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America's Playground: The best things to do in Atlantic City

From lobster dinners to beaches to the legendary boardwalk, Atlantic City has all your coastal favorites. | By Paul Oswell | April 14, 2022

Atlantic City has grown from a few humble boarding houses into a dynamic playground with hotels, casinos and family attractions as far as the eye can see. Its famous boardwalk has been popular for a century or more, and is immortalized in hit TV shows. There’s a hint of New Jersey swagger to the town, but the beaches and fairground rides feel traditionally nostalgic. You’ll also find great seafood and a surprisingly cultural side, if you know where to look. Play around with these ideas for a memorable Atlantic City vacation:

  • Splash in the ocean: There are miles of beaches for surfing or sunbathing

  • Laugh the night away: The resort’s casinos have great theaters with shows by world-famous bands and comedians

  • Culinary favorites: Dine out on incredibly fresh shellfish and seafood, as well as legendary sandwiches

Take a walk on the famous boardwalk

It won’t take you long to appreciate that Atlantic City fully deserves its nickname as America’s Playground. The city’s 4-mile-long boardwalk is a testament to more than a century of history, and the seafront is packed with attractions, casinos, restaurants and shops. It’s a truly special seaside atmosphere that you won’t find elsewhere in America.

You can take a promenade along the boardwalk at any time, of course, but heading out at sunrise or sunset will be the most rewarding for photo opportunities, though.

Head to the beach or beyond

The beaches around the boardwalk are pretty lively, but with room enough for everyone. You’ll find a host of family-friendly amenities as well as safe swimming and water sports, especially around Jackson Avenue where kayaking and windsurfing are popular. If you’re looking for a slice of tranquility, the more low-key Brigantine Beach and Margate Beach are relatively peaceful. The latter boasts the beloved roadside attraction of the six-story monument to Lucy the Elephant.

If you have time and want a change of pace, there are some easy scenic day trips to take, too. Nearby Ocean City (just about 30 minutes away) has a family-friendly boardwalk filled with arcades, salt water taffy shops, mini gold and amusement rides. Historic Cape May has colorful Victorian mansions and a cute zoo. Nearby Cold Spring Village is a step even further back in time to the 1700s and holds regular festivals throughout the summer. There’s a lovely farmers’ market in Pilesgrove, and if you’re there on a Saturday, you can also watch the country’s oldest-running weekly rodeo.

Arcades and nightlife

At the west end of the boardwalk are old-school arcades with throwback games. As you walk eastwards, you’ll pass snack stands, and eventually hit the 1,000-foot Steel Pier, where you can indulge your love of fairground rides on the Ferris wheel, bumper cars and other classic rides. If the weather isn’t great, you can duck into the Atlantic City Aquarium, which has touch tanks, sharks and local ecosystem exhibits.

Casinos are a big part of the culture here, and there’s ample gaming tables and slot machines. The shows, though, are a bigger draw; you can see household-name bands, plus comedians and variety acts.

Another worthwhile stop is the African-American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, which houses more than 11,000 artifacts that are rotated through every 30 days, so you’ll always discover something new on display.

Where to shop

There are many souvenir stores with cheap and cheerful gifts, but other options abound. If you’re a fan of the printed word, then Princeton Antiques & Books Service has a trove of unusual volumes and collectors’ items, as well as some incredible photos of Atlantic City through the ages.

The Noyes Arts Garage is an annex of Stockton University and you can browse and buy striking prints, original works, ornate accessories and jewelry, and Tennessee Avenue is a good place to head for small boutiques. There’s also a number of shopping malls on the city outskirts, the most characterful being the old-time environs of Historic Smithville and Village Green.

Seafood and sandwiches

If you haven’t visited before, you might not have pegged Atlantic City as a culinary destination, but its fresh seafood offerings rival anywhere on the East Coast. Most restaurants update their menus daily to include the freshest catches of the day, and scallops, shrimp, salmon, crab cakes and lobster all make their way into local kitchens. If you’re a fan of oysters, they’re also a beloved local delicacy, and you should go to the elegant Dock’s Oyster House, which has been open since 1897.

White House Subs are a local institution for their ludicrously good sandwiches and Little Water Distillery serves up locally made booze with a Prohibition-era vibe. Or head over to Chickie’s & Pete’s along the famed boardwalk. This Philadelphia-famous chain serves up delightful cheesesteaks or crab legs — whatever you’re craving.

Make your Atlantic City memory

There’s something unapologetically old-school about the Atlantic City experience. The wide beaches draw people in with the same simple pleasures that they did when the boardwalk was built in 1870, and strolling along with a bag of taffy or a funnel cake remains as timeless as it ever was. Embrace seafront walks, sunsets and Ferris wheel rides, and soak up the memories at one of America’s oldest seaside destinations.

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Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel writer, and has been reporting from all seven continents for over twenty years. He is based in New Orleans and is the author of “The Bucket List North America: 1,000 Adventures Big and Small.”

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