10 Best Beach Destinations with Great Cultural Attractions

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Chill out by the water and encounter history, art and culture, all on the same trip.

What type of vacation do you want to take next? A recent Travel Week survey asked Canadians what they are most excited for as travel opens up and the response is good news for the sunscreen industry: Half of us said we are eager to visit beach destinations. The second‑most popular option, with 15 percent of the vote, was a “history and culture” trip. Can’t decide between beachgoing and gallery hopping? No need: we’ve rounded up some of the best beach resort destinations that also feature encounters with history, culture, architecture and art.

August 31, 2021
culture at Casablanca, Morrocco
Casablanca, Morrocco   Photo: Antonio Pires

Casablanca, Morocco

Casablanca may not be everyone’s first choice for a Moroccan vacation – many skip it altogether on their way to Fes or Marrakech. But if you’re looking for culture and beach destinations, it’s well worth a visit. 

Beach Destination

While you’re in the city, take a stroll along the promenade at Ain Diab Beach, with its beautiful view of the Atlantic. But a truly transportive beach culture experience can be had 20 kilometres south of Casablanca at Babaloo Beach, where waterside restaurants and cafés – complete with swings and loungers – make for a wonderful spot to spend a long and lazy day.

Casablanca Culture

Casablanca might conjure up images of Humphrey Bogart asking Sam to play it again; if that’s your jam, you can visit Rick’s Café Casablanca, a faithful recreation of the fictional establishment from the film. But Casablanca has so much more to offer, including art galleries – modern works at Villa des Arts de Casablanca or L’Atelier 21 and a celebration of Morocco’s artisan culture at Galerie H – as well as a history and culture fix at the old medina, which was rebuilt in the 1770s following a fire. It is located right beside Morocco’s chief architectural wonder, the 1980s‑built Hassan II mosque.

beach at Corfu, Greece
Corfu, Greece   Photo: Pexels Tania

Corfu, Greece

Corfu represents the ideal of beach and culture holidays in Europe: an impossibly rich history, available to travellers through museums, art and architecture, along with seemingly endless beautiful and accessible beaches. 

The Beach Destination

The biggest problem for beachgoers in Corfu is deciding between all the excellent options (if you want to feel overwhelmed, check out lists like “the best 57 beaches” in Corfu). While you’re unlikely to have a bad time at any of them, our recommendations are Arillas – sheltered by cliffs with two areas for clothing‑optional bathing if that’s your thing – and nearby Agios Stefanos, an under‑the‑radar spot close to the island’s centre that has great beach bars and a wide, sandy beachfront perfect for a lazy day of tanning and dips.

The Culture

Corfu has a mythical past (some believe the island was the model for Scheria in Homer’s Odyssey) and wandering the island can feel like travelling back in time. Ancient ruins like the Temple of Artemis offer a glimpse of times long past; for a taste of more recent history, visit the Sinarades Folklore Museum to see artifacts of life from the 1860s to the mid‑20th century. And if you’re interested in non‑Greek authors who helped popularize Corfu, stop by Bosketto Durrell, a sculpture garden celebrating Gerald Durrell and his brother Lawrence, two Brits whose work brought the island into popularity.

view of Doha, Catar
Doha, Catar   Photo: Proriat hospitality

Doha, Qatar

With more than 560 kilometres of coastline, Doha is surrounded by beautiful beaches. It was also named Capital of Culture in the Islamic World in 2021, and there is lots of art and history to soak up in Qatar’s biggest city.

The Beach Destination

Public beaches in Doha enforce a dress code for women bathers, requiring them to be covered from elbows to knees. If that’s not your thing, you can check out the Four Seasons beach, where those rules don’t apply; you can pick up a day pass even if you’re not staying at the hotel and enjoy full use of the facilities.   

The Culture

For a marvel of traditional Arabic design, visit the Katara Mosque, featuring architecture and tiling inspired by mosques from around the world. Art lovers have lots to choose from, including the I.M. Pei‑designed Museum of Islamic Art and the Mathaf Arab Museum of Modern Art.

beach in Goa, India
Goa, India   Photo: Raja Sen

Goa, India 

Goa goes by many names, including India’s “sunshine state” and “the Rome of the East.” As those two designations suggest, this western state with coastlines along the Arabian sea is among the world’s exceptional culture and beach destinations.

The Beach Destination

Vagator Beach offers stunning sand and sea, but it’s not quite as crowded as other nearby beaches; there are great restaurants and even a surprising cultural artifact – the head of a Hindu deity carved into a boulder at one end of the beach. If you’re looking to be where the party action is, try Calangute and Baga, two interconnected beaches full of sun loungers, clubs and beach‑loving revelers.   

The Culture

For a history fix, check out Mahadeva Temple, Tambdi Surla – it’s the oldest temple in the state, built in the 12th century – and Fontainhas, the best‑preserved Portuguese quarter in Goa. It’s a UNESCO‑certified heritage zone, with narrow streets from the 18th and 19th centuries. And be sure to visit Singbal’s Book House, a local‑legend bookstore in a 1936 heritage building.

Beach at Sayulita, Mexico
Sayulita, Mexico   Photo: Devon Hawkins

Sayulita, Mexico  

Sayulita may be best known as a surfing town, but there are beaches to explore (even if being on a board isn’t your thing) as well as local culture to discover. It even shows up on some lists of cheapest Mexico beach destinations.

The Beach Destination

The main beach in Sayulita can get very crowded and overwhelming. Instead, take a 20‑minute walk to Playa de los Muertos, a secluded spot perfect for swimming. The name means “beach of the dead” (most likely because the town’s cemetery is located on the way there), but it’s plenty lively. If you’re willing to drive, the nearby town of San Pancho – which is also a popular destination in its own right – has a huge and beautiful beach of its own, ideal for swimming and sunsets.  

The Culture

While there are no museums in Sayulita, there is plenty of local culture. The town was named a Pueblo Magico (magical town) in 2015 by the Mexican government. Part of that magic comes from the art and culture of the Huichol, Indigenous peoples of Mexico and the U.S. with a population in Sayulita. No visit to the town is complete with checking out (and taking home) some Huichol artwork and beadwork.

Hong Kong
Hong Kong   Photo: Ruslan Bardash

Hong Kong

If Hong Kong doesn’t immediately leap to mind when thinking of beach cities, think again: it has endless cultural attractions and some fantastic sand as well.

The Beach Destination

The large and popular Shek O Beach is a good place to start if you’ve never beached in Hong Kong. The area feels like a village, and the beach has fantastic facilities. If you’re looking for something a little more secret, Long Ke Beach (which has been called “the Maldives of Hong Kong”) is a turquoise water/white sand gem, located a short hike from East Dam of High Island Reservoir.   

The Culture

There’s no lack of exceptional cultural attractions in Hong Kong; to get a handle on the city’s long history of arts and culture, visit the six galleries at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum. To see what Hong Kong artists are up to right now, check out the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, a nine‑story multidisciplinary space in Shek Kip Mei. And if you’re a cinema buff, grab a ticket to see the latest art‑house films at Broadway Cinematheque, one of the city’s only art‑house theatres.

beach view from Honolulu, Hawaii
Honolulu, Hawaii   Photo: Pexels Jess Loiterton

Honolulu, Hawaii

Hawaii’s beaches are known around the world, and it’s arguably one of the best beach resort destinations, but Honolulu is also a perfect place to discover the rich Polynesian history and culture that make the islands so special.

The Beach Destination

There are dozens of beaches within easy driving distance of downtown Honolulu. Lanikai is a great choice – with soft sand and gentle surf – and the nearby town of Kailua has boutiques, breweries and restaurants galore. If you’re up for a hike and an adventure, the Hollywood film‑famous Halona Cove is a gorgeous, secluded beach on the southeastern shore of Oahu that is only reachable on foot. The entrance is only 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Honolulu.    

The Culture

Honolulu is at the centre of Hawaii’s art scene. For a taste of Hawaiian art past and present, visit the Honolulu Museum of Art (tickets for non‑residents are $20 each) or the Hawaii State Art Museum (admission is free to all). The home of the contemporary art scene is the Kakaako neighbourhood. And for a look at the customs and history of Hawaii and Polynesia, Bishop Museum Oahu houses literally millions of artifacts of Pacific culture.

View of Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon, Portugal   Photo: Tom Byrom

Lisbon

Lisbon is Portugal’s hilly capital city, and it boasts historic architecture, delicious food and rich cultural experiences. It is also close to many stunning beaches, some of them set in beautiful natural surroundings.

The Beach Destination

There are several excellent beaches that can be reached on public transportation from Lisbon. One is Carcavelos Beach, which attracts locals and tourists alike. The Sao Julião fort (originally completed in 1568) makes for a dramatic backdrop to a day of sea and sand. For stunning natural landscapes, you can’t beat Praia dos Galapos, located in the Parque Natural da Arrábida. It’s surrounded by green hills, including a 380‑metre‑high cliff, and ideal for hiking as well as beachgoing.    

The Culture

To get an immersive sense of the city’s history, you can walk through districts like ​​Baixa Chiado (central Lisbon) or Alfama (the old Jewish quarter), but it’s also worth visiting Lisboa Story Centre, where interactive exhibits take visitors on a trip through time. For a more modern take, ​​Museum of Art, Architecture, and Technology (MAAT) showcases some of the most innovative aspects of contemporary Portuguese thinking and creativity.

view of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro, Brasil    Photo: Raphael Nogueira

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The beaches of Rio de Janeiro are internationally known for a reason – they’re as lively with energetic beachgoers as they are beautiful to look at. The city itself (the largest in the Americas) is just as vibrant. The biggest challenge is deciding what to do first. 

The Beach Destination

Ipanema Beach is where the young and chic population of Rio tends to congregate. It’s great for people watching, as well as swimming and sunbathing, and the natural views are iconic as well: the twin peaks of the Dois Irmaos (two brothers) mountains serve as a dramatic backdrop to a beach day. If you’re looking for a little more quiet and space, Leme (the section of Copacabana beach that is farthest from Ipanema) is the best spot.

The Culture

Museu de Arte do Rio (Rio Art Museum) opened in 2013, ahead of the following year’s World Cup, and its permanent collection features exceptional works from both Brazilian and international artists. If you want to explore Brazil’s cultural history, it’s worth visiting the Museu do Açude, which showcases everything from artistic sculptures to everyday items like silverware and furniture.

view of Split, Croatia
Split, Croatia   Photo: Spencer Davis

Split, Croatia

Split is Croatia’s second‑largest city, located between the mountains and the sea. Over its long history, it’s been ruled at various times by Rome, Venice, Italy, France, Yugoslavia and Austria, resulting in a fascinating mix of architectural and cultural inheritances. Stunning buildings and its location by the sea make it one of the great cities with culture and beach.

The Beach Destination

If you want to hit the water right after engaging with culture, try Bačvice Beach – it’s a 10‑minute walk from Split’s most famous historical landmark, Diocletian’s Palace. To dodge the crowds, try Trstenik Beach, which is a little more secluded but still only 20 minutes by foot from the city centre.

The Culture

Split’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Diocletian’s Palace, a Roman site dating from the fourth century, is a must‑visit, and wandering the streets afterward is like stepping back in time (don’t miss Marmont Street and Pjaca Square in particular). For a unique and unforgettable art encounter, visit the Meštrović Gallery, showcasing works by one of Split’s most celebrated sculptors, Ivan Meštrović.