AC may be the largest city on the shore, but that currently doesn't mean much, as the vision of Vegas on the East Coast has foundered, and casinos gone bankrupt. But the hotels can be a bargain and the lovely beach is free and often empty because most visitors are indoors playing the slots.
Perhaps the most famous and revered feature of New Jersey is its sparkling shore – and heading 'down the shore' (in local parlance, never 'to the beach') is an essential summer ritual. Stretching from Sandy Hook to Cape May, the coastline is dotted with resort towns both tacky and tony.
Princeton & Around
Settled by an English Quaker missionary, the tiny town of Princeton is filled with lovely architecture and several noteworthy sites, number one of which is its Ivy League Princeton University, which was built in the mid-1700s and soon became one of the largest structures in the early colonies. You can rove around on your own or join a free student-led tour.
Sandy Hook & Around
The northernmost tip of the Jersey Shore is the Sandy Hook Gateway National Recreation Area, a 7-mile barrier island at the entrance to New York Harbor. From your beach blanket, you can see the NYC skyline. The wide beaches, including NJ's only legal nude beach (Gunnison), are edged by a system of bike trails, while the bay side is great for fishing or bird-watching.
Long Branch, Asbury Park & Ocean Grove
During decades of economic stagnation, the town of Asbury Park had nothing more to its name than the fact that state troubadour Bruce Springsteen got his start at the Stone Pony nightclub here in the mid-1970s. But since 2000, blocks of previously abandoned Victorian homes have seen such a revival that Asbury is sometimes called the Brooklyn of New Jersey.
Hoboken & Jersey City
A sort of TV-land version of a cityscape, Hoboken is a cute little urban pocket just across the Hudson River from NYC. On weekends the bars come alive, and loads of restaurants line commercial Washington St. Gritty On the Waterfront was filmed here, but today the riverside is leafy and revitalized – and has dazzling views of Manhattan.
New Jersey is America's most densely populated state, but you'd never know it in the million or so acres of state parks and wildlife refuges that make up Pinelands National Reserve. That's the official name, but to Jersey natives, the area will always be the Pine Barrens, an apt adjective for the flat, sandy-soil forest and eerie cedar bogs.
Long Beach Island
Accessible only by a bridge (Rte 72) across Manahawkin Bay, Long Beach Island is an 18-mile-long barrier island at the dead center of the Jersey Shore. LBI, as it's known, is a string of townships, all with beautiful beaches and strong surf culture (Ron Jon started here).
Barnegat Bay Island
Locals call this 22-mile stretch 'the barrier island,' though it is technically a peninsula, connected to the mainland on the north end at Point Pleasant Beach. Surfers should seek out Inlet Beach in Manasquan, immediately north (not on the peninsula), for the shore's most reliable year-round waves.
The three towns of North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest are a virtual outdoor museum of 1950s motel architecture and neon signs. The vintage style has been self-consciously preserved – visit the Doo Wop Experience for the whole story, loads of old neon and even a trolley tour around the best landmarks.