The city by the sea was created in the 1850s as a seaside escape and has worn a lot of hats over the years: from the glamorous 1920s (which saw the birth of A.C.’s signature event, the Miss America Pageant) to the 1930s (when the value of Boardwalk property lent the city’s street names to the game Monopoly) through the swingin’ postwar years (when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis first teamed up at Skinny D’Amato’s legendary 500 Club) and on past the gritty 1960s to the post-1977 renaissance, when casinos saved the city’s life. Today A.C. is a pastiche of all those things, juxtaposing remnants of its golden era with the glam escapism of 21st-century resorts and a certain retro seediness that’s tantalizingly attractive.

Begin with the Boardwalk, that legendary stretch that started as a way to keep sand out of the tourists’ shoes and grew into a 6-mile, 60-foot-wide cultural icon. In 1929 (just months before the stock market crashed). The New York Times called it “a magnificent proof of America’s newly found wealth and leisure … an iridescent bubble on the surface of our fabulous prosperity.” Today, with its tangle of restored carnivalesque facades and tacky gift shops, the Boardwalk can create an irresistible urge to wear seersucker, ride in an old-time human-powered rolling chair, and eat saltwater taffy.

Inland, on Arctic Avenue, the little blue-and-white White House Sub Shop opened in 1946, naming its specialty in honor of WWII submarine crews. Back along the boardwalk, across from the Taj Mahal, the Steel Pier was once advertised as “The Showplace of a Nation,” presenting marathon dance contests, big bands, and a horse and rider who would jump from a platform into a tank of water 60 feet down. The original pier buildings burned in 1982, but today the pier’s up and running again, with dozens of rides and attractions.

Modern Atlantic City is, of course, all around. Far from the Boardwalk, the billion-dollar Borgata resort and casino opened its doors in 2003, setting a new A.C. standard with its sleek styling, luxurious rooms, 125,000-square-foot gaming floor, huge spa, and top-drawer restaurants, including the Old Homestead (a branch of the famous New York steakhouse) and Specchio (an upscale Italian restaurant from chef Luke Palladino). Recent restaurant additions up the ante: Stand in line to enjoy the kitchens of Bobby Flay, Michael Mina, and Wolfgang Puck. Two large theaters bring in top-name acts and prizefights. Elsewhere in town, The Quarter (an adjunct of the Tropicana) and the Pier at Caesars are entertainment complexes lull of theaters, restaurants, comedy and dance clubs, and upscale shops.

The Miss America Pageant, that annual celebration of swimsuits and world peace that got its start here in 1921, was never really the same after it dropped longtime host Bert Parks in 1980. In 2004 the pageant itself was dropped by ABC-TV and, after 84 years, moved out of Atlantic City for its glitzier rival, Las Vegas .