As one of the most densely-populated states in the USA, New Jersey might not be the first place that springs to mind when thinking of quintessential small town America. Yet in spite of popular perception, the Garden State is brimming with charming communities just waiting to be explored. From coastal Cape May, America’s oldest seaside resort, to the Norman Rockwell-esque town of Clinton, we visit New Jersey’s 10 most beautiful towns.
America’s oldest seaside resort, Cape May is a haven of Victorian charm, family-friendly fun and cultural goings-on. The town’s picture-perfect streets and shoreline are populated with original Victorian architecture – brightly colored houses known as ‘painted ladies.’ Thanks to Cape May’s dedicated preservation of its rich history, the whole town was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Alongside its eclectic dining scene and boutique stores, Cape May is also home to a lively cultural scene and boasts two theater companies and a number of annual festivals, including the famous 26-year-old Cape May Music Festival.
Nestled on the banks of the Delaware River on the border of Pennsylvania is the lovely town of Lambertville. First settled in the early 18th century, Lambertville’s beautifully preserved Victorian houses and federal-style townhouses are now home to quaint antique stores – earning the town the nickname of ‘Antiques Capital of New Jersey’ – and cute cafés. Lambertville’s many art galleries and annual arts and crafts festival, ShadFest, have made the town a haven for the arty, creative set. Foodies will love Lambertville too: alongside eclectic restaurants, Lambertville also hosts an annual food fair and restaurant week in cooperation with the neighboring Pennsylvanian town of New Hope.
Despite the massive urban sprawl of Philadelphia just a few miles east, pretty Collingswood has managed to retain its small town charm – in fact, it is listed among the Classic Towns of Greater Philadelphia, a local initiative celebrating unique communities with rich histories and a high quality of life. Collingswood’s pretty downtown is home to fashion boutiques, first-rate restaurants and Second Saturday – a monthly, year-round event dedicated to art and music – and the town also hosts the Collingswood Farmers’ Market featuring the best produce from across the Garden State from May through Thanksgiving.
Not to be confused with the Pennsylvania town of the same name immortalized in a Bruce Springsteen song, New Jersey’s Allentown is a historic village first settled in the 17th century. Nestled around a millpond, the picturesque village is home to many historic buildings – in fact, its designated Historic District houses 220 homes constructed before 1860. While Allentown night be small, there’s still plenty to do – check out The Old Mill where you’ll find specialty craft shops, a restaurant and an art gallery.
While the Jersey Shore might be more associated with the gaudy excesses of Atlantic City, some towns – such as historic Spring Lake – offer an altogether more refined seaside getaway. Hailed as the ‘Jewel of the Jersey Shore,’ Spring Lake rose to prominence in the late 19th century when wealthy New Yorkers and Philadelphians flocked to spend their summers there, and many of its historic inns still stand today. Downtown Spring Lake boasts boutique shopping and eclectic eateries serving everything from casual grub to fine dining fare. Perhaps best of all, its scenic, uncrowded boardwalk is just a pleasant amble away.
Picture-perfect Clinton is like a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Nestled on the banks of the Raritan River, the historic mill town’s Victorian charm and gorgeous downtown district have made it a favorite New Jersey destination for many years. Its most iconic landmark is the Red Mill – a wool processing mill dating back to 1810 and now home to a museum village and over 40,000 historic artifacts. Yet Clinton isn’t just a haven for history buffs, and there are plenty of locally-owned restaurants, cute boutiques and the contemporary art gallery, Hunterdon Art Museum.
Another of New Jersey’s scenic Delaware River towns, Frenchtown as it is today developed from the late 18th century when French-speaking Swiss fugitive Paul Henri Mallet-Prevost bought the land on which the town stands – hence the name Frenchtown. Today, Frenchtown is a noted New Jersey cultural destination with a small, quaint downtown district home to specialty shops, art galleries and several annual festivals including RiverFest and Bastille Day. For outdoorsy folk, the tow path running alongside the Delaware River is a great starting point for exploring the pretty river town.
Nestled amongst the gently rolling farmland of New Jersey’s Middlesex County, Cranbury’s roots date back to the late 17th century; the township is one of the state’s oldest settlements. It was during the 18th century that Cranbury started to expand, and several inns built during this time still stand – including the Cranbury Inn built in 1780. This feature established the township as an important rest stop between New York City and Philadelphia. Today, its rich history is beautifully preserved – almost all of the village is listed on the National Register of Historic Places – while the Brainerd Lake and Village Park are the setting for summer concerts.
Dubbed the Garden State’s Greenwich Village, Red Bank is a cosmopolitan riverside town brimming with art galleries, upscale boutiques and gourmet dining. Located on the Navesink River, Red Bank is known throughout the state as a premier arts destination. There’s plenty for culture vultures to feast on, from live rock music at the Count Basie Theatre to plays at the Two River Theater. Take a walk down bohemian Broad Street for shopping and sightseeing beautiful historic buildings, and look out for its lively cultural events including the town’s annual food and music extravaganza, the Red Bank Guinness Oyster Festival.
Boasting quaint, brick-lined streets and many historic buildings – including the Cooper Gristmill, a flour mill built on the Black River in 1780 – Chester is quintessential hometown America epitomized. Though its history is richly preserved, the picturesque town is by no means backward-looking – in recent years, Chester has earned a reputation as a quaint shopping destination, and is home to over 80 stores selling everything from antiques and art to jewelry and gourmet chocolates. Visit in May or September and you’ll find the Chester Craft Show, voted one of America’s best craft shows by Sunshine Artist Magazine.
By Helen Armitage