America's Best Boardwalks

by Christina Garofalo

America's Best Boardwalks

by Christina Garofalo

America’s boardwalks evoke a certain universal nostalgia for summers by the sea. From original Victorian-era esplanades to modern walkways with novel attractions, the best ones provide cheap summer fun, where half the appeal is simply soaking up the scene (especially at number 15).

America’s boardwalks evoke a certain universal nostalgia for summers by the sea. From original Victorian-era esplanades to modern walkways with novel attractions, the best ones provide cheap summer fun, where half the appeal is simply soaking up the scene (especially at number 15).

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Atlantic City, NJ

Opened in 1870, Atlantic City’s 5.5-mile boardwalk is the oldest in the U.S. and the longest in the world. Once lined with grand Art Deco and Beaux-Art hotels, AC’s boardwalk is the birthplace of Jersey’s beloved saltwater taffy and is famed for its casinos—which were central to Prohibition-era entertainment—that remain the city’s chief attraction today.

Opened in 1870, Atlantic City’s 5.5-mile boardwalk is the oldest in the U.S. and the longest in the world. Once lined with grand Art Deco and Beaux-Art hotels, AC’s boardwalk is the birthplace of Jersey’s beloved saltwater taffy and is famed for its casinos—which were central to Prohibition-era entertainment—that remain the city’s chief attraction today.

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Myrtle Beach, SC

Myrtle Beach’s 1.2-mile boardwalk and promenade is a traditional plank-built strip lined with beach shops, cafes, and an oceanfront park. For a bird’s-eye view of the entire beach, board the 187-foot Sky Wheel, the tallest Ferris wheel east of the Mississippi, and the best way to catch the ocean breeze.

Myrtle Beach’s 1.2-mile boardwalk and promenade is a traditional plank-built strip lined with beach shops, cafes, and an oceanfront park. For a bird’s-eye view of the entire beach, board the 187-foot Sky Wheel, the tallest Ferris wheel east of the Mississippi, and the best way to catch the ocean breeze.

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Sandwich, MA

There are two kinds of boardwalks: those revered for their amusements and those for their scenic beauty. Sandwich, the oldest town on Cape Cod, boasts the latter. Destroyed in 1991 by Hurricane Bob, the boardwalk was rebuilt by locals, whose names are inscribed along the 1,350-foot path, lined by postcard-worthy dunes and marshes and white cliffs in the distance.

There are two kinds of boardwalks: those revered for their amusements and those for their scenic beauty. Sandwich, the oldest town on Cape Cod, boasts the latter. Destroyed in 1991 by Hurricane Bob, the boardwalk was rebuilt by locals, whose names are inscribed along the 1,350-foot path, lined by postcard-worthy dunes and marshes and white cliffs in the distance.

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Venice Beach, CA

Though a 1.5-mile trail lines the Pacific, those who visit hardly notice it: The Venice boardwalk is known for its eccentric scene—vendors peddling trippy paintings, street performers drumming, and a thin haze of pot smoke hangs above. There are tattoo shops, dispensaries, and skateboard ramps; and it’s home to famed body builder hangout Muscle beach, where CA’s buffest governor got his start.

Though a 1.5-mile trail lines the Pacific, those who visit hardly notice it: The Venice boardwalk is known for its eccentric scene—vendors peddling trippy paintings, street performers drumming, and a thin haze of pot smoke hangs above. There are tattoo shops, dispensaries, and skateboard ramps; and it’s home to famed body builder hangout Muscle beach, where CA’s buffest governor got his start.

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Santa Monica, CA

A stark contrast from neighboring Venice, Santa Monica’s boardwalk—with its hand-carved carousel horses and Ferris wheel that practically plunges into the Pacific—has been featured in countless films, including A Night at the Roxbury and Forrest Gump. The bold can try their hand at the seaside trapeze school, and in summer, the pier hosts weekly outdoor concerts and movies, many of which are free.

A stark contrast from neighboring Venice, Santa Monica’s boardwalk—with its hand-carved carousel horses and Ferris wheel that practically plunges into the Pacific—has been featured in countless films, including A Night at the Roxbury and Forrest Gump. The bold can try their hand at the seaside trapeze school, and in summer, the pier hosts weekly outdoor concerts and movies, many of which are free.

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Coney Island, NY

While it’s been a bit sanitized since the Warriors roamed and the Bearded Lady headlined freak shows, the Cyclone still elicits screams...and on the right night you can witness the world’s best sword swallowers for $10. If the line’s not too long, grab a hot dog at the original Nathan’s and hop on the iconic Wonder Wheel in honor of the boardwalk’s new official landmark status.

While it’s been a bit sanitized since the Warriors roamed and the Bearded Lady headlined freak shows, the Cyclone still elicits screams...and on the right night you can witness the world’s best sword swallowers for $10. If the line’s not too long, grab a hot dog at the original Nathan’s and hop on the iconic Wonder Wheel in honor of the boardwalk’s new official landmark status.

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Chicago, IL

Navy Pier has all the trappings of a traditional boardwalk, minus the ocean (though Lake Michigan is so vast it’s hard to tell). Once a training base for the U.S. Navy (hence its name), Chicago’s top tourist attraction is popular today for its skating rink, gardens, shops, and 150-foot Ferris wheel, which affords one of the best views of downtown. Come for free fireworks on Saturdays through fall.

Navy Pier has all the trappings of a traditional boardwalk, minus the ocean (though Lake Michigan is so vast it’s hard to tell). Once a training base for the U.S. Navy (hence its name), Chicago’s top tourist attraction is popular today for its skating rink, gardens, shops, and 150-foot Ferris wheel, which affords one of the best views of downtown. Come for free fireworks on Saturdays through fall.

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Orlando, FL

Leave it to Disney to recreate a turn-of-the-century boardwalk (a-la Atlantic City) in land-locked Orlando. Overlooking Crescent Lake in Magic Kingdom, the promenade features a 1920s-inspired kid-size carousel and Surrey bike rentals, and at night, street performers juggle flaming batons and walk on stilts. The best part: It’s fairly quiet, offering an occasional much-needed break from the parks.

Leave it to Disney to recreate a turn-of-the-century boardwalk (a-la Atlantic City) in land-locked Orlando. Overlooking Crescent Lake near Epcot, the promenade features a 1920s-inspired kid-size carousel and Surrey bike rentals, and at night, street performers juggle flaming batons and walk on stilts. The best part: It’s fairly quiet, offering an occasional much-needed break from the parks.

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Rehoboth Beach, DE

At the tip of Delaware’s southern coast, Rehoboth is popular for its low-key vibe, favored by couples and families (though neighboring Dewey Beach can give you a taste of nightlife should you wish). Grab classic bites, like Thrasher’s fries and Kohr Bros. frozen custard, and head to the adjacent bandstand for free open-air entertainment all summer long.

At the tip of Delaware’s southern coast, Rehoboth is popular for its low-key vibe, favored by couples and families (though neighboring Dewey Beach can give you a taste of nightlife should you wish). Grab classic bites, like Thrasher’s fries and Kohr Bros. frozen custard, and head to the adjacent bandstand for free open-air entertainment all summer long.

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Wildwood, NJ

Beyond the rides and the Tramcar (Wildwood’s famed boardwalk trolley), and the cheap accommodations that attract under-age revelers, this popular Jersey Shore haunt is home to the largest concentration of “Doo-Wop-style” motels in the nation. For a dose of 1950s nostalgia, take a self-guided tour of these acid-colored, irreplaceable icons of popular culture.

Beyond the rides and the Tramcar (Wildwood’s famed boardwalk trolley), and the cheap accommodations that attract under-age revelers, this popular Jersey Shore haunt is home to the largest concentration of “Doo-Wop-style” motels in the nation. For a dose of 1950s nostalgia, take a self-guided tour of these acid-colored, irreplaceable icons of popular culture.

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Long Beach, WA

Just north of the Oregon border, this half-mile boardwalk—perched over grassy dunes and marsh—offers panoramic views of the Pacific and North Head Lighthouse in the distance. For a longer walk, continue onto the 8.5-mile coastal, art-lined tail honoring the Lewis and Clark expedition. Visit in late August, when the Washington State International Kite Festival brings a flurry of colors across the sky.  

Just north of the Oregon border, this half-mile boardwalk—perched over grassy dunes and marsh—offers panoramic views of the Pacific and North Head Lighthouse in the distance. For a longer walk, continue onto the 8.5-mile coastal, art-lined tail honoring the Lewis and Clark expedition. Visit in late August, when the Washington State International Kite Festival brings a flurry of colors across the sky.  

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Santa Cruz, CA

Tracing Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz claims California's oldest surviving amusement park. Its hand-carved carousel (1911), which features the original 342-pipe organ built in 1894, and Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster (1924) are National Historic Landmarks. But its surroundings—with its resident sea lions, superior surf, and redwood forests (a short drive into the mountains)—make it one of a kind.

Tracing Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz claims California's oldest surviving amusement park. Its hand-carved carousel (1911), which features the original 342-pipe organ built in 1894, and Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster (1924) are National Historic Landmarks. But its surroundings—with its resident sea lions, superior surf, and redwood forests (a short drive into the mountains)—make it one of a kind.

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Kemah, TX

Twenty miles from downtown Houston, overlooking Trinity Bay, Kemah is a fun attraction for families cruising from Galveston. In addition to standard amusements (a carousel and Ferris wheel), it’s home to a 96-foot-tall wooden roller coaster, a dozen restaurants, and a reef where you can interact with stingrays. Come in April, when you can get $2-a-pound boils during its annual crawfish festival.

Twenty miles from downtown Houston, overlooking Trinity Bay, Kemah is a fun attraction for families cruising from Galveston. In addition to standard amusements (a carousel and Ferris wheel), it’s home to a 96-foot-tall wooden roller coaster, a dozen restaurants, and a reef where you can interact with stingrays. Come in April, when you can get $2-a-pound boils during its annual crawfish festival.

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Ocean City, MD

Home to two 100+ year-old theme parks and one of the oldest running carousels in the world, this 3-mile promenade accommodates approximately 8 million visitors per year. Check out Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum as well as the Life-Saving Station Museum, dedicated to a history of shipwrecks, and catch free concerts and outdoor movies in summer.

Home to two 100+ year-old theme parks and one of the oldest running carousels in the world, this 3-mile promenade accommodates approximately 8 million visitors per year. Check out Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum as well as the Life-Saving Station Museum, dedicated to a history of shipwrecks, and catch free concerts and outdoor movies in summer.

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Wailea, HI

Visitors walking along Maui’s two-mile coastal path frequently spot breaching humpback whales and sea turtles and stop off to swim or snorkel in the five stunning coves. During the day, explore the vibrant hiking trails in the connecting Hawaiian Coastal Gardens. But return in time to catch the sunset over the Pacific, with the tiny islands of Molokini, Kahoolawe, and Lanai in the distance.

Visitors walking along Maui’s two-mile coastal path frequently spot breaching humpback whales and sea turtles and stop off to swim or snorkel in the five stunning coves. During the day, explore the vibrant hiking trails in the connecting Hawaiian Coastal Gardens. But return in time to catch the sunset over the Pacific, with the tiny islands of Molokini, Kahoolawe, and Lanai in the distance.

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