12 Boardwalks That Capture the Essence of Summer

People walking along busy boardwalk with multiple buildings
Photo: Jon Bilous/Shutterstock.com

Boardwalks are synonymous with summertime. For more than a century, these seaside destinations have drawn fun-seekers with carnival rides, fried foods and other colorful attractions. Of course, long-standing boardwalks like the one in Atlantic City include casinos, theaters and music venues as well.

Even after a hundred years, boardwalks still bring the summertime fun. Some have reinvented themselves over the decades, and newer boardwalks offer recreation, events, performances and fine dining, plus the requisite carnival rides and food kiosks. Whether old or new, boardwalks are a quintessential part of summer by the ocean. Here are a dozen boardwalks that offer the expected classic atmosphere, but also bring their own unique elements.

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Carolina Beach Boardwalk

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Wilmington, North Carolina's Carolina Beach Boardwalk bills itself as a vintage boardwalk. It has earned the nod as one of America's best boardwalks from media outlets like USA Today and Food and Wine. You'll find all the classic elements here: a beach arcade, amusement park rides, hot dogs and other food favorites. Cocktail bars and tap rooms sit alongside ice cream shops and storefronts stocked with T-shirts and sandals. If you prefer sand and water, Carolina Beach is a few steps from the boardwalk with swimming, suntanning and surf lessons.

Concerts and events, such as an annual barbecued rib fest and a music festival, are on the calendar, as is a weekly summertime fireworks show. The boardwalk will celebrate its 90th birthday in a few years, so there is plenty of history as well. Walking tours can provide insight into this colorful past.

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Santa Cruz Boardwalk

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California has more than its share of beach boardwalks, but one of the oldest is Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. It first opened in 1907 and has California’s oldest surviving amusement park. Modest in size by modern standards, the park does have three different roller coasters including a historic wooden coaster called the Giant Dipper, which opened in 1924.

In addition to the usual array of shops, restaurants and bars, this boardwalk offers summer concerts and an outdoor movie series. There's also a nautical-themed amusement facility called Neptune's Kingdom. Thanks to the reasonably mild weather on this portion of California's Central Coast, the boardwalk is open year-round, though not everything is open during the winter months, when most activities and events are limited to the weekends and holidays.

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Coney Island Boardwalk

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The Coney Island Boardwalk — officially (but less commonly) called the Riegelmann Boardwalk — is on Coney Island Beach in Brooklyn, New York City. The boardwalk dates to the 1920s, but Coney Island has been a resort destination for New Yorkers since the 1800s. The boardwalk has undergone several major makeovers, but many still consider it the example by which to measure all other boardwalks in the country.

Known for its namesake hot dog (and annual hot dog-eating contest), Coney Island has more than its share of carnival-style food venues. It also has rides, of course. The area also features the New York Aquarium, a minor league baseball stadium, concert venues, and, in the winter, an ice skating rink. Coney Island isn't just a boardwalk. In fact, most of the peninsula (it's not actually an island) has beaches that are relatively uncrowded.

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Atlantic City Boardwalk

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Atlantic City’s boardwalk is one of the country’s oldest. The first temporary boardwalk in the United States was erected here in 1870. Always a popular East Coast attraction, the boardwalk now stretches for more than 5 miles and features casinos, theaters, restaurants and tourist attractions like Ripley’s Believe It or Not. It also hosts jazz concert series and a Latin music festival as well as parades and other cultural events.

It's less known for the many recreational activities it provides. The boardwalk is open to bikes in the morning, and the beach has surfing, kayaking and triathlon events. Atlantic City earned some renewed interest because of HBO’s series "Boardwalk Empire." Historic boardwalk tours can give visitors insight into the area's colorful past.

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Kemah, Texas Boardwalk

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The Kemah Boardwalk is 30 miles away from downtown Houston on the Texas Gulf Coast. Despite having a wooden roller coaster and a midway, this classic-feeling attraction is quite young by boardwalk standards. It opened in 1997 and has expanded in recent years. It has 15 rides, 10 restaurants and a small aquarium. The adjacent marina has 400 slips.

The boardwalk is open year-round and hosts special events, including celebrations that coincide with major holidays. The site is owned by Landry's Inc, a large casino and hotel company that has properties all over the world. Other nearby attractions include the Johnson Space Center.

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Navy Pier

Photo: Bert Kaufmann/Flickr

Boardwalks aren't limited to saltwater shorelines. Navy Pier, on Lake Michigan in Chicago, is an example of a Great Lakes boardwalk. Though it didn't begin its life as a tourist attraction, the Pier is now Chicago's most popular destination in terms of number of visitors (and the most visited attraction in the entire Midwest according to the same metric). Over its life, the pier has been used as a jail, college campus, shipping terminal, and as an event space for concerts, conferences and pageants.

In the 1990s, the area started developing into its current incarnation as a mixed-use space with rides, restaurants, event venues and cultural attractions. You can enjoy views of Chicago's iconic skyline from the pier. In addition to the usual boardwalk suspects, Navy Pier has a botanical garden, the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, and permanent and temporary public art installations.

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Mission Beach Boardwalk

Photo: Kit Corry/Flickr

Though indulgent food and carnival rides are a hallmark of boardwalks, sometimes recreation takes the spotlight. That is the case along the Mission Beach Boardwalk in the San Diego area. Cyclists can share the boardwalk with walkers and joggers provided they respect the 8 mph speed limit. The same goes for roller skaters and other wheeled-transportation users. The entire length of the boardwalk, which is made of pavement instead of wood, is 3.5 miles.

The Mission Beach Boardwalk is more than a bike path with ocean views. The Crystal Pier section of the strip has restaurants and bars, while retail outlets lie just off the boardwalk. You'll also come across plenty of public art and the occasional street performer. The main attraction for the non-exercise crowd is Belmont Park, which has all the typical boardwalk attractions, including rides, concessions and souvenir shops.

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Hollywood Beach Boardwalk

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Hollywood Beach sits between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Its 2.5-mile beach boardwalk is paved with bricks. This is another seaside attraction that doubles as a space for joggers, bikers and rollerbladers. Hollywood has one of the cleanest beaches in the state. (In fact, it's Blue Wave certified.) In addition to retail, hotels and restaurants, the seafront stretch also has three parks with features like paddleball courts, ping pong tables, children’s playgrounds and fountains.

Hollywood has been a destination since the 1920s, but cleanliness and family-friendly attractions have earned it praise from media outlets. Travel and Leisure, USA Today and Fodors have all called this one of America's best boardwalks.

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Old Orchard Beach Pier

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Old Orchard Beach is near Portland, Maine. The town’s namesake sands stretch for seven miles. Most of the beach is lined with vacation properties and homes, but the downtown section has tourist-oriented restaurants and souvenir shops. The "boardwalk" is located on a pier that stretches out into the Atlantic Ocean. It features retail, restaurants and food kiosks. A nightclub sits at the end of the pier. A carnival area, the Palace Playground, is near the structure but is physically separate from it.

The original pier, which was made of steel, was almost 2000 feet long, and had a 5,000-person ballroom. The length was reduced after storm damage, but the venues remained famous, hosting acts like Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra. The current wooden pier, shorter than the original, opened in 1980 after storm damaged forced a replacement of the previous structure in 1978.

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Virginia Beach Boardwalk

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Virginia Beach Boardwalk is three miles long. It has separate pathways for pedestrians and bike traffic. This particular boardwalk is decorated with nautical-themed art installations that range from seashell sculptures to a giant statue of Neptune. A 100-foot Ferris wheel, roller coasters and restaurants give boardwalk strollers plenty of reasons to stop.

Virginia Beach has several stages that offer live music performances. There are also family-friendly events such as scavenger hunts. Aside from ice cream shacks, bars, restaurants and other attractions, this boardwalk has some unexpected venues, such as the Atlantic Wildfowl Heritage Museum and an old Coast Guard station.

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Myrtle Beach Boardwalk

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Myrtle Beach has been a popular summertime tourist destination for a long time, but its boardwalk is a relatively recent addition. Perhaps proof that the boardwalk trend is still going strong after a century, the city decided to invest more than $6 million on the project, which was completed in 2010.

This new version of a classic boardwalk is 1.2-miles long, and it has a SkyWheel, restaurants, events venues, rides and hotels. The boardwalk also has a music festival and concerts several times a week during the summertime.

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Wildwood Boardwalk

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Wildwood is another New Jersey boardwalk that's packed with attractions. There are three different piers along the two-mile promenade that hold a total of 100 rides. Carnival food, restaurants, shops and nightlife venues are also on the boardwalk. The area is known as the Wildwoods (plural) because it has four distinct communities: Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, West Wildwood and North Wildwood.

A tram car serves people who don't care to walk up and down the length of the boardwalk. Wildwood came into its own in the 1950s. In addition to being a vacation destination, this was a center for recording music, especially doo-wop and other precursors to rock and roll. The Wildwoods Shore Resort Historic District features hundreds of motels built during this musical and economic heyday.