Our Favorite Downtowns: Princeton

Fine dining, exquisite art and an exceptional university are just some of the features that make Princeton's downtown so vibrant.

A massive bronze tiger looms over Palmer Square.
A massive bronze tiger looms over Palmer Square.
Illustration by Greg Betza

Patrick Mooney has lived and worked in the Princeton area for four decades, during which he has traveled the world. On a recent stroll through town he had an epiphany. Turning to his wife, Margaret, he exclaimed, “If we had just happened upon Princeton in our travels, we would have said, ‘Let’s live here!’” That’s the conclusion Albert Einstein came to when he settled in this Ivy League town in 1933.

The Einstein connection and Princeton University are major lures, but the walkable and vibrant downtown (centered on Nassau Street and Palmer Square), stands on its own merits. Escorted tours are offered by the local historical society, university students and the Princeton Tour Company (take the ghost tour!). There are downloadable self-guided walking tours; some focus on particular attractions, such as the university’s gargoyles or its outdoor sculptures.

WHERE TO EAT: The fine-dining scene has, like the town itself, become a little less buttoned-up. Elements, Scott Anderson’s cutting-edge restaurant, has been followed by his more casual small-plates Mistral (a NJM Top 25) and now Mistral Bar. The formerly staid Peacock Inn features a handsome, modern American restaurant. Agricola, a farm-to-table eatery, has replaced Lahiere’s. These join perennial favorites Blue Point Grill, Witherspoon Grill, Teresa Caffe and Mediterra. For casual eats, there are the iconic—Yankee Doodle Tap Room and Pj’s Pancake House—and the new wave—Jammin’ Crepes. Bent Spoon is the choice for ice cream, Small World for coffee.

WHERE TO SHOP: Get your Princeton Tiger gear at the U-Store, vintage vinyl at Princeton Record Exchange, curated toys at JaZams, eclectic home furnishings at the Farmhouse Store and Indigo, cookware at Kitchen Kapers, spices at Savory Spice Shop, and clothing at locally owned shops that literally run from A (Army-Navy) to Z (Zoe, one of several high-end fashion boutiques). “If I’m ever in need of a pick-me-up,” attests longtime resident Linda Prospero, “I just take a walk downtown and am always cheered by people walking, eating and enjoying all the shops along Nassau Street.”

DON’T MISS: The university’s world-class art museum, generously supported by alums. Nearly every day features theater, dance or music at McCarter Theatre and the university’s Richardson Auditorium. The town’s down-on-its-heels Garden Theatre has been revitalized by a nonprofit that presents live-art performances as well as first-run, foreign and indie flicks.

THEN AGAIN: Locals decry the influx of chain stores (albeit high-end) and, as always, the limited and pricey parking.

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