America's Best Boardwalks
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk; Santa Cruz, CA
Operating since 1907, the only remaining oceanfront amusement park on the West Coast has two rides officially recognized as National Historic Landmarks: the hand-carved Looff carousel (1911) and the wood-framed Giant Dipper roller coaster (1924). Another throwback to its early years is Marini's Boardwalk, whose 1915 location still cooks its saltwater taffy in copper kettles. At the Surf City Grill, the fresh-dipped corn dogs are infamous, but the artichokes in a light, garlicky batter are the real finds.
Atlantic City Boardwalk; Atlantic City
This 5.5-mile stretch, the longest boardwalk in the world, once captured the country’s collective imagination with its glitzy acts and grand Art Deco and Beaux Art hotels—now dramatically revisited on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. The oldest boardwalk in the US is also enjoying a revival with the 2012 opening of the Revel resort. Its dizzying array of star chef-run restaurants includes a modern steak house by Marc Forgione, a Riviera-inspired seafood spot by Alain Allegretti and offshoots by DC chef Michel Richard and Philly chef Jose Garces. For a taste of old-time lore, the James Candy Company pulls saltwater taffy from recipes that date from the 1900s.
Navy Pier; Chicago
This pier, stretching into Lake Michigan, is packed with all sorts of attractions, including the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (modeled after London's Swan Theatre), Chicago Children's Museum and the 1,500-seat outdoor Skyline Stage. The warm, crisp chocolate-covered churros from the Churro Factory booth make a terrific snack for a stroll. The LandShark Beer Garden offers microbrews like Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and Fat Tire to go along with its live concerts and fantastic skyline views.
Ocean City Boardwalk; Ocean City, MD
There’s a lot packed along this wooden boardwalk, including free concerts on Wednesday nights in July and August, outdoor movies and a Beach Olympics (think sand castle-building competitions). Thrasher’s, a favorite since 1929, serves french fries twice-fried in peanut oil and doused with apple cider vinegar. The no-frills Mug & Mallet serves terrific Maryland blue crabs by the bucket steps from the beach, and at Fractured Prune, hand-dipped doughnuts are named after classic desserts like the Black Forest, with raspberry glaze, coconut and mini chocolate chips.
Kemah Boardwalk; Kemah, TX
Opened in 1996, this 60-acre boardwalk amusement park overlooking Trinity Bay is home to the Texas Gulf’s only roller coaster, the gargantuan Boardwalk Bullet. In April, the annual Kemah Crawfish Festival takes place under the Kemah Bridge, featuring farm-raised Louisiana crawfish in a variety of iterations, including étouffée, gumbo and jambalaya, but the most popular is the $2-a-pound boils by expert boiler James Wimberley.
Ocean Front Walk; Venice Beach, CA
There is no shortage of interesting characters on this boardwalk, lined with tattoo parlors, skate parks and the original Muscle Beach Gym. Jody Maroni made his mark here in 1979, when he opened Jody Maroni's Sausage Kingdom, filling his sausages with all sorts of unexpected ingredients, smoking them on site and serving them fresh off an outdoor grill. His constantly evolving menu now includes sausages made with chicken mole and Kobe beef.
Disney's Boardwalk; Orlando, FL
Street performers juggle flaming batons and kids take spins on the 1920s mini carousel at this idyllic curved stretch looking out on Crescent Lake in the Magic Kingdom. At Flying Fish Café, diners make the effort to call at least a day in advance to order the Hong Kong fish, local yellowtail snapper coated in tempura and fried whole. The nearby Big River Grille and Brewing Works has floor-to-ceiling glass walls that look onto the working brewery.
Carolina Beach Boardwalk; Carolina Beach, NC
Though this historic boardwalk on the northern end of Pleasure Island is lined with carnival rides, arcade games and numerous food stands, one of the oldest and best draws is Britt’s Donut Shop. Fans line up under the blue-and-white-striped awning for traditional glazed pastries—no sprinkles or cream fillings in sight—made with a secret recipe passed down its 70-plus year history. Originally a nickel a piece, each doughnut is now 85 cents.
Old Orchard Beach Pier; Old Orchard Beach, ME
Palace Playland, the only beachfront amusement park left in New England, abuts this rickety-looking wooden pier (the first iteration was built in 1898). One of the current pier’s biggest draws is Hurricane’s Raw Bar for its fantastic Maine seafood, including succulent lobster rolls, steamers and fresh-shucked oysters. Along the shore, Dickinson’s Candy Factory pulls its own taffy and serves Shain’s of Maine ice cream.
Ontario Beach Park; Rochester, NY
A century ago, this beachfront area where the Genesee River meets Lake Ontario was known as Coney Island West, pulling in 5,000 visitors daily by train and ferry with its Ferris wheel, bandstand and numerous sideshow attractions. The Great Depression hit the park hard, and what now remains is a tranquil beachfront with classical and jazz concerts in the summer and an almost half-mile jetty that's a favorite stroll for locals. Schaller's Drive In, a holdover from 1956, serves stellar burgers and "white hots," a Rochester specialty of spicy hot dogs made with pork, beef and veal.
Mission Beach Boardwalk; San Diego
Built on a sandbar between the Pacific Ocean and Mission Bay, the Mission Beach Boardwalk is filled with all sorts of activity-seekers, from rollerbladers to bodyboarders who ride the endless simulated waves at the Wave House. A few miles up the boardwalk at Pacific Beach, chef David Warner at JRDN prepares an environmentally responsible surf 'n' turf menu, with humanely raised beef and seafood from sustainable sources.
Seaside Heights Boardwalk; Seaside Heights, NJ
These days, Seaside Heights might best be known as the bar-heavy backdrop of MTV's Jersey Shore. But it also offers white sandy beaches, two amusement parks and terrific old-school counter-service shacks that have stood the test of time. The longest lines, indisputably, are for Kohr's creamy, soft-serve frozen custard and Maruca's Trenton-style pizzas, with cheese on the bottom and a signature swirl of tomato sauce on top.
Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk; Rehoboth Beach, DE
This classic beach town’s boardwalk links the over-50-year-old Funland amusement park with other relics from the past, like Dolle’s, a favorite for caramel corn, chocolate-covered pretzels and saltwater taffy since 1926. The Greenman Juice Bar and Bistro serves smoothies like the Healthy Elvis (frozen yogurt with organic peanut butter, banana and raspberry) and breakfast items like the signature crème brûlée French toast, until lunch starts at noon.
The Boardwalk Shops at Newport Pier; Newport Beach, CA
World-class surfers (and their groupies) make the trek to the Balboa Peninsula to catch the Wedge, known for its 25-foot waves. Afterward, they head over to the Newport Pier, a quick bike ride away, for crisp, hand-battered corn dogs and spicy chili fries loaded with jalapeños at either location of Jane’s Corndogs. Blackie’s by the Sea, open since 1953, is the quintessential surfer dive bar, with boards strung from the ceiling.
Hampton Beach Boardwalk; Hampton Beach, NH
Hampton Beach hosts 80 free summer concerts, ranging from pop to country, sets off fireworks every Wednesday and holiday during the season and is rated one of the cleanest beaches in the country by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Pizza spots abound, but locals look for the bright orange signs that mark the two locations of Blink's Fry Doe shacks for warm, chewy deep-fried-to-order rounds of house-made pizza dough. The 20 toppings range from garlic and butter to peanut butter and jelly.
Myrtle Beach Boardwalk and Promenade; Myrtle Beach, SC
This palm-lined $6.5 million boardwalk opened steps from the shore in 2010 as a pedestrian-only alternative to Ocean Beach Boulevard. Along with it came an influx of new restaurants, but the overwhelming favorite is still Peaches Corner, a Myrtle Beach institution since 1937, beloved for root beer floats and foot-long hot dogs that are first deep-fried, then grilled. Optional fixings include chili made according to the same recipe for over 50 years.
Rockaway Beach Boardwalk; Queens, NY
What was once an unappealing, dilapidated stretch along the Atlantic Ocean has emerged as New York City’s anti-Hamptons, frequented by young arty types who make the short commute from Manhattan and Brooklyn for the surf culture and burgeoning food scene. At Rippers, a partnership between Brooklyn locavore pizzeria Roberta’s and the sustainable butcher shop the Meat Hook, burgers are made using meat from grass-fed cows raised upstate. Nearby, Rockaway Taco serves tilapia tacos and zingy cucumbers spears marinated in lime juice and chile powder ground from whole chiles. Manhattan restaurateurs have taken notice—there are recently opened Rockaway outposts of Caracas Arepa Bar (Venezuelan arepas and fried empanadas) and Babycakes (vegan cupcakes and brownies).
Hollywood Beach Broadwalk; Hollywood, FL
This brick-paved walk, named for its comfortable width, sits mere yards from Hollywood Beach’s immaculate turquoise waters. On Sundays, locals line up before the 9 a.m. opening to enter Josh’s Organic Garden, a 3,000-square-foot market filled with produce picked the night before, and a juice bar that sells young coconuts, durian and concoctions like the Thank God, a drink that consists of around a half-dozen of the best-looking seasonal greens. Vedu’s Fish & Burger Shack has a thatched roof-covered deck for enjoying peel-and-eat shrimp, fish tacos and lobster rolls with a view of the beach.
Coney Island Beach & Boardwalk; Brooklyn, NY
Serving generations of vacationers since before the Civil War, this landmark boardwalk had a $30 million facelift in 2010 that brought in almost two dozen new rides. Huge summertime crowds can still largely be attributed to the iconic, only-in-Coney Island mix of tawdry side shows (knife-swallowers, flame-jugglers), plus the wooden-framed 1927 Cyclone roller coaster and original Nathan's Famous, practically synonymous with the hot dog and host of the annual Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest.
Virginia Beach Boardwalk; Virginia Beach, VA
This popular boardwalk runs past an amusement park, an aquarium, and numerous seafood restaurants. The best among them is the Catch 31 Fish House and Bar at the Hilton, which matches sublime ocean views from its terrace with an extensive raw bar and fish largely collected from local fishermen's morning hauls of oyster, tuna, cobia and striper.