RELOCATION: Amongst the key attributes that expats and others moving to New Jersey look for when choosing a town to live in, is the presence of a great downtown. To put this into non-American parlance, this simply means municipalities or cities with a great town center area. What makes a great downtown though?
Opinions vary on this but some of the common descriptors you may find used include:
- Lots of quality restaurants to choose from within close distance from each other.
- A walkable commercial area without too much noise or heavy traffic, that is also pedestrian-friendly.
- An architecturally and aesthetically pleasing area to look at.
- A vibrant hub with lots going on.
- A great retail shopping destination.
Not all NJ municipalities have a ‘downtown’ but there are some absolute standouts amongst those that do. While they nearly all have the features listed above, the five listed below also have that extra ‘something’. It’s hard to define exactly but it makes them quite distinctive from others. In my own humble opinion, it also qualifies them as great downtowns in NJ.
Princeton: a college town with atmosphere
Princeton is a classic university town which adds a lot to its charm. If the university’s spectacular architecture is not enough for, the downtown area is also gorgeous to behold.
Historic architecture and grand old buildings spread along a good portion of the southern side of Nassau Street. This is the main thoroughfare through Princeton’s center. On the northern side of Nassau Street, stretching at least 10 blocks, is the main commercial area of Princeton. This is concentrated mostly between Palmer Square, Hulfish St, and South Tulane Street.
The other major road, Witherspoon Street, cuts into Nassau at right angles. It contains the more modern but still stylish Princeton Public Library. The library sits on a square lined with restaurants and other fascinating retail offerings.
As one of NJ’s premier foodie meccas, Princeton has an array of quality restaurants, and casual eateries. For expats starved for a good-tasting caffeine hit, thankfully this town has real coffee! Princeton is a place that seems to have it all. Food, fun, shopping and a great atmosphere, that will take you back to your own university days.
Madison: The Rose City: charming and quaint
Nick-named ‘The Rose City’, Madison, is medium sized borough with a very attractive downtown, in Morris County. The Rose City refers to Madison’s historic past as a rose-growing commercial center. The historic downtown has much original architecture from 19th or early 20th century that is well preserved.
This creates a charming backdrop to the many restaurants, cafes, and other retail shops located in Waverly Place, as well as Main St which runs through the downtown.
Also located here is the Shanghai Jazz Club, one of NJ’s premier jazz venues and the Early Trades and Crafts Museum. Even the train station is gorgeous here. You may recognize this town from some of the movies that have used Madison’s downtown as a backdrop. These include ‘The World According To Garp’ and ‘The Family Stone.’ Madison is nothing if not beautiful on the eye.
Morristown: Capital of the American Revolution
As the seat of Morris County and the capital of the American Revolution, Morristown has all the makings of a town of character.
The town center here is the quadrangle-shaped ‘Morristown Green’, established in early colonial days. The Green has some amazing history as it was used both a military base and the site of executions. Several statues mark the historic events and people who made Morristown famous.
Surrounding it are several historic buildings including two spectacular churches, and other well-preserved buildings c.18th and 19th century.
The Green is a vibrant traffic hub, ringed by a series of major roads intersecting at this town center. Spread out in five different directions, these key roads stretch out from every corner of the quadrangle. The downtown spills out from here along these four roads including South, Morris, and Washington Streets, and Speedwell Ave.
There is a large number and variety of restaurants, cafes, casual eateries and bars spread across these areas, with retail shops, office buildings and apartment residences. More than just one visit is needed to explore all the historic places in and around this town.
Ridgewood: Upmarket suburbia
Upmarket, chic and affluent are all words used to describe Ridgewood, the busiest suburban downtown in Bergen County, NJ. The main thoroughfare Ridgewood Ave, runs east-west through the village center and is cut into two by the railway line.
Ridgewood’s downtown is mostly located on the East Ridgewood Ave side. Don’t miss out on the west side though, as there are some lovely small restaurants, A Carlo’s Bake Shop, some realty agencies and a Whole Foods supermarket .
Located in the middle of the eastern downtown is the beautiful Van Neste Square Park. This central memorial park is bordered by the Methodist and Catholic Churches on one side, and on the other, the post office with its lifelike effigy, honoring local postmen. Further east on Ridgewood Ave, are located a number of high-end retail stores.
Ridgewood downtown is always a vibrant center attracting lots of visitors from well beyond its borders for shopping, food and entertainment. Parking is mostly metered so bring your quarters with you.
Hoboken: a little slice of NYC
Once known as a lively port that was the subject of famous movie ‘On the Waterfront’, Hoboken on the Hudson River NJ, is today better known as an upscale home of the Cake Boss, TV celebrity-owner of Carlo’s Bake Shop.
Hoboken’s other claims to fame are as the birthplace of baseball (Elysian Fields) and Frank Sinatra. Both are also commemorated by memorials, streets and parks bearing their famous names.
Historic brownstone buildings and modern condominium blocks line the downtown streets of Hoboken. Many have likened the city’s feel to Brooklyn or other neighborhoods in NYC. The central thoroughfare, Washington St, runs from top to bottom north-south through the city. The major part of the downtown is located at the southern end near Hoboken Terminal. This is a large public transport hub for commuters travelling to NYC.
Here there are many restaurants, cafes and casual eateries, plus a Walgreens, and Hoboken’s municipal offices. The downtown extends beyond this though all the way to 14th St. Here there is another large concentration of retail, eateries and other services, which locals call ‘uptown’.
Wherever you are in the square mile that makes up Hoboken, it’s not far to a bar or restaurant. No wonder so many young singles want to move here.
There are a number of other great downtowns in NJ that are worth a visit. Some of these include Montclair, Westfield, Somerville, Cape May and Red Bank. In future posts, we will try and cover some of these too.
For now though, these five are some of the nicest towns you will see anywhere in the US. Whether you are looking to move to a new place or a new expat arrival, these locations are definitely worth a look. Its hard to beat these five great downtowns in NJ or any other state.