Do you ever wonder what your favorite beach towns do in the winter? While some become virtual ghost towns during the offseason, that’s simply not the case for Cape May, New Jersey. The Jersey Shore’s southernmost beach town is a charming and cozy winter getaway, especially during the Christmas and holiday season. And even with some shops closed up awaiting warmer days, there are a lot of great restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and shops where you can indulge without the crowds. Enjoy a Cape May winter getaway to break up those winter blues!
A Brief History of Cape May
Cape May is full of history. The city is said to be the country’s oldest seaside resort and luckily we can still enjoy it today!
In 1869, Cape May was officially recognized by the name it has today. Nearly a decade later, a large portion of the heart of the city was destroyed by a fire. When the town was rebuilt, the style of the era was Victorian. Today, the city boasts nearly 600 Victorian homes and buildings. As of 1976, the entire city of Cape May is listed as a National Historic District.
Things to Do in Cape May
The heart of Cape May’s downtown is relatively compact and easy to walk. There is so much to see, do, and eat! But if you’ve got a car, there are some great points of interest just outside the city center.
The city is also very welcoming to pets! Be sure to plan a Cape May dog-friendly vacation, too!
Enjoy the Victorian Architecture
If you like architecture, specifically the Victorian style, Cape May will absolutely delight you! So much of the city’s charm comes directly from the historic, and often stately, homes lining the narrow small-town streets.
With this architecture, it’s all about the details. Each house is unique in its own way from paint colors from all across the rainbow to carefully and delicately cut gingerbread trim. There’s a wide variety and range so each has its own personality. There’s usually even that good old-fashioned white picket fence or black wrought iron fence right out in front, between the sidewalk and the home.
Go on a walking tour, get a little lost, and gawk at these beautiful buildings. These buildings are said to be the largest collection of Victorian-era homes outside of San Francisco. If you really want a taste for what these classic homes look like inside, pay a visit to the Emlen Physik Estate. The home is the state’s sole Victorian home museum. Or maybe you want to experience the homes firsthand? Book a stay in one of Cape May’s numerous bed and breakfasts!
A Cape May Christmas
At Christmas, you’ll find the downtown shopping area in the heart of Cape May ready to impress with its decorations. All of the shops are eager to attract attention and it creates a really joyous, festive atmosphere. Warm beverages are within reach and you may even see Santa Claus himself strolling around greeting visitors and shoppers alike. Likewise, during a Cape May Christmas, you will see so many lovely decorations, including evergreen garlands and large red ribbons spiraling up light posts and fences while wreaths hang upon many doors.
Cape May Beach
Cape May has roughly two and a half miles of beaches for you to enjoy. And while summertime visitors need to purchase beach tags in order to feel the sand between their toes, no beach tag is necessary from Labor Day through Memorial Day. The beach is a great spot to enjoy no matter how you choose to enjoy it: whether it be a walk, sitting and watching the waves, fishing, or anything else!
Cape May Promenade
If you’re looking for a place to stroll, the Cape May Promenade is for you. The city no longer has a proper boardwalk thanks to a storm in the 1960s. Instead, a paved promenade runs for almost two miles parallel to the beach. Along the promenade, you’ll find some shops, a covered pavilion, and lovely views of the Atlantic Ocean. If you’re looking to relax, there are plenty of benches lining the promenade.
It’s also worth noting that even during the peak summer season the Cape May promenade doesn’t require a beach tag.
Get a Bite to Eat
In the offseason, many of the shops and restaurants along the promenade and beach are shuttered. But the downtown, only a few blocks off the beach, is lively and buzzing! Whether you’re looking for a quick bite or somewhere to relax and indulge with friends, you’ll find something for you.
During my visit, my husband and I ordered food to go (fish and chips that were more like fish sticks and chips) from Cape May Fish Market then walked down to the promenade to use one of the many empty benches for our winter picnic. I also recommend grabbing a hot beverage from Coffee Tyme. The shop even has specialties on offer for the holiday season.
Cape May Lighthouse
Roughly three miles west of downtown Cape May is the Cape May Lighthouse. The lighthouse, with its 199 steps, dates to 1859 and, according to the records, it is the third lighthouse at New Jersey’s southern tip. Unfortunately, the lighthouse does close for the season roughly between New Year’s Day and President’s Day weekend. During the winter offseason, the tan lighthouse with its red top tends to stay open for fewer hours. For this reason, I recommend double-checking it will be open if you want to go inside or climb to the top for a 360-degree view. There is also a museum, visitors center, and shop at the lighthouse for you to explore.
The Cape May Lighthouse sits in the Cape May Point State Park, which is a fantastic place to explore year-round. The park is a recognized spot for birdwatchers, especially during the migration season. You’ll even find signs posted keeping track of how many of each bird type has been seen in the area. Whether you’re looking for a spot to enjoy nature, the great outdoors, or just go for a walk, it’s a fun spot!
World War II Lookout Tower
Not far from the Cape May Lighthouse, just a bit farther west and on the Delaware Bay side of the peninsula is Fire Control Tower No. 23. You may be surprised to know that in 1942, fifteen towers were constructed between New Jersey’s North Wildwood and Delaware‘s Bethany Beach as part of Fort Miles, a harbor defense of the Bay. Today, this tower is the only one that remains.
The tower was renovated roughly a decade ago and now visitors can climb to the top and get a real feel for the tower’s original purpose. It is also home to a small gallery of rotating exhibits.
The tower does close for the offseason, so if you want to experience the inside of the tower be sure to check ahead of time to see if it’s open. With that said, just getting a look at the World War II Lookout Tower from the parking lot gives you a really clear impression of this defensive tower.
Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum
Just outside of downtown Cape May and at the Cape May Airport is the non-profit Naval Air Station Wildwood (NASW) Aviation Museum. Hangar #1, from 1943, houses the museum which includes a wide range of aircraft from airplanes to helicopters, including engines. There are also additional interactive exhibits, like a flight simulator and an air traffic control tower, as well as an Enigma Machine. Visitors can get up close and personal with these airplanes and helicopters that have served the country over the decades.
Anyone making a Cape May winter getaway that wants to visit the NASW Aviation Museum will need to schedule carefully. From December through the end of March, the museum is only open on weekdays. The rest of the year the museum is open daily.
Getting to Cape May
If you’re driving to Cape May, the Garden State Parkway, which runs along New Jersey’s Atlantic Coast, leads right to the city.
Visitors from south of Cape May looking for a beach day may find the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to be the easiest way to get to the shore point. The ferry connects Lewes, Delaware, with Cape May, New Jersey, and allows you to take your car along for the ride. The ferry operates throughout the year and takes about 85 minutes each way.
Parking in downtown Cape May can be challenging. When crowds are small, as they generally are in the winter, there’s a lot of parking available. But if the weather happens to be unseasonably warm or it’s a holiday, prepare to search for parking. There are small lots with paid parking close to shops and restaurants. There is street parking throughout the city, including spots that run parallel to the promenade and beach. Parking meters are only in effect from May through the end of October, although there are exceptions.
Visitors driving to the lighthouse and the Lookout Tower have nothing to worry about. There are large parking lots with free parking at both attractions. The parking lot for the lighthouse wraps around and leads into the park while the Lookout Tower’s parking is across the street.
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All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.