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14 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Cape May, NJ

Written by Lisa Alexander
Updated Jun 23, 2021

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Cape May holds the distinction of being the first seaside holiday destination in America. This picturesque beach town, with its pleasant tree-lined streets and dainty Victorian cottages is full of nostalgic charm. The quaint Historic District of Cape May stands out from everywhere else along the Jersey Shore.

Besides its splendid 19th-century architecture, Cape May boasts stunning natural scenery. Miles of pristine sandy shoreline extend along the Cape May coast, which is tucked away at the southernmost tip of New Jersey where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Delaware Bay.

During summertime, the beaches are colorful scenes of bright parasols and kids splashing around in the shallow waves. In the spring and autumn, the refreshing Atlantic breezes and mild weather invite leisurely strolls along the oceanfront promenade. Other things to do include biking, boating, fishing, bird-watching, fine dining, and antique shopping.

A fashionable summertime beach destination, Cape May offers endless opportunities for sightseeing and outdoor activities. Plan your vacation at this upscale seaside resort with our list of the top attractions in Cape May.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Cape May Historic District

Historic homes in Cape May
Historic homes in Cape May

The country's best-preserved 19th-century seashore resort, Cape May is a registered National Historic Landmark with over 600 Victorian-era houses in its 30-block downtown area. These charming summer cottages were designed with covered porches for enjoying the sea breezes, and decorative elements such as "gingerbread" trim, "wedding cake" details, turrets, and gables.

Many of the town's historic houses have been converted into luxurious bed-and-breakfast hotels. Most B&Bs have rocking chairs on their front porches or verandas, where guests can relax and socialize, adding to the old-fashioned vacation ambience.

One of the most distinctive historic homes in Cape May, the Emlen Physick Estate is now open to the public as a museum. This "Stick Style" Victorian house represents a break from the overly fanciful Victorian facades. Guided tours are provided by the Cape May Museum + Arts + Culture association. Visitors will also enjoy the gift shop and the estate's delightful garden.

At the heart of the Historic District, the Washington Street Mall (between Ocean Street and Perry Street) includes three blocks of enticing locally owned candy stores, clothing stores, bookstores, and restaurants. The Washington Street Mall is an inviting place to take a leisurely stroll while browsing the boutiques. Tourists will also be tempted to stop for sweet treats or indulge in a gourmet meal.

Ornate facade on a Victorian home in Cape May
Ornate facade on a Victorian home in Cape May

A wonderful way to explore the Historic District is by foot or bike, stopping to admire the lovely "Painted Ladies" (Victorian houses with ornate facades). The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities offers guided walking tours along Washington Street, where many of the town's prettiest old houses are found.

Some of the town's most picture-perfect Victorians grace Lafayette Street, Hughes Street, and Columbia Avenue. The "Stockton Row Cottages" on Gurney Street are also famous.

On Beach Avenue overlooking the ocean are an array of grand beachfront accommodations and a few landmark hotels, including America's first seaside resort, Congress Hall (established in 1816), and the Victorian-era Inn of Cape May (dating to 1894), an elaborate structure that features a veranda with sea views.

In October, during Victorian Weekend, visitors can join special house tours and participate in entertaining activities such as playing Victorian parlor games.

2. Sandy Beaches

Summer at a Cape May beach
Summer at a Cape May beach | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Cape May is nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay at the southernmost tip of New Jersey. The shoreline includes 2.5 miles of sandy beaches (along Beach Avenue), which are some of the most beautiful on the Eastern coastline.

The beaches of Cape May are family-friendly and equipped with lounge chair and sun umbrella rentals. The city keeps the beaches clean and well-maintained, so that visitors can appreciate the fine white-sand shores. Most beaches are located near public restrooms, shops, snack bars, cafés, and restaurants.

For those planning a seaside holiday, there is a wide selection of accommodations within easy walking distance to the beaches. Many hotels also feature superb ocean views.

During the high season (Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day), Cape May beaches require entry tickets from 10am to 5pm. Beach tags may be purchased for the day, three-day period, week, or season.

From June until September, Cape May beaches offer a classic summertime experience of sunbathing and swimming. In the off season, bird-watching and nature walks are popular.

Sunset at Sunset Beach, Cape May
Sunset at Sunset Beach, Cape May

In front of the famous Congress Hall, the Congress Street Beach (at Beach Avenue and Congress Street) has an upscale ambience and is the location of the annual 4th of July fireworks.

Volleyball players can use the beach volleyball courts at Steger Beach (at Beach Avenue and Jackson Street) and 2nd Avenue Beach (at Beach Avenue and 2nd Avenue).

The section of beach a quarter-mile east of the Brooklyn Avenue Beach storm pipe is reserved for fishing. At all the other beaches, fishing is allowed before 10am or after 5pm.

A favorite beach for soaking up the rays (as well as for surfing and kayaking) is The Cove with its wide, slightly sloped shore. The Cove is located at the end of the promenade that runs for two miles along Beach Avenue.

Sunset Beach in West Cape May is the place to go for a late-afternoon walk. Many visitors arrive here just before dusk to take in the last sparkling golden rays of the day. From Memorial Day through August, a flag ceremony is held at Sunset Beach every evening.

3. Bird-Watching

Cape May warbler
Cape May warbler

Cape May is North America's premier birding destination, thanks to its location on migratory paths and diverse habitat of marshes, ponds, swamps, grasslands, and forests.

For over two centuries, the Cape May environment has been appreciated by bird-watchers, including John Audubon. Around 450 bird species have been spotted at Cape May such as warblers, sandpipers, oystercatchers, plovers, orioles, and summer tanagers.

Top locations for birding are in West Cape May (the rural area outside of the historic town): South Cape May Meadows, the Cape May Hawkwatch, and Higbee Beach Wildlife Management Area. Peak migration periods occur in May (for shorebirds) and in September (for songbirds).

4. Cape May Point State Park

Cape May Lighthouse
Cape May Lighthouse

Cape May Point State Park is a protected stretch of shoreline, sand dunes, coastal marshland, ponds, and forest habitat with an environmental center and museum. The park's main attraction is the Cape May Lighthouse, built in 1859. Visitors may climb (199 steps) to the top of the lighthouse tower to admire sweeping panoramas of the Atlantic coastline and the Delaware Bay.

Several hiking trails wind through the park, affording a chance to spot wildlife or migrating birds. The Monarch Trail was named after the monarch butterflies that are attracted to wildflowers here in the fall, while the Plover Trail is a wonderful path for viewing plovers, oystercatchers, and other shorebirds.

The Duck Pond Trail abounds with wildlife including duck, turtles, river otters, and bald eagles.

From both the Monarch Trail and Plover Trail, visitors can see the World War II Gun Battery (bunker) on the beach.

Near Cape May Point about a five-minute drive from the Cape May Lighthouse is the World War II Lookout Tower, which played an important role in defending the country from invasion during the Second World War. The tower was built in 1942 as one of 15 coastal defense towers in New Jersey.

This tourist site includes a Visitors' Orientation Center and a museum, which presents military history-themed exhibits, interpretive panels along the boardwalk that provide historical insights, and a memorial paying tribute to war veterans. The Museum Shop sells maritime-themed souvenirs.

5. Victorian Bed-and-Breakfasts

Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast hotels
Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast hotels

Staying at one of Cape May's charming historic accommodations is a special experience. Many of the town's Victorian summer cottages have been converted to luxurious bed-and-breakfast hotels.

Cape May B&Bs allow visitors to experience a seaside retreat of the Victorian-era upper class. Guest rooms are outfitted with four-poster beds, vintage floral wallpaper, and antique furniture. Breakfasts are served in elegant dining rooms, for a glimpse of what life was like for high society holiday-goers in the 19th century.

Accommodation: B&B and Inns in Cape May

6. Schellenger's Landing

South Jersey Marina
South Jersey Marina

The Fisherman's Wharf of Cape May, Schellenger's Landing gives tourists a taste of the town's seafaring past. Schellenger's Landing has several marinas: South Jersey Marina, Utsch's Marina, and Miss Chris Marina.

A great spot for setting off on recreational fishing and boating adventures, the marinas at Schellenger's Landing have many shops that sell fishing gear and rent out kayaks and paddleboards. At Utsch's Marina and Miss Chris Marina, anglers can embark on sportfishing charters and deep-sea fishing trips. Bird-watching boat cruises leave from Miss Chris Marina.

Schellenger's Landing is one of the best places to visit in Cape May for a seafood meal. Waterfront restaurants specializes in fresh-caught fish.

7. Whale and Dolphin Watching Cruises

Dolphin off Cape May
Dolphin off Cape May

Whales and dolphins can be spotted in the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, not too far (within 10 miles) from the Cape May coastline. It's a thrilling experience to see these amazing sea mammals up close, while sailing through the deep blue waters.

Several local companies provide whale-watching cruises. Passengers have a chance to see humpback whales, finback whales, and minke whales, as well as pods of bottlenose dolphins.

A guided whale and dolphin watching cruise is sure to be a memorable outing. As the captain steers to the spots where whales and dolphins are found, a certified naturalist guide provides commentary about the animals and their ocean habitat.

The Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center at the South Jersey Marina also offers whale, dolphin, and bird-watching cruises. The center's Sunset Dolphin Cruise is a relaxing boat trip that sails past the Cape May beaches and the Cape May lighthouse.

8. Cape May Harbor

Sailboats on Cape May Harbor
Sailboats on Cape May Harbor | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

This sheltered harbor is an idyllic scene of sailboats and yachts gliding through gently rippling turquoise waters. There is a tiny beach in a quiet cove with a few picnic tables.

Overlooking the harbor, the New Jersey Audubon's Nature Center of Cape May presents educational exhibits and hands-on activities designed to inspire kids' interest in nature. The nature center also has an observation tower, gift shop, picnic area, and a lush flowering garden landscaped to attract butterflies.

Families with young children will have fun going on a Harbor Safari, an educational outing organized by the New Jersey Audubon society. Kids learn about the coastal ecology and local sea creatures.

The Cape May Harbor is also a great place for water sports. Kayaks and paddleboards can be rented from Aqua Trails near the nature center.

9. Christmas Celebrations and House Tours

Christmas decorations at the Emlen Physick Estate
Christmas decorations at the Emlen Physick Estate

The holiday season is a special time to visit Cape May and brings with it a selection of festive things to do. During December, the Victorian houses and landmark hotels of Cape May are decorated in old-fashioned style for Christmas.

Festive illuminations, garlands, and Christmas trees lend a magical ambience to the town's historic houses. The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities organizes Candlelight House Tours at historic properties throughout town. The tours include Christmas carols, hot beverages, and homemade cookies.

Kicking off the season, a Christmas Parade is held in West Cape May on the first Saturday in December. Other events in December include tree lighting ceremonies held at Congress Hall and the Emlen Physick Estate, and holiday-themed trolley rides. Congress Hall hosts a Winter Wonderland event with concerts, activities for kids, and an open-air Christmas market.

The Washington Street Mall is a lively place to go Christmas shopping, as boutiques open their doors for longer hours and offer refreshments.

10. Historic Cold Spring Village

Country store in Cold Springs Village
Blacksmith shop in Historic Cold Spring Village

The Historic Cold Spring Village is a small country community frozen in time. This open-air museum of Early American history includes 25 well-preserved buildings, mostly dating from the early to mid 1800s, including a barn, woodworking shop, blacksmith shop, pottery shop, one-room schoolhouse, and an inn that was a stopping place for stagecoach travelers.

Walking around the 30-acre village, visitors get a sense of the 19th-century cultural heritage. Several shops and restaurants are still operating, giving the impression of stepping back in time.

Tourists can purchase handcrafted artisan items, candy, jams, and books at the Country Store; enjoy pastries from the Village Bakery or frozen treats from the Ice Cream Parlor; and have brunch, lunch, or dinner at the Cold Spring Grange Restaurant that serves classic American cuisine.

To help bring the past to life, the village offers demonstrations on the Early American trades (blacksmithing, woodworking, and weaving) and "Hands-on History" presentations, such as churning butter and writing with an old-fashioned quill pen. The village also has a historic eight-acre working farm where cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens are raised.

Official site: https://hcsv.org

11. West Cape May

Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May
Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May

Beyond the Historic District of Cape May is a quiet rural community with many small farms. Dating back to the 1600s, European colonists cultivated this area for agricultural use. In the 20th century, the land was used for the Cape May dairy, as well as for lima bean and soy bean farms.

In keeping with its heritage, a Lima Bean Festival takes place at Wilbraham Park in West Cape May every October.

Tourists will also enjoy cycling in West Cape May; it's an easy (and scenic) bike ride from Cape May's center. Bird-watchers will appreciate the observation decks and walking trails at South Cape May Meadows, which includes 200 acres of protected habitat for birds and other wildlife.

Built on a historic property, Beach Plum Farm is a 62-acre farm that supplies produce to local restaurants. Beach Plum Farm grows over 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

The property's rustic-chic country market sells hand-picked fresh produce harvested from the farm's fields and gardens, while the Farm Kitchen serves breakfast and lunch made with ingredients from the farm.

Other reasons to visit Beach Plum Farm are the shaded picnic area (perfect for sunny days) and farm-to-table dinners. There are also quaint cottages that provide overnight accommodations.

12. East Lynne Theater Company

The award-winning East Lynne Theater Company has been entertaining audiences in Cape May since 1988. The company presents theater performances inspired by classic American literature and drama, such vaudeville variety shows, Edgar Allen Poe stories, and the works of Dorothy Parker.

Performances take place at the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May. The performing season is in March and June through December.

13. Colonial House

The Colonial House
The Colonial House | Photo Copyright: Lisa Alexander

Cape May was an important whaling town during the 16th and 17th centuries. However, most of the original "First Period" (1690 - 1730) colonial-era houses were destroyed in the fire of 1856. The Colonial House luckily survived the fire and is the oldest house in Cape May.

Built in 1730, the house (now open to the public as a museum) displays authentic period furnishings and household items. Visiting hours are from 1pm - 4pm Wednesday through Saturday (June 15 through September 15), as well as during Victorian Weekend in October and Christmas Candlelight House Tours.

Address: 653 1/2 Washington Street, Cape May, New Jersey

Official site: https://www.capemayhistory.org

14. Underground Railroad Trolley Tour

Underground Railroad Trolley Tour
Underground Railroad Trolley Tour | Cape May MAC (Museums+Arts+Culture) / photo modified

Cape May played an important role in the anti-slavery movement before the Civil War. During the 1840s and 1850s, the town was a meeting place for leading Philadelphia abolitionists and Underground Railroad organizers.

The Underground Railroad Trolley Tour brings to life the harrowing stories of the Underground Railroad. The tour points out landmarks that were key to emancipating slaves, such as the historic home of Stephen Smith, who was a founder of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, and the Cape May Lighthouse, which helped freedom seekers find their way across the Delaware Bay.

Where to Stay in Cape May for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • Check out the recently renovated Boarding House Cape May for a laid-back luxury ambience inspired by Cape May's surf culture. Rooms have surfboards mounted on white wood-paneled walls, as well as paintings by local artists. Walking distance from the town's top restaurants and the beach, the hotel is also pet friendly if you're traveling with a dog.
  • Located on 1.5 acres in Cape May's Historic District, The Southern Mansion is one of the top luxury B&B choices in town. A popular wedding venue, it has a historic, romantic ambience. The property dates back to 1863, and the spacious rooms and suites have been restored to the style of this period. The property is adults-only, and besides a complimentary breakfast, it also has free parking. Don't skip a stroll around its beautiful gardens.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • The Montreal Beach Resort has been a family summer vacation favorite for decades. It is located right on the beach, and there are sun loungers on the sand for guests to use. The hotel has a restaurant serving three meals a day and these can also be served beachside. Other amenities include a swimming pool and a spa.
  • Also right on the oceanfront is The Grand Hotel. It is one of the largest resorts in the area. The rooms and suites are spacious and nicely decorated. Some have kitchenettes, and there are also family room options. Amenities include direct beach access, a restaurant that has a children's menu, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, hot tubs, and a workout room.
  • ICONA Cape May is a beachfront boutique property with design-forward rooms featuring white walls, headboards, and furnishings paired with dark patterned rugs for a contemporary vibe. The bathrooms are equally appealing, with Carrera marble throughout. The hotel is across the street from a public section of the beach.
  • In summer, guests have access to a free shuttle to the ICONA Cape May's sister property, ICONA Diamond Beach, which is about a 10-minute drive north. It has a private beach club for guests, as well as an oceanfront restaurant with live music and fire pits. Inside an Art Deco building, there are 102 suites with bright and modern decor that also come with kitchenettes and balconies.

Budget Hotels:

  • Cape May doesn't have many budget properties, and even 2-star hotels here are pricy in season. One of the cheaper choices is the Madison Avenue Beach Club Motel. The family-friendly property features rooms and suites with kitchenettes. The motel is also dog friendly.

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imageHighlights of New Jersey: If you are planning to extend your vacation beyond Cape May, learn about the top tourist attractions in New Jersey. For summer trips, be sure to also check out our list of the top beaches in New Jersey. For a pampering holiday, organize your itinerary around stays at some of the top-rated resorts in New Jersey, which range from fancy beachfront accommodations to boutique luxury hotels.

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