There’s a song from the musical Ragtime, set in the early 1900s, that opens like this:
Let’s run away to Atlantic City
Let’s feel the wind in our hair
Sharing a grand and romantic city
Sea and salty air
Train’s gonna take us to the sunniest hideaway
Troubles will slide away
Just a ride away…
For a resident of New York City in 1910, there was no greater escape than a train ride down to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Maybe they’d catch a Harry Houdini escape act, or perhaps just stroll the grand boardwalk near the ocean.
Later on, Atlantic City gained a reputation as the East Coast’s center for nightlife. People traveled from far and wide to see artists like Frank Sinatra at the Vermilion Room or catch Martin and Lewis at a local supper club.
And in 1976, when a referendum in New Jersey legalized casinos in the state but restricted them to Atlantic City, the town became the East Coast’s gambling hot spot. Casino after casino popped up along the beach, and many of those casinos still exist today.
Atlantic City has a rich history, and on a weekend getaway in town, you can experience quite a bit of it. Here are some of the best things to see and do while you’re there.
Check Out A Casino
You can’t go to Atlantic City without at least checking out the gambling scene. After all, you’re in the Las Vegas of the East Coast. Even if you’re not a gambler, it’s fun to walk through the casinos to check out the sights and sounds.
The largest hotel and casino in Atlantic City is the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa. Built in 2003, it’s also the city’s newest casino and the only one built in the 21st century. Visitors love its Tuscan theme and modern amenities. Take in a show at The Music Box or spend a day at the 54,000-square-foot spa.
The casinos in Atlantic City offer much more than gambling. The scene is very much like that of Las Vegas, and there’s plenty of entertainment to be had. Internationally known comedians from Jerry Seinfeld to Jay Leno visit Atlantic City on the regular, and many of the acts that you would see in Las Vegas also play in Atlantic City. For example, Tony Orlando’s Incredible Christmas Show plays in two locations: Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
That’s right -- Atlantic City provides much of the same nightlife and shows. Plus, if you’re into gambling, you’ll find every card and dice game you can imagine.
Stroll The Boardwalk
If you want to travel back in time to the Atlantic City of old, then you’ll need to walk the town’s world-famous boardwalk. In fact, the term boardwalk comes from the Atlantic City Boardwalk, which was the first of its kind to be built in the United States (it was constructed in 1870).
The boardwalk extends between the buildings and the beach for more than 4 miles, but you don’t have to walk the entire length. The best place to start is right at Steel Pier near the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. When you think of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, you probably think of Ferris wheels and cotton candy shops -- that’s Steel Pier. In the past, one of the pier’s most well-known attractions was the Diving Horse, a water-loving horse who would jump from a platform into the water.
The best time to visit the Boardwalk is during the summer. From Steel Pier, you can walk down the Boardwalk in either direction and stop in all the shops and novelty stores. Don’t forget to grab some ice cream as you stroll the wooden planks steeped in New Jersey history.
Visit The Absecon Lighthouse
The Absecon Lighthouse sits at the intersection of Pacific and Rhode Island Avenues. The tallest lighthouse in New Jersey, the structure towers 171 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re feeling up to it, you can climb the 228 steps to see the incredible view. But a visit to Absecon Lighthouse doesn’t need to include a climb to the top. You can visit the keeper’s house museum, peruse the gift shop, or simply enjoy the grounds.
There’s a lot of history here. The lighthouse was built in 1857 to warn ships of the dangerous waters around Absecon Island. It remained in operation until 1933, when it was decommissioned and the light was extinguished. The lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and remains there today. The tower fell into disrepair, but an effort to restore it to its original glory was undertaken in the 1990s. In 1999, the tower was once again opened to visitors.
The lighthouse is open nearly the entire year -- it only closes for two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s. From September through June, it is open Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and during the peak vacation season in July and August, it is open seven days a week.
Eating In Atlantic City
It’s not just casino buffets -- there are many excellent places to eat in Atlantic City. We’ll start with breakfast.
If you’re a frequent visitor to Atlantic City, you knew this was coming when I said “breakfast.” There are now four locations of Gilchrist Restaurant, a breakfast spot known for its hotcakes. Order either the blueberry pancakes or the regular pancakes -- you won’t be disappointed. Some people take weekend trips to Atlantic City just for Sunday-morning pancakes at Gilchrist.
If you’re not a pancake person, don’t worry -- there are plenty of other items on the menu. The omelets are great (try the Greek omelet), and the Hungry Man Combo will give you a sampling of several different menu items. Gilchrist Restaurant is only open until 2 p.m., but it serves lunch as well, with the hot roast beef sandwich being a popular lunch item.
The best meal in Atlantic City might be found at Cafe 2825. Wander down Atlantic Avenue, and at the corner of Atlantic and Brighton, you’ll find Cafe 2825.
The first thing to know: Call ahead. Reservations are accepted two weeks in advance, and if you want to get a table for the evening, you’ll likely need a reservation. So as your weekend getaway approaches, pick an evening to dine at Cafe 2825 and make a reservation two weeks in advance.
Cafe 2825 brands itself as “fresh, seasonal, regional Italian cuisine (by a guy named Joe),” so come ready to enjoy some great Italian food. The signature dish is the Chicken Parmigiana Bolognese ala Vodka Fra Diavolo, Italian for “chicken Parmesan with vodka and melted mozzarella.” Also, “delicious.”
Dock’s Oyster House
You’re in Atlantic City, after all, so you’ll probably want some seafood. Why not head to a spot that’s been serving the catch of the day since the 1800s?
Dock’s Oyster House was opened by Harry “Dock” Dougherty in 1897. It has been expanded several times, most recently by the fourth generation of Doughertys in 2015. Dinner is served nightly starting at 4:30 p.m.
Dock’s offers a full raw bar (you can’t call yourself an “oyster house” without one), but the menu features much more than that. Seared sea scallops, crispy wasabi tuna, and pan-roasted branzino are all local favorites. You could also try something that has been on the menu since 1897, such as the crabmeat sauté or the pan-sautéed crab cakes.
Shopping In Atlantic City
The most popular place to shop in Atlantic City has already been mentioned: It’s the world-famous boardwalk. Novelty stores, T-shirt shops, and souvenir stands line different parts of the boardwalk from north to south. But Atlantic City’s shopping opportunities aren’t restricted to this area.
Here are a few other shopping options for your weekend in Atlantic City.
Tucked between the convention center and several of the casinos are the Tanger Outlets. This outdoor mall has nearly every name-brand store you might be looking for, from Michael Kors to Polo to Chico’s. Name a store you’d find at a mall, and you’ll likely find an outlet version here.
The Quarter At Tropicana
Much like many of the casinos in Las Vegas, many of the Atlantic City casinos have their own shopping areas attached. This is the case with The Quarter at Tropicana, which is located within the Tropicana Casino complex. This shopping area offers more unique stores than the ones at Tanger Mall, including jewelers like Erwin Pearl and clothing retailers like Marshall Rousso.
If you like to play board games, some of the street and neighborhood names in the Atlantic City area might sound familiar to you. That’s because the majority of the properties in the game Monopoly were named for Atlantic City locations. During your time in Atlantic City, look for Atlantic Avenue, Ventnor Avenue, and more. If you head toward the Downbeach area, you’ll pass through the pretty neighborhood Marven Gardens, the inspiration for the game’s Marvin Gardens.
Near the intersection of Ventnor and Gladstone Avenues in Downbeach you’ll find a collection of shops. This is your more typical beach-town shopping area, with quaint locally owned clothing stores mixed in with coffee shops and children’s stores. And it’s not just restricted to Ventnor Avenue -- these little shopping areas can be found up and down the beach -- even at Boardwalk and Park Place.
Planning a trip to New Jersey? Don’t miss the state’s hidden gems.