Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Lovers of the Jersey Shore tend to fall into one of two categories. There are die-hard Jerseyians who grew up spending summers on the shore and who will defend the area with their dying breath and then there are fans of a little reality television show called Jersey Shore, who come here expecting nothing less than the trashy, drunken fun immortalized by the MTV hit. The reality of the Jersey Shore lies somewhere in-between: it’s a gorgeous 141-mile stretch of coastline that comes with family-friendly beaches, old-school boardwalks, eateries ranging from the classically nostalgic to the modernly hip, and bars that offer class while others can provide you with the reality show experience you were looking for. Only a few hours drive from New York, our long weekend will take you to the best parts of the Jersey Shore on an itinerary that we hope makes both Bruce Springsteen and Snooki proud.
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You can take a New Jersey Transit train from Penn Station to Asbury Park (two and a half hours), but there’s no train service to Seaside Heights or Cape May, so a car is your best bet. It’s about an hour’s drive from New York to Asbury Park with no traffic, then another 40 minutes from Asbury to Seaside Heights. Cape May is another 90 minutes from there. On your ride home the final day, be ready for a two-and-half-hour drive back to NYC. However, keep in mind these times are all with minimal traffic; if you’re traveling in the summer, the Garden State Parkway (the main artery that connects towns on the Jersey Shore) can get very jammed, especially on Saturdays, which is when most of the weekly rentals change hands. Avoid traffic by leaving during the day Friday and returning home late Sunday night.
On your first day, head to Asbury Park, the Jersey Shore’s hipster answer to whether or not being from Jersey can be cool. A popular resort destination for New Yorkers in the 1920s and ’30s, it gained national acclaim in the late 1970s as the breeding ground for music legends like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi, while the 1990s saw it become a hub for the LGTBQ-community on the Shore. And then the 2010s brought forth a slew of restaurants, bars, and hotels that have turned it once again into a popular weekend destination for city-dwellers. The nearby beach and blossoming art scene don’t hurt either. If you leave NYC by late morning, you can make it in time for brunch at the charm-filled Cardinal Provisions; try the Nashville hot chicken or the chicken and waffles (the coffee is local, too). And if you’re more in the mood for a hearty sandwich, you can make it in time to grab one for lunch at the aptly-named Vintage Subs Asbury Park; try the Carousel with roast beef, turkey, American cheese, and banana peppers.
After lunch, hit Asbury Park Beach for a few hours of sun and sand (if you need some shade and snacks, check out the Beach Bar, which serves beachside cocktails and bar food all day long). Afterward, stroll the historic boardwalk, where you should be on the look-out for stunning buildings like the gorgeously-restored Paramount Theater and the street art decorating many of the other Beaux-Arts buildings. You can also shop among the many trendy boutiques.
Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Talula’s Pizza for dinner to find out why so many people say that the best New York pizza is actually in Jersey; the organic sourdough pizza includes options like the Beekeeper’s Lament, with tomato sauce, hot calabrian soppressata, mozzarella, and local honey. Or consider Modine for dinner with its delightful menu of Southern favorites like fried chicken skin and homemade biscuits. Afterward, spend the rest of your night at the Jersey Shore institution that is the Stone Pony, the legendary music spot where the Boss himself first got his start; there are still regular live music performances. And if you aren’t totally exhausted, you can follow it up with a visit to Asbury Park Distilling Co., the city’s only distillery, where you can sample cocktails using the housemade bourbon, gin, and vodka.
Start your day with a meal at breakfast haven Toast where, if you arrive early enough, you’ll beat the crowds nursing their hangovers to enjoy an Irish eggs Benedict or a classic Californian scramble. Or consider trying a New Jersey staple: a pork roll, egg, and cheese at Frank’s Deli. Then make the drive to Seaside Heights, another classic seaside town with a boardwalk that rose to infamy in the early 2010s as the setting for MTV’s Jersey Shore. The town has tried to lose its moniker as party central in recent years, so instead of hitting up the many clubs and bars, spend your afternoon taking in the boardwalk entertainment. Spend a few hours on the beach, and then walk the boardwalk, riding the various roller coasters and hitting up Lucky Leo’s for some nostalgic arcade games. And for fans of the show, the house where the cast spent many a summer is a quick walk from the boardwalk; the Italian flag is still painted on the garage for a fun photo op. For lunch, stop at boardwalk favorite the Sawmill, which serves classic beachside bar bites, decent burgers, and jumbo slices of pizza. And for those tired of pizza, there’s Park Seafood Bar, which serves excellent clam chowder, crab legs, and lobster rolls.
Make sure you leave Seaside Heights in time to catch the sunset in Cape May, an hour-and-a-half half drive. Dotted with Victorian mansions and lined with a family-friendly boardwalk, Cape May is the southernmost point of the Shore and one of the country’s oldest seaside resorts. Once you get to town, rent a bike and cycle down the streets admiring the Victorian architecture. Ride your bike to Cape May Point and the 1859 Cape May Lighthouse, and then to Sunset Beach for one of New Jersey’s best sunset vistas. For dinner, get a table at the Ebbitt Room, an upscale tavern serving farm-to-table cuisine that prides itself on being local and seasonal; if available, try the heritage chicken or the local fluke Francaise. And if it’s full for the night, look for a table at the Washington Inn, another upscale restaurant serving dishes like seafood cioppino and grilled filet mignon; there’s also an excellent wine list. After dinner, stroll the Washington Street Mall, the main avenue of the town lined with boutique shops, art galleries, and ice cream shops. End your night with a drink at the sophisticated Brown Room in Congress Hall, Cape May’s landmark hotel, and if you’re up for it, keep the party going in the Boiler Room nightclub downstairs.
For breakfast, wake up early or be prepared to wait in line at the Mad Batter, a Cape May breakfast institution; you can’t go wrong with the buttermilk or oatmeal pancakes. And if that pancake joint is packed, try Uncle Bill’s Pancake House, pancakes are an obvious choice, but the stuffed French Toast is equally delicious.
Once you get your fill of pancakes, get ready for an afternoon on any of the beaches lining the boardwalk; these are widely considered the best beaches on the Jersey Shore thanks to the impressive waves and family-friendly atmosphere. Be sure to take a break with lunch at the Rusty Nail, a low-key beach bar that has excellent burgers, fried seafood, and sandwiches.
Once you’re all sunned out, take a detour to either Cape May Winery or Cape May Brewing Company for fantastic local wine and beer; tasting flights are available at both (just make sure someone is the designated driver since you’ll be driving home tonight). If you’re not a big drinker, try a house tour of the historic Emlem Physick Estate—one of Cape May’s traditional Victorian homes that offers guided tours all year-round.
Before you depart on your two-and-half-hour drive back to New York, enjoy a farewell dinner at the Lobster House, a waterfront mainstay offering freshly-caught seafood, including Jersey clams, Cape May scallops, and lobster. Or for one last taste of quality Italian food (and dessert), there’s Sapore Italiano, a classic red-sauce Italian restaurant offering fresh seafood pasta, risottos, and other classic Italian dishes (it’s also BYOB, so be sure to stock-up beforehand, maybe with a purchase from the Cape May Winery).
WHERE TO STAY
Asbury Park has seen a slew of fashionable boutique hotels open in recent years, but the best is The Asbury, located in a restored 1950s brick building just minutes from the boardwalk. The rooftop pool and bar are where all the cool kids hang-out while the chic rooms are worth every penny. For a more affordable option, try The Empress, a family resort from the 1960s (Bruce Springsteen even worked here) that closed and was turned into a popular gay nightclub in the 1990s. It reopened as a hotel in 2004 and is still popular with the LGBTQ crowd.
In Cape May, the best place to stay is hands-down Congress Hall, one of the town’s most architecturally-stunning Victorian buildings that has housed celebrities and presidents alike. It’s pricey, but worth it for the feel of old-school glamour and class. If you don’t want to splurge, there are dozens of B&Bs lining the streets that surround the Mall; the Queen Victoria Bed & Breakfast, located in a traditional 1876 Victorian house, is one of the best, with its wrap-around porch, quaint interiors, and an excellent afternoon tea.
WHEN TO GO
Naturally, the Jersey Shore is a summer destination; June through August are the prime times for beach-going, rentals, and crowds. Fall and spring are equally charming with way fewer people, but the weather won’t be as beach-friendly. Many businesses do shut down for the winter, but you’ll still be able to find some hotels and restaurants open while strolling along the charmingly-deserted boardwalks.