Looking for a boardwalk beach vacation where you can buy saltwater taffy and airbrushed T-shirts? Or maybe you want to visit a natural beach reserve where wild ponies run free. Luckily for every kind of beachcomber, Virginia is home to both pristine natural Chesapeake Bay shores and tourist-friendly Atlantic ocean waves. Here are the best Virginia beaches to visit for fun in the sand.
Rare birds make Bethel Beach Natural Area Preserve in Mathews County their home during nesting season, and this peaceful spot is a favorite of birdwatchers, kayakers, and nature-lovers alike. The salt marsh landscape is constantly changing, thanks to the Chesapeake Bay wind and waves. Just know that sunbathing and picnicking aren’t allowed at this natural habitat.
This is Virginia’s most famous beach and a huge tourist attraction, thanks to a three-mile-long boardwalk and the opportunity to take a dip in the Atlantic ocean. Virginia Beach offers water activities like surfing, stand-up paddleboarding, parasailing, and Virginia Aquarium boating tours to see dolphins. Beyond the surf, there are breweries, distilleries, and restaurants to explore, along with cultural institutions like the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.
Drive a bit from the Virginia Beach boardwalk and you’ll find Sandbridge Beach, a little respite from all souvenir shops. This Atlantic beach is adjacent to nature spots Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge and False Cape State Park, in case you want to do some exploring after your sunbathing. Beachgoers at Sandbridge will find amenities like parking, restrooms, changing areas, and outdoor showers.
If you want a more low-key beach day than fighting the crowds at Virginia Beach, consider Hampton’s Buckroe Beach. This is a great spot for little swimmers, with nearly a mile of sandy beach and gentle Chesapeake Bay waves (not to mention a nearby nautical-themed playground). Buckroe Beach also offers bathrooms and lifeguards during the summer season. Another bonus for folks arriving from Richmond: it’s about an hour-and-a-half drive and you don’t have to worry about Virginia Beach tunnel traffic.
Beach bums and architecture buffs will both feel at home at Cape Charles, a former railroad town on the Chesapeake Bay dotted with beautifully restored historic homes. Spend the day on a family-friendly, sandy white beach and shallow waters, and don’t miss charming eateries serving seafood, coffee, ice cream, and more.
With traffic, Virginia Beach can be quite the haul from Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. For a bit of sand and swimming closer to home, there’s the no-frills Colonial Beach on the Potomac River in Northern Neck. This historic spot is near the George Washington Birthplace National Monument. There’s a sandy beach for sunbathing, a boardwalk, a municipal pier — and oyster bars, food trucks, and tiki bars to visit after beach time.
Yorktown, another Virginia town known for its colonial history, is also home to a popular sandy beach. The two-acre public Yorktown Beach on the York River is a family-friendly destination for swimming, fishing, and sunbathing. It’s also accessible to all, thanks to a Mobi-Mat and Mobi Chair for visitors in wheelchairs. Stroll along the nearby Riverwalk Landing for shopping and restaurants.
Book a campsite at Westmoreland State Park in Northern Neck and go for a hike, ending at Fossil Beach. This rugged beach popular with kids and dogs along the Potomac Beach gets its name from discoveries of fossilized shark teeth on its bank. Even if you don’t find anything in the sand, it’s a lovely spot with dramatic cliffs overlooking the water.
Nicknamed Chic Beach or Chick’s Beach, this sandy stretch on the Chesapeake Bay near Virginia Beach is a favorite of locals. Parking can be difficult, but kids will have a blast playing in the low tide and parents will appreciate the less-crowded beachfront for setting up a sandcastle homebase.
The children’s book “Misty of Chincoteague” made this Virginia island on the Atlantic coast world-famous for its wild herd of ponies. Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is a picturesque natural destination with white sand beach that draws swimmers, hikers, and birdwatchers. The event of the year is the annual Pony Swim (canceled for 2021 due to the pandemic), where ponies swim from Assateague Island to Chincoteague Island for an auction to control the herd’s size. There are even boat tours so you can see the ponies in their natural environment.
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