What do Meryl Streep, Judy Blume and Danny DeVito all have in common? How about “Ms. Marvel,” “Indiana Jones” and “The Sopranos”? Maybe that last one gave it away, but it’s hailing from the state of New Jersey. Often overshadowed by nearby New York City or Philadelphia, New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state in the U.S., but has so much to offer, from the southern Pinelands and coastal nature preserves to the boardwalks along the shore or the bustling city life of North Jersey. The late chef and author Anthony Bourdain once proclaimed, “To know Jersey is to love her,” and people know the state has a lot to offer; it’s the most densely populated in the country. Even with so many positive attributes, New Jersey is often misunderstood.
Beyond the industrial scenery of the turnpike, New Jersey invites you to wander the streets of Frank Sinatra’s home turf one day and explore a working farm the next. You can visit the site where seven Nobel prize winners changed the course of telecommunication to do a little yoga or sip a Negroni. Ethnically diverse, Jersey boasts some of the best pizza and Portuguese food in the country. And whether you’re exploring a world-class museum or skiing in a massive indoor mall, you can always end the day at one of New Jersey’s famous diners. From historic sites to the world’s tallest roller coaster, here are the top things to see and do in the state.
Greetings from Asbury Park
A seaside resort destination in the ’20s — not dissimilar from Atlantic City — Asbury Park gained further notoriety in 1973 with the debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” by young singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. In the decades since, Asbury has regained its welcoming appeal and solidified its motto of being “Where Music Lives.” While many clubs have been demolished or transformed, The Stone Pony remains a major music venue attracting headlining acts to its annual Summer Stage events. Nearby is the Silverball Museum, which is a retro arcade that will entertain and amaze you with vintage pinball machine play all day for $20. There is also mini-golf and a classic boardwalk lemonade stand alongside Mogo’s Korean Fusion Tacos and Coney Waffle’s sugar coma-inducing ice cream and milkshakes. Don’t miss the must-photograph Wooden Walls murals along either ends of the boardwalk and throughout the town.
Beyond the boardwalk, Asbury hosts a bourgeoning restaurant and bar scene, from British to Creole. The shops, antique emporiums and art galleries are well worth an afternoon along Cookman Avenue. For something different, book a ghost tour with Paranormal Books and Curiosities.
Cape May, also known as Exit 0 by locals (its exit number at the end of the Garden State Parkway), is a Victorian-style coastal gem, but also much more than meets the eye. A hoppin’ brewery scene (no pun intended) is complemented by wineries and the Nauti Spirits Distillery. It would be batty to not consider brunch at the Mad Batter Restaurant & Bar in the stunning Carroll Villa Hotel, and equally as baffling to not watch the sunset over the beach with the Cape May Lighthouse in the background. The rainbow of Victorian hotels, cottages and mansions are prim, but the nature is wild; a quick visit to the South Cape May Meadows nature conservancy — a shelter for native and migratory birds with walkable trails — will prove that. Meanwhile, the Harriet Tubman Museum of New Jersey, opened in 2020, is an emotional education about Tubman (a one-time Cape May resident) and the broader Black community in Cape May. Consider a stay — or at least a drink — at the historic Congress Hall, known as America’s first seaside resort, with an original opening in 1816.
Admire the architecture and amusements of the Wildwoods
More than just a Jersey Shore resort town, the Wildwoods is also known as the Doo Wop Capital of the World thanks to its Doo Wop-style architecture, characterized by its bright colors, bold angular shapes, Space Age style and heavy rock ‘n’ roll influence of the ’50s and ’60s. Admire the candy-colored homes, neon signs and the vintage ambiance of its sweets shops and diners. More than 100 rides and amusements give Wildwood a wholesome boardwalk feel, and free beaches make a family getaway to South Jersey a no-brainer. Among its free museums and cultural sites is the National Marbles Hall of Fame; Wildwood has been home to the National Marbles Tournament for 100 years.
Visit Ellis Island
While most credit New York as the home of the Statue of Liberty, the landmark’s exact location on Liberty State Park is a contentious debate; the island where the statue lives is in the Hudson River smack between Jersey City and Manhattan. What’s more, Ellis Island is duly listed as part of a national monument in both New York and New Jersey. Therefore, we are claiming an experience here as a New Jersey must-see. Not only are there incredible views across the Hudson River from the park, but the impact of the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island continues to be felt today. There is no fee to visit the grounds of Liberty Island or the Ellis Island Museum, but you must pay for a ferry over. The official ferry partner of the National Park Service is Statue City Cruises. It’s recommended that you book in advance of your visit. Audio tours are included and ranger-led tours are free, though a visit to the Statue of Liberty pedestal is additional; access to the crown is currently closed.
Address: 1 Audrey Zapp Drive, Jersey City, NJ 07305
Just across the Delaware River from the Liberty Bell are 15,000 aquatic species. No, they’re not in the river, but along the Camden Waterfront at the Adventure Aquarium. In addition to the fish, this aquarium is home to penguins and turtles, and is the only aquarium in the world to have hippos on exhibit. If you dare, cross the Shark Bridge, an 81-foot-long suspended bridge inches above a 550,000-gallon shark tank featuring nurse sharks, sand tigers and more. As thrilling as it all sounds, many reviewers have mentioned that the Adventure Aquarium is primarily geared toward young children. According to recent visitors, the aquarium offers easy parking and a friendly staff. What’s more, thanks to the reservation system, it doesn’t feel crowded. For many visitors, the hippos were the main highlight, and reviewers highly recommended being at the aquarium at feeding time.
Address: 1 Riverside Drive, Camden, NJ 08103
Satisfy nearly any craving in the “diner capital of the world”
Diners are a staple of both New Jersey and New York. As the self-proclaimed world diner capital, Jersey has hundreds of these often family-owned — often Greek-owned — institutions, and many are open 24 hours a day serving up comfort food and fresh pies (although COVID-19 has indeed impacted openings and hours). A defining feature of diners’ encyclopedia-like menus is breakfast served all day, which means celebratory waffles after the big game or middle-of-the-night pancakes if you can’t sleep. Many diners are attention-grabbing metallic structures with their own retro decor; the Summit Diner opened at its current location in the late 1930s and while it resembles a tin can, it’s considered one of the oldest operating diners in the state. Try the world-famous burgers at White Manna Diner in Hackensack.
Ride the tallest roller coaster in the world at Six Flags Great Adventure
Kingda Ka is 456 feet high and rises at a 90-degree angle; it remains the tallest roller coaster in the world and the fastest in North America. You’ll find it at Six Flags Great Adventure theme park in Jackson, New Jersey. To propel thrill-seeking riders to the top, they are thrust from 0 to 128 mph in less than 4 seconds. This record-breaking ride is not for the faint of heart, but those on the hunt for something more tame will have plenty of options thanks to the park’s variety of family- and kid-friendly rides. If you’re visiting during the humid heat of summer, consider spending some time at the adjacent Hurricane Harbor water park, which boasts rides, slides, lazy rivers and more. A one-day ticket to Six Flags Great Adventure starts at $40 per person, not including admission to Hurricane Harbor.
Address: 1 Six Flags Blvd., Jackson, NJ 08527
If you’ve ever noticed how interested some little kids are in utility vehicles, then you might understand an entire kid-friendly amusement park themed around construction. Located in West Berlin, just 20 miles south of Philadelphia, Diggerland is the only theme and water park of its kind in the country. Among its attractions is the chance — for kids and adults — to operate heavy machinery (with supervision). There are tractors, dump trucks — you name it. Recent visitors report that their kids enjoyed themselves, noting the water slide as well as the opportunity to “drive” the many machines as highlights. Day passes start at about $50 per person.
Address: 100 Pinedge Drive, West Berlin, NJ 08091
See the stunning cherry blossoms of Newark
Did you know that Newark, New Jersey, has more cherry blossom trees than Washington, D.C.? Each April, more than 5,000 Japanese cherry blossom trees bloom throughout Branch Brook Park, which runs through Belleville and Newark, ushering in the Essex County Cherry Blossom Festival along with its 10K run and bike race. A week of events includes live music, food and craft vendors, activities for kids of all ages and Japanese cultural demonstrations. The dates vary each year based on when the trees bloom, so check the Branch Brook Park website for details.
Dating back to 1766, Batsto is a remarkably intact historic village in South Jersey. Visitors to this special place in Hammonton will find 30 preserved buildings, from a stunning mansion to a post office and a general store. During the Revolutionary War, Batsto Iron Works manufactured supplies for the Continental Army, and residents continued to inhabit the village all the way until 1989. Located within Wharton State Forest, Batsto also offers scenic hiking trails through this region known as the Pinelands. Visitors have commented that they were delighted to find this landmark in the middle of the forest, noting they felt the peace, beauty and history of the location — especially in mid-May when the tulips are in full bloom. Tours are conducted on the hour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. from Wednesday to Sunday, for $3 per person ($1 for kids ages 6 to 11; 5 and younger can tour for free). Tours fill quickly and are limited to 10 people.
Address: 31 Batsto Road, Hammonton, NJ 08037
Thomas Edison National Historical Park
According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, New Jersey is home to more engineers and scientists per square mile than anywhere else in the United States. That statistic is even less surprising when you consider the state’s history of landmark thinkers and inventors — namely, Thomas Edison. Edison’s former home and laboratory are now a designated national historic park located in West Orange and are open to the public for tours. Apart from the lightbulb, of course, Edison had a recording studio here and even created a handful of talking dolls. According to recent visitors, the studios and workshops at the lab are in shockingly good condition given their age. If that’s not impressive enough, a replica of the world’s first motion picture studio from 1893 — known as “Black Maria” — is still here on the grounds. Just down the road is Glenmont, Edison’s Victorian home shared with his wife Mina, which of course had all the modern conveniences well before its time, from hot and cold running water to central heating and refrigeration.
Address: 211 Main St., West Orange, NJ 07052
Take a Frank Sinatra walking tour in Hoboken
One of New Jersey’s most famous native sons is Hoboken’s own Frank Sinatra. See Sinatra’s hometown through his Ol’ Blue Eyes with a self-guided walking tour. The Hoboken Historical Museum created the ultimate walking tour map, available online to download. With more than 20 stops covering Sinatra’s favorite hangouts, family bakery and even the church where he was baptized, it covers a good amount of mileage around this city situated just outside the Holland Tunnel. Nearby, the Hoboken River Waterfront Walkway runs for 18.5 miles along the scenic Hudson River and crosses through Hudson and Bergen counties.
Visit the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in the country
At the tip of the Gateway National Recreation Area peninsula in Highlands is the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, which predates the Declaration of Independence. This octagonal lighthouse has overlooked the Sandy Hook Bay and across to Manhattan since 1764. The lighthouse is currently closed to the public, but check the website for ranger-led tours during weekends year-round. On the grounds of the former Fort Hancock, the lighthouse is not the only attraction to visit in the Sandy Hook area, which also boasts abundant wildlife, 300 species of birds, biking and hiking trails, historic barracks and unbeatable views of the New York City skyline. The national park is free to enter, but costs $20 per vehicle to park from Memorial Day through Labor Day. This also covers the cost to spend a beautiful, serene beach day — or go bold at Gunnison, New Jersey’s only legal nude beach.
Address: 128 South Hartshorne Drive, Highlands, NJ 07732
Grounds For Sculpture
You might just hear a peacock call as you wander the 42 acres of trees, flowers and at times deceivingly realistic sculptures found in Hamilton Township. Grounds For Sculpture is the passion project of sculptor, philanthropist and grandson to the co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, Seward Johnson. Born in New Brunswick in 1930, Johnson traveled the world and studied art, creating uncanny lifelike depictions of people, especially plucked from famous painted scenes like Renoir’s “Dance at Bougival.” He is notable for his larger-than-life traveling works, such as the 25-foot-tall Embracing Peace sculpture that now resides in Key West, Florida, where Johnson passed in 2020. Visitors to Grounds For Sculpture will be dazzled discovering the art by day, or on a special night tour. Rat’s, the sculpture garden’s fine dining venue with an unconventional name (inspired by a character in the children’s book “The Wind in the Willows”), is consistently a top-rated restaurant.
Address: 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton, NJ 08619
Wander the ivy-covered campus of Princeton University
There is so much more to do in Princeton than study, which is why it’s maybe more fun to be a visitor to this ivy-cloaked university town than a student. Apart from the high-end shops and delicious crepes, Princeton University remains at the heart of this community and is the fourth-oldest college in the country. The campus grounds are open to the public, and we not only highly recommend a stroll, but a self-guided tour. Nassau Hall is hard to miss — directly behind the grand iron gates on Nassau Street; it featured prominently in the American Revolution. F. Scott Fitzgerald used to slack off at the dining halls. Albert Einstein never wanted a museum in any form, but you can still see his former home (from the road) at 112 Mercer Street. Faculty members have included famed authors Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. It’s the alma mater of two former presidents (James Madison and Woodrow Wilson). But beyond all that, the university is gorgeous, especially in the fall when the autumnal colors only enhance its grandiose beauty. Try unconventional ice cream flavors from Bent Spoon, a popular organic ice cream shop on campus, any time of year. And if you are in town in December, consider hopping on the Princeton Holiday Trolley Tour to learn more about the city’s architecture, noteworthy Princetonians and more. The hourlong trolley tour is popular with visitors and residents alike. The $25 ticket also includes a host of discounts at Princeton restaurants and shops.
Address: Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544
Atlantic City, or “AC” as it’s commonly referred to, is still a popular weekend escape for its casinos and shows, but no longer the high-society promenade that “Boardwalk Empire” portrayed on HBO. Still, the inspiration for the original Monopoly board is worth passing “Go” to take a stroll along the world’s first and longest boardwalk. Check out a show at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa or the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City, come for Atlantic City’s Restaurant Week in October or simply spend a day at the beach — access is free here, unlike many other beaches across the state. Lesser known is AC’s African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, which showcases a permanent collection of historic artifacts, as well as rotating exhibits featuring modern Black artists.
Lucy the Elephant
Five miles west of Atlantic City in Margate City is a six-story elephant that’s nearly 150 years old. Lucy the Elephant was constructed in 1881 by a Philadelphia contractor, but it was James V. Lafferty Jr. who conceived the eclectic elephant with an interior, and he received a patent for the design. In the early 20th century, visitors were charged 10 cents to climb the spiral staircase and witness the furnished interior, along with ocean views from 22 windows. Among notable visitors was President Woodrow Wilson. Lucy has seen many iterations over the decades, but is the only one of her siblings still standing (there were two others like Lucy; one pachyderm was located in Coney Island, but destroyed in a fire). Funds were raised for important restorative work on Lucy the Elephant, and she is expected to reopen to the public for the 2022 summer season, however scaffolding may remain until August or September 2022.
Address: 9200 Atlantic Ave., Margate City, NJ 08402
High Point State Park
Did you know that the Appalachian Trail, the longest marked hiking trail in the nation, runs through New Jersey for 74 miles? You can pick it up in northern New Jersey and High Point State Park is one of its trailheads. At the highest point in the state — 1,803 feet above sea level — is the High Point Monument, dedicated to New Jersey’s veterans and offering expansive and impressive views of the Catskills and Pocono Mountains from its height of 220 feet. Access is weather-related and roads might be closed due to wintry weather. The interior of the monument and its 291 steps is available to climb on weekends and holidays from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.
Address: 1480 State Route 23, Wantage, NJ 07461
Lakota Wolf Preserve
“Jersey” and “wolves” are two words not commonly associated with each other. But a preserve in Columbia looking to protect this endangered species in a natural setting is working to change that perception. Participate in a Wolf Watch Tour through the Lakota Wolf Preserve, which welcomes guests to learn about its resident wolf packs through observation, photography and education. The observation area at the center of the preserve is a scenic half-mile nature walk, or a shuttle bus is available to drive you. Reservations must be made online, are rain or shine, and cost $15 for adults and $7 for children 11 and younger. (Reservations can book up to three months in advance, so reserve early.) Foxes, a bobcat, and a lynx also live on the property — it’s truly a wild side of New Jersey that not many get to experience.
Address: 89 Mount Pleasant Road, Columbia, NJ 07832
Witness the American Dream
Surfing, skiing and an autograph from SpongeBob SquarePants; it’s possible all in one day at the $5 billion American Dream Mall in East Rutherford. Second only to the Mall of America in Minneapolis, New Jersey’s 3-million-square-foot mall houses enough activities and amusements to fill an entire vacation, including the Nickelodeon Universe, the largest indoor theme park in the Western Hemisphere. If your kid can dream it, it’s here: an ice rink, a ski slope and wave pool; a Legoland Discovery Center; Angry Birds mini golf; or the largest indoor water park in North America, themed after DreamWorks characters. Of course, there is shopping at hundreds of stores. And when you need to refuel, you’ll find fast food favorites alongside artisan cotton candy and an Oreo Café. Note that each attraction within the mall requires a separate ticket. However, discounts and ticket bundles are available seasonally.
Address: 1 American Dream Way, East Rutherford, NJ 07073
Bike the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park
The Delaware and Raritan Canal was once an important industrial throughway between New York and Pennsylvania. Now, it makes for a lovely bike or hiking path, especially in the autumn when the foliage is turning. Visitors have 70 miles to explore that stretch from New Brunswick to Trenton, and its 19th-century wooden bridges, lock remnants and cobblestone spillways complement the natural scenery with historic appeal. Frenchtown and Lambertville are particularly charming villages along this part of New Jersey. Each Dec. 25, reenactors play out George Washington crossing the Delaware River. If you’re not valiant enough to brave the Christmas cold, Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville is a lovely stop any time of year, offering views and recreation.
Attend a New York Red Bulls game
New Jerseyans are used to New York taking credit for their sports teams: the New York Giants, the Brooklyn Nets — the list goes on. And so even though the soccer club known as the Red Bulls represents New York, their stadium — and many of their fans — are in New Jersey. Take the train straight to Harrison station and you will be at Red Bull Arena. As part of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference, the Red Bulls play games late February through October. Single match tickets start at around $25 per person.
Address: 600 Cape May St., Harrison, NJ 07029
Museum of American Glass
With more than 20,000 pieces, the Museum of American Glass, located in Millville, is an homage to craftsmanship and the art of glassblowing. The museum is located on the grounds of the WheatonArts and Cultural Center, where the public can visit from April through December for demos, workshops and special exhibits. Access to the grounds is $12 for general admission. For an immersive experience, check the museum’s website to see if a “make-your-own” workshop is available during your visit. Alexander Rosenberg, star in the Netflix competition series “Blown Away,” is the resident Glass Studio Director.
Address: 1000 Village Drive, Millville, NJ 08332
Find out why it’s called the Garden State
Many might question New Jersey’s Garden State nickname when they traverse the industrial turnpike and eight lanes of parkway pavement. But the farms and fields that inspired the state’s nickname still exist. Alstede Farms in Chester is just one example of a working farm open to visitors. In addition to abundant offerings from its farm stand, Alstede operates a seasonal cider mill and ice cream counter. Visit July through October to wander through the Blooming Giants Sunflower Trail or opt for the evergreen tree maze. Whether you’re picking your own produce or petting a goat, a day at Alstede is a fun afternoon for the family and a great reminder of why New Jersey is still the Garden State.
Channel director Kevin Smith with some quick stops
Director Kevin Smith is proudly from Red Bank, New Jersey, and often incorporates the state into his work, especially in his landmark indie film “Clerks.” The convenience store from that film is a real, functioning location called Quick Stop, and can be found in Leonardo just about 7 miles from Red Bank. Next door, Smith has created a podcast studio and event space called SModCastle. If you’re looking for more nerdy movie magic, hit Jay & Silent Bob’s Secret Stash on Broad Street in Red Bank, an expanded comic book store with props and memorabilia celebrating its 25th year in 2022. Smith is often seen in town and around Highlands, where he grew up; look for the oversized jersey.
Trenton’s Punk Rock Flea Market
The state’s capital lies in Trenton, and a few times a year a bunch of punks take over — for a flea market. The Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market attracts both mohawks and memorabilia-pickers on the hunt for everything from vintage toys to taxidermy. Hosted at the CURE Insurance Arena, the flea market costs $15 at the door and offers about 300 unique vendors and a bevy of food trucks to pass a quirky afternoon. Here, the people-watching is arguably as good as the shopping.
Address: 81 Hamilton Ave., Trenton, NJ 08611
The Paterson Great Falls
Come to see the 77-foot-high waterfall — which has been known to freeze solid during harsh winters — but stay for the history about Paterson. The falls are a national historical park for good reason: In 1792 Paterson was established as the country’s first planned industrial city, and that city found its heart at the Great Falls and the Passaic River. Favored by Alexander Hamilton during its prime, Paterson is still home to a diverse mix of immigrant cultures. Mill tours, which offer information about the region’s many former industries, from textiles to trains, are available at the park.
Address: 72 McBride Ave., Patterson, NJ 07501
Island Beach State Park
This stretch of nearly 10 miles of shoreline is a special place between Barnegat Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Located in Berkeley Township, the marine protected area is home to a year-round population of foxes, as well as ospreys and other birds and wildlife. Surrounded by water and beach heather, Island Beach State Park is a scenic destination for a walk to the Barnegat Lighthouse or swimming in season; fishing is allowed with a permit. The park can get quite crowded during the summer months and rangers can determine it has “reached capacity” if all parking is being used. Arrive early and expect to pay a vehicle fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Address: 2401 Central Ave., Seaside Park, NJ 08752
Report to Bell Works
Now referred to as the “metroburb,” the former Bell Labs building in Holmdel Township hosts a busy schedule of comic conventions, yoga, dance, flower arranging, immersive gaming and a cute outdoor cocktail venue called Bar Bella, as well as offices and the town’s library — it’s a big space. Despite its imposing architecture, you still might never believe that it was once the site of groundbreaking and Nobel Prize-winning inventions like the laser and the transistor. Formerly one of the most successful corporate research labs in the world, you might recognize the exterior of Bell Works from the Apple TV show “Severance” about a dystopian workplace.
Address: 101 Crawfords Corner Road, Holmdel, NJ 07733
Visit a spoon museum in a castle
Yes, to both of those questions; New Jersey is home to one of the world’s largest spoon collections and also a castle, and they happen to be in the same place. Lambert Castle in Paterson was built within the Garret Mountain Reservation in 1892 by silk magnate Catholina Lambert. Within the halls displaying period exhibits and windows framing views of the Manhattan skyline, there are also lots and lots of spoons. The castle is home to just a fraction of former Paterson resident Bertha Schaefer Koempel’s collection of approximately 5,400 souvenir spoons. Lambert Castle has been undergoing significant renovations to restore the property, but is expected to reopen to the public in 2023.
Address: 3 Valley Road, Paterson, NJ 07503
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