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There are over 60 boardwalks dotting America's coastlines, ranging from iconic destinations that have lured seaside-goers for over a century (Coney Island, New York) to newer attractions like the Kemah Boardwalk, an amusement park built overlooking Galveston Bay outside of Houston. For those who also love boardwalk foods, advanced planning for summer trips to these tourist haunts can mean the difference between frozen fries or terrific meals that match the allure of the beach.
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk: Santa Cruz, CA
Operating since 1907, the only remaining oceanfront amusement park on the West Coast has two rides officially recognized as National Historic Landmarks: the hand-carved Looff carousel (1911) and the wood-framed Giant Dipper roller coaster (1924). Another throwback to its early years is Marini's Boardwalk, whose 1915 location still cooks its saltwater taffy in copper kettles. At the Surf City Grill, the fresh-dipped corn dogs are infamous, but the artichokes in a light, garlicky batter are the real finds.
Atlantic City Boardwalk: Atlantic City
This 5.5-mile stretch, the longest boardwalk in the world, once captured the country's collective imagination with its glitzy acts and grand Art Deco and Beaux Art hotels—now dramatically revisited on HBO's Boardwalk Empire. The oldest boardwalk in the US is also enjoying a revival with the 2012 opening of the Revel resort. Its dizzying array of star chef-run restaurants includes a modern steak house by Marc Forgione, a Riviera-inspired seafood spot by Alain Allegretti and offshoots by DC chef Michel Richard and Philly chef Jose Garces. For a taste of old-time lore, the James Candy Company pulls saltwater taffy from recipes that date from the 1900s.
Ocean City Boardwalk : Ocean City, MD
There's a lot packed along this wooden boardwalk, including free concerts on Wednesday nights in July and August, outdoor movies and a Beach Olympics (think sand castle-building competitions). Thrasher's, a favorite since 1929, serves french fries twice-fried in peanut oil and doused with apple cider vinegar. The no-frills Mug & Mallet serves terrific Maryland blue crabs by the bucket steps from the beach, and at Fractured Prune, hand-dipped doughnuts are named after classic desserts like the Black Forest, with raspberry glaze, coconut and mini chocolate chips.
The Boardwalk Shops at Newport Pier : Newport Beach, CA
World-class surfers (and their groupies) make the trek to the Balboa Peninsula to catch the Wedge, known for its 25-foot waves. Afterward, they head over to the Newport Pier, a quick bike ride away, for crisp, hand-battered corn dogs and spicy chili fries loaded with jalapeños at either location of Jane's Corndogs. Blackie's by the Sea, open since 1953, is the quintessential surfer dive bar, with boards strung from the ceiling.
Hampton Beach Boardwalk: Hampton Beach, NH
Hampton Beach hosts 80 free summer concerts, ranging from pop to country, sets off fireworks every Wednesday and holiday during the season and is rated one of the cleanest beaches in the country by the Natural Resources Defense Council. Pizza spots abound, but locals look for the bright orange signs that mark the two locations of Blink's Fry Doe shacks for warm, chewy deep-fried-to-order rounds of house-made pizza dough. The 20 toppings range from garlic and butter to peanut butter and jelly.
Disney's Boardwalk: Orlando, FL
Street performers juggle flaming batons and kids take spins on the 1920s mini carousel at this idyllic curved stretch looking out on Crescent Lake in the Magic Kingdom. At Flying Fish Café, diners make the effort to call at least a day in advance to order the Hong Kong fish, local yellowtail snapper coated in tempura and fried whole. The nearby Big River Grille and Brewing Works has floor-to-ceiling glass walls that look onto the working brewery.
Navy Pier: Chicago, IL
This pier, stretching into Lake Michigan, is packed with all sorts of attractions, including the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (modeled after London's Swan Theatre), Chicago Children's Museum and the 1,500-seat outdoor Skyline Stage. The warm, crisp chocolate-covered churros from the Churro Factory booth make a terrific snack for a stroll. The LandShark Beer Garden offers microbrews like Dogfish Head, Flying Dog and Fat Tire to go along with its live concerts and fantastic skyline views.
Carolina Beach Boardwalk: Carolina Beach, NC
Though this historic boardwalk on the northern end of Pleasure Island is lined with carnival rides, arcade games and numerous food stands, one of the oldest and best draws is Britt's Donut Shop. Fans line up under the blue-and-white-striped awning for traditional glazed pastries—no sprinkles or cream fillings in sight—made with a secret recipe passed down its 70-plus year history. Originally a nickel a piece, each doughnut is now 85 cents.
Coney Island: Brooklyn, NY
Serving generations of vacationers since before the Civil War, this landmark boardwalk had a $30 million facelift in 2010 that brought in almost two dozen new rides. Huge summertime crowds can still largely be attributed to the iconic, only-in-Coney Island mix of tawdry side shows (knife-swallowers, flame-jugglers), plus the wooden-framed 1927 Cyclone roller coaster and original Nathan's Famous, practically synonymous with the hot dog and host of the annual Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest.
Kemah Boardwalk: Kemah, TX
Opened in 2001, this 42-acre boardwalk amusement park overlooking Trinity Bay is home to the Texas Gulf’s only roller coaster, the gargantuan Boardwalk Bullet. In April, the annual Kemah Crawfish Festival takes place under the Kemah Bridge, featuring farm-raised Louisiana crawfish in a variety of iterations, including étouffée, gumbo and jambalaya, but the most popular is the $2-a-pound boils by expert boiler James Wimberley.