(Note: I originally wrote this article for The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2021.)
With your toes in the sand and the sun on your face, what more could you want at the Jersey Shore? Well, chances are good that your family might actually want to do more than play in the surf all day. And while boardwalk amusements and ice cream treats are great, they get expensive when you add it all up. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to keep your family happy and entertained without spending a lot of money.
Here’s a list of free things to do when you visit the shore this summer.
Museums and attractions
Whether you need something to do on a rainy day, or you’re just looking to learn something new, a museum is always a great choice. There are several along the Jersey Shore that offer free admission.
Anyone with an interest in art should make it a point to visit the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University. The free and open-to-the-public art and community space features curated art exhibits, artist studio and retail spaces, and a 1,200-square foot satellite gallery of The Noyes Museum of Art of Stockton University and the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey. The unique space is actually a converted parking garage that has inner studio spaces that artists can rent. Watch artists at work in their studios and talk to them about their pieces. While you’re there, visit the Ducktown Community Garden. The staff started this free community garden, and they hold free events on the second Friday of each month with live music, artist talks and more.
There are so many cool museums dedicated to the history of the Jersey Shore, but Beach Haven’s New Jersey Maritime Museum’s claim to fame is that it’s considered the most extensive collection of maritime history and artifacts in the state. Located on the southern end of Long Beach Island, it’s home to over ten thousand rare and historic photos, logs, videos, and artifacts spanning over 100 years. We’ve all heard of the Titanic, but are you familiar with the ill-fated liner Morro Castle? The NJ Maritime Museum has an entire room dedicated to the 1930s luxurious cruise ship that caught on fire, killing 137. Come for a few hours, or visit for an entire rainy day. There are so many things to discover here.
Ocean City is known for its beaches, boardwalk, and family-friendly entertainment, but it wasn’t always that way. Learn about the Native Americans who lived on Ocean City’s shores, the founding of the city by four Methodist ministers, and how it became known as “America’s greatest family resort.” Did you know that there’s a ship buried under the sand near the 17th Street beach? And which princess spent her childhood summers vacationing in Ocean City? Find out here.
If you’ve ever seen a story about an injured whale, dolphin, or sea turtle and wondered who helps them, the answer is the Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Located in Brigantine, the Center was started in 1978; since then, they’ve responded to over 5,600 strandings of seals, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and even the occasional manatee. The museum has an amazing collection of artifacts including a sperm whale’s jaw bone, shark teeth, skulls, and a dolphin spinal column. Learn about the lives of marine animals and how you can help protect them. Take a guided tour or explore on your own. And you can watch a live camera feed of animals currently being treated, broadcast on a large-screen TV monitor.
Head to the Cape May Zoo to meet Jambazi the Giraffe, Gracie the Zebra, Marty the Camel, and more than 500 of their friends. The Cape May Zoo is one of the few zoos in the country that is free, even parking. (Donations are, of course, appreciated) And it’s open every day of the year except Christmas. This is a great place to visit for a relaxing morning, when most of the animals are out and about. It’s a completely manageable size and easy to navigate. After, enjoy a picnic and let the kids loose on the large playground right outside the entrance.
You and your children can learn all about the vast coastal environment in Wildwood Crest this summer, and who better to teach you than marine science and ocean literacy educator Miss Ocean. Each session begins with a short presentation at the Rambler Road beach, and then you’ll take a short guided walk to different areas to explore and discuss different topics. No pre-registration is necessary.
Hunt for Cape May diamonds
Search the shores for diamonds, Cape May “diamonds” that is. While they’re not really diamonds at all, these pure quartz crystals can easily trick the naked eye. The Kechemeche Indians were the first to find these beautiful stones and believed they bring success and good fortune. The stones originate in the upper reaches of the Delaware River; the running streams erode the quartz, breaking off pieces that travel 200 miles before washing up on the shores of Sunset Beach near Cape May Point.
Tour the Atlantic City Environmental Park, Wastewater Treatment Facility, Wind Farm, and Solar Project
When driving on the highway, the Jersey-Atlantic Wind Farm is one of the first signs (besides the obvious billboards) that you’ve reached AC. It’s the first coastal wind farm in the U.S. and the first wind farm in New Jersey. The Wastewater Treatment Facility also has a 500-kilowatt solar generation plant. Take a 1-hour tour to find out how it helped reclaim the area’s back bays for fishing, shellfishing, and swimming. And throw on a hardhat to get an up-close look at a wind turbine, and (if you’re feeling brave) peek inside a wastewater treatment basin. If you have kids with you, fit in a stop at the Environmental Park at their Egg Harbor Township location 15 minutes away. Park at the Geo Building and walk around the back for a playground made out of recycled materials (including a tire swing and recycled plastic crawl-through tunnel), and eat lunch at a picnic table made from recycled plastic. Also here: ACUA’s Poetry Trail. Explore nature while reading short, sweet poems. And visit the native plant garden and rain garden. There’s always something in bloom.
ACUA Wastewater Treatment Plant: 1801 Absecon Boulevard, Atlantic City, NJ, ACUA Environmental Park: 6700 Delilah Road, Egg Harbor Township, NJ, acua.com, Open house hours are Tue. at 11 a.m. from July 13 to August 31 (registration required); all other tours should be scheduled via phone or website. Mon.- Fri. 7 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat. 7 a.m.-1 p.m.
Listen to music just about every night (and during the day on weekends) right on the beach. Laguna is a great spot for food and drinks, but what really sets it apart is its outdoor stage in the sand. There’s no cover charge, and you don’t need to make a reservation to enjoy the music and vacay vibes. Take a break to enjoy a meal inside or outside the restaurant, or just hang out and listen to the music. There’s a walk-up outdoor bar if you want to enjoy a drink while you relax. (Insider tip: Bring a few small sand toys for the kids.)
1400 Ocean Ave., Brigantine, NJ, lagunagrillandrumbar.com, Open daily 12 p.m. – 10 p.m., music Mon. – Tue. 5 p.m. – 9 p.m., Wed. – Fri. 6 p.m. – 10 p.m., Sat. 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. – 10 p.m., Sun. 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Back in 2011, three guys brewed their first batch of Cape May IPA. They kegged it up and sold it to a bar up the street. Today, they’re New Jersey’s largest craft brewery, and offer free interactive, self-guided tours. There’s also a tasting room, brewtique (where you can shop), beer garden, and a new in 2021 dog-friendly “Brewtanical Garden.”
See classic and unique cars at a local car show
Car shows are a regular event in most shore towns, and they’re almost always free to attend.
When it comes to saltwater angling, New Jersey does not require you to have a recreational saltwater license. This includes fishing in a bay, in the ocean, or from the surf. Popular spots include Sandy Hook Bay, Barnegat Lighthouse State Park in Long Beach Island, and Corson’s Inlet State Park in Ocean City.
Hike or birdwatch
When you think of the beauty of nature at the Jersey shore, sandy beaches and rolling waves probably come to mind. But there’s even more to discover. In fact, National Geographic lists Cape May as “a world’s best destination for birding.” Two particularly good spots for hiking, exploring, and birding are: Cape May Point State Park, 303 County Highway 629, Cape May, and Egg Harbor Township Nature Reserve, 318 Zion Rd., Egg Harbor Township, NJ.
When you have kids, you know that a few minutes on a swing or a trip down a slide is always good for some free entertainment. If you have some time to kill between the beach and dinner or need a break from sand castles, head to a local playground. Here are just a few beach town playgrounds that are worth visiting.
Brigantine Shark Park
This community-built playground has a side dedicated to younger tots, complete with bucket swings, smaller slides, see-saw, ride-on sharks, and easier-to-climb structures. On the other side, there are standard and tire swings, rope climbing structures, bridges, and a large castle-type structure with slides and hidden passageways. Be sure to snap a few pics by the large wooden shark and with the pirate/mermaid duo with face cutouts.
2500 W. Brigantine Ave., Brigantine, Open daily, 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
This three-block long public park runs right along the beach and got some major upgrades for 2021. There’s a bike path, playground, shady play space, and a splash pad! So if your kids haven’t gotten their fill of water play in the ocean, they can jump and splash some more here.
Rambler Rd., Wildwood Crest, Open daily, 10 a.m.-7 p.m.
Dealy Field’s Play by the Bay
Dealy Field is Sea Isle’s main recreational complex with a playground, skatepark, baseball fields, street hockey court, basketball court, and more.
Albert I Allen Memorial Park
More than just a playground (though there’s that, too), Albert Allen Memorial Park also has a skate park, hockey rink, tennis courts, basketball courts, shuffleboard and picnic areas. You can also get a view of the marshes from the observation pier.
C Sure Children’s Park
With swings, monkey bars, bridges and more, this playground is a favorite because of how close it is to the shore line. (Making it easy to take little ones over, even if the rest of your group is still sunbathing on the sand.) It was recently refurbished in 2019 with a soft cushioned surface that makes it wheelchair and boo-boo friendly.
Community events and festivals
Many of the Jersey Shore towns host free weekly events throughout the summer months. After a day in the sun, your family can enjoy free entertainment such as music, movies and activities for kids.
Here are just a few of these free community events.
- Movies Under the Stars in Atlantic City: Thursday nights, Bartram Avenue on the beach; Sunday nights, Gardner’s Basin. All movies begin at dusk. atlanticcitynj.com/events/movies
- Summer Entertainment at Kennedy Plaza: Head to Kennedy Plaza on the AC Boardwalk any night of the week in the summer, and there will be something going on. Music, shows, and more. 2301 Boardwalk, Atlantic City, NJ, atlanticcitynj.com, @doac
- Atlantic City Air Show: The Atlantic City Air Show is one of the largest of its kind in North America, with aircraft that fly as high as 15,000 feet and as low as 50 feet along Atlantic City’s boardwalk. Bring binoculars (and noise cancelling headphones), as the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds show off their thrilling maneuvers. You can also see The United States Army Parachute Team as well as racing watercraft. (Tip: Bring a portable radio and tune it to WPG Talk Radio 95.5 and 1450 AM to listen to the commentary.) This year’s Atlantic City Air Show will take place on August 24, and the theme is “A Salute to Those Who Serve.” Atlantic City Beach and boardwalk, airshow.acchamber.com
- Summer Concerts at Surfside: Sundays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., Surfside Park, 2901 Avalon Avenue, Avalon, NJ, avalonrecreation.org
- Movies on the Beach: Every Tuesday starting June 28, movies begin at dusk. 30th Street Beach, Avalon, NJ, avalonrecreation.org
- Funtastic Fridays at Surfside Park: Interactive live performances with characters, DJ, games, and more. Fridays from July 1 through August 26 at 7 p.m., Surfside Park, 2901 Avalon Avenue, Avalon, NJ, avalonrecreation.org
- Summer Concert Series: Every other Wednesday during the summer 7-8 p.m, Brigantine Beach Community Center Lawn, 265 42nd Street, Brigantine, NJ, brigantinebeach.org
(This info is from 2021. I haven’t seen 2022 info yet.)
- Free Concerts at Rotary Park: Fridays through Mondays from June 24 through September 11 at 7 p.m., 400-498 Lafayette St, Cape May, capemay.com
- Wacky Wednesdays on the Boardwalk: Participate in a pie-eating contest, sculpt masterpieces out of taffy, french fries or cookies, or see how long you can hula hoop. Each week presents a different challenge with contests that are open to all ages. Wednesdays from 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Music Pier, 825 Boardwalk, Ocean City, NJ, 609-399-6111, oceancityvacation.com
- Family Nights on the Boardwalk: Free entertainment. Thursdays from 7-9 p.m., between 6th Street and 14th Street on the Boardwalk, Ocean City, NJ, oceancityvacation.com
- Ocean City’s Night in Venice: The Night in Venice boat parade is Ocean City’s premier summer event and one of the largest in the world. Whether you have a boat and want to participate or you just want to watch from land, it’s a great night that concludes with a fireworks show. The parade is free to watch at all locations except the Bayside Center, which sells tickets and includes additional entertainment. This year’s (2022) event takes place on July 23, starting at 6 p.m. Parade begins near the Ocean City-Longport tolls bridge and travels along the bayside to Tennessee Avenue. ocnj.us/niv
- Free Family Fun Night: Live performances with themed characters, plus kid activities. Mondays June 27 through August 29 from 7:30-9 p.m., Excursion Park, JFK Boulevard and Pleasure Avenue, Sea Isle, NJ, visitsicnj.com
- Concerts Under the Stars: Saturdays from June 25 to September 3, 7:30-9:30 p.m., Excursion Park, JFK Boulevard and Pleasure Avenue, Sea Isle, NJ, visitsicnj.com
- Movies Under the Stars: Wednesdays from July 6 through August 31, at dusk., JFK Blvd. and Pleasure Avenue, Sea Isle, NJ, visitsicnj.com
- North Wildwood Concerts Under the Stars: Select dates throughout the summer, Lou Booth Ampitheater, 2nd and Ocean Avenue, North Wildwood, NJ, northwildwood.com
- Free concerts on Thursdays and free movies on Tuesdays, Byrne Plaza, 3400 Pacific Avenue, Wildwood, NJ
- Wildwood Crest Sunset Celebrations: Free family event with live music, children’s activities, free family photos. Every Monday from July 11 through August 22 at 7:30 p.m. in July and 7 p.m. in August., Sunset Lake near Atlanta and New Jersey Avenues, Wildwood Crest, NJ
- Wildwood Crest Summer Music Series: Wednesdays and Saturdays starting June 25 from 7:30 p.m. to 9:15 p.m., Centennial Park, Fern Road & Ocean Avenue, Wildwood Crest, NJ
- Wildwood Crest Sand Sculpting Festival Grab your buckets and shovels and show off your sand sculpting skills. Sculptures are judged on creativity, execution, composition and overall presentation. It’s free to participate or just to watch. Heather Road Beach, Wildwood Crest, NJ, wildwoodcrest.org