When New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen took the stage last month for the re-opening of Asbury Lanes – the legendary bowling alley and music venue – he made it official: Asbury Park’s revival is in full swing. But the seaside town – just 90 minutes south of New York City – has always been distinct on the Jersey Shore, with an artistic, alternative vibe and strong gay scene. ‘I was blown away by this place’, says Parlor Gallery co-curator Jenn Hampton (aka Juicy Jenn), who arrived 14 years ago. ‘How is there an urban-feeling city next to the beach that no one knows about? And the carnival aesthetic is really strong.’ With a boardwalk lined with husks of 1920s beaux arts buildings, famous music venues, and Wonder Bar’s smiley-faced Tillie mural presiding over the scene, Asbury Park is easily Jersey’s coolest beach – just make time off the sand to explore everything else on offer.
Set in a former Salvation Army building, The Asbury Hotel has become the beach’s coolest place to bunk since it opened in 2016. Splurge on a plush suite with ocean views and an in-room dining area. Or, if you’re travelling with friends, make like you’re off at a chic summer camp and go for a group bunk-bed room. Be sure to catch a movie on the rooftop or take the hotel’s underground passageway to Asbury Lanes for live music. You can also catch a band at Soundbooth, the Asbury’s lobby bar.
With restaurants, small shops and galleries, Cookman Avenue cuts diagonally from the Asbury Park train station down to the beach. Next door to Jenn’s Parlor Gallery on Cookman, gARTen is an outdoor installation of works artist Joe Harvard made from recycled materials and coated in blacklight paint (nighttime visitors can tour with a blacklight flashlight). Down the street, Exhibit No.9 puts on shows of experimental photography. When you make it to the boardwalk, try your hand at one of the vintage pinball machines at the Silverball Museum. Also, stop for a selfie on the north end in front of the murals of the Wooden Walls project, an initiative that commissions local and international artists to do works on plywood that are showcased around town.
Asbury Park is packed with venues showcasing everything from nationally touring acts to local cover bands. Asbury Lanes, formerly a beloved, ramshackle bowling alley and creative space that hosted a wide variety of shows, including burlesque shows, art exhibitions and punk bands, relaunched as a state-of-the-art concert venue with acts like Cold War Kids, St. Lucia and Talib Kweli on the calendar. The Stone Pony – the club famed for helping launch Bruce Springsteen’s career – continues to host rock bands and put on its outdoor summer stage, while House of Independents has eclectic programing from Greece sing-alongs to comedy tours. To keep up with the latest musical offerings, check apboardwalk.com for listings.
Toast is a local favorite for brunch, with red velvet pancakes and four styles of eggs benny. A few doors down, Talula’s, opened by vets of NYC’s Saltie, fires pizzas made with local ingredients in a wood-burning oven. Newcomer Barrio Costero makes modern Mexican dishes (chilled watermelon and crab, fish tacos with gooseberry crema) and lots of tequila drinks in a bright spot on Bangs Avenue near the train station. After dinner, stop for cocktails at Asbury Park Distilling, where the spirits (not to mention bitters and syrups) are all created onsite.
Vintage and denim shop Sweet Joey’s specializes in custom, handmade jeans – you pick the cloth, cut, and thread. Visit Glide for surfboards and beachwear that’s suitable for either hitting the waves or lounging on the shore. Tattoo parlor Ninth Wave is the spot for custom ink and a pretty selection of jewelry and ceramics. And if you’re in the market for something truly unique, Paranormal Books & Curiosities offers books on the occult, plus ghost tours and monthly seances – certainly not your typical beach activities.
Featured image is Asbury Park Beach; photo via Jazz Guy/Flickr CC