Travel

These Towns Make the Jersey Shore a Can't-Miss Summer Destination

Jersey Shore, not 'Jersey Shore.'

Note: We know COVID-19 is impacting travel plans right now. For a little inspiration, we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places around the world so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.
Ready to take the “distance” part of “social distancing” to the next level? Check out our Best American Summer Road Trip Ideas for a look at the wildest and weirdest pit stops across the country. 

Whether you're a luxe city dweller headed to the Hamptons for the weekend or a landlocked wanderer looking to see what this "lobster roll" fuss is all about, the northeast coast is overflowing with prime vacation destinations. But the Jersey Shore has everything you expect -- from iconic boardwalks to raucous beach parties, secluded waterfront oases, and immaculate small towns catering to the bougie and the nostalgic alike -- and so much more. 

Encompassing the stretch of land between the halfway point of New Jersey’s East Coast and its very southern tip, The Shore is so, so much more than gaudy Atlantic city and poolside fist pumps. Although the towns that make up this strip run one after the other, they each maintain a distinct character. While some are laid-back surf spots, others are strictly party destinations. Covering both Victorian glory and utter excess, these are Jersey's most charming coastal communities.

MORE:Gaudy or not, Atlantic City's food game is on point

Asbury Park

A newly christened hipster haven
The town Bruce Springsteen immortalized has been revitalized to attract a younger, hipper, more diverse crowd. Thanks to the pinball nostalgia of the Silverball Museum Arcade, the past summer stage lineups at the Stone Pony, and the Instagram-courting murals on the Sunset Pavilion, it worked. (It’s been called “Brooklyn on the beach,” in case there was any doubt.) Asbury’s marvelously underrated beach has also become one of the most LGBTQ-friendly along the shore, and offers up unmatched people-watching. And then there’s the drive-in-style rooftop movie theater at The Asbury -- the perfect end to a day in the sun.  

Where to eat and drink: Along the lively boardwalk, duck into Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten for a beer -- there are more than 50 on tap -- or have a bite of modern Mexican at Barrio Costero. After dark, check out the views of the Atlantic with a cocktail in hand at Watermark.

Spring Lake

A stately beach getaway for city dwellers
Once a Gilded Age resort spot for wealthy New Yorkers, Spring Lake is still a vacation destination for urbanites who want a glimpse at how the other half lives. Just 60 miles from downtown NYC and accessible by train, million-dollar Victorian homes and manicured lawns make the place feel much, much farther away. The beach features the longest non-commercial boardwalk in the state, two miles of pristine sand, and peaceful vibes. For longer trips, book a room at the historic Breakers, the only beachside hotel in town.

Where to eat and drink: Head to the cozy Marigold Market & Cafe for a simple and inventive brunch menu, and for an after-beach treat, stop by Hoffman’s Ice Cream, an institution that’s been serving up unusual flavors since 1976. Try the signature Jersey Monkey: banana ice cream with peanut butter swirls and chocolate chips.

Point Pleasant Beach

A beach spot that lives up to its name
Point Pleasant is for families. Jenkinson’s Boardwalk, which stretches a mile along the shore, offers some good old-fashioned fun by way of an aquarium, an arcade, amusement park, three mini-golf courses, and a 4,000-square-foot fun house. For a different kind of thrill, Point Pleasant is also known for antiquing, a favorite being Point Pavilion Antique Centre, which houses some 50 sellers of furniture, jewelry, toys, and old records. This spot, coupled with the Vintage Automobile Museum of New Jersey, gives Point Pleasant a nostalgic air.  

Where to eat and drink: Your best bet for daytime drinking is at any one of the boardwalk bars, like Jenk’s Club Beach Bar, an ideal haunt for ocean views, live music, and a vibrant atmosphere. When it’s time to eat, there’s the more upscale The Poached Pear for immaculately seared scallops and Woodchucks BBQ for a more homey vibe.

Sandy Hook

For the adventurous day-tripper
The closest Jersey beach to New York City, Sandy Hook is the place to go when you’re looking for a no-fuss journey from Manhattan. The Seastreak ferry will bring you to the sprawling Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area. Here, you can choose between beaches, cycling trails, and campgrounds. Just be aware that if you happen upon Gunnison Beach, clothing is not a given. At Sandy Hook, you can do anything from kitesurfing to kayaking, but if sports aren’t for you, take a walk to the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, the oldest operating lighthouse in the US. 

Where to eat and drink: Sandy Hook isn’t a restaurant hot-spot, so packing a picnic is the way to go.

Seaside Heights

This ghost of Jersey Shore past is looking toward the future
Thanks to MTV, when you think of the Jersey Shore, you probably think of Seaside Heights. But things have changed in the years since the Situation, well, caused a situation. Following Hurricane Sandy, the boardwalk was rebuilt and the town started pushing for more family-friendly fun like movie nights and concerts. The roller coaster at Casino Pier, which ended up in the water, got an upgrade with Hydrus, a neon green and blue coaster with a 72-foot vertical drop. The boardwalk is still one of the busiest at the Shore, though, so if you’re looking to get away from it all, head south to Island State Beach Park -- a 10-mile stretch of unmarred and undeveloped beach. It’s as far from Jersey Shore as you’ll get in this town.

Where to eat and drink: Marking the end of an era, Karma and Bamboo Bar, the nightclubs made famous by the show, have gone bankrupt. But you can still have some fun at Beachcomber Bar & Grill, a boardwalk hangout featuring live bands on weekends. Or check out the super-chill Hemingway’s Cafe for a great happy hour.

Ocean Grove

Historic and bizarre, this seaside town is confusing in a good way
Founded in 1869 by a group of Methodist ministers, Ocean Grove is unlike any other place down the shore. While most seaside towns focus on the boardwalk, this town prides itself on being a “relief from the crowds, commercialism, and noise of other New Jersey beaches.” The main attraction here is Tent City, an intimate community campground that houses families looking to relax and attend worship services. There’s also the Great Auditorium, a concert venue with acoustics that have been compared to Carnegie Hall. To learn more about the town -- because you know you want to -- head to the Historical Society of Ocean Grove, a museum that celebrates the town’s unique flavor.

Where to eat and drink: Grab a bite at SeaGrass Restaurant, a comfy nautical-themed BYOB cafeteria serving pizza, burgers, and lobster rolls.

Long Beach Island
Stephen Bonk/Shutterstock

Long Beach Island

An 18-mile-long surfer’s paradise
The surfer magnet known as “LBI” to the locals boasts the original Ron Jon Surf Shop. The break at Holyoke Avenue in Beach Haven is the most popular, but head to the southern tip of LBI and you’ll have more space to catch a few waves. If you’d rather hang out than hang 10, you have miles of sandy, boardwalk-free beachfront to choose from. 

Where to eat and drink: Stop at Neptune Market, better known as “Noonies,” for their “world famous” Nooney burger, or the retro Woodies Drive-In for homemade crab cakes. If you want to keep it simple with oysters and craft beer, The Arlington is your place.

Long Branch

A decadent retreat for deep pockets
Long Branch’s beach is far less crowded, and you can enter through the Seven President’s Oceanfront Park, a peaceful space with a playground, skate park, and carefully maintained dunes. If you’d like to pair your beaching with some shopping, head to Pier Village shopping plaza, a hive-like retail complex that includes the high-end sportswear store Nirvana, trendy boutique Molly & Zoey, and an arcade featuring virtual-reality games. Yes, even the boardwalk is ritzy here.

Where to eat and drink: If you still have any money to spend, indulge in some moules frites at the French-inspired oceanfront restaurant Avenue Le Club, before capping things off with a decadent dessert at Coney Waffle.

Belmar

Ain’t no party like a Belmar party
Whether they like it or not -- and apparently they don’t -- Belmar has a reputation for being the Jersey Shore’s party destination. It doesn’t help those naysayers that its marina is home to New Jersey’s largest party boat fleet. But apart from that scene, you have a town that’s been largely renovated since Hurricane Sandy, with a boardwalk more relaxed than those at Seaside or Wildwood. And the beach gets cleaned every morning, which makes for some really pristine sands… at least for a while. 

Where to eat and drink: The south end is perfect for bar hopping at hotspots like D’Jais Bar & Grill and Beach Haus Brewery, a microbrewery on Main Street with a taproom. But beyond the bars, there’s La Dolce Vita, an upscale, family-owned Italian spot with an emphasis on seafood.

Ocean City

An iconic seaside spot that’s as wholesome as they come
Ocean City is the epitome of a family destination -- “New Jersey’s Disney World,” in the words of the city’s mayor, Jay Gillian. At Playland’s Castaway Cove, you can ride the triple-launch GaleForce roller coaster and the Giant Wheel, a 90-foot-high ferris wheel with beautiful Atlantic City skyline views. Make sure to stop by Ocean City Coffee Company, where you can choose from a variety of roasts sourced from around the world.  

Where to eat and drink: Since this is a dry town, getting high on saltwater taffy and fudge from Shriver’s -- the oldest business on the boardwalk, turning 120 this year -- is as crazy as things will get. But hey, at least you’ll actually remember all the fun you had in Ocean City.

Avalon

Come here for a preppier crowd
Avalon is home to the north end of the Seven-Mile Beach, a piece of land that juts out one mile farther into the Atlantic Ocean than any other Jersey Shore town. Perhaps that’s why it maintains a secluded atmosphere, attracting a wealthier, Lily-Pulltizer wearing crowd. But just like any other Jersey Shore town, there’s mini golf. Check out Pirate Island Miniature Golf for the most extra experience, complete with waterfalls, suspension bridges, and a giant pirate ship. 

Where to eat and drink: Become a part of the scene on Dune Drive, home to The Whitebrier and The Princeton, both expansive outdoor bars with lively atmospheres.

Stone Harbor

Go fly a kite in this breezy town
The neighboring town of Avalon, Stone Harbor is a quiet family escape where you can lounge alongside dunes, fly a kite along a wind-swept stretch of sand, or rent a kayak from Harbor Outfitters and paddle the bay. For more adventure, bike around the island or visit the Wetlands Institute, where you can take an eco-cruise and check out the local wildlife. 

Where to eat and drink: Try Jay’s on Third, a low-key BYOB specializing in locally sourced American fare. End your day with a trip to Springer’s Homemade Ice Cream, which has been in Stone Harbor since the 1920s. 

Wildwood

A kitschy stop for architecture and amusement park buffs
Wildwood is home to doo wop -- both the music and the architecture style -- and the Doo Wop Preservation League won’t let you forget with their museum and historic tours. Look around at the retro architecture and it’s clear the ’50s and ’60s are alive in this seaside town, where the beach is free and wearing a poodle skirt to the local ice cream shop feels right. For a look at modern architecture and check out artBOX, an artist colony composed of 11 brightly painted shipping containers. The three amusement parks along the Wildwood boardwalk -- Mariner’s Pier, Adventure Pier, and Surfside Pier -- together boast more than 100 rides and attractions for every stripe of daredevil. The bravest will want to check out the Great Nor’Easter coaster, featuring a 95-foot drop.

Where to eat and drink: While you’re on the boardwalk, stop by Mack’s Pizza for a big, cheesy slice. Later, sip some cocktails on the deck of The Beach Creek Oyster Bar and Grill while listening to live music. Don’t worry, it’ll be way more modern than doo wop.

Cape May

America's oldest seaside resort town is a delightful blast from the past
You’ll feel like you’ve entered a time warp when you reach the “crown jewel” of the Jersey Shore. Horse-drawn carriages and trolleys fill the streets of this stately go-to vacation spot in Jersey. Stop by the tasting room at Cape May Brewing Company before taking a historic ghost tour. Hit the brick-paved streets to check out the open-air Washington Street Mall, filled with one-of-a-kind gifts and sweet treats by Louisa’s Chocolate Bar, which has been serving farm-to-table dishes since 1980. Or just relax on one of Cape May’s gorgeous beaches like the Cove, a laid-back spot where you might even spy a dolphin taking a leap. 

Where to eat and drink: A trip to Cape May would not be complete without a visit to The Lobster House, a waterfront restaurant situated alongside The Schooner sailing vessel. Hang outside at the Raw Bar for a pre-dinner cocktail, and before you leave, take home some stuffed clams from the adjacent Fish Market.

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Shannon Carlin is a pop culture writer whose work has appeared on Bustle, Refinery29, and BUST. Her dream is to eat at Drake's restaurant, preferably with Drake.
Jessica Sulima is the first writer to make it though a Jersey Shore article without using the name "Snooki" in more than 10 years.