White-sand beaches and glittering bays are what draw people to the Jersey Shore, but there’s so much else on offer along this 127-mile stretch of scenic coastline. Each shore city has its own unique vibe, and the sites called out below tend to exemplify the towns themselves, from the pop-culture heritage of Asbury Park to the preservation-forward Cape May.
It’s easy to fall into a routine once you’re set on a shore town, so let this guide be a roadmap for exploring an unfamiliar locale for a day or two. Unsure of where to start? Here’s a quick rundown of five very different towns at the shore, and a history lesson on a unique sixth. Looking for a rental? Here are 15 of the best places to stay. And when it comes to contending with shore-bound traffic, it’s crucial to know how—and when—to get there, which you can read all about here. Now, here’s what you should do once you arrive.
The northernmost point of the Jersey Shore is also a federally protected wildlife area, where birding, boating, and beaching are at their finest. The Gateway National Recreation Area’s Sandy Hook division is a 45-minute ferry ride from midtown Manhattan, but feels like it’s an eternity away with its seven miles of paths for biking, running, and walking, plus its stretches of white sand and surf. Gateway is also a prime place to pitch a tent—on the approved campground, of course—for a night under the stars.
Called the “beating heart of Asbury Park” by the New York Times, the Stone Pony has been a pilgrimage site at the Jersey Shore for music lovers since the mid-1970s. It wasn’t uncommon to see a young Bruce Springsteen play alongside the small venue’s booked acts; in fact, the Boss is still known to make a casual appearance on stage or in the crowd. The venue, like Asbury Park itself, weathered a downturn in the last few decades, but is back with a vengeance, touting a killer summer line-up both inside the venue and on its outdoor summer stage.
Shade seekers on the Asbury Park Boardwalk will find a unique pitstop in the Silverball Museum, the museum-arcade-bar hybrid that pays homage to pinball machines from the 1960s to the present. The nostalgia-heavy destination is a walk through pop-culture history, and features a rotating collection of 600-plus machines including the 1967 Beat Time—from the height of Beatlemania—an original 1972 Atari Pong game, and the 1993 Twilight Zone game. Retro lovers, rejoice.
The Great Auditorium
The Great Auditorium, which dates to 1894, remains the cultural center of Ocean Grove, the shore town established as a spiritual getaway in the mid-1800s. Its acoustics have been compared to those of New York’s Carnegie Hall, and the auditorium has hosted memorable musicians like John Philip Sousa and preachers like Billy Sunday. The auditorium still hosts Sunday services and the spare musical act, but is worth checking out for its architecture alone. The building, a hybrid of Stick and Queen Anne styles, was constructed in just 92 working days with a stone foundation, iron bridge trusses, and a wood frame.
A short drive inland from the beach at Allenhurst, Kane Brewing Company is an ideal place to find cover on a rainy weekend. The eight-year-old brewery has amassed a die-hard following, meaning its tasting room is lively in any weather. Brews here often take a nautical name, like Head High—the company’s signature IPA—Party Wave, or Outer Reef, but there’s nothing salty about them. Beware the brewery on release days, when lines are known to wrap around the building.
Like beaches themselves, mini golf is ubiquitous at the Jersey Shore. Let Castaway Cove Adventure Golf on Point Pleasant’s Jenkinson’s Boardwalk be a jumping-off point for exploring the shore’s culture of weird and wacky putt-putt establishments.
The protected seaside of Island Beach State Park offers a genuine chance to get away from it all. Absent here are the raucous crowds of neighboring Seaside Heights—yes, the town from Jersey Shore—and the commercialism that comes with a boardwalk lining a beach. This habitat protects 10 miles of shoreline where unspoiled sand dunes, tidal marshes, and maritime forests exist in their full splendor.
This 32-acre state park is ripe for exploring, but don’t miss its namesake lighthouse. (It’s such a big deal to the area that the town renamed itself Barnegat Light in 1948.) The tower was commissioned in 1859, but deactivated as a Coast Guard lookout in 1944. It’s the second-tallest lighthouse in the country at 172 feet, and with that stature comes open views of Long Beach Island, the Atlantic Ocean, and Barnegat Bay. But be warned: Reaching the top of the lighthouse’s 217 winding stairs requires a bit of endurance.
This surf-shop brand with a cult following started out as a meager shack at the beach in 1959. Those original oceanside digs have been upgraded to an 8,000-square-foot shrine to all things surf and sun. Don’t forget to grab a bumper sticker with the brand’s logo on it—you’ll be in good company on the Garden State Parkway.
This refuge encompasses 47,000 acres of protected coastal habitat, and it’s a prime spot to see fish and other wildlife year-round. In the winter, bald eagles and black ducks roam the area; summer welcomes turtles and great blue herons. Birders, take note: The habitat is located under one of the Atlantic Flyway’s most active migration paths, so bring your binoculars.
Jutting 1,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean, this 1898-built entertainment pier was home to the first Miss America pageants, and once hosted big-name acts like Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones. Today, its main attraction is a new 227-foot Ferris wheel, a symbol along the country’s oldest boardwalk that this seaside city of vice will always strive to reinvent itself to stay afloat.
When the James Candy Co. opened on the Atlantic City boardwalk some 140 years ago, a ride on the span’s newly introduced rolling chairs was all the rage. Now it’s easy to stroll past this attraction, which is sandwiched between a storefront for a psychic and tacky pseudo-museum Ripley’s Believe It or Not.
But stepping over its threshold will illuminate a world of nostalgia for what Atlantic City has, by and large, left behind. Here, at the longest continually operating business in the city, find classic sweets like saltwater taffy and creamy mint sticks packaged in throwback boxes. Though times have changed, their tastes remain the same.
Atlantic City’s reputation as bachelor and bachelorette party hotspot is earned at the Quarter, the Tropicana Hotel & Casino’s Old Havana-themed wing, which opened in 2004. Frozen drink emporium Wet Willie’s and nightclub Anthem are at the center of the action, while Planet Rose Karaoke Bar and ’70s-themed dance club Boogie Nights serve up some good old-fashioned entertainment.
“No legend of the colorful Southern Jersey seashore history matches the sight of a 65-foot-high wooden Elephant astride the beach looking out into the mists of the sea, a spectacle that, according to historians, made many coastwise seamen of the tramp ships from the West Indies swear off their rum rations for days,” begins Lucy the Elephant’s fantastical official history.
And what a history it’s been: This 138-year-old feat of zoomorphic architecture has served as a tavern and as a residence to a British doctor and his family. Somewhere in the mix, it was also used as a lighthouse that signaled to rum runners during Prohibition if it was safe to come into town. Today, Lucy houses a museum dedicated to her history. Don’t miss the guided tour—the only way into the belly of the beast—that starts with a spiral staircase nested in one of her hind legs and culminates with the glorious ocean view from her crowning howdah.
Ocean City’s beloved 2.5-mile boardwalk is lined with novelty food joints, campy mini-golf courses with themes like Medieval Fantasy and Pirate Island, and two amusement parks—Gillian’s Wonderland Pier and Playland’s Castaway Cove—that light up the sky with flashing colored bulbs on sticky summer nights. Don’t miss a stop at Johnson’s Popcorn, a boardwalk staple since 1940 that serves up hand-tossed kettle corn coated in a thin, crispy layer of caramel.
The Wildwoods’ whimsical trove of Doo Wop architecture (also called Googie or populuxe in other corners of the country) gets a worthy preface at this small museum, where classic neon signs and period furniture are on display. But nowhere is the memorable 1950s style better experienced than on the street, where it’s easy to take a self-guided tour past motels with names like the Aztec, Lollipop, and American Safari. Doo Wop is wonderful, it’s weird, and it’s under threat, so don’t delay.
This little-known museum puts World War II-era aircrafts and engines within reach in a restored historic hangar at the shore. The hangar was used as an active dive-bomber squadron training facility during World War II and today is on the National Register of Historic Places for its role during the conflict. Parents and history buffs, take note: This is a prime rainy-day activity.
The Victorian-era homes, antique stores, and golf courses that pad Route 9 in Cape May County hide one of the area’s most unique attractions. The Cape May Zoo is home to lions, bison, giraffes, zebras, foxes, snakes, and more, living in special habitats spread across 85 acres. The zoo is one of the finest in the world, at least according to TripAdvisor: It ranked as the 13th best-reviewed zoo in the world in 2015, falling behind much better-known destinations like those in San Diego and Beijing.
And the zoo isn’t just for kids. The grounds also feature a zipline and an aerial adventure area that helps raise money for zoo maintenance. Admission to the zoo is free, but donations are accepted (and encouraged.)
Sitting on 22 wooded acres, Cold Spring Village bills itself as an “open air living history museum that invites all visitors to find meaning, pleasure, relevance, and inspiration in the exploration of southern New Jersey’s past.” A late-1800s octagonal building on site houses historic miniatures, the Village Bakery sells period confectionaries, and hand-crafted artisan wares are sold out of a building that’s older than the United States.
While the 18th and 19th centuries appear alive and well within the town’s confines, it’s worth noting that Cold Spring Village isn’t actually a historic town but one reconstructed of period buildings from the area. But don’t let that deter you; this fascinating site is worth a visit.
One of the first eco-tourism outfits in South Jersey invites visitors to set sail onto the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay in search of whales, dolphins, and marine birds. Bottlenose dolphins, loggerhead sea turtles, and humpback whales are all known to appear in the waters around the state’s southernmost point. The tours focus not only on sight-seeing, but also on conservation and cataloguing of marine life migration patterns. The company can’t guarantee a marine mammal sighting, but does offer another trip to participants in that case.
The 62-acre Beach Plum Farm welcomes daytime visitors to walk its grounds and grab a bite at its farm-to-table stand. The farm is home to ethically raised chickens and Berkshire hogs, and turns out flowers and vegetables throughout the season, a bounty that can be picked up at the stand on site. (The small farm has been known to churn out over 1,000 watermelons in a season.) Don’t miss one of Beach Plum’s BYOB, family-style dinners, which rival some of the best restaurants in Cape May.