Over the past few years, travelers have sought out charming small towns in favor of larger, heavily populated cities. And although America is chock-full of these quaint destinations, some of the best can be found along the East Coast.
Many opt to visit small towns in New York and Massachusetts (and New England as a whole), but you’d be remiss not to consider New Jersey. What’s more, the Garden State is teeming with charming locales, many of which tend to fly under the radar. So, whether you’re searching for a serene summer beach retreat or a mother-daughter getaway filled with plenty of shopping, we’ve rounded up the best small towns in New Jersey.
About 40 minutes from New York City lies the charming suburb of Montclair, a town best known for its eclectic boutiques, including Culture Couture, White Rabbit Black Heart, Giftbar, and Oasis. After indulging in some retail therapy, grab a bite at Halycon Brasserie (don’t miss the raw bar), Palazzo Pasta Company (come on Friday or Saturday evenings for live music), Koreander (fresh kimchi, anyone?), or Marcel Bakery and Kitchen (for breakfast, light bites, and coffee). Extend your trip with an overnight stay at The George, a chic, 31-room boutique hotel owned by acclaimed makeup artist and Montclair resident Bobbi Brown.
This quaint Monmouth County town is ideally situated along the Navesink River. Today, it’s chock-full of shops, including the nostalgia-inducing Yestercades (a retro-inspired arcade), Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash (a comic book store owned by filmmaker and Red Bank resident Kevin Smith), and Jack’s Record Shoppe (an independent music store dating back to 1970). Meanwhile, craft beer enthusiasts can spend an afternoon at Red Tank Brewing Company. Cap off your trip with a picnic lunch at the two-acre Riverside Gardens Park, where prime people-watching and pristine water views await.
West Cape May
With a population under 1,100 the small but scenic West Cape May is less than two miles from downtown Cape May. This sleepy destination dates back to 1884 and pays homage to its roots with beautiful Victorian architecture. When you need a break from the beach, head to Wilbraham Park, which hosts a handful of events throughout the year, ranging from vibrant farmers markets to the famous Lima Bean Festival (October).
This Bergen County village boasts a walkable downtown area that’s well worth a stroll. Just be sure to come hungry: Dining options, including sushi at Sakura Bana, French cuisine at Latour, brunch at Felina, and juicy chops at Roots Steakhouse, abound. Budding artists, meanwhile, can take a class at the Ridgewood Art Institute or Creatively Yours. After exploring unique shops like Town & Country Apothecary, Apricot Lane, and Hot Jewelry Box, treat yourself to something sweet at Cupcakes by Carousel or Sook Pastry.
The charming town of Westfield is situated some 16 miles southwest of Manhattan — though it feels much farther with its colorful downtown that beckons travelers and locals alike. Here, you’ll find more than 450 shops and businesses, including The French Martini, Evalyn Dunn Gallery, Janus’ Closet, and Madeline Moss. Following a shopping spree, get your caffeine fix at Boxwood Coffee Roasters, Ahrre’s Coffee Roastery, or Rock ‘n’ Joe before strolling through the Friends of Mindowaskin Park. Westfield also hosts a slew of special events throughout the year, from the annual Pizza Run to the 2022 Sweet Sounds music festival and beyond.
A trip to the seaside town of Spring Lake — aptly nicknamed the “Town by the Sea” — means plenty of mouthwatering meals, eclectic stores, beloved beach time, and more. Before you hit the sand, pop into Thunder Road Books for your next beach read, Bare Wires Surf Shop for some beach gear and accessories, and Driftwood or Dune Donuts and Bagels for food and drink. Also, don’t skip town without perusing Jean Louise Homemade Candies for a few confections, Dandy Canine for your furry friend, and Artisan Spirit for its fun selection of home accessories and more. Outdoor enthusiasts can rent a bike from Pedego Electric Bikes and pedal around the waterfront near Divine Park, while thespians can catch a performance at the Spring Lake Community House Theater.
This New York City suburb has plenty to offer families of all ages. Don’t miss the expansive Tenafly Nature Center, home to scenic trails for hiking, walking, or running, along with a handful of exhibits like the Butterfly House, Pollinator Garden, Nature Playscape, and more. The nonprofit also hosts seasonal programming and special events. Don’t leave without checking out Ave Lumi, which carries stylish and sustainable clothing and accessories for kids and adults, and Mochinut, which sells fresh mochi donuts topped with delectable soft serve. Lastly, Huyler Park, located in the heart of downtown Tenafly, holds summer concerts worth checking out.
Dating back to 1705, Lambertville is known as the Antiques Capital of New Jersey, attracting travelers from near and far. The Golden Nugget Antique Flea Market, which is open three days a week, has more than a dozen vendors selling everything from vintage baubles to retro games to fossils. Other must-visit antique shops include Funk & Junk and The People’s Store. Art lovers can wander through one of the nearby galleries, including Gallery Piquel, Jim’s of Lambertville, and Michael Fratrich’s Ten One Gallery, while history buffs can check out the Holcombe-Jimison Farmstead Museum, James Wilson Marshall House, and Howell Living History Farm.
Flemington is approximately 50 miles from Philadelphia, and like the City of Brotherly Love, this small town has its fair share of historical sites and fascinating attractions. For example, Northlandz is home to the world’s largest miniature railroad, and the Flemington Castle Museum dates back to 1756. Downtown Flemington is lined with shops like The Corner, 39 Mine Boutique, and The Gift Horse Candle Shop, as well as one-of-a-kind eats (and sips) from Factory Fuel Coffee House, Humdoo Ice Cream, Lone Eagle Brewing, Teaberry’s Tea Room, and The Kombucha Bar. Tip: Before your visit, scroll through the Flemington events calendar, which features car shows, ghost walks, parades, and other seasonal festivities.
Cranbury is one of the oldest towns in New Jersey, and its historical charm remains intact. To learn more about its past, stop inside the Cranbury Museum. Then, take a walking tour along Main Street. (Fun fact: The entire downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.) When it comes time to grab a bite, pick up some provisions at The Market on Main and head to Memorial Park and Brainerd Dam, where lakefront views await. Additionally, if you plan on staying overnight, reserve a room at The Cranbury Inn, which can be traced back to 1780.
Bayhead is renowned for its beautiful beaches and namesake historic district (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), boasting incredible shingle-style architecture. Among the most eye-catching structures is the Grenville Hotel & Restaurant, a pink-hued Victorian hotel dating back to 1890. Other nearby attractions include The Loveland Homestead (circa 1867), the Vintage Automobile Museum of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Museum of Boating. In terms of food and drink, expect a combination of casual haunts like Dune Grass Cafe and Mueller’s Bakery and upscale options like Charlie’s of Bay Head and Theresa’s South.
This Essex County suburb is teeming with activities and attractions, including the 1938-era Paper Mill Playhouse (which hosts live shows and performances), Cora Hartshorn Arboretum & Bird Sanctuary, and Taylor Park (home to a pool, walking paths, basketball and tennis courts, and more). However, Millburn is arguably most famous for its downtown area, where you’ll find more than 180 shops and restaurants, including the famed Millburn Deli, which serves up almost every type of sandwich imaginable. Foodies can also visit Splurge Bakery for whimsical treats, Liv Breads for artisan loaves, Saigon Cafe for Vietnamese delights, and Evoo & Lemon for Greek staples. The farmers market, which takes place every Tuesday from June to October, is also worth exploring.