Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cape Town’s beaches is not that they exist—after all, the city sits on a peninsula between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans—but that they’re so popular. Remember that this is an extremely rugged part of the world, which has water cold enough to support penguins and perhaps the highest concentration of great white sharks anywhere. But that doesn’t stop South Africans from flocking to the beach in droves. Clifton Beach, actually a series of four smaller beaches divided by granite boulders, attracts a sometimes painfully trendy crowd of fashionable sunbathers. But you won’t mind them a bit when you see the view here: Nicknamed Cape Town’s St. Tropez, these white sand beaches sit in the shadow of Lion’s Head mountain, lining turquoise waters filled with yachts. Though it’s perfectly safe to swim here, do so at your own risk—the water remains downright frigid even during the summer.
Called the “Venice of the North,” Amsterdam boasts 165 canals, so water is a constant presence in the lives of locals. But in the hip new suburb of IJburg, built on a series of artificial islands just east of the city, you’ll have a completely different waterfront experience. Instead of canals, the neighborhood overlooks the IJmeer, a wide lake leading out to the open sea. Accessible by tram or bike, the neighborhood is home to Blijburg aan Zee, a popular artificial swimming beach opened in 2003. The beach has become something of a scene with DJ sets throughout the summer, art exhibitions, sand castle-building contests, and drinking around the campfire. Best of all, unlike the artificial beaches that crop up during the summer in places like Paris, Berlin and London, this 820-foot-long stretch of sand feels like a “real” beach instead of an urban consolation prize.
Thanks to a traditional Muslim culture, the conservative United Arab Emirates may not scream top beach destination. But if you take a few small steps to respect the local customs here, you’ll be welcomed with open arms at Dubai’s many gorgeous beaches. Modesty is the name of the game here, so you’ll want to leave behind your skimpy bathing suit in favor of a more modest t-shirt and shorts or bring along a shawl for covering bare shoulders. Located on a calm creek separating Dubai from the emirate of Sharjah, Al Mamzar Beach Park is a 262-acre oasis of white sand and palm trees on the Persian Gulf, with five separate beaches, swimming pools, barbecues, green spaces and rentable bikes to get you around between them. Be warned that Wednesdays are reserved for women and children.
Until you’ve seen Chicago’s waterfront with your own eyes, it’s impossible to imagine just how gorgeous a beach can be in the middle of the Midwest. But they don’t call Lake Michigan a “Great” Lake for nothing. If you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is the ocean, with 26 miles of beaches to show for it. Located in Lincoln Park, Montrose Beach is the largest in the city, with a portion set aside as Chicago’s first off-leash dog beach. Though you’re only minutes from downtown, you’ll find a surprisingly diverse array of wildlife here, including migrating shorebirds, snowy owls and thousands of purple martins in the native dune ecosystem on the beach’s far east end. In addition to bird watching, Montrose is a great place to kite board and surf—yes, you can even catch a major wave on America’s Third Coast!
You might imagine Hong Kong as a chaotic jungle of glass and steel skyscrapers. And while this city of 7 million residents certainly has a hectic side, there’s a surprisingly diverse array of natural landscapes—from hidden beach coves to massive peaks—on Hong Kong’s mainland peninsula and 263 islands. But you don’t have to flee to its farthest reaches to find an amazingly authentic beach. Reachable by public minibus, Shek O Beach is only about 10 miles from the city’s downtown business district, right on the southeast corner of Hong Kong Island (their answer to Manhattan). Unlike other island beaches, which have become overrun with tourists and luxury high-rises, Shek O still feels like a village, albeit quite a luxurious one. The crescent-shaped, golden-sand beach is backed by shade trees and rocky headlands that gave this area its name—the odd sounding Shek O is actually Cantonese for “rocky bay.”
It’s not easy being Uruguay. Roughly the size of Missouri and tucked between geographical and cultural giants Argentina and Brazil, South America’s second smallest nation often gets overlooked. Though the swanky beach resort of Punta del Este is beginning to attract the attention of in-the-know jetsetters, most travelers have yet to catch on to the charms of the capital city of Montevideo, a three-hour ferry ride from Buenos Aires. This city of just over one million boasts an expanse of white sand beaches along the Río de la Plata, connected for 14 miles by a waterfront promenade known as La Rambla. At the eastern end of the path, you’ll hit the city’s most accessible beach, Playa Pocitos, which was one of the first seaside beach resorts in all of South America, dating back to the 19th century. Nowadays, lined by apartment buildings and palm trees, this urban beach is a buzzing social hub, where locals come together to play volleyball and beach soccer.
With a population of almost 14 million, Mumbai ranks as the most populous city in the world, as well as the financial, cultural and entertainment capital of India. It’s a city that’s big in every sense of the word. But what most people might not realize is that it’s also quite a big beach town. About 11 miles north of downtown, Juhu Beach offers a carnivalesque atmosphere in an affluent suburb that’s home to many famous Bollywood celebrities. And they don’t have to travel far, considering how popular Juhu is among filming location scouts. The palm-lined beach overlooking the Arabian Sea can get crowded on the weekends, but this isn’t the kind of place where you’ll want to just lounge on the sand anyway. Instead, this Indian take on Venice Beach or Coney Island is a riot of henna tattoo artists, dancing monkeys, camel rides and cricket matches. Best of all, it’s the perfect place to try out some of Mumbai’s most popular street food dishes, such as bhel puri (crunchy spiced puffed rice and fried chickpea noodles) and pani puri (deep-fried bread filled with tangy water).
Long beloved by New Yorkers as an easily accessible escape from the urban grind (just take the A train!), funky Rockaway Beach is just one stretch of the nearly 14 miles of beaches run by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation. Beyond the five boroughs, however, many Americans may not have even known about New York’s beaches until they were thrust into the national spotlight by Superstorm Sandy. It all but destroyed Rockaway’s boardwalk and the surrounding neighborhood in October 2012. But locals weren’t going to let their favorite beach hangout go without a fight: After $140 million in cleanup and reconstruction, the “Irish Riviera” is still very much a work in progress, but much of the beach was reopened for business by Memorial Day 2013. Located on a thin peninsula in Queens, Rockaway is the only official surfing beach in the city and has recently attracted crowds of hipsters and foodies, thanks to newfangled concessions like Rockaway Tacos and Veggie Island.
With SoCal standouts like Venice Beach and Santa Monica grabbing all the attention, it can be easy to forget that San Francisco boasts its own slate of urban beaches, easily accessible from many of the peninsula’s residential neighborhoods. Part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Ocean Beach offers 3.5 miles of sand running along the edge of Golden Gate Park, perfect for flying kites or watching shorebirds, such as the threatened snowy plover. The beach remains shrouded in fog for much of the late spring and summer, but fall often brings with it warmer, sunnier days. Even when the sun’s shining, however, the waters offshore remain remarkably cold with dangerous currents and massive waves that are not to be trifled with unless you’re an experienced surfer. Instead, you’re better off spending time with friends around a bonfire at one of the newly installed fire rings.
Sweden’s sleek capital may not immediately conjure images of beachfront fun—this is Scandinavia, after all. But consider that this city is actually an archipelago made up of 30,000 tiny islands, many of which are lined with sandy shores, and you’ll begin to understand why so many Swedes hit the beach when the mercury rises and summer days stretch to almost 21 hours long. Right in the heart of the city, Långholmen Island housed the country’s largest prison until 1975. It’s since been partially demolished and converted into a hostel, and a leafy stretch of sand on the northern shore is now one of the most popular swimming spots in the city. Interestingly, the island has the prison to thank for much of its current natural beauty: Shortly after the jail opened in 1724, inmates helped cover this formerly rocky island in mud dredged from area waters, which allowed it to be transformed into the lush garden isle it is today.
There’s something inherently serious about a place like Jerusalem, a major holy site for Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Though it’s only about an hour away by car, Tel Aviv feels much more closely aligned with Miami or the French Riviera—it’s vibrant, cosmopolitan and remarkably secular. Founded in 1909, youthful Tel Aviv has none of Jerusalem’s holy sites, and is instead brimming with nightclubs, art galleries, Bauhaus architecture and six miles of Mediterranean beachfront. Centrally located Gordon Beach is one of the most popular on the Tel Aviv strip, and it’s almost always filled with tourists and local families, who can often be seen playing matkot, an Israeli sport in which players use a wooden paddle to hit a small rubber ball back and forth as many times as possible.
It’s hard to imagine a Winter Olympics host city that also boasts a vibrant beach culture, but Vancouver has always been a place that defies assumptions. Though the British Columbia city is north of drizzly Seattle, area waters still reach summer highs of over 70°F—not much different than you’ll find on, say, the Jersey Shore—thanks to the warming effects of the Kuroshio Current coming across the Pacific. Only a five-minute drive from the heart of downtown, Kitsilano (or “Kits”) Beach is one of the city’s most accessible places to hit the sand, attracting sporty types with seven volleyball courts, a grassy lawn for Frisbee, windsurfing and stand-up paddleboard rentals and the scenic 14-mile Seawall, perfect for cyclists, runners and walkers. And if that water proves just a little too chilly, there’s always the onsite heated saltwater pool—at almost three times bigger than an Olympic pool, it ranks as the longest in all of Canada.