New Jersey is the nation’s most densely populated state. And somehow, it’s a state teeming with small towns — New Jersey’s least-publicized asset.
Which make for the perfect spring road trip, especially at a time when we want and need to get out of the house and get some fresh air.
There’s no better time for a weekend getaway than now — good weather, less crowds, little traffic. The small towns on this 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 (socially distanced) day trips or weekend getaways, these towns are packed with history, tradition, charm and congeniality.
Definitions of “small town” vary — all my towns, with one exception, have populations under 15,000. So you won’t see such worthy places as Westfield, Cranford and Ridgewood on this list. Some of these towns, such as Ocean Grove and Crosswicks, are sections of municipalities.
This is an expansion of a list I first did in 2015, when I picked 10 towns, and 2017, when I picked 25 towns. Quite a few towns on the 2017 list moved up, moved down or fell off the list. This, after all, is a ranking, and thus subject to re-evaluation. Again, this is not a ranking of the best downtowns, but the best small towns to live in. All the towns here have one thing in common: I could move into any of them tomorrow.
32. StillwaterStillwater Township, population 4,200, comprises three villages: Middleville, Swartswood and Stillwater, the latter the home of the Stillwater General Store. George Dallas Garris used his mustering-out pay from the Civil War to open the store in 1871, across the street from where it sits 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.
31. 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.
30. Atlantic HighlandsBayfront 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 and Colonial Revival homes. Take a guided walk starting at the Strauss Mansion through the Atlantic Highlands Historical Society. Must-stop: Mount Mitchill, the highest natural elevation on the Atlantic Seaboard.
Maywood claims the best shopping district in Bergen County, and “a small town feel that you just can’t find anywhere else” in the state’s most populous county. I won’t disagree. Pleasant Avenue is home to several personal favorites — Uncle Paulie’s, a Peruvian restaurant, and Seafood Gourmet. Maywood was incorporated as a borough on June 30, 1894 at the height of the Boroughitis phenomenon then sweeping through Bergen County and the United States.
This Atlantic County town is slowly getting on the tourist radar, with a diverse mix of restaurants — pizzerias, Mexican restaurants, wine bar and cafes. 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.”
Sparta, formed in 1845 from portions of Byram, Hardyston, Frankford and since-defunct Newton Township, is known for its private lake communities — 11 in all. Man-made Lake Mohawk, with its meandering boardwalk and Alpine-style buildings, is a big draw. Sussex County’s best bakery, Cafe Pierrot, can be found in Sparta, along with Andre’s Lakeside Dining, Krogh’s Restaurant & Brew Pub, Tanti Baci and the Mohawk House.
Quick, name the Warren County seat. No, not Phillipsburg. Nope, not Hackettstown. Tiny Belvidere, where the Delaware and Pequest rivers meet. Incorporated in 1845, Belvidere boasts a 19th century historic district, alone worth the visit. Thisilldous Eatery, open nearly 40 years, is a locals hangout. Departing staff get the traditional pie-in-the-face. The highlight of the town’s social calendar: Victorian Days, normally held in early September.
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 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.
18. Walpack Center
No one lives in Walpack Center (about 10 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 (although not currently due to COVID-19) 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.
Pitman, like Ocean Grove, was founded as a summer religious camp. It was named after the Rev. Charles Pitman. The community, according to Barbara Westergaard in the indispensable New Jersey A Guide to the State, was laid out in the shape of a wheel, with an auditorium as the hub, and 160 small cottages radiating from the center. Today, Pitman is a lively little town, with Broadway the main drag and the Broadway Theatre, built in the early 1920s, a retro wonder. There are two craft breweries (Kelly Green and Human Village), a first-rate ice cream shop (Alaura Kitchen); an excellent pizzeria (Mannino’s); Nine Thai, replacing Thai Burger Cafe; and a creme puff shop (Chloe’s Creme Puffs).
Crosswicks claims to be the birthplace of Taylor pork roll — John Taylor, a descendant of Crosswicks settlers, made his soon-to-be-famous ham for a local market — but that’s not why it’s on this list. The village, part of Chesterfield Township, is a charming step back in time, with 100 or so historic houses and buildings. Check out the cannonball, fired during a battle with Hessian troops in 1778, still embedded in the wall of the Crosswicks Friends Meeting. The town library is in the former fire department, and the Crosswicks Inn, which opened as a tavern in 1681, is now a pizzeria (and a good one, Osteria Procaccini).
9. 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, also in Lower: The Bread Lady — Elizabeth Degener — and her Enfin Farms roadside stand on Sunset Boulevard. One more stop: Willow Creek Winery.
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 (re-opens April 9) is a summer night tradition. One other thing to love about this town: no parking meters.
This article originally appeared on NJ.com. written & contributed By Peter Genovese
Written, Compiled & Edited by
The Bergen Review Media Team