From muscle heads to yogis, metal detectorists to surfers, the world’s most popular beaches attract swarms of people from all walks of life. In fact, it’s hard to top a beach when it comes to people watching, and on a busy day, it can be more fun to watch than any movie, with a real-life cast of rich and diverse characters.
Ipanema, Bondi, Venice Beach - these iconic destinations are some of the world’s most crowded stretches of sand. You’ll have to fight to find your place but once seated on the sand, you’ll be amazed by who and what you’ll see at these seaside shows. It’s nothing short of performance art, and best of all, it's free.
Of course, not everyone relishes the idea of sharing their perfect strip of sand with thousands of others. But if you dream of dozing in the sun, supine on a beach towel, with no distractions but the relaxing sound of lapping waves, then we’ve got you covered, too.
So, if whiling away the hours gazing at passersby is your thing, here’s our run-down of the world’s best beaches for people watching. And if you crave peace and tranquility, read our top 10 of the most secluded gems on the planet, where you can escape civilisation altogether. Whatever you decide, all you need is your towel, hat and sunglasses.
20 Let Your Freak Flag Fly: Venice Beach, Los Angeles
The boardwalk beachfront at Los Angeles’s Westside beach is named for its canals, and though it's a name that might evoke old-world elegance, the beach strip is anything but. This place is a magnet for crazy, attracting jugglers, bronzed bodies, musicians, fortune tellers, snake charmers, and everyone else in between.
The strip extends in either direction to Santa Monica and south to Marina Del Ray, but most of the action is concentrated on Ocean Front Walk, a 2.5-mile promenade lined with eateries, surf shops and one-of-a-kind vendors. This is America at its most overt, and whatever time of day or night you swing by, the passing show will have you enthralled. Added bonus: the beach is pretty nice, too.
19 Traditional British Seaside Meets Counterculture: Brighton, England
Brighton Beach might not have the crystal blue waters of, say, Miami - and it certainly doesn’t enjoy the same weather - but this is one of the UK’s most famous beaches, and it’s where you’ll find every shade of British eccentricity proudly on display.
With the famous Brighton Palace Pier as a backdrop, this beach mixes traditional seaside fun with funky club culture. World-class people-watching is definitely high on the beach’s long list of attractions. Expect everyone from artists, hipsters, goths and punks, to the hanky-on-the-head, socks-and-sandal brigade.
18 The Beautiful People Of South Beach, Miami
South Beach is the Miami of postcards - clear blue water, fine white sand, gorgeous Art Deco architecture and even more beautiful people. This place is a colourful fantasyland where you’ll find models, moguls, movie stars and more strutting their stuff along Ocean Drive.
South Beach offers an eclectic mix of world-class boutiques, galleries and stores. It's also a culinary hot spot for everything from gourmet to casual beachside cuisine.
At night, South Beach glitters and comes alive with crowds raring to party Miami style. But day or night, this trendy, quirky location is just a fun place to be.
17 People Watching, Hawaiian Style: Waikiki Beach, Honolulu
Yes, Waikiki Beach is tourist central, but that’s kind of the point. The hotel-lined shores beckon visitors from around the world, all looking to kick back on one of the world’s most famous beaches.
The beach, which is divided into eight different sections, is one of the busiest and most cosmopolitan spots in Oahu, where you can watch people surfing, canoe paddling, snorkeling, swimming, boogie boarding, sand combing, or simply catching some rays.
Whichever part of the beach you end up in, there’s always lots of stimulating activity surrounding you. So grab a beach chair, sit back and take it all in.
16 The Party Never Ends On Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro
This hugely popular stretch of sand, immortalised in the 1960s in the hit bossa nova song The Girl From Ipanema, is a see-and-be-seen promenade where Brazilians stuff on the sand and in the surf.
Different sections of the beach attract different demographics. Right off Rua Vinícius de Moraes is where Rio’s most lithe and tanned bodies migrate, Cemetério dos Elefantes is where you’ll find old leftists, hippies and artists and Praia Farme is the preferred stretch of sand for gay society.
Bear in the mind, the word ipanema is an indigenous word for ‘bad, dangerous waters’, and refers to the strong undertow and often oversized waves that crash onto the shore. Be careful, and swim only where locals do.
15 It’s All About The Vibe On The Beaches Of Byron Bay, Australia
Alternative lifestylers, greenies, massage therapists, reiki practitioners, yogis, surfers, backpackers and salty blonde dreadlocks in abundance - welcome to Byron Bay.
When the sixties surfers split from Sydney to seek a more meaningful existence, they set the ball rolling in the town of Byron Bay, which is now famous for its stunning beaches, excellent surf breaks, and hippy hospitality.
Located on the far north coast of New South Wales, it is home to Australia's most easterly point and the iconic Cape Byron lighthouse, and its vibrant community spirit is legendary. Don’t forget to don your finest tie-dye.
14 Where The Fun Never Ends: Coney Island, New York
Each summer, vacationers and locals seeking a dose of both adventure and nostalgia head, en masse, to the iconic Coney Island beach, boardwalk, and amusement park.
Just a train ride away from Manhattan, Coney Island is equal parts beach escape and kitschy carnival, and it’s especially crowded in the summer, when thousands make the trek to witness the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
If privacy and relaxation are what you seek, this is not the place for you, but if you delight in wacky and tacky, Coney Island is a must-see stop on any trip to New York.
13 Love It Or Loathe It, There's Lots To See On Kuta Beach, Bali
Considered Bali's most famous beach resort destination, Kuta was once a simple, rustic and quiet fishing village. It’s now a frenzied, overdeveloped, overwhelming magnet for international travellers, many of whom delight in its action and liveliness.
Despite its business, it’s a surprisingly easy going place and an absolute treat for people watching, and it is the ultimate beach destination for travellers on a small budget.
Before sunset, crowds rush to the beach waiting to watch Kuta’s legendary sunsets, which can be enjoyed with a cool drink from a beach vendor. Then as darkness falls, Kuta’s nightlife starts to throb with loud music from bars and restaurants.
12 No Two Days Are The Same At Bondi Beach, Australia
With white sands, curling waves and sandstone cliffs, Bondi Beach is one of the world’s great beaches, and there are plenty of reason’s to love Australia’s most famous stretch of sand.
Bondi has something for everyone, from swimming, surfing and sunbathing to a spectacular coastal walk and delicious places to eat, and with 40,000 visitors on the beach during peak summer season, you can certainly add people watching to its list of attractions.
With a temperate climate, locals and visitors swim year-round and surfers can be spotted in the waves at dawn, and professional lifesavers patrol the beach all year - they even have their own TV show, Bondi Rescue. Be sure not to become another rescue statistic, however, and remember to swim between the flags.
11 Europe’s Surfing Capital: Biarritz, France
Biarritz is an elegant seaside town about 15 miles up the Atlantic coast from the border with Spain, in the heart of French Basque Country. Historically inhabited by the area’s local aristocrats and society’s well-to-do, today's holidaymakers come to ride the world-class waves, and enjoy the beauty and sophistication of this stylish beach town.
This is a coastline of two-halves, part ritzy resort and part surfer hang-out, with glamorous, heritage-listed residences and belle époque charm. It makes for a hedonistic combination and a wonderful location to sit back and soak in the action.
10 Escape The Crowds: Robles Point, Ambergris Caye, Belize
Ambergris Caye is the largest island in Belize, and the main destination for travellers to this western Caribbean nation, once known as British Honduras.
Most beaches on Ambergris Caye aren’t named but the secluded Robles Point, which is only accessible by boat, is special enough to warrant one. It is your archetypal tropical paradise and not only is Robles Point virtually tourist-free, but it’s one of just two spots on the island where the island’s spectacular coral reef meets land.
9 Escape The Crowds: Unspoiled Ko Adang, Thailand
Located in the wild Tarutao National Park is the island of Ko Adang. Unlike its close neighbour, Ko Lipe, this island is virtually unpopulated, with some beautiful beaches used primarily only by the local sea gypsy community.
The island is an unspoiled wild haven with well-preserved coral reefs just offshore, and it can only be accessed by boat or water taxi. Right in front of the ranger station, there is a gorgeous huge white sand beach, and if you are looking for a completely private beach you won’t have to look too far - just have your boat captain drive around the island and take your pick.
8 Escape The Crowds: The Natural Wonder Of Whitehaven Beach, Australia
Only accessible by boat or helicopter, Whitehaven Beach is set on the largest of the 74 Whitsunday Islands and has to be a contender for having the most beautiful beaches on the planet. It has some of the finest, whitest sand on earth, turquoise waters, it’s on the Great Barrier Reef, and the entire island is one big natural preservation area.
It’s tough to reach, which means you won’t have to compete for a spot on the sand, and there are no restaurants or hotels nearby, so remember to pack snacks and water before your visit. If paradise is a beach, this is it.
7 Escape The Crowds: The Beach That Crowds Forgot - La Sagesse Bay, Grenada
Just over 10 miles from the bustling, tourist-packed beach resorts of Grand Anse sits La Sagesse Bay, a practically deserted little slice of paradise. This beach is a lovely palm-lined crescent with protected swimming, backed by a wall of jungle. The bay is not accessible by car so most beach-goers looking to access La Sagesse stay in the tiny 12-room hotel on site.
The whole place has a secluded vibe and feels a world away from the more developed coves on the west of the island.
6 Escape The Crowds: You’ll Need Help To Find It - Carro Quebrado, Brazil
Spanish for “broken down car,” Carro Quebrado is nearly empty except for red cliffs, a tiny bar, pristine white sand and a vast stretch of ocean. The beach’s name is apt as it is very hard to reach, and without local help, the chances are you won’t stumble across it in a rental car, even with GPS. Your best bet is to ask for help in the nearby town of Barra de Santo Antônio.
It’s a lot of effort - you have to really want to visit - but it is so worth it. The beach will take your breath away.
5 Escape The Crowds: The Far-Flung Wilderness Of Rocktail Bay, South Africa
Rocktail Bay is a beautiful rugged beach reserve located on a wild stretch of coast north of Durban. Miles of deserted beach, serious diving and a huge area of wilderness to explore inland, Rocktail seems almost entirely untouched.
Travellers need to take several flights to access the bay and the Maputaland Marine Reserve, but once there can enjoy one of the most exclusive beach experiences in South Africa, with nearly 40 kilometres of pristine coastline.
4 Escape The Crowds: The Remote And Rugged Rio Frutilla, Chile
First fly to Santiago, then on to Puerto Montt, then take a light aircraft to Chaiten, drive to the mouth of the Rio Palena, hop on a boat and voila: Rio Frutilla. It’s little wonder tourists aren’t flocking to this isolated spot in Bahia Arenal - Beaches don’t get much more secluded than this.
Chile is home to some of the last great wilderness and the country’s stunning beaches are no exception. Rio Frutilla is a remote stretch off the southern coast of Chile, but you might not be completely alone - you may have to share with sea lions, penguins and dolphins.
3 Escape The Crowds: Between the Sahara And The Atlantic - Plage-Blanche, Morocco
This 40km swathe of sand, in the midst of a 250 square kilometre ecological park, is a beach virtually untouched by the influence of people. Around 200 miles south of Agadir, it’s well off the standard tourist path, so there are no hotels, no restaurants, and no camel rides. In fact, getting there is an adventure in itself, involving a coastal drive that winds through giant Saharan sand dunes, along towering clifftops, past ancient kasbahs and by lush oases. This is Morocco, but not as you know it.
2 Escape The Crowds: Watch Out For The Wildlife At Monkey Bay, Malaysia
Monkey Bay is a beautiful beach tucked behind Salang Village at the west coast of Pulau Tioman, accessible only by speedboat or jungle trail. It's not just a name, either. You really do need to watch out for the monkeys once you make it to this calm, lush spot.
This sweeping bay has a beautiful beach with a calm pool of sea water and dense rainforest surroundings. It's one of the most popular snorkeling stops on round-island tours by speedboat and visitors can also hike there in an hour from Salang.
1 Escape The Crowds: Miles Of Lonely Beach On Mafia Island, Tanzania
While Zanzibar has become a popular tourist resort, Mafia Island - lying only 160 km south - remains virtually unknown. With white sandy beaches, dazzling aquamarine waters and refreshingly few tourists, Mafia is often described as Zanzibar 30 years ago. A laid-back eco-alternative with no tarmac roads, few hotels, no shops and miles of soft, white sand.
Mafia, which is part of an archipelago, is approximately 50 km long by 15 km across, and is surrounded by a barrier reef teeming with marine life. Almost half the coastline of Mafia, some 822 km², has been gazetted a marine park by the Government. Go and enjoy the empty beaches while you can, it might not say like this for long.
References: azula.com, huffingtonpost.com