Essential Southern beach trips

Whether you're looking to kick back or whoop it up, find a spot that's perfect for your next beach escape among these classic destinations

Panama City Beach

Photo by Andrew Wardlow

There are a few things you can always count on if you travel along the Southern coast. Pillowy mounds of soft, fine sand. Warm, sunny days punctuated by kaleidoscopic sunsets. Tents and umbrellas bearing the mascots of college football teams. Local shrimp and oysters fried to greasy perfection. These eight classic destinations tick all those boxes and more. Whether you’re looking to kick back with the family or whoop it up at the nearest bar, float atop calm swells or ride the finest waves in the Southeast, you’ll find a spot that’s perfect for your next beach escape.

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Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

A time-honored family getaway, golf destination, and dining and nightlife hub rolled into one, Myrtle Beach draws all kinds of beachgoers with its “something-for-everyone” spirit. Situated in the center of South Carolina’s Grand Strand, a 60-mile-long sweep of sand, ocean, and sun, this popular vacation spot is known for art galleries and boutiques, dolphin cruises and kayak tours, a famed oceanfront boardwalk, and an equally famed bar and music scene. Myrtle Beach even proves there is at least some overlap in the Venn diagram of “budget-friendly” and “golfer’s paradise,” with dozens of public courses dotting the town.

The beachfront boardwalk and the Skywheel

Courtesy Visit Myrtle Beach

The Shag (made famous in the 1989 movie by the same name) is serious business in South Carolina’s coastal towns, where the dance originated. Myrtle Beach has hosted the springtime National Shag Dance Competition for the past 40 years running. Practice your moves at dance clubs along North Myrtle Beach’s Main Street—like Fat Harold’s Beach Club, which offers free lessons every Tuesday night.

Anchoring the 1.2-mile beachfront boardwalk is the Skywheel, a nearly 200-foot ferris wheel that’s a step up from the standard county fair spinners with its air-conditioned, glass-enclosed “gondolas.”

If you enjoy live music, there’s plenty of fast-and-loose fun to be had at Myrtle Beach, where the sounds of blues, rock, and country spill out of beachfront bars and boom from outdoor amphitheaters. For killer views along with killer tunes, the ocean-front Tin Roof hosts nightly DJs, bands, and karaoke.

If your crew wants to break away from the hubbub, head to the southern end of Myrtle Beach and check out Brookgreen Gardens. Built in 1931 on the site of former rice plantations, this 9,000-acre National Historic Landmark features one of the country’s largest collections of figurative sculptures (2,000 works by 430 artists), displayed in a resplendent natural setting.

Besides sun, sand, and surf, these towns are also rich in history. Soak up the retro atmosphere: winding streets, vintage storefronts, and legends and lore from centuries past.

St. Augustine
The nation’s oldest city (founded in 1565), St. Augustine is heaven for history buffs. Explore cobblestone streets lined with Colonial-era buildings, tour the 19th-century Hotel Ponce de Leon on the Flagler College campus or sip the waters at Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth.

Ocean Springs, MS
Established as a French military base in the 17th century, Ocean Springs has been a Gulf Coast resort destination since the 1880s. It plays host to the state’s largest fine arts festival in November, but you can peruse galleries and small museums like the Walter Anderson Museum of Art throughout the year.

Beaufort, NC
This quaint coastal town was established in 1709 as a fishing and whaling village, and it retains plenty of nautical charm, with a large marina, walkable downtown, and restored gingerbread-style homes. Visit the Maritime Museums, where you can see artifacts from Blackbeard’s famous wreck, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.

Fernandina Beach, FL
Located on Amelia Island at the northeast tip of Florida, Fernandina Beach (established in 1811) was the last Spanish city platted in the Americas. Its 50-block historic district showcases Victorian architecture, pre–Civil War mansions, and the state’s oldest bar, the Palace Saloon, which has been pouring pints since 1903.

Panama City Beach, Florida

Despite its reputation as the “spring break capital of the world,” Panama City Beach (or just “PCB”) has a lot more to offer than booze-soaked mayhem. There are the sugar-sand beaches and shimmering swells of Florida’s Emerald Coast. The 2,900 acres of scenic, shaded trails and wooden boardwalks at Conservation Park. The four piers that are perfect for strolling, spotting dolphins, and (of course) people watching. And the myriad dive sites that call to underwater adventurers time and again. It’s no wonder this town remains a favorite getaway for so many Southerners, even long after graduation.

Russell-Fields Pier

Courtesy Visit Panama City Beach

Brave an early morning wake-up call to join the queue for fresh-from-the-fryer treats at Thomas’ Donut & Snack Shop, a beachfront institution offering an array of both yeast and cake flavors, plus cinnamon buns and apple fritters.

There are plenty of spots to cast off in PCB, but if you don’t have a boat (or a license, or heck, even a rod), head to Russell-Fields Pier, which extends 1,500 feet into the Gulf. Hit up Half Hitch Tackle to load up on all the rental gear you need, plus frozen bait.

Accessible by ferry from St. Andrews State Park, Shell Island offers a seven-mile stretch of undeveloped coastline freckled with plenty of sand dollars, periwinkles, moon shells, and more. It’s also a fantastic place to spot rays, turtles, and even bottlenose dolphins from behind a snorkel mask (bring your own or rent one where you catch the shuttle boat).

On the waterfront overlooking Saint Andrew Bay, Captain Anderson’s is one of the places in PCB to indulge in a seafood feast. On any given night, the expansive restaurant is packed with families and couples looking for sunset views and to-die-for specials like cold water lobster tails and grouper served with fresh lump blue crab.

Clearwater Beach, Florida

Just 30 minutes from St. Petersburg and Tampa, Clearwater Beach lives up to its name with its tranquil expanse of sparkling crystalline water lapping at a sun-bleached shoreline. With a backdrop like that, it’s no surprise that sunsets are mandatory viewing around here. As the afternoon slides into evening, join the throngs of beachgoers making their way to Pier 60, where a nightly festival kicks off two hours before sunset. Watch as artisans, musicians, and street performers put on a show as the skies are softly washed pink, red, and orange.

Caladesi Island

Courtesy Spark/Visit Florida

Come nose-to-nose with rescued dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays, and otters at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which rehabilitates sick and injured animals that can no longer survive in the wild. The aquarium also offers guided boat tours where you can learn more about the marine life dwelling beneath the surface of Clearwater Bay.

One of the best ocean views around comes courtesy of Jimmy’s Crow’s Nest, perched on the 10th floor of the Pier House 60 Hotel and overlooking both the beach and the marina. The bar even doles out a round of free shots at sunset to toast the end of another beautiful day.

Pier 60 Hotel

Courtesy Visit St.Pete/Clearwater

For a little peace and quiet, book a 20-minute ferry ride to Caladesi Island. This unspoiled state park is filled with mangroves, live oaks, and a beach that’s unmatched in pristine beauty. Hang out on the shores, rent a kayak to paddle through three miles of mangrove-shaded tunnels, or hike along flat, sandy nature trails.

More than 35 local breweries populate Clearwater and its surrounding towns and cities, an area known as Florida’s “Gulp Coast.” Grindhaus Brew Lab pours movie-themed pints (“Some Like it Hot” is a jalapeno-tinged sour) and screens classic and cult films every Friday and Saturday night.

Time stands still at these secluded beach sanctuaries. You’ll find quaint cafes, wind-sculpted twisty trees, and unlimited natural beauty—along with some of the region’s most stunning virgin shorelines.

Ocracoke, NC
This remote island is situated at the southern tip of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, which includes 70 protected miles of wild, undeveloped oceanfront. Hike, bike, surf, fish, or explore the seashore by car with a 10-day beach-driving permit, which you can purchase online.

Chincoteague, VA
A bucket-list destination for birdwatchers, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a major hub for migratory species (including the threatened piping plover). Climb to the top of the classic striped Assateague Lighthouse, and you might also spot a grazing herd of wild ponies.

Big Pine Key, FL
About 30 miles from Key West, Big Pine Key offers the same magnificent sunsets without the crowds. Stargaze or snorkel at Bahia Honda State Park or visit the National Key Deer Refuge to see the pint-sized subspecies, found nowhere else in the world.

Cumberland Island, GA
Georgia’s largest barrier island, accessible only by boat, was once the Carnegie family’s private winter escape—but today remains home to more feral horses than people. Amble through crumbling ruins, discover pristine maritime forests and marshes, and splash across desolate beaches.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Over the past several years, this South Florida city has shed some of its party-scene reputation in favor of more grown-up (but still distinctly unfussy) pleasures. Spend an afternoon wandering in and out of funky shops and restaurants along Las Olas Boulevard, ducking into art galleries in Flagler Village, or simply soaking up the abundant sunshine and ocean breezes at one of the many public beaches. Fancy getting out on the water? The docks and marinas here are stacked with multimillion dollar yachts, but you can take a more affordable sightseeing excursion aboard one of Fort Lauderdale’s Water Taxis, which traverse 165 miles of inland waterways that thread through the city.

Fort Lauderdale boating

Photo by Peter W. Cross

The gorgeous stretches of sandy coastline are Fort Lauderdale’s biggest draw, and the palm-lined beachfront strip—where A1A runs between Los Olas and Sunrise Boulevards—is perfect for ocean viewing, rollerblading, shopping, and dining. It’s easy to spend a day weaving your way on and off the beach, rinsing off the sand before popping into a bar or boutique, then returning to watch windsurfers and kite flyers as the sun sinks toward the horizon.

The erstwhile vacation home of art patrons Frederic Bartlett and his wife Evelyn, The Bonnet House—a century-old beachfront estate turned museum—was built to reflect its former owners’ eccentric tastes, with bright colors, whimsical decor, and lush tropical gardens. The grounds include a freshwater lagoon and swamp where you might spot turtles, manatees, swans, and descendants of the couple’s pet squirrel monkeys.

Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi

Photo via Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi Facebook

t’s not a trip to South Florida without Cuban food. Load up on Cuban sandwiches and guava-and-cheese empanadas at 925 Nuevos Cubanos or book a table at Cuba Libre on Los Olas Boulevard for mojitos, ropa vieja, and salsa dancing on the weekends.

Flamingo Gardens is a 60-acre botanical garden and wildlife sanctuary and one of the oldest tourist attractions in South Florida. The gardens contain thousands of tropical plants, plus more than 90 native animal species, including alligators, panthers, and one of the largest collections of birds in America.

Jekyll Island, Georgia

This narrow barrier island (just one-and-a-half-miles wide) was once the private playground of storied families like the Rockefellers, Morgans, and Vanderbilts. Now a state park, Jekyll remains a cherished family getaway thanks to its enchanting mix of Victorian-era history, tranquil beaches, and natural serenity. The relatively flat island is interwoven with biking and walking trails that meander through live oaks, salt marshes, and the sumptuous mansions of “Millionaire’s Row.” Exchange your two-wheeler for a trolley, horse-drawn carriage, or Model T replica and take a guided tour of the historic district’s 34 structures.

Driftwood beach at sunset

Courtesy Jekyll Island Authority

Want to play Rockefeller for the day? At the historic Jekyll Island Club, you can sink into the luxury of the Gilded Age. Sip sweet tea beneath crystal chandeliers, play a game of croquet on the lawn, or stay overnight in one of the private cottages.

Visit the Georgia Sea Turtle Center to learn about the endangered loggerhead turtles that lay their eggs here every summer. May through August, you can join the center’s Night and Dawn Patrol to observe the nests.

On the island’s northern end, Driftwood Beach is scattered with huge, twisted, sea-weathered branches and tree trunks, making for some fun scampering and a dramatic photo op. Go at low tide to maximize your frolicking space.

The Jekyll Island Golf Club is Georgia’s largest public golf resort, which includes three 18-hole courses as well as Great Dunes—a 1928 nine-hole course with well-groomed, sea oats–dusted fairways and fantastic ocean views.

Whether you’re planning an epic romantic getaway or a sumptuous solo trip, these standout destinations offer the ultimate in barefoot luxury. Expect posh accommodations, five-star dining, and creature comforts galore.

Kiawah Island, SC
Just 25 miles from downtown Charleston, this Lowcountry island is home to the Sanctuary, an oceanfront resort with the ambience of an old-money historic mansion. Known for its Forbes Five-Star Ocean Room steakhouse, the hotel is part of the Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which has five courses designed by renowned architects.

Sea Island, GA
To visit this private barrier island, book accommodations at the Cloister, a secluded Spanish-revival resort. There’s five miles of private beach, plenty of activities (from falconry to bowling), and seven dining options, including a stellar special occasion restaurant, the Georgian Room.

Islamorada, FL
An international sportfishing destination with a burgeoning arts scene, Islamorada is home to some of the most beautiful resorts in the Keys. If you want an oasis of resplendent privacy, book a cottage at Moorings Village; for heaps of active fun like snorkeling or kayaking, try the iconic Cheeca Lodge & Spa.

Alys Beach, FL
From the moment you pass the white minaret towers marking the entrance to this 30A community, you’ll feel as if you’ve been whisked to an island in the Mediterranean. Leave your car as you stroll or bike to explore the stunning whitewashed architecture, sparkling stretch of private beach, trendy shops and restaurants, and Moroccan-style pool complex.

Virginia Beach, Virginia

It may be the largest city in the state, but Virginia Beach feels more like a postcard-perfect beach town than a bustling urban center. It’s anchored by a lively boardwalk, built in 1888 and presided over by a two-story-tall statue of King Neptune. It’s easy to spend a full day strolling along the three-mile promenade, which is lined with open-air restaurants, playgrounds, and stages hosting live entertainment. The boardwalk also offers unobstructed views of the wide, windswept shoreline, which boasts swells big enough to draw surfers from all over the continent; every August, they come for the East Coast Surfing Championship, North America’s longest running surfing competition.

Virginia Beach

Courtesy Visit Virginia Beach

Hitch up your waders for a unique farm-to-table meal at Pleasure House Oysters. The experience starts with a boat tour, where diners can learn how native Lynnhaven River oysters are harvested before getting knee-deep in the river to sample the briny morsels as they’re pulled from the water.

Stroll a couple blocks from the boardwalk, and you’ll find dozens of public artworks, plus a slew of galleries, studios, and museums in the ViBe Creative District. Take a walking mural tour, contemplate pieces from major contemporary artists at Virginia MOCA, or peruse stalls of vintage finds at the VB Flea Night Market, held the first Friday of the month.

First Landing State Park marks the spot where British colonists first arrived in 1607. Crisscrossed with 20 miles of trails, the nearly 3,000-acre park is home to a range of habitats, from cypress swamps and salt marshes to maritime forests and over a mile of Chesapeake Bay shoreline.

You can’t visit Virginia Beach without sampling its citrusy signature cocktail, the Orange Crush. Waterman’s Surfside Grille first began mixing the drinks (made with OJ, vodka, triple sec, and Sprite) in 1981. You can also order a frosty cup (or two) at the Shack, a popular oceanfront hangout with picnic tables, lawn games, and live music.

The Shack

Courtesy Visit Virginia Beach

Gulf Shores, Alabama

Since the early 2000s, Gulf Shores has evolved from a semi-secret escape for in-the-know Alabamans to a tourist hub that draws beachgoers from around the country. Despite the increased summertime crowds, the town has retained its original selling points: wide-open beaches, stunning natural landscapes, and an easygoing vibe. From fishing and kayaking to putt-putt and waterslides, there are activities to suit every age and personality. That goes for the food scene too, which has grown in tandem with visitorship. Nibble an heirloom tomato tart at Perch, sink your teeth into a pimento cheeseburger at the Hangout, or try a grilled mahi-mahi and quinoa bowl at Picnic Bar & Grill.

Gulf Shores coastline

Courtesy Gulf Shores & Alabama Tourism

The 7,000-acre Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge includes one of the region’s last untouched coastal barrier habitats, making it a great place to spot wildlife, including hundreds of species of birds like ospreys, snowy plovers, and peregrine falcons. A small visitor station offers walk-and-talks about the refuge’s historical plants, unusual animals, and lagoon ecology.

The Gulf State Park fishing pier, the longest on the Gulf of Mexico, is the perfect spot to catch 360-degree ocean views, and it’s set to reopen in summer 2024 after repair work in the wake of Hurricane Sally. You can also take in the panorama at Bywater Beachside Bar & Grill, an open-air hangout located just off the pier’s entrance (try one of their famous Bloody Marys).

Nearly 15 years after being featured on Animal Planet’s The Little Zoo That Could, the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo has become “The Little Zoo that Grew.” In 2020, the zoo (once devastated by Hurricane Ivan) moved to a new 25-acre site that provides more comfortable enclosures for its 300 animals, including 22 endangered species.

A lion at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

Courtesy Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

Made popular by the FloraBama bar (famously located on the state line), the Bushwhacker is the region’s trademark beach drink. There’s no shortage of this milkshake-like concoction at bars and restaurants across the city, but a favorite is the coconut rum–laced version at Lucy Buffet’s Lulu’s.

Looking for a place to unwind as a family? These laid-back beach towns offer calm waters, casual hangout spots, and plenty of activities with multigenerational appeal.

Anna Maria Island, FL
This seven-mile-long island makes for an idyllic getaway, with clapboard cottages, donut shops, dolphin tours, and a mini golf course with a 3,000-gallon koi pond. When you need to get out of the sun, duck into the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, which houses a manatee viewing exhibit and a planetarium.

St. George Island, FL
Unlike other Florida towns dotting the Gulf, this under-the-radar destination remains relatively uncrowded year-round. You can even bring the family dog to the pet-friendly public beach. Spend your days making sandcastles, biking the flat terrain, or fishing at St. George Island State Park.

Tybee Island, GA
Less than 30 minutes from downtown Savannah, Tybee has long been a favorite among Georgia families, thanks to its relaxed, artsy vibe. Splash in the plentiful tidal pools, take a dolphin cruise, hoof to the top of the state’s tallest lighthouse, or feast on fried shrimp right on the beach at The Deck.

Dauphin Island, AL
This tiny town off the coast of Mobile has gorgeous Gulf Coast beaches and plenty of appeal for nature lovers. Bring your binoculars to spot a Swainson’s warbler at the 164-acre Audubon Bird Sanctuary, pet stingrays at the Alabama Aquarium, or bask in the island’s famous sunsets aboard an evening cruise.

Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina

Tucked away on the southern end of North Carolina’s coastline, and just a 10-minute drive from Wilmington, this sleepy town (pop: 2,500) is perfect for those looking for a small-scale, laidback destination. Comprising two small barrier islands, Wrightsville Beach is surrounded by water—from the Atlantic Ocean to the east to the Intracoastal Waterway to the west, plus Banks Channel and saltwater marshes in between. So it’s no surprise that it draws surfers, paddleboarders, kayakers, scuba divers, and anglers alike. Add in old-fashioned shingle cottages, friendly surf shops, and casual waterfront restaurants and bars, and you’ve got the perfect mellow escape.

Wrightsville Beach

Courtesy Wilmington and Beaches CVB

More than eight miles long, Masonboro Island is the largest undisturbed barrier island in southern North Carolina, and its marshes, beaches, grasslands, and tidal flats are home to a variety of coastal species, from loggerhead turtles to American oystercatchers. Wrightsville Beach Scenic Tours offers private boat charters and guided eco-cruises that showcase the area’s history and ecology.

Built in the 1930s, Johnnie Mercers Fishing Pier is a can’t-miss spot for fishing (you can buy a daily fishing pass for $8) and strolling. Stop by the pier house to load up on rental gear, snacks, and a six-pack of your favorite beer.

Wrightsville Beach is one of the top surfing towns on the East Coast, attracting experts and amateurs alike thanks to year-round waves and plenty of spots with gentle, beginner-friendly swells. Sean’s Private Surf Instruction and WB Surf Camp offer personalized lessons for any skill level, plus surf camps for kids and teens.

With wraparound windows and a 475-foot pier for alfresco dining, Oceanic Restaurant offers specialty seafood dishes like Carolina crab cakes along with prime viewing of surfers, dolphins, and sunsets.

This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of Southbound.