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With a rich history, award-winning beaches, designation as a top birdwatching location, and many examples of Victorian architecture, Cape May is a seaside resort drawing visitors from around the world.

The town is named for 1620 Dutch captain named Cornelius Jacobsen Mey who explored and charted the area between 1611–1614, and established a claim for the province of New Netherland. It was later settled by New Englanders from the New Haven Colony. What is now Cape May was originally formed as the borough of Cape Island by an Act of the New Jersey Legislature on March 8, 1848, from portions of Lower Township. It was reincorporated as Cape Island city on March 10, 1851, and finally became Cape May city as of March 9, 1869.

Cape May began hosting vacationers from Philadelphia in the mid 18th century and is recognized as the country's oldest seaside resort.[22] It became increasingly popular in the 18th century and was considered one of the finest resorts in America by the 19th century. In 1878 a five-day-long fire destroyed square blocks of the town center and as part of the reconstruction efforts replacement homes were almost uniformly of Victorian style.[25] As a result of this and of more recent preservation efforts, Cape May is noted for its large number of well-maintained Victorian houses — the second largest collection of such homes in the nation after San Francisco. In 1976, the entire city of Cape May was officially designated a National Historic Landmark as the Cape May Historic District, making Cape May the only city in the United States wholly designated as such.[26] That designation is intended to ensure the architectural preservation of these buildings.