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The concept of erecting a wooden oceanfront pathway as a tourist attraction began when 19th-century developers decided to promote Atlantic City as a resort destination. Even if they didn’t want to get sand in their shoes, visitors to the Jersey Shore could stroll the length of the beach, admiring the view and breathing in the fresh salt air. The nation’s first boardwalk opened here on June 26, 1870, and in the ensuing years, American waterfront cities have perfected the boardwalk concept. In doing so, they have elevated it from a simple wooden walkway to a neon-lit vacation in and of itself, kitted out with arcade games and fresh-pulled taffy, live music, and thrilling rides along one flank — and spectacular beach views on the other. Here are six other famous boardwalks in the U.S. for your summer vacation inspiration.
Coney Island Beach & Boardwalk (New York, New York)
Though New York City’s history and development are tied to water — the Hudson and East Rivers, the Long Island Sound, the New York Harbor, and the Atlantic Ocean — when you think of the city, you’re more likely to picture the skyscrapers of Times Square than a beach. But with all that shoreline, the city does have some surprisingly memorable beaches. The most famous, Coney Island in Brooklyn, is the site of a boardwalk that feels uniquely New York: noisy, thrilling, and kitschy; simultaneously sophisticated and rough; and filled with unbeatable people watching.
Though the boardwalk’s heyday was in the first half of the 20th century, Coney Island is still a popular destination in summer months, when its amusement parks and sandy beaches lure city dwellers by the thousands. Landmarks such as Nathan’s Famous (site of the annual hot-dog eating contest), the Wonder Wheel, and the Cyclone wooden roller coaster anchor the boardwalk, while salsa dancers, strolling retirees, canoodling teenagers, and sunbathing beachgoers share its wide stretches. And beyond the sandy beach and riprap jetties, the blue waters of the Atlantic beckon.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Santa Cruz, California)
The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk was once a mere sideshow to the main attraction — the mile-long sandy beachfront — and began as a saltwater pool inside a bathhouse. At the time, saltwater bathing was thought to bring good health, and some practitioners were interested in the benefits of seawater (without the sand, ocean currents, or harsh sunlight). Soon, other businesses sprang up around the bathhouse — souvenir shops, photo studios, arcade games, a bandstand, and even a casino — and by the time the boardwalk was officially established in 1907, these eclipsed the bathhouse altogether. (Visit Neptune’s Kingdom, the indoor arcade and museum building at the end of the boardwalk, to see signs of the building’s former life as a bathhouse.)
Though it has weathered as many ups and downs over the years as its famous Giant Dipper roller coaster, the historic boardwalk has undeniable appeal, resplendent in neon and California sunlight and cooled by a bracing Pacific breeze. Don’t miss the deep-fried artichoke hearts (grown locally and fried on-site) or a ride on the candy-colored Sky Glider cars that cruise over the boardwalk on cables.
Navy Pier (Chicago, Illinois)
Sometimes boardwalks run parallel to the water, and sometimes, as in the case of Maine’s Old Orchard Beach and California’s Santa Monica Pier, they jut out into the water atop docks or piers. Navy Pier is one of the perpendicular types of attractions, and it also has the distinction of being the only boardwalk on this list located on a lake rather than an ocean. The buildings on Navy Pier were originally erected on an existing shipping pier to house soldiers and sailors and military operations during World War I, a use that continued through the end of World War II.
The pier’s position, at the mouth of the Chicago River near the city's downtown area and the museums along the lakefront, made it attractive to developers. In 1995, they transformed the 50-acre site into the amusement and entertainment hub that it is today. Navy Pier’s distinctive profile — with an enormous 196-foot Ferris wheel, the merrily lit and tilting mushroom top of a swing chair ride, and the pointed and striped canopy of a carousel — lends an air of playfulness to the city’s imposing skyline.
Santa Monica Pier (Santa Monica, California)
The Atlantic City and Coney Island boardwalks may be more historic, but it’s hard to imagine a more classic American boardwalk than the Santa Monica Pier west of Los Angeles. The pier is topped with a tangle of primary-color rides and attractions, as haphazardly arranged as a child’s tinker toy construction. After a day in the brilliant Southern California sun, the whole joyous affair is lit in the evening by a winning combination of neon lights and the Pacific sunset.
The western terminus of the famous Route 66, the pier has been a favorite Hollywood location since Charlie Chaplin first used it in 1914. In the modern era, it has hosted the cinematic likes of the Muppets, Forrest Gump, Iron Man, and Sharknado. You’ll find a Ferris wheel, dozens of carnival rides and games, T-shirt shops, a historic carousel with hand-carved wooden horses, and even an ocean education center and aquarium called Heal the Bay.
Old Orchard Beach Pier (Old Orchard Beach, Maine)
The ocean waters off Maine are so brisk that even in high summer, beachgoers usually keep their dips in the Atlantic brief. So it makes sense that other diversions along the coast would lure people to the beach more than the water itself. In 1898, Old Orchard Beach, a town with a seven-mile stretch of sand to promote, constructed a 1,825-foot-long entertainment pier to draw tourists. Three grand pavilions offered visitors the chance to see concerts, attend dances, and gamble at a casino.
In the ensuing years, storm damage convinced the town to shorten the pier by 1,000 feet, but the fun went on. Now, either side of the pier is lined with T-shirt and souvenir shops; comedy and music clubs; restaurants and food vendors (lobster rolls are a must); and the amusement park and arcades at Palace Playland, which has been in business since 1902.
Ocean Front Walk at Venice Beach (Los Angeles, California)
A mere two miles south of the Santa Monica Pier, the Ocean Front Walk at Venice Beach offers many of the same familiar elements as other boardwalks, with an added flavor all its own. First, the boardwalk is not elevated — it’s just a wide paved walkway so you can easily step off into the sand or grass along the way to watch volleyball, witness unbelievable stunts at the skatepark, or ogle bodybuilders. (The area is nicknamed Muscle Beach for a reason — it’s where a young Arnold Schwarzenegger was a regular.)
But perhaps the biggest reason to visit is the one-of-a-kind culture of the boardwalk — a delightful mix of quirky street entertainers, attention-seeking philosopher-poets, and tanned surfers who look like they’ve just arrived from central casting. This is the wild-eyed, hippie, health-nut version of Californian culture come to life — and it’s not to be missed.