The Most Beautiful Coastal Towns
So it’s especially uplifting when you come upon Ilulissat, a collection of low-slung buildings painted in vibrant hues of red, blue, and yellow. It’s one of many beautiful towns that have sprung up on coastlines around the world—and that are welcoming an influx of travelers.
“When I grew up there, tourism was not a very big thing in Ilulissat, but it is now, luckily without the town losing its soul or changing its core identity as an important fishing town in Greenland,” says Malik Milfeldt from Visit Greenland.
Being by the coast can conjure up memories of carefree days and a feeling of possibility. In our ever-connected world, it’s a relief to look up from those screens and out onto a soothing expanse of blue.
The allure of a coastal getaway drew about 250 million visitors to the Mediterranean alone in 2008 (the most recent data available), according to the UN World Tourism Organization. They come to towns like Manarola, Italy, whose cliff-side homes practically tumble into the sea. Yet on the other side of the Mediterranean await lesser-known charmers like Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia, where blue-and-white buildings line the stone streets.
In the U.S., coastal states reap the most tourism dollars, not just because of urban powerhouses like New York and San Francisco, but also thanks to quaint small towns such as Camden, ME. Like all the places that we’ve featured, it has fewer than 15,000 residents.
Our coast-to-coast tour includes a stop to the east of Camden, across the Bay of Fundy and beyond to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. "There's a feeling of enchantment and mystique here,” says Shelah Allen, co-owner of Lunenburg Walking Tours. “It's the seafaring culture and the ocean and all the mysteries about it.”
Her description could apply to many of the world’s beautiful coastal towns. See which one calls out to you.
You wouldn’t know at first glance, but this idyllic town in Cornwall has a scandalous past. In the 18th century, Polperro’s secluded coastline was a frequent entry point for smugglers, who brought in alcohol, tobacco, and other contraband. They left few traces behind; traditional fishermen’s cottages, dating back to the 16th century, line the narrow streets, and the downtown area has boutiques and galleries. But you can learn about Polperro’s colorful history at the Heritage Museum of Smuggling and Fishing.
Saint George’s, Bermuda
The Town of Saint George dates back to the early 17th century. Today, you can visit St. Peter’s, the oldest Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere, built in 1612, and the Unfinished Church, with its majestic stone arches. Other buildings have a decidedly tropical feel: white limestone roofs and exteriors painted in vibrant hues of pink, yellow, blue, and orange.
Italy has no shortage of pretty coastal towns, but we’re partial to Manarola. The tiny Cinque Terre village dates back to the Middle Ages and consists of a jumble of bright cliff-side homes overlooking the sea. Manarola—and the rest of Cinque Terre—is also known for producing white wine and olive oil.
If you were asked to picture a quintessential New England coastal town, chances are you’d envision Camden. The former manufacturing village occupies the green shores of Penobscot Bay, near the base of Mount Battie. Historic windjammers and dozens of other boats bob in Camden’s harbor. The downtown business area, rebuilt after an 1892 blaze and designated the Great Fire Historic District by the National Register of Historic Places, is filled with handsome brick buildings. And white clapboard homes line the residential streets.
At more than 2,000 years old, Kotor is Montenegro’s oldest town. Its historic area has narrow streets and stone buildings dating back to that time. Besides the impressive architecture, Kotor’s surroundings are also quite idyllic. The town sits near the base of the rugged Mount Lovcen, in a quiet corner of the Bay of Kotor.
Lunenburg, on Nova Scotia’s southern coast, is one of the few North American towns designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was founded by the British in 1753 and still has a colonial feel. The fishing and shipbuilding town’s buildings were traditionally painted black and white—those being the cheapest paint colors. In recent years, people began choosing other colors to make their homes and businesses stand out, giving historic Lunenburg a cheerier look.
Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia
It’s hard to believe Sidi Bou Said is just minutes outside Tunis, Tunisia’s largest city. The picturesque Mediterranean town feels worlds away, with its bougainvillea-draped stone streets and blue-accented, whitewashed buildings. Sidi Bou Said is also known for its white-sand beaches and impressive harbor.
Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí supposedly found inspiration in this village on Spain’s Costa Brava. He spent time in Cadaqués while growing up and later had his home and studio (now a museum) in neighboring Port Lligat. Cadaqués has a rustic, yet sophisticated charm. Whitewashed houses with tiled roofs line the rocky coast, and art galleries continue to flourish.
Cua Van, Vietnam
Located in Vietnam’s dramatic Halong Bay, with lush mountains as a backdrop, this little village is completely composed of floating homes. About 700 people (traditionally fishermen) live in anchored houseboats, with kids attending a floating school. Cua Van has become a popular tourist attraction, as visitors want to see this unusual way of life for themselves.
In the 1700s, Greenland began the tradition of color-coding its buildings: hospitals were yellow, police stations black, fisheries blue. The colors were the same from town to town. Folks eventually chose more varied pigments for their dwellings. In the archetypal fishing village Ilulissat, the rainbow-hued architecture makes a stark contrast to the Arctic surroundings. Ilulissat is also home to an ice fjord of the same name: a collection of giant icebergs that you can see from the streets.
One of T+L’s most-pinned travel photos features Oia, a town on the northern coast of Santorini. With just one glance, you can see why Oia appeals to so many travelers. Perched on cliffs above the sea, it’s the romantic blue-and-white Greek town that has launched thousands of cruise-ship vacations.
Paternoster, South Africa
The maritime way of life is firmly rooted in the DNA of Paternoster, about 90 miles north of Cape Town. Most buildings are classic fishermen’s cottages, white with dark roofs. The town enforces a strict architectural code to preserve its character. Fittingly, you can get great seafood here. Paternoster hosts a Crayfish and Seafood Festival each November, featuring South African favorites like snoek braai (a regional fish, dried and cooked over coals), potjiekos (seafood stew), and fresh crayfish, cooked to order.
Croatia has other idyllic coastal spots—Trogir, Split, Dubrovnik—but this Istrian town's distinct layout earned it a place on our list. Rovinj's historic center is completely contained within a small peninsula. (It was once the island of Mons Albanus, but the channel between the island and mainland was filled in 1763.) As a result of the tight quarters, buildings are tall, narrow, and close set, with red tiled roofs. Towering above it all is St. Euphemia, a stately Baroque church and Rovinj’s main landmark.
Reine is one of Europe’s most beautiful villages and among Norway’s most photographed places. Jaunty red wooden cabins (called rorbuer) make up the town, set against the rugged Lofoten Mountains. Reine is also the jumping-off point for exploring Reinefjord, one of northern Norway’s pristine fjords.
Port Fairy, Australia
Don’t drive Australia’s Great Ocean Road without pulling over at the southern town of Port Fairy. The seaside village resembles a 19th-century shipping port, and the National Trust of Australia has designated more than 50 buildings as historic. A stroll will take you past whitewashed fishermen’s cottages and old stone churches. It’s an ideal setting for the Folk Festival, one of the country’s biggest music events, held every year in March.
With its stately hillside homes overlooking the water, Sausalito could be mistaken for an Italian fishing village. But this Bay Area town is just a quick ferry ride from San Francisco, on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Sausalito is known for its floating houseboats—more than 400 docked in five marinas—and an artsy vibe, with galleries, boutiques, and fine restaurants.