5 Affordable Beach Towns Across America

by  Kristine Hansen | Apr 9, 2019
Capitola, Santa Cruz, California
Capitola, Santa Cruz, California / Ed-Ni-Photo/iStock

Everybody knows Santa Barbara, Kennebunkport, and Nantucket as prime destinations for a stateside beach escape. However, if you're looking for more under-the-radar seaside vacation spots, check out these five affordable and picturesque towns that offer value-packed hotels, fun activities, and incredible dining options.

Santa Cruz, California

Santa Cruz is about a 40-minute drive from San Jose, and is known for its easy-to-navigate downtown and scenic hiking trails. What's more, this up-and-coming destination is no stranger to receiving the Hollywood treatment: The Lost Boys (1987) was filmed on the boardwalk here, and Jordan Peele's Us takes place in and around the city.

What to see: With 29 miles of coastline, you'll be able reserve your very own slice of paradise, sans the large crowds. Also, the boardwalk features its own amusement park (with games, a Ferris wheel, and an array of family-friendly attractions). After a day at the beach, stop by one of the affordable seafood restaurants in town. Following your meal, peruse the many nautical- and surf-inspired shops that line the streets. If you love art, you'll appreciate First Friday Santa Cruz (when art studios offer free entry). Other must-visit Santa Cruz staples include The Penny Ice Creamery (which features “penny hour,” AKA two-for-one scoops); Alderwood (known for its wood-fired dinner menu, main courses from $25); and Birichino winery.

Where to stay: In 2017, the Dream Inn debuted as a modernized midcentury-modern lodge that overlooks the boardwalk. Here, unwind by the pool and order a cocktail or two at the property's new restaurant and lounge. Rates from $198 per night, depending on the season.

Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin

This gateway city to Door County (which is three hours north of Milwaukee), is home to two state parks, including Whitefish Dunes State Park (located right on the sand). Its bustling downtown offers adorable dining and shopping, along with a quaint small-town feel.

What to see: Door County Maritime Museum and Cana Island Lighthouse, Miller Art Museum, and Door County Historical Museum each guide you through the town’s history. If you're a fan of traditional cafés, reserve a table at Bluefront (everything under $12) or Glas (everything under $10). For brews and hearty fare, head to Door County Fire Company (which is located inside a former engine house; everything under $15). If you're craving, say, fried avocado tacos, visit Root Bistro (main courses from $11). Afterwards, explore the area by hiking at Potawatomi State Park, swimming at Whitefish Dunes State Park, and perusing through two floors' worth of antiques at Door County Traders on Third.

Where to stay: The nine-room Inn at Cedar Crossing skews modern and features its own locavore-themed restaurant (try the pancakes with Door County cherries, or Renard’s deep-fried cheese curds; breakfast entrées from $5, dinner entrées from $10). Rates from $150 per night, depending on the season. 

Rosemary Beach, Florida

Rosemary Beach is located along the Gulf of Mexico (halfway between Destin and Panama City Beach), and is renown for its New Urbanism design. Its Main Street is lined with shops and restaurants, but also features an old-school Italian twist with cobblestones and oil lanterns.

What to see: Shopping on Main Street and in the Town Center can easily take up half your day (we recommend checking out Hidden Lantern for their many books, and Disco’s for their beach-chic dresses). After your shopping spree, rent a beach cruiser and cycle along picturesque Route 30A. Then, head to either Deer Lake State Park or Camp Helen State Park to explore the dunes and coastal landscapes. Alternatively, if you're more of a beach bum, visit the public beaches at Gulf Lakes. Dining options range from Cowgirl Kitchen’s Southern-style breakfast (from $4), to rooftop family-style dining at Pescado (small plates from $12).

Where to stay: Though there are only two properties here (most visitors rent homes), we love The Pearl Hotel, which features a pool, spaa ground-floor restaurant, and swoon-worthy interiors. Rates from $329 per night, depending on the season. 

Asbury Park, New Jersey

If you haven’t been to this quintessential seaside town, consider planning your next trip here. With the recent addition of two boutique hotels, now's the perfect time to visit. 

What to see: If it’s raining (or if you’re sick of the beach), head to Asbury Lanes, a bowling alley and concert venue that's often frequented by New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen. If you’re more of a gamer, you won’t want to skip out on the new Silver Ball Museum Arcade. When it's time to dine, check out Pascal & Sabine’s for its French-inspired fare (main courses from $17), or the seafood-focused Iron Whale (opening soon). After your meal, stop by some of the shops and live music venues that have ruled the town for decades (hello, Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony).

Where to stay: Asbury Hotel debuted in 2016 with a rooftop lounge, pool, and overall sleek design that's new to the Jersey shore (rates from $92 per night, depending on the season). Next up: Asbury Ocean Club (a hotel, beach club, and private residence; contact property directly for rates). 

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Birdwatchers, hikers, and beachgoers alike will love Alabama’s Gulf Coast, which features an array of outdoor activities, lots of shopping (from antiques to local designers), and plenty of restaurants. 

What to see: The 7,157-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge is a popular spot for hiking and birdwatching, while Gulf State Park (which sits along the white-sugar sands of the Gulf of Mexico) features a pier and scenic trails. If you’re into water parks (or are traveling with kids), the 20-acre Waterville USA is a must-visit. Live music lovers should check out The Wharf Amphitheater in Orange Beach, which attracts famous musicians (think Luke Bryan, Jimmy Buffet, and Kenny Chesney) in the summer months.

Where to stay: Rent a condo at The Wharf at Orange Beach — six miles from the beach — where shops and restaurants are just a short walk away (contact the property directly for rates). However, if you want to be closer to the shore, book a room at the oceanfront Lodge at Gulf State Park, a Hilton Hotel (rates from $145 per night, depending on the season). 

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