Cape May Travel Guide
At the southern tip of New Jersey lies the Northeast’s favorite summertime destination: Cape May. Spectacular ocean views attract thousands to this scenic beach town. The soft sands and long piers are the stuff of legend. But Cape May is also a place of rich culture and history. Some even claim it is the nation’s first seaside holiday destination.
Summertime is when the cape comes to life. It is the perfect time for outdoor activities and soaking in the sun. But there are plenty of opportunities throughout the year to properly enjoy the city. In this guide, you’ll learn what to do, where to eat, where to stay, and when to visit Cape May, NJ.
What to Do
Although famous for its sandy seascapes, Cape May is more than just a beach destination. There are plenty of sights to see and hidden charms to discover.
1. Cape May Historic District
The picturesque Historic District is a registered National Historic Landmark known for its late-Victorian-era architecture. Throughout the 30-block neighborhood, you’ll see colorful, summer cottages reflecting the fashion of the time. The architecture isn’t actually traditional Victorian but an improvised collection of elements from Gothic to Greek revival.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t take an architecture or history buff to appreciate the pleasant views. Many of these old homes have been converted into B&Bs, where guests can relax on the veranda and enjoy the old world ambience. Others, like Emlen Physick Estate, have turned into museums with a more educational experience.
If you want an organized tour through the Historic District, you can find one through Cape May MAC.
2. The Washington Street Mall
At the heart of the Cape May Historic District is the Washington Street Mall. The outdoor mall is the city’s hub for shopping, dining, and more. Whether you’re looking for ocean-themed souvenirs, freshly made candy, or charming boutiques, you’ll find it here.
The Washington Street Mall is also a central location for the city’s most popular restaurants. From local pubs to fine dining, chances are you’ll stop here for a bite to eat. But the mall is great even just for a simple stroll.
3. Relax on the Beach
Situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware Bay, Cape May offers 2.5 miles of sandy shores. In the summer, hundreds of people crowd the beaches to sunbathe, swim, surf, kayak, and more. It’s not hard to see why. The beaches are clean, well-maintained, and watched daily by lifeguards.
Another classic feature of the Jersey Shore is the boardwalk. The Cape May Boardwalk is technically a promenade that runs adjacent to the shore. The original boardwalk was destroyed by a nor’easter in 1962. Even so, you’ll find all the shops, arcades, and events traditionally found on a New Jersey boardwalk. It’s a great place for families and for joggers and bikers that want a good view.
4. Fishing and Whale Watching
Like any beach destination, the ocean gives you access to some classic seaside activities like fishing and whale watching. Cape May is actually home to one of the top five commercial fishing fleets on the East Coast. So why not try your luck at deep sea fishing? If the commercial giants have success, you probably will too.
But if fishing isn’t your thing, dolphin and whale watching may be a better option. Humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, and bottlenose dolphins are common denizens of the surrounding ocean. And although you can often see dolphins swimming by the shore, there’s nothing quite like seeing the graceful animals up close.
5. Cape May Point State Park
Cape May Point State Park is a protected section of forest, shore, and sea. The protection status makes the park a perfect spot to enjoy the local wildlife, such as river otters, turtles, ducks, and eagles. In addition, the area is one of the best for bird-watchers thanks to its location on migratory paths.
But the largest draw of the park is the Cape May Lighthouse. The 157-foot structure was built in 1859 and remains in operation to this day. Although beautiful in its own right, the lighthouse also offers stunning views of the coastline. You can climb the 199 steps to the top for a full panoramic vista.
Where to Eat
With an entire ocean of goodies on its doorstep, Cape May is a wonderful place to find quality seafood. You can enjoy the local cuisine in a fine dining or family friendly setting. Or you can stop for a snack or sweet treat. Here are some of the best options.
1. Tisha’s Fine Dining
Conveniently located in the Washington Street Mall, Tisha’s Fine Dining offers sophisticated New American cuisine at a decent price. Tisha’s brings the warm love of home cooking and presents it in a form that is both elegant and delicious.
Al fresco dining is available, so you can make the best of the pleasant, summer weather. But regardless of where you eat, you are in for a comfortable and memorable experience. Much like the food, the staff of Tisha’s are refined and professional without being snooty or pretentious.
2. Washington Inn
The Washington Inn is the face of Cape May’s upscale eating. It was constructed in 1846 and has been a mainstay of the community ever since. But the inn really came into its own in 1979 when the new owners, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Craig, turned their focus entirely on the restaurant. The restaurant is now one of the highest rated and most visited in all of Cape May.
True to their roots, the Washington Inn tries to put forth an air of hospitality. But there’s no mistaking the wealthy and elegant environment. From the sleek, sophisticated dishes to the polite and professional waiters, you know you’re in an elegant institution that takes its craft seriously.
3. Freda’s Cafe
Freda’s Cafe is Cape May’s hidden gem. Just off the Washington Street Mall, you’ll probably walk right by this tiny restaurant and not think a thing. And I really mean it is tiny. There are only a handful of tables. But the small atmosphere makes Freda’s a cozy, charming, and intimate place to dine.
Likewise, the food is an absolute delight. Every bite is a carefully crafted flavor explosion. Some favorites at the restaurant are the spring rolls and beef wellington. But whatever you choose, you won’t be disappointed.
4. Lucky Bones Back Water Grille
For a more family friendly dinner, head to Lucky Bones Back Water Grille. Adults can choose from a wide variety of seafood and brick oven pizza while the kids can enjoy some delicious classics. Either way, you’re sure to get some flavorful comfort food.
But don’t get the wrong idea. Comfort food and family friendly fun doesn’t mean you have to compromise on quality. Lucky Bones is owned by the Craig family, the same people that own the Washington Inn. You are in good hands, so expect quality food at reasonable prices.
5. The Original Fudge Kitchen
If you need a treat to please your sweet tooth, the Original Fudge Kitchen is the place to go. The Fudge Kitchen is famous for its fudge, of course. But you can find a wide variety of homemade candies and chocolates to choose from. There is something for everyone.
Although they have stores all across New Jersey, you can find the Fudge Kitchen on the Washington Street Mall. If the intoxicating aroma doesn’t lure you in, the free samples outside will.
Where to Stay
You have plenty options when it comes to your stay in Cape May. Cheap accommodation is always an option. There are Airbnbs, condos, and rentals of all kind. But if you want to make the most of your trip, you might consider staying at one of these fabulous locations.
1. The Mason Cottage Bed & Breakfast Inn
Cape May is a summertime destination with a rich history and distinctive style. One accommodation that embodies that Cape May spirit is the Mason Cottage. Situated in the Historic District, the Mason Cottage embraces the old-fashioned aesthetic. With high ceilings, intricate adornments, and a charming veranda, this B&B is a Victorian wonder with modern amenities.
Another great benefit of the Mason Cottage is its location. The inn is only two blocks from the beach and a few blocks from the Washington Street Mall. You have everything you could possibly want within walking distance.
2. The ICONA Cape May
If the beach is a necessity, head to the ICONA Cape May. The nautical-themed resort hotel rests on a quiet section of Beach Avenue. Its design is fresh, sleek, and modern. And of course, the oceanfront property has quick access to a private beach.
In addition to beach views, the ICONA offers shuttle service to its sister property ICONA Diamond Beach. There you can enjoy breakfast, lunch, happy hour, and dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. Naturally, the restaurant comes with private beach views as well.
3. The Peter Shields Inn
For those with a taste for the finer things in life, check out The Peter Shields Inn. Like the ICONA, this stately inn is located on the peaceful Beach Avenue. But the luxurious suites and amenities are incomparable. The Peter Shields Inn is a romantic mansion with spacious rooms, downy beds, and stellar service.
Peter Shields also features an award-winning restaurant with stunning meals of French and Italian inspiration. The restaurant has both traditional and contemporary dishes. But everything you order is made with the freshest and finest ingredients the area has to offer.
When to Visit
It should come as no surprise that Cape May is most popular in summer. From May to September the weather and water are warm enough for swimming and sunbathing. It’s the perfect time for strolls along the beach and outdoor dining. If you want to make the most of your trip to Cape May, this is the time to come. Just be aware that there will be a lot of tourists. So book your accommodation ahead of time.
For avid bird watchers, autumn is the time to come. Cape May holds an annual birding festival during October to align with birds’ migration patterns. You will also benefit from a lull in visitors. Accommodation will be cheaper and easier to come by as a result. But keep in mind that the ocean will be too cold for swimming. In addition, a lot of shops and restaurants will close for the year.
Wintertime in Cape May has a special charm. The Historic District is especially endearing covered in snow. There are also various Christmas-themed events, such as the Winter Wonderland at Congress Hall.
Like autumn, winter brings discounted lodging prices. However, the city will be incredibly quiet. Many of Cape May’s best restaurants and shops will be closed for the season. So if you do come, you may only want to stay for a few days as opposed to an entire week.
Whether you visit Cape May for an entire week or on a day trip from New York City, make sure you’re prepared. Take a look at my travel resources. Get the hotel you want for the price you want, and take the stress out of travel.