12 Must-See Things to Do in Cape May: America’s First Seaside Resort

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Checking out the Victorian mansions along Beach Avenue is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Victorian mansions along Beach Avenue. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Cape May, New Jersey is justifiably known for its magnificent Victorian-era architecture and rich history, not just on the East Coast but across the nation.

What are the other Cape May attractions? For sophisticated adults, how about wine tasting, farm-to-table dining and bed and breakfast accommodations. For multigen families, how about a day on soft sand along the two miles of Cape May beaches. Or for birders, flock to the No. 1 destination for bird watching in North America. Or for kids, climb the Cape May Lighthouse or WWII lookout tower.

Enjoying the wide sandy beaches is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ (Young man sits with phone on beach next to lifeboat)
Plenty of wide sandy beaches in Cape May. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

3 Destinations in 1

The island that includes Cape May and nearby Cape May Harbor is really three family-friendly destinations in one, full of must-see tourist attractions. Billed as America’s First Seaside Resort, Cape May has been welcoming visitors since the early 1800s, long before its popular Jersey Shore competitors in Atlantic City and Wildwood built boardwalks and summer beach resorts.

1. Explore the Beach

To access the beach, anyone age 12 and older needs a beach badge from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Weekly badges cost $20. 3-day badges for consecutive-day use are $15. Daily badges cost $8. Badges can be purchased at the beach or via the Viply app. Staying at one of the fun Cape May beach hotels? Many include beach badges as an amenity.

Seeing the Victorian mansions dubbed the "Pink Ladies" is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Victorian mansions dubbed the “Painted Ladies.” Photo credit: R.C. Staab

2. Victorian Cape May

Destined for demolition in 1970, a group of pioneering preservationists rallied to save the Emlen Physick Estate. Their fight led others to carry the banner of preservation and stop the destruction of many of the famous painted ladies — beautifully restored and colorfully painted Victorian homes from the latter part of the 19th century. Today, it is one of the largest remaining collections left in the United States.

While it’s easy to walk or drive by the Victorian homes in the Cape May historic district, your understanding of Cape May’s history and architecture will be richly enhanced by taking one of the many open-air, trolley tours offered by the Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture). MAC also runs the Emlen Physick Estate, the city’s only Victorian house museum, which provides guided tours with a fascinating look into the daily life of a wealthy Philadelphia family that moved to Cape May.

Visiting the Harriett Tubman Museum is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Harriet Tubman Museum. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

3. Harriet Tubman Museum – Newest Historic Gem

Now in its second full summer of operation, the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May is fully open and ready for touring.

Cape May played a pivotal role in the fight to end slavery. Harriet Tubman was often at the center of those activities. She spent at least three summers in Cape May working in hotels and for individual families as a cook to raise money to bring other African-Americans to their freedom in the north.

The tour includes exhibits about Harriet Tubman’s life, but I most enjoyed the talk that’s included with the tours by the expert guides who have a passion for telling the story of  the legendary abolitionist.

The museum is open Friday through Sunday with timed admissions.

Exploring the outdoor Washington Street Mall is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Outdoor Washington Street Mall with plenty of shops. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

4. Downtown Cape May

Many visitors to Cape May will find a walk along the Boardwalk promenade by Beach Avenue to be a reinvigorating way to take in the salt air like people did in the Victorian era.

Watching the sun set across the wide Delaware Bay is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
The sun sets across the wide Delaware Bay. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

5. Sunset Beach

As the name suggests, Sunset Beach in West Cape May is the most popular place to watch the sunset at the Jersey Shore. Although the sun never sets over the Atlantic Ocean, this westerly view across the widest part of the Delaware Bay suffices for an unofficial ocean sunset.

At certain times of the year, you can watch the sunset from the World War II Lookout Tower, now on the National Register of Historic Places, which is a few blocks from Sunset Beach. The WWII Lookout Tower, also known as Fire Control Tower No. 23, includes memorabilia for history buffs and is an easy walk to the top, especially compared to the Cape May Lighthouse.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Get there at least 30 minutes before the sunset and park anywhere you can, even along Sunset Boulevard. It can be chaotic but is one of the fun things to do in Cape May.

6. Evening Flag Ceremony

At the end of Sunset Boulevard is the family-owned Sunset Beach Gift Shops, Mini Golf and Grille. Every summer night since 1975, the Hume family has honored a departed U.S. veteran in a flag ceremony at the beach.

Casket flags are flown daily by arrangement with veterans’ families and then lowered in a 20-minute ritual. Information about the honoree is read, recordings of “God Bless America” and the national anthem are played and taps are sounded—sometimes live—as the veteran’s relatives lower the flag.

The evening flag ceremony is held daily at 7 pm the Memorial Day Weekend, 7pm Saturdays in June, daily at 7pm in July and August and at 6pm Saturdays in September. All of the flags are veterans’ casket flags that families bring with them from their loved one’s funeral.

Enjoying the South Cape May Meadows is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
South Cape May Meadows. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

7. Nature Walks and Birding

Adjacent to the southern beach of Cape May is South Cape May Meadows, land owned and overseen by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy that works in tandem with the Nature Center of Cape May and the Cape May Bird Observatory. Seamlessly connected to the Meadows is Cape May Point State Park, dominated at its western end by the formidable Cape May Lighthouse.

The efforts of the Conservancy, the state, the federal government and other nonprofits in Cape May County have paid off. A few years ago, National Geographic named Cape May as one of the Top 10 birding destinations in the world and the only one in North America.

Although large sections of the sand are cordoned off, there’s plenty of space to walk and jog along the beachfront. Keep an eye out for the oyster catchers and piping plovers that are nesting in this area and freely walk from the water’s edge to their fenced-in area.

Only yards from the beach through the maritime forest, take a walk to see awe-inspiring wetlands and salt marshes. Look up to see ospreys, hawks, terns and seagulls and watch ducks, geese and swans fly in for a landing on the ponds. River otters and muskrats swim in the wetland, and deer and foxes move through the dunes. For bird watchers and camera enthusiasts, there are platforms and a bird blind.

Seeing dolphins offshore is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Dolphins can be seen right offshore almost year round in Cape May. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

8. Whale Watching

Where the Delaware River spills into the Atlantic Ocean is a feeding ground for the largest mammals on earth—whales. From March to December, you can see humpback whales, fin whales, bottlenose dolphins and porpoises, sea turtles and harbor seals.

For more than 30 years, the Cape May Whale Watcher has ferried passengers on purpose-built vessels with plenty of viewing outdoors on the decks and inside the cabins where it’s warm. There are multiple trips a day in season, varying from two to three hours. No two trips are alike as Captain Jeff and his crew monitor whale and dolphin sightings and take visitors along the Jersey Coast, up the Delaware Bay and even south to the coastline of Delaware.

Across the street is the Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center which also offers daily whale watching trips during the season.

Near the docks for whale watching, take The Osprey Boat for tours along the marshes and estuaries from Cape May to Stone Harbor or rent a kayak for a self-guided tour.

Trying out a self-powered rail car is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Self-powered rail cars are fun for the family. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

9. Riding the Rails to the Canal

Cape May’s newest attraction, Revolution Rail, takes you through some of the oldest parts of Lower Township and what is now the island of Cape May.

Using tracks from the former Seashore Lines Railroad, individuals , couples and families climb aboard two- or four-person rail vehicles that ride along the tracks from the Cape May Visitors Center just off Lafayette Street to the track’s end at Cape May Canal, a distance of two miles.

Like working out on a recumbent bike, all the vehicles are self-powered. They are remarkably easy to use as you glide along the rails through dense coastal forest, a wild marshy area with an osprey nest and ultimately to the Canal.

Passengers embark for a quick tour of the canal bank and a history lesson as the staff turn the rail cars around for the return ride.

Visiting the General store at Historic Cold Spring Village is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
General store at Historic Cold Spring Village. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

10. Explore Living History at Historic Cold Spring Village

Just north of Cape May Island is the Historic Cold Spring Village, a 19th century open air non-profit living history museum that portrays the crafts, trades, lifestyle and issues from the “Age of Homespun.”

Historically clothed interpreters discuss and demonstrate the daily life of a rural South Jersey community of the Early American period. It features 27 restored historic structures on a 30-acre site, including an 8-acre circa 1800s farm complex with animals.

Authentically clad and equipped re-enactors bring the American Revolution and Civil War to life on the grounds of Historic Cold Spring Village each fall.

Although Cape May is not always known for its breweries, the Cold Spring Brewery is a great place to enjoy a meal or taste the latest brews and ale including Cape May Farmhouse and Not Ye Grandpappy’s Sarsaparilla.

Visiting the Aviation Museum at Cape May Airport is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Aviation museum at Cape May Airport. Photo Ccredit: R.C. Staab

11. Flight Enthusiasts Head to the Airport

Originally part of an active Navy dive-bombing training facility, Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum is now a nonprofit museum located at the Cape May Airport inside historic Hangar #1.

The museum has more than 26 aircraft on display, as well as military memorabilia, engines, photographs and interactive exhibits on the science of flight.

Aviation enthusiasts will want to investigate the Russian MiG-15 fighter plane and the TBM Avenger aircraft. Kids will likely focus on the Top Gun jet fighters, the helicopters, and the Coast Guard patrol boat. Adults and kids can practice becoming a Top Gun pilot with a Coast Guard simulator. Friendly leashed pets are welcome.

Seeing the lions (and other animals) at the Cape May Zoo is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Lion at Cape May Zoo. Photo Crcredit: R.C. Staab

12. Free Things to do in Cape May

It’s remarkable to find a full-fledged family attraction that offers free admission. Open year-round, the Cape May County Park and Zoo is a great place to take your family.

You can see animal species native to North America, such as bison, black bears, otters, elks and foxes. The African animal species are the stars, with separate enclosures for lions, giraffes, camels and monkeys. There are special enclosures for reptiles and amphibians, plus a World of Birds featuring flamingoes.

Also free to visit (but a donation is appreciated) is the Jersey Shore Alpacas at a small farm owned and operated by Jim and Tish Carpinelli in Green Creek, a small town near historic Cape May. Reservations are required; no drop-ins.

Seeing Congress Hall is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Congress Hall. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Cape May Hotels

Across from the beachfront is a view of one of the most famous structures in Cape May – Congress Hall. This luxury hotel has been welcoming US Presidents (Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, Harrison), musicians (John Philip Sousa) and people seeking the finest upscale visitor experience in South Jersey for more than two centuries.

 In addition to the hotel, visit its famous restaurants with occasional live music, particularly during the festive holiday season.

Cape Resorts, the owner of the Congress Hall, also operates Congress Palace Suites, The Virginia Hotel & Cottages, The Sandpiper, Beach Shack and The Star in downtown Cape May. The ICONA Cape May sits right across from the beach. For a dog friendly hotel, try The Boarding House.

Where to Eat and Drink in Cape May

A few blocks inland is Washington Street Mall – full of gift shops, ice cream parlors, a variety of restaurants. One of my favorite places to stop and eat is Cape May Peanut Butter Company with homemade peanut butter. Take home some Butterscotch Peanut Butter and Peanut Butter Non Pariels.

Looking for a Cape May winery? Nearby is the Willow Creek Winery with a tasting room. Adjacent to the winery is the popular Beach Plum Farm with a breakfast and lunch menu, a shop with produce and packaged good, much of which is produced at the farm. Stay overnight at the pricey but in-demand cabins on the property.

How Did Cape Mey/Cape May get its Name?

Dutch Captain Cornelius Jacobsen Mey surveyed and named the area for himself in 1620, making it the oldest named town on the Jersey Shore. Mey was misspelled as “May” in public records. The town’s name lived on as Cape May.

Grabbing a copy of "100 Things to do at the Jersey Shore before you die", like Mario Lopez, is one of many things to do in Cape May NJ
Mario Lopez with his favorite Jersey book. Photo credit: R.C. Staab

Plan to Visit Cape May with No. 1 Jersey Shore Travel Guide

What are the best attractions, boardwalks, cultural sights, nightlife and food to sample? Do what TV, film and stage celeb Mario Lopez does when he visits the Shore and pick up a copy of the book, 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die.

Visit www.100ThingsJerseyShore to order your autographed copy or pick one up from family-owned The Lobster House Restaurant, the shops at Cape May’s premiere shopping spot, West End Garage or the gift shop at the Emlen Physick House in Cape May.

R.C. Staab is a New York-based author, playwright, musical theater writer and lyricist. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, was published in Spring 2023. His first book 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die was published in 2020 and is now in its second printing. In 2021, he walked the entire 139-mile coastline of the Jersey Shore from Sandy Hook to Cape May the book, generating more than 200,000 views on social media. He frequently contributes to New Jersey Monthly magazine and online travel publications. He is long-time member of the Society of American Travel Writers having traveled to 49 of the 50 US States and more than 60 countries. He specializes in cultural tourism, adventure travel and historical sites. His off-Broadway musicals and plays have been produced in New York, San Francisco, England and the Midwest. He is a two-time nominee for England’s Best New Song competition. He lives in New York City with his wife, Valari, and his dog, Skye.
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