In the words of the late, great Anthony Bourdain, “To know Jersey is to love her.” The state might often get a bad rap, thanks to those funky smells right along the Turnpike near Newark Airport, but once you start to explore The Garden State, you’ll discover hidden treasures guaranteed to impress even the most discerning New Yorkers. Take, for example, the adorable towns on this list, which are ripe for exploration via a New York City day, overnight, or weekend trip. And, as many New Yorkers tend to do, you never know—you might end up graduating and making one of them your permanent residence one day, too. Here are 14 small towns in New Jersey that are worth checking out.
The 14 Most Charming Small Towns in New Jersey
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- Why We Recommend It: historic architecture, great shopping, boho vibes
- Where to Stay: Two Bedroom Picturesque Retreat ($108/night, sleeps 4); Tiny Home on Hidden Farmlet ($120/night, sleeps 2); Unforgettable Farmhouse Stay in Frenchtown ($150/night, sleeps 7)
The French always seem to do it right. Early speakers of the love language were the influence for this town’s name, and probably its spirit, too. Today, it includes a small downtown of fun bobo (that’s boho chic to you and me) shops, including a gemstone gallery, a petrified wood gallery, art galleries and gift shops, plus a dedicated men’s store that carries everything from glassware to vintage threads to cowboy boots. There’s also a shop solely dedicated to the zodiac with tarot card readings—naturally—and a handful of tiny juice and coffee shops, including one that's dedicated to coffee and chocolate. Our must-visit, though, is Frenchtown Pottery, where you will score high-quality local, handmade bowls and plates.
Nestled on the banks of the Delaware River, Frenchtown's Warren truss-style bridge is a destination in its own right, and while we technically can't advise you to wait for the two way traffic to clear before snapping the perfect pic in front of it, you wouldn't be alone if you tried.
2. Cranbury, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: outdoor activities, natural beauty, historic architecture
- Where to Stay: Large Private Studio Apartment on Main Street ($140/night, sleeps 2); Prime Princeton Location ($146/night, sleeps 3); Hampton Inn Cranbury (call for rates)
With quiet cobblestoned sidewalks, a handsome brick-facade town hall, and the historic Cranbury Inn—which has been operational in some form since the 1750s—it’s easy to see why visitors are completely spellbound by this charming Central New Jersey town. If you’re partial to the outdoors, there’s also a very idyllic nature preserve, Plainsboro Nature Preserve, within quick driving distance.
But there’s nothing sleepy about Cranbury—just wait ‘till you hear about its annual Cranbury Day, a yearly celebration taking place the Saturday after Labor Day which features live music, local vendors and crafters as well an annual duck race (!).
- Why We Recommend It: great shopping, arts and culture, good eats
- Where to Stay: The MC, Autograph Collection (from $289/night); Guesthouse Getaway in Montclair ($185/night, sleeps 5); Casa Particular ($98/night, sleeps 2)
Lots of people will try to tell you Montclair is “the Brooklyn” of New Jersey (ditto for nearby Maplewood). And they wouldn’t be wrong about it, as you can totally see a Carroll Gardens vibe all around you. Decidedly more suburban in nature, the townhouses surrounding Smith Street are a mix of well-manicured and seriously grand old homes. The town, which notably lent its high school as a filming location for Mean Girls, boasts a great farmer’s market on Saturday and has a few walkable shopping districts to grab whatever your heart desires. This year, Montclair also welcomed an arts complex near the Wellmont Theater featuring plenty of outdoor space for performances and public art. That’s on top of an already established arts community that includes live theater and galleries. Restaurants, movie theaters, shops and nightlife are other major draws. Pro tip: Don’t leave without trying a meal at French Lebanese restaurant Uncle Momo, which has another outpost in Jersey City.
4. Madison, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: arts and culture, college town vibes, scenic
- Where to Stay: Beautiful NJ Suburban Escape ($250/night, sleeps 4); Complete House with Jacuzzi ($200/night, sleeps 8); Cedar Brook Getaway ($130/night, sleeps 5)
Any town nicknamed “The Rose City” (more on that below) that boasts a Shakespeare Theater should instantly pique your interest. Said theater is located on the campus of Drew University, where you can enjoy a show or simply catch a glimpse of it on a walk around the classic college campus that appears straight out of a film—and indeed, has been featured in them many times.
In Madison, a recognizable freestanding clock stands at the center of a charming downtown filled with gift and decor shops, a bookstore, a consignment shop, and an adorable coffee shop located in an old motor garage. Today, The Snooki Shop also has a home here as the brick and mortar embodiment of the star’s online shop, but that doesn’t mean this place is stereotypically Jersey in any way, shape or form. In fact, long before the Jersey Shore invaded this affluent community, wealthy New Yorkers built country estates here and looked to fill them with flowers. It increased demand so much that the area was home to many greenhouses and at the turn of the century, became internationally known for its roses, gaining its aforementioned nickname.
- Why We Recommend It: historic architecture, vibrant college town scene, urban amenities, independent stores
- Where to Stay: Spacious Two Bedroom Central Princeton Home (from $303/night, sleeps 6); Einstein Lounge (from $256/night, sleeps 6); The Peacock Inn Ascend Hotel Collection (from $342/night)
Easily accessible by train from Penn Station, Princeton is a crown jewel amongst all charming towns everywhere and worth making a weekend trip out of in order to take everything in. The Ivy League school of the same name brings folks from all over the world, and as a result, this town is blessed with great shopping, arts, entertainment, food, museums, orchards and wineries—and the list goes on. A stop at the university’s gorgeous chapel is a must, where you can take in the stunning Gothic architecture and enjoy a service or concert (advance registration required).
Enjoy exploring the small businesses in and around the town’s picturesque main square, Palmer Square. They include a fine foods store, Olsson’s; an old-timey record store, Princeton Record Exchange; and a fantastic bookstore worth getting lost in, Labyrinth Books. Or you could support the town’s bookstore dedicated to mystery books, aptly named The Cloak and Dagger, by virtual means.
6. Clinton, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: historic attractions, country vibes, independent stores
- Where to Stay: Renovated 1920's Barn Cottage (from $195/night, sleeps 4); Modern Luxurious Carriage House ($402/night, sleeps 5); TownePlace Suites by Marriott Clinton (from $169/night)
Clinton will charm your pants off. The Red Mill—a museum complex with numerous historical buildings, including an old schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and log cabin—is a focal point and will quickly make its appearance on your social channels when you visit. Less than 90 minutes outside NYC, Clinton’s tiny downtown will transport you to a small, country village with shops and eateries that will interest selective city slickers. Heartstrings, a jewelry, home decor and gift shop will not disappoint, nor will Fourchette, which sells everything from fine foods and beauty products to garden tools and rugs.
- Why We Recommend It: pristine beaches, upscale community, quiet and low-key atmosphere
- Where to Stay: The Shore Club (call for rates); Spring Lake Ranch (from $550/night, sleeps 6); Shabby Chic Beach Cottage (from $304/night, sleeps 2)
What’s not to love about a Jersey beach town? As some NJ license plates proudly proclaim, they’re “Shore to Please”. But packed boardwalks, funnel cakes, and amusement rides are a far cry from what you’ll find in Spring Lake, which if you ask anyone from New Jersey, seems to have a particular cachet. More Newport in nature than Seaside Heights, it’s easy to enjoy a day in town just gawking at its real estate (and subsequently Zillow-ing and crying). The well-groomed beaches are a draw in any season that’s not winter, especially for their quieter and more relaxing vibes come prime season. The picturesque downtown keeps visitors coming back regardless of temps, with boutiques, candy stores and a beautiful adjacent park with walking paths.
8. Red Bank, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: diverse and vibrant shopping district, scenic, arts and culture
- Where to Stay: Molly Pitcher Inn (from $425/night); Architectural Masterpiece in Red Bank ($720/night, sleeps 8); Downtown Red Bank Home ($550/night, sleeps 8)
Without even stepping out of the car or the adorable green-painted train stop in this town, it’s immediately obvious that Red Bank oozes cool. It’s adorable, for sure, but it’s the mix and energy of this downtown that sets it apart from others. And that diversity can be seen in the shopping scene: Everything from a Cos Bar to a quality cheese shop to Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash—aka Kevin Smith’s famed comic book store featured on AMC’s Comic Book Men—can be found in the town. For those looking for a splurge, there’s a luxury consignment shop with coveted brands, finer decor stores including a West Elm, and even a Tiffany & Co to indulge yourself. Loads of dining options, art galleries, and theaters and music venues keep this town’s heart throbbing as well.
- Why We Recommend It: Victorian architecture, country feel, historic attractions, scenic
- Where to Stay: Hidden Pond Farm Estates ($624/night, sleeps 8); Beautiful Home in Horse Country ($290/night, sleeps 6); Dreamscape Hideaway ($1,200/night, sleeps 10)
The Old Mill is a draw in this small town that’s retained its country charm, and is lined with Victorian homes, plus a handful of shops and restaurants. Inside the original grist mill, which was powered by a waterwheel and first built in 1706, visitors will find The Moth, a friendly coffee shop overlooking the town’s lake with primo blends and café concoctions, delicious vegan-friendly sandwiches, cakes and other devilishly good pastries. Upstairs and in and around the mill, you’ll find shops from local artisans, of which items for sale are hand-made or vintage. A long-standing florist, art and pottery studio meets gift shop, Bloomers N Things, is another draw right in the town, but we also suggest visiting its bucolic outskirts. Here, you’ll find The Horse Park of New Jersey; the Ashford Estate, a breathtaking and popular wedding venue; and, Screamin’ Hill Brewery, where a family farm meets a brewery, and you can reserve a “crop circle” to enjoy a cold one with friends.
10. Cape May, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: historic architecture, quiet beaches, great shopping
- Where to Stay: Hotel Macomber (call for rates); Congress Street Cottage (from $196/night, sleeps 4); Loft on Columbia (from $257/night, sleeps 2)
A bus from Port Authority can get you to Cape May, or you can arrive at the very Southern tip of New Jersey by car, which will take you three to four hours depending on traffic. It’ll be worth it, though. The town is true seashore Americana at its finest and filled with gawk-worthy architecture and small pleasures at every turn. In the summer season, the beach is a must, with our personal favorite being the chill Sunset Beach slightly outside of the hustle and bustle of town. (Don’t fret—it’s still a relaxed beach town.) Highlights in and around Cape May include the Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian-friendly shopping district, the Cape May lighthouse and surrounding nature trails, or a leisurely dinner on the porch at either Ebbitt Room or Peter Shields Inn, plus touring the historical and well-preserved Emlen Physick Estate.
11. Lambertville, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: antique shops, scenic, good eats
- Where to Stay: Lambertville House (from $370/night); W. Reading House (from $450/night, sleeps 7); Charming Vintage House (from $313/night, sleeps 4)
The antiques capital of New Jersey, this is where you come if you’re looking to procure an amazing second-hand piece of furniture, knick-knack or talisman. It’s also a major art outpost, with galleries hugging its main thoroughfare, Bridge Street, and many walkable side streets. Like Frenchtown, Lambertville is a river town and has an adorable bridge which many people walk over and take pictures on, eventually ending up on the other side in New Hope, PA—also packed with a considerable amount of art, boutique shopping, and delicious food. Three of our favorite stops in town, even if you’re just window shopping: Antique’s Center at the People’s Store, Pirela Atelier and Gallery Piquel. For good eats, look no further than D’floret, which could give some big city restaurants a run for their money.
12. Hoboken, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: urban amenities, cityscape views, good eats, picturesque downtown, great shopping
- Where to Stay: W Hoboken (from $369/night); Hoboken Brownstone (from $446/night, sleeps 6); Artsy Getaway (from $179/night, sleeps 2)
With rapid access to downtown and midtown Manhattan (less than 10 minutes on the PATH train), many New Yorkers already consider Hoboken the “sixth borough” of NYC, and the city's cosmopolitan nature has certainly rubbed off here. But Frank Sinatra’s hometown also holds onto its own unique identity and history, and is brimming with charming architecture, shops, eateries, and parks blessed with stunning views of Manhattan’s twinkling skyline. One of our favorite (and free!) things to do, though: Take a walk down Hudson Street past some of the town’s sparkliest West Village-like brownstones, many of which are worthy of a double take.
Dubbed the Mile Square City, thanks to its small footprint at about one square mile, you’ll find crowd pleasers like an Artichoke Basile’s and a Shake Shack in Hoboken, but you should focus your time at the delish Karma Kafe for well-priced and top-quality Indian grub, Barbès for French with a Moroccan twist, Apulia for wood burning oven pies and Italian, and Elysian Cafe for the dreamy ambiance. Hoboken is also home to many noteworthy small businesses, like the recently opened Unjumbold, a home and lifestyle store which features products from women, LGBTQ and black-owned companies; Little City Books, an independent book shop that encourages you to bring your pup inside; Galatea, a shop dedicated to lingerie and loungewear; and Washington General Store, which carries a large variety of gifts suited for any personality.
13. Millburn, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: good eats, scenic, arts and culture
- Where to Stay: The Debary Inn (call for rates); Entire Ranch in Millburn (from $117/night, sleeps 5); Jones Cove (from $158/night, sleeps 3)
A vibrant Essex County suburb just 40 minutes outside of NYC, Millburn is known for its bustling downtown district, which boasts a whole host of boutiques and restaurants. Don’t miss out on lunch at Millburn Deli—a veritable institution with a famously long sandwich menu that includes a killer New Jersey style sloppy Joe—and maybe take your grub to-go so you can picnic in the scenic 16-acre downtown oasis known as Taylor Park, which features lush foliage, a tranquil pond and multiple recreational areas and playgrounds. Finish your visit with a trip to the Paper Mill Playhouse—a performing arts venue that was dubbed the “State Theater of New Jersey” and hosts a variety of top-notch live performances on the regular—or if you’re more interested in nature than arts and culture, head to the nearby Cora Hartshorn Arboretum and Bird Sanctuary. In other words, Millburn is an idyllic New Jersey enclave with something to offer everyone.
14. Toms River, NJ
- Why We Recommend It: lowkey vibes, ocean views, beautiful beaches
- Where to Stay: Clarion Hotel and Conference Center (from $266/night); Days Hotel Toms River (from $314/night); Jersey Shore Dream Home (from $517/night, sleeps 9)
This Jersey Shore destination has a very different vibe than the nearby Seaside Heights, so it’s nothing like what you’ve seen on TV. In fact, Toms River is a super low key and tranquil town that’s known for its beautiful, unspoilt beaches (the most popular being Dover and Ortley) and pristine waters. Downtown consists of only a handful of eateries and shops, which means there’s not much in the way of entertainment—only enough to meet all your basic needs. That said, the locals are friendly and the ocean views can’t be beat, so if you’re looking for a truly restful beachside escape, Toms River fits the bill.
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