Travel Insights Blog
Travel Insights Blog
Choosing where to spend your precious vacation time is never easy, especially when you only have a week or two to spare.
With summer coming in hot, it’s tempting to book the next flight to the nearest beach.
But let’s face it, laying out all day with some light reading and a fruity drink doesn’t always make for the kind of trip you’ll remember when you’re 80. To discover new sights, cultures and flavors, a city trip might be the way to go — until you’re pushing your way through sweaty crowds of fellow tourists, no AC in sight. Suddenly, the beach doesn’t sound so boring after all.
Then again, why choose when you can have both? In this series, we’ll be scouring the world for the best beach spots that also offer a rich cultural experience. Whether you’re traveling with a group and need something for everyone, or just like to spice it up day to day when you travel, there’s a little bit of everything here. Rediscover world-famous cities like Miami and San Diego in a new light, and explore hidden gems that might not be on your radar yet, like Todos Santos and Cannon Beach. Without further ado, meet 7 standout vacation spots to add to your travel wishlist — starting with North America.
San Diego might not be a go-to beach getaway with rivals like Mexico and Florida nearby, but maybe it should be. With two of California’s top-ranked beaches — La Jolla Shores and Coronado Beach — this SoCal city boasts some of the most stunning coastline in the region. The calm, clear waters and long, pristine shorelines make these San Diego spots perfect for a beach day — and for the more adventurous, La Jolla Cove is famous for its snorkeling.
Just behind Coronado Beach is the island’s main claim to fame — the historic Hotel del Coronado, the stage of the classic 1959 Marilyn Monroe film, Some Like it Hot. You’re guaranteed to feel like Hollywood royalty strutting through its elegant courtyards. Just ten minutes inland from Coronado lies Balboa Park, the country’s largest urban cultural park featuring lush gardens, outdoor exhibits, museums for every possible interest, and the famous San Diego Zoo. There’s lots to do for free, from touring the open-air studios of more than 200 artists at the Spanish Village Art Center, to exploring the House of Pacific Relations International Cottages, a historic exhibition from 1935 representing countries like Peru, Iran, the Slovak Republic and the Philippines.
Best time to visit: August and September are Southern California’s hottest months, so consider booking then if you’re hoping for a swim. May and June can often be chilly and cloudy thanks to June Gloom, but otherwise, expect mild temperatures year-round, and even occasional bouts of beach weather in winter months like January and February.
All the way across the continent, Portland (no, not the one in Portlandia) charms tourists with its rugged, old-world feel. Whether you’re on the hunt for a whale sighting, a fresh lobster roll, or a really good beer, Portland has all that and more. Old meets new on the historic Commercial Street, which traces the waterfront along the Old Port, still in operation today. While you’re downtown, stop by the Portland Museum of Art for rotating exhibits of world-class artists, or get your culture fix strolling through local galleries and boutiques.
For an outdoorsy adventure, spend the day exploring Maine’s beaches, studded with lighthouses straight out of a Wes Anderson movie, or walk the Eastern Promenade overlooking Casco Bay. Then, top off the day with some local seafood and a beer — or a few — from one of Portland’s famous local breweries. For the seriously crafty, book a walking beer tour or hop aboard the Maine Brews Cruise for a guided extravaganza.
Best time to visit: Maine summers span from May to September, with July and August as the high — and hot, and humid — season. To beat the crowds but still get the summer sun, consider booking for June or September.
Land-locked Santa Fe might not be known for its beaches, but there are several nearby desert lakes to give you a break from the desert heat. About an hour’s drive from town, Abiquiú Lake is a popular choice for locals and visitors, with crystal-clear waters surrounded by stunning red rock cliffs. Cochiti Lake is even closer, about 45 minutes from Santa Fe. This picturesque lake is perfect for swimming, boating, and fishing, and also has hiking trails and picnic areas. If you’re willing to venture a bit farther, several other lakes are within a day’s trip from Santa Fe, including Lake Katherine, a pristine alpine lake at the end of a challenging hike.
Santa Fe’s stunning landscapes have inspired artists for centuries, putting this small town on the global art map. Old and new cultures blend in the historic downtown surrounding the Palace of the Governors, where indigenous artists sell their creations in an open air market. Learn more about the area’s Native American history and culture at the several local museums dedicated to indigenous art and culture, and if you visit in August, you might catch the largest Native American art fair in the world.
Next, discover one America’s most renowned artists, Georgia O’Keeffe, at her namesake museum in downtown Santa Fe, which houses an extensive collection of her paintings and archival materials. Finally, don’t miss Canyon Road, the world-famous street with more than 100 galleries and studios, one of the highest concentrated art markets in the world.
You’re bound to be hungry after all that exploring, so grab a green chile stew, enchilada, or tamale at one of Santa Fe’s local restaurants — or from a street vendor. For fresh produce, delicious pastries and snacks, and one-of-a-kind souvenirs or gifts like a chile ristra, stop by the local farmer’s market on Saturdays.
Best time to visit: June through August is peak summer in the New Mexico desert, which means long days and plenty of outdoor adventures (hello, swimming weather), but temperatures can get up to the 90s during the day. For a milder trip, consider booking for late spring (April or May) or early fall (September or October).
Miami might bring to mind a Spring Breakers-style vacation — party culture in all its decadent glory. But there’s more to the Florida coast than bikinis, clubs and illegal substances. Miami Beach, with its year-round sun and turquoise waters of the Atlantic, brings the heat in more ways than one. In fact, it’s a cultural hotspot, famous for its art and architecture, including more than 800 Art Deco buildings built in the 1920s and 30s. The Miami Design Preservation League offers a highly-rated walking tour of the area — including a glimpse at the infamous Versace Mansion, recently converted into an elite hotel for the likes of the Kardashians. But don’t worry, even if the opulent suites are out of your price range, Miami Beach is home to hundreds of mid-century style boutique hotels and rooftop bars with funky vibes and stunning ocean views, where you can lounge by the pool with a mojito.
Next up on the cultural itinerary, head just off the island to ICA Miami, a top contemporary art museum showcasing cutting-edge, experimental work from around the world. While you’re in the area, explore the high-end boutiques and art galleries of Miami’s Design District, or venture a few miles south to Wynwood Walls, a one-of-a-kind outdoor museum filled with murals and street art, updated each year.
Finally, for a calm oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the city, decompress at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, known for its butterfly garden and Japanese garden. It offers free entry and champions a range of sustainable initiatives, including rainwater irrigation and composting.
Best time to visit: April, May and June bring milder weather and fewer crowds, while July through October brings peak heat, humidity and hurricanes — though the warm water makes this the best time for swimming. Winter and spring is peak tourist season, with frozen northerners from all over the continent flocking to Miami’s sunny beaches.
Just a quick flight from the US mainland, Puerto Rico makes for the perfect Caribbean getaway — and San Juan, its capital, might be one of the most underrated vacation spots in the region. While other islands like the Bahamas, St. Barths and Turks and Caicos are famous for their crystal-clear waters, sandy beaches, and swanky resorts, Puerto Rico has them all beat when it comes to culture.
One of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, San Juan has endless history to explore, including the old Spanish forts and UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal. Once you’ve checked the history off the list, there’s plenty more contemporary culture to explore — tour Casa Bacardi, the Cathedral of Rum; see (or dance!) some salsa; then stop in at any of the outstanding local restaurants to sample some Puerto Rican cuisine, a fusion of indigenous Taíno, Spanish and African flavors. Or, simply set out for a stroll through the colorful streets of Old San Juan and see where the day takes you.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Caribbean vacation without the beach. San Juan, and Puerto Rico as a whole, offer countless beaches, each more picture-perfect than the next, but one local standout is Balneario El Escambron, with calm water for swimming and some of the best snorkeling and scuba diving on the island.
Best times to visit: Tourist season is October through April, with mild weather and more crowded beaches, hotels, and restaurants — but also a more vibrant nightlife scene. For a calmer vacation, try spring or summer, but note that May through August are the hottest months. Also keep in mind that hurricane season officially spans from June to November, with mid-August to early October the riskiest months.
If you’re feeling a more relaxed vacation, but still want to enjoy stunning nature and top-notch food and culture, look no further. Todos Santos, a small town on the Pacific Coast about an hour from Cabo, might just be the next Tulum. The only one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Magicos,” or magical towns, in Baja California, Todos Santos has long been an under-the-radar spot for surfers and artists, drawn by the great waves, stunning scenery, and laid back vibes.
Established in the early 1700s by Jesuit missionaries, Todos Santos became one of the largest sugarcane producers in the region; the mills have since closed down, but their ruins still stand around the city. Start in the charming city center, its bright facades adorned with colorful papel picado banners. Take your time ambling through the Art District, lined with studios, galleries and shops where you can mingle with the locals and shop for unique souvenirs. Don’t miss Galeria Logan, La Sonrisa de la Muerte, and Galeria de Todos Santos.
When you get hungry, stop in for some house roasted coffee and pastries, fresh seafood, barbecue and local beers. There’s no shortage of fine dining in Todos Santos, but don’t miss the local street food favorite — the birria stand that sets up each morning in the park in the center of town. Get there early — they sell out fast!
The beaches near Todos Santos are known for their sparkling clear waters and rugged rocky coves — and their wildlife. Head to Palm Beach to hang out with some wild horses, and get some hands-on experience with tortoise conversation at Tortugueros Las Playitas. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some whales — whale-watching season lasts from December to April. And for a more active way to explore the coast, try a hike, many of which take you up into the hills for a birds-eye view of the area.
Best time to visit: Peak tourist season in Baja lasts from December to March, though unlike Cabo, Todos Santos stays relatively quiet and laid back year-round — at least for now. May and June offer the best all-around temperature for exploring the outdoors, with temperatures peaking in the 90s in August.
Another hidden gem on the Pacific Coast, this small town an hour and a half north of Portland is home to one of Oregon’s most iconic landmarks: Haystack Rock. Formed by lava flows, it attracts photographers and tourists from all over the world — so much so that National Geographic ranked Cannon Beach the 10th top beach in the world. But it’s not just humans who flock here — Haystack Rock is home to gorgeous tidepools full of marine life, as well as a variety of birds, like the adorable tufted puffin. For more active outdoor adventures, explore the hiking scene in Ecola State Park, full of towering forests and magical, misty beaches.
The town of Cannon Beach might be on the small side, but there’s no shortage of culture, starting with dozens of boutiques and art galleries. The Cannon Beach History Center and Museum offers self-guided walking tour maps, and puts on an annual cottage tour each September. Actually, no matter when you visit, you’re bound to stumble on a one-of-a-kind festival, from Get Lit at the Beach in April to the annual Sandcastle Contest in June, or the Stormy Weather Arts Festival in November.
Best time to visit: Oregon tends to be cool and rainy, so the best beach weather comes in the summer months, with temperatures peaking in the 70s and 80s in July and August. For a respite from the intense heat that hits most of North America in late summer, consider heading to the Oregon coast in July or August — you’re not likely to get intense heat waves here.
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