The 10 best U.S. coastal cities to visit in the United States of America focus on the overall appeal of a city that graces the coastline of the greatest nation on earth. What makes a good city great isn’t always about its location. It’s about the spirit of the city that makes it so inviting for people to call home or as an ideal vacation destination. The list of U.S. cities put together here is either facing the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, or some other major body of water such as the Gulf of Mexico or one of the five Great Lakes. While location and scenery serve as two primary reasons that make a city attractive, often the cultural impact it made, as well as its rich history play equally important roles.
The spiritual vibe that comes from such cities adds an aura of excitement that has no trouble winning over city-loving visitors. Some of the largest cities in America also happen to be the largest in the world, as well as the most aesthetically appealing. Which ten have earned a spot on our list that makes them so great as cities? Let’s find out.
10 Best U.S. Coastal Cities to Visit
# 10 – San Diego, California
Just two hours south of Los Angeles, California is another West Coast gem, San Diego. Aside from the San Diego Zoo as a major draw for tourists annually, there are also beaches and the surrounding natural beauty that makes it so awesome to visit. There are over one million people who live in the city and over three million people who live in its metropolitan area. Dubbed as the Birthplace of California, San Diego also serves as a border city, linking to Mexico’s Tijuana.
The San Diego Bay was first visited and settled by the Europeans after Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Spain claimed it in 1542. Two hundred years after this, a settlement of Alta California was established that led to the 1769 founding of the Presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcala. In 1848, it became part of the United States of America after the Mexican-American War. It then became a state in 1850.
San Diego’s economy is fueled by international trade, manufacturing, the military, research, and tourism. The appeal of this city includes the Laguna Mountains in the Peninsular Ranges, Point Loma, and Rose Canyon. The city sits on approximately two hundred deep canyons and hills that are separated by mesas. There are several natural open spaces throughout the city that gives it such a hilly terrain.
The homes have been traditionally built on the mesas that left the urban canyons mostly untouched. This gives San Diego a segmented feel as the gaps define the proximate neighborhoods. This leaves for a low-density, car-centered environment. San Diego, technically a coastal city, is also divided by the San Diego River that runs from east to west. San Diego boasts an archeological history of the river shifting its flow back and forth between San Diego Bay and Mission Bay.
When tourists come to visit San Diego, they’re usually interested in Cowles Mountain, which is within city limits. There is also Black Mountain, Mount Soledad, and the Cuyamaca Mountains. The Cleveland National Forest is a short drive from San Diego, which is another major tourist attraction. San Diego’s neighbors include a large number of farms that are in the valleys just east of the city. The beaches in and near the city are also a major draw such as La Jolla, Mission Beach, and Pacific Beach. There are just a few names of what’s actually a long list of coastal playgrounds that offer fun in the sun and in the water.
# 9 – Charleston, South Carolina
South Carolina’s coastline is graced with the presence of Charleston Harbor, belonging to the city of Charleston. This inlet city of the Atlantic Ocean has a population of about one hundred and fifty thousand residents, along with a metropolitan population of eight hundred thousand people. Founded in 1670, it was originally named Charles Town after King Charles II.
Throughout the United States colonial era, it remained unincorporated until 1783. The significance of Charleston was enough to define American history as a major slave trading port. Traders like Joseph Wragg were among the first to break the monopoly hold the Royal African Company had. This led to the charge of the large-scale slave trade in the eighteenth century where nearly half of the slave population was imported to the United States from Charleston. It is not a piece of history Charleston is proud of but it is there nonetheless. Thankfully, Charleston has grown considerably in class and culture since those days into what truly is one of the best coastal cities in the United States to visit. Ugly or not, history is history.
What may have started out as an ugly chapter in America’s history turned into one of the best examples of how humanity always prevails in the end. The Southern charm of Charleston, South Carolina is nothing short of incredible. That’s why this is such a beautiful place to visit. Colonial America thrived here and the collection of some of the nation’s most beautiful homes can be found here. Bear in mind, while the slave trade definitely serves as a stain on American culture, not every family who had slaves serve them was cruel. In many cases, families practically adopted those who worked for them as extended members of their own families.
When exploring the rich culture and history of cities like Charleston, there is much more to the story than the limitations told by media sources that tend to be too biased for their own good.
Charleston’s beauty extends beyond the history it had with the American Revolution and the American Civil War. As a city with a beautiful marina, this is a great playground for watersport enthusiasts and nature-loving tourists. The beauty of Charleston is it embraces the present and future every bit as much as it embraces the best parts of its past. Bear in mind, this was also a city that had the United States military respect the black community enough to grant them full freedom as fighters on behalf of the American Revolution. They made good on that promise that includes a rich African-American ancestry in and around Charleston that adds even more charm to a community that has more going on than typically meets the eye.
# 8 – San Francisco, California
The Golden Gate Bridge is probably San Francisco, California’s biggest landmark that draws in visitors from all over the world. The infamous trolley system and the rolling hills also compete as major tourist attractions. The San Francisco Bay Area is a major center for global activity in arts, economics, and science. Four of the world’s top ten largest companies by market capitalization call San Francisco their home. Many headquarters belonging to corporate giants such as Dropbox, Twitter, Uber, and Wells Fargo are located here. This, combined with the eclectic charm that defines San Francisco, is what keeps tourists coming to visit this coastal city.
San Francisco is home to over eight hundred thousand residents with a metropolitan population of about ten million. As a coastal city, it is one of the most popular in the world. The population density of San Francisco sits just behind New York City, which holds the mantle at the very top. Founded in 1776 by Spanish settlers, it wasn’t until the 1849 California Gold Rush did the city experience explosive growth.
In 1906, most of it was destroyed by earthquake and fire but rebounded quickly enough to host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition less than a decade later. During the events of World War II, San Francisco played an important role in the United States naval service. Pacific Theater is rich with history with its connection to WWII and the formation of the United Nations in 1945.
San Francisco’s history as a city fighting on behalf of various human rights movements is well-noted and it remains a center of liberal activism in the United States. This city’s Chinatown is the oldest and one of the largest in North America. San Francisco is also home to some of the best educational and cultural institutions in the world. San Francisco also prides itself as a city dedicated to a greener environment. This city proudly displays itself as a West Coast city whose waters stretch out to the San Francisco Bay, as well as the Gulf of the Farallones. From the gulf, it meets westward with the Pacific Ocean.
The cityscape of San Francisco includes districts built entirely on landfill. Hunters Point, Marina, and Mission Bay are these neighborhoods. The natural beauty of San Francisco’s east features mountains and wilderness that also draws in tourists from all over the world. So does its neighboring city across San Francisco Bay, Oakland.
# 7 – Boston, Massachusetts
The Back Bay from the Charles River, along with the downtown waterfront of Boston Harbor, makes Boston, Massachusetts a gloriously beautiful coastal city worth visiting. There is a special charm to Boston that makes it such an appealing city for about five million people in the metropolitan area to call it home. On average, at least one million visitors from all over the world come to Boston, as well as nearly four hundred thousand students. Boston is home to some of the finest higher education facilities in the world. Harvard University is synonymous with Boston, as is MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
Boston was also the first city in the United States to have a public high school as it opened Boston Latin School in 1635. Boston’s history as a city in the United States begins with the Episcopalian cleric, William Blaxton. It was he who was directly responsible for the founding of Boston by Puritan colonizers in 1630. This came about after Blaxton invited Isaac Johnson to cross Back Bay from Charlestown, a failing colony that shared the peninsula. Johnson’s last official act as the leader of the Puritans of Charleston was renaming the new settlement Blaxton invited him to as Boston. It was named after his hometown in Lincolnshire, England.
The Puritan influence of Boston began long before the city got its name. Up until the mid-eighteenth century, Boston was the largest city in America. Philadelphia would be the first to outgrow it. The attraction of Boston made it an ideal port city that would lead out to the Atlantic Ocean. From Boston, it was easy to colonize and develop the entire New England area into a vital link that would spawn the United States of America to become its own nation. During the events of the American Revolution, Boston was the central hub of activity, at least on the political stage. Today, Boston continues to serve as a political powerhouse, as well as in education and finance. Throughout the city, historical landmarks and monuments can be found by tourists who take this as an opportunity to soak up classic Boston culture at its finest.
As much as Boston cherishes its heritage, it also embraces today and the future. This is also a city that’s rich in culture and lively with activity. Boston’s coastline is vast, allowing plenty of opportunity for marinas to flourish, as well as the beaches, parks, and other waterfront property. Boston Common is the oldest public park in the United States. The Emerald Necklace plays a big part in Boston’s pride as a city dedicated to the environment and pristine beauty. Emerald Necklace is home to a collection of parks that encircles the city. For a coastal city that possibly has the closest American connection to the feel of London, England, Boston would be it.
# 6 – Chicago, Illinois
Wait a minute! How can Chicago, Illinois be called a coastal city when it’s not even along any coastline facing an ocean? What defines a coastal city is how much of its shoreline faces a major body of water. In the case of the Windy City, most of it borders the shoreline of Lake Michigan. With approximately three million people as residents, Chicago is the third most populous city in the United States. It was incorporated in 1837 near a portage between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River watershed.
The city grew quickly and by 1860 was the youngest city in America to surpass the one hundred thousand people mark. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire rendered over one hundred thousand people homeless but it was a setback that quickly recovered. By the time the twentieth century hit, over one million people were living in Chicago.
The development of Chicago was met with some of the finest city planners the United States ever knew. They made the most out of the shoreline of Lake Michigan with landfill and other engineering wonders that made this such an appealing city for people from all over to flock to. What Chicago had to its advantage was its location. Los Angeles was too far west and New York City was too far east. Chicago’s location was just right, making it easy for people in the south to venture north and call it home. The height of the roaring twenties saw Chicago, Illinois as the “it” city that influenced America’s music culture like no other.
If you want a quiet city with nothing to do, Chicago is not the city for you. There is way too much to see and do here, even if you’re not into the night scene. As a tourist destination, Chicago continues to set new records. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chicago had nearly sixty million tourists visit the city just in one year alone. Chicago is also home to some beautiful parks and piers such as Grant Park, Hyde Park, Magnificent Mile, Millennium Park, and Navy Pier.
If you’re a sports fan, visiting Chicago means you have an opportunity to perhaps attend an MLB game hosted by the Chicago Cubs or the Chicago White Sox. There is also the Chicago Bulls if you follow the NBA, the Chicago Bears if it’s the NFL, or the Chicago Blackhawks if it’s the NHL. The Blackhawks are among the original six teams that shaped the National Hockey League when it was still young. Chicago is also home to the largest number of federal highways and remains the nation’s railway hub. Chicago is the ultimate example of how to make the most out of an important crossover as it feels as if the entire world meets here first before moving on.
Chicago served as the perfect location for the expansion of American industrialism. The Great Migration included the Chicago Black Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, and the Chicago Race Riot of 1919. From 1919 until 1933, Prohibition witnessed gangsters such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran challenge the government and its law enforcement regarding their policies. They were also challenging each other, which often led to violent conflict on the streets of Chicago as each leader of his respective gang sought to gain control over the city’s booming economy.
When the stock market crashed, followed by the devastation of the Great Depression, Chicago struggled to survive as a city. However, its reliance on Lake Michigan enabled Chicago to do more than survive. It thrived. The city was an important hub of activity for industrialists and traders. When the city was founded in 1837, most of the first buildings were around the mouth of the Chicago River. The Chicago Loop serves as the city’s central business district. Chicago has twenty-four public beaches along the twenty-six-mile stretch of its waterfront. As a city, Chicago has more coastline than most of the North American cities facing the ocean.
# 5 – New Orleans, Louisiana
Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico is the coastal city of New Orleans, Louisiana. There are about four hundred thousand residents in the Big Easy while the Greater New Orleans metropolitan area houses over one million people. It was founded in 1718 by French colonists and was the territorial capital of French Louisiana before the Louisiana Purchase. Louisiana became the property of the United States as of 1803 and grew as the nation’s third-largest city by population until World War II. Not even the War of 1812 against the British was enough to thwart the city’s progress. “The Battle of New Orleans” was a song that unofficially became an anthem that painted a brutal battle that took place between the might of two military forces that enabled the U.S. Army to keep the British from seizing New Orleans from their hands.
The uniqueness of New Orleans comes from the cultural mix of African, American, British, French, and Spanish ancestry that has made it one of the most vibrant cities in the world. For locals, New Orleans consistently has flooding issues due to high rainfall, low elevation, a poor drainage system, and its proximity to several bodies of water. More recently, attempts have been made to help New Orleans better accommodate all that water with an improved drainage layout that includes an upgrade in levees and pumps. This came about after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. After most of the city found itself underwater, New Orleans’ population took a fifty percent nosedive but it has recently begun to bounce back again since the infrastructural improvements.
As a popular coastal city tourist destination, the popularity of New Orleans never waned. It’s still one of the best coastal cities in the U.S. and it is still the most celebratory city in the world. The old French Quarter still draws in tourists from all over the world, as does the infamous Mardi Gras Festival that’s held each year. Since Hurricane Katrina, monuments and memorials have sprung up, adding to the legacy of New Orleans as a city that refuses to drown out into obscurity. If you were to set up a bucket list of coastal cities to visit, New Orleans deserves to be on it. Between the architecture, festivals, and history, there’s also the culture, food, and scenery that makes this such a wonderful place to visit.
# 4 – Honolulu, Hawaii
The Hawaiian Islands serve as a tropical paradise that’s been winning over tourists from all over the world with ease. Among honeymooners, nothing beats Honolulu, Hawaii as a romantic getaway that has it all. The very definition of a coastal city would paint Honolulu as a prime example of what it’s supposed to be. Honolulu sits on the southeast coast of O’ahu, one of the islands that make Hawaii what it is. This is the major hub of activity that has an incredible history of cultural and geographical significance. Smack out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Honolulu and all the Hawaiian communities literally feel like their own world as the nearest out-of-state neighbor can’t even be reached on land. It would have to be by boat or plane, with no exceptions.
Originally named Kou, Honolulu is Hawaiian for “sheltered harbor.” Since 1845, Honolulu has been the capital and the heart of Hawaii. History buffs remembering a thing or two about World War II will recognize Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor as the victim of an attack by the Japanese military on December 7, 1941. It was enough to officially draw the United States military into a global war that was already being fought among a multitude of nations. Since then, historical monuments and remnants of what happened to continue to remind locals and visitors of the role Honolulu, Hawaii played at that time. To this day, this coastal city continues to serve as a strategically important location for the military. This is where the U.S. Pacific Fleet serves as the world’s largest naval command base.
Honolulu’s city population is over three hundred thousand people but has a total metropolitan population of over one million. Per day, at least seven thousand visitors come to Honolulu. This coastal city has it all between its beaches, marinas, parks, and resorts. When soaking up the sun and scenery isn’t enough, Honolulu’s urban playground has no trouble filling in the gaps. The nightlife is as vibrant as it gets, as well as taking advantage of the Waikiki tourist district.
# 3 – Los Angeles, California
When it comes to talking about U.S. coastal cities, Los Angeles, California, is likely the one that comes to mind first. Also dubbed the City of Angels, this is where the dreamers come to in an attempt to make a name for themselves. The invite to so much fun in the sun still holds fast as the primary reason why L.A. is so popular among tourists.
There are about four million people who live in Los Angeles as city dwellers but this is minuscule compared to what sums up the Greater Los Angeles region. There are at least thirteen million people who live in the area with its surrounding communities, including Hollywood. Visitors from all over the world come here as a favorite vacation destination, almost as often as they flock to New York City.
The warmth of the sun is inviting enough as the coastline of Los Angeles is filled with beaches that are loaded with sunseekers and watersport enthusiasts. If working on your tan line isn’t your thing, Los Angeles is far from boring when it comes to activities. Since 1955, Disneyland has become the top draw as a tourist destination for families all over the world. Year after year, it has attracted millions of people to visit Mickey Mouse and the rest of the Walt Disney crew. Should this theme park not be your thing for some reason, the diversity of Los Angeles’s culture literally has something for everyone.
What’s great about Los Angeles is the tropical heat often felt as it enjoys a warm climate that sees the sun far more often than it sees rain. Among Canadians, Los Angeles is one of their greatest escapes to get away from the frigid cold of its winters. Adding to the appeal of Los Angeles is the close proximity it has to another great Californian city, San Diego. By road travel, they’re about two hours apart so if for some reason Los Angeles doesn’t have enough for you, head south to San Diego. However, in L.A., odds are you won’t get bored anytime soon.
If you’re into shopping and have the budget for it, Rodeo Drive is definitely worth your time and money. Should you prefer finding something that’s easier on the pocketbook, the city of Los Angeles has literally turned shopping into an art form between The Grove, the City Walk at Universal Hollywood, and the Citadel Outlets. If you’re a fan of classic architecture, L.A. hasn’t forgotten its roots in this regard, either. As cosmopolitan as this sunny city is, it also clings to its historical impact with important landmarks such as the buildings on Olvera Street. L.A. has over one thousand historical landmarks and monuments that’ll keep history buffs busy and happy checking them all out.
#2 – Miami, Florida
Miami, Florida is a city that has a population of more than six million people within its metropolitan area. This coastal city has been a favorite tourist destination for travelers coming in from all over the world. The invite of the sun makes this too tempting to pass up as it has so much to offer as an urban playground. The majority of the people living in this city are of Hispanic descent, making up more than two-thirds of its population.
This big city is the second largest tourism hub on an international scale, sitting just behind New York City. Port Miami is the city’s seaport, which is the busiest cruise port in the world. This is where the vast majority of vacationers flock to when booking a cruise out into the Caribbean. Many will book a few extra days just to enjoy the city before the time comes to board a vessel that takes them out to sea.
The earliest history of Miami’s roots is a rather fascinating one. It was the only major United States city founded by a woman. Her name was Julia Tuttle and was a citrus grower who originally came to the region from Cleveland, Ohio. What drew her to the area was the region’s wilderness, as well as its shoreline facing the east. Between the favorable climate and richness of the land, Tuttle built an agricultural empire. She convinced a railroad tycoon to extend his Florida East Coast Railway to where Miami stands today.
In 1896, Miami was incorporated as a city with a population of only three hundred people. Before Tuttle, Miami was claimed by Spaniard Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1566. Along with the British, Spain ruled Florida before it was ceded to the United States in 1821. Fifteen years later, the U.S. built Fort Dallas on the banks of the Miami River. This was built to ward off and remove the indigenous population, the Seminoles.
The Everglades are the infamous landmark that sits west of Miami’s cityscape while the Biscayne Bay sits on the east. This extends to Florida Bay from Lake Okeechobee. The main portion of the city sits on the shores of Biscayne Bay along its combination of artificial and natural barrier islands. This is where you find Miami Beach and South Beach. These two are incredibly popular beaches for locals and tourists.
The vibrance of Miami’s culture makes it a top draw when it comes to enticing visitors from all over the world. It is also a filmmaker’s favorite to shoot documentaries, movies, and television. The skyline of Miami is among the highest in the United States with its impressive collection of skyscrapers but also has an equally impressive marina with scores of boats and houseboats along the multitude of docks and piers.
# 1 – New York City, New York
There is no other city in the world that can honestly compare with New York City. Even as Canada’s Toronto, Ontario is often called the Canadian equivalent, the Big Apple has that special something to it no other city has. The cultural, geographical, and historical significance of New York City is unparalleled. When visitors from all over the world eyeball the United States of America to visit, New York City is at the top of the list nearly every single time.
The city’s long list of landmarks and national treasures make this the most appealing city for tourists, hands down. New York City is seen as the city that holds fast to its identity and couldn’t seem to care less how the rest of the world feels about it. The spirit of New York City is unmistakable and that’s why this is the easy favorite as the best of the best when it comes to U.S. coastal cities. New York is the city that welcomed the ships into its harbor as the weary travelers trekked across the Atlantic Ocean. Nearly nine million people call New York City their home, making it the largest city in North America.
There are nearly sixty million people living close enough to New York City to reach it early enough to make a full day’s visit. As a city, New York is a powerhouse in culture, economics, and politics. If it’s not happening in New York, odds are it’s not happening anywhere else in the world either.
Among sports fans, New York City is well noted for having more than one team competing in a specific sport at a pro level. Aside from the most popular team of all, the MLB’s New York Yankees, there are also their inner-city rivals, the New York Mets. In the NBA, choose between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks. In the NHL, it’s between the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers.
The NFL isn’t without two New York-based teams either the New York Giants and the New York Jets. If watching pro tennis is your thing, New York City has served as an annual host for the U.S. Open since it began in 1881. New York City is home to the infamous Madison Square Garden, the “it” venue when it comes to watching anything to do with concerts, sports, and other major events. The Garden’s history as a venue is just as vast as the history of New York as a city.
In order for a visitor to really take in New York City and all its glory, a solid two weeks may cover most of it. This depends on what you’re into and how active you are as a tourist. Broadway can easily take up a huge chunk of your time if you’re into music and theater. If you’re a fan of classic architecture, historical monuments, and important landmarks, New York won’t disappoint. It should also be pointed out here that visiting New York without tasting the food it has to offer would be missing out on a special flavor only this proud city can provide.
Since the beginning, New York’s influence on anything to do with American culture has been profound, to say the least. When America was founded as a nation, New York was literally the apple of everyone’s eye as George Washington, his military forces, and the people fought the desperate battle against King George and his British army to become independent. After the United States succeeded, New York became the “it” place for people from all over to get in on the American Dream.
Even long before other coastal cities throughout North America sprang up and grew to become favorite tourist destinations in their own right, New York was already well ahead of the competition. In fact, it still is. Where else can you go where you can do at least a hundred million things, regardless of what hour it happens to be? To say New York is the city that never sleeps, that’s an accurate statement, to say the least.
10 Best U.S. Coastal Cities To Visit article published on BigCityReview.com© 2023
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