Daughter, Poe’s Tavern, or Home Team BBQ; the waits may be longer in peak season, but they’re certainly worth it.

Sanibel, Florida

<p>Nick Heinemann/Getty Images</p>

Nick Heinemann/Getty Images

If Miami Beach isn’t your speed, try heading west. Sanibel Island, just under 20 miles from Fort Myers, is a laid-back version of a Florida beach town. The island has been recovering from Hurricane Ian, and there are extensive efforts to conserve the nature and beauty of the island. If you’re a fan of hunting for seashells, there’s no better place than Sanibel. Travelers head to its famous beaches to collect rare shells, and the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum is a must-visit if you want to learn more about your treasures.

Tybee Island, Georgia

<p>Lorena Gomez/Eye Em/Getty Images</p>

Lorena Gomez/Eye Em/Getty Images

A 20-minute drive from Savannah, Tybee Island has an unpretentiousness to it that makes even first-time visitors feel right at home. From seafood restaurants to scenic bike trails and wide-open beaches, it has all of the characteristics of a typical coastal town — with the added bonus of claiming Georgia’s oldest and tallest lighthouse as one of its own.

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

<p>MargaretW/Getty Images</p>

Golfers and beach-goers alike are attracted to Hilton Head Island, a 12-mile-long beach town in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. With more than 20 golf courses, seemingly endless bike trails, and a number of water-based activities (including kayaking, paddle boarding, and dolphin-watching tours), Hilton Head lets its visitors choose between keeping busy on their vacation or simply soaking up the southern sun at Coligny Beach Park, Islanders Beach, or Burkes Beach.

St. Augustine, Florida

<p>rgaydos/Getty Images</p>

St. Augustine, Florida, also called the “Nation’s Oldest City,” may be notable for its incredible historic district, but it also has white-sand beaches and a flavorful food scene that attract travelers to the area. If you want the full St. Augustine experience, book your stay at one of the city’s charming inns — and try to go in the off-season, as crowds tend to overwhelm the beaches in the summertime.

Chincoteague, Virginia

<p>epantha/Getty Images</p>

Chincoteague Island, located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a Southern beach town. It doesn’t have any busy boardwalks or high rises, and warm weather only sticks around for the summer months. Yet it’s still a haven for visitors who enjoy fishing, hiking, biking, and exploring the local wildlife populations. The sunsets and less-than-crowded beaches also lend themselves to the island’s relaxing atmosphere. And yes, Chincoteague is also known for its proximity to the wild horses on nearby Assateague Island.

Pawleys Island, South Carolina

<p>Joe Herlong/EyeEm/Getty Images</p>

Joe Herlong/EyeEm/Getty Images

The South Carolina coast has no shortage of beach towns, but Pawleys Island — which sits between Charleston and Myrtle Beach — is one of the best. Here, you’ll find shabby-chic beach cottages, historical landmarks, loggerhead sea turtles, and both marsh and sea views. The very definition of laid-back Lowcountry, the four-mile-long barrier island is also celebrated for its handwoven hammocks, which you can bring home as a souvenir of your trip.

Orange Beach, Alabama

<p>BlazenImages/Getty Images</p>

BlazenImages/Getty Images

Alabama’s Orange Beach has a more modern and urban feel than its neighbor, Gulf Shores, but both are worth visiting. Along with bright blue waters and photogenic beaches, Orange Beach has several marinas and boat launches with access to the Gulf of Mexico — ideal for travelers interested in boating or saltwater fishing.

Port Aransas, Texas

<p>Ronnie Wiggin/Getty Images</p>

Ronnie Wiggin/Getty Images

Some say Texas is part of the South, others claim it’s a region all its own. Either way, Port Aransas on Mustang Island earns a spot on this list thanks to mild year-round temperatures and beachfront amenities. A four-hour drive from Austin, the beach town is the “Fishing Capital of Texas,” thanks, in part, to its unparalleled access to the Gulf of Mexico and 18 miles of wide sandy beaches.

Cape Charles, Virginia

<p>Kyle Little/Getty Images</p>

Old-school charm runs rampant in Cape Charles, Virginia. While it’s located on the Chesapeake Bay, it still has that cozy, nautical feeling associated with a classic beach town. Before you head to the public beach for the day — where you’ll find calm, shallow waters — take a walk down Mason Avenue to grab a warm pastry at The Bakery on Mason and a pageturner at Peach Street Books.

Dauphin Island, Alabama

<p>Wirestock/Getty Images</p>

Those unfamiliar with Alabama may not expect to find clear water and white-sand beaches along its coast, but Dauphin Island is here to prove them otherwise. While Orange Beach and Gulf Shores are more well known, Dauphin Island holds its own with seven miles of public beaches, a bird sanctuary, and a number of restaurants and shops. Plus, it’s home to Sand Island Lighthouse, which can only be accessed by boat.

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