Though small, New Jersey is one of the most densely populated states in the Union, and there is plenty to see in a concentrated area. The "Garden State" is chock full of hidden small-town gems, which come highly recommended to anyone looking for a change of pace from the downtown hustle of urban centers. From seaside getaways to dense wilderness or small-town Americana, these are the best locales New Jersey offers.
This restful beach town at the state’s southern tip is easily accessible by car or bus for the environmentally conscious. Cape May is an hour’s drive from Atlantic City, but this picturesque town is the perfect antidote for a bad run of luck at the slots. Breathe in the history while walking through rows of colorful Victorian-era period homes populating America’s oldest seaside resort town. Cape May has worked hard to preserve its heritage, proving that its National Historic Landmark declaration was well deserved.
The town’s beauty is easily matched by the shoreline, with its windswept beaches and the beckoning Atlantic Ocean only just beyond. Sunset Beach is an excellent way to beat the crowds in summer. Back in town, the manicured streets fill with live music in the summertime, and the long-running and famed Cape May Music Festival is only the first of several attractions running throughout the year. Cape May has a vibrant cultural scene, buttressed by its excellent eateries and much-loved boutique shops. Visit the Cape May lighthouse and walk the trails at Garrett Family Preserve at Cape Island Creek.
Less than an hour from New York City is the town of Montclair, a quaint suburb at the foot of the First Watchung Mountain. Often called "the Brooklyn"' of New Jersey, the town’s manicured streets have a wonderful feel, plenty of diversity, and a thriving arts community in addition to the second biggest university in the state. Engage in retail therapy at one of Montclair’s boutique shops, such as Oasis and Culture Couture. Refuel at Koreander or Uncle Momo before catching a show at the Wellmont Theater and a live performance outdoors. Fans of America’s pastime should definitely visit the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center at the university campus for an education about one of the greatest ball players and poets to ever grace the mound.
This town on the Pennsylvania border was incorporated in 1849 and never forgot its roots. Lambertville’s extensive restoration efforts have gone marvelously, and the town’s Victorian homes are a key draw to visitors from nearby Philadelphia and New York City. Post-and-beam houses, long and flat porches, and magnificent brickwork can all be found in this charming town. A resident described Lambertville as "Disneyesque" and full of characters from a Charles Dickens novel.
Built on the banks of the Delaware River, the town is incredibly popular with practitioners of aquatic sports. Paddlers and peddlers will feel right at home in Lambertville, though there is much more to do. Known as the "Antiques Capital of New Jersey," the amount of vintage furniture per capita in Lambertville is off the charts, and it is nearly impossible to leave without finding something. Gallery Piquel and Pirela Atelier are two shops that are highly recommended. Not looking to buy? Take a walk across the lovely town bridge over to New Hope in Pennsylvania, full of tasty eateries and art galleries.
The quaint town of Collingswood is as charming as it is peaceful, and is one of the best places to live in the state due to its quality of life. Collingswood is even listed among the Classic Towns of Greater Philadelphia. Italian food lovers, need look no further. Collingswood is highly walkable and rewards adventurous visitors with fine dining and a surprising amount of places to shop.
The Kitchen Consigliere offers some of the finest Mediterranean cuisine in the state, though it is hard to go wrong in Collingswood, while Sagami has earned a reputation for some of the best sushi around. Be prepared to wait in line, however. The town is also known as somewhat of an artist’s enclave. Porchfest is a community music and arts festival where residential porches in town are transformed into stages for local musical acts. Want to soak in the sound of silence near the river? Collingswood has over 100 acres of scenic outdoor beauty across three parks to discover.
Raised in the heart of Allentown, the historic Allentown Mill has stood since the mid-1800s when it was key to local commerce by turning grain into meal and flower. It was also a meeting point for the townspeople where they could socialize. Today, the mill is a symbol of the alluring small-town charm Allentown has to offer as well, in addition to hosting The Moth, an inviting coffee shop with an incredible view of the Conines Millpond that is the perfect place to spend a morning.
This small town is full of things to keep visitors occupied, however. Stop by Village Arts for an impromptu art class held at venues all over town, such as local farms or a restaurant downtown. Stop by The Horse Park of NJ at Stone Tavern, where equestrian enthusiasts appreciate horse shows and events throughout the year.
Walking through the streets of Frenchtown, visitors are invited to enjoy a croissant, or a black coffee, and soak up the palpable jouissance emanating throughout the town. A group of Swiss-French settlers moved to the area and bought a tract of land. With so many people, including the settlement’s owner, being native French speakers, Frenchtown was born. It is hard not to find something to do in this earnest beatnik town on the banks of the Delaware River.
Visit a petrified wood gallery and pick up a guaranteed conversation piece perfect for your next soiree. Astrology aficionados will want to stop by the fortune teller for a tarot card reading. Walk across the photogenic Uhlerstown-Frenchtown Bridge, which has stood since the colonial era. Take a spin around the hardwood at the Frenchtown Roller Rink or amble through Horseshoe Bend Park. Over 700 acres of pet-friendly outdoor space with panoramic views of the Delaware River Valley await.
One of the oldest towns in New Jersey and certainly one of the most appealing, Cranbury’s inviting, small-town character is one of its best attributes. Quiet, cobblestone sidewalks and red-bricked buildings make this enchanting entry a must-see destination for any trip to Central New Jersey. Try and visit around Cranbury Day, an annual celebration with live music, food, and even a duck race. Not to worry, The Market on Main is a great place to spend an afternoon and grab a bite to eat. The Plainsboro Nature Preserve nearby offers over 1,000 acres of greenery in which to breathe deeply and stretch your legs. Book a room at The Cranbury Inn for a unique stay, which has stood since the late 18th century.
Despite its size, New Jersey is jam-packed with enchanting small towns waiting to explore. From cobbled streets to seaside boardwalks, and gorgeous natural preserves, the sheer variety of New Jersey attractions is something to behold. Paddle down the Delaware River, visit immaculately preserved structures that precede the civil war, and experience East Coast Americana. Stop by any of these towns and make the next trip to the Garden State unforgettable.