About the only place left on the entire East Coast that retains the carnival qualities of classic seaside resorts, Ocean City (pop. 7,102, swelling to almost 400,000 in summer) has by far the best array of old-time funfair attractions in the Mid-Atlantic (well, south of Wildwood, New Jersey, at least). On and around the main pier at the south end of the island, there are enough merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, roller coasters (including The Hurricane, which is illustrated with scenes from Ocean City storms past), mini-golf courses, haunted houses, and bumper cars to divert a small army. A block inland, Trimper’s Rides and Amusements, which has been operated by the same family for five generations, since the 1890s, has two more roller coasters, plus a Tilt-a-Whirl, a 100-year-old Herschell carousel, and a spooky haunted house. Places like Trimper’s, and the sundry batting cages, go-kart tracks, and Whack-a-Mole games, are threatened by rising property values and property taxes and are increasingly close to becoming extinct, so enjoy them while you can. Trimper’s Rides’ local rival, Jolly Roger, also runs a big water park and another amusement park at the north end of town, along the bay at 30th Street.

Ocean City stretches for 10 miles along a broad clean white-sand beach. A wide, part-wooden 2.5-mile boardwalk lines the sands, packed with arcades full of video games and a few nearly forgotten old amusements like Skee-Ball, not to mention midway contests—the kind where, for $1 or $2 a try, you can win stuffed animals and other prizes by shooting baskets or squirting water into clowns’ mouths. A ramshackle collection of fortune-tellers, T-shirt stands, and burger-and-beer bars completes the scene, forming a busy gauntlet that is among the nation’s liveliest promenades.

On summer weekends, Ocean City becomes Maryland’s second-largest city, and most of the fun is simply in getting caught up in the garish human spectacle of it all, but there are a couple of specific things worth searching out. For the price of a bumper car ride, you can enjoy the quirky collections of the Life-Saving Station Museum (daily May-Oct., Wed.-Sun. Apr. and Nov., hours vary Dec.-Mar., $3 adults), at the south end of the boardwalk, where alongside various exhibits you can compare and contrast bowls full of sand from 100 different beaches around the world. The museum also marks the starting point for the open-air trams ($3) that run north along the full length of the boardwalk.

Ocean City Practicalities

Much of Ocean City’s charm is decidedly lowbrow, but the food is better than you might expect, with numerous places offering plates full of shrimp and pitchers of beer for under $10, and freshly fried chicken or crab cakes available from boardwalk stands. Thrasher’s Fries are available (no ketchup; salt and vinegar only!) from one of the three counters along the boardwalk, and you can top them off with a cone or milk shake from Dumser’s Dairyland, which runs several locations throughout Ocean City. Best breakfast for 30 years and counting has been at the Sahara Café (1900 N. Baltimore Ave., 410/289-5080).

Places to stay are also abundant. Built in 1875, the grand Atlantic Hotel (401 S. Baltimore Ave., 410/289-9111, $110 and up) is still open for business on the oceanfront. Modern motels like the Hilton Suites (3200 N. Baltimore Ave., 410/289-6444) often charge more than $300 a night for a room that goes for less than $200 off-season, so be sure to plan ahead. Many of the huge concrete towers you see are actually condominiums and not available for overnight stays.

For help finding lodgings and restaurants, contact the Ocean City visitors center (12320 Ocean Gateway, 410/213-0552), in the Conference Center.