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Finding the Real Boardwalk Empire in Atlantic City

by Lesley Peterson

Fans of the HBO crime drama series Boardwalk Empire know that the character of Nucky Thompson, played by Steve Buscemi, is based on real-life Atlantic City kingpin Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson. Treasurer of Atlantic County during the Prohibition era, the real Nucky’s empire flourished in the racy, roaring 1920s. Today, much of Atlantic City wears a gloss of casino resorts and celebrity-owned restaurants but there are still spots where Nucky would feel right at home.

The Boardwalk

Originally built to keep sand out of hotel lobbies, the world-famous Boardwalk now extends nearly nine kilometres. Nucky would never have gotten up before noon to surf or pedal a bike but he would recognize the rolling chairs for hire and legendary music venue Boardwalk Hall, which was established in 1929. Attractions may have changed since Al Jolson was a lifeguard here, but the sea breeze is still deliciously scented with vanilla fudge and salt water taffy.

Atlantic City Boardwalk

Credit: Lesley Peterson

Rumrunners’ Houses

Atlantic City’s vice industry was fuelled by illegal alcohol, brought in by smugglers who navigated the salt-marsh shoals by night. Some boats drove straight into waterside homes where shipments could be secretly unloaded in garage-like docks. A few of these old rumrunners’ houses can be spotted in the marina at historic Gardner’s Basin. Get there by jitney, Atlantic City’s mini-bus service, in operation since 1915.

Image credit: Lesley Peterson

Credit: Lesley Peterson

The Ritz-Carlton

With a revolving bar shaped like a carousel and swank open-air dining terrace, the Ritz-Carlton Hotel—opened in 1921—was designed by the same architect who did New York’s Grand Central Station. Right on the Boardwalk at Iowa Avenue, the Ritz hosted everyone from U.S.presidents to Al Capone. Nucky Johnson lived and held court on the 9th floor, reputedly with a closet stuffed with cash. Today the Ritz is private condominiums, but a peek into its lobby will conjure images of the gangsters, celebrities and showgirls that once thronged it.

Atlantic City beach

Credit: Lesley Peterson

Miss America Pageant Memorabilia

The glamour of bygone eras is on display in the lobby of the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel, home to a collection of Miss America Pageant gowns, shoes and other glittering memorabilia. The Sheraton’s lobby is first stop on the Road to the Crown Walking Tour, which celebrates the pageant and its return to Atlantic City. Don’t miss the beaded flapper dress and Lady Liberty headdress worn by 16-year-old Margaret Gorman, winner of the first-ever pageant, held in 1921.

Knife and Fork Inn

Boardwalk Empire fans will want to eat at the former gentlemen’s club and speakeasy where the real Nucky and ‘Commodore’ Kuehnle regularly conspired over seafood and steaks. The Knife and Fork’s original upstairs dining room—complete with bottle-hiding banquettes and raid-warning wall buttons—was recreated as a set for the HBO series.

Image credit: Lesley Peterson

Credit: Lesley Peterson

Irish Pub

When someone in Boardwalk Empire says they’re staying at the Elwood, they’re talking about 164 St. James Place, an address now called the Irish Pub. This mahogany-panelled tavern just off the Boardwalk serves good, casual food along with spirits and beer. In true Roaring 20s style, the bar never closes. It’s open 24 hours, 365 days a year. Rooms are still available; singles start at $25 a night.

Irish Pub in Atlantic City

Credit: Lesley Peterson

Lonely Planet has named the Jersey Shore a Top 10 U.S. destination for 2014. Whether you take a 1920s theme tour or explore on your own, Atlantic City’s scandalous past is a big part of its appeal.