Best Boardwalks in America
Back in the late 1800s, owners of seaside resorts in Atlantic City, New Jersey, faced a problem: Guests were tracking sand from the beach into their properties. To minimize dirtiness, they added a wooden walkway between the sand and the city's hotels.
Just like that, America got its first boardwalk — and an institution was born.
More than just a place to get the sand off your feet, boardwalks became a source of entertainment with the addition of shops, restaurants and eventually amusement rides. Over time, many boardwalks succumbed to weather and a lack of visitors, falling into disarray. But in the late 20th century, a boardwalk renaissance brought the classic attractions back to life.
Today, the majority of America's remaining boardwalks are found in New Jersey, with nearly 20 boardwalks scattered about the Jersey Shore. But there are wonderful boardwalks all around the country — from the newest to the oldest, the biggest to the smallest, here's a look at some of the best.
Longest & Oldest Boardwalk: Atlantic City Boardwalk in New Jersey
At more than 5 miles in length, New Jersey's Atlantic City boardwalk is the longest in the country. The boardwalk — which starts at Absecon Lighthouse and passes through Ventnor City to Margate City — moves you beyond the city's iconic casinos to charming beach houses overlooking a sand-strewn path that's perfect for biking.
Climb 228 steps up to the top of Absecon Lighthouse, a National Historic Landmark constructed in 1857. Then, in Margate, visit Lucy the Elephant, a six-story building shaped like an elephant that dates back to 1881. It remains one of America's most bizarre and random attractions, in the best possible way.
And of course, the boardwalk's Steel Pier amusement park is a must-visit. The 1,000-foot pier features a Slingshot that will send you soaring into the air at speeds of 100 miles per hour. Or, if speed isn’t your thing, you can try the Grand Carousel for old-fashioned fun.
Not only is Atlantic City’s boardwalk the longest, it is also the nation’s oldest, dating back to 1870.
Newest Boardwalk: Myrtle Beach Boardwalk & Promenade in South Carolina
Family-friendly Myrtle Beach realized it needed its own boardwalk to keep up with the fun found along the Atlantic coastline in nearby states. So in 2010, it added the 1.2-mile-long Oceanfront Boardwalk and Promenade.
The following year, it added the first observation wheel of its kind to the United States: the SkyWheel. Rising 200 feet above sea level, the ride anchors the boardwalk, which also includes zip-line adventures, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not, thrill rides and arcades.
The boardwalk has since put on concerts throughout the summer, as well as food, drink and music festivals. A standout is the annual Seafood Festival, which pairs fun and games with lively music performances and fresh-catch dishes.
Best Boardwalk for Amusements: Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in California
This famous California boardwalk promises chills and thrills on some 40 rides — more than any other boardwalk in America.
At this beachside attraction, you can go cliff soaring over the sand on the Cliff Hanger, take in views of the Pacific Ocean before dipping 125 feet on the Double Shot, experience G-forces on the Fireball, and find yourself upside down over the boardwalk on the Rock-O-Plane.
Two of the oldest rides in the country can also be found here: the Giant Dipper and the Loof Carousel, both of which are National Historic Landmarks. The Giant Dipper, which has been seen in movies such as “The Lost Boys,” is a towering red and white roller coaster that has been making visitors scream since it opened in 1924. The circa-1911 carousel features three antique organs, as well as real horse hair in the carousel horses’ tails.
Looking for more fun still? The boardwalk also encompasses arcades, mini golf, laser tag and concerts.
Best Boardwalk on a Lake: Navy Pier in Illinois
Chicago’s 3,300-foot-long boardwalk isn’t bordered by the waves of the ocean, but rather the waves of Lake Michigan.
Named for the Navy veterans of WWI, the original pier was used for pilot training during WWII. It became a convention center before falling into disarray — but after being declared a landmark in 1977, Chicago invested $150 million to redevelop it in 1994.
Today, we enjoy the spoils of that revitalization, including the 150-foot-tall Centennial Ferris Wheel, amusement rides, attractions, concerts, shopping and dining, all overlooking the shining lake with the Chicago skyline as backdrop.
Most Iconic Boardwalk: Coney Island Boardwalk in New York
The 2.5-mile Riegelmann Boardwalk on Brooklyn’s Coney Island became a seaside getaway for Manhattanites during the 1800s and was home to the amusement park, Sea Lion Park. Appearing as a backdrop in numerous movies, including “Beaches,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “The Wiz” and “Men in Black,” Coney Island has had its share of ups and downs, including a fire in 1911.
Brought back to life in 2004, the park is today home to The Cyclone Roller Coaster and numerous amusements at its Luna Park. Just don’t take a ride after competing in the infamous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest!
Best Boardwalk for Showing off Your Physique: Venice Beach's Ocean Front Walk in California
Your image of Venice Beach’s boardwalk may be of its topless, muscled bodybuilders working out on Muscle Beach (even Schwarzenegger used to work out there). And happily, this image remains accurate, as the boardwalk continues to welcome ripped bodies.
The Ocean Front Walk (its official name) stretches 1.5 miles and is a favorite among runners, bikers, rollerbladers and skateboarders, who can often be seen in the skimpiest of clothing.
In addition to fitness fanatics, the boardwalk is home to an eclectic mix of street performers, who seek tips by break-dancing, miming, crooning, juggling and even walking on broken glass.
While there aren’t any amusement rides, you can find amusement by people-watching from the boardwalk’s restaurants. (Nearby Santa Monica Pier features more traditional thrills.)
Most Low-Key Boardwalk: Sandwich Boardwalk ('Plank Walk') in Massachusetts
You won’t find amusement park rides or funnel cake at this Cape Cod boardwalk. Instead, this is a literal boardwalk designed for simple pleasures: taking a walk and enjoying the bayside breezes and wildlife.
Built in 1875, the boardwalk, also called the Plank Walk, actually crosses a creek and marsh, leading straight to Sandwich’s Town Beach.
Stretching 1,350 feet, it has been rebuilt over the years due to hurricanes and blizzards. But it continues on to much acclaim, consistently landing on National Geographic's list of the top 10 boardwalks in the country.
Shortest Boardwalk: Fenwick Boardwalk in Delaware
Fenwick Island is a barrier island off the coast of Delaware, just north of the Maryland state line. Only a couple of blocks in length, its boardwalk is the smallest in the country. It's so diminutive that The Baltimore Sun once wrote, "You may be inclined to use air quotes when referring to it."
Still, the attraction aims to please, even if it’s only for a couple hours of your beach day. Fun comes in the form of mini golf and go-karts, and the food — including ice cream, funnel cake and handcut fries — is worth the splurge.
Best Boardwalk for Kids: Wildwood Boardwalk in New Jersey
Unlike other New Jersey boardwalks, which got a bad rap when MTV rolled into town with "Jersey Shore,” Wildwood is ideal for the little ones.
The self-proclaimed “Boardwalk of Fame and Happiness” touts plenty to keep kids diverted at its Morey's Piers, a collection of piers where rides cater to all ages. Standouts include a low-impact kiddie boat ride, medium-impact Doo Wopper Coaster and high-impact Grand Prix Raceway.
In the summer, bring bathing suits to cool off at the boardwalk's two water parks, Ocean Oasis and Raging Waters. And be sure to try a breakfast Ferris Wheel ride, during which (yes) breakfast is served as you take a spin on the 156-foot Giant Wheel.
Best Surfing Boardwalk: Belmont Park in California
San Diego's Mission Beach is a stretch of white sand where the surf is up and the waves are righteous. It's one of the world's best beaches for surfing, and hosts excellent lessons and camps to teach amateurs.
After hanging 10, surfers can head to Belmont Park, the beach's adjacent boardwalk, which separates the Pacific Ocean from surf shops, restaurants and a surf simulator on land.
The boardwalk's attractions are nostalgic classics, including a Tilt-a-Whirl, bumper cars and carousel. But the real star of the show is the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster, a wooden thriller that dates back to 1925.
Best Disney Boardwalk: Disney's BoardWalk in Florida
How can you go wrong with Disney on a list for anything to do with summer fun?
Disney decided to create a “seaside” boardwalk to connect its lakeside hotels. With a turn-of-the-century-theme, the 1,320-foot boardwalk is filled with shops and dining, as well as arcade games with a Disney theme.
Looking for kids-free fun? No problem: After hours, adults head to the boardwalk's dueling piano bar or dance the night away at a nightclub playing '80s and '90s jams.
You won’t find rides here, as the Disney Boardwalk is meant for R&R after visiting the theme parks. And those visits are easy; the attraction is a short walk away from Epcot, and a quick boat ride away from Hollywood Studios.
Best Boardwalk for Seeing and Being Seen: South Beach Boardwalk in Florida
In Florida, the see-and-be-seen crowd can be found along South Beach Boardwalk, a 4-mile stretch of Miami containing both a boardwalk and a paved promenade.
Visit the wooden planked path for a quieter scene and a bike ride, or head up to South Beach, where tons of restaurants with giant fruity drinks await.
You can even connect to the pedestrian mall known as Lincoln Road from this beachfront area with fantastic ocean, palm tree and beach-bod views.
Best Boardwalk for Food: Ocean City Boardwalk in Maryland
Part of the experience of a classic American boardwalk is enjoying the food found along the planks.
In Ocean City, you'll find more than 50 different boardwalk restaurants, including seasonal seafood spot Harbor Watch Restaurant & Raw Bar, famous for its fresh Maryland crab cakes, and Fractured Prune Donut Shoppe, which serves hand-dipped, made-to-order donuts.
And that's to say nothing of the delicious fair food — like salt-water taffy, pizza and funnel cakes — that can be found at every turn.
The boardwalk is divided into two for amusements. Trimpers Amusements covers one half of the boardwalk, while the Jolly Roger covers the other. In between the rides, eat your heart out!
Best Boardwalk for Views: Wailea Oceanfront Boardwalk in Hawaii
For the best views, you just cannot beat Maui's palm tree-lined, nearly 3-mile boardwalk, which can be found near the famous Wailea beaches and resorts.
Beginning at Makena State Park, pass by beautiful resorts like the Grand Wailea, as well as amazing beaches and the natural flowers and fauna of Hawaii.
Be on the lookout for sea turtles nesting on the beach, and keep your eyes on the ocean during whale migration; you may just spot whales and dolphins breeching in the channel.