A salty sea breeze in your hair, gulls shrieking overhead, and the gentle rumble of waves breaking on the shore—whether you want to ride a Ferris wheel over a bustling boardwalk or get away from it all with a fishing pole in hand, hanging out on a pier is a quintessential coastal activity. Make for the shore to step back in time in Santa Cruz, soak up the sun in Santa Monica, or sip a local craft brew on a quiet dock in Maine. There’s a little wharf for everyone in the good old U.S. of A. Here’s our rundown of the best piers in America.
1. Santa Cruz Wharf, California:
Walk, bike, or drive onto the Santa Cruz Wharf to check out the enticing array of shops, eateries, and activities purveyors offering everything from whale-watching trips to kayaking tours. From there, head over to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, a seaside amusement park where you can ride the clattering wooden Giant Dipper rollercoaster or play old-fashioned carnival games to your heart’s content. On certain nights, the boardwalk goes totally retro and even offers vintage prices, so you can spin around on thrill rides for just a dollar and savor fair snacks like hot dogs and cotton candy at real throwback prices.
2. Santa Monica Pier, California:
A SoCal landmark for more than a century, no trip to LA is complete without some quality time on the Santa Monica Pier. Step under the lights of the iconic entrance gate, ride the Ferris wheel for sky-high views of the Pacific and the city skyline, and check out the outdoor concerts and entertainment on offer. Once you’ve spent all your tokens in the arcade, head to the beach, check out the live music at Rusty’s Surf Ranch, or make your way into Santa Monica’s vibrant shopping and dining district to see and be seen.
3. Morey’s Piers, New Jersey:
For classic seaside amusement with plenty of kitsch and character, it does get much better than Morey’s Piers. And, with not one but two beachfront waterparks, the Atlantic’s northern chill won’t keep you from getting in on some aquatic fun between bites of the famous spuds at Curley’s Fries. Go to Morey’s Piers during the day to have breakfast on the Ferris wheel, or check out the rides at night, when the neon glow of the brightly lit attractions makes for an even brighter spectacle.
4. Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, Texas:
You know what’s fun? Giant swing rides. You know what’s more fun? Giant swing rides over the water. The Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier is the Gulf Coast’s answer to Coney Island, and this nostalgic Texas pier—rebuilt in 2012 after being destroyed by a hurricane in 1961—is an iconic attraction for Lone Star State families.
5. Pier 60, Clearwater, Florida:
Dolphin-watch. Check out the street performers. And definitely, definitely go in the evening, when the pier is the perfect vantage point for taking in a southern sunset as beautiful as they come. Local artisans set up shop starting 2 hours before sunset and hang out until 2 hours after nightfall, so you have a 4-hour window to immerse yourself in the beachy ambiance, see fire jugglers doing their thing, and listen to live music.
6. Historic Naples Pier, Florida:
It’s had a storied past and it’s fair share of hurricane-related rebuilds, but the Naples Pier is just as much the heart of this Florida resort town as it ever was. It used to house a hotel, and it was once the dock for fastest steamship on the coast, but today the Naples Pier is all about leisure—fishing and taking in the view. Go during the day to cast a line, stroll the length of the pier to look back at the city and the beach, or grab your camera and an ice cream cone to catch the purple hues of the sky as the sun goes down.
7. Pier 39, San Francisco, California:
This pier’s so nice, even the local sea lions have set up shop. Right in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf in the oldest part of the city, San Francisco’s Pier 39 lures visitors looking for entertainment, waterfront views, and sourdough bread bowls brimming with fresh cioppino. There’s no shortage of family-friendly attractions—from off-beat museums to arcades—and at happy hour, the grown-ups can kick back over oysters and craft brews while the gulls call, the sea lions bark, and the ferry shuttles back and forth from Alcatraz just outside the window.
8. Navy Pier, Chicago:
You don’t need to be on a seaboard to have a beach, and Chicago’s vibrant waterfront takes maximum advantage of the Lake Michigan shoreline. Navy Pier is Chi-town’s number one tourist attraction, packed with more than 50 acres of attractions, eateries, shops, and parks. For the last century, visitors have flocked to the pier for pageants, events, and even time behind bars (the pier was temporarily used as a jail for draft dodgers in 1918). Today, it’s worth a visit for the summertime ice-skating, the museums, the botanical gardens, and the outdoor art—not to mention killer views of the Windy City’s skyline and a dazzling nighttime fireworks show.
9. The Slipway, Thomaston, Maine:
East Coast city slickers have known it for ages—Maine, you guys, is the place to be. Head to a tiny, tucked-away cove in the summertime haven of Thomaston and snag a seat in the sun at The Slipway, a laidback eatery whose dining room stretches the length of an old wooden pier. Have a lobster roll, snack on some calamari, and try to pick your favorite of Maine’s best craft brews as you watch the boats bob in the ha-ba (that’s harbor with a Maine accent—sorry).
Which of these piers will you land on next?