Between the lush surroundings of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Eastern Shore's network of coastal communities, there are beautiful bits of waterfront from one end of Virginia to the other.
Whether you're planning an action-filled escape, a high-energy urban outing, or a quiet family retreat, there's one to fit the bill. These are the best beaches in the Old Dominion.
Collect good vibes in Virginia Beach
Situated on southeastern Virginia’s lower peninsula, the state’s best-known – and hands-down most popular – beach is its eponymous one. But it’s not a monolith. Comprising seven districts, only a few of which are on the water, Virginia Beach boasts a variety of settings and stimuli.
Of course, the beaches themselves offer an array of experiences, from the seclusion of Sandbridge to the boardwalk scene of Oceanfront to the family-friendly serenity of the Chesapeake Bay, but there are urban and rural experiences to be had as well, from the high-wire nightlife of Town Center to the hipster stylings of the ViBe Creative District to the pastoral tranquility of Pungo.
History buffs, take note: On the banks of the Chesapeake, First Landing State Park marks the first arrival of English colonists to these shores, and today it’s a National Natural Landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.
Commune with nature at Sandbridge Beach
If an up-tempo scene isn’t your thing, Sandbridge might be more your speed. It’s technically part of Virginia Beach, but thanks to its location, it feels completely removed from the bustle of the city, even though it’s less than 20 miles south of the boardwalk.
The gateway to Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge, where loggerheads nest, migratory birds pass through and wilderness trails abound, and False Cape State Park, a habitat sheltering hundreds of species of birds as well as otters, bald eagles and wild horses, accessible only by boat, bike, tram or foot, Sandbridge is a great option for vacationers looking to get back to nature.
Feel like a local at Chesapeake Beach
A quiet, sandy respite at the upper reaches of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake Beach – also known as Chic’s Beach – has more of a local feel than its neighbor to the south.
With the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel in the distance, you can bring your dog for a morning walk, splash around in the gentle waves and watch for dolphins frolicking offshore before heading back to Shore Drive, the main drag, for refreshments at Mermaid Winery or chicken and biscuits at BoBo’s Fine Chicken.
Cross state lines at Colonial Beach
Sandwiched between Monroe Bay and the Potomac River, halfway between the nation’s capital and the state’s, Colonial Beach is the second-biggest stretch of sand in Virginia – but only if you stay on the shore. The Maryland border begins at the water’s edge, so as soon as you get your feet wet, you’ve strayed across state lines.
The beach is on the riverfront and accessible either from downtown, where a boardwalk, playground, fishing pier and bathhouse set the scene for family fun, or from the outskirts, where things are a bit more mellow. The community is rife with history too, with a small museum celebrating the town’s legacy, Alexander Graham Bell’s former summer home (now a private residence) within walking distance, and the George Washington Birthplace National Monument a quick 15-minute drive away.
Relax at retro Cape Charles Beach
On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, across the Chesapeake Bay on the Delmarva Peninsula, the town of Cape Charles dates to the late 1800s, and it’s mostly kept up with the times, though its beach-going experience remains a throwback simpler days.
A laid-back town with amenities to match – think: cute boutiques, good restaurants, a quality ice cream shop, a nice marina, and a picturesque park with a gazebo and a fountain – its public beach features calm waves suitable for swimmers of all ages. (But there’s a steep drop-off, so be sure to keep an eye on the kids.)
For a change of scenery, you can camp, hike or lounge on the unsullied beach at Kiptopeke State Park, or spend time birdwatching and butterfly-gazing at the Eastern Shore of Virginia National Wildlife Refuge – both about 10 miles away.
See 185 species of birds at Bethel Beach
Back across the Chesapeake from Cape Charles, the Bethel Beach Natural Area Preserve covers 105 acres of protected land, including low dunes, a huge salt marsh and 83 acres of beach. But swimming and sunbathing aren’t the name of the game here.
Instead, try fishing, birdwatching – 185 species call the place home, from black-bellied plovers and blue-winged teals to red-breasted mergansers and yellow-rumped warblers – or simply strolling on the beach with a well-leashed canine companion. Pack plenty of water, and be prepared to carry out your garbage: there are no trash cans, bathroom facilities or drinking fountains on site.
Watch the ponies swim on Assateague Island
Straddling the border between Maryland and Virginia, Assateague is a barrier island between the Delmarva Peninsula and the ocean, covering nearly 40 miles of mid-Atlantic coast. Assateague and its sister island, Chincoteague, are home to the bands of wild horses made famous by Marguerite Henry in her beloved children’s novel, Misty of Chincoteague, and you can visit in July to see the annual pony swim, just like in the book.
Assateague Island National Seashore has backcountry camping and ocean-facing drive-in sites, while the town of Chincoteague offers more comfortable beds, with hotels, inns and B&Bs in abundance.
For outdoor recreation, head to Smith Mountain Lake
In central Virginia, less than 40 miles southeast of Roanoke, Smith Mountain Lake has 500 miles of shoreline, and at 20,000 acres, it’s the second-largest lake in the state – an artificial playground for outdoor recreation in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There are two public beaches, one at the state park with lifeguards and a snack bar from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The state park also has a boat launch and rentals along with miles of hiking trails and overnight accommodations, including campsites and private cabins with wood-burning stoves. Hit the water and bait your hook for striped bass, catfish and more, or try your hand a wakeboarding, waterskiing or parasailing.