The Jersey shore has always been my happy place….but I’m not too happy about the price tag often associated with a vacation there. But a trip down the shore doesn’t have to strangle your summer budget. In fact, there are plenty of things to do for free at the Jersey shore. So grab your flip flops and make your way down the Garden State Parkway, because I’m going to share with you six things you can do down the shore for free. Free beach time, free zoo time, even free souvenirs – we got you covered!

Wildwood beaches are free at the Jersey shore.

Don’t let your summer budget float away with the tide. There are plenty of things to do for free at the Jersey Shore. Photo by Mary Lebeau, EastCoast Traveling Mom

Free at the Jersey shore. Almost sounds like an oxymoron, right? I mean, even those of us who live in the area complain about the expense associated with going down the shore. What my family pays to rent a shore house for a week every August is more than twice what we put out for a villa near Disney World…and that’s just the beginning. Beach tags, amusement tickets, and the delicious and necessary boardwalk food….all these things add up to one very expensive vacation.

But there are ways to save while you visit the shore. In fact, some of the best attractions on the coastline are absolutely free – seriously! Forget the high cost attractions and save your money for the famous pizza – here’s a rundown of some things you can do down the shore, without spending a cent.

  1. The Beaches in Wildwood – If you’ve heard about the south Jersey shore (closer to Philly than NYC) then you’ve probably heard about the Wildwoods. Actually three beach towns in one, North Wildwood, Wildwood and Wildwood Crest all hold great appeal for summer vacation goers. But if you are down the shore, you’ll want to be on the beach – and you can lay on the sand or boogie board in the breakers on all three Wildwoods beaches for free.
    Make sandcastles on the beach at Wildwood - free at the Jersey Shore.

    There are plenty of free things to do at the Jersey Shore.

    Other Jersey shore towns that allow access to the beach without beach tags include Atlantic City, Sandy Hook and Union Beach.

  2. The Cape May Zoo in Cape May Courthouse – Most people don’t think of “zoo” when thinking about a beach vacation, but if you’re headed to the shore, get your head around this – the Cape May Zoo is the hidden gem of the Jersey shore. Gorgeous, well-laid out and completely free, the 200+ acre zoo is home to animals that you’d expect to see in big city zoos, including African lions, giraffes, bears, bison and bald eagles. Plan to spend the day – besides the animals (over 500 in all), the zoo also offers an education station, picnic tables (buy lunch there or bring your own) and a wonderful playground. Even the parking is free!
  3. The Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine – The MMSC was founded in response to the stranding of various marine mammals along the coast – in fact, they have responded to over 4,500 strandings since they opened in 1978. Marine mammals including dolphins, whales and seals (as well as the occasional non-mammal, like a sea turtle) can become stranded on shore for various reasons, and the staff at the MMSC will bring the animal in, care for it as needed, and return it to its environment. Although you won’t be able to have contact with the rescued mammals, most of whom are injured or sick as well as stranded, you can visit the onsite Marine Mammal Stranding Center Museum – free of charge. The museum features life-sized replicas of many of the animals that have been rescued by the MMSC through the years.
  4. The Warren E. Fox Nature Center in Mays Landing – If you’ve had enough of the sand and the sun, but still want to spend your vacation unplugged, head to the Warren E. Fox Nature Center. Called the “headquarters for environmental education in Atlantic County,” the center features a great staff eager to show off their knowledge of the area and its environment. There are displays featuring area historical artifacts, including some from Native Americans and other, more recent from the companies that were established in the area to meet the war time demand during World War I. The center offers a lot of cool, free events and activities, including guitar lessons, leaf identification classes, movie nights, story time and even yoga.

    Swans, bald eagles, bears and giraffes all make their home at the Cape May Zoo - and visiting them is free! Photo by Mary Lebeau, EastCoast TMOM

    Swans, bald eagles, bears and giraffes all make their home at the Cape May Zoo – and visiting them is free! Photo by Mary Lebeau, EastCoast TMOM

  5. The Discovery Sea Shell Museum in Ocean City – Okay, I believe in truth in advertising, and I call them as I see them. And as I see this, it’s not really a museum. More like a shell shop with hands-on, interactive displays. Still, the kids seem to love it. Maybe because they are free to handle the multicolored hermit crabs, some of which boast painted portraits of Spongebob Squarepants, Mickey Mouse or Snoopy on their backs. In fact, my kids even raced them – all with the staff’s consent. That staff, by the way, is good at sneaking in the educational stuff under the guise of fun. It’s like walking on the beach and discovering only “good” seashells, and having a guide right next to you to explain, “Well, that’s a nautilus shell, which used to house a sea organism that existed freely in the water, instead of making its home on the ocean floor.” Seriously good stuff – and they often let the kids leave with a shell as a souvenir (more are available for purchase, of course).
  6. Collecting Cape May Diamonds in Cape May Point – Let’s be perfectly clear: they’re not really diamonds. But these shiny quartz pebbles can be scooped right off the beaches at Cape May Point, and can be polished to resemble the real thing. My kids love to take a car ride to Higbee or Sunset Beach while the sun is going down, so they can search for these smooth and shiny pebbles in the light of the waning summer sun. Legend has it that Cape May Diamonds were first collected by the Kechemeche Indian tribe, which used them as currency or gave them as gifts. We usually keep them to ourselves, putting them in painted clam shells to display as souvenirs of the summer days on the Jersey shore.