Think of New England and your mind might stray to weatherboard churches, fall colors in the mountains and lighthouses perched atop granite outcrops, perhaps with a side-serving of Revolutionary War history and a bowl of piping hot clam chowder. But that famous shoreline is also dotted with lovely, low-key beaches that see more locals than basking tourists.
In fact, once you factor in the region's inland lakes, fine, sandy beaches can be found in all of the six states that make up New England – Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
As a general rule, things get quieter the further you get from New York City and Boston. While the weather may not be Miami-warm, New England's beaches are still a vision of perfection at the height of summer. Whether you're here for the sunbathing, fishing, swimming, surfing, or sailing, here are our 10 favorite beaches in New England.
Sand Beach, Acadia National Park, Maine
Best for an active beach day
With 265m of sand sprinkled between two pine-topped headlands, aptly named Sand Beach is one of the most popular spots on Maine's Mount Desert Island. It draws crowds of beachgoers on warm summer days, but it's a worthwhile stop at almost any time of year.
The beach is located in Newport Cove between granite mountains and rocky shores on the east side of Acadia National Park, the only national park in the whole of New England. One of the beach’s big draws is its soft, pinkish-white sand, comprised of tiny shell fragments ground to powder by the pounding surf.
There are many hiking trails around this pretty crescent of sand, including a trail that begins next to the beach and follows a loop around the perimeter of the Great Head headland. Those tackling this trail will be treated to gorgeous views of the beach below – it's a great way to add some exercise to a day on the sand.
Bradley Point Park and Beach, West Haven, Connecticut
Best beach for picnicking
Located in the city of West Haven in New Haven county, historic Bradley Point Park is where invading British troops landed in 1779, but today, it's better known for its wonderful, family-friendly beach. There are permanent posts for impromptu volleyball games on the sandy shore, and the 1.7-mile waterfront walkway is perfect for taking in the sea air. Adding to the package, the shoreline is located just minutes from the downtown business and entertainment district.
Bradley Point Park is known as one of the best spots to picnic in Connecticut, with a scattering of benches and tables looking out over the sea. To help you work up an appetite, bicycle trails and a 3.5-mile walkway link Bradley with Morse Beach and Sandy Point to the northeast, with views of the Long Island Sound estuary en route.
Sandy Neck Beach, Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Best beach for campers
Cape Cod is home to many fabulous beaches, and Sandy Neck Beach in Barnstable is one of its true stars. It extends for 6.5 miles along Cape Cod Bay, backed the entire way by undulating dunes and scenic salt marshes. Sand Neck is a popular destination for all sorts of recreational activities, including brisk summer swimming, year-round hiking and saltwater fishing.
The dunes reach heights of 100ft, and they provide a habitat for red foxes, shorebirds and wildflowers. As an added plus, the beach is part of Sandy Neck Beach Park and there's plenty of room for camping, with dedicated sites catering to campers in tents and RVs. There is plenty to see on foot, as hiking trails run inland over the dunes to a path skirting the salt marsh from four points along the beach.
Silver Sands State Park, Gold Coast, Connecticut
Best beach for birdlife
The beach at Silver Sands State Park in Milford is a top stop for nature-lovers and bird-watchers, accessible via a long boardwalk that stretches across a marshy area of parkland thronging with birdlife. But if you prefer sand and shingle to sandpipers, the appealing main strip is also a popular spot for sunbathing and water activities, with dozens of cairns piled up along the beach. There's also an all-weather boardwalk flanking the beach for easy strolling.
A “tombolo” or sandbar emerges from the water twice daily with the tides, connecting the beach to nearby Charles Island, situated about half a mile from the mainland. Beware of the tides if you make the trip; crossing to the island is not permitted from May 1 through September 9 to protect the nesting seabird population.
Ogunquit Beach, York County, Maine
Best beach for water-based activities
A jewel on a sublime stretch of coastline, Ogunquit Beach takes over three miles of the York County seashore, with gleaming white sand and tufted dunes. It's located in the former shipbuilding center of Ogunquit, a family-friendly resort town with a thriving arts and LGBTIQ+ scene. Named by the Abenaki people, Ogunquit means 'the beautiful place by the sea' and its scenery has long been an inspiration for artists from all backgrounds.
The warm back-cove waters make the beach an idyllic setting for sunbathers, swimmers, beachcombers and bodysurfers, and the coast here is known for deep-sea fishing, whale-watching, sailing and sea kayaking. The beach fronts Ogunquit Bay to the south and the warmer waters of the tidal Ogunquit River are on the west side of the beach, so you have a choice of swimming locations. Footbridge Beach, two miles to the north, is actually the northern extension of Ogunquit Beach and it offers a quieter alternative to the popular main beach.
Katama Beach, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
Best beach for young people
Katama Beach, also known as South Beach, is located on the south shore of upscale Martha's Vineyard, and it's a bonafide charmer. Kept in a natural state, this barrier island beach is one of the most popular beaches in the area, with three sweet miles of sand. The rugged surf on the Atlantic side of the island will please surfers, but many swimmers and families prefer the protected, wave-free salt ponds on the inland shore.
Flying kites and playing beach games are popular ways to pass time on the beach, which is popular with a younger crowd and is kept famously clean by beachgoers. There's plenty of free public parking around the beach and a bike path connects Katama with the nearby settlement of Edgartown, if you fancy a potter to cozy inns, chef-driven restaurants and local farms shops.
Hampton Beach, Hampton, New Hampshire
Best beach for children
New Hampshire only has 13 miles of coastline but it squeezes in some enticing beaches, and Hampton Beach is the biggest and most popular of the crop. Its lively boardwalk has arcades, entertainment venues, stores and restaurants, and sunny days fill the sandy beach with families and fun. There's also an impressive fenced beach playground for children, complete with slides, climbers and swings.
Prime season at the beach runs from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with live music, public firework displays and special events that draw plenty of locals and visitors to the beach town. Highlights include the annual sand sculpting competition in June, which features master sand-sculpting artists from around the world.
Echo Lake Beach, Grafton County, New Hampshire
Best beach for enjoying the scenery
Gorgeous Echo Lake Beach is a top pick among New England's many lake beaches. Located in Franconia Notch State Park in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, it's a great place to pass an afternoon swimming, kayaking or canoeing in crystal-clear waters, which you can arrange at the lakside boating facility. There's an entry fee for visitors, but it's worth it for the lovely setting.
Photography fans will be in their element, as the beach offers spectacular views of Mount Lafayette and Cannon Mountain and the natural scenery makes for beautiful pictures. There's plenty to do and see in the park for those looking beyond the beach, including the Old Man of the Mountain Museum, which pays tribute to the famous rock formation which collapsed in 2003 but remains the state's beloved symbol.
Silver Lake State Park, Barnard, Vermont
Best beach for fishing
Vermont is known as the Green Mountain State, thanks to its full hand of mountains, lakes and forests, but it also has scenic beaches nestled along the shores of its many lakes, with fabulous mountain vistas as a backdrop.
The beach at the 35-acre state park Silver Lake State Park in Barnard is ideal for families, and its sandy shoreline is popular for swimming, picnicking and camping. There are excellent fishing opportunities in Silver Lake too, and boats are available to rent through the park office, as well as equipment for stand-up paddle boarding.
Narragansett Town Beach, Narragansett, Rhode Island
Best beach for surfing
With more than 40 miles of stunning coastline, Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State, and there's plenty of sand to choose from. Named after the Native American inhabitants of this part of New England, Narragansett is surrounded by miles of sandy beaches and punctuated by salt ponds and mudflats. It became a much-frequented resort at the end of the 19th century, and today Narragansett Town Beach is one of the most popular surf beaches in New England.
The mile-long stretch of beach tends to get busy because it's an easy walk from Narragansett Pier. It's popular with surfers thanks to its soft, curling waves that can get tall but tend to be quite spaced out – ideal for people who are new to the sport. For non-surfers, the beach features beautiful wild flowers and it's a great location for walking, bird-watching and fishing.