Best beach trips from DC, Chicago and New York

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While cities offer us culture, nightlife, food and architecture, they are hot and crowded in the warmer months. Our summer dreams are made of coasts, not city centers.

A hotel or public pool can be a good quick fix, but nothing beats the ocean breeze or relaxing by the lake. Better yet, if you’re willing to drive or take the train, a day trip to the beach can be an inexpensive addition to your vacation itinerary. Pack a picnic and a towel, and let Mother Nature take care of the rest.

In some major metropolitan areas, finding a place to swim, sunbathe, and relax is a no-brainer; you don’t need advice on finding a place to swim in Honolulu or Miami. It’s not as simple in other cities. Even in Los Angeles, where residents have their pick of beaches, you might want an option more off the beaten path than Santa Monica or Malibu.

We’ve rounded up options — on oceans, lakes, and rivers — for your beach needs near America’s biggest cities.

About an hour and a half from Atlanta, Lake Oconee is known as one of the cleanest lakes in the state, said Terika Haynes, CEO and founder of Dynamite Travel. It is popular for fishing, boating and water skiing. For those on a bigger budget, there’s a Ritz-Carlton on the lake with a golf course and spa.

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Families can visit Robin Lake Beach at Callaway Resort & Gardens, said travel blogger Day Trip Queen Rebecca Deitsch, who grew up in Duluth, Georgia. Just over an hour’s drive south of Atlanta, Robin Lake has a mile-long white-sand beach. places to grab food and drink, as well as rental equipment such as lounge chairs and umbrellas, kayaks, paddle boards and pedal boats.

To find one of the closest ocean beaches to Atlanta, head to Tybee Island near Savannah. Although it’s a four-hour drive, Larry Snider, vice president of operations for Casago Vacation Rentals, said the drive is worth it for Tybee’s scenic shoreline and active nightlife.

While Delaware’s Rehoboth and Dewey are among the most popular beach destinations for DC residents, Sarah Kline, president of Time for Travel, is sending people to St. Michaels, Maryland, for a seaside retreat some water. It’s about two hours from DC, depending on traffic and weekends. “One of my favorite things to do is take a sunset cruise on the River Miles or an antique ferry ride to Oxford,” Kline said.

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The historic harbor town is popular for boating and fishing, and visitors can find a man-made beach for swimming at the Lowes Wharf Marina Inn. Kline also recommended stopping by the Chesapeake Maritime Museum and one of the area’s seafood restaurants for Maryland blue crabs. If you’re staying the night, Kline is a fan of the luxurious Inn at Perry Cabin or the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay, which offers a beach and water sports on the nearby Choptank River. Further south of St. Michaels is Tilghman Island, where you’ll find the Wylder Hotel, a guesthouse-turned-boutique hotel on the water.

For a less obvious choice than Coney Island, Ronald Piedmonte, a private ToursByLocals guide in New York, sends beach-hunting day trippers to Cooper’s Beach in Southampton. Long Island beach is 90 miles from town, about 3 hours if driving through traffic, or you can take the Hampton Jitney or Long Island Railroad bus and then take a taxi. Once there, expect white sand and full facilities, including chair and umbrella rentals. However, expect a $40 parking fee.

Nicolas Daeppen, general manager of the Indigo Williamsburg Hotel in Brooklyn, sends guests to beaches easily accessible by public transportation, such as Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach and Grand Ferry Park on the East River.

The latter is a small piece of beach that was once a ferry landing. It doesn’t offer swimming, but “there are plenty of places to picnic and sunbathe,” Daeppen said. It’s also next to Domino Park, where you’ll find beach volleyball, interactive water fountains for kids, and a taco stand.

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Right on Lake Michigan, Chicago has tons of accessible beaches. But Bob Glaze, who runs Globalphile, a travel site, recommended Indiana Dunes National Park, located on the southeastern tip of the lake about 35 miles from town.

With 15 miles of lake shore, it’s “a gorgeous beach an hour’s drive from Chicago or easy train access,” Glaze said. Visitors can swim, hike, bird watch, and find plenty of places to eat and drink.

For families, there’s also Centennial Beach in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago about 30 miles west of downtown. Amber Haggerty, who runs travel blog AmberEverywhere.com, said the former limestone quarry is technically classed as a “beach” and offers a sandy beach, floating docks and snorkeling areas.

“Most people will bring their own beach chairs, but some are available to the public,” Haggerty said. You can drive to Centennial in about an hour from Chicago, or you can take the commuter line (the BNSF) from Union Station and then complete the last mile on foot or by taxi.

It’s hard to find a beach off the beaten path in Southern California, but there are places that attract more people than tourists. North of Los Angeles, en route to Santa Barbara, is Ventura, home to beloved surf spots, wineries and breweries, and expansive beaches. If you don’t want to drive, the beach town is accessible by Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner train from Los Angeles.

To the south is San Clemente, another epicenter of year-round surfing, whether you’re looking to learn or rip alongside the pros. Break for lunch at Pedro’s Tacos, then explore the trails of San Clemente Beach, then return to Los Angeles by train on the Surfliner.

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Even further south there is Oceanside. Henley Vazquez, travel consultant and co-founder of travel agency Fora, called it “San Diego County’s quintessential and quintessential last surf town.” Vazquez recommended heading to the city’s largest public beach, Harbor Beach, for beach volleyball, picnics, water sports and “great scenic views.”

Beyond the beach, Oceanside has a thriving arts and dining scene. Don’t miss the Michelin-rated Dija Mara, or nearby Jeune et Jolie. You’re likely to encounter bad traffic on Interstate 5 (or just “the 5” as Southern Californians like to say) to and from Los Angeles if you’re driving, so you can avoid it by taking that same Amtrak Surfliner.

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