A lot of beaches are beautiful, beloved, even sublime. But these beaches are something more — distinct, unforgettable, legendary. In a word: iconic. From famous urban strands that bustle with activity to natural coastal wonders that dominate bucket lists, these 15 shorelines have that certain je ne sais quoi. See if you recognize them all.
At Copacabana Beach, the people watching may be even more riveting than the scenery. Spy cariocas (native Rio residents) socializing, playing volleyball and sipping coconut water, all in requisite Brazilian swimwear. Celebs from Fred Astaire to Madonna have graced the circa-1923 Belmond Copacabana Palace hotel, set along Atlantica Avenue, with its wavy black-and-white mosaic design. Travel over Dec. 31 to witness the biggest party on the planet — the city's New Year's Eve celebration that draws more than 2 million people.
Spanning 3.5 miles, Santa Monica Beach is where nostalgia meets California living. Along Ocean Front Walk, fitness enthusiasts take advantage of retro workout equipment, while the Marvin Braude Bike Trail hums with tanned skateboarders, rollerbladers and cyclists. Most recognizable is the circa-1909 pier, with its street performers, artists, historic carousel and solar-powered Ferris wheel. Book a room at Shutters on the Beach to be in the heart of the action.
Glamorous hotels, clubs and restaurants converge in South Beach, but the American Riviera is most famous for its Art Deco vibe and 2 miles of white sand. Rack up Instagram likes by the 35 bright and funky lifeguard towers, and rent a DecoBike to explore the Art Deco Historic District's 800 landmarks built from 1923 to 1943. Called the grand dame of art deco design, The Raleigh hotel has been a hot spot since 1940.
The Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino's manmade private island is the only place in Aruba to take a selfie with a flamboyance of flamingos, who are happy to oblige in return for kibble from a vending machine (bring quarters). The island is open only to resort guests, though a limited number of day passes are sold each morning. Flamingo Beach is adults-only, but kids can spy sunbathing iguanas on Ren Island's family-friendly beach.
In 1901, the Moana Surfrider resort opened on the south shore of Oahu, and Waikiki's status as a prime vacation spot was cemented. More than a century later, a multimillion-dollar refurbishment transformed Kuhio Beach and the Waikiki Beach Walk, an alfresco promenade that buzzes with live music, nightlife, restaurants and shops. Sample Hawaiian poke on almost every corner, hang 10 where Duke Kahanamoku surfed, and climb 300,000-year-old Diamond Head crater.
You've seen this photogenic bay on travel ads — now discover where it is: Navagio Beach, on the Ionian Isle of Zakynthos. Enclosed by limestone cliffs, the cove is also known as Shipwreck Beach thanks to the rusting vessel of the Panayiotis, which washed ashore here in 1982. Get the obligatory lofty photo from the viewpoint near the Anafonitria monastery. Potamitis Boat Trips offers tours to the beach, as well as windmill accommodations in the Skinari area.
Preserved within Whitsunday Islands National Park on the Great Barrier Reef, Whitehaven Beach stretches for more than four miles. Its most recognizable section, Hill Inlet, dazzles observers with its multi-tinted turquoise water and bleach-white silica sand that shifts and swirls with the tides. Get a stellar view from the lookout at Tongue Point, or gawk from a helicopter with Hamilton Island Air. Nearby, Hamilton Island is home to several resorts, from luxury (Qualia) to value (Palm Terrace Hotel).
Blasted onto the travel map after the release of the film, The Beach, in 2000, Maya Bay sees more tourists than it can literally handle. Thailand's Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation closed the beach for four months in 2018 for reef recovery, and when it reopens in September, visitors will be capped at 2,000 a day. Those who make the cut can ogle the famous sugar sand and 300-foot cliffs in person. The neighboring island of Phi Phi Don holds the Phi Phi Islands' only accommodations, including Zeavola's rustic-chic suites.
Donated to the U.S. National Park Service by Laurence S. Rockefeller in 1956, Trunk Bay remains blissfully hotel-free. Visitors do, however, share the pristine beach with cruise passengers and schools of tropical fish, viewed along the 225-yard underwater snorkeling trail. Get the classic shot of Trunk Bay from the scenic overlook on North Shore Road. The island's two large full-service resorts remain closed after Hurricane Irma, so find a private vacation rental, or book a room at Gallows Point Resort.
It's practically impossible to take a bad photo at the Baths, a series of large granite boulders that decorate the southern shore of Virgin Gorda. Volcanic in origin, the famous rock formations create a magical trail of sheltered grottoes, pools and tunnels along the beach. The island was badly hit by Hurricane Irma in 2017, but the luxury resort community of Oil Nut Bay is open and accepting reservations.
Once believed to be the Garden of Eden, the Seychelles are about as close as it gets to heaven on Earth. And with no airport, no resort chains, and bicycles in place of cars, the island of La Digue is particularly idyllic. Its best beach, Anse Source d'Argent, is the quintessential place to marvel at the destination's elephantine granite boulders. Reserve a budget guesthouse, or splurge on a luxury hideaway such as Le Domaine de l'Orangeraie Resort & Spa.
Not many tropical beaches can claim to have archeological ruins on their shores. A significant trading and religious center from the 11th to the 16th century, Tulum's famous Maya site is a major draw for tourists. After exploring the crumbling temples and other structures, cool off in the Caribbean Sea 40 feet below. Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa, just 10 minutes away, books tours directly through the hotel.
With its spectacular backdrop of pastel-colored buildings climbing up the hillside, it's no wonder Positano, on the Amalfi Coast, is a magnet for celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Denzel Washington. Nestled at the base is Spiaggia Grande, Positano's main beach, neatly lined with colorful umbrellas (which are available for rent). Soak in views of the bay from Le Sirenuse hotel, the poshest address in town.
Thirty minutes from Sydney, laid-back Bondi Beach has something for everyone. Stroll the scenic Bondi to Coogee Coastal Walk. Eat like a hipster in a local restaurant along the Campbell Parade. Take a surf lesson. Browse the Saturday farmers market. Or swim in the famous Bondi Icebergs Pool, Australia's oldest swimming club. Retire to QT Bondi Beach, a luxury boutique hotel set just behind the Bondi Pavilion.
The Atlantic Ocean's erosive power is on full display at Bathsheba Beach, on Barbados' rugged east coast. Here, Mushroom Rock and other sea-sculpted coral formations rise dramatically from the frothy breakers, great for surfing (but not swimming). Sleep right next door at the family-owned Atlantis Inn, in operation since the 19th century.