The Best Small Coastal Towns in New England

·4-min read

Weathered cedar cottages. Sprawling salt marshes. Swaths of sandy dunes and family-packed beaches. New England has its signature style. It also has limited space and legions of devoted fans, which can lead to congestion and overcrowding, particularly in the summer months.

As travelers head straight to perennial favorites like Newport, RI, Provincetown, MA, and Kennebunkport, ME, why not take a proverbial left turn? There are loads of under-the-radar towns along these states' coastlines that have their own unique charms and draws. Here are seven of them.

Stonington, CT

New England-style waterside homes, Stonington, New London County, Connecticut, New England, USA.
New England-style waterside homes, Stonington, New London County, Connecticut, New England, USA.

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Just a shell's throw away from the bustling town of Mystic is the antithesis of a tourist magnet. Connecticut's oldest village, Stonington, is a robust agricultural borough with a wee historic village that stretches down a peninsula and ends at duBois Beach. Water Street, its main drag, has a smattering of restaurants interspersed with antique shops, but for a bite with a view, check out the popular Dog Watch Café overlooking the harbor. Rent a kayak from Stonington Marina, check out the waterfront's commercial fishing activities, and save some time to venture inland. Stonington also has vineyards with tours and tastings.

Niantic, CT

Beautiful sunset over a New England tidal salt marsh
Beautiful sunset over a New England tidal salt marsh

Marianne Campolongo/Getty Images

Though New England can conjure old-timey vibes, some towns have more an of-the-moment flavor. Niantic, a village within the town of East Lyme in southeastern Connecticut, buzzes with such local energy. Main Street, paralleling the Long Island Sound, as well as a mile-long boardwalk, has several must-visit spots. Pick up a paperback favorite at a branch of the rambling used bookstore, The Book Barn, pass some time at the Niantic Children's Museum, and, beyond the main drag, enjoy a lobster roll or chili dog at the seasonal fried seafood joint, Dad's.

Little Compton, RI

Hurricane Maria whips-up the surf off Warren Point Beach in Little Compton, RI
Hurricane Maria whips-up the surf off Warren Point Beach in Little Compton, RI

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East of Newport and west of Cape Cod is a blip of a town (population: 3,484) appropriately named Little Compton. A visit here instantly relaxes the shoulders and slows your pace. The town's commons is anchored by the lost-in-time C.R. Wilbur General Store, with eight rooms serving up everything from deli sandwiches and homemade fudge to housewares and garden accessories. Another local favorite: The Commons, where you can sample johnnycakes, the Rhode Island version of pancakes. Grab your fishing pole and beach reading before hitting the picturesque South Shore Beach. For a day that also brings you closer to nature, explore the 75-acre Goosewing Beach Preserve that teems with endangered shorebirds under the stewardship of The Nature Conservancy.

Marblehead, MA

View of the rocky harbor and town of Marblehead, Massachussetts, USA.
View of the rocky harbor and town of Marblehead, Massachussetts, USA.

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If Marblehead's craggy landscape doesn't transport you to another time and place, its abundance of historic architecture will. Situated a little more than half an hour north of Boston on a jutted peninsula, there are over 300 designated historic homes, dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Many of the homes have plaques stating the name of the original inhabitants and stamped with the year. Other historic sites: Fort Sewall, Old Burial Hill, and the Marblehead Lighthouse. For a bonus adventure, paddle over to Crowninshield Island, a five-acre island off Marblehead that boasts simple hiking trails and tidal pools.

Rockport, MA

Rockport is a seaside town in Essex County, Massachusetts,
Rockport is a seaside town in Essex County, Massachusetts,

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The northern Massachusetts peninsula on which Rockport sits doesn't jut as far out into the Atlantic as Cape Cod does in the south, but its seaside energy is similar. Amble along Main Street and Bearskin Neck and soak up the artsy vibes. There are upwards of 30 galleries in town, interspersed amongst the quintessential gift boutiques, fudge shops, and lobster shacks. Squeeze in some beach time at Front or Long Beach — the former right near town, the latter just a short drive south. And no visit is complete without snapping a few pictures of Motif No. 1, an iconic red barn decorated with colorful buoys on the water.

York, ME

Cape Neddick (Nubble) Light sits on a small rock island known as the Nubble just off the coast of York, Maine.
Cape Neddick (Nubble) Light sits on a small rock island known as the Nubble just off the coast of York, Maine.

KenWiedemann/Getty Images

Cruise by Kittery and stop before Kennebunkport, and you'll discover the charming town of York, Maine. Beyond the Stonewall Kitchen flagship that greets you from the highway's exit, there are more local delights. Check out the homemade boards at Grain Surfboards and then ride some waves at Long Sands Beach. Or laze about Short Sands Beach, where you can also dip into the 125-year-old Goldenrod that makes homemade ice cream and salt water taffy. Hiking aficionados, head to Mount Agamenticus, or "Big A," or opt for a less strenuous stroll along the waterfront Cliff Walk.

Boothbay Harbor, ME

Boothbay Harbor late Fall afternoon
Boothbay Harbor late Fall afternoon

George Shelley/Getty Images

As you cruise up the coast of Maine, you'll discover endless peninsulas and islands. About an hour north of Portland, one such inlet is Boothbay Harbor. Get a good view of the hillside town, as well as sailboats and kayakers while strolling The Footbridge, which spans the harbor. Another good ambling adventure is the Sculpture Trail, featuring works by local artists. The town's narrow, windy streets have plenty of boutiques and ice cream shops and, when you're ready to feast, stop by Boothbay Lobster Wharf. That's where fishermen unload their daily catch — and where you can get lobster in anything from mac and cheese, rice bowls, and quesadillas to, simply, their shells.

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