A visit to one of the best New York beaches is a great way to cool off during the city's sticky summer. The best part: They're some of the best free things to do. Jump on the subway and visit these spots for some much needed weekend getaways. Or if you'd like to go farther out, see our list of off-the-beaten-track beaches, all an hour away or less. The city-run beaches are open for swimming from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
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Find the best New York beaches
NYC’s best-kept secret and lifeguard-free three-mile stretch of clean sand, trees and grassy dunes is so isolated that even on a summer weekend you’ll get a good 50 yards of beach to yourself. Since Fort Tilden Beach is nearly inaccessible via subway or car (unless you have a fancy fishing license), we suggest biking there. Oh, and don’t forget to pack some grub—the area is pretty sparse in terms of eateries and stores.
After years of being eclipsed by popular-kid neighbor Rockaway Beach, this expanse is enjoying a renaissance, thanks to the folks at Riis Park Beach Bazaar, which debuted last season with a packed calendar of gigs—look for Time Out Live sets through the end of August—and the bathhouse-residing food court slinging out eats from Fletcher’s Brooklyn Barbecue and Ample Hills Creamery. (So, yeah, feel free to skip the picnic basket.) There’s a lot to say for a beach that doesn’t involve leaving NYC but makes you feel like you did. Riis boasts a golf course, ball courts and a markedly wider beach than nearby Fort Tilden and Rockaway. And here’s a history lesson: Notorious city planner Robert Moses, who developed a lot of ocean coasts in and around NYC, dubbed it “the people’s beach” because of its access to public transit. That’s all well and good, but a festive bus will get you there in way less time, sans transfers, and with the added perks of a free Sixpoint brew and a spirited atmosphere.
Go big or go home! This massive six-mile expanse on Long Island is a well-manicured sandy oasis ideal for families—there’s minigolf, ball courts and even a swimming pool—and music fiends: Nikon at Jones Beach Theater sees big names like Gwen Stefani and Dave Matthews every summer. The park has some architectural twists, too. The bathhouses are Art Deco–inspired, and the large water tower at the park’s entrance was created to resemble the campanile of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. Just like being in Italy, right?
Since the ’60s, New York’s gay and lesbian crowd has ridden the ferry to cool off at this serene hamlet, which is only accessible by wooden walkways (no paved roads here). Though all of Fire Island’s spots technically share the same beachfront, this area is a bit more laid-back and affordable than the more popular Pines, but there are still plenty of clubs, bars and restaurants tucked among the cottages where you can shoot the breeze and dance with queer peeps. In the idyllic town, murals and mosaics cover the walls, reflecting the skills of artsy regulars.
One of Long Beach’s biggest allures is what a breeze it is to get there. Hop on the LIRR from Penn Station, and you’ll have your toes in the sand, literally, within an hour. (We really heart public transit—at least when it drops us off right at the beach.) Superstorm Sandy pummeled the seaside town in 2012, but the city rallied with a cool $42 million, and now its boardwalk boasts more than two miles of walking and biking bliss that’s better than it was back in the day. Shoregasboard (you guessed it, it’s a beachified spin on Smorgasburg) features food truck vendors selling everything from meatball heros to acai bowls, and the community hosts a summer concert series, a weekly art festival and a farmers’ market on Saturdays in Kennedy Plaza, a mere six blocks off the beach. Plus the sandy grounds—which require a $15 entrance fee—are debris-free and barefoot-friendly, and don’t just take our word for it: The National Resources Defense Council ranked Long Beach among the cleanest beaches in the U.S. (and the spiffiest in New York).
Bronx’s only public beach, spanning 1.1 miles and 115 acres, is notable for its unique crescent shape and stunning views of City Island. The shore was created by Robert Moses in the 1930s and still remains one of the most popular beaches in New York to date. For what the sandy waterfront lacks in restaurants and bars, it makes up for with concession stands, two picnic areas and 26 courts for basketball, volleyball and handball.
The Ramones-approved sprawl may have gained some hipster cache over the past few years, but the draws to Rockaway remain pretty constant: You can’t beat the few-blocks-off proximity to the subway—it’s about an hour trek from downtown to the sand—and the expansive, nearly six-mile-long beach means it’s a little easier to move your blanket away from boom-box guy. (You know the one.) Plus, there’s Rockaway 2.0 favorites like the boardwalk’s rockin’, sceney burger and booze joint Rippers. And the waves here are actually ridable. Hang ten and sign up for surf lessons at the New York Surf School (192 Beach 92nd; 718-496-3371), which has a daylong camp option for $100. The star of the show, though, is the Rockaway Beach Surf Club, a mural-lined bohemian joint home to the popular food stand Tacoway Beach. (Get the fish tacos. Trust us.)
This gem ticks off all the criteria for a jealousy-inducing beach day: Its five-mile beachfront is quiet (radios aren’t permitted on Fields 3 and 4) and crowd-free in comparison to its neighbor-to-the-west Jones Beach, and its facilities—private outdoor showers, first aid, grills and picnic tables—are in superb shape. If you’re looking for even more solitude, head farther east to Field 5 for access to the rest of the scenic Fire Island coast, including the nearly 200-year-old Fire Island Lighthouse, where you can climb 192 steps for the best views outside the city. Or don’t—it’s the weekend after all.
Coney Island is one Brooklyn standby that perfectly juxtaposes old and new. While some might say its peak has come and gone, others would disagree, particularly Dick Zigun, the founder of Coney Island USA, the nonprofit responsible for organizing Coney Island's famed events, including the Mermaid Parade. "The beach is still the main attraction," says Zigun of the shore's three miles of southern exposure. "Some people might prefer the Riviera or Montauk, and maybe our sand isn't as pristine, but we've got half-naked New Yorkers here!" Not to mention you've got a full theme park, delicious Nathan's Hot Dogs and all the people-watching you could want a few steps away.
Shed your clothes and inhibitions at one of the biggest and most popular nude bathing spots on the Eastern Seaboard. This sparkly clean two-mile stretch of sand was once the site of a military base; soldiers frequently went skinny-dipping in the nearby surf until the facility was decommissioned in the early ’70s. Today, the beach continues to attract naturists—so much so that parking is frequently maxed out on weekends. Avoiding tan lines isn’t the only draw, as this pristine coastal destination also offers dramatic views of lower Manhattan, hiking and bird-watching.