Picture the archetypal city beach. The broken bottles protruding menacingly from the sand, the concrete bulwarks ready to repel high tide, the honking car horns drowning out the lapping waves. Is that a gentle sea breeze brushing our cheeks – or an exhaust fume? It goes without saying that urban beaches tend to be pretty awful (read: cigarette butts, crowds, and sewage), but believe it or not, there are eight exceptions proving that sun, sea, and skyscrapers can coexist with beautiful results.
We’re starting with the unexpected because the pebbles of Brighton Beach are 100 percent worth a mention. As much about the land as the water, Brighton boasts one of Britain’s only remaining Punch & Judy shows – easily the world’s most famous seaside puppet show – alongside the the country’s finest Victorian pleasure pier and a sealife center that claims to be the oldest aquarium in the world.
At the end lies the British Airways i360, a 162-meter observation deck offering panoramic views across city and sea. We’re not going to pretend that the English Channel measures up against the Med, but on warm days, the water provides welcome relief.
A stone’s throw from historic Dubrovnik, Banje Beach isn’t the biggest or best-known beach on our list, but it offers up a range of charming diversions on both sides of the shoreline. A postcard-perfect stretch of Adriatic coast, the water is warm and blissfully see-through, with sand underfoot and snorkeling aplenty.
On land, the orange roofs of Old Town stack atop the brown-beige brickwork that blends into the rocks beneath. Weekdays show this beach at its best as space is limited, and the Saturday surge can almost obscure the sand. You can rent sunbeds from the local beach club – albeit at an inflated price.
With nearly four times as many annual tourists as the whole of India, Barcelona’s flagship beach has no right to be anything other than completely ruined. Instead, Barceloneta Beach is a sandy, seaside miracle. A palm-lined promenade with waterfront bars backs a beach that more than makes up for its busyness with fresh seafood, daily cleaning, and a wide choice of water sports. Right next to the city center, this urban beach is as accessible as they come.
It’s quite hard to believe that the palms, pavilions, and rope bridges of Palawan Beach do in fact overlook real sea – and not an extremely realistic water park. An oceanic playground on the Singaporean resort island of Sentosa, this two-sided sandbank has been carefully refined into a beach bum’s paradise, and almost marks the southernmost point of continental Asia. With sizzling sunshine all year round, it’s low on authenticity, but high on almost everything else.
We know, we know, we’ve committed the cardinal sin of not picking Bondi Beach, but Sydney’s most famous beach gets absolutely rammed in the summer months, and Manly Beach deserves some love, too.
At the end of a glorious ferry ride through Sydney Harbour, this beach in the northern suburbs is far more relaxed than its inner-city counterparts, lining two kilometers of sand with pine trees on one side, and the ocean on the other. Sydney has an embarrassment of riches along its coast, but we reckon Manly might just come out on top down under.
Cape Town, South Africa
Pure white sand, a catwalk of designer swimwear, and water so clear that you could see a shark coming from miles away – it is no surprise that Clifton Beach is backed by some of the priciest real estate on the whole African continent.
Divided into four distinct parts – numbered one through four – each area of sand has its own devoted following, with 4th Beach being the most famous by far. The place to see and be seen, it’s popular with models, socialites, and the Insta-famous, all of whom can often be spotted posing in the shallows.
It’s quite a feat being the most famous beach in Hawaii, and Waikiki Beach deserves every ounce of its acclaim. Two miles of velvety sand splitting the sea from the skyscrapers of Honolulu, it is a hub for swimming, sunbathing, and surfing a mere meters from the shoppers and office workers patrolling the city streets. Now, with Waikiki facing an existential threat from rising sea levels, a whopping $13 million have recently been allocated by the Hawaiian government to help keep the strip of sand afloat.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Safer, cleaner, and quieter than the neighboring Copacabana Beach – and arguably just as iconic – Ipanema Beach fronts a more affluent area of Rio, one with elegant architecture and a tanned, athletic clientele.
Featured in more songs and films than the Allen siblings, Ipanema is absolutely scorching in the summertime, and you’ll be grateful for the iced caipirinhas you can order direct to your towel. On the flip side, it’s a lot more expensive than Copacabana, but no one pays to use the sea. Not yet, anyway…