The boardwalk is as much a part of the American summer experience as ice cream cones, corn on the cob and Fourth of July fireworks. From retro charm to shiny-new affairs—and everything in between—boardwalks from coast to coast deliver nostalgia and light-hearted fun to young and old.
1. Santa Monica Pier, California
I may be a native New Yorker, but my favorite Ferris wheel is here at Pacific Park, on Santa Monica’s pier. Why? Because it’s so close to the water that you can almost convince yourself that the wheel is going to dip you into the Pacific. You’ll find gentle rides here for the little ones, and you can take a ride on the beautifully carved and painted carousel that was featured in the Academy Award-winning motion picture The Sting.
2. Coney Island, New York
Sure, the name may conjure images of barbershop quartets and early-20th-century couples strolling by the sea. But the revitalized Luna Park amusement park ain’t your great-grandfather’s Coney Island. The names of the rides at this iconic Brooklyn destination say it all: The Sling Shot throws you up in the air and lets you free-fall back down to earth, the Cyclone roller coaster is still one of the most terrifying around, and the Wonder Wheel may be the best-known Ferris wheel in America. Grab a hot dog from Nathan’s Famous or an order of clams on the half-shell from Ruby’s, and nab a seat on the boardwalk for unparalleled people-watching.
3. Ocean City, New Jersey
Why settle for one oceanfront amusement park when you can have two? Ocean City offers a boardwalk with two big Ferris wheels, coasters, water rides, go-karts, and much more.
4. Navy Pier, Chicago
Who says a boardwalk has to be by the ocean? Along Lake Michigan in the Windy City, the Navy Pier has a new 196-foot-high Ferris wheel that lets you take in the skyline and the lake, plus a carousel, a wave swinger, a climbing wall, and remote-control boats in season. Don’t forget to grab a Chicago hot dog from America’s Dog, with mustard, relish, onion, sport peppers, tomato, pickle, and celery salt.
5. Atlantic City, New Jersey
This waterfront city may be known for its casinos, but its historic boardwalk is no gamble if you’re looking for a great time. Originally built in the 19th century to prevent sand from blowing off the beach into the area’s schmancy hotels, the Atlantic City Boardwalk has become a destination all its own. Its Steel Pier is a thriving amusement park, while its Garden Pier is a hot spot for the performing arts.
6. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
This one’s just a baby compared with some of the historic boardwalks on our list. Opened just eight years ago, this place feels as if it’s been here forever. Welcoming crowds by the million with its charm and hospitality, the boardwalk at Myrtle Beach features the massive, 187-foot-tall SkyWheel as well as the Family Kingdom amusement park, which includes the Sling Shot, the Log Flume water ride, and the Twist ‘n Shout steel roller coaster.
7. Ocean City, Maryland
A carousel dating back to 1902, free boardwalk entertainment, and the classic vibe of a relaxed beach town make Ocean City’s boardwalk one of the most popular stops on the Atlantic. There’s plenty of food on offer, but for a hot doughnut fried to order and dipped in the glaze of your choice, drop by the Fractured Prune, an O.C. stalwart since 1976.
8. Venice Beach, California
Visit a typical boardwalk and you’ll most likely return home with memories of blue water, candy-apple red kiddie rides, and the scent of fried seafood. Visit Venice Beach Boardwalk (officially Ocean Front Walk, but nobody calls it that) and you’re more likely to return home with memories of blue hair, candy-apple-red lipstick, and the scent of pot smoke. It’s not the beautiful location or the array of unique shops here that make the place unforgettable; it’s the always-surprising, creative folks who turn out every day to make political statements, perform stunts, or just be their fabulous selves.
9. Rehoboth, Delaware
I had my most relaxing boardwalk visit ever at this mid-Atlantic beauty. It’s not huge, glitzy, or loaded with terrifying rides. Instead, this place rolls out a quiet, family-friendly pace that can be just what the doctor ordered. Kids will love the rides and treats along the boardwalk. Grown-ups will appreciate the clean, laid-back beach and charming town.
10. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, California
Get your picture taken at the apex of the thrilling coaster here, and you’re almost certain to have a hilarious keepsake—it’s a loooooooong way down! The boardwalk’s vibrant party scene, fast-paced rides, and best-ever funnel cakes are just a few of the things to love about Santa Cruz, situated near the top of Monterey Bay on the central California coast, about a 90-minute drive from San Francisco. The city is also home to barking sea lions, one of the world’s best surfing scenes, and redwood forests just a short ride up into the mountains.
11. Old Orchard Beach Boardwalk, Maine
We tend to associate New England with quiet stretches of beach, but the boardwalk in Old Orchard Beach is an exception, with a full-blown amusement park, Palace Playland, right by the ocean. You’ll find easy rides for the kiddies, family-friendly water rides, and the crazy adrenaline-junkie stuff, too.
12. Wildwood, New Jersey
A shore thing whether you want a perfect beach or rides that’ll rattle your nerves, this is the place to soak up the spirit of the Jersey Shore.
13. Virginia Beach, Virginia
Sure, there are lots of great beaches and boardwalks out there. But Virginia Beach not only boasts a beautiful stretch of sand and attractions but also dolphins right off shore, and unparalleled history just down the road.
14. Disney World Boardwalk, Florida
No list of boardwalks would be complete without Disney. The ocean may not be anywhere in sight, but the imaginative folks here have put together a fun family experience that rivals the real thing.
15. Kemah Boardwalk, Texas
The Gulf Coast needed a boardwalk and Kemah, just 20 miles from downtown Houston, fits the bill, having expanded from a popular dining spot to a full-blown family-travel destination.
16. Mission Beach Boardwalk, California
Often overshadowed by its flashier neighbors up the California coast, Mission Beach is one of San Diego’s sweetest spots and should be on your SoCal to-do list.
17. Carolina Beach Boardwalk, North Carolina
Appropriately located on Pleasure Island, Carolina Beach specializes in making you forget your cares. Mild breezes, gorgeous beach, and a sweet hospitality make this boardwalk a family favorite.
18. Hampton Beach Boardwalk, New Hampshire
This low-key gem is great for relaxing, shopping, and pretending you never have to go back to your real life.
19. Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, New Jersey
Amid the Jersey Shore’s bigger, better-known boardwalks, Jenkinson’s has a retro charm that can’t be beat. Walk the boardwalk early in the morning as the shops open to beat the crowds, and grab a fresh-squeezed lemonade when the sun is high.
20. Sandwich Boardwalk, Massachusetts
Okay, this isn’t a honky-tonk boardwalk. It’s a boardwalk made for strolling and taking in the fresh air, unforgettable sky, and water that Cape Cod is known for. You’ll have to bring your own funnel cakes!