Caught between New York City and Philadelphia, New Jersey has never received the credit it deserves. Even back in the 1800s, a pair of Abrahams – New Jersey’s first attorney general, Abraham Browning, and the nation’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln – were said to have noted that the Garden State is a barrel that both New York and Pennsylvania take from.

In many ways, that is still true today. While the surrounding states love to poke fun at the Jersey accent and attitude, New Jersey modestly lures visitors into its borders with promises of greener pastures (literally) and sandy beaches (130 miles of them, to be exact). And perhaps as proof of how welcoming the nation’s third state is, many of its greatest attractions come without an admission fee. Here, we highlight 15 sites you can visit while keeping your wallet closed. 

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Paterson Great Falls

The second-largest waterfall by volume east of the Mississippi River has been so powerful for so long that Alexander Hamilton decided it should be the site of the country’s first planned industrial city, Paterson, which he established in 1791. 

More than two billion – yes, billion – gallons of water flow over Great Falls’ rocky cliffs every day. The 177ft high by 260ft wide cascade is virtually the same way it has appeared for the last 12,000 to 14,000 years.

Though it is officially a national historical park, the site doesn’t charge admission and is open year round (though the visitor center is closed because of the pandemic). To truly take in the greatness of the area, follow the self-guided Mill Mile tour starting at the Hamilton statue at the falls’ overlook.

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Hudson River Waterfront Walkway

No matter where you are along the 18.5-mile Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, you’ll feel like you have the ultimate postcard-picture view of Manhattan. 

Running through nine municipalities, from Fort Lee in the north to Bayonne in the south, the pathway is lined with parks, eateries, piers, playgrounds, and even a riverfront running track in Weehawken and the Hoboken Cove Community Boathouse with free kayaking in Hoboken.

Houses on the Fairy Trail at South Mountain Reservation
The tiny houses on the Fairy Trail at South Mountain Reservation in Millburn © Malecia Walker / Lonely Planet

Fairy Trail

Located within the South Mountain Reservation is Millburn’s half-mile Fairy Trail, where the little mythical creatures live, of course! Let your imagination run whimsically wild as you follow the white blazes (the trailhead is to the left side of the parking lot) along the wooded path lined with dozens of little homes, all built with natural materials. While the artful creations are mostly the work of local artist Therese Ojibway, the little ones will delight in the search for the homes by following the fairy dust. 

Palisades Interstate Park

Not only is the view from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River spectacular, but so is the geology of its dramatic cliffs, best appreciated at Palisades Interstate Park

Pack a lunch to enjoy at one of the four waterfront picnic areas, tour the 30 miles of hiking trails (varying from simple paved paths to more rugged rock scrambles), or ride a bike along the roadways. 

Don’t miss the Fort Lee Historic Park’s clifftop outlook with a stunning vantage point of the George Washington Bridge. Note that while some areas do charge a minimal parking fee on certain days of the week, many of the park areas offer free parking, and the park admission itself is free.

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Cape May County Park & Zoo

It almost sounds too good to be true. A zoo with 550 animals of 250 species – including 13 flamingoes from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch – with free admission and free parking? And open every day except Christmas?

That’s Cape May County Park & Zoo: home to creatures like African lions, American black bears, black howler monkeys, dromedary camels, red pandas, and snow leopards. It also encompasses four parks, including the Park North Richard M. Cameron Wildlife Sanctuary, which has warblers, egrets, kinglets, and more, depending on the time of your visit. 

A building in the Deserted Village of Feltville
A self-guided tour of the Deserted Village in Berkeley Heights hits all the highlights © Malecia Walker / Lonely Planet

Deserted Village 

This 2142-acre site along Blue Brook in the Watchung Reservation has had many lives, but none are as intriguing as its current persona as the Deserted Village in Berkeley Heights. 

A sawmill was built in the area around 1736 to produce lumber, but in 1845, a printing factory was established with an entire town called Feltville built around it. After the owner retired, the property found new life in 1882 as the summer resort of Glenside Park – which thrived until the Jersey Shore became the go-to getaway. The resort closed in 1916.

The Union County Parks Commission snatched up the site and rented out the homes during the Great Depression, keeping them filled until the 1960s. But ultimately, it was deserted again, and now serves as a relic of all his past lives. A one-mile self-guided tour hits all the highlights from the cottages to the cemetery. 

Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center

There’s an air of calm about the Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center in Chester Township. This makes sense because the center, formerly known as Merchiston Farm, was designed by landscape architect Martha Brookes Hutcheson, whose techniques included what would become known as horticultural therapy. 

The gardens have been restored to its 1945 style, with a coffee terrace, circular pool, and upper and lower waters. Hiking trails traverse the area and also lead to the adjacent Wildwood Arboretum

Deep Cuts Garden

Just how deep is Deep Cuts Garden’s international reach? The blooms on the 54-acre property originate from countries like England, South Africa, France, Italy, Madagascar and Malaysia. 

Open from 8am to dusk year round, the park has free parking and admission.Marvel at the flora in the rose garden and along the meadow walk, and take in the scenery from the Keelen Overlook. 

The Boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey
The boardwalk in Atlantic City was the first one in the United States © Andrew F. Kazmierski / Shutterstock

Atlantic City beaches

There’s something extremely distinctive about the Jersey Shore beaches in Atlantic City – unlike many of its neighbors, there are no beach fees. 

That means you can lounge on the white sands as long as you’d like without any financial worries, as well as stroll the boardwalk – the first one in the United States. 

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African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey

With 12,000 pieces in its two locations, the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey has come a long way since founder Ralph E. Hunter Sr. began collecting items (admittedly often off of the curb on trash day) and keeping them in his apartment, which his friends referred to as “The Museum.” 

But what really makes them come to life are the stories that come with each of the treasures. While its Atlantic City location at Noyes Art Garage is currently open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 11am to 5pm (a donation of $3 a person is requested), its Newtonville site is closed because of the pandemic. 

The Empty Sky 9/11 memorial at Liberty State Park
The “Empty Sky” memorial is a two-mile walkway in tribute to the New Jersey victims of the Sept. 11 attacks © CHBD / Getty Images

Liberty State Park

In the middle of a densely packed corner of Jersey City is the expansive 1212-acre Liberty State Park, surrounded by spacious views of New York Harbor, including Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and at least three of New York City’s boroughs. 

Within the park is the “Empty Sky” 9/11 memorial, a two-mile walkway, and the 36-acre Richard J. Sullivan Natural Area.

Frelinghuysen Arboretum

At Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morris Township, the self-guided mile-long “Getting to Know Us Stroll” is the perfect primer to the 127-acre property with cherry trees, gardens, and a revival mansion.

Branch Brook Park

When it comes to cherry blossoms in the spring, Washington D.C. may be the most hyped, but New Jersey crushes it in volume and variety at Branch Brook Park. As “the nation’s first county park,” according to its website, the 360-acre space shows its true colors in April when 4000 trees spring to life, often drawing as many as 10,000 visitors a day during peak season.

9 incredible hikes in New Jersey 

Heritage Glass Museum

It’s no accident that the city that is home to the Heritage Glass Museum is called Glassboro. Back in 1779, Solomon Stanger had purchased 200 acres specifically to create glass works in the woods. 

The area’s oak trees, fuel, clay and sand made it an ideal space to dive into the craft. Now the museum preserves the state’s long history of glassmaking, currently with visitors welcome on the second and fourth Sundays of the month.

Drumthwacket

The official residence of the state’s governor, Drumthwacket, is in Princeton on land bought by William Penn in 1680. The site is open most Wednesdays for free tours, which will restart in October with advance reservations required. (Drumthwacket is one of the few official governor’s residences not located in the state’s capital.) 

You might also like:
The 9 best beaches in New Jersey
Forget the Hamptons, these are the best summer escapes from New York City
10 secret spots at US national parks you won’t find on your Instagram feed 
 

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