13 best US islands to visit

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Sorry, no packed highways or skyscraper jungles here. Instead, make way for restful vibes, pristine beaches and rich nature — island life calls, big time. But which US island should be next up?

That’s where this US island bucket list comes in handy. From refined New England islands to tropical islands with eternal summer, this floating collection contains the best islands in the USA to visit.

Now, let’s embark on the boat (or in many cases, hop into the car and drive across the bridge)!

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1. Martha’s Vineyard

Massachusetts // Martha’s Vineyard, a 35-minute ferry ride from Cape Cod, started out as a summer getaway already in the 1800s. Home to six different towns, there’s a friendly rivalry going on.

Will you be able to pick a side?

Edgartown boasts a rare elegance. In the northeastern Martha’s Vineyard town, the many elegant white ship captain’s homes in Greek Revival style set a delightful backdrop for an island stay.

If you prefer something more playful, the neighboring Oak Bluffs is for you. Its eye-catching gingerbread cottages, once built for camp meetings, make the town colorful not only figuratively.

Vineyard Haven is the town that binds the island together. The only Martha’s Vineyard town with a year-round ferry service, this is a gateway that is alive year round.

Then there are three more towns to fall in love with: West Tisbury, Chilmark and Aquinnah. These occupy the much quieter Up-Island area, which in particular attracts visitors craving for solitude.

Related: Best places to stay in Martha’s Vineyard & what to do in Martha’s Vineyard.

House on Martha's Vineyard, decorated with pink flowers and American flags
The colorful Martha’s Vineyard, MA.

2. Nantucket

Massachusetts // Nantucket, floating next to Martha’s Vineyard, preserves its past like few other islands in the United States. Once the world’s whaling capital, the whole island makes up a national historic landmark.

Here, cobblestone streets and lovingly preserved homes from the 18th and 19th centuries contribute to the unique ambience — the freezing of time on Nantucket is remarkable.

To learn Nantucket’s story, no visit is complete if you don’t, visit the Whaling Museum. Against the backdrop of a humbling 46-foot male sperm whale skeleton, it tells the fascinating story about 18th century whaling.

One thing is certain: Life aboard a whaleship was rough.

On the rather small island, you effortlessly get to not only the appreciated museum but also other spots of interest. Going by bike to a cozy beach or faithful lighthouse is a Nantucket vacation activity that never gets old.

Related: Best Nantucket hotels.

Nantucket beach with golden sand and dune vegetation
Timeless fun on Nantucket, MA.

3. Sanibel Island

Florida // Sanibel Island, off Florida’s Gulf Coast, scoops up gorgeous shells from the Gulf of Mexico every day around the year. Because of the abundance of shells, Sanibel is known as the shelling capital of the world.

Yet, long before you find that first colorful shell — in fact, as soon as you have crossed Sanibel Causeway from the mainland — the island’s Old Florida setting has you under an irrevocable spell.

Thanks to strict building codes, there are no high rises on Sanibel Island. Instead, palm trees dominate the skyline.

In addition, keeping light pollution at a minimum, Sanibel Island is free of street and traffic lights, meaning it gets really dark at night (a flashlight isn’t a bad idea for late night activities).

But before the sun starts to set, check out the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge. In the refuge, Wildlife Drive, where you find tropical birds and wildlife, further showcases the untouched dimension of the island.

Related: What to do on Sanibel Island & Sanibel Island hotels and resorts

Stack of shells on beach on Sanibel Island
Shelling on Sanibel Island, FL.

4. Mount Desert Island

Maine // Mount Desert Island hides in the northeastern corner of New England. On the island, home to Acadia National Park, the mountains spectacularly meet the Atlantic Ocean.

There are several impressive summits on Mount Desert Island. However, Cadillac Mountain with its 1,530 feet (466 m) in particular stands out.

Its height makes Mount Desert Island the tallest destination along the entire Atlantic coastline of the United States.

On top of Cadillac Mountain, the loop road in Acadia National Park is a mandatory attraction for Mount Desert Island visitors to explore. Savor one of the most scenic drives in New England.

A stone’s throw from the outdoor adventure, the island’s biggest town Bar Harbor is a gem on its own. The island town offers tasty restaurants, top lodging and that special New England seaside vibe.

Related: Boston to Acadia National Park road trip & Where to stay at Acadia National Park.

The sun setting over Acadia National Park, seen from the top of Cadillac Mountain
Mount Desert Island contrasts, ME.

5. Key West, FL

Florida // From the southern tip of Florida, the sun-drenched Overseas Highway stretches out from key to key. At its very end, far away from the mainland pace, you find the quirky Key West.

So far down south, the summer is known as endless. But the balmy weather is just one of many reasons to vacation in Key West.

On the loud Duval Street, which goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, visitors flock year round. Its many shops, restaurants and bars provide laid-back liveliness at its best.

Parallel but much quieter, Whitehead Street is also home to several popular attractions. The Hemingway Home, where the famous writer once lived and worked, has a captivating story to tell.

A proud tradition in Key West is the nightly sunset celebration. When the sun is about to disappear below the horizon, locals and visitors gather on the iconic Mallory Square to enjoy the most glowing show there is to behold.

Related: Ultimate Key West guide & Best Key West lodging.

View of the water through palm trees in Fort Zachary Taylor State Park
The quirky Key West, FL.

6. Hatteras Island

North Carolina // The Outer Banks in North Carolina is home to an inspirational network of peninsulas, sandspits and islands. Its longest member, Hatteras Island, is at 50 miles (80 km) one of the most far-reaching islands in the contiguous United States.

Thanks to Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the long American island offers a flawless natural setting. Compared to other parts of the Outer Banks, Hatteras Island has remained undeveloped.

Its seven sleepy towns, Rodanthe, Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, Frisco and Hatteras, embrace the traditional seaside lifestyle.

If you visit Hatteras Island a calm week, you see no signs of it. But off the gorgeous shoreline, you find the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” — rough conditions have resulted in a high number of shipwrecks over the years.

But without dutiful lighthouses, there would have been many more. Lighthouse hopping is a popular activity on an Outer Banks vacation, and on Hatteras Island you find the tall Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Related: Outer Banks vacation guide & Best places to stay in the Outer Banks.

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse pointing up towards the blue Outer Banks sky
The towering Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, NC.

7. Hawaii

Hawaii // In the heart of the Pacific Ocean, the Hawaiian islands welcome visitors to a world of Aloha. These treasured American islands offer a world like no other.

There are six major islands in the Hawaiian chain: Oahu, Kauai, Molokai, Maui, Lanai and the Big Island.

Even though Hawaii is one state, each island has its own personality. Thanks to that, there’s something in Hawaii for every traveler.

Oahu’s Waikiki Beach is the most iconic beach in Hawaii. There the white sand, blue water and sprawling resorts invite you to live your best life.

For the national park lover, Hawaii is home to both Maui’s Haleakala National Park and the Big Island’s Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Then there’s the dramatic Napali Coast on Kauai. With or without a national park designation, it’s one of the most spectacular places to visit in Hawaii.

Related: Where to stay on Kauai.

Narrow dirt Kalalau Trail tracing the Napali Coast, enveloped by tropical vegetation
The Napali Coast in Hawaii.

8. Hilton Head Island, SC

South Carolina // Hilton Head Island is constantly ranked as one of the best islands in the US. In the hospitable South Carolina, it’s an island that has all you need for a superb getaway.

Its 12 miles (19 km) of beaches lay a stunning foundation for a vacation. The white shoreline, where it’s as easy as ever to unwind, impresses even Florida natives.

For more of a challenge, the world-class golf courses and tennis facilities on the island call for your attention. Hilton Head Island is a true paradise for golf and tennis players of all levels.

Yet sometimes you just don’t want to keep score. For those times, Hilton Head Island invites you to explore its many miles of pathways, either by foot or bike.

As you work your way across the island, a real treasure to check out is the Coastal Discovery Museum. There visitors learn about the Hilton Head Island beyond its modern-day facade.

Empty boardwalk on Hilton Head Island, framed by one palm tree on each side
Hilton Head Island, SC.

9. Kiawah Island, SC

South Carolina // Do you like the idea of a US island that’s also a luxury resort? Welcome to Kiawah Island, located 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Charleston.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort occupies most of the island, which boasts 10 miles (16 km) of pristine Atlantic coastline. On top of the beach, the island’s river, marshes and maritime forests are appreciated features.

The island is also famous for its glorious golf courses. Next to the Atlantic Ocean, the setting couldn’t be more jaw-dropping.

If you stay within the resort, you fully get to enjoy the island bubble that Kiawah Island is. People return year after year to get the private Kiawah experience.

But if you rather prefer a day trip to check Kiawah Island out, it’s absolutely possible to do so. Beachwalker Park provides public beach access so that anyone can enjoy the exclusive Kiawah Island.

Imposing water hazard on golf course on Kiawah island, South Carolina
Resort living on Kiawah Island, SC.

10. Marco Island, FL

Florida // Marco Island boasts wide sand beaches joined by modern island resorts. Located in Florida’s remarkable Paradise Coast region, Marco Island is one of the best islands in America for beach lovers.

Every day on Marco Island is a beach day. Its South Beach and Tigertail Beach are even whiter and bigger than they look in pictures — the setting is optimal for fun in the sand and sun.

Still there’s a whole other dimension to a Marco Island stay too. Part of the charm with Marco Island is the easy access to the alligator-filled Everglades.

From hotels near Everglades National Park on Marco Island, it’s just about 30 minutes to the untamed wetland. There the wild side of the Paradise Coast creates fun memories to bring back to the beach.

Related: Marco Island resorts on the beach.

Boat anchored in the clear water off Marco Island's sandy shoreline
Marco Island beach life, FL.

11. Siesta Key, FL

Florida // Siesta Key, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, stands out for its remarkable sugar-white coastline. As Siesta Key features close to 100% pure quartz sand, it’s just about as white as it gets.

The quartz sand not only looks pretty but also feels soft and cool under your feet. That’s certainly appreciated, especially under the hot Florida sun.

On the unusually white island, the most famous beach is Siesta Beach. It’s a beach that has been named the best beach in America on several occasions.

But if you want to escape the crowds, Crescent Beach is an excellent spot further south on the island. There the sand is as white, but the crowds thinner.

North or south, Siesta Key is one of the best US islands for the beach lover.

Off the beach, Siesta Village shows another side of Siesta Key. Its tasty restaurants and quirky shops makes the area the perfect place to have some fun away from the glistening dunes.

Yellow lifeguard tower on sugar-white Siesta Key Beach, Florida
The sugar-white Siesta Key, FL.

12. South Padre Island, TX

Texas // Not far from the Mexican border, South Padre Island is located. The Texas island has with its long beach and blue water established itself as a renowned beach destination.

Even though you find whiter beaches and clearer water elsewhere in America, the beauty of South Padre Island is undeniable.

With 34 miles (54 km) of soft sand, it’s one of those islands where it feels like the beach never ends.

The further north on South Padre Island you go, the quieter the island gets. If you venture far enough, it’s soon just you, the sun and the waves.

Yes, South Padre Island is a spring break party hub. Still even during the busiest spring weeks, when happy college kids arrive in masses, the expansive Texas shoreline makes it possible to find peace.

13. Mackinac Island, MI

Michigan // Mackinac Island peacefully floats in the western part of Lake Huron. The Michigan enclave offers a car-free retreat from the hectic everyday life.

It’s an American island that feels like a time warp.

Cars were banned already in 1898. Instead the best ways to travel around Mackinac Island are by foot, bike or more uniquely so horse.

Taking a horse-drawn carriage tour is one of the most popular activities here. Few things make you feel as much on vacation as a horse taxi.

As you tour the island, Mackinac Island State Park dominates the landscape. The inspiring park, once the second national park in the United States, covers more than 80% of the island.

Another highlight is the island’s alluring downtown area, where there’s an abundance of chocolates to try. Even called America’s Fudge Capital, Mackinac Island is the ultimate US island for fudge lovers.

Waving American flag under blue sky on Mackinac Island, MI
Welcome to the car-free Mackinac Island.

The best US islands FAQ

Which are the best US islands off the Atlantic Coast?

The best US islands off the Atlantic Coast include Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, Mount Desert Island, Hilton Head Island and Kiawah Island.

Which are the best islands in Florida?

The best islands in the Sunshine State include Siesta Key, Sanibel Island, Marco Island and Key West. However, there are many more beautiful islands in Florida for the sunshine and beach lover to enjoy.

Which are the best US islands to visit in winter?

Siesta Key, Sanibel Island, Marco Island and Key West are US islands that offer beach weather year round. The same goes for the Hawaiian islands. Hilton Head Island, Kiawah Island and South Padre Island are other winter islands with mild temperatures but not necessarily beach weather.

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