It’s easy to write New Jersey off in favor of the two major cities that bookend it: New York and Philadelphia. But despite its diminutive size, the Garden State is filled with activities not only for first-time travelers to the area, but also weekend trippers from the aforementioned cities.
Even if you’re a native New Jerseyan, you still may not have seen all the best sights in your home state. Here’s our list of the best things to do in New Jersey, whether you’re looking to explore the beaches of the Jersey Shore, learn about American history or eat at some of the best diners in the country.
Step back in time in Cape May
Despite what you might’ve seen on an infamous reality show, the Jersey Shore is primarily a laid-back vacation destination, filled with nature preserves, historic lighthouses and good old-fashioned seaside activities, like mini-golf and ice cream parlors.
One of the best shore towns in the state is Cape May, located at the southernmost tip of the state. Here, Victorian-era architecture abounds, and many of the colorful gingerbread-style houses are now B&Bs.
Stroll the Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian-only main street for shopping and dining, see the historic Cape May Lighthouse (and neighboring World War II bunker, set right on the beach) or try a flight at one of the town’s breweries or wineries.
Create memories at Thomas Edison’s mansion
From 1886 to 1931, legendary American inventor Thomas Alva Edison lived and worked in West Orange, New Jersey. It was here where he created some of his most important devices, including the alkaline storage battery and the motion picture camera.
Edison’s historic mansion, Glenmont, and his laboratories are preserved as a national park site, which is home to the third-largest museum collection in the entirety of the National Park Service — there are some 300,000 items in the collection, plus more than 5 million historical documents.
Craving more Edison history? You can also visit the Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park, a separate organization dedicated to the inventor, which focuses on his earlier laboratory at Menlo Park.
Go for a hike at Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
New Jersey might be the most densely populated state (Washington, D.C., excluded), but it’s still home to quite a few sprawling natural areas — it is nicknamed “The Garden State,” after all!
For some of the best hiking opportunities in New Jersey, head to the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a 70,000-acre park managed by the National Park Service with more than 150 miles of trails (including a portion of the Appalachian Trail), a number of large waterfalls and three river beaches. It’s located in Northwest New Jersey, between New York and Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Stroll Grounds for Sculpture
Stroll through 42 acres of outdoor art installations, indoor art exhibitions and gardens at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton Township. Opened in 1992, the non-profit sculpture park and museum has a permanent collection of works by more than 150 artists, though more than 700 artists such as Isaac Witkin, Joyce J. Scott, Beverly Pepper and Willie Cole have exhibited here over the past three decades.
Grounds for Sculpture is open year-round, and visiting across seasons provides vastly different experiences — make sure to come back more than once.
Eat at a Jersey diner
Jersey locals will argue that their hometown diner is the best in the state, it’s hard to find any clear consensus on which one is actually the best. But ultimately it doesn’t matter at all — each of the more than 600 diners in New Jersey is delightful in its own way, whether that’s through an extensive menu or retro decor.
There are two must-orders at any diner. First up is disco fries, a Jersey take on poutine: french fries are smothered with gravy and melted cheese. Second is perhaps the most famous dish in the state, a salty breakfast meat typically served fried in a breakfast sandwich. There’s a reason we didn’t call it by its name — the food is at the center of an ages-long dispute. In South Jersey, it’s known as “pork roll,” which is its generic name. Up North, it’s called “Taylor Ham,” a brand name that’s been co-opted into jargon, like Band-Aid for bandage or Kleenex for tissue. Whatever name they use, it’s absolutely delicious.
Get the best views of the NYC skyline at Liberty State Park
For the best views of New York’s skyline, visit Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey. The 1212-acre site is home to a number of attractions, including a two-mile waterfront promenade, a historic train terminal, a nature reserve and the Liberty Science Center.
But the park is perhaps best known as a ferry departure point for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which are technically in Jersey waters. So can New Jersey claim the historic landmarks as their own? Well, not quite.
Liberty Island, home to the green lady, is an enclave of New York State, as is the part of Ellis Island that houses the main museum dedicated to immigration. But the other side of Ellis Island — the side with the abandoned hospital filled with installations by street artist JR — is actually still part of New Jersey.
This dark, mysterious part of the island is generally closed to the public, but special hard-hat tours are available through Save Ellis Island throughout the year, and they’re a great way to experience an entirely different part of Ellis Island.
Nab a funnel cake at Wildwood Boardwalk
The quintessential American shop-and-amusements-lined boardwalk as we know it originated in New Jersey, specifically in Atlantic City in 1870. Since then, New Jersey has built a number of substantial boardwalks along its shore, in towns such as Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights and Ocean City.
But the best boardwalk, in our opinion, is in Wildwood (as with many things Jersey, this is a controversial and much-debated topic). The two-mile-long stretch of planks has all the boardwalk classics, from funnel cake stands to frozen custard spots to tacky T-shirt shops, as well as the amusement park Morey’s Piers, which is spread across three piers.
As you stroll, keep an ear out for the tram cars — you’ll hear them blare out “watch the tram car, please,” which has become something of a tagline for the boardwalk.
Visit Camden’s aquarium and battleship
Camden, located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, may not be a high-priority destination for travelers, but two of its attractions are among New Jersey’s bests. First up is the Adventure Aquarium, home to more than 15,000 animals, including hippos (Button and Genny), African penguins and the largest collection of sharks in the northeastern United States.
Then there’s the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial, which is housed on the eponymous ship moored in Camden; it’s the most decorated battleship in the history of the U.S. Navy.
Chase the Jersey Devil in Pine Barrens
Thanks to The Sopranos, the Pine Barrens has a bit of a reputation for nefarious dealings. It’s also the home base for the legend of the Jersey Devil, highlighted in an episode of The X-Files. So if you’re into true crime and creepy folklore, hey, this 1.1-million-square-acre region in South Jersey is the place for you!
But despite what popular culture might have you think, the Pine Barrens is not only an important ecosystem in New Jersey — it’s the largest area of Atlantic Coastal pine barrens left in the country — but also a scenic destination for hiking, biking, kayaking and camping.
Returning to the creepy side of things, the Pine Barrens is also home to a number of ghost towns visitable by the public today.
Ride the tallest coaster in the world at Six Flags Great Adventure
If you grew up in New Jersey, your summer wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson Township. The theme park is home to the tallest roller coaster in the world and the fastest in North America, Kingda Ka, which tops out at 418 feet and 128 miles per hour. (That first record will fall in a few years, when the 525-foot-tall Falcon’s Flight opens at Six Flags Qiddiya.)
Other ride highlights include wooden masterpiece El Toro and steel giant Nitro. Within the Great Adventure complex are also the Hurricane Harbor water park and a drive-through safari.
Spend a weekend in Asbury Park
Over the past decade or so, Asbury Park has transformed from a dilapidated shell of a beach town littered with ruins to one of the hottest destinations on the whole Jersey Shore. Each weekend, trains from New York City bring in the visitors who come to explore the cool boutique hotels, drink at the Asbury Festhalle & Biergarten, visit the Silverball Museum of pinball machines, and catch a live show at the iconic Stone Pony music venue. And, of course, there’s the beach.
Check out Newark Museum’s Tibetan collection
Another Newark gem — seriously, forget about the airport! — is the Newark Museum of Art, the largest museum in New Jersey. Its holdings include works by American artists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt and Joseph Stella, as well as a highly regarded Tibetan collection that includes an altar blessed by the Dalai Lama.
The museum is also dedicated to science (there’s a planetarium on site) and the decorative arts (visit the historic Ballantine House to see period furniture from the late 19th century).
Get a taste of Ivy League life at Princeton
Head to Princeton, New Jersey, to check out the Ivy League university that shares the town’s name — its photogenic campus is filled with classic Collegiate Gothic–style architecture, not to mention the Princeton University Art Museum.
But don’t miss a chance to explore the historic downtown; Drumthwacket, the governor’s residence; the Albert Einstein House, where the scientist lived for the last 20 years of his life; the historic Moroven Museum and Garden and Princeton Battlefield State Park, among other impressive sites.
Who is Lucy the Elephant?
One of the more unusual sights in New Jersey is Lucy the Elephant in Margate, a six-story building modeled after a pachyderm. She was constructed in 1881 — before the Statue of Liberty — by inventor James L. Lafferty, who sought to attract real estate investors to the seaside destination.
After her duties as a giant billboard were completed, she was turned into a tavern, then eventually (at least for a brief period in 2020), as overnight lodging.
Dine on international cuisine in the Ironbound
Most travelers know Newark as one of the most-disliked airports in the country, but the city of Newark itself has quite a few surprises. Foremost is the Ironbound, a neighborhood known as a hub for various immigrant groups in the 19th and 20th centuries, which is one of the state’s best culinary destinations.
There are more than 170 restaurants in the four-square-mile area, with cuisines ranging from Portuguese (Sol Mar Marisqueira & Restaurant) to Ecuadorian (Ecua Cafe) to Chinese (Cheung Hing). With easy access via public transportation from New York City, it’s a perfect day trip destination.
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