Five Places to Live with Great Downtowns in NJ

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.

Princeton-university-princeton-nj

One of the country’s best-rated Ivy league colleges, Princeton University,  sits on the edge of the Princeton downtown.

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.

Witherspoon-st-Nassau-st-intersection-princeton-nj

The intersection of Witherspoon and Nassau Streets, the key center of Princeton’s downtown, during Spring. Opposite this intersection (not shown) is the entrance to Princeton University.

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.

Palmer-Square-Princeton-downtown-nj

A retail adventure can be had in Palmer Square Princeton

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.

Downtown-on-Main-St-Madison-NJ-

Part of the huge charm of Madison’s downtown are its historic looking buildings that line Main St on either side. On the corner of Green Village Rd, is the Early Trades and Crafts Museum, a spectacular Romanesque Revival building, that was the former site of Madison Library.

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.

Shanghai-Jazz-Club-in-Madison-downtown-NJ

The Shanghai Jazz Club located on Main St, Madison.

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.

Waverly-Place-part-of-Madison-NJ-downtown

Madison NJ’s downtown area around Waverly Place, with the town’s Christmas Tree in the background.

 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-Green-Morristown-NJ-in-fall

The historic fountain at the entrance onto the Green in Morristown, NJ

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.

Lafayette-with-Hamilton-and-Washington-Morristown-Green

Iconic statue of General Washington, consulting with Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton about war strategy during the American Revolution, at Morristown Green, NJ

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.

South-St-opposite-the-Green-Morristown-NJ

The South St section of Morristown’s downtown. This is located opposite the southwest corner of the Green.

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.

MJPAC-Morristown-NJ

The Morristown Theater building, which houses Morristown’s own performing arts center, MPAC, on South St

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.

East-Ridgewood-Avenue-Ridgewood-NJ

Looking west towards the Ridgewood Train station which dissects the main Ridgewood Ave thoroughfare, splitting it into an east and west section. Most of the downtown is located on this side (eastern end).

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 .

Corner-East-Ridgewood-Ave-South-Broad-St-Ridgewood-NJ

Looking east from the center of the Ridgewood Village downtown, corner of Broad St and Ridgewood Ave.

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-NJ-post-office-memorial

The life-sized memorial of a postman outside Ridgewood Post Office, NJ.

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-Municipal-clock across-from-Carlos-Bake-Shop-Washington-St-Hoboken-NJ

Crowds line up outside Carlo’s Bake Shop to visit the legendary premises of TV celebrity, the’ Cake Boss’, in the heart of Hoboken’s downtown.

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.

Views-of-NYC-from-Sinatra-Drive-in-Hoboken-NJ

Great views of NYC are available day or night from many parts of the Hudson Walkway along the foreshore are. This part is located on Sinatra Drive, named after Hoboken’s most famous son.

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.

Washington-St-in-Hoboken-downtown-NJ

Looking north along Washington St in Hoboken’s downtown. The brownstones and other preserved buildings add to the areas attractiveness.

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’.

Historic-brownstones-preserved-from-waterfront-days-in-Hoboken-NJ

Pre-war brownstones and other historic buildings line the Washington St downtown area of Hoboken, adding significantly to its charm.

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.

 Other Downtowns

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.

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11 thoughts on “Five Places to Live with Great Downtowns in NJ

  1. Dr. Walter Coffey says:

    My mother & grandmother were born in Englewood, New Jersey.

    Thanks for the great photos.

  2. Hi,
    We are planning to relocate in NJ near Short Hills. May I know where is the most suitable location to relocate near to public school with good neighborhood or downtown for family with teenage kids?
    Thank you

  3. This is great thanks, found it through Google. We (family of 5) are about to move to NJ for work in New Brunswick and are also Aussie’s from Sydney so looking for all the help we can get! Any other tips you can give us would be fantastic! Thanks again…

    • Hi Stephanie,
      Very happy to help however I don’t quite know where to start as there are a million bits of information I could supply that you may/may not find helpful.

      However, whatever questions you have feel free to email me through the website or directly at expataussieinnj@gmail.com and I will be happy to send you answers.

      One thing though straight off is to check your name spellings and presentations in your visas match your passport and Australian driver licenses. This is very useful for when applying for documents like SSN and Driver licenses here. The smallest differences cause problems sometimes. Ask the embassy/immigration lawyers to make sure they use exact copy of names in all documents including work permit if you are getting one of these as well.

      Cheers
      Anne-Marie

    • Hi again,
      Let me know if you have any questions about schools, where to live, renting etc. Happy to help!

  4. Hello!

    My partner and I are moving back to NYC area from Hong Kong, what are your thoughts on Weehawken? We like restaurants, downtown feel and walkable.

    Thanks in advance!
    Randal

    • Hi Randal
      Based on what you mention, I would most definitely prefer Hoboken because it has everything you mention: a nice downtown, a great array of restaurants and it is all pretty walkable being only 1 square mile. No matter where you live you have some part of the downtown southern/central/northern parts of Washington St all have some concentration of restaurants, and even so there is an option of walking or catching the town jitney bus around the township itself.

      Weehawken is not quite the same. The area where most young couples are is along River Rd and there is no downtown here, just little centers of concentrated commerce between large apartment communities. Certainly not a ‘walkable’ downtown in that sense. The real Weehawken downtown though is OK but quite away (west of River Rd) from where all the apartment action, ferry crossings, and Hudson Bergen Light Rail is along River Rd, which many younger singles and couples want to commute to NYC. The only problem with Hoboken is that it is pretty expensive for NJ although still a lot less than NYC with the advantage also of having some larger apartments.

  5. Hi! Love your website. It’s really useful. We’re Australian, currently in the UK and getting ready to move to New Jersey. My husband is going to work in New Brunswick. We’re currently looking at either Hoboken or Princeton….I have two children (6 & 8) and think maybe Princeton might be a better option for us. Schools in the area seem very good. However, I was hoping to work and thought there might be more opportunities for be being closer to NYC but seems like people do commute okay. Also, my main priority is getting the kids settled after another move. And the property seems more affordable in Princeton than Hoboken. Any tips you have re: Princeton v Hobken for a family would be gratefully received 🙂

    • Hi Kate,
      There is a lot I could tell you about both towns as these are both places I take relocating people to often but I will try and keep my comments to a readable level for a blog.
      1. Safety – these towns both have night life and lots of young revelers visiting/living here, Princeton has college students and Hoboken is a young single person’s dream destination in NJ. This means the crime levels are not going to be as low as more sedate areas such as Madison, Chatham, Basking Ridge etc. Both towns are rated as ~32/38 for Crime Index which means safer than 32/38% of US towns-thus more than 69/62 % of towns are safer. Hoboken has more violent crime but both have comparable property crime. Crime is concentrated in the most crowded commercial areas of the downtowns in both places unsurprisingly.

      2. Schools – public schools in Hoboken are known to be poor/low rate while in Princeton they are the opposite. Even if using private schools in Princeton, then there are a wealth of choices.

      3. If you want public schools in Princeton, then you actually have to live in borough borders. many people use Princeton name (referring to greater Princeton) but they are sometimes in another borough, which then determines school choice. For private schools it doesn’t matter.

      4. The commute from Princeton borough to NYC is long, although people do it. Usually choose bus or trains (shuttle train to Princeton Junction, then major NJT train). For such a long commute you may need help w the kids, if there is an early dismissal called due to snow day or else, as you will be a long way away to be very responsive. Nannies/babysitters are available though.

      5. I love both towns but Princeton is perhaps a better family choice due to an abundance of reasons including schools however, it is a long way away. Philly would be closer for work than NYC. Alternative options exist in between but if you have set your heart on this Ivy league town, so be it!

      Let me know if you need me to clarify anything. Don’t forget Montclair where I live is both a neat college town with better safety and also close to NYC-No joke, it is full of media types (lol)
      Cheers
      Anne-marie

  6. Lindsay Rolls says:

    Hi,

    My husband and I and two children (3 & 9months) have just moved to Princeton from Sydney. Your blog has been super helpful to us so far! I’m actually wondering if you can point me in the right direction for some playgroups etc or know another blog/person who might be able to?

    Thanks
    Lindsay

    • Hi Lindsay,
      Thanks for the nice comments. Princeton is one of my favourite towns ever! When it comes to playgroups, I don’t have a lot of info unfortunately, although I would have thought there would be a reasonable choice available. There’s a ‘Mothers & More’ Chapter in P and you can read up on this athttp://www.princetonol.com/groups/mothersandmore/.

      There is also a Baby Playgroup at Princeton Library but this allows only babies/toddlers up to 17 months, so maybe not suitable for you.

      There is a Meetups website that often includes organized groups – here is the link for Playgroups near Princeton: http://www.meetup.com/topics/playgroup/us/nj/princeton/. There may not be many suitable here but depending on where you are, one or two may be suitable.

      There is also the Moms Club, a national association with chapters across the country. There doesn’t seem to be one in Princeton but there is a chapter in adjacent towns of West Windsor and Lawrenceville which are known as greater Princeton. Here are links for the national club: http://www.momsclub.org/; and Lawrenceville Chapter: http://www.freewebs.com/momsclubeast/. Not sure if they care whether you come from Lawrenceville or Princeton but should check.

      Lastly here is a list of groups for mums that serve Central NJ : http://www.mommyhoodcentral.com/?p=1325
      I would also do a search on Facebook as many playgroups have set ups here. Sorry I couldn’t be more helpful.

      BTW if you are looking for things to do outside playgroup, I just listed an article on Princeton on my own Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/ExpatAssistNJ/.

      Good Luck

      Cheers
      Anne-Marie

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