Sun, sand, surf and sweet summer memories. We all remember going to the shore with friends and family as kids and love taking our children now. Knowing where to go and what not to miss are the most important parts of planning a successful beach getaway. How do you find the perfect spots for a beach vacation? We’ve rounded up some of our favorite family-friendly shore towns in New Jersey and beyond to make the planning a lot easier.
This South Jersey gem is elegant yet down-to-earth. Its traditional Victorian homes make it picturesque, but mini golf, arcades, a free zoo, expansive beaches and ice cream shops make it a choice the kids will love.
What to Do: Stroll the promenade, a nearly two-mile-long paved scenic walkway adjacent to shops and activities on Beach Ave. Bike in the morning to take in breezy views of the shoreline. Kids of all ages will love the free Cape May County Park & Zoo (donations optional) in Cape May Courthouse, and Cape May Lighthouse. Climb to the top for unbeatable views. A trolley tour is a fun, hyper-local way to go sightseeing.
Where to Eat: Kids can try farm-fresh eats at a special dinner at Beach Plum Farm in West Cape May, or head to The Mad Batter Restaurant & Bar for a homestyle breakfast or crab cake sandwich.
Where to Stay: Congress Hall has been around for more than 200 years, and offers comfortable rooms, on-site dining and seasonal kids’ programs.
Ocean City, NJ (not to be confused with the also awesome Ocean City, MD) delivers when it comes to great open spaces to play, from neighborhood playgrounds to sports fields. This dry town (meaning restaurants are BYOB) is chock-full of great food, activities, entertainment and beautiful beaches.
What to Do: The boardwalk is packed with shops, arcades, eateries and entertainment. Keep an eye on the summer calendar for free family nights with live music, performers, magicians and more. At Gillian’s Wonderland Pier and Playland’s Castaway Cove, you can ride the giant Ferris wheel or hit the arcade to play games. A beach vacation here is also not complete without a scenic morning bike ride along the boards.
Where to Eat: Jon & Patty’s is known for its brunch and impressive coffee and latte selection. For boardwalk pizza, don’t miss Manco & Manco.
Where to Stay: Port-O-Call, one of the town’s best rated hotels, is situated in the heart of Ocean City and offers a pool and gorgeous views of the beach.
This destination excels at small-town charm. Its quaint downtown and peaceful, pretty beaches make for a serene and stress-free getaway. Be sure to make time for shopping— you’ll find artwork, clothing, home goods, souvenirs and more.
What to Do: Seven Mile Beach spans Avalon and Stone Harbor and offers plenty of space to relax and enjoy the sand and surf. Wildwood’s boardwalk, home to Morey’s Piers, is just 15 minutes away and has rides, food and games. The Wetlands Institute is also a surprisingly solid option thanks to its festivals, kayaking, live animal interactions and educational programs by the water.
Where to Eat: Head to Uncle Bill’s Pancake House for chocolate chip pancakes or old-school scrapple. End the day with a seafood dinner or handmade pasta at Spiaggetta.
Where to Stay: The 58-room Reeds at Shelter Haven was voted one of the best luxury hotels in New Jersey by Condé Nast Traveler, and its stunning views are just one reason why.
The Wildwoods are a famed Jersey Shore spot, but the quieter beauty of Wildwood Crest has broad appeal. You’re still in walking or biking distance to popular boardwalk activities and food, but you’ll have expansive, sandy shores and quieter nights to kick back and relax on this beach vacation.
What to Do: Morey’s Piers and Beachfront Water Parks in nearby Wildwood is a decades-old, family-run hub of fun that offers activities, rides, food, drinks and entertainment. The water parks, Raging Waters and Ocean Oasis, offer fun for all ages. Try a pirate cruise, bike ride or mini golf.
Where to Eat: Coastal Blue Oceanside Bar & Grille is a goto for all-day American fare like soup, salads and sandwiches. Adventurer Pancake House is the place to be for a good meal with a great view, and it’s got vegetarian options, too.
Where to Stay: Book a room at Port Royal, which will woo you with its sleek nautical decor, gorgeous on-site pool and clean, comfy accommodations.
Outer Banks, NC
The Outer Banks is a string of barrier islands that stretches roughly 200 miles, making it a great destination for a beach vacation. Its great weather (apart from hurricane season) and wide beachfront is complemented by tons to see and do.
What to Do: Try your hand at fishing, sand dune sledding, surfing, boogie boarding, kiteboarding, biking, pirate adventures and more. Cape Hatteras and Bodie Island Lighthouses are well worth a visit, and you can get your nature fix at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Kids can also become Junior Rangers at the Wright Brothers National Memorial. Roanoke Island Maritime Museum and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge are great options when taking a break from the beach.
Where to Eat: Dive into steak, seafood, sandwiches and vegetarian fare at Kitty Hawk’s oceanfront restaurant, Black Pelican. Arrive early for homemade donuts with drool-worthy toppings at the famous—and original—Duck Donuts.
Where to Stay: Oceanfront luxury with a pool, spa, restaurants, tennis and golf awaits at Sanderling Resort in Duck.
Virginia Beach, VA
The Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean at Virginia Beach, known for its calm waters, soft sand, jam-packed boardwalk, state parks and more than 35 miles of beautiful coastal scenery.
What to Do: This beach vacation offers offer plenty of boardwalk fun including food, drink and play. Spot fish at the kid-friendly Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, or see historic planes at the Military Aviation Museum. First Landing State Park offers hiking trails and natural beachfront areas, while Cape Henry Lighthouse boasts a climb and spectacular Chesapeake Bay views.
Where to Eat: Dive into a sliced beef brisket or pulled BBQ chicken sandwich at Beach Bully’s BBQ, or dig into fluffy pancakes at Pocahontas Pancake House and check out its authentic Native American teepee.
Where to Stay: Best Western Plus Sandcastle Beachfront Hotel has an indoor pool, close access to the beach, free breakfast and an on-site restaurant.
—Sharon Rigney is a freelance travel writer, photography dabbler, cyclist and mom of three teens who are (mostly) fun to travel with.