No matter what kind of getaway you’re looking for, you'll be surprised by the underrated haven that is New Jersey. Every corner of the state has its own kind of vibe, making it a destination ripe for repeat visits, with new discoveries every time. 

The most famous area is the Jersey Shore, the 130-mile stretch of sandy Atlantic Ocean coastline dotted with a wide range of beach towns, from Perth Amboy in the north to Cape May in the south — with Atlantic City as its centerpiece. Across the state, on the western side, you'll find a different world where the Delaware River flows through dramatic ridges. In between there’s urban centers, ethnically diverse enclaves, and small towns seemingly ripped out of an Americana calendar. Here are just a few of the must-visit regions of New Jersey. 

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New Jersey Shore Coastline
Despite the excitement of the boardwalk, there's still a chance to enjoy a few quiet moments on the beach © Carolyn Cochrane / Getty Images

Atlantic City 

Atlantic City does beach culture like no other — after all, the world’s first boardwalk was built here in 1870, redefining the entire concept of beachfront escapes. The city’s nine casinos range from classics from the 1970s like Caesars Atlantic City and Bally’s Atlantic City Hotel and Casino to the more recent (and much chicer) Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa.

While the days on the sand can easily melt into nights of revelry with entertainment and attractions suited for both families and up-all-night partygoers, the city affectionately known as just “AC,” is also a great central point for exploring other Jersey Shore sites.

Families may opt for the dry town of Ocean City to the south, with eight blocks of kid-friendly attractions, including a waterpark and theme park. (Be sure to stop and say hi to the “world’s largest elephant” Lucy the Elephant in Margate City on the way there). To the north of AC is Historic Smithville, a step back in time with 60 shops and seven eateries—and the perfect antidote to the fast-paced fun in AC.

Hoboken

No offense to Brooklyn, but the New York City skyline vantage point is far superior from this side of the Hudson River without any bridges obstructing the view. Take a leisurely stroll along the waterfront in Frank Sinatra’s hometown of Hoboken on the Hudson River Walkway, stopping for photo ops at each of the many piers, before grabbing a snack at Pier 13’s food trucks. Also essential: a stop at Italian deli Fiore’s House of Quality for its roast beef mutz (don’t you dare call it “mozzarella!”), only served on Thursdays and Saturdays. 

A little girl looks at the Manhattan skyline through binoculars at Liberty State Park
The views of the Manhattan skyline are best from Jersey and its the better departure point to visit Ellis Island © Erin Cadigan / Shutterstock

Jersey City

Jersey City hugs Hoboken’s square mile on the south and west — and is quickly growing into a cultural destination of its own. Already known for its growing food scene — most notably with pizza hot spots Razza and Bread and Salt — it also now hosts the first Smorgasburg outside of New York City and LA. The city has also long been home to one the country’s best stretches of Indian eateries in India Square

Further proof of its cultural reach: the Parisian art museum Centre Pompidou, noted as Europe’s largest collection of modern and contemporary art, will be opening its first North American branch in Jersey City’s Journal Square in 2024.

Jersey City still manages to squeeze in the 1,212-acre Liberty State Park, with a closeup view of the Statue of Liberty (albeit, her backside). Pro tip: If you’re looking to visit Ellis Island and Lady Liberty, book tickets from New Jersey to avoid the Manhattan crowds.

Nassau Hall at Princeton University
Wander the Ivy League campus of Princeton University: this is historic Nassau Hall on a winter's day © luvemakphoto / Getty Images

Princeton and Mercer County

The only Ivy League school in New Jersey, Princeton University is full of the regal prestige a college campus of its caliber deserves. Yet there’s a decidedly chill and accessible vibe in the neighborhood, making it a refreshing destination for a day trip. 

Let your instincts guide you through its campus (though its art museum will reopen in 2024) before fueling up at the eateries along Nassau Street and around Palmer Square. The surrounding area is filled with sites for hiking, biking, running and walking, like Institute Woods, the Delaware and Raritan Canal Towpath, and Princeton Battlefield State Park.

Just to the south is Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township, a charmingly quirky 42-acre park with 300 sculptures, many from founder and artist Seward Johnson. But these are no ordinary statues, as some have surprising interactive elements, while others are oversized 3D renditions of iconic paintings like Grant Wood’s American Gothic, ​​Claude Monet’s Bridge over a Pool of Water Lilies, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. Well worth a half-day visit, the park is suitable for all ages. (Don’t forget to look for the resident peacocks!).

Lambertville 

Slow down with a few days along the Delaware River in Lambertville — an unassumingly picturesque town centered around a 19th-century train depot surrounded by both Victorian and Federal-style homes. The streets are lined with eateries, coffee shops, boutiques, spas and vintage shops — it’s known as the state’s antiques capital after all. 

But perhaps its most appealing feature is the ability to walk across the bridge — and across a state line — to the equally adorable New Hope, Pennsylvania, making it a true two-in-one destination. 

Use this dual home base to explore the other riverside towns. To the north, stop in Frenchtown for its soothing rolling green hills and Milford to enjoy its vineyard — or better yet, hop on the river itself in an inner tube with Delaware River Tubing (closed for the 2021 season) which includes a mid-river stop for a meal from the Hot Dog Man. Then travel south to Washington Crossing State Park for some hiking, nature walks, and history at the site of the first president’s famed 1776 Christmas night crossing.

Cape May Lighthouse at sunset
Climb the 199 steps of the Cape May Lighthouse, which dates back to 1859, for big ocean views © pkujiahe / Getty

Cape May

With the second-largest concentration of Victorian homes in the country after San Francisco, the entire historic district of Cape May is a National Historic Landmark. There are more than 600 homes to gaze at before you stop in at the Victorian House Museum for a tour of the 18-room Emlen Physick Estate from 1879.

The city also has 2.5 miles of beaches that are family friendly and primed for swimming, volleyball, skimboarding, surfing, kayaking, fishing — and of course, sand sculpting. For a higher perspective, climb up the 199 steps of the Cape May Lighthouse which dates back to 1859, for views of both the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay. 

For birders, the New Jersey Audubon’s Nature Center of New Jersey and Cape May Bird Observatory are also obligatory stops, given its position in the migratory path. Cape May is also called “Exit Zero” for its position as the southernmost point of the Garden State Parkway. 

Essex County 

Essex County just gets how to do parks right. At its heart is South Mountain Reservation, a 2,110-acre reserve in the Watchung Mountains, filled with outdoor activities that can last for days. On the north side is Turtle Back Zoo, a perfectly-sized zoo — where it’s actually possible to see all the promised animals — that offers interactive experiences including giraffe feedings, pony rides, a butterfly tent, and an aviary. 

Next door is the Treetop Adventure Course, South Mountain Ice Arena and Orange Reservoir with paddle boating in swan-shaped boats. To the western side is the Italian-style Greenwood Gardens, while the southern end has a whimsical half-mile Fairy Trail, lined with little houses made out of natural materials, that will keep the kids squealing.

Another delight in the area is Branch Brook Park in Newark, which boasts more cherry blossom trees in volume and variety than those famous ones in the nation’s capital. (Peak bloom is usually in April.) Also nearby is Eagle Rock Reservation, a 408-acre park with a 40-mile Lenape hiking trail and a 9/11 Memorial with a view of the Manhattan skyline in the distance. 

Other county park highlights include Van Vleck House and Gardens, Kip’s Castle Park, and Presby Memorial Iris Gardens.

River view at the Delaware Water Gap between Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Hike trails in the Delaware Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area bordering Pennsylvania © Andrew F. Kazmierski / Shutterstock

Delaware Water Gap

In the northeastern corner of the state is the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, which covers 70,000 acres on both sides of the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, named after a quarter-mile notch in the Kittatinny Ridge that can be seen from Interstate 80. The area is a popular destination, especially in the summer months, with more than 120 miles of hiking trails, including 27 miles of the Appalachian Trail — and tons of cascades, including one of New Jersey’s tallest, Buttermilk Falls.

Within its borders are historic sites like Millbrook Village from 1832, plus three river beaches and 100 miles of scenic roadways. Other activities include swimming, biking, boating, fishing, horseback riding, and rock climbing, as well as cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. 

Just below the Worthington State Forest section of the park is the Lakota Wolf Preserve in Columbia, which offers wolf tours. To the north is High Point State Park, the highest point in the state at 1,803 feet above sea level. Also nearby is New Jersey’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Hopatcong with year-round water activities. 

New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve 

Even in numbers, it’s hard to comprehend just how vast the New Jersey Pinelands National Reserve is. It stretches across seven counties and 56 municipalities covering about 1.1 million acres, equaling about 22 percent of the state’s total land. In fact, it was the country’s first national reserve and is also a United States Biosphere Reserve. 

Also known as the Pine Barrens, the area is noted for its sandy soil, where cranberries (the Chatsworth Cranberry Festival is an annual highlight) and blueberries grow, as do 180 species of threatened or endangered plants.

Experience the reserve at Wharton State Forest, with trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, as well as rivers and lakes for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking. Also in the park is Batsto Village, a refurbished abandoned town dating back to 1766. And for those who enjoy hunting the haunted, the area is home to ghost towns, like the Harrisville Ruins.

You might also like: 

The 9 best beaches in New Jersey
Born in the USA: our favorite destinations in Springsteen songs
The best time to visit New Jersey 

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