Surf City: NYC's Best Beach Spots

Heather Liang

(Updated 05/13/2015)
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While a trip to the beach might not automatically spring to mind when many visitors plan their trips to New York City, it's actually one of the most enjoyable, authentic and affordable experiences you can have during a summertime stay. The City boasts 14 miles of beaches, the majority of which are easily accessible by public transportation, and we've organized these urban oases by borough for our handy guide to NYC sands. While Staten Island and Brooklyn remain the most beach-rich boroughs, Manhattan, the Bronx and Queens all have something special to bring to the table—including fishing spots, waterfront beer gardens and picnicking escapes on Governors Island. The City's beaches are open beginning Memorial Day weekend, and they close on Labor Day; lifeguards are on duty 10am–6pm during the season. Read on for more details and information on what to do and see at some of NYC's best sand-and-surf destinations.


Due to ongoing restoration efforts, parts of some beaches may be closed. Be sure to check nyc.gov/parks for updates.

South Beach. Photo: Joe Cingrana

Staten Island
Staten Island may be best known for its many acres of parkland, the incredible views from the Staten Island Ferry and Snug Harbor Cultural Center & Botanical Garden—but you may be surprised to learn that this borough has the most beaches of any in New York City. The beaches are free and open to the public, and parking is ample and also comes at no charge; it's no wonder that many people flock here once the warm weather arrives. Staten Island's shore stretches from Fort Wadsworth up north by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge down to the southern tip of the island, all along its eastern border. Beginning up at the top, take a walk, run or bike along the Franklin D. Roosevelt Boardwalk and Beach, a 2.5-mile stretch of strollable beach area that extends down to Great Kills Park. Along the way, be sure to stop and dip your feet in the Atlantic Ocean at South Beach and Midland Beach, where relatively calm waves make for family-friendly place to hang out along the surf. Both beaches also include playgrounds and water fountains, along with seasonal concession stands lining the boardwalk that offer typical beach fare. Farther south is Cedar Grove Beach, more colloquially known as “Gateway Beach,” part of Gateway National Recreation Area and Staten Island's newest beach addition. Located within Great Kills Park, Cedar Grove Beach fell under Parks Department management only within the past few years, making it a sort of hidden gem, though it's been gaining in popularity. Lastly, all the way down toward the very bottom of the south shore you'll find Wolfe's Pond Park, a secluded and more rustic area that not only features beautiful beachfront amenities but also space for barbecuing, playgrounds, tennis courts, dog-friendly areas and places to view wildlife and plant life. 

Brighton Beach. Photo: Will Steacy

Brooklyn
Second on our list of beachiest boroughs is Brooklyn—with four locations where you can sun yourself on the sand or cool off in the ocean. By far the most well-known beach in all of NYC, Coney Island has a long and storied history. Once the largest amusement area in the country, Coney Island hit a rough patch following World War II after some neglect, but in recent years it again has become one of the top places for a true NYC experience. This neighborhood has it all, including nearly three miles of beach property, a boardwalk, amusement park rides (like the famous Cyclone, the new Thunderbolt and Deno's Wonder Wheel), minor-league baseball, playgrounds, bicycling, greenways—and access to venerable restaurants like Nathan's and attractions like the New York Aquarium. Another household name is neighboring Brighton Beach, made famous not only by the 1983 Neil Simon play Brighton Beach Memoirs but also by its delicious Eastern European food, courtesy of the large Russian population that resides here. Brighton Beach features its own small beach, which makes it feel more local and intimate than nearby Coney Island. Travel farther east and you'll hit Manhattan Beach, a more suburban and small-town beach area, good for families, with its playgrounds, sports facilities, dog-friendly spots and barbecuing spaces. Located along the Belt Parkway near Sheepshead Bay is Plumb Beach, a narrow sliver of shorefront that's more suitable for water-based activities than for sunbathing. Known for the abundance of horseshoe crabs that breed here, the beach gets high winds that make conditions ideal for windsurfers and kiteboarders, and the presence of public restrooms and food trucks make it a popular rest stop for bikers traveling along the adjacent Greenway.

Rockaway Beach. Photo: Marley White

Queens
Though Queens can claim to have only two public beach areas, what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Likely the most-referenced NYC beach in pop culture (the Ramones song “Rockaway Beach,” in which it's “not hard, not far to reach”; Seinfeld's “The Marine Biologist” episode), Rockaway Beach is the largest urban stretch of beach in the United States and houses the only two surf beaches in the five boroughs. In addition to places for soaking in the sun and taking a dip in the water, there are areas to fish and play sports, and a long stretch of boardwalk as well as a section of shops and restaurants along Beach 116th Street. (Work continues on the boardwalk and shoreline, which were heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012; updates can be found here, or by calling 311.) Continue out west to the far end of the Rockaways inlet and you'll encounter Jacob Riis Park, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, which was designed in the 1930s as a refuge for poor immigrants who could only access a beach via public transportation that was in close proximity to Manhattan. In 1972 the National Park Service took ownership, and today Jacob Riis Park offers landscaped walkways, boardwalks, ball courts, a pitch-and-putt golf course and concession stands. The large sand beaches here are backed by an art deco bathhouse that was built in 1932—now housing historical exhibitions and serving as the base for ranger-led programs. 

City Island. Photo: Alex Lopez

Bronx
Take a trip to NYC's northernmost borough to experience the “Riviera of New York,” also known as Orchard Beach. Designed in the 1930s as a retreat up north, this sandy beach features 13 sections, totaling just over one mile in length and around 115 acres. The only public beach in the Bronx, Orchard Beach is an extension of the famous Pelham Bay Park—the largest public park in the City—and also includes a promenade with concessions, playgrounds, picnic areas and 26 courts for sports like handball, volleyball and basketball. Unlike at the other beaches we've covered, here you'll be dipping your toes into the Long Island Sound. A favorite of sunbathers in the hot summer weather, Orchard Beach is also a popular destination for a stroll when the weather cools off. Not far off of Pelham Bay Park and Orchard Beach lies City Island, a small island that is only 1.5 mile long and half a mile wide. While there aren't any beaches on City Island, it's a wonderful place to enjoy warm weather: you can rent a boat to go out fishing, learn how to sail at a yacht club or just sit near the water and devour some of the best seafood in NYC. It's also a bicycle-friendly area, with bike paths that provide some spectacular views. The small-town nautical charm of this island can't be matched. Interesting fact about City Island: it is home to many types of birds, particularly aquatic species, including swans, herons, egrets and other gulls.

La Marina. Photo: Marley White

Manhattan
While Manhattan doesn't officially have any natural beaches to speak of, there are beachlike alternatives and some of the most relaxing outdoor oases imaginable in which to enjoy the warm weather in the City. One of New York City's most intriguing spaces, Governors Island is accessible during the summer via a short ferry ride from Lower Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridge Park and showcases some of the most spectacular views of the City skyline that you will ever see. The list of things to do at this former military outpost is extensive: cycling, picnicking, historical tours and plenty of free cultural programming, including music performances and art exhibitions. There's even a beach area and concert venue, Governors Club, offering a bar-grill atmosphere and the occasional ticketed event. Back in Manhattan, check out uptown's La Marina, a sprawling bar-restaurant on the Hudson River in Inwood near the northern tip of Manhattan with a clublike vibe. It has a sandy expanse where you can play Ping-Pong or a pickup game of volleyball or simply savor a cocktail on one of its comfy, canopied lounge chairs. South of there along the Hudson, the West 79th Street Boat Basin is a marina located in Riverside Park. While there's no sandy beach here, the Boat Basin Café is a popular after-work destination to grab some grub and a drink and view the sunset over New Jersey.


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