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5 towns to visit on the Jersey Shore

Planning a trip down the shore? Here are some towns to consider

New Jersey’s coastline spans 127 glorious miles, but all shore towns are not made of the same stuff. Some revel in their deep history as vacation destinations for the well-to-do. Others have honed their reputations for being family-friendly. Others prefer to remain entirely under the radar. (We’re looking at you, Strathmere.)

So, whatever your fancy, there’s a Jersey beach town for that. Here, we’ve outlined five very different destinations at the Jersey Shore, with a little bit of intel on how they got where they are today.

And no matter where you’re heading, don’t forget: Always wear sunscreen; it’s a sub, not a hoagie; and no trash, not even a popsicle stick, should be left behind after a day on the beach.

Asbury Park

Asbury Park, rocked in 1970 by civil unrest borne of racial tension, has in recent years become a beachfront arts destination with a thriving LGBTQ community, even as the city struggles to make sure its rising economic tide floats all boats equally. The 1.2-square-mile town an hour south of New York City has been a hub for live music at the Jersey Shore since the mid-1970s, when the famed Stone Pony hosted acts like Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and a young Bruce Springsteen. The town’s history as a music hub at the shore, along with a handful of eager developers, has ushered in a real estate boom that’s put it back on the map.

Once a “little, hanging-on-by-a-thread, blue-collar beach town that happened to be our home,” in the words of Bruce Springsteen, Asbury Park is experiencing a 21st-century renaissance that has seen property values soar; according to Zillow, home values increased 12.6 percent over the last year alone to a median of $363,100. And the town’s main drag, Cookman Avenue, has gone from a boarded-up stretch to a vibrant destination for live music, dining, and one-off boutiques.

The House of Independents is one of the newest venues to join Asbury’s music scene. The Cookman Avenue building, originally built in 1922 in the Beaux-Arts style as the Seacoast Trust Building, is now a relatively intimate 500-person venue with a summer lineup that includes acts like the Get Up Kids and comedian Ron Funches. Around the corner, the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten features 41 draft beers and communal tables, as well as a 9,000-square-foot roof deck overlooking the scenic Wesley Lake and its surrounding Victorian homes.

Nearby, the Asbury Lanes—a project of iStar, which is leading the redevelopment of 1.25 miles along the town’s coast—serves up family-friendly entertainment with its bowling lanes and diner. Asbury Lanes goes rogue by night when it, too, turns into an alternative music venue. The nearby Asbury Hotel, also by iStar and housed in a former Salvation Army building, just unveiled its 4,300-square-foot rooftop outdoor cinema, Baronet. Hotel guests and walk-ins alike are welcome to unwind with beer, wine, and snacks from this perch overlooking a city on the up-and-up.

Atlantic City

Dreamed up as a resort destination in the 1850s that cashed in on its affordability and convenience, Atlantic City has always attracted a certain kind of reveler ready to buck the norm. In the 1920s, these revelers were scores of bootleggers (made famous by the 2010–2014 HBO series Boardwalk Empire). Today, it’s the busloads of weekend visitors trying their luck at the city’s many slots and table games.

Always on the cusp of reinvention, the Las Vegas of the East Coast has had a tumultuous go of it since the 2008 recession and the legalization of gambling in surrounding states. But the city of 38,000 is resilient yet, with a handful of perennially bustling destinations and new hot spots joining the tourism-dominated town.

Atlantic City’s 10 remaining casinos—there were a handful more in its gambling heyday, a few of which have been demolished, while others, like the Trump Plaza, remain hulking and vacant—all lure visitors with varying themes. At the Quarter in the Tropicana, that theme is Old Havana, rendered as a two-bit Epcot might represent the Cuban city center. Storefronts congregated around a central atrium with a selfie-friendly fountain include Wet Willie’s, where sugary frozen drinks are in abundance, and Planet Rose Karaoke Bar. Together, they’re the makings of a memorable (or, perhaps, not-to-be-remembered at all) night.

At the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino uptown on Pacific Avenue, rock ’n’ roll memorabilia from acts like Elvis and Cher punctuate a buzzy casino floor at the city’s newest resort-style destination. The Hard Rock opened in 2018 to much fanfare after reclaiming the former Trump Taj Mahal space. The hotel’s Lobby Bar is often bustling on weekends, with patrons on-site for the casino’s roster of visiting acts. Snag a seat at the bar and pop a few coins into the built-in gaming machines, and your beverage is on the house.

Beyond the neon glow of the casinos is the city’s famed boardwalk, the first built in the United States, dating to 1870. Though the city has a penchant for razing its history, a few older buildings and storefronts still remain on the four-mile stretch. The old Ritz-Carlton, where political boss and bootlegger Nucky Johnson ruled the town from a series of upper-level suites, stands regal at South Iowa Avenue. James’ Salt Water Taffy, a short stroll uptown, is the city’s oldest continually running business. It opened at the site in 1880 and has since been churning out the chewy concoction of sugar, cornstarch, and butter in flavors like banana and chocolate.

Old meets new at Steel Pier, the 120-year-old amusement pier that juts about 1,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean across the boardwalk from the Hard Rock. Though the music hall, which hosted the likes of Frank Sinatra and attractions like the diving horse, is long gone, the pier is the proud home of a new 227-foot Ferris wheel. From the top, this city of continual rebirth glitters.

Ocean City

Four Methodist ministers set their sights on the island of Peck’s Beach in 1869, deciding it was a suitable spot for a Christian retreat and camp meeting. Making fast work of it, they incorporated the Ocean City Association, renamed the island, and rolled out the street plan that largely shapes the 11-square-mile town today.

It isn’t only the city’s layout that bears the imprint of its religious founders, but the spirit of the town as well: Ocean City remains one of the Jersey Shore’s most wholesome family resorts, attracting young families by the thousands in the summer months despite the town’s steadfast ban on alcohol. (Two-thirds of city residents voted against a ballot measure in 2012 to allow B.Y.O.B. at city restaurants, and there is nary a place to buy booze within city limits.)

But Ocean City does serve up lots of good, clean fun: It’s home to a much-lauded 2.5-mile boardwalk lined with one-off 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. (Staring down the beach, you can see the 144-foot Ferris wheel at Wonderland Pier from as far away as Atlantic City.) 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.

Although Ocean City, like most shore towns, swells with second-homeowners and visitors in the summer months, it also has a fairly active year-round population. For evidence, visit the drag of Asbury Avenue between East Seventh and East 10th Streets, where there are all kinds of small businesses, from bespoke soap companies—yes, there’s more than one—to a boutique gym.

The Ocean City Coffee Company is a caffeine-based neighborhood watering hole, where it’s equally common to see folks grab coffee and go as it is to post up with a laptop. A few storefronts down, the Spotted Whale hawks nautically inspired home decor and high-end tchotchkes like an anchor-shaped paper towel holder and candles in scents like Butt Naked and Clean Undies.

At the corner of Asbury and East Eighth Street, a regal Crown Bank building vacated by the company after Hurricane Sandy has been reclaimed as thrift store Second Chance Boutique. (In true Ocean City fashion, the store is a nonprofit helmed by the Cornerstone Community Church.) There, donated goods for sale range from a set of Ikea plates and bowls ($20) to an original Singer sewing machine ($78). A stop here is worth it to gawk at the building alone: Dating to the 1920s, the building was restored in the mid-1990s to its original glory and remains that way today (though much of it is hidden behind precarious piles of for-sale goods.)

Of course, the town’s miles of pristine beach are its major draw. Like most beaches in New Jersey, a visit here requires a paid tag that goes toward funding lifeguards, trash removal, and more. Come early and stay late—this is what the shore is all about.

The Wildwoods

While the Wildwoods attract shoregoers for all the same reasons as other beachfront towns, it’s got a major stand-out distinction in its glorious trove of Doo Wop architecture. The constellation of municipalities that make up the Wildwoods—collectively North Wildwood, West Wildwood, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and Diamond Beach—is home to one of the most prominent concentrations of the midcentury architectural style on the east coast.

The Wildwoods have their modern origins in the dawn of the Automobile Age, when a newly completed Garden State Parkway allowed working-class people from the area to take a break from their everyday lives and enjoy the exotic offerings of Doo Wop Wildwood. To glean the full effect of the gloriously campy style, walk south on Ocean Avenue from Rio Grande Avenue, where the oft-Instagrammed “The Wildwoods” sign precedes views of the beach. Motels like the Bel Air, the Yankee Clipper, and Beach Colony lure the eye with lush, Technicolor exteriors that are only one-upped by their more fervently themed counterparts like the Jolly Roger, American Safari Motel, and the picturesque Caribbean Motel.

The Doo Wop Experience, the small museum at the center of town dedicated to its trademark architecture (called Googie or Populuxe in other corners of the country), provides some crucial context for understanding the style. Beyond the architecture itself, the Wildwoods are decidedly less quaint than surrounding beach towns, but in a refreshingly self-aware way. As Philly mag aptly put it, the town has an “anything-goes, international-waters, I-think-that-dolphin-just-tried-to-sell-me-Adderall” kind of appeal.

If Ocean City is the idealized version of a savory beach town, Wildwood is quite the opposite: Tattoo and piercing parlors dot its two-mile boardwalk, as do ready-to-press T-shirt vendors with designs that would make Grandma blush. But the boardwalk still entertains: Arcades like Bobby Dee’s are packed with claw games that, for 50 cents a go, woo with prizes like Guardians of the Galaxy and Disney-themed stuffed animals.

The Morey family has been operating oceanfront rides along the boardwalk since the 1960s, and today has expanded its empire to three amusement piers, with rides like wooden roller coaster the Great White and more kid-friendly attractions like the carousel. As the late architect Steve Izenour said, it’s “America’s last really great honky-tonk boardwalk at the shore.”

Cape May

Cape May has been as a seaside destination for the well-to-do since the 1800s, and not much has changed since—literally. The island of Cape May, which comprises Cape May proper, North Cape May, West Cape May, and Cape May Point, is known for its preservationist attitude and embrace of Victorian architecture, making it one of the most picturesque destinations at the shore.

At the center of town stands the most apparent example in Congress Hall, the 203-year-old boarding house-turned-hotel that was as much a destination for the likes of President Benjamin Harrison—he called it his “summer White House”—as it is for visitors to this day. The building’s sumptuous interiors look their best in the Brown Room, a Prohibition-era cocktail lounge that’s an ideal place to experience the glamour of Congress Hall even without a room key.

A maze of streets in the surrounding area accommodates some of the island’s most lovingly preserved Victorian structures, many of which now serve as boarding houses and bed and breakfasts, in addition to private homes. If you need a break from the decorative stylings of the Victorian era, the nearby Washington Street Mall, built in the 1970s, offers an architectural palate cleanser. The outdoor promenade is home to Givens, where maker-made home decor and fashions from the likes of drippy pot originator Brian Giniewski and Hudson-based ethical textile brand Minna are on rotating display.

For all of its period architectural grandeur, the small island of Cape May retains a robust agricultural economy; a comprehensive farmland preservation program in West Cape May makes sure of that. The 62-acre Beach Plum Farm welcomes visitors by day to walk its grounds, feed the chickens, and grab a bite at its farm-to-table stand. Nearby Enfin Farms offers fresh loaves weekly, for which baker Elizabeth Degener was nominated for a James Beard award in 2017. (Tip: Arrive early—the bread always sells out.) And in North Cape May, the Cape May Winery & Vineyard provides a scenic setting for an afternoon of wine tasting from grapes grown on-site.

The best way to see it all is by bike: Don’t miss a ride to Cape May Point’s Sunset Beach, a soothing place to end an active day by watching ferries cross toward Delaware as the sun dips below the horizon.