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A lot of visitors come to Cape May to spend a week or just weekend. With its fine dining, historic bed and breakfasts, and pleasant beaches, it’s easy to book an extended vacation in a place like Cape May. Cape May is somewhere that I feel like time stops and relaxation seeps into my pores. I love it.
However, what if you don’t have time for vacation? What if you’re busy at work? Or have children with sporting events? Or just don’t have extra cash to pay for expensive hotels.
In that case, planning just a day trip to Cape May is always a great idea too, especially if you live in Philadelphia or South Jersey and desperately need a chance of scenery! As you know, I absolutely think Cape May is worth visiting for any reason. Heck, even Cape May in winter is worth your time and money.
Don’t except to have Cape May to yourself, though. This gem has gained a ton of popularity over the years, though. I mean, this adorable New Jersey Town was featured in Conde Nast Traveler, for goodness sakes, as one of the most Beautiful Towns in America!
Honestly, in a lot of ways Cape May’s popularity is a blessing and a curse.
You all know how these sort of accolades impact a place, right?
On one hand, it’s always wonderful to have life pack a city, as well as tourism dollars that encourage entrepreneurship. I love seeing new businesses open every single year!
On the other hand, respecting the locals is vital, and tourist crowds absolutely cause headaches, such as ungodly traffic and parking nightmares.
What’s a local adventurer to do?
How to Plan a Day Trip to Cape May
Ultimately, I wrote this guide to help you plan a perfect day trip to Cape May.
As someone whose lived in the area, I truly think Cape May is the perfect getaway spot for when you need a vacation, but still have to stay close to home.
Follow these steps to have a pleasant time in Cape May and avoid the headaches that some tourists encounter in this incredible shore town. Happy reading!
Leave Early in the Morning
You want to get an early start if you’re planning a day trip to Cape May.
Personally, I love the gentleness of early mornings, especially in the busy summer season. Cape May is very popular with families, and if you can beat the crowds by waking up as the kids as still rolling out of bed, then you’ve won half the battle.
The last thing you want to deal with is sitting in bumper to bumper traffic on the Garden State Parkway. I mean, who has the patience for crazy New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York drivers converging on a single highway? Not me.
Go early. You will be at Washington Mall when the shops first open and early for lunch when the restaurants crack open their doors.
Consider the Time of Year
Do not plan a day trip on a Saturday in July or August. Do not do it. Do not. Do not.
Seriously, unless you love chilling in traffic on the Garden State Parkway, avoid this day like your car’s life depends on it.
Not only are summer Saturdays popular for obvious reasons, but Saturdays are also the change over day that all the short term renters have to vacate their property. “Change over” is scary. I wouldn’t even run errands during the change over time, because every single Cape May county shore town abides by similar times.
Instead I would take a random Tuesday or Thursday off to go to Cape May for the day.
On the other hand, I wouldn’t recommend a random week day in the middle of January either. Cape May is a seasonal town, and a lot of places close in the winter (or have limited hours on weekends). Do your research ahead of time to see what is open.
Make Reservations Ahead of Time
Cape May has so many incredibly restaurants. Seriously, Cape May is home to some of my favorite eating establishments at the Jersey Shore. I’ve lost track of all the great meals I’ve enjoyed at Peter Shields or the Washington Inn.
But please, please, please make reservations at the most popular places to preserve your sanity. It doesn’t matter if you want breakfast, lunch, or dinner. If you want to try a sit down restaurant that has rave reviews, see if they take reservations ahead of time.
You also want to consider that many eating establishments have been short-staffed or drastically changed their menu options since the COVID-19 pandemic. This is especially true for restaurants that are only open for the “season” – which is Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Be considerate of the wait staff if no tables are available or if you need to wait to eat.
Don’t Forget West Cape May
West Cape May is separate from Cape May City but so worth visiting on your day trip.
While Cape May City has all the Victorian homes and downtown charm, nearby West Cape May is where you will discover great wineries, a special brewery, charming farms, and several artisan shops.
Split your time between the two places. For instance, I would perhaps go to Cape May City in the morning for breakfast and shopping at Washington Mall, and then spend my afternoon either sampling small plates and wines at a winery or relaxing with a coffee at Peach Plum Farms.
You will also discover several cool wartime monuments in West Cape May such as the World War II Lookout Tower.
As much as I love Cape May City, West Cape May is also very charming and great place to spend part of your day trip.
Download the Right Parking App
Cape May uses metered parking. I know, I know. Coughing up your hard-earned cash for a timed parking spot is totally frustrating, and I understand why you’re rolling your eyes.
You may find free street parking in Cape May, but honestly, in the high season, free parking spots are difficult to come by unless you know someone who owns a property and is willing to let you block in their drive way.
Download the Parkmobile App on your smartphone ahead of time to pay. I like phone apps because I don’t have to rush back to the meter to pay more money. I can just add more time with a few taps on my phone screen.
As a side note, an annoying trend that I’m noticing is that each town has their own parking app (I guess to discourage paying online? Who knows), but as far as I know, Cape May still uses the popular Parkmobile App.
Brush Up on Your Victorian History
Cape May is a historical wonderland. The city has done a marvelous job protecting its Victoria-era homes and sometimes when I visit here, I feel as if I’ve been transported to a Charles Dickens novel. What’s not to love?
So, even though you only have a day in Cape May, I still recommend taking time to simply stroll the streets and marvel at the homes. You don’t need to rush around in an attempt to “do everything,” I promise.
Part of the joy of being in Cape May is feeling like you’re on a leisurely vacation even for a brief period of time.
Don’t forget to admire the homes. Take pictures. And just relax.
Should I Take a Day Trip to Cape May?
Still not sure if you should take a day trip to Cape May? Think about your perfect trip to the Jersey Shore. Now, I adore Cape May, but I also realize that this part of New Jersey’s coast is not necessarily for everyone.
To wrap up my post, I wrote a little bit about whether or not a day trip to Cape May is right for you.
Yes, Go to Cape May for the Day
If you are someone with limited time off, live within an hour or so of Cape May, and/or just a person who needs a desperate change of scenery, then yes, go check out Cape May for the day. Having a splendid day here will do wonders for your mental health.
No, Extend Your Time in Cape May
If you just want to relax on the beach, then I don’t know if Cape May is necessarily for you. New Jersey’s many shore towns all have great beaches, and you might want to pick one that’s the closest drive for you if you want to just chill at the beach.
However, if you want to lounge on the beach, eat fancy dinners, sleep in a gorgeous bed and breakfast, and ride trolleys, then I suggest taking longer in Cape May. Perhaps indulge in a special Cape May weekend getaway?
No, Don’t Go to Cape May
A day trip to Cape May isn’t for everyone.
For example, if you want a pure beach vacation followed by an evening of boardwalk rides, then … well, there are better options than Cape May for you. Cape May doesn’t have much in the way of rides. And I honestly don’t know much about the nightlife options either.
For rides, I would research nearby Ocean City and Wildwood, and for nightlife, I would consider Atlantic City, Sea Isle, or parts of Avalon. Cape May probably won’t cut it for you.
Have you ever taken a day trip to Cape May? What were your favorite things to see and do? Feel free to share with me!