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Off-Season Bliss in Cape May, New Jersey

Urban beach lovers have long converged on Cape May, New Jersey — seeking a breezy summer escape from the sweltering confines of major metropolitan areas in the Northeast.

Located at the southern tip of New Jersey, Cape May is the oldest seaside resort in America and has been luring visitors to its sandy shores since the mid-18th century.

A collage of photos featuring Cape May, New Jersey.
Things to do in Cape May, New Jersey: Tour the Cape May Lighthouse, watch the sunrise and sunset, and visit the Victorian buildings in the historic district.

The Jersey Shore claims some of the finest beachfront in the United States, but even by Jersey standards, Cape May stands out, with endless stretches of soft, inviting sand on the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.

That means that you can enjoy coastal sunrises and bayside sunsets every single day. And that’s not all. Cape May is one of the most prolific birding hotspots in the country, and it’s a National Historic District with more than 600 beautifully preserved Victorian buildings.

You could easily spend a week or more exploring Cape May and its neighboring communities in Southern New Jersey, and more than 11 million people choose to do so each summer. Yes, a town with 3,000 residents attracts millions of visitors between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Things to Do in Cape May, New Jersey: At-A-Glance

Want to skip to the good part? Here’s a bite-sized snapshot of everything you need to know to plan your trip to Cape May, New Jersey:

  • When to Go: I recommend visiting Cape May in April or September for fewer crowds.
  • Where to Stay: The historic Congress Hall is a wonderful splurge, and this little Airbnb in North Cape May is dog-friendly and right on the bay.
  • How to get here: Most people fly into Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), which is about two hours away. Cape May is four hours from Washington, D.C., and three hours from NYC.
  • How to Get Around: If you stay right in Cape May, you can easily get around on foot, but a car is necessary for touring the surrounding areas outside of the downtown area.
  • Top 3 Highlights: Touring the Cape May Lighthouse, sunsets over the Delaware Bay, walking past all the Victorian buildings and bungalows.

While I’m a sucker for ocean breezes and Victorian architecture, I despise crowds. This is why Eric and I found ourselves exploring Cape May’s charms during a long weekend in April.

The sun was shining, most restaurants and attractions were open, and flowers were blooming all over town. Even the name Cape May sounds like spring!

The only thing we couldn’t do on our Cape May vacation was swim in the ocean, but we did walk barefoot on the beach—and the water was frigid!

Ready to explore all the best things to do in Cape May, New Jersey, without the crowds? Here are our favorite things to do in Cape May in the off-season.

Explore Cape May Point State Park and the Cape May Lighthouse

The Cape May Lighthouse.
Cape May Lighthouse in Cape May Point State Park

If you love the outdoors, Cape May Point State Park checks all the boxes. It’s a birding hotspot with lots of different trails that meander through the woods, wetlands, and between ponds for a nice collection of ecosystems that attract a lot of different birds.

We saw lots of raptors, including black vultures, bald eagles, osprey, red tail hawks, kestrels, and a northern harrier. There were mute swans nesting on the edges of the ponds, terns flying overhead, and so many songbirds that we couldn’t identify.

This is an important location for migratory birds, and more than 400 different species have been seen on the peninsula during the fall migration. Along the bay side, more than a million migrating birds pass through each spring, the second-largest assembled shorebird population in the Western Hemisphere.

Be sure to climb the 199 steps to the top of the Cape May Lighthouse for unforgettable views of the Atlantic Coast, Delaware Bay, and the surrounding community. This beautiful historic structure was built in 1859 — the third lighthouse built to guide ships to safety on Cape May Point.

The Coast Guard continues to operate the light as a navigational aid, which flashes every 15 seconds and is visible 22 miles out to sea.

While the hours of operation vary through the seasons, the Cape May Lighthouse is open year-round. For $12, you can take a self-guided tour, but to reach the top and the gorgeous view, you have to climb the 199 original cast iron steps.

Walk Cape May’s National Historic District

A Victorian home in Cape May, New Jersey.
One of the many Victorian homes in Cape May, New Jersey

Cape May’s renowned collection of Victorian homes includes more than 600 buildings designed, built, and lovingly restored to include intricate gingerbread trim, steep-gabled roofs, and vibrant color combinations.

While the ocean put Cape May on the map, the National Historic District sets the town apart from other seaside towns and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Tara sitting in one of several white Adirondack chairs in front of Congress Hall.
Congress Hall has been welcoming guests since 1816.

The first resort in Cape May, Congress Hall, began welcoming guests in 1816, and many more followed, along with numerous opulent summer ‘cottages’.

Several fires destroyed mostly wooden houses in the 1850s, and the disastrous fire of 1878 wiped out about half the town. When it was time to rebuild, the new buildings were constructed in the style of the day — Victorians with fanciful trim and intricate dormers and gables.

Stately homes on Beach Avenue in Cape May, NJ.
A few of the opulent homes (now vacation rentals) on Beach Avenue in Cape May

My suggestion for checking out Cape May’s Historic District is to just wander around on foot and see where it leads. Most of the homes are private residences or vacation rentals, but they are easy to view from the outside.

During our visit, we walked many of the side streets between Beach Avenue and Washington Street and found so many beautiful homes. Some of our favorites were on Ocean Street, Jackson Street, and Decatur Street.

As much as I enjoyed the Victorians, I was also smitten with the bungalows and Craftsman homes from the early 1900s.

Be sure to check out the historical tours available through Cape May MAC or visit during Victorian Weekend in October.

Tour the Emlen Physick Estate

The Emlen Physick House is an iconic Victorian home that you can tour year-round.
The Emlen Physick House is an iconic Victorian home that you can tour year-round.

The Emlen Physic Estate was built in 1879 for then-21-year-old Emlen Physic Jr. and his mother and Aunt. This stick-style Victorian was home to the Emlen family until 1935, and quickly fell into disrepair after that.

The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts & Humanities (Cape May MAC) was formed in 1970 to save the Physick Estate from demolition and now offers year-round guided tours of the restored property.

Visitors can walk through the first and second floors of the house, which have many of the original furnishings.

Catch the Sunset over the Delaware Bay

Sunset at North Cape May Beach in New Jersey.
Sunset from North Cape May Beach

Head to the bay side of Cape May to catch beautiful sunsets over Deleware Bay. Our vacation rental overlooked North Cape May Beach during our recent trip, so this was the easiest sunset spot for us, but there are many great natural areas for a sunset picnic or a walk on the beach.

We watched a pod of dolphins frolicking from David Douglass Sr. Memorial Park one evening and walked the dogs at Higbee Beach another. We hear that Higbee Beach is another great spot to find Cape May diamonds sparkling in the setting sun!

Shop and Eat on the Washington Street Mall

Eric and Flynn at the start of Washington Street Mall.
Eric and Flynn at the start of Washington Street Mall.

I’m a sucker for pedestrian-only streets, especially when they’re lined with boutiques, galleries, and eateries. The Washington Street Mall is three blocks of shopping and dining, with plenty of benches for people-watching.

Come to Washington Street Mall to grab your t-shirts, saltwater taffy, and postcards, as well as eclectic artwork, high-end jewelry, and a pint of beer. It’s the place to be on a sunny afternoon in the spring.

Explore Historic Cold Spring Village and Cold Spring Brewery

The Dennisville In in Cold Spring Village, Cape May, NJ.
The Dennisville Inn in Cold Spring Village, Cape May

The largest open-air living history museum in New Jersey, Historic Cold Spring Village, features dozens of restored and preserved buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with interpreters demonstrating skills from the time period, including printing, blacksmithing, bookbinding, weaving, and more.

You can explore the grounds of Cold Spring Village every day between 10 am and 4 pm, but the buildings are only open to the public between June and September. Dogs are permitted on the grounds but not in the buildings.

Tara sitting at a picnic table enjoying a flight of beers at Cold Spring Brewery in Cape May, New Jersey.

After touring Cold Spring Villlage, be sure to stop into Cold Spring Brewery, New Jersey’s first non-profit brewery supporting the mission of Historic Cold Spring Villlage. Grab a flight or a pint of craft beer, many of which are created using historic recipes.

We tried eight different beers in the name of research and loved the malty and refreshing Cold Spring Red and the Cape May Farmhouse, which is brewed using single malt and single hop with hardly any bite. Our dogs were welcome at Cold Spring Brewery, inside and out.

Check out the SS Atlantus at Sunset Beach

The wreck of the SS Atlantus off the shore of Cape May Point at Sunset Beach.
The wreck of the SS Atlantus from Sunset Beach in Cape May. Photo credit

Yes, Sunset Beach is a lovely spot to catch the sun sinking into the ocean, but there are more reasons to visit this popular beach.

The SS Atlantus rests on the bottom of the bay off of Cape May Point. This massive hull is all that remains of the most famous of the twelve concrete ships built by the Liberty Ship Building Company.

Because of a critical steel shortage during World War I, the US government funded the design and creation of 12 concrete ships. The Atlantus was 250 feet long, 3,000 tons, and had a five-inch-thick hull. She was commissioned in 1919 and served for a year as a commercial coal steamer in New England.

A company attempting to start a ferry service to and from Lewes, Delaware, towed the ship to Cape May in 1926. Before the Atlantus could be used, it went aground in a storm, where it remains to this day.

Thousands of visitors come to Sunset Beach each year to view the wreck and to look for the elusive Cape May Diamonds, quartz crystals from the Delaware River. The tidal flow against the wreck of the Atlantus causes the Cape May diamonds to wash ashore here in large numbers, and when cut and polished, these crystals look like real diamonds.

Where to Stay in Cape May, New Jersey

I can’t even begin to describe all the amazing places there are to stay in Cape May.

Depending on your travel style and budget, you can choose from opulent historic inns, Victorian bed & breakfasts, and high-end vacation rentals. There are hundreds of choices, which makes it so hard to pick.

For our recent trip, we were looking for something small, dog-friendly, affordable, and within walking distance of the beach, and we found a lovely Airbnb on the bay in North Cape May.

Tara and Malinda enjoying the deck at their Airbnb in Cape May New Jersey.

While this tiny duplex will not please everyone, it has everything we were looking for, and we would absolutely recommend it to couples or solo travelers visiting Cape May with dogs.

We especially loved the location — right across a quiet street from the beach with amazing sunset views right from our deck.

This home is perfect for two people, with a queen-size bed and a small kitchen, bathroom, and living room.

Thomas, the Airbnb host, provides a collection of bikes for guests, which we took full advantage of, and he is quick to recommend restaurants and attractions.

Ready to plan your off-season getaway in Cape May? This historic seaside resort town is one of our favorite beach destinations in the US, and we love that it isn’t just for beach lovers! Have you been?

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scenes from Cape May New Jersey with text overlay: Off-Season Bliss in Cape May NJ - America's oldest seaside resort.
Tara Schatz sits with her two dogs, Gatsby and Flynn.

Tara is a freelance writer and travel blogger with a passion for outdoor adventures. She is the co-author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes in Vermont and currently blogs at Back Road Ramblers and Vermont Explored, where she shares travel tips, adventure destinations, and vacation ideas for the wanderer in everyone.