With 130 miles of sun-kissed golden sand, New Jersey is a summer haven for beach lovers. I’ve been going to the Jersey Shore for more than five decades, both as a kid with my family and as an adult with my own kids. I have spent fun-filled weeks in rental homes up and down the Jersey coastline and enjoyed local seafood while watching the waves crash on the shore, spun on wild rides watching the surf in the distance, and kicked back under the sun while dolphins danced just offshore (really!).
I’ve also suffered the slings and arrows of Joisey jokes over the years, and I’ll admit TV shows haven’t done New Jersey any favors promoting the beauty of the state (in fact, if you watch The Sopranos or The Real Housewives of New Jersey, you might even be afraid to visit). But I’m here to tell you our beaches are some of the best on the East Coast, if not the country.
To fully enjoy the fun-filled boardwalks and family-friendly hotspots, there are a few, let’s say, quirks to know about New Jersey that will make your stay more pleasant — plus some insider tips that will help you get the most of your Shore visit. Ready? Let’s dive in!
1. Learn The Lingo
First, before you hit the sand, you need to learn the lingo. You’re not going “to the beach” — you’re “heading down the shore”. The “shore” is always “down” and never, never “up”. Otherwise, everyone will think you’re a “shoobie.” Get it?
Nope? I don’t blame you, since these are “only in Jersey” terms, new visitors to the beaches probably won’t be familiar with NJ lingo, so let me explain.
The “shore” is the beach. The beach is always referred to as down, but not necessarily south, although the phrasing originated with northern New Jerseyans who had to go south, or “down” the highway to reach the beach. A “shoobie” is a derogatory term for daytrippers by locals (although not used very often these days), which referred to people who brought their possessions in a shoebox (think Depression era).
Finally: Once you’re “down the shore” at a home rental or hotel, you can spend the day at the “beach” enjoying the sand and surf.
2. Jersey Shore Geography
When New Jerseyans talk about going “down the shore,” we usually describe a north-to-south route. Note, however, that you won’t want to attempt a full shore drive of multiple stops on a summer weekend — it can often take (many) hours in traffic getting from northern to southern points. Even without traffic in the fall to spring “offseasons,” it will still take several hours to drive from New Jersey’s northernmost beach, Sandy Hook, to the southernmost point, Cape May.
Along the way, you’ll also encounter a number of barrier island towns. The largest, and best-known, is Long Beach Island (LBI), which serves as a midway point for north Jersey Shore towns (more easily reached from the New York City area) and southern ones (easier to get to from the Philadelphia area).
Northern Shore towns include funky Asbury Park, nightlife-centric Belmar, family-friendly Ocean Grove, and boardwalk hotspots Seaside and Point Pleasant. LBI is a central point and has a large number of towns to choose from for a vacation, including quiet Harvey Cedars on the north end and kid-friendly Beach Haven on the south end. South of LBI, you’ll find the casinos and free beaches of Atlantic City, the alcohol-free Ocean City, the chic sister towns of Avalon and Stone Harbor on a 7-mile barrier island, the boardwalk haven of Wildwood, and the charming cobblestone streets of Cape May.
3. A Boardwalk Primer
Around the country, there are walkways, and walks made of boards, and even “broadwalks” and “boardwalks.” But in New Jersey, we have “The Boardwalk,” which is way more than just a place to walk. The wide wooden boards raised up over the sand started in Atlantic City where a wealth of entertainment — from one of the first Ferris wheels to diving horses to the Miss America contest — attracted crowds.
Over the decades, other towns up and down the shore added amusement-filled boardwalks of their own. Today, you’ll find fair food, rides big and small, seafood restaurants, games of chance, live entertainment, and shopping galore along the weathered boards.
While there are a few small options in more residential shore towns, these are the biggies to know if you’re planning a vacation around boardwalk fun, traveling from north to south:
- Asbury Park (small and hip, popular with teens and trendsetters)
- Seaside Heights (boisterous and loud, the boardwalk you saw on Jersey Shore)
- Point Pleasant (lots of rides and amusements)
- Ocean City (a dry town, meaning no alcohol, and a great place for families)
- Atlantic City (casinos, restaurants, shops, and a pier filled with rides and amusements)
- Wildwood (the largest boardwalk in the state, with something for everyone; take the tramcar to save wear and tear on your feet)
4. Buy A Beach Badge
If you’ve driven through New Jersey on one of our toll Turnpike or Parkway roads that traverse the state (the source of the comic classic “You’re from Jersey, what exit?”), you may have noticed there’s no such thing as a “free ride” in the Garden State. The same holds true for the beaches, unfortunately. The majority of New Jersey’s golden sands require something called a beach badge, which incurs either a daily, weekly, or seasonal fee (a season’s badge is the best deal, but is only relevant if you’ll be staying for more than a week). Every township that requires one has its own badge, so if you’re planning on beach hopping, you’ll need to buy a new one for every beach.
There is some good news for frugal beachgoers, however: The enormous beaches in tourist-friendly Atlantic City and Wildwood are free of charge all summer. And all other beaches only charge for access for summer “peak” season, Memorial Day through Labor Day, and only from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., so you can come late at night or early in the morning for free, or anytime off season.
What you can’t do, though, is come early on a summer morning and expect to sit all day for free. Teen beach badge checkers are paid to come and check to make sure everyone sitting on the beach has a badge. Sorry.
5. The Secret To Finding A Great Rental Home
I’ve stayed in a variety of hotels and vacation homes all along the Jersey Shore. For a few days with my husband, I’m a fan of the bling of Atlantic City or the elegant Victorian inns and hotels of Cape May. But when I have the whole family along for a vacation, a house rental is always my top choice so we can spread out, socialize, and have big seafood feasts — preferable on an outdoor deck with an ocean breeze. Although sharing platforms like Airbnb and
For example, for the pandemic summer of 2020, it was late spring when I started looking for a two-week rental to share with my cousin and her family so we could “double bubble.” We scoured home rental sites but came up with truly disappointing options. That’s when I reached out to a realtor I found on Twitter. She asked me our budget and priorities, and then sent us several homes to peruse online, highlighting perks that I couldn’t see on the MLS (for example, an extra “hidden” loft space perfect for our teens that the owners hadn’t mentioned). I saved tons of time and found a house in my budget that was perfect for our group.
Every town at the shore has its own realtors who have local house rental options — search them online and then look for “rentals” on their web pages.
6. The Best Eats At The Beach
As soon as I hear “Jersey Shore,” I start to get hungry. It’s not just my once-a-year boardwalk binges — although I highly recommend sampling the creamy frozen custard from Kohr’s, sticky saltwater taffy, sweet fudge, Jersey pizza, addictive Johnson’s caramel corn, and Thrasher’s fries doused in malt vinegar. It’s also the Jersey fresh catches that come right off the fishing boat and into local seafood restaurants. (You can even do a day of deep water fishing with boats up and down the coast). Summer highlights include flounder, tuna, swordfish, and bluefish (although the latter is a bit of an acquired taste) as well as clams and scallops. Match them with Jersey fresh sweet corn and luscious vine-ripened tomatoes, and it’s a perfect vacation feast.
7. Entertainment Beyond The Sand
It’s not all boardwalks and sand and surf at the Jersey Shore (although those are definitely highlights). We also have a range of great year-round attractions to check out if you’re visiting in other seasons. (In fact, if you come in the warm fall or spring months, you’ll likely still have pleasant weather, along with fewer crowds and great prices for an overnight stay).
Some highlights to add to your list:
- Lucy the Elephant: The Jersey Shore’s favorite roadside attraction, and National Historic Landmark, is a two-story pachyderm that you can actually walk inside of. It’s located in Margate, just south of Atlantic City.
- Lighthouses: The state has 18 lighthouses, 11 of which you can explore inside and out. Top choices are in LBI and Cape May.
- Painted Ladies: Speaking of Cape May, the delightful Victorian town is filled with grand houses, or “Painted Ladies,” that you can see on guided tours via horse-drawn carriage, shuttle, or on foot.
The Jersey Shore is a great place to visit in the summer, or truly any time of year, but it helps to learn the lingo and know which beaches to pinpoint if you want to enjoy the beach like the locals do.