At the southernmost tip of New Jersey, Exit 0 to be exact, right where the land hooks into the sea, is the oldest beach resort in the country, charming Cape May. Filled with incredibly well-preserved Victorian homes in rainbow hues, all of Cape May has been designated a National Historic Landmark, making it the only town in American with the designation. In addition to the golden sand beach and shimmering Atlantic Ocean that turn this town of 4,000 permanent residents into a bustling 40,000-strong summer destination, there’s a year-round range of activities that make this more than just a one-season surf-and-sand stop. In fact, Cape May is one of the few Jersey Shore towns with year-round appeal, offering events, attractions, dining, and shopping that changes with the seasons and always offers something new to see and explore.
Things To Do In Cape May
Although Cape May is a beach resort town, there’s much more to do off the sand than in most shore destinations, including historical tours, local wineries, and wildlife viewing.
Meet A Painted Lady
The name may sound risque, but in reality, Painted Ladies are the colorful Victorian homes trimmed with gingerbread woodwork and framed by large porches that fill the historic downtown of Cape May. To learn more about the Victorian era that shaped this beach town, take a guided walking or trolley tour with the informative guides at Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture), a not-for-profit organization that works to preserve the rich local history. Walking tours let you see small details like hitching posts built into the street corners, but you need to pack comfy shoes for the uneven sidewalks. Trolley tours go slow enough to take in almost all the details, plus there are themed options such as evening ghost tours.
Step Back In Time At A Grand Estate
If you only have time for one historic stop when you’re in Cape May, make it the grand Victorian Emlen Physick Estate, one of the best-preserved Victorian Stick-style homes in the country. Built in 1879 by renowned architect Frank Furness, tours of the 18-room mansion provide in-depth looks of the people who lived during the era, detailing the way the Physick family and their household lived, worked, and spent their leisure time. There’s also a lovely dining spot here, The Vintage, and nighttime tours that focus on magic and mystery (evidently the Victorians were fascinated by the supernatural).
Explore A Lighthouse
Depending on how you feel about heights, a visit to the Cape May Lighthouse will either be one of the most memorable highlights of a trip to Cape May (for all the right reasons), or a total miss. To reach the observation platform of the 1859 beacon, you need to climb 199 stairs. There’s no elevator, and the narrow steps and dark passageways are definitely not for those who get claustrophobic. But once you brave the steep climb, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular, uninterrupted views of the Delaware Bay and Atlantic Ocean. The lighthouse is part of Cape May Point State Park. While you’re here, you can also visit the remains of an imposing World War II army bunker set in the sand, built in 1942, or take an easy, flat stroll along the nature trails that loop the park.
Keep An Eye On The Sky For Birdlife
With its unique vantage point at the junction of the ocean and bay, Cape May is a major migratory route and is a magnet for birders (in fact, Cape May is one of National Geographic’s top 10 destinations in the entire world for bird-watching). Turn your binoculars to the sky at the Audubon Cape May Observatory, and you may spot 20 different types of delicate singing warblers plus flying predators such as hawks, eagles, ospreys, owls, and even peregrine falcons among the myriad flyers who migrate through the area. Workshops and walks offer the chance to keep an eye on the shore and some of the area’s smaller visitors such as dragonflies and monarch butterflies.
Sip Wine In A Vineyard
Many visitors to southern New Jersey are surprised to find a burgeoning wine scene with beautiful vineyards like the Willow Creek Winery. This 50-acre vineyard in West Cape May is the perfect place to sit and sip when you’re ready for a beach break. The tasting room in the post-and-beam winery offers comfortable soft leather couches and chairs where you can try European-style cabs, pinot noir, and pinot grigio. A massive stone fireplace spanning the length of the room makes this a cozy winter spot as well. In good weather, there’s also outdoor dining and yoga under the vines.
Best Restaurants In Cape May
The dining scene in Cape May offers everything from straight-from-the-sea fish and shellfish and fresh farm favorites (this is the Garden State after all) to delicious casual dining that far exceeds usual boardwalk beach fare.
Many restaurants claim to be farm-to-fork fresh, but few have their own farm to back up the claim, unlike the Blue Pig. This laid-back spot in Congress Hall Hotel gets all of its produce from its own farm, Beach Plum. One can’t miss farm-to-fork moment: the annual summer Tomato Menu, during which New Jersey’s sweet red and yellow globes are featured in everything from gazpacho to BLTs and in a drool-worthy toasted sourdough bread sandwich slathered with mayo.
The Rusty Nail at the Beach Shack is the ultimate summer outdoor dining. Live music, a firepit, sand under your feet -- it’s both kid and dog friendly (there are special menus for both) and is the perfect summer spot to enjoy an icy beer or frozen cocktail along with fish tacos, crab cakes, and strawberry hot wings.
For decadent breakfasts, the Mad Batter is the name to know in Cape May. Highlights include tucking into pillowy buttermilk pancakes studded with local New Jersey blueberries or a Chesapeake Bay Benedict with crabmeat, poached eggs, and hollandaise while sitting on the sunny porch.
You’ll think you’ve been transported to Charleston when you walk into The Magnolia Room, a Southern-style restaurant where you can sit on a wide veranda that extends from the white-washed Chalfonte Hotel. For a transporting Southern feast, start with the shrimp and grits, fried oysters, or pimento cheese puffs. And for dinner, there may be other choices, but it’s Miss Dorothy’s skillet fried chicken that’s been drawing loyal diners here for more than six decades.
Best Hotels In Cape May
You may think you’ve left New Jersey and entered a tropical resort getaway when you first see the pink umbrellas, lounge chairs, and waiters delivering iced drinks to the beach. It’s definitely not the usual Jersey Shore sight, but Congress Hall isn’t a typical shore hotel. For more than 200 years, the “Big House” has charmed visitors, including presidents, with excellent service and water views from plush rooms. In the summer, the beach and pool are the draws, with outdoor dining and drinks sipped in rocking chairs facing the sea. But the cooler months are just as enticing here, with massive wood-burning fireplaces and cozy lounge spaces.
The Virginia Hotel
The sophisticated Virginia Hotel is an adults-only, year-round escape, perfect for a romantic getaway. There are 24 stylish guest rooms tucked into an immaculately restored 1879 landmark building. Although the setting is on a tree-lined street in the heart of historic Cape May, the hotel is less than a block from the beach. The Virginia Hotel's restaurant, The Ebbitt Room, is the perfect spot for a candlelit romantic date night.
Beach Plum Farms
For the perfect social distancing stay, try one of the five cottages and barns nestled into the 62 acres of lush Beach Plum Farms. The individually designed cottages sleep between six and 12 guests, making them perfect for family vacations, reunions, or getaways with friends. In addition to spending time on the farm, Beach Plum is now offering a "Rooted" culinary getaway and all-inclusive "The American Harvest" family getaway that include everything from yoga in the fields to cooking and garden cocktail lessons and farm dinners.
Where To Shop In Cape May
Most of Cape May’s shopping is conveniently located on the Washington Street Mall, an open-air, three-block pedestrian-only red brick pathway. The streets are filled with boutique shops offering everything from kites to candles, sweets, and sweaters. Wandering is the best way to discover hidden treasures of the neighborhood, but here are a few highlights.
- Original Fudge Kitchen: Freshly made cream fudge in a range of flavors (including sea salt caramel vanilla and chocolate rocky road), plus saltwater taffy and numerous other sweets
- Whale’s Tale: Gift shop filled with home decor and handmade jewelry, plus games and puzzles for rainy days
- Beachlove: Stylish women’s clothing with plenty of relaxed options for lounging on the beach
When you’re strolling the sand in Cape May, keep an eye out for sparkling “Cape May diamonds;” these naturally occurring pieces of quartz are both fun to collect and great, free souvenirs of your time on the beach.
If you’re pining for a beach getaway but haven’t settled on Jersey or Cape May yet, consider this ultimate list of oceanfront homes you’ll want to escape to ASAP.