Skip to content

10 U.S. Cities That Will Make You Think You're On a Tropical Island

No passport is required to visit these little slices of paradise.

When you're craving some serious R&R—and a change of pace from your action-packed work and home life—laidback island vibes are just what the doctor ordered. After all, there's nothing quite like sinking your toes into pristine white sand or relaxing in an oceanside cabana with a tiki cocktail in one hand and a riveting book in the other. But if your budget doesn't allow for a trip overseas, or you just don't feel like taking a long international flight, rest assured that many U.S. cities can offer the same sought-after weather, scenery, and activities you'll find in Caribbean locales.

Whether you're planning a romantic honeymoon, a fun girls' trip, or a relaxing solo getaway, there is no shortage of exotic locations in the U.S. From secluded barrier islands to sun-soaked coastal cities, here are a handful of destinations that feel like a tropical paradise—and best of all, don't require a passport to visit.

READ THIS NEXT: The 10 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the U.S. for a Stress-Free Getaway.

The Best Tropical Vacations in the U.S.

1. St. Simons Island, Georgia

St. Simons Island
Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock

Halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville lies this breathtaking barrier island, which is known for its remarkable beaches, rich history, unique shops, and world-class golf courses. What makes it feel most like a tropical island—aside from the palm trees—is the weather.

"Its mild colder season makes it a haven for snowbirds looking to escape the harshness of frigid northern winters, while its hot and humid climate in the warmer months draws crowds seeking sun, sand, and laid-back island living," says Allie Albanese, founder of Parched Around the World.

Like many tropical island getaways, seafood takes center stage on the restaurant menus here—think freshly shucked oysters, scratch-made blue lump crab cakes, and blackened shrimp. And the activities are endless, from touring local ruins and climbing to the top of the St. Simons Island lighthouse to sailing, horseback riding, and deep sea fishing.

2. South Padre Island, Texas

South Padre Island
Davy Lane Photography/Shutterstock

This resort town, which lies just off the southern coast of Texas, boasts some of the best beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. It's also home to a bevy of nature tourism attractions, bountiful wind and water activities, and outstanding local restaurants representing a wide range of cuisines.

Rae and Jason Miller, the travel bloggers behind Getaway Couple, call South Padre Island one of their favorite places to visit, thanks to the locally caught seafood, live music, and stunning sunset views. They recommend booking a dolphin-watching tour or taking some private sandcastle-building lessons to step up your game on the beach.

"This idyllic island presents opportunities for turtle watching, fishing, and scuba diving," says Giacomo Piva, travel industry analyst and cofounder of Radical Storage.

Don't forget to stop by the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center, which is home to a 5-story watchtower with views of migrating birds, and The South Padre Island Dolphin Research & Sealife Nature Center, which offers boat tours and touch tanks.

3. San Diego, California

San Diego California
Dancestrokes / Shutterstock

"San Diego sits right at the southernmost tip of California, meaning it's super hot all year-round—so it's easy to forget that you're in the U.S.," says Megan Jones, founder of the blog Traveller's Elixir. "The weather averages 70 degrees year round, so there's literally no bad time to visit. The city also features over 70 miles of beautiful coastline, a lively nightlife scene, and an array of activities to keep you busy for weeks."

According to Jones, San Diego is ideal for foodies—especially if you have a penchant for tacos—due to the ample restaurant choices. With 31 beaches to explore, she says you'll never run out of options, whether you're looking to soak up the sun, snorkel, ride some waves, or go tidepooling. "My favorite beach has to be La Jolla since there's a friendly population of seals that call this beach home," adds Jones.

Pro tip: If you're willing to drive about 20 minutes outside the city, it might be worth taking a day trip to Coronado island, which boasts one of the best beaches in the area and incredible waterfront restaurants with San Diego skyline views.

4. Santa Catalina Island, California

Santa Catalina California
Rob Crandall/Shutterstock

Hop on a one-hour ferry ride from Southern California to reach this paradise—which according to Melissa Beers, co-owner of My Journey Begins Travel, will transport you right to the coast of Greece. Known for its abundant wildlife and dive sites, it's the perfect location for an adventure-packed getaway.

If you want to get the full tropical island experience, the Millers recommend booking a glass-bottom boat tour of the reefs and shipwrecks. Or, pack up your scuba diving or snorkeling gear and explore Lover's Cove or Descanso Beach.

"The underwater views are nearly identical to those we've experienced in tropical locations around the globe," say the Millers.

After an eventful day of water activities, they suggest grabbing some locally caught seafood at Bluewater Avalon or The Lobster Trap—both restaurants that are cherished by tourists and locals alike.

5. Key West, Florida

Key West Florida
Romain7189 / Shutterstock

As the southernmost point in the continental U.S., Key West is quite literally as close as you'll get to the tropics. With lively coral reefs, pastel-hued conch-style houses, and high-end luxury resorts, Beers says this island city almost feels like a movie set. The picture-perfect sunsets are definitely a plus, and the nightlife on Duval Street rivals that of nearby South Beach.

Whether you're looking to party 'til sunrise, explore the marine life up close, or feast on conch fritters and other freshly caught seafood specialties, there's something for everyone here.

6. Galveston, Texas

Galveston Texas
J. Henning Buchholz/Shutterstock

You might not expect to find an island oasis in the Lone Star State—but that's exactly what Galveston is, complete with numerous family-friendly water parks, first-rate restaurants, and nature-centric attractions.

"This island offers travelers 30 miles of beautiful beaches, and many of them have white sand just like the tropics," says Michael Belmont, owner of The Park Prodigy. "The climate is warm and the people are friendly—what more could you ask for in a tropical escape? On a windy day, you might even be able to catch some surf from the island, if you know the right places to look."

The historic Strand District boasts a bevy of chic boutiques, art galleries, museums, and eateries, while the East End Historical District is worth a stroll just to marvel at the majestic Victorian architecture. Don't forget to swing by Galveston Island State Park, which features plenty of fishing spots, hiking trails, and kayak launches. At Moody Gardens, which houses both an aquarium and an interactive rainforest zoo, you can check out the reptiles, birds, butterflies, sharks, and a wide range of other wildlife.

7. Oceanside, California

Oceanside California
Jon Bilous/Shutterstock

Known as the hub of Southern California, this seaside oasis is conveniently located right in between San Diego and Los Angeles, meaning you can easily make a day trip to either city. Plus, it's teeming with recreational activities, picturesque palm-dotted beaches, and a multitude of stunning golf courses.

Anna Krizova, a travel expert at Camino Adventures, recommends visiting the California Surf Museum, which displays a collection of memorabilia, photographs and videos, and surfboards from famous surfers. She also suggests stopping by the Oceanside Museum of Art, which features a rotating selection of modern works—many by local artists. Or, if you're looking more a more active getaway, consider biking the San Luis Rey River trail, taking surf lessons from a local shop, or renting a boat to go deep sea diving.

"Don't miss the Oceanside Sunset Market on Thursdays," adds Krizova. "It combines a street fair, a farmers market, an entertainment venue, and a fun family event."

8. Tarpon Springs, Florida

Tarpon Springs Florida

While this city is located on central Florida's Gulf Coast, Kathryn Anderson—the travel blogger behind Coffee & Mascara—says it feels like a Grecian island. Seeing an average of 246 days of sunshine a year, there's no bad time to visit Tarpon Springs.

"Walking down the main strip lined with fishing and sponge dock boats, the vibe is almost as lively as a night out in Athens," adds Anderson. "Music fills the streets while vendors try and pull you into their restaurants boasting the best Greek food in town. While it's all delicious, be sure to try the flaming saganaki and grilled octopus at Dimitri's On The Water."

Stroll through the brick streets of the Historic District while browsing the antique stores, art galleries, and other specialty shops—then catch a concert or play at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts and Cultural Center. From sailing to scuba diving, there are plenty of water activities to keep you occupied—or, if you're looking for a more relaxing day on the water, hop on a tiki bar boat ride to sip tropical cocktails with loved ones while the sun sets.

9. St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine Florida
Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Right on the northeast coast of Florida lies the oldest city in the U.S., which is known for its tranquil white sandy beaches, European flavor, tropical weather, and protected wildlife sanctuary. St. Augustine, which is Jacksonville's sister city, is a popular pick for families thanks to its many kid-friendly attractions—like zoological parks, train and trolley tours, and even a pirate-themed museum.

Explore its rich history through extensive tours of the monuments and haunted attractions, and end the evenings at any of St. Augustine's impressive nightlife venues—including the St. Augustine Amphitheater, which attracts artists from all over the globe. To take in all the rich flora, fauna, and wildlife this coastal community has to offer, you'll want to hop on a bike, sailboat, or paddleboard. From kayaking on an inland waterway and perusing the upscale shops at Ponte Vedra Beach to dining on the fresh catch of the day and golfing where the pros play, there are endless activities for all ages.

"St. Augustine life moves at a slower pace," says Beers. "And the Castillo de San Marcos national monument is a fortress that feels like it ought to be in Puerto Rico or elsewhere in the Caribbean."

10. Daufuskie Island, South Carolina

Daufuskie Island
Silvia Bibi Montanari/Shutterstock

Calling all history buffs, beachcombers, and fun and sun seekers: this island boasts rich culture, remote white sand shorelines, and historical landmarks galore. A perfect stay here might entail strolling around the island's rustic dirt roads to take in the Lowcountry culture, checking out the eclectic art galleries and studios, going on a sunset horseback ride by the ocean, and tasting a variety of different rums at Daufuskie Island Distillery.

Accessible by ferry, this island is located a stone's throw from Savannah and Hilton Head. Still, it's maintained a sort of mystique throughout the years—in fact, there are only about 400 permanent local residents, which is why the beaches are still so pristine. While there may not be a lot of hotels here, that's part of the island's charm: it feels as if it's been frozen in time. Plus, there are plenty of charming Airbnbs and vacation rentals to choose from.

"Daufuskie Island is a must-visit for any travelers seeking the tropical vibe," says Piva. "Named in the National Register of Historic Places, this South Carolina island is home to fantastically decorated Gullah homes, churches, and museums. You can kick back and relax on a beautiful secluded beach—while keeping an eye out for Native American artifacts. Or, head out on an ecotour, with opportunities to spot alligators, birds, and native plants. The perfect day should be rounded-off listening to some live music and sampling the scrap iron moonshine."

Rebecca Strong
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance health/wellness, lifestyle, and travel writer. Read more
Filed Under