Ocean City, NJ: What To Do In A Family-Friendly Shore Destination

Imagine wide, sandy beaches with plenty of room to spread out and a kid-safe boardwalk with lots of wholesome fun, all just a short drive from several major metro areas in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. This is exactly what Ocean City, NJ offers, as one of New Jersey’s top shore destinations. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this place so unique.

Ocean City, NJ – The Story Of A Dry Shore Town

The barrier island now occupied by Ocean City was once an unspoiled stretch of dunes, forests, meadows, and swaps, stretching seven miles along the New Jersey coast. It was once known as Peck’s Beach, after a local whaler who used the island as a staging spot for his operations. It remained largely undeveloped until 1879 when a group of Methodist ministers picked the area to host a Christian retreat and camp, similar to the town of Ocean Grove further north. Religious groups built out much of the early island’s infrastructure and layout.

This religious heritage led to the banning of the sale of alcohol on the island, something that persists today. The manufacturing and sale of alcohol were banned in 1909, and all public consumption about 50 years later. Numerous attempts to repeal, loosen, or add BYOB exemptions to this law have failed. Not that that’s stopping residents or visitors from quietly cracking open a few cold ones, of course.

Today, much of Ocean City’s development centers around the area near the boardwalk, in the central part of the island. As you travel further south, you’ll find the area becoming more and more residential, until you reach the bridge to Ludlam Island, an even sleepier area home to Strathmere and Sea Isle City.

Things To Do In Ocean City, NJ

Ocean City’s popularity comes with good reason. There are tons of things to do in Ocean City (all very family-friendly) and plenty of beaches to relax on if you’d prefer doing nothing at all.

Ocean City, NJ Beach

With nearly 8 miles of beach from end to end, Ocean City has no shortage of beachfront space for visitors and locals alike. Like most New Jersey beaches, you’ll need to buy a tag to use the Ocean City, NJ beach. They start at $5 for a day or $10 for a week. Still, this modest cost is more than worth it. You’ll enjoy wide beaches and convenient access to bathrooms, food, and more on the portion along the boardwalk.

This boardwalk portion (primarily from 6th to 14th Streets) is usually the most crowded section and can get pretty packed on weekends and holidays. The photo below was taken around lunchtime on a Wednesday in June.

A very crowded Ocean City NJ Beach
Near 6th St, Ocean City, NJ – June 2021

However, those willing to walk a bit can find all the peace and quiet you could possibly ask. Walk toward Ocean City’s northern tip, where the island begins to curve west and south. Just a few blocks north of the boardwalk, crowds begin to thin significantly.

Few tourists on an Ocean City NJ Beach
Near East Atlantic Boulevard, Ocean City, NJ – June 2021

Keep going, and you’ll encounter many fewer fellow beachgoers. If you’re willing to walk the mile or so from the end of the boardwalk (or a shorter distance from the beach access parking near the Ocean Drive Bridge), you may even be lucky enough to have your own private beach!

Ocean City NJ Empty Beach at Northern Point Of Island
Northern Tip Of Ocean City, NJ, Looking Toward Longport – June 2021

This spot also has great views of Longport, Margate, Ventnor, and even Atlantic City in the distance.

Ocean City NJ View of Atlantic City
Longport, Margate, Ventnor, and Atlantic City from Ocean City, NJ – June 2021

Even a short walk past the south end of the boardwalk toward the more residential part of Ocean City will provide expansive beaches with few fellow beachgoers.

Ocean City NJ Empty Beach
Ocean City, NJ Beach, Looking North From Near 20th St – June 2021

Corson’s Inlet State Park

Want to check out some truly unspoiled beach and waterfront areas? Head to the southern tip of Ocean City, where you’ll find Corson’s Inlet State Park. This small state park offers several trails that weave through natural dune forests on their way to the beach or inlet. The land is home to several endangered or threatened species, so be mindful of staying on the paths and not swimming in the inlet area. Make your way to the oceanfront beach, however, and you’re likely to enjoy relative solitude, with only the dunes and crashing waves to keep you company. It’s an amazing choice when you need to get away from the crowds and only a few minutes drive from downtown Ocean City.

Corson’s Inlet is also popular with fishermen for the wide variety of catches that have been pulled from nearby waters. You can read more about Corson’s Inlet State Park in our recent State Park Spotlight on the area.

Ocean City Restaurants

If you love seafood and food in general, Ocean City, NJ, has no shortage of options. Spadafora’s Restaurant and Clam Bar is a local institution, serving up fresh catches hauled in from local waters or flown in direct from around the globe. Try the fresh Jersey clams, Cape May sea scallops, or a Jersey shore tradition, a flounder filet. Just over the bridge toward the mainland in Somers Point, you’ll also find The Crab Trap, another quality local seafood joint. For more than 50 years, this 400-seat dockside restaurant has been serving up some of the shore’s finest crab, lobster, shellfish, and other seafood. If you’ve worked up an appetite, try one of their massive combination platters.

Crab Trap Somers Point NJ
The Crab Trap’s Chilled Seafood Combination Platter – June 2021

For some of the shore’s best pizza, head to Manco & Manco, which has several locations along the boardwalk and throughout town. The most authentic experience can be had at the original at 918 Boardwalk, with its massive and iconic sign.

Manco & Manco Pizza Ocean City NJ
Photo via mancospizza.com

Manco’s has been serving top-notch New Jersey pies since 1956, and in a pizza-rich state like this, you know it’s good if they’ve lasted this long. Grab a quick slice or order a whole pie, and watch the dough tossed and prepared right in front of you. Each location offers a variety of specialty pizzas (including gluten-free crust), and customers can also create their own personalized pizza too. Grab a pie to go and you’ll even get a mini-pizza cutter to slice your own!

Manco & Manco Pizza and Pizza Cutter – June 2021

Ocean City Historical Museum

Looking for something to do on a rainy day that doesn’t involve another movie or shopping? The Ocean City Historical Museum is an interesting choice that will also help you learn more about your vacation destination. The museum, located inside the town’s community center, showcases artifacts and exhibits on the area that date back to before its 1879 founding. This free facility also hosts a variety of talks and events that provide more in-depth looks at local history, culture, and nature. With more than 10,000 visitors every year, it’s certainly one of the top indoor options in the Ocean City, NJ area.

The Ocean City, NJ Boardwalk

The Ocean City, NJ boardwalk is undoubtedly one of the top attractions along this part of the shore. However, due to Ocean City’s status as a dry town, you won’t find partiers or rowdy crowds you might expect in Jersey Shore towns like Seaside Heights or Atlantic City. Instead, you’ll find a much more family-friendly atmosphere, with mini-golf courses replacing bars, and casual restaurants and tourist shops replacing thumping clubs.

The entirety of the boardwalk runs approximately 2.5 miles, from 23rd Street on the southern end to St. James Place on the northern end. Distances are marked every quarter-mile, making for an excellent exercise spot with easy-to-track distances. Keep an eye out for lane markings on the boardwalk, noting spaces for runners, bicyclists, and surreys, a type of four-wheeled bicycle popular in Ocean City. It’s helpful to keep crowds moving on busy days and ensure you stay safe while walking or biking. Just remember bikes aren’t allowed on the boardwalk after 12pm during the summer.

Playland’s Castaway Cove and Gillian’s Wonderland Pier

Two of the biggest attractions (both in reputation and size) are the boardwalk’s two amusement parks, Playland’s Castaway Cove and Gillian’s Wonderland Pier.

Gillian’s, located near the northern end of the boardwalk between East 6th Street and Plaza Place, strikes an imposing look from the nearby area. It’s run by the Gillian family, who are titans of the boardwalk amusement park game (if such a thing exists) and have been operating parks in the area for nearly 100 years! The massive, castle-style walls of the indoor pavilion tower over other nearby boardwalk attractions and homes, and the bright red turrets topped with colored flags grab your eye from far away. Gillian’s is perhaps best known for its massive, 144-foot tall Ferris wheel, one of the largest on the east coast. But it’s home to a wide variety of rides, new and old, exciting and kid-friendly.

Further south, Playland’s Castaway Cove is set about a half block back from the boardwalk between 10th and 11th Streets. Ocean City’s oldest continually operating amusement park, Playland has been thrilling kids big and small since 1955. Here, you can ride the rides, play a round of mini-golf, or even hit the track for some go-kart racing.

Video: Evening On The Ocean City Boardwalk [16:37 – 4K HD]

This video shows the Ocean City Boardwalk from Gillian’s Wonderland Pier to around 11th Street, with stops at the Ocean City Music Pier and inside several stores. It was filmed on a GoPro Hero8 Black on June 16th, 2021.

Somers Point, NJ – Where Ocean City Drinks

Look, Ocean City may be a dry town, but that’s certainly not stopping thousands of folks every year from enjoying a drink or two on the beach or in their accommodations. But with Ocean City occupying the entirety of the island, where does one go for a six-pack or a bottle of wine, or even a drink with dinner? The best answer is Somers Point, located just a few minutes across the Stainton Memorial Causeway/NJ Route 52 bridge. Here, you’ll find a variety of bars, liquor stores, and alcohol-serving restaurants if you need a drink at the end of a busy beach day.

You’re welcome to bring your booze back with you to Ocean City, but know it’s against the law to drink on the beach or in public. However, the former isn’t strictly enforced as long as you and any fellow beachgoers with you are discreet (think something a little more sophisticated than a red solo cup) and don’t cause any sort of scene or disturbance.

Getting To Ocean City, NJ

By Car: Ocean City, NJ, is located on an island, meaning you’ll need to take one of four bridges to reach the town. Most travelers will access the area via the Garden State Parkway, the primary north-south road along New Jersey’s coast. From the north, Parkway drivers can take the exit for Somers Point and cut through the town to the Stainton Memorial Causeway/NJ Route 52 bridge. Those coming from Atlantic City or other coastal spots further north will take Ocean Drive over several bridges beginning in Longport to reach Ocean City’s northern tip. Parkway drivers coming from the south should exit in Marmora and take Roosevelt Boulevard, which connects to the central part of the island. Fewer travelers will likely be coming from Ludlam Island to the south due to its very residential character, but those who do will use Bay Avenue to cross Corson’s Inlet.

Ocean City, NJ is about 65 miles from Philadelphia, PA, a trip that should take an hour to an hour and a half under normal conditions. The 130-mile trip from New York City generally takes two-and-a-half to three hours.

By Transit: Reaching Ocean City, NJ, without a car is certainly possible, though it’ll definitely take longer. From Philadelphia, travelers can take the NJ Transit Atlantic City Rail Line to Atlantic City, followed by the NJ Transit #319 bus. This can take three to three-and-a-half hours, depending on the timing of your particular train and bus. From New York City, riders can hop on the same #319 bus and ride it directly to Ocean City, a three-and-a-half to four-hour journey.

You don’t necessarily need a car while visiting Ocean City. The town is relatively well-served by Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare services, and its relatively small size makes it easy enough to navigate on bike or on foot.

Is Ocean City, NJ Worth A Trip?

Like many New Jersey shore towns, how much you enjoy Ocean City, NJ, will depend on exactly what you’re looking for in a beach destination. If you’re looking for lots of bars and clubs, crazy partying, and a rowdy boardwalk, you’re in the wrong place. Instead, you’ll find better options to the north in Atlantic City or Seaside Heights or to the south in Wildwood.

However, for families or others looking for a wholesome, relaxed beach vacation with tons of safe and fun options, Ocean City is absolutely worth the trip. You’ll enjoy wide sandy beaches with plenty of room, one of the state’s larger boardwalks, and easy access to nature, culture, and history in the south Jersey region. Ocean City, NJ is one of the Garden State’s top shore towns, and it’s waiting for you to come explore.

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