21 Essential Things to Do in Atlantic City
Mechanical bull and oyster slurping included.
Atlantic City has been a leisure destination for well over a 100 years, known as a mecca for entertainment and seaside activities and, since the late 1970s, gambling. While the city has gone through plenty of ups and downs and booms and busts, what remains a constant is its desirable oceanfront location: the beaches of AC feature wonderful water, waves, and white sand, and are free for all visitors.
Visitors to “America’s Playground” will find lots to do here. From hitting the beach and its iconic boardwalk to gambling in the casinos or trying a new craft brew, the best thing about AC is the unique mash-up of experiences: you can ride a mechanical bull in a Western-themed casino and then, ten minutes later, slurp oysters inside a fancy restaurant. For your next visit, here are our 21 Atlantic City essentials.
Go for a swim in the ocean
The Jersey Shore is long and vast, and depending on where you visit (or eat on your next road trip), the beach can vary. While 50 miles south in Wildwood the beach is deep (it can take upwards of 10 minutes to walk from the boardwalk to the ocean), in Atlantic City, the water is much closer. The open ocean means crashing waves, and there are lifeguards on duty to ensure safety. The water is inviting and refreshing, and chairs and umbrellas are available to rent. Another perk: AC is one of the only places on the Shore where beach access is free.
Hit the boardwalk
Lining the beach is the iconic four-mile long boardwalk; walking it (or taking the tram) is an experience that shouldn’t be missed. The boardwalk is wide, and unlike on the nearby boardwalks in Ocean City, you can enjoy adult beverages while taking in all its splendor. The AC boardwalk features the usual t-shirt, salt water taffy, and henna tattoo shops, and there are amusements like music, Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, and rides all along it. Grab a funnel cake or a slice of pizza at one of the many spots here and take a stroll.
Devour a submarine the length of your arm
Be prepared for lines out the door and hungry people waiting on the sidewalk for sub sandwiches of extreme sizes at the highly-rated, White House Subs. Open since 1946, this is the place for an excellent cheese steak (AC is just an hour from Philly, afterall) or an Italian sub sandwich. A popular item is the “regular Italian” with Genoa salami, provolone, ham, and capicola on Italian bread. Toppings include lettuce, tomato, onion, chopped roasted peppers, Italian seasoning (oregano), or oil and vinegar. And be forewarned: a half sandwich comes in two approximately eight-inch sections—it’s big!
Rock out and dance at one of many live music performances
The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino is a place to stay and gamble but one of its biggest draws is the caliber of live performers it hosts. Given it has “hard rock” in its name, that’s no shocker, but not every act fits that categorization. Some upcoming shows include: Kiss (August 21), Bell Biv Devoe (August 27), Toby Keith (September. 7), Guns N’ Roses (September 11 and 12), Erykah Badu (September 24), and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in October. Borgata also has a bunch of shows on deck including Boyz II Men (September 3), Santana (September 11), and Chicago (October 2).
Get a brain freeze (and a buzz) at Wet Willie’s
Wet Willie’s is synonymous with a good time, especially in the summer when the weather takes its toll. The only thing on tap here are boozy, frozen concoctions that are sure to both refresh and intoxicate (some locations have food). WW has three locations in AC, but our favorite is inside Resorts Casino because it opens directly onto the boardwalk. Many people choose to mix flavors—there are a lot, like Sex on the Beach, Monkey Shine (a banana daiquiri), Margarita—and Willie’s promotes certain combinations. But you can get one straight up, too.
Cost: $10 and up
Ride the rollercoaster at Steel Pier
The historic amusement park Steel Pier was founded in 1898 and features a 227-foot-tall wheel ride, a rollercoaster, and plenty of rides for kids. Located on a pier jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, this is a great place for families or any thrill seeker. The Wheel at Steel Pier is a favorite; the ride lasts 15 minutes and the views over the ocean and bay, all of Atlantic City, and up and down the shore are breathtaking. Tickets can be purchased in advance.
Go for hotcakes (not pancakes) by the water
As an Atlantic City mainstay, Gilchrist’s Restaurant is the local must-try when breakfast food is in order. The hotcakes (don’t call them pancakes, though they’re essentially the same food) are beloved by locals and tourists alike—especially when made with New Jersey blueberries. The cakes are as big as the plate they’re served on, and open since 1946, the restaurant operates four locations with two in Atlantic City. For dockside seating right on the marin, head to The Gardiner’s Basin locale.
Ride a mechanical bull
The pandemic has already been a heck of a ride for all of us, and since you’re already on vacation, when it comes to riding a mechanical bull in AC, we say go for it. The Wild Wild West Casino (part of Caesar’s but in its own space on the Boardwalk) offers plenty of random, hilarious fun. If you’re not ready to leave your standards at the door and get on the bull, there’s still a lot of excitement in cheering others on as they do.
Enjoy soul food at some local institutions
Kelsey and Kimberly Jackson operate two restaurants in AC: Kelsey’s, a more upscale Southern eatery with live music, and Kelsey and Kim’s Southern Cafe, a more homey and casual spot. Both restaurants feature Kelsey’s delicious cooking, which is firmly situated in the Southern soul food realm with dishes like fried chicken, ribs, fried whiting and catfish, and pork and turkey chops. The fried chicken with dark meat is a solid choice, and sides range from collard greens to candied yams to macaroni and cheese.
Slurp oysters and sip cocktails at Dock’s
For a decidedly fancy happy hour or dinner, swing into Dock’s Oyster House, open since 1897 and still owned by the same family. The beautiful bar is the perfect place for a martini and a dozen oysters, and if visiting with more people, go for the decadent raw seafood sampler. Dock’s has been modernized and expanded over its more than 100 years in business but it still has a classic seafood-joint-meets-upscale-restaurant vibe. We recommend any of the crab dishes, but especially the crab and corn chowder with jalapeno cream.
Win (or lose) dollars at one of the many casinos
AC is perhaps best known as gambling destination, and there are no shortage of places to do just that. Some are located directly on the boardwalk—which makes for a nice relief from the sea breezes and the sun and heat—and others, like Borgata, are a bit removed. Each casino offers the expected slots, roulette, and other table games, and some have sports betting as well. The newer, flashier casinos include Borgata, which opened in 2003 and Ocean Casino Resort, which opened in 2018. And then there are the classics: Caesar’s, the Tropicana, and Bally’s to name a few.
Dive into a pool party at one of AC’s biggest hotels
If you're sick of gambling—or, have just blown your entire blackjack budget in a few hands—you're in luck (for once): the Ocean Casino and Resort truly delivers on the "resort" aspect of its name with low-key poolside cabanas and the decidedly more amped up HQ2 Nightclub and Beachclub, where world famous DJ's like Kim Lee and Kaskade drop beats for masses while bottle service flows to its numerous VIP tables. And if you need to sleep it off (no shame!) one of the city's tallest towers features hundreds of rooms with palatial ocean views …. and top-notch room service to soak up those mimosas in your stomach.
Taste the newest craft beer in AC
Devoted to sourcing locally, The Seed: A Living Beer Project brewery debuted during the pandemic and will celebrate its official one-year anniversary of opening to the public this October. Located in a large, industrial space, head to the tasting room for pours and tours from Thursdays to Sundays. Expect more than 10 different beers on tap, with five- ounce pours for just $3, and seasonal varieties lika saison made with strawberry and wild roses. Beer to-go is also available.
Visit the Black Lives Matter exhibit at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey
AC has a rich Black history, and a jumping off point into knowing and understanding it should begin at the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. Founded in 2002 by local resident Ralph E. Hunter Sr., Hunter had begun collecting cultural items, photographs, and other memorabilia in his home 30 years prior. The permanent collections at the museum offer a look into the past, but the current Black Lives Matter mixed-media exhibit examines the ongoing issues of today.
Explore some art at the Noyes Arts Garage
To soak in even more arts and culture in Atlantic City, the Noyes Arts Garage is the place to be (it’s also home to the African American Heritage Museum). As part of nearby Stockton University, take a break from all that eating, drinking, and gambling to explore local art and buy gifts at one of the shops. Currently on display, an exhibit called Divine Journey by married artists James Greenwell and Jacqueline Sandro-Greenwell, with sculptures inspired by space and science. And don’t miss The Little Doll House by the Sea, a postage-size shop that sells vintage dolls and toys, and handmade doll clothes. Even if you’re not in the market, it’s definitely worth checking out.
Dine at a highly-secretive Italian restaurant
Chef Volas’ is the stuff of whispered legend, passed from one generation to another, or from one food enthusiast to another, via message boards and DMs. The classic Italian spot, open since 1921, is virtually impossible to get a table at. There are no walk-ins and all reservations are made by calling the restaurant, leaving a message, and hoping to get a call back with good news. There’s no signage on the restaurant either, so you only know it’s there if you go looking. We’re still waiting to get off the waitlist (which is surely long), but here’s where you can also give it a try: 609-345-2022.
Cost: Varies (cash only)
Don’t miss the Miss’d America Pageant
After a year off due to the pandemic, the alternative to and spoof on the Miss America Pageant returns in 2021. The Miss’d America Pageant, which first started in 1994, features drag performers competing for the top prize and is sure to be fun for all who attend. This year’s pageant will be held on October 23 at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
Climb the Absecon Lighthouse
Standing tall at 171 feet, Absecon is the tallest lighthouse in New Jersey—and visitors are welcome to climb to its top. If trekking 240 steps is of interest, you’ll be rewarded with awesome views of the ocean, the city, and up and down New Jersey’s coastline. The lighthouse, which first operated in 1857 and was decommissioned in 1933, is still lit every evening. Entrance to the Keeper’s House museum and gift shop and grounds, as well as parking, is free. It will cost you to climb, but it really does feel different up there, so we recommend going for it if you can.
Browse for books and more
For a different kind of cultural experience, step into the filled-to-the-brim Princeton Antiques & Book Service, a historic treasure in AC. Used and hard-to-find books are on hand, as are old postcards, photographs, and brochures about the city. It’s an interesting dichotomy, to step into this den of obsession with the written word after a day playing the slots, but that mash up is what Atlantic City is all about.
Listen to the world’s largest instrument
The pipe organ at the Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall is reportedly the largest instrument in the world, and free recitals are given Monday through Friday at noon. The large convention center, built in 1929 and located on the boardwalk, is host to many concerts and events and in the past both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles played there. Behind-the-scenes curator’s tours are also offered on Wednesdays at 10 am.
Cost: Free for the recital, $10 for the tour
Go shopping at outlets and inside casino malls
AC has a few unique shopping experiences if you want to pick up some new duds or gifts while visiting. There’s the Quarter at Tropicana, a shopping mall inside a casino, that has an “Old Havana” theme complete with Spanish-inspired architecture, fountains, and palm trees. Shops include Havana Sundries, Tumi, and Swarovski. Then there’s the Tanger Outlets, which attracts tourists and Jersey-ites from nearby and not-so-nearby for its outlet prices at high-end shops. And of course, there are the souvenir shops along the Boardwalk where you can find beachwear and t-shirts and short shorts with crass and oftentimes hilarious statements emblazoned across them.