Every year, I look forward to spending at least a few weekends of the summer in Wildwood, New Jersey one of the many Jersey Shore beaches – or as my mother-in-law, who was born and raised in a suburb about 15 minutes from Jersey City says, “down the shore.” If you’re from Jersey or know people who are, you will immediately recognize this ubiquitous turn of phrase; within it is contained all our expectations for summer vacation. For me, when I hear someone in my family mention that it’s almost time to go “down the shore,” I think of Kohr Brother’s vanilla and orange twist soft serve, cheese fries, and ski-ball on the boardwalk, and roasting under a rented umbrella for five hours, a cooler stuffed with peanut butter and Fluff sandwiches and cold cans of beer within reach.
New Jersey, some of you might be surprised to find out, is actually peppered with natural wonders – there are wetlands, state parks ideal for birding, and then there are the most stunning and popular of all of these: Jersey Shore beaches. Most of them are immaculately clean, white sand beaches, where you can rent umbrellas and chairs (most people bring their own) while you swim in warm, blue water (where you might encounter the occasional dolphin, skate, or horseshoe crab) before heading to the boardwalk with your family for fried food, pizza, ice cream, and funnel cake. And while you’re up there, your inner child, or the children you brought with you, will likely pull you toward one of the many boardwalk arcades and roller coasters. The shore, in other words, is basically a one-stop-shop for family-friendly vacation fun: There’s food, swimming, sand, and activities for when you get bored of basking in the sun.
There is just one small downside: Sometimes there are entry fees to Jersey Shore beaches, although if you think you’re going to be down there a lot, you can always purchase a seasonal pass (you can find a list of fees here). But on the plus side, most hotels in shore towns are within walking distance of the beach, and if you can’t find a hotel, there are rentable beach houses on almost every block. Places like Wildwood are overrun in the summer, especially with teenagers who are celebrating big life events like graduation and prom. However, that doesn’t deter families with young kids from filling up the beaches. The Shore is welcoming to all!
Once you’ve unearthed your beach towels and bathing suits from the back of the closet, you might be wondering where exactly on the shore you should go – after all, there are 44 Jersey Shore beaches, and each one has a subtly different vibe that suits a different type of traveler. Trying to narrow down which one is right for your family might sound like an overwhelming task, but rest assured that there are Jersey Shore beaches for every type of traveler. Here’s what you need to know before planning your trip.
The best Jersey Shore beaches
Cape May is well known for having some of the best beaches not just in New Jersey, but in the whole world. You can shake off that surprised look because Cape May is affectionately nicknamed “America’s Original Beach Town.” The beaches are famously clean, quiet, and less crowded than other beaches on the Shore. There are bathrooms close to the beach, too (definitely not the case everywhere on the Jersey Shore, where you might only be able to find a porta-potty).
Cape May is also a national historic landmark, so you’ll find a lot of Victorian architecture here, and an old-fashioned charm that feels less flashy than other shore towns. While some towns might play host to young kids who are more interested in partying than relaxing on the beach, Cape May has a much more serene atmosphere.
If you’re someone who likes long walks, hiking, bird watching, or state parks, Cape May might also be the place for you. Cape May Point State Park, where you can explore dunes and freshwater wetlands, is near the beaches. Most people also make it a point to hike to the Cape May Lighthouse.
The decks of the rental homes and colorful, tropical-themed hotels in Wildwood are packed with high school and college students on break from school. They are blowing off steam, so expect Wildwood to be a little bit rowdier than the other Shore towns on this list. If you have an older teenager who wants to plan a weekend getaway with friends, this might be a place to look into them. However, there are still plenty of opportunities for family-friendly fun here.
The beaches are clean but crowded, and you can rent an umbrella if you didn’t bring your own. Most lodging is within walking distance to the beach in Wildwood, and the boardwalk offers all the classic entertainment that will keep your kids occupied for hours: arcade games, pizza, funnel cake, curly fries, roller coasters, and ice cream. If the sun doesn’t wear them out, playing on the boardwalk certainly will.
Asbury Park does have a popular beach where sunbathers and swimmers can soak up ocean views, but for travelers who enjoy live music and going out to dinner, this is the place to be. A more artistic, creative type is attracted to Asbury Park – and the boardwalk, which is covered in murals, reflects this.
In fact, one of the biggest draws to this scenic beach town is actually not on the sand. Home to legendary venue The Stone Pony, where Jersey god Bruce Springsteen often played shows, today there is still a strong indie music scene in Asbury Park. The most vibrant of the newer venues is probably Asbury Lanes – a combination concert venue, diner, and bowling alley.
The atmosphere is decidedly more upscale than you might find at other places on the Jersey Shore: The Asbury Ocean Club, a boutique hotel, recently opened and there is so much more to eat here besides the typical boardwalk food: At Porta, you can snack on wood-fired pizza pies and play bocce ball, while Pascal and Sabine offer French food and craft cocktails.
Sometimes known as the “unofficial gay capital of the New Jersey,” it’s also arguably the most LGBTQ friendly town on the Shore.
All Jersey Shore beaches are family-friendly but Ocean City is actually known as “America’s Greatest Family Resort”. There are eight miles of oceanfront beaches in Ocean City, so you can spend every minute of vacation lounging in the sand or playing with the waves here, but there are lots to do: Gillian’s Wonderland Pier offers rollercoasters and a Ferris wheel, and you can find even more roller coasters, an arcade, and mini-golf at Playland’s Castaway Cove.
Once your family gets bored of the flashing lights and arcade games on the boardwalk, immerse them in nature instead: You can find hiking trails, birdwatching, and boating at nearby Corson’s Inlet State Park.
White sand beaches have attracted tourists to Point Pleasant since 1886. There’s a first-class boardwalk here, too: There’s Jenkinson’s Aquarium, home to penguins, sharks, and a harbor seal named Lucy, and at night Jenks Club, a nightclub on the boardwalk, open up. Once they’ve explored the boardwalk, families can tour the Point Pleasant Canal in the River Belle or River Queen, replicas of classic Mississippi Riverboats. When the adults need some time to relax on their own, Last Wave Brewing Company, one of the many breweries on the Jersey Shore that showcases craft beer, is also near the boardwalk.
At the end of summer Point Pleasant hosts Festival of the Sea, where 250 vendors set up stalls catering to seafood lovers: Visitors can snack on crab cakes, shrimp, lobster bisque, and paella among many other delicacies from the sea. So if you love to eat seafood as much as you love swimming in the ocean, book your stay in Point Pleasant.
Sandy Hook is the ideal getaway for nature lovers: Not only are the 7 miles of bay beaches popular for swimming and sunbathing but there’s also a five-mile-long pathway for bikers and rollerbladers. And unlike almost every beach on the Jersey Shore, there is no traditional boardwalk: Instead what you’ll find is Spermaceti Cove Boardwalk, which overlooks the ocean and surrounding marshland. Adventurous visitors can also go kayaking, explore Sandy Hook’s hiking trails and Fort Hancock, which dates back to the Revolutionary War, and scope out the 300 species of birds that migrate through the area.
Belmar offers the typical boardwalk activities you’ll find at other Jersey Shore beaches, but there’s also lots of adventure to be had here: When you’re not relaxing on the beach you can visit Go Play, an arcade with retro games like skee ball, or take an exhilarating ride with Belmar Parasailing. At Belmar, Manutti Marina families can picnic and play in the park, but if you’d rather be out on the ocean, book a deep-sea fishing tour or whale watching expedition on the Miss Belmar Princess. Need a rest from outdoor activities (or just desperate for some air conditioning)? The Belmar History Museum might be an interesting – and educational – diversion.