Atlantic City is more than just casinos and fodder for Bruce Springsteen songs. Once referred to as “America’s Favorite Playground,” AC was best known in the 19th and early-20th century for being the resort destination for rich New Yorkers and Philadelphians. In the ‘70s, after the legalization of casino gambling, the city became the East Coast’s answer to Vegas. Even after the past few years of hardships, AC is still a unique and historical destination worthy of a visit. But before you sequester yourself on the beach, make sure you do these essential AC activities.
The iconic 1000ft Steel Pier been around since 1898 and once featured a theater where everyone from The Beatles to Frank Sinatra played. During the ‘70s, it was redone to focus on rides and games, meaning you can now let your inner kid on everything from the Grand Carousel to the Slingshot, which propels you into the air at 100 miles an hour.
Long before Oprah joined Weight Watchers, she visited the White House for Jersey’s finest creation: the hoagie. Strangely enough, the sandwiches here are called subs despite being located in South Jersey where the term “hoagie” reigns supreme. Get the classic Italian sub consisting of ham, mortadella, salami, provolone, lettuce, tomato, and the all important pepperoncini.
You’re obviously going to want to get a look at the full boardwalk and everything it has to offer, but if you’re feeling especially lazy, hop on the boardwalk tram, which, for just $2.25, gets you a glimpse of The Tropicana, Steel Pier, and Boardwalk Hall and more iconic boardwalk spots.
Built in 1881, Lucy the Elephant is technically in Margate (just 2 miles away from Atlantic City), but AC still lays claim to it, as it was originally a borough of South Atlantic City before the city of Margate was established in 1909. The six-story elephant structure was originally used as a real estate office and then a bar. Today, you can climb inside for a photographic history of Lucy over the ages and an insane view of the city from her back.
Taffy isn’t just a Jersey classic; it’s a shore classic. As one of the first taffy shops on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, Fralinger’s has been crafting homemade taffy in flavors like teaberry and peanut butter to hoards of customers since the late 1800s. Make sure to grab an extra pound to bring home.
Once you’ve checked subs and taffy off your list, the next essential Jersey boardwalk delicacy is funnel cake. Fried and covered with powdered sugar, the iconic treat is like a cross between a donut and a beignet (and far better at Vanina’s than at any street fair you’ve been to). Choose from a variety of flavors like strawberry, apple, and chocolate.
If you need an escape from the boardwalk, look no further than the tallest lighthouse in the Garden State. First lit in 1857, the lighthouse officially stopped guiding boats in 1933, but still lights up every single night. Climb all 228 steps of this National Historic Landmark for a great view of the city and sea.
If you’re fully in vacation-mode while visiting AC, head to the 50,000sqft luxury spa at Caesars, which offers things like the Cleopatra Body Ritual (kiwi scrub, heated green tea wrap, foot pressure point massage, and a full body rub down) and Chakra balancing. With the price of a treatment you also get access to the baths and the 55-degree Arctic Ice room, which features “snow” to help you relax.
Of course, you’d be remiss to visit AC and not try to win a little money. Try your best at the famed Borgata, which is still considered one of the best casinos in Atlantic City, and boasts enough games and slot machines to satisfy casual to serious gamblers. It’s also home to the only racebook in Atlantic City and hosts tournaments in partnership with the World Poker Tour.
If you do happen to win big, spend some of those winnings at this luxury mall located next to Caesars. Afterwards, head to the Promenade on the third floor for views of the beach, complete with Adirondack chairs and sand.
Since 1929, the Boardwalk Hall has provided the denizens of Atlantic City with sporting events, concerts, and stand-up comedy. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Beyoncé has played here, and summer always promises big names.
Once you’ve eaten enough boardwalk food for a lifetime, ease your stomach a little with a dozen fresh oysters and an order of steamed clams from Dock’s, family-owned since 1898 and always filled with regulars. Be sure to grab a seat at the piano bar.
If you’re looking for an alternative to the casino scene, head to the Chelsea. It was the first hotel on the Boardwalk not to have a casino, aiming for a more upscale vibe with huge cabanas (filled with mini-bars and Apple TVs) and plenty of seats by the pool.
Yes, it’s tourist heaven, but Ripley’s is still entertaining and oddly educational. History junkies and lovers of all things bizarre will enjoy things like an exhibit about the mythical Jersey Devil and a statue of the Incredible Hulk made of car parts.
Experience what it’s like to be a human kite when you parasail over the Atlantic ocean. For $75, you can enjoy an aerial view of Atlantic City, taking in the boardwalk and surrounding area. If you want to get wet, ask for a quick dip in the ocean at the end.
Go dolphin watching
Believe it or not, there are in fact dolphins hanging out by the Jersey Shore. Get a glimpse of them frolicking from an Atlantic City Cruises boat while listening to commentary from a marine naturalist.
Established in 1919, the Knife & Fork Inn started off as a men’s drinking and dining club (BoardwalkEmpire fans will recognize it as the place that real-life gangster “Nucky” used to dine). Perhaps due to the real-life Nucky’s influence, it took a while for the bar to the raided during Prohibition. These days, both men and women can enjoy the famed The Lobster Thermidor -- 2.5lb lobster split open and topped with a creamy mushroom sauce with Parmesan.
Disregard the unassuming name -- this cozy pub, which served as a speakeasy during Prohibition, houses both Irish and American art, photos, and memorabilia from the late 1800s to the early-20th century. These days, it’s a favorite among locals and visitors for its budget-friendly menu of crab cakes, corned beef sandwiches, Buffalo chicken wings, and cheap beers. Be sure to also check out the attached inn where Joe DiMaggio stayed.
Surfing may not be what first comes to mind when you think of Atlantic City, but AC’s beaches are known to have some of the best surf spots in NJ. Run by former professional surfers, the Atlantic City Surf School teaches both beginning and advanced students how to ride the waves.
Go to the beach
Lest you get distracted by all of Atlantic City’s other offerings, remember that AC is ultimately a shore town. Once you’ve ticked all the to-dos off your list, spend some time doing absolutely nothing but enjoying the beach.
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Rachel Khona used to dream of one day playing tambourine in an all-girl rock band. That never happened. Instead she became a writer. She has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Playboy, Penthouse, Maxim, and Cosmopolitan, among others. Check out her book.