A Complete Guide to Princeton, NJ
Welcome to the town we currently call home. I cannot believe four years of blogging and I have not written about the wonderful town of Princeton, NJ.
Now I am biased but we unexpectedly settled here and absolutely fell in love with Princeton! The areas in and around downtown have so much to offer and make for a great day trip or even weekend getaway. While it is a college town, the town itself stands on its own. Not to mention some of the oldest history in the country can trace roots back to Princeton.
Princeton is centrally located in the middle of the state and accessible for the major cities as well as close to highways for the suburban areas.
- NYC – The train from Penn Station takes somewhere between 60 and 90 minutes depending on the train. The station is at Princeton Junction and there is a small train (The Dinky) that takes riders from here to downtown Princeton. There are also ride shares generally available with a short wait.
- Philadelphia – While the train is not as direct, you can take a SEPTA train from 30th Street station to Trenton, then take an NJ Transit train (on the Northeast corridor line) to Princeton Junction. Driving takes about an hour depending on where you are coming from – right down I-95.
- Princeton is very close to Route 1 and Route 295 so it is easily accessible by car.
- Notes on parking – There is plenty of street parking (meters that take credit cards) and there are three parking garages for those that do not want to shark for a spot on the street or do not prefer to test their parallel parking skills. Prices for parking are very affordable.
- Or if you live locally like us, you do not need a car at all! Post on our journey Vespa coming on Monday 8/16.
Downtown Princeton is not large but it does have a few sections where the action congregates. Nassau Street divides the space with downtown on one side and the university on the other. Then there is the Palmer Square area, Witherspoon Street area, and the rest of Nassau Street past the university.
Things to Do
- Walk around Princeton University – The University is gorgeous! Take some time to stroll the grounds, walk into the chapel, admire the stone buildings and sculptures, go find the tigers, there is even a beautiful Japanese garden tucked away – plenty of photo opportunities! This is also a great area for a picnic so go grab take out and a blanket to enjoy.
- See a show at McCarter Theater – This theater is a staple of Princeton and they offer shows all year round in both large and small production of varying types. Each year, they perform A Christmas Carol and it is the best way to get into the holidays. Pair a show with a meal in town and you have a great day ahead.
- Palmer Square – The square itself is a place of communal gathering. There is a large park area in the middle where people sit and enjoy their food or ice cream. In the summer time, there are rotating musical acts, various yard games, and seating. If you hear music, it is most likely coming from Palmer Square.
- Shopping – Princeton has a wide array of shopping opportunities downtown no matter what you’re looking for! There are local boutiques, specialty stores, and more to enjoy. We often find ourselves in one of two local wine shops – Princeton Corkscrew (small producer wines from all over the world and offer vintner spotlights where you got to meet the vintner and try the wine) and Public Wine Beer and Spirits (more of a traditional liquor store, with fantastic selection!). Labyrinth Books is a great place to get lost in the many aisles of shelves filled with topics you did not know had so many books to chose from – there really is something for any and all interests. As with most college towns, there are plenty of spots to get Princeton merchandise. There is also Princeton Record Exchange – a great record store that is full of gems for any taste of music (like our cherished Christmas records).
- West Windsor Farmers Market – Every Saturday there is a farmer’s market at the Princeton Junction train station and it is our favorite way to spend Saturday mornings. It has been voted the best farmers market in New Jersey and ranked fourth in the country in 2022! From cheese to coffee to food trucks to mounds of fresh produce to seafood to bread and so much more – we love our farmers market!
- Explore the Canal – Right outside of town there is the Delaware and Raritan Canal (D&R Canal). This canal extends 70 miles and runs right through Princeton. This spot is always full of activity. People love to walk, run or bike on the path that runs alongside the canal. You can even spot some fishers. There is also a great option of renting kayaks or canoes near Alexander road to enjoy some time on the water.
- Princeton Public Library – While my time at this spot was mostly dedicated to studying for my pharmacy boards, right before the pandemic I loved to take an evening a blog here -something about a nook to work. That being said, there are lots of events that are held for both kids and adults. It is right in the middle of town and is a beautiful building.
- Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge – Next to the canal is the Charles H. Rogers Wildlife Refuge. This is a great way to spend some time with nature. It’s rarely crowded, and we typically go first thing in the morning to enjoy some fantastic bird watching.
- Festivals – The thing I miss the most about post-pandemic Princeton is the absence of festivals. Princeton has several festivals throughout the year in which Nassau Street, Witherspoon Street, and Palmer Square close and the streets are filled with local vendors. Communiversity, Pi Day, Music Fest to name a few. It’s also absolutely magical around the holidays with lights and holly strewn along the pathways, the giant tree in Palmer Square is decorated, and you’ll even catch carolers at night or on the weekends!
Places to Eat
There are so many places to eat and despite being here for ten years, we still have yet to try everything. These are some of our favorites but my no means is an exhaustive list!
- La Mezzaluna – Italian BYOB spot that has been our go to for years. Forgot to bring wine? Head next door to the local wine shop to pick up your favorite varietal. The menu also goes through changes which is a big plus for locals – but crowd favorites such as my vodka rigatoni (seriously, I cannot order this dish anywhere else because this one is so perfect) and various risottos can always be found. They also offer zucchini flowers when in season and my oh my, it is my favorite. Service is always wonderful – shout out to Will! You can’t go wrong. They now have plenty of outdoor seating post pandemic which we take advantage of consistently.
- Kristine’s – Newer to Princeton, opened right before the pandemic and we were so concerned this spot would not survive but thank goodness it did! The Chef/Owner is from Lyon and the restaurant showcases many of his favorite dishes from that region of France. Wine menu here is excellent and affordable. The menu rotates seasonally and offers classic French dishes that are so delicious. The interior of the restaurant is beautifully done, and they have a fantastic outdoor space.
- Agricola – This farm to table spot is a favorite among locals for creative, tasty dishes. They have an extensive bar with offerings to suit any preference. While prices here are a bit higher, you are paying for great quality of the ingredients.
- Triumph Brewing – There is a brewery in the middle of downtown Princeton! Their beer is solid as is their food menu – the homemade pretzels are so delicious. A great spot to unwind or enjoy a sporting event on one of their TVs. It has been closed most of the pandemic so we are looking forward to returning again soon.
- Blue Point Grill – I have yet to eat here but Blue Point Grill is another local favorite in town for their seafood selection.
- If you are in the mood for artisan pizzas, head to Nomad or Teresa Caffe.
- There are severe pub styled spots that also double for a great spot to grab a drink – Yankee Doodle Tap Room, Alchemist and Barrister, Winberies, The Ivy, The Dinky Bar
- Jammin’ Crepes – Starting as a food truck at all the local farmers markets, this spot finally got a store front and they have been jammin’ ever since. These crepes are delicious offering both sweet and savory options. My only complaint is that they do not have longer hours to catch dinner or late night snack patrons cause I would definitely stop there more – I feel like they are closed more than they are open whenever to go into town. These are all made to order so be prepared to wait for your crepe to be made but it’s worth it. You can still catch the food truck out and about and it is available for catering. The interior of this spot is really awesome – very farmhouse, distressed wood style and features all the nods to Jersey. My personal favorite is the Hammin’ Cheese Melty but they are constantly adding new options to the menu.
- Princeton Soup and Sandwich – Our go to when we are looking for takeout and in the mood for sandwiches and salads. Solid menu with seasonal offerings so there is always something new to try if you want. The salads are very hearty (my personal favorite is the goat cheese salad) and the sandwiches are equally so – great value!
- Olsson’s Fine Foods – We are so lucky to have a dedicated cheese store with such a knowledgeable group of cheesemongers! In addition to cheese plates (also a great snack option), they craft the best grilled cheeses you will ever have. You can also pair them with tomato soup or mac and cheese. These will spoil your grilled cheese game for sure! So delicious.
- Tico’s Juice Bar – Local juice spot serving up all sorts of pressed juices, smoothies, and most importantly, acai bowls. This acai far exceeds all the others we have ever tried because the acai base is not sweetened and simply the acai. Also – we do not know why – but the peanut butter here is exceptional. They also offer items like quesadillas which we have not tried but we see them ordered all the time.
- Planted Plate – New vegan spot that will make you forget you are eating vegan.
- Hoagie Haven – While it has been awhile since we have been here, we used to live next door and I would not be able to publish this without mentioning Hoagie Haven. It feels like they are open all hours to capture the breakfast crowd and the late night crowd. These sandwiches are overstuffed with whatever you can think of – want hash browns in your breakfast sandwich or mozzarella sticks and french fries tucked into a hoagie roll? Possibilities are endless – embrace the creativity and treat your self to something fun.
- So many other options: Chez Alice Cafe, Jules Thin Crust, D’Angelo’s Italian Market, Olives, and TONS of Asian food spots from ramen to Korean chicken to sushi to Thai to bubble tea and everything in between – I could do an entire post on all of these spots. If you are in the mood for anything Asian, it’s here.
- Olsson’s Fine Foods – Mentioned twice because you can simply order cheese or get a custom made cheese plate which makes for the perfect snack. It’s one of our favorite things to do and it exposes us to many different cheeses every time! Olsson’s also offers various cheese making classes that we have yet to try – on the list!
- Thomas Sweets – A chocolate lovers delight stepping into the Palmer Square location and indulging in their hand crafted chocolates. Definitely snack worthy.
- Terra Momo – The smells walking by this store will draw you in – all the freshly baked goods are simply wonderful. The chocolate brioche is my favorite but we also get all sorts of bread items from here.
- Bread Boutique – A new spot specializing in breads, pastries and other baked goods.
- So big it needs its own section and there is quite a variety and following to certain favorites. I believe each of these has a place and to try as many as you can if able. They do all offer something different so it depends on the ice cream mood you are in for.
- The Bent Spoon – constantly rated the best ice cream in NJ, The Bent Spoon is one of a kind. They make gelato but not just any gelato, some crazy flavors of gelato that is new each day. Flavors you would never think of for gelato, they are not just doing it but doing it exceptionally well. Summer nights on the weekends are often marked by a long line waiting to order. Not a dairy person? They offer a large selection of sorbets that are dairy free – and not just one or two basic flavors, we are talking typically six exciting sorbets that does not leave lactose-intolerant or others out of enjoying this, making it literally a crowd favorite. For something new, creative, and that you won’t get anywhere else, The Bent Spoon is your spot.
- Halo Pub – When I want a traditional and solid ice cream cone, we are going to Halo. This creamery has a farm not far from downtown. What I love most is that the chocolate chunks they use in their ice creams are so so good – quality chocolate chunks. The variety here is excessive – there are so many flavors to choose from that take up four large freezers so make sure to get a good look at all the options before committing.
- Thomas Sweets – The Nassau Street location is exclusive to ice cream. These guys have full customization of the ice cream of your dreams – tons of toppings that can be integrated into your ice cream.
- Small World Coffee – I won’t go as far to say cult favorite but Small World has an enormous following in the Princeton community. They roast their own coffee and offer many different varieties to enjoy. There are two locations – the one on Nassau Street is only open in the morning/afternoon and offers a wide selection of hot food. The one on Witherspoon is open all day with a much larger location that hosts musical acts on weekends and packed with many patrons all doing work or having a conversation, however they do not offer hot food – coffee and a display case of baked goods. Before the pandemic and hopefully again soon, we would go in the middle of the week after dinner and I would work on the blog or trip planning and Kevin would read – those were some lovely evenings. Anyway, their coffee is ubiquitous with Princeton so definitely stop in.
- There are two other coffee shops in town – Rojo’s Roastery and Sakrid Coffee Roasters both of which Kevin enjoys as well!
Outside of Princeton
- If you have a car, do not stop just in Princeton, there are so many great things in and around the area within a 15-20 minute radius.
- Brick Farm Tavern and Brick Farm Market – One of favorite farm to table spots that really elevates the dining experience. They have a beautiful property with a restores house that has a full dining room and bar, in addition to the enormous outdoor space. In addition, there is a popular brewery, Troon Brewing, and distillery, Sourland Mountain Spirits, both of which can be enjoyed at their locations a well a at the Tavern. Brick Farm Tavern also offers epic wine dinners that we have had the pleasure of attending and an even more epic local beer festival. The market nearby offers farm ready produce, extensive cheese selection, as well as ready to go meals, sandwiches and baked goods.
- Hopewell Valley Vineyards – You forget you are in New Jersey when you pull into this property. They offer their wine, brick oven pizzas, and music on the weekends that makes for a really lovely evening.
- Pine Creek Mini Golf and Red Barn Milk Company – One of our favorite summer evening activities! This golf course has two courses of varying difficulty and they are both really fun. After, stop by the Red Barn that shares a parking lot with the mini golf and indulge in food such as hot dogs and pulled pork and ice cream.
- Terhune Orchards – Great all year round but fall is the best for pie sampling, apple picking, pumpkins, hay rides, apple cider everything, and more fall fun. They have an extensive market full of produce and baked items. This spot gets very crowded so go early if you plan on stopping by.
- The Gingered Peach – The best bakery you may ever find. We have sampled many of their items and still have many to go but everything is absolutely delicious.
- Sourland Mountain Preserve – Beautiful preserve area with many hiking trails available. This spot is actually quite popular for rock climbers as there are enormous boulders throughout the area. What is nice about the routes is you can customize to make them as long or as short as you want
Looking to stay overnight for a weekend away? Stay at Nassau Inn in Palmer Square. There are also a few hotel chains outside of downtown that can be considered. And there are even a few Airbnbs in and around downtown that are very reasonable price wise! Though keep an eye on college activities as I am sure weekends where parents are involved can drive the price up (move in, move out, graduation, etc).
Phew! There really are some wonderful things to do, see, and eat in and around Princeton. If you live locally and have never been or have not spent a lot of time here, don’t forget exploring your backyard can still bring lots of adventure. I will make sure to keep this updated as we continue to discover and explore all that this area has to offer!