Pristine beaches, vibrant fall colors, spooky tours, and endless mountains are just some of what makes up an East Coast vacation.
When most people think of the East Coast, they think of big cities and the rude people who live in them. And most people would be correct. The East Coast has a string of large cities like Washington, D.C., Manhattan, Boston, Atlanta, and Miami. It might also be full of those rude people too, although we like to think of ourselves as passionate and confident.
But on top of the big cities and the passionate and loud folks who live there, the East Coast has culture, history, wildness, and some of the best vacation spots you will ever experience. Now you’ve likely heard of some of the areas on this list but most of them are much less well known but every bit as good as the more famous areas. Take your pick between pristine beaches, epic mountain views, family fun, or good ol’ fashioned drinking tours. These top East Coast vacation spots have something for everyone!
Related Read: 12 Epic Outdoor Summer Vacation Spots in the U.S.
1. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina
Why you should go: it’s a wildlife lover’s dream vacation.
I’d be willing to be that you have never heard of Daufuskie (pronounced duh-fuss-key) Island. Granted, I’m usually a gambling woman so this isn’t a total surprise from me, but I’d honestly lay down all the money in my bank account that Daufuskie Island has never crossed your mind. It’s hard to shine, though, when you have Hilton Head Island as your neighbor with a much more accessible road to it.
It takes some work to get to Daufuskie Island since it’s known as the “island with no bridges” meaning you have to take some sort of water transportation to get to its shores. Once you make it over there, though, your transportation options are to use your feet, ride a bike, or rent a golf cart. I’d suggest the latter since it’s remarkably fun. Daufuskie is small so you can see most of it in a day but if you can swing it, stay for a few days to get a true experience.
Spend the day on the multitude of beaches along its shores or taking a history tour with Sallie Ann Tours or Tour Daufuskie. You can also visit the golf course at Haig Point or take in the multitude of wildlife in the area. There’s alligators, bald eagles, fox squirrels, armadillos, and even dolphins!
At the end of your day, make sure to pop by the Old Daufuskie Crab Company to meet the locals and hopefully get a chance to chat with Nancy, the bartender. She’s a real firecracker and full of all the hot gossip on the island. You can’t leave Daufuskie without trying their specialty drink: Scrap Iron. It’s a concoction of sweet tea, moonshine, and a whole heck of a lot of love and mystery. It’s delicious so be careful — never drink and drive!
2. Lake George, New York
Why you should go: small town feels with big city amenities.
Lake George sits just north of Albany and about an hour and a half south of the High Peaks Region of the Adirondacks. The town is named after, you guessed it, the lake that it sits on. It’s 45 square miles of water with over 170 islands scattered throughout, in which some of them you can camp out on. For those who want a little more comfort, you can always choose between these beautiful cabin rentals around the town.
Although there are some nice resorts around the lake, most people head to Lake George for the diverse number of activities you can partake in. If mini golf is your prerogative, then Lake George has 21 different courses for you to choose from. Check out the Fort William Henry Museum for those with an affinity toward history. You can also take a unique tour of the area by rail car! For the finest of views, though, look no further than Lake George Shoreline Cruises. You’ll feel as if you’re on one of those grand boats on the Mississippi River without the dirty water.
The list is endless for those of you who want more water activities. Whether it be kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, jetskiing — you can do all of it! You can also swim at multiple beaches along its shores but Million Dollar Beach can’t be beat. Don’t get caught out on the lake at night, though, or else Georgie (the local lochness monster) might get you. Just kidding — it was actually just a painted log that a local man used to play jokes on the locals and visitors alike.
Related Read: 11 Beautiful Cabin Rentals in the Adirondacks
3. White Mountains, New Hampshire
Why you should go: to experience the most spectacular fall color demonstration ever.
Don’t let the elevation fool you when you head to the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You’ve maybe climbed dozens of fourteeners and think that a measly 4,000-footer is no big deal. You would be wrong. White Mountain National Forest is home to the deadliest mountain in the United States: Mount Washington. It sits over 6,000 feet above sea level and has taken the lives of more than 130 people. Hiking in these parts are not to be underestimated.
If that sort of activity scares you too much, there are plenty of other things to do if you visit this area. The towns of both North Conway and Lincoln are the larger hubs in the White Mountains. There are quirky shops like Zeb’s General Store and is also a basecamp for a scenic railroad.
What really invites folks to this area of New England is the autumn foliage! It is unlike any other that you have or will ever experience. The natural forests of New Hampshire include oaks, aspens, birches, beeches, and maples which means you get a variety of colors every year. It’s why the White Mountains are on almost every “top ten” list when it comes to viewing fall colors. I’d recommend visiting during this time and doing any of the activities on this list while you’re here.
Related Read: 7 Drop-Dead Gorgeous National Parks in the East
4. Topsail Island, North Carolina
Why you should go: experience the definition of pristine beaches.
Topsail (pronounced top-sul if you don’t want to sound like a tourist) Island is the ideal beach vacation far away from crowds. Topsail is considered a barrier island meaning it lies just parallel to a coastline which protects the area on its opposite side. It also means that there is plenty of sand along these islands and the coastline is constantly changing due to tides and winds.
You won’t find flashy restaurants or boardwalks with hordes of tourists when you vacation in this small town. Instead, you’ll get fresh, authentic seafood (like from Sears Landing), good drinks at the Salty Turtle, and true southern charm from the friendly locals. Hang out in Surf City when you head onto the Island — it’s the most likely way you’ll arrive — and check out the many piers in the area. You might get lucky and watch a fisherman reel in something tasty!
Related Read: 13 Best Glamping Destinations in North Carolina
5. Westerly, Rhode Island
Why you should go: just as beautiful beaches as Martha’s Vineyard but less pricey.
Rhode Island is small. So small that you can drive through it and reach the other side in a blink of an eye. But where it lacks in land mass, it makes up for in pristine beaches! There is no shortage of beaches along the East Coast but the ones in Rhode Island have an authentic feel to them.
The two main beaches (although there are several others) in Westerly include Misquamicut State Beach and Watch Hill. Of the two, Watch Hill is the better option in my humble opinion and is complete with a merry-go-round where you can play a brass ring game to win a chance at a free ride!
There are also other things to do than just lie on a beach all day, although doesn’t that sound glorious for a vacation? You can walk around the small downtown area and visit the multitude of restaurants. Local favorites include The Malted Barley and Ella’s Fine Food and Drink. Grab a unique gift (or some flowers for your bae) from Anther Living for those you had to leave behind on your vacation.
6. Wells, Maine
Why you should go: for the lobstah, of course!
One might think that of all the places to visit in Maine, it should be Acadia National Park. Maybe you’d be right, but Wells, Maine is not to be overlooked. The town is full of some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet. After flying in and out of Logan Airport in Boston, you might just need those friendly faces.
Kind town folk aside, there are also several beaches you can choose from to sunbathe all day. They include Wells Beach, Moody Beach, and Crescent Beach as well as the nearby beaches in Ogunquit. To get in your wildlife fix, you can walk the sandy shores of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge or Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Related Read: 11 Amazing Maine Swimming Holes & Swimming Beaches
7. Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Why you should go: experience the tiny bit of Switzerland in the Smoky Mountains.
There is no shortage of fun in this touristy town of Tennessee. Gatlinburg is home to dozens of forms of entertainment and can satisfy even the pickiest of visitors. First on anyone’s list of “things to do” would be to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It’s the most visited national park in the United States and for good reason. There are plenty of hikes for all skill levels throughout the Park as well as one of the most scenic roads you’ve ever driven on.
Back in town, you can still see quite a bit of scenery when you head up the aerial tramway to Ober Gatlinburg. Here you’ll be able to have some family fun year-round including snow tubing, ice skating, umbrella rides, and water rides!
If you want a little more thrill, you can try out the Moonshine Mountain Coaster. Participants will fly through the alpine forest at a speed of 35 miles an hour. Or walk along the the SkyBridge at Gatlinburg’s Sklift Park.
Related Read: 8 Incredible Glamping Spots Near Gatlinburg, Tennessee
8. Lexington, Kentucky
Why you should go: two words — bourbon and horses.
I’m not even certain I have to go into much detail to convince you to head to Lexington for your next vacation. This Kentucky town has it all. Is it on the Kentucky Bourbon Trail? Yes. Is it also on the Brewgrass Trail? Also, yes. Is it home to the best horse farms in the country? Why, yes! Yes, it is!
Seriously, if I don’t have you convinced yet then I’m not sure I can help you. I don’t even enjoy horse racing but just typing up this article makes me want to go buy a big, gaudy hat with some matching gloves and southern finery. In case you need some nudging though, head to Lexington in early June to witness the Festival of the Bluegrass. The state is known for this genre of music for a reason.
Related Read: 7 Unique Places to Stay in Kentucky
9. Salem, Massachusetts
Why you should go: more than just witches.
Most people likely have heard of this place but it’s more than witch trials and a place to visit on Halloween. And if you get a chance to visit on Halloween, DO IT! There are plenty of witchy things and museums to tour when you’re in town if that’s what you desire. But Salem is so much more!
For the literary enthusiast in your party, take a trip to The House of Seven Gables. It’s modeled after the book written by Nathaniel Hawthorne of the same name. Visit the grounds of Fort Sewall if you’re more of a military buff and want to learn about the Fort’s role in the Revolutionary War. For the kids (or the kids-at-heart), check out the Willows Arcade while nature lovers will adore High Rock Tower and Breakheart Reservation. Lastly, check out Lyceum Hall where Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated the long-distance phone call to an audience.
But, I get it, you’re likely vacationing in Salem because of all the cool things related to witches and spooky things. If that’s the case, take one of the dozens of tours (preferably one at night) and visit as many shops in town. The two most eclectic places to get your macabre fix are The Cauldron Black, The Coven’s Cottage, and Enchanted.
10. Mystic, Connecticut
Why you should go: lots of history and tons of food and drink options.
Julia Roberts thought Mystic was so amazing, one of her first movies was called Mystic Pizza. Maybe the movie wasn’t the best but that pizza place is still going strong in this seaside Connecticut’s small town. And, yes, it’s still called Mystic Pizza.
Other famous folks have either lived in or used Mystic as an operational base including Bob Ballard, world-renowned oceanographer. He was most famous for discovering the Titanic and held an exhibit for multiple years at the Mystic Aquarium. To learn more about the history of the area, you can step back in time at the Mystic Seaport Museum and Village. There are woodcarvers, shipsmiths, and coopers who can answer all your questions — except anything about the modern age since they’ll be in character.
You’ll need a variety of dining options for your Mystic vacation. While downtown you can choose from pub food at the Harp and Hound or more fine dining options like The Mariner or the S&P Oyster Bar. Grab an ice cream cone on especially hot days at the famed Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream shop. Cap off your southeastern CT vacation at Olde Mistick Village to grab a farewell gift or simply to feed the ducks in the pond.
More East Coast Adventures
Get epic travel ideas delivered to your inbox with Weekend Wanderer, our newsletter inspiring more than 10,000 readers every week.
Seen in: Travel