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The great Garden State really does get a bad rap. Sure, there’s that funky smell around Elizabeth, and Newark Airport is a pain to get to, but if you know where to look, you’ll also find a lot of quaint towns and country charm. So while everyone else heads out to the Hamptons and Fire Island this summer, take it from someone who grew up in New Jersey (but has also been a discerning and jaded New Yorker for the past 15 years): You’ll discover something new and unexpected by beating the heat in Jersey this summer. Here, five spots you can get to in two hours or less.

RELATED: 6 Summer Festivals That Are Worth a Trip Out of Town

the breakers spring lake chairs ocean
Courtesy of The Breakers on the Ocean, Spring Lake

Spring Lake (90 minutes by car or 2 hours by NJ Transit)

This posh little shore town is admittedly the farthest spot on the list, but it’s well worth the two-hour train ride from Penn Station for a vibe that will remind you of the Hamptons without all the fuss. 

Spring Lake is known for having one of the more quiet and pleasant beaches in Monmouth County, making it ideal for families and those looking to chill out. Just through the town’s (actual) gates is Belmar, where you’re more likely to see and hear at least one Jersey Shore—like party going on during a summer weekend visit.

Spring Lake also boasts one of the cleanest beaches and boardwalks in “the Dirty Jerz”—though you won’t find your standard soft-serve ice cream, french fries and pizza on the latter. (Head to nearby Point Pleasant or Seaside Heights for that. You will, however, discover the stately homes that line every block of this Atlantic beach town—some of the most impressive in the state—which you could easily fill an entire afternoon gawking at. 

After a day of digging your feet into the sand, head over to local favorite The Breakers on the Ocean, a charming hotel popular for weddings that has a large wraparound porch overlooking the ocean and a piano lounge serving cocktails, coffee and apps. Better yet, stay the night in one of the traditional rooms of the late-19th-century property. Whatever you do, make sure you take a walk or bike ride over to Hoffman’s ice-cream shop, an old-timey institution that’s too cute for words. 

weehawken sunset city skyline
Gary Hershorn/ Getty Images

Weehawken (10 minutes from NYC by ferry)

Way before the Lincoln Tunnel and the GWB were dreamed up, the other side of the Hudson was a country oasis for city slickers. Wealthy and prominent New York families once built their country estates here, and it’s easy to see why: The steep cliffs of the Palisades overlook the Hudson, giving visitors a bird’s-eye view of the river and the Manhattan skyline. And while parts of other NYC-adjacent hoods like Hoboken and Jersey City are seeing their views disappear due to rapid waterfront expansion, Weehawken has been able to retain its impressive vistas thanks to strict building codes, meaning panoramic views from FiDi all the way up to the Heights. 

Getting there from Manhattan is quick: Just take the NY Waterway ferry from its terminal on 39th Street (at 12th Avenue). There’s even a free bus to the terminal that runs along most Manhattan thoroughfares. Take the boat to Port Imperial—it takes all of eight minutes. You can then fire up your Google Maps app and follow the walking and bike path south as it hugs the riverfront all the way to Weehawken Waterfront Park. Here you’ll find an ideal spot to soak up some sun or work out—sans the crowds you’ve come to expect at Brooklyn Bridge Park—all with a blissful river breeze on your face. 

As sunset approaches, make your way up the steps from the riverfront to Hamilton Park, site of the famous duel that cost Alexander Hamilton his life. You’ll gawk at the Victorian-era houses that line the street behind the park just as much as you will the glittering Hudson River as the sun slowly sets. Pro tip: If you get hungry, walk to nearby Charrito’s—a Mexican joint with serious table-side guac and spicy margs—or the more upscale Molos, a Mediterranean restaurant right on the riverside. 

the asbury hotel rooftop
Courtesy of The Asbury Hotel

Asbury Park (1 hour, 15 minutes from NYC by car or 2 hours by NJ Transit)

There’s just something funky—and undeniably cool—about Asbury Park. The once run-down resort town has a rich history and is changing rapidly each summer season. The Beaux Arts—style Convention Hall, Paramount Theatre and arcade (all three right on the beach, smack in the middle of the city’s boardwalk) are a big draw, as are the many trendy food stalls dedicated to elevated beach fare, like a creperie and a Korean fusion taco joint. You’ll also find lots of sit-down dining options, bars and music venues nearby, from the modern rooftop cocktail lounge Watermark—which has a waterfront deck—to the iconic Stone Pony, a dive-like music house where legends Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi launched their careers. There’s even LGBT nightlife happening in AP at the Empress Hotel. Basically, if New York could transform itself into a small seaside town, this would be it: just as gritty in spots as it is fancy, high energy and a whole lot of fun for everyone. 

Look into spending an entire weekend in town to explore the local arts scene, hang on the beach and boardwalk, have a sophisticated meal at Moonstruck and take in a show. There are lots of hotels to choose from, from the new and boutique-y The Asbury and the B&B-style lodging at the Hotel Tides

lake hopactong grass
Tomwsulcer/Wikimedia Commons

Lake Hopatcong (90 minutes from NYC by car)

While the Garden State has more beach towns than you could visit in one summer, it’s also home to some pretty epic lakes, like this North Jersey stunner. Lake Hopatcong is known for its boating—and boozing. Most visitors spend their time on the water with a bottle of rosé or a six-pack, basking in the sun and admiring the view of the tree-lined coast. If you’re looking for a more active weekend, you can do everything from water-skiing and tubing to fly boarding and kayaking. 

If you don’t keep a boat parked inside your studio apartment, you can of course rent one—along with a skipper—for the day, or simply enjoy a lakeside picnic or barbecue on the shore in Hopatcong State Park. 

le club avenue long branch
Courtesy of Le Club Avenue

Long Branch (1 HOUR 10 MINUTES FROM NYC BY CAR OR 1 HOUR 40 MINUTES BY NJ TRANSIT)

In its heyday, seven presidents visited Long Branch, but today—at first glance—the town seems like a stereotypical Jersey suburb that happens to be by the ocean. But a recent development called Pier Village has created a lively, walkable area of Long Branch that offers visitors access to some pretty great beach clubs, along with places to eat, work out and shop. 

Check in to the Bungalow Hotel for a night to take advantage of everything this pedestrian zone has to offer—it’s just steps from the heart of the village, where you’ll find a Lululemon pop-up, a day spa, a book and wine shop and a cool home decor store. Just across the street is a stretch of boardwalk and Le Club Avenue, a chic South of France—inspired beach club and brasserie complete with palm trees, private cabana service and a rooftop terrace pool. At night, the waterfront patio is the ideal spot to have a cocktail or grab a bite. 

And should you feel the need to jump into the car you rented (although Long Branch is easily accessible by train, too), head south of the town line into Deal, a sleepy enclave that’s like the Beverly Hills of Joisey...but by the beach. 

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