Can’t decide between a city or beach break? Some of the world’s most magnificent metropolises have been blessed with pristine stretches of sand, so you can effortlessly combine architectural riches, cutting-edge cuisine and vibrant nightlife with a spot of seaside relaxation. So slap on the sun block and the shades, here’s our pick of the best urban beaches.
Cities with sand: the world’s best urban beaches
On summer weekends it seems like the whole of Havana decamps to Playas del Este, a seemingly endless sweep of palm-fringed sand just 18km from the city. Santa Maria at the western end has an all-day piña colada-party vibe. If you’re prepared to walk, you might even find your own private Caribbean paradise.
Despite the high body count in summer, Banje Beach by the Old Town walls is the most famous in Dubrovnik. Just 1.5km from the city, Sveti Jakov Beach is the under-the-radar local’s favourite, a 500m-long crunchy mix of sand and small pebbles, beneath a beautiful church of the same name.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Cities don’t come more beach-centric than Rio, backed by a high-rise skyline and granite peaks. So join the bronzed Cariocas on iconic Copacabana and upmarket Ipanema for a friendly game of footvolley (you guessed it: a sport combining volleyball and football), or just admire the view over a caipirinha. The famous sands are also host spectacular New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Once-seedy SoBe (South Beach) is now the stomping ground for Miami’s beautiful people, its palm-studded strip filled with chic bars, fusion restaurants and hedonistic clubs. But you can up the culture quotient with a tour of the historic Art Deco neighbourhood, or head inland to the up-and-coming Wynwood Arts District.
Barceloneta is one of the city’s most iconic and popular beaches. Its shabby waterfront was revitalised in the massive makeover for the 1992 Olympics and now this former fisherman’s quarter is lined with chic and cheerful tapas bars. Join the throng over a cold beer and the Catalan take on paella.
Most visitors join the burnt backpackers and territorial surfers on Sydney's world-famous Bondi, but the surrounding Eastern Suburbs beaches, including Bronte, Clovelly and Coogee have a more laid-back, local vibe. Manly is the party hub of the Northern Beaches, while keen surfers should check out Freshwater, Dee Why, Curl Curl and Narrabeen.
Better known for its soaring skyscrapers and mega-malls, the Middle East’s most flamboyant city has miles of white-sand beaches – some of them shipped in from the desert. You’ll find the designer-clad sun worshippers on Jumeirah Beach, or there’s the free stretch of sand running the length of Umm Suqeim, known as Kite Beach.
Los Angeles, USA
West LA’s Venice Beach is a people-watching paradise. Ocean Front Walk is lined with surf shops, ice cream parlours and street vendors, and a never-ending circus of stilt-walkers, jugglers and fortune-tellers play to the eclectic crowd of power walkers, cyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders. Just don’t expect to have it to yourself.
More than 35 pebbly beaches – both public and private – stretch uninterrupted along Nice’s glamorous Promenade des Anglais, from the airport to the Old Port. Each beach has its own vibe but it can be worth splashing out to lounge on a private plage that comes with a few frills.
Cape Town, South Africa
Dramatic boulders divide Clifton Beaches into four small, interlinked coves. Fourth Beach is the liveliest, Third is gay-friendly, Second is the students’ hangout and First is the one for surfers. While they’re sheltered from the bitter trade winds in summer (November to March) be warned, the water is always icy in Cape Town.
You might not put ‘Helsinki’ and ‘beach’ in the same sentence but Finns flock to the nearest strip of sand – the 450-metre-long Hietaniemi, known as Hietsu – in summer to make the most of the ‘white nights’. Out of the (rather chilly) water, you can get active with volleyball, basketball and football.
Once a retreat for nineteenth-century Hawaiian royalty, Waikiki Beach is now chock-full of high-rise resorts, tourists and surfers. But even that can’t detract from the killer views of Diamond Head volcano. The long, rolling breaks are perfect for novice surfers, or you can ride an outrigger canoe, before watching the sunset from an oceanfront bar.
The city’s many beaches all come with views over the North Shore Mountains. Kitsilano (Kits) Beach is the place to see and be seen, with free tennis and basketball courts and the largest saltwater pool in Canada. The more low-key Spanish Beach is perfect for BBQs and long strolls.
Over 40km of beautiful public beaches line the Chicago shores of Lake Michigan, perfect for work (with free wi-fi), rest and play. North Avenue is one of the most popular, where you can start the day with a yoga session, play some volleyball and end with a dip in the freshwater lake.
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