Nicknamed “The Garden State” and placed at the center of the Northeast megalopolis, New Jersey, the 11th most populous US State, is home to one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world. Located in one of the nation’s most geologically and geographically varied regions, New Jersey boasts the Highlands and Piedmont physiographic provinces in the northwest and the Atlantic Coastal Plain province with the Jersey Shore and the New Jersey Pine Barrens in the southeast. Dotting this beautiful State are some incredible small towns, all of which are waiting to be explored. From the Jersey Shore’s fascinating waterfront towns to quaint inland towns featuring well-maintained colonial structures, lively downtowns with plenty of shopping opportunities, and natural areas offering a plethora of outdoor recreations, these hidden treasures in New Jersey are guaranteed to impress everyone.
Situated at the meeting point of the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, this small resort town in New Jersey’s Cape May County is on the southern edge of the Cape May Peninsula. Being one of the oldest vacation resort destinations in the United States, Cape May attracts numerous tourists, especially during the warm summer months. The entire town has been designated as the Cape May Historic District, featuring more than 600 well-maintained Late Victorian-style buildings spread over an area of 380 acres.
The town’s economy is primarily driven by the Washington Street Mall, as well as the various retail stores, quaint boutiques, lodgings, restaurants, and fascinating tourist attractions along the 1-mile-long beach promenade. During summers, countless swimmers, surfers, sunbathers, and hikers are drawn to Cove Beach, located at the town’s southernmost extremity. Cape May is home to the Cape May Lighthouse, Emlen Physick Estate, World War II Lookout Tower, Harriet Tubman Museum, Cape May Bird Observatory, and the Cape May Fisherman’s Memorial. The town hosts various annual festivals, such as the Cape May Jazz Festival, the Cape May New Jersey Film Festival, the Cape May Food & Wine Festival, and the Cape May Music Festival.
Spring Lake is a charming coastal resort town on the Jersey Shore in Monmouth County, approximately 65 miles from New York and Philadelphia. Home to just 2,789 inhabitants, the town is known for its breathtaking natural scenery and pristine sandy beaches, besides the cozy boutiques and restaurants in downtown. The architecture of several historic homes in Spring Lake dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can walk down the tree-lined streets and witness landmark structures like the Martin Maloney Cottage, Audenried Cottage, St. Catherine Roman Catholic Church, and the Sea Girt Lighthouse.
The town’s 1 & ½ mile, non-commercial boardwalk along the Atlantic Ocean is the perfect place to relax and admire the area’s scenic beauty. To enjoy live musicals and theatrical performances, tourists must visit the Spring Lake Theatre Company housed in the Spring Lake Community House. Since 1977, the town has hosted “The Spring Lake 5 Mile Run,” the biggest 5-mile race in the country that circles the entire town and begins and ends at the beachfront.
This enchanting small town sits atop the Hunterdon Plateau along the shores of the Delaware River, approximately 32 miles northwest of the state capital, Trenton. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 100-acre Frenchtown Historic District houses several magnificent colonial structures, including the Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge, Frenchtown Inn, Frenchtown Station for the Belvidere Delaware Railroad, Nathaniel Shurtz House, and Oddfellows Building. Downtown Frenchtown is a shopping destination, and whether you are searching for gifts, antiques, books, stylish dresses, or a bag of coffee, you can get everything here. In addition to shops, the downtown also has several cafes, taverns, and restaurants serving authentic French cuisines. The town hosts various annual festivals, including La Fete Nationale on Bastille Day, Wine & Art Festival in May, and RiverFest in September.
A famous South Jersey seashore resort town in Cape May County, Avalon, is on the northern end of Seven Mile Island. The town is home to some of the most expensive real estate on the Eastern Seaboard, in addition to being one of the most affluent communities along the Jersey Shore. Upholding its motto, “Cooler by a Mile,” Avalon extends eastwards about a mile farther into the Atlantic Ocean than other barrier islands. Dotted with characteristic homes and beach cottages, this tranquil beachfront community offers ample water-based recreational activities. Thousands of tourists head to Avalon during summer for an action-packed vacation, where they can explore the picturesque white-sand beaches, cute shops, excellent seafood restaurants, and electrifying nightclubs. Visitors must not miss the carefully preserved “high dunes,” Avalon History Center, Avalon Sport Fishing Center, and the Bay Park Marina.
Serving as a bedroom community for numerous daily passengers who work in and around New York City and Northern New Jersey, Clinton is placed along the South Branch of the Raritan River in Hunterdon County’s Raritan Valley region. The 175-acre Clinton Historic District encompasses a significant portion of the town and includes about 270 contributing buildings, 1 contributing structure, and 3 contributing sites. Home to just 2,773 inhabitants, this alluring hamlet is best known for its two historic mills on the opposite shores of the South Branch Raritan River. Placed at the heart of the town, the Red Mill Museum Village houses the iconic Red Mill built in 1810 that has been used at different times to process graphite, plaster, talc, and grains. Every October, the Mill is transformed into the Red Mill Haunted Village, attracting visitors from all over the East Coast. The 19th-century Dunham’s Mill/ Stone Mill is home to the Hunterdon Art Museum, which exhibits modern art, craft, and designs. Outdoor enthusiasts can spend quality time at the Round Valley Recreation Area, Spruce Run Recreation Area, Landsdown Trail, and the Ken Lockwood Gorge Wildlife Management Area.
One of the state’s oldest towns, Cranbury is nestled amidst luxuriant meadows and scenic woodlands approximately 18 miles from Trenton. The Cranbury Historic District houses over 200 buildings dating back to the mid-19th century, having beautiful architectural styles from the Victorian, Federal, and Greek Revival periods. Visitors to Cranbury must meander along the tree-lined Main Street, explore the Cranbury Museum, Cranbury’s Town Hall, Brainerd Cemetery, Gourgaud Gallery, and enjoy a fine dining experience at the Cranbury Inn after a hectic day. Outdoor lovers should visit the Reinhardt Forest Preserve, Cranbury Brook Preserve, Brainerd Lake & Dam, Village Park, Barn Park, and Heritage Park.
Bordentown is located at the confluence of Delaware River, Crosswicks Creek, and Blacks Creek in Burlington County, approximately 5.8 miles south of the state capital. Being New Jersey’s northernmost municipality, Bordentown forms a part of the Delaware Valley and the Philadelphia-Reading-Camden Combined Statistical Area. Tourists at Bordentown can witness interesting historical sites such as the Crosswicks Creek Site III and Point Breeze and visit an array of art galleries, antique shops, book & record stores, breweries, and restaurants that fill the downtown. Thousands of visitors are drawn to the town’s annual festivals, including the Iris Festival & Art Show, Street Fair, Cranberry Festival, and various events like the Peach Social and Holiday House Tour sponsored by the Bordentown Historical Society.
Named in honor of John Lambert, a US senator and acting governor of New Jersey, this serene town sits along the shores of the Delaware River in the southwestern portion of Hunterdon County. Lambertville initially started as a factory town due to its closeness to the Delaware and Raritan Canal and the Belvidere Delaware Railroad. At present, it is a renowned tourist destination where visitors are welcome to see the restored houses, local shops, art galleries, antique stores, B&Bs, and restaurants. Situated at the meeting point of the state highways, Route 29 and Route 179, the Lambertville Historic District contains historic buildings like James W. Marshall House and Lambertville House, that has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In all seasons, the canal path offers scenic views of both the canal and the Delaware River, besides serving as a flat place for walkers, cyclists, and joggers to exercise. During April, Lambertville hosts the annual ShadFest organized by the Greater Lambertville Chamber of Commerce. Featuring vendor booths focusing on the area's arts community, the ShadFest plays a dominant role in helping the local nonprofits that, in turn, support the residents and businesses of Lambertville.
A part of the state’s South Jersey region in Cape May County, this reputed family-oriented seaside resort is the chief city of the Ocean City Metropolitan Statistical Area. Named after its location along the Atlantic Ocean, Ocean City offers vacationers miles of clean beaches, a 2.45-mile-long boardwalk, and a downtown shopping and mining district. A variety of family-owned shops, Ocean City Music Pier, Gillian’s Wonderland Pier, a water park, and amusement parks like Playland’s Castaway Cove and Wonderland Amusement Park, are situated on the boardwalk. In addition, the city parks, like Corson’s Inlet State Park, offer visitors an array of recreational opportunities.
Red Bank is a captivating borough on the southern shores of the Navesink River in the northern part of the state’s Monmouth County. Red Bank’s thriving downtown area features a multitude of cultural attractions, along with specialty shops, independently-owned boutiques, cozy cafes, breweries, and restaurants. The town houses many well-preserved buildings besides the magnificent Count Basie Center for the Arts, the Two River Theater, and parks that offer a variety of recreational activities. Red Bank hosts many annual events, including the Red Bank Guinness Oyster Festival, International Beer, Wine & Food Festival, Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival, a farmers’ market, a Halloween parade, an indie film festival, and holiday town lighting.
This vibrant town is located immediately south of a lengthy curving ridge called ‘Princeton Ridge’ in Mercer County, almost halfway from New York City and Philadelphia. Apart from being home to the world-renowned Princeton University, Princeton draws numerous tourists to its downtown district, filled with retail stores, fashion boutiques, and restaurants offering delicious cuisines. Some other attractions include the Morven Museum & Garden, Princeton University Art Museum, McCarter Theatre Center, Albert Einstein House, the Princeton Battlefield State Park, etc. Nature aficionados can easily access the beautiful parks, hiking/ biking trails along the Delaware & Raritan Canal, and canoeing activities on Lake Carnegie.
From the colorful waterfront communities of Cape May, Avalon, and Ocean City to the scholarly town of Princeton, the adorable small towns in the nation’s 47th most extensive and 11th most populous state are worth checking out. While these towns may not have the glitz and glamor of the nearby New York City, they exude a welcoming vibe and leave an everlasting impression on everyone visiting them. So, pack your bags, prepare for a day trip or a weekend vacation, and enjoy everything these pretty towns of the Garden State have to offer.