Lined with some 130 miles of Atlantic coast, New Jersey – nicknamed the ‘Garden State’ owing to its rich agricultural heritage – is the only US state surrounded by water on three sides, making it a haven for those who enjoy the waterside lifestyle. A number of its small towns that sit by the water are popular with visitors, though many of them – for better or worse – remain off the tourism radar. Venture inland and the story is similar, with a diverse mix of towns, some remaining sedate and others bustling with activity.
In our article below we’ve picked out 12 New Jersey towns that emanate character and charm. With so many contenders to choose from, our task was tough, so we made our own criteria, including only picking towns with populations below 20,000. We also ensured our list included an assortment of beach towns and non-beach towns, to provide maximum variety. Finally, we conducted extensive research by seeking out travel writing and photography on towns across the state before coming up with our final pick. The results, in alphabetical order, are below.
Perched between the Delaware and Pequest rivers, Belvidere in Warren County is one of New Jersey’s most visually distinctive small towns, owing to its wide spread of eye-catching Victorian architecture. Tree-lined public parks and numerous antique stores add to the character and charm, while the town’s riverside setting invites top class trout fishing opportunities, as well as other water-based activities including boating, canoeing, tubing, and rafting.
Pleasing on the eye all-year-round, it is Autumn when Branchville truly comes into its own, as the foliage changes colour, lining trees with dazzling speckles of orange, red and yellow. To experience the town at its Autumnal best, venture to Stokes State Forest, a popular spot for hikers and families enjoying a picnic in scenic environs, or the 70,000-acre Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which has the picturesque waters of Delaware River flowing freely through it.
Whether it’s exploring verdant green wetlands, ambling through the atmospheric downtown district, visiting one of its myriad museums and cultural institutions, or simply reclining on the sand, Brigantine Beach has a little bit of everything. Located ocean side in Atlantic County, the shore town is particularly popular with families seeking outdoor adventure, while the Marine Mammal Stranding Center is a superb resource for capturing childrens’ imaginations about the natural world.
Nestled deep in New Jersey’s picturesque southern farmlands, the town of Mullica Hill retains strong links to its past through the numerous well-preserved historic landmarks, buildings and residential homes that remain here, some dating back to the town’s 17th century beginnings. Indeed, such is Mullica Hill’s commitment to conserving its heritage that the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile dozens of quaint antique shops, plus farm-to-table restaurants and a diverse annual programme of family-friendly events, add to the town’s enduring appeal.
Nestled in Morris County, a few miles off the scenic Route 206 highway, the township of Chester is a popular stopping point for those passing through New Jersey and keen to stretch their legs during the long drive. Teeming with charming shops and restaurants, the town is ideal for a leisurely stroll, perhaps stopping for some ice cream and casual people watching, or picking up a gift or souvenir from one of the unusual boutiques that line its pedestrian-friendly lanes.
Intersected by the meandering contours of the Raritan River in Hunterdon County, Clinton combines a bustling shopping and dining scene with all the aesthetic appeal of a picturesque waterside town. Indeed, the view of the river passing the Red Mill Museum adorns many-a-postcard sent home by visitors to this magical township. Meanwhile the compact confines of Maine Street, with its cutesy stores and enticing eateries, also has a habit of stopping camera-wielders in their tracks.
Playing host to three major cultural festivals every year, Frenchtown in Hunterdon County is intermittently packed with visitors, but at more quite times the town’s attractive centre remains pleasingly secluded. Numerous shops and boutiques ensure a hum of low-level activity, while the town’s more pastoral facets – such as rolling green fields, lush riverbanks, and unspoiled hiking trails – attract nature lovers of every hue. On the outskirts of town, Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park is a favourite spot with keen cyclists and trekkers.
Situated in Mercer County, Hopewell is perhaps best known for its liberal sprinkling of antique stores that provide ample opportunity for gift or souvenir hunting. But the town’s appeal extends far beyond its shops selling vintage pieces, with its network of quaint avenues and walkways creating an almost fairy-tale like setting. There are some notable places of interest, too, among them a brick library housed in a historic former bank, a white-steepled Baptist Church, and a Revolutionary War-era graveyard.
Hunterdon County in western New Jersey is a veritable hotbed of small charming towns. Among them is Lambertville, perched elegantly on the banks of the Delaware River, its scenic vistas providing inspiration for the large community of artists and craftsmen that call the town home. Founded at the start of the 18th century, the Lambertville is dotted with quaint, atmospheric streets, flanked by shops and boutiques, as well as well-preserved federal townhouses and Victorian homes. For entertainment, the famous Boat House bar is an acclaimed nightspot that attracts visitors from far and wide.
Situated in northern New Jersey, a 30-minute drive north of New York City, Maywood positively oozes charm from its every proverbial pore. The downtown area’s cafes, shops and boutiques make for pleasant strolling, while fans of transport history will enjoy the Maywood Station Museum, an officially designated landmark of historic interest. Foodies are in for a treat too, with several acclaimed restaurants to be found here, along with The Maywood Pancake House which draws both sweet-toothed kids and adults alike.
Located in Sussex County, around 60 miles northwest of New York City, Newton has benefited from the presence of a dedicated and passionate Historical Society who have worked hard to preserve the town’s historic centre. Here visitors will find beautiful original architecture, myriad shops and restaurants, as well as several distinguished cultural venues including Newton Fire Museum, Spring Street Art Center, and the hugely popular Newton Theater, an independently-owned show house that hosts regular and varied productions.
If you’re visiting New York City and are seeking some respite from the pulsating urban mayhem, you can escape from it all by making the 1-hour drive south to Spring Lake. Situated on the Jersey Shore in Monmouth County, the town is a popular getaway thanks to its quaint feel, stretch of sandy beach, and elegant boardwalk. Downtown is where the sophistication’s at, with boutique-lined Third Avenue a mecca for fashionistas. Away from the shore, the green expanse of Divine Park is an ideal spot for a picnic or a tranquil walk.