New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state.
And, somehow, a state teeming with small towns, New Jersey’s least-publicized asset.
The 25 towns on my best small towns list are not necessarily there because they are super shopping and eating destinations; they’re just great places to escape the rat race (or whatever it is you’re running away from). Perfect for day trips or weekend getaways, these towns are packed with history, tradition and congeniality.
Definitions of “small town” vary; all my towns have populations under 15,000. Which means why you won’t see such worthy places as Westfield, Cranford and Ridgewood on this list. Some of these towns, such as Ocean Grove and Pottersville, are sections of municipalities.
This is an expansion of a list I did in 2015, when I picked 10 towns. It was tough even picking 25 this time around. All the towns here have one thing in common: I could move into any of them tomorrow.
Pronounced like the much-better-known Morristown, Mauricetown, in Cumberland County, is a world, and then some, from the Morris County town. Part of Commercial Township, Mauricetown is one of many Cumberland County towns with a rich searfaring history; it was home to many sea captains in the 1800s. Today it’s a tranquil place along the Maurice River and a great jumping-off point to Bivalve and the rest of New Jersey’s least-known county. The Mauricetown Historical Society is open the first and third Sundays of each month.
Stillwater Township, population about 4,200, comprises three villages: Middleville, Swartswood and Stillwater, the latter home of the Stillwater General Store, in photo. George Dallas Garris used his mustering-out pay from the Civil War to open the store in 1871, across the street from where it is today. The store’s latest owner, Dean Voris, has renovated the building, which will now be called the Geo. D. Garris General Store. The store and village are an evocative slice of rural Americana in the nation’s most densely populated state. And New Jersey is rich with general stores.
23. Island Heights
It’s the Jersey Shore town many have never heard of, much less visited. Minutes from frenetic Seaside Heights and tucked along the Toms River almost as an afterthought, Island Heights was formed, like Ocean Grove, as a religious camp meeting/summer resort in the late 1800s. The Pennsylvania Railroad once ran through town, but today the loudest noise you’ll hear is probably your own breathing. There’s no public beach, no boardwalk, no rides, just peace and quiet. Must-stops: the Corner Deli, Playa Bowls, and the Cottage Museum.
22. Atlantic Highlands
Bayfront setting, vibrant restaurant and cafe scene, one of the state’s best breweries (Carton), ferry to New York City: what more could you want? Atlantic Highlands, not to be confused with next-door-neighbor Highlands, is an architectural treasure house, with Victorian, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival and other homes. Take a guided walk starting at the Strauss Mansion through the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. Must-stop: the Flaky Tart dessert/pastry shop. Another: Mount Mitchill, the highest natural elevation on the Atlantic Seaboard.
21. Glen Rock
Not one but two New Jersey Transit lines run right through town, the castle/chalet-like Starbucks is one of the kitschiest anywhere, and businesses include a vacuum repair shop, a tarot card reader, a clock shop, several pizzerias (try the margherita at John’s Boy Pizzeria) and a cheesecake store (Marc’s). Oh, and there’s a giant boulder in the middle of town. It’s Pamachapuka, the “Stone from Heaven” where an Indian Council site once stood and from which the town took its name in 1894. Bergen County is the state’s most populous, but it’s a small town haven; 50 of its 70 municipalities have populations under 15,000.
20. Barnegat Light
Having one of the state’s great classic diners (Mustache Bill’s, shown here) might have been enough to put Barnegat Light on this list. When you add the state’s best-known lighthouse (Barnegat Light, known as Old Barney) and an atmospheric, end-of-the-road feel (it’s the northernmost community on Long Beach Island), it’s a small-town slam dunk. Take one of the summertime dock tours at Viking Village and enjoy seafood platters and sandwiches at Viking Fresh off The Hook.
My favorite Mercer County town, Hopewell exudes history, tradition, gentility, and small-town charm. Churches, restaurants, banks and markets line the picturesque main street; Brick Farm Market is a popular spot for breakfast and lunch. Stop at Nomad Pizza for excellent Neapolitan-style pizza, and at tiny Troon Brewing for beer-to-go (there is no tasting room).
This Atlantic County town is slowly getting on the tourist radar, with a diverse mix of restaurants – pizzerias, Mexican restaurants, wine bar, cafes and more. Penza’s Pies at The Red Barn makes delicious, fruit-loaded pies. Pick your own blueberries at DeMeo Farms or Blueberry Bill Farms; Hammonton is, after all, “the blueberry capital of the world.”
17. Ocean Grove
There is no Jersey town quite like Ocean Grove. Oceanfront setting, charming main street (Main Avenue), cute shops, ample restaurants, maybe the state’s most splendid structure (the Great Auditorium). And did we mention the 100 or so tents residents call home in the summer (rules: no barbecues, no dogs, and definitely no loud music). Ocean Grove, part of Neptune Township, is a dry town, but you can have beer or wine on your tent porch, as long as it’s in a cup (no cans or glasses allowed). They don’t make towns like this anymore.
It’s not easy for a town to be in three counties at once, but Pottersville is part of Bedminister in Somerset County; Tewksbury in Hunterdon and Washington Township in Morris. The Lamington River runs through this sleepy hamlet, home to the LifeCamp, which provides summer day camp experience to 300 Newark-area kids every July and August.
15. Port Republic
Thousands of people drive past picture-postcard Port Republic every year without realizing it; it’s to your left as you cross the Mullica River southbound on the Garden State Parkway around milepost 50. There’s a boatyard, a pleasant town park with gazebo, and a collection of modest homes. Port Republic is a city in name only; a mere 1,000-some lucky souls live here. Atlantic City is minutes and another planet away.
The Camden County town has become a popular destination in recent years, and you can thank the Mob — in part, anyway. Angelo Lutz, former Merlino family associate, runs the Kitchen Consigliere, an Italian restaurant in the center of town. The commercial strip is the longest of any town on this list, with a heady mix of hip and old-school shops, stores and restaurants. Try the Ecuadorian dishes, and organic fruit tea, at El Sitio, orthe excellent Italian fare at Zeppoli. Sample the 50 kinds of olive oil at Blue Moon or dig the retro cool at The Pop Shop. The Painted Cottage, down an alley, specializes in vintage painted furniture. The fabulous Scottish Rite Auditorium is also in town.
“The Pearl of the Bayshore” gains more luster every year, with its unstuffy, blue-collar atmosphere, waterfront setting, and an eclectic mix of eateries: Broad Street Diner, winner of our N.J.’s best diner showdown; Drew’s Bayshore Bistro, whose owner/chef, Drew Araneo, won best chef in the first Garden State Culinary Arts Awards; Mike’s Giant Sized Submarine Sandwiches and local landmark Keyport Fishery. Bring that sub or seafood to the waterfront, pull up a bench, and enjoy the view.
12. Walpack Center
No one lives in Walpack Center (about 20 people live in Walpack Township, of which it is part), but that’s exactly its charm. It’s the prettiest town no one lives in that you’ll ever visit, a haunting reminder of the ill-fated Tocks Island project, when the government spent $100 million to buy homes in the area, evicting 8,000 people, for a dam that was never built. The National Park Service now owns all the buildings in Walpack Center except the school, which serves as town hall. The only building open on a regular basis is the local museum. Two miles away is beautiful Buttermilk Falls. The town that time forgot is well worth a visit any time of year.
No county boasts more picturesque small towns than Hunterdon – Stockton, Clinton, Flemington and Lambertville are just several on a long list. Frenchtown, where the Delaware & Raritan Canal starts – or ends – (you can bike or walk all the way to Trenton), is dotted with charming shops and restaurants – the Frenchtown Cafe, the Bridge Cafe, Cocina Del Sol among them. Work off any extra calories by a brisk walk across the bridge over the Delaware River.
10. Bordentown City
Overlooked, underpublicized; one of these days the rest of the state will become acquainted with Bordentown City (not to be confused with Bordentown Township). A stately old bank turned into a pizzeria (The Vault, above). A restaurant with killer burgers (Oliver A Bistro). An excellent Italian restaurant (Toscano). Marcello’s, for more pizza. And that’s just the food. Take a pleasant stroll down historic Farnsworth Avenue. One must-stop: Randy Now’s Man Cave, with its head-spinning collection of CDs, records and pop culture artifacts.
Boonton is a vibrant, All-American small town, the kind made for 4th of July parades and assorted celebrations (Boonton marks its 150th anniversary this year from Sept. 22-24). The restaurant mix includes Thai, Mexican, Italian, Jamaican and Japanese, and don’t forget the incomparable Johnnies Tavern, one of the state’s great dive bars.
8. West Cape May
No, not Cape May, but sleepy West Cape May, where 1,020 people live at the end of Jersey. Drive down Sunset Boulevard, past the Chattel House Village series of shops (Exit Zero Magazine, The Bird House), past the Nature Conservancy’s South Cape Meadows (weekly guided bird walks) to Sunset Beach in Lower, home of an evening flag-lowering ceremony and the state’s spookiest attraction – the concrete ship Atlantus, which sank in 1926. Just down the road: The Bread Lady — Elizabeth Degener — and her Enfin Farms roadside stand on Sunset Boulevard. One more stop: Willow Creek Winery.
7. Spring Lake
Home to the Jersey Shore’s longest non-commercial boardwalk, this seaside town features one of the Shore’s liveliest commercial strips — 3rd Avenue – and aptly-named Divine Park (shown here), which wraps around Spring Lake. The grand Essex and Sussex Hotel, now condominiums, is the main landmark on the oceanfront strand. Must-stops: Third Avenue Chocolate Shoppe and the Scone Pony, one of my favorite bakeries Down the Shore.
It feels like Mercer County, but this idyllic town is actually in Monmouth County. A total of 220 homes and buildings date to pre-1860. Start at the bridge over Conines Millpond, and walk down one of the state’s more charming Main Streets. The local library is in a former church, and Heavenly Havens Creamery (with Swal Dairy ice cream) and Woody’s Towne Cafe are popular hangouts. And Route 539, which runs right through Allentown, is one of the state’s great scenic drives. If you do nothing else in town, take the path leading to Heritage Park — no ballfields, no buildings, just a great open space with a path made for walks, exercise or reflection.
Turn off the cookie-cutter stretch of Route 206 onto Main Street Chester and its picturesque array of shops and restaurants. One sweet stop: Taylor’s Ice Cream Parlor, with its white benches. Pick up homemade soup, or lemonade with fresh basil and strawberry, at Maria’s. imagiNations is a cool gift shop with items from around the world.
I once lived above Joan’s Jewelry Box here, but that’s not why Clinton is on the list. A river – the south branch of the Raritan River — runs through it, and the Red Mill Museum (in photo) might be the most popular Jersey postcard scene ever. The town boasts Jersey’s most compact Main Street, with most of the shops and restaurants gathered on one block. Grab a sandwich at Ye Old Sub Base, a cone at JJ Scoops, or a riverfront table at The Clean Plate Kitchen. The town is a great gateway to the rest of beautiful Hunterdon County.
You’ve got to love a town with weekly porch parties. It’s a tradition in this Middlesex County town, where residents take turns hosting parties at their homes. Cranbury, one of the state’s best-preserved 19th century villages, scarcely seems to have changed, with its tree-lined Main Street and well-maintained homes. Teddy’s Restaurant, open since 1973, is where the locals eat, and a cone at Gil & Bert’s Ice Cream is a summer night tradition. One other thing to love about this town: no parking meters.
Nearby Collingswood is the It Destination, but I like Haddonfield more. It’s more tranquil, more historic-looking, and what other town has a dinosaur downtown? That’s Hadrosaurus foulkii, which was the most complete dinosaur skeleton unearthed anywhere in the world when it was discovered in 1858. The Indian King Tavern Museum marks the site where New Jersey became a state and the great seal of the state was adopted. The English Gardener Gift Shop was voted one of top three British shops in the U.S., and you can take afternoon tea at the Picket Fence. Excellent cupcakes at Indulgence Cupcakery; restaurants include the Apron; The Little Tuna, and Zaffron (Mediterranean).
Great riverfront setting, lively arts community, loads of shops, an eclectic mix of restaurants, and a funky sister city (New Hope) a state, and a short walk, away. Hunterdon County is packed with scenic small towns, but none offer quite the complete package as Lambertville. The state’s most unique bar, The Boat House, is here. For great pizza, Liberty Hall. Steps away is oWowCow Creamery, winner of our N.J.’s best ice cream showdown. For Middle Eastern food, try Marhaba. Route 29, which winds along the Delaware River, is one of the state’s great drives; a stop at Washington Crossing State Park, just south of Lambertville, is a must. Lambertville was incorporated as a city in 1849, but in today’s real world it’s very much a small town.
More photos posted here: Reposted from NJ.com