16 Small Towns We Love

A guided tour of some of our favorite spots to live around the Garden State.

For anyone who has ever battled New Jersey traffic or suffered long shopping lines, the idea of small-town peace and tranquility has an undeniable appeal. Luckily, New Jersey has ample small towns with main streets to stroll and historic roots to appreciate.

In choosing our 16 favorite Garden State small towns, New Jersey Monthly started with some ground rules. All had to have a population under 12,000 and a median home price under about $800,000. Having narrowed the field, we began looking at subjective factors and practical matters, including downtown amenities, quality schools, access to public transportation, varied housing stock, cultural and recreational attractions, and community sensibility.

READ MORE:
Madison Tops Our 2019 List of Best Places to Live
Inside NJ’s Top Town Rankings
How We Rank Our Top Towns

The 16 towns we chose for this list are spread throughout the state and represent different aspects of small-town life. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

BERNARDSVILLE

Somerset County

Chart rank: 106
High school rank, 2018: 19
Population: 7,815
Median home price: $604,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: The first thing to know about Bernardsville is how to pronounce it: BERN-erds-ville. Nestled in the northernmost part of Somerset County, the 12.98-square-mile town offers residents a quaint suburban feel, with the added bonus of a downtown filled with shops, galleries, a movie theater and restaurants, including the venerable Bernards Inn. Many of the borough’s desirable larger homes are built in the hilly areas outside of the downtown. Commuters have easy access to routes 202 and 287, as well as a New Jersey Transit stop on the Gladstone Branch of the Morris-Essex train line; Lakeland Bus Lines offers rush-hour service to the Port Authority terminal in Manhattan.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: The Olcott Avenue Historic District, Bernardsville’s most picturesque neighborhood, features Tudor-revival, colonial-revival and shingle-style homes, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

FUN FACT: Actress Meryl Streep attended Bernards High School, where she was a cheerleader and, as a senior, was chosen homecoming queen.—SV

Boonton Photo by Laura Baer

BOONTON

Morris County

Chart rank: 27
High school rank, 201812
Population: 4,350
Median home price: $559,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: This 2.5-square-mile town—once an industrial center—now leans more toward the artistic side, with numerous galleries on a hilly Main Street. In 2017, Boonton received a $1 million federal grant to brighten its downtown district; antique shops, restaurants and coffee shops, as well as the art galleries, are evidence of the town’s revival. The Boonton station, on the Montclair-Boonton Line, offers service to New York’s Penn Station and Hoboken Terminal; it also has an attached bar and restaurant. Homebuyers have the luxury of choosing from a mix of charming older homes downtown and newer houses on more spacious suburban lots.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Grace Lord Park, accessible from Main Street, has a popular playground and hiking trail and offers views of Boonton Falls. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, famous for creating New York City’s Central Park.

FUN FACT: The original location of the town, developed in 1829, is now largely under a vast reservoir, which was completed in 1904 and provides water for Jersey City.—SV

BRIELLE

Monmouth County

Chart rank: 67
High school rank, 2018: 92
Population: 4,724
Median home price: $577,500

WHY WE LIKE IT: With four miles of frontage on the Manasquan River, much of Brielle is close to or on the water. The most prestigious homes in this 1.8-square-mile community can be found off Riverview Drive, which flanks the exclusive and picturesque Manasquan River Golf Club. The Marina District—the area east of Route 71—has easiest access to restaurants, beaches and the waterfront. “It’s a favorite of young families who prefer the bike-riding type of lifestyle,” says Christine Haley of Ocean Pointe Realtors. Brielle has its own K-8 elementary school; students matriculate to Manasquan High School.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Although there’s no beach, Brielle’s location on the Manasquan River makes it a magnet for boaters and fishermen. The restaurant/bar Waypoint 622 is a popular spot to watch the waterside action.

FUN FACT: The entire town comes out each September for Brielle Day, a time-honored celebration that includes art, a beer garden and lots of food.—LP

CALDWELL

Essex County

Chart rank: 38
High school rank, 2018: 80
Population: 8,085
Median home price: $423,750

WHY WE LIKE IT: Busy Bloomfield Avenue slices through Caldwell—but traffic seems to slow down here. Perhaps it’s the town’s tightly packed rows of stores and restaurants and its ample pedestrian activity that temper the passing drivers. Those who stop in town can stock up on fresh-baked goods and gourmet foods at Calandra’s Italian Village; sample the craft beers at the 86-year-old Cloverleaf Tavern; or catch a movie at the Bow-Tie Caldwell Cinema IV, one of the state’s increasingly rare downtown movie theaters. The bus commute to New York City takes about 50-60 minutes. Home prices range from about $200,000 for a one-bedroom condo to $1 million for large, single-family homes.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: The community center in the heart of town offers a six-lane indoor pool, a basketball court and fitness rooms.

FUN FACT: New Jersey’s only native-son president, Grover Cleveland, was born here in 1837. His birthplace on Bloomfield Avenue is a National Historic Site. If you visit, curator Sharon Farrell (an alto) might treat you to a period song.—KL

Monica Blackwell, a visitor from Glen Gardner, strolls down Chester Borough’s Main Street with her granddaughter. Photo by John Bessler

CHESTER BOROUGH

Morris County

Chart rank: 115
High school rank 2018: 7
Population: 1,665
Median home price: $580,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: The 1.6-square-mile borough has maintained its small-town charm while developing its appeal as a day-trip destination. The local business association’s shopping and dining guide has more than 70 listings. Visitors and locals stroll the red-brick sidewalks and shop for trendy clothes, home furnishings, crafts, collectibles and antiques. Most of the businesses are housed in restored historic buildings along Main Street (routes 24 and 513). The most impressive is the Publick House Tavern and Inn, a large, all-brick structure dating to 1810. Modest, older homes fill the side streets off Main Street. As you drive farther from downtown, the homes are newer and the lots bigger. Spring and fall craft fairs and numerous other festivals add to the sense of community.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Sally Lunn’s Tea Shoppe serves dainty sandwiches, British specialties, baked goods and pots of tea amid shelves of bric-a-brac in this Victorian-inspired space just off Main Street. Fans of sweet stuff find satisfaction at the old-fashioned Taylor’s Ice Cream Parlor and the Black River Candy Shoppe.

FUN FACT: Chester Borough is completely surrounded by the much larger, more rural Chester Township. The two split in 1930 in a dispute over funding for a sewer system for the more densely populated downtown.—KS

Closter Photo by Laura Baer

CLOSTER

Bergen County

Chart rank: 10
High school rank, 2018: 15
Population: 8,766
Median home price: $805,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: After the 2016 renovation of a derelict 1960s shopping center, Closter reclaimed its place as the retail hub for northeastern Bergen County. Just a few blocks away from the shopping center, the walkable downtown includes throw-back businesses like Hometown Hardware and Ward’s 5&10. A nature center in the heart of town and a trail along the Tenakill Brook offer an escape from the suburban bustle. The bus commute to New York City takes 60-90 minutes, and the George Washington Bridge is about 11 miles away via the Palisades Interstate Parkway. Homes range from $400,000 for smaller, older properties to $2 million-plus for luxury manors on the East Hill.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Architecture lovers can check out a Lustron home, a small, prefabricated, steel home made after World War II. One of only two left in Bergen County, it’s owned by the borough. Foodies thrill to Ma Mi, a Vietnamese restaurant, and the Hill, a showcase for the talents of Michelin-star-winning chef Ben Pollinger.

FUN FACT: British soldiers raided the town during the Revolutionary War, resulting in the death of a 90-year-old resident.—KL

FANWOOD

Union County

Chart rank: 160
High school rank, 2018: 76
Population: 7,808
Median home price: $459,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: Although only a few blocks removed from the strip malls of busy Route 22, this 1.3-square-mile town is an oasis of charm. Locally owned shops line the lively, walkable downtown. No Starbucks here. “There’s something about this town that is unlike any other,” says Eva Pfaff, a local who spent much of her childhood in Fanwood and recently returned to open a downtown specialty-foods shop, Fanwood Larder. It’s also a town that loves its traditions, like when Santa goes door-to-door delivering presents. The town features older homes with detailed architecture. While it is ideal for burgeoning families, the recent development of smaller apartment units near the train station indicates a desire to attract younger commuters as well. Fanwood shares a school system with neighboring Scotch Plains; the two towns are often mistaken as one.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: The town hosts various events to promote community and family fun, including a Memorial Day parade, the Annual Ladies Night Out, and Summer FanJam. The outdoor ice rink at LaGrande Park is a winter favorite.

FUN FACT: The Fanwood train station is the oldest in Union County. Built in 1874, the station houses the Fanwood Museum.—CS

Haddonfield Photo by Neal Santos

HADDONFIELD

Camden County

Chart rank: 138
High school rank, 2018: 6
Population: 11,435
Median home price: $540,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: One of South Jersey’s most desirable places to live, this 2.87-square-mile town offers historic charm and an easy commute to Philadelphia—it’s just 20 minutes via PATCO. It’s also a prime place to raise a family, thanks to an excellent school system and great walkability. Kids can stroll or ride their bikes to the downtown area, and do so often. “People who live and work in town quickly realize how much you can do without having to get in your car,” says resident Julie Beddingfield, who owns the town’s Inkwood Books. “There really aren’t very many places like this around.”

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: The bustling downtown area packs in more than 200 shops, galleries and restaurants, but no bars, as Haddonfield is a dry town. You can, however, get a beer in the tasting room at Kings Road Brewing Company.

FUN FACT: Haddonfield was named after early colonist Elizabeth Haddon, whose 1713 brewhouse still stands. It’s the oldest building in town.—SV

Hopewell Borough Photo by Laura Baer

HOPEWELL BOROUGH

Mercer County

Chart rank: 122
High school rank, 2018: 16
Population: 1,948
Median home price: $400,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: Most of the buildings in this 0.7-square-mile borough at the foot of the Sourland Mountains are protected as historic. That helps maintain the borough’s quaint and consistently attractive face. A small hole inside the larger donut of Hopewell Township, much of Hopewell Borough’s action happens along Broad Street, where Victorian houses with welcoming front porches are interspersed with antique shops, restaurants, boutiques and an 18th-century graveyard, the final resting place of John Hart, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Enjoy Hungarian food and live music during Jazz Thursdays or Open Mic Fridays at the Hopewell Valley Bistro. Hopewell Borough Park features marked trails through farm pastures and along Bedens Brook, and a Victorian-style gazebo where town concerts are held.

FUN FACT: The Hopewell Frog War had nothing to do with amphibians. Rather, it was a dispute between two railroad lines wishing to control the Philadelphia-to-New York route. In 1876, the Pennsylvania Railroad tried to block the Reading line from passing through by leaving a locomotive on the tracks in Hopewell. The Reading responded by installing a “frog” —a track segment that would allow two trains to cross. The war escalated until the governor had to call in the militia. Today, Freddy the Frog is Hopewell’s school mascot.—JPC

LAMBERTVILLE

Hunterdon County

Chart rank: 241
High school rank, 2018: 141
Population: 3,824
Median home price: $417,500

WHY WE LIKE IT: Lambertville is known as the antiques capital of New Jersey, but you don’t have to be able to identify a Louis XV chair to love poking around its pedestrian-friendly downtown. On Bridge, Main and Union streets, cozy restaurants and cafés (like Rojo’s Roastery, a sustainable-beans coffee shop) co-exist with a collection of well-curated antique emporiums, some specializing in fine furnishings. The town even boasts a thriving ballet company, Roxey Ballet. Living here also means easy access to the Delaware River, the town’s western border, and its adjacent D&R Canal towpath, a haven for walkers, runners and bicyclists. It’s no surprise Lambertville has long attracted creative types. “Lambertville is a thriving artist community,” says Mark Roxey, the ballet company’s founder. “The vitality and energy that live here make it the most amazing place.”

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Antique hunters can’t get enough of Rago Art & Auction House and the Golden Nugget Antique Flea Market.

FUN FACT: Sparkle Week, an annual Lambertville tradition, finds residents putting out bulk trash they suspect may become someone else’s treasure. Neighbors and visitors are free to claim whatever’s on the curb.—TLG  

LITTLE SILVER

Monmouth County

Chart rank: 60
High school rank, 2018: 39
Population: 5,908
Median home price: $635,000

Although its history is rooted in farming and fishing, Little Silver is now mostly residential, with a variety of housing in its 3.3 square miles. Its location on the Shrewsbury River, which has numerous estuaries, makes it a popular boating destination. The small downtown has several local eateries and a family-owned pharmacy; for sophisticated  shopping, entertainment and top-notch dining, Red Bank is just five minutes north. Also convenient: The beach (Sea Bright) is just 20 minutes east, and PNC Arts Center is 20 minutes west. The regional high school also includes students from Red Bank and Shrewsbury.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Sickles Market, family owned and operated for four generations, is the go-to destination for fresh produce, specialty foods, gifts, plants and landscaping supplies.

FUN FACT: The Little Silver train station, with service to New York’s Penn Station (approximately 90 minutes), was designed by renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson.—LP 

Park Ridge Photo by Laura Baer


PARK RIDGE

Bergen County

Chart rank: 89
High school rank, 2018: 55
Population: 8,944
Median home price: $542,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: Park Avenue is the walkable main drag, linking the high school, borough hall and historic NJ Transit train station—plus the Ridge Diner, a focal point for local chatter. Apartments are being built near the train station, replacing a brickyard and garbage-transfer station, as Park Ridge continues to evolve away from its industrial past. The town’s small but highly rated high school adds to its appeal. The train commute to New York City connects through Secaucus Junction and takes 60-70 minutes. Homes range from around $300,000 for condos to $1 million for large, newer properties.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Mill Pond (also known as Silver Lake and Electric Lake) has a pedestrian bridge overlooking a dam and a swath of ecologically minded plantings, including a wildlife habitat, rain garden and monarch-butterfly waystation. It’s also the historic site of the 19th century Van Riper bobbin factory.

FUN FACT: Park Ridge was home to the Roches, sisters who won international renown as a folk-rock trio; Sopranos star James Gandolfini, who grew up in town; and President Richard M. Nixon, who lived in the gated Bear’s Nest townhouse complex at the end of his life.—KL

Pennington Photo by Laura Baer

PENNINGTON

Mercer County

Chart rank: 17
High school rank, 2018: 16
Population: 2,589
Median home price: $530,075

WHY WE LIKE IT: In Pennington, you get the sophistication and sensibility of neighboring Princeton without the pretense. And if you’re itching for fine dining or a museum visit, the fabled university town is just eight miles away. The commercial stretch of Pennington’s Main Street mixes pristine homes, historic churches and unique shops and is the site of Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades, and a Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony. Stately Victorians and colonials line the eastern end of Delaware Avenue; the prestigious Pennington School, a private institution founded in 1838, dominates the western end. Public school students attend the highly regarded Hopewell Valley Regional School District.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Hopewell Valley Vineyards on Yard Road is the place to sample locally produced wines, with live music Thursday-Sunday.  Outside of town, the 1,600-acre Mercer Meadows offers a variety of trails, the trout-stocked Rosedale Lake, an equestrian center, bike rentals and an off-leash dog park.

FUN FACT: Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, attended the Pennington School in the 1880s, where his father had earlier served as headmaster. Though he never graduated, the school commemorates its most famous student with the Stephen Crane Lecture Series, featuring writers, artists and public figures.—JPC

POINT PLEASANT BEACH

Ocean County 

Chart rank: 43
High school rank, 2018: 52
Population: 4,544
Median home price: $556,250

WHY WE LIKE IT: Point Beach, as locals call it, is the quintessential Shore town. Located just south of the Manasquan Inlet, it’s a summer destination for sure, but for many, it’s a year-round home. The roughly five-block downtown is stocked with charming boutiques and laudable restaurants. With its lovely manicured lawns and Cape-style homes, the Library Section is the most desirable area in town. The train station is the penultimate southern stop on the North Jersey Coast line, and the commute to New York City takes a minimum of two hours. Locally, bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Did we say beach? There’s a mile-plus expanse of sand and surf along the boardwalk, home to Jenkinson’s Aquarium and a plethora of arcades. Dining options run the gamut, from the top-rated Poached Pear to the original Jersey Mike’s sub shop.

FUN FACT: Point Pleasant Beach is not to be confused with Point Pleasant Borough, its larger neighbor to the west.—LP 

SOUTHAMPTON

Burlington County

Chart rank: 236
High school rank, 2018: 123
Population: 10,205
Median home price: $165,000

WHY WE LIKE IT: With the historic village of Vincentown at its center, surrounded by 43 square miles of farmlands and Pinelands, Southampton feels frozen in time in a good way. Residents can take weekly art classes, join a knitting circle, or discuss farming issues at Grange Hall. Retirement is another key subject; one-third of the town’s population lives in Leisuretowne, a sprawling, well-maintained, active-adult community at the edge of the Pine Barrens. Many Southampton residents trace their local lineage back multiple generations, according to Judy Poinsett, a librarian at the 96-year-old, one-room library where the Stitching with Sally circle meets. “It gets a little rowdy,” says Poinsett of the twice-monthly needlecraft group. “We’re not a shush type library. We’re a come-on-in-and-tell-us-your-troubles kind of place.”

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Diners, dairy bars and farm stands dot the landscape, with the iconic Vincentown and the Red Lion diners dishing out their delights at opposite ends of town on Route 206. On Route 70, you can pick up local produce at the Green Top and Red Top farm markets, then grab a soft-serve cone at the Evergreen Dairy Bar, with classic-car cruise nights each Tuesday.

FUN FACT: The Red Lion section of Southampton derives its name from a hand-to-hand combat that was said to have occured between one of the town’s original settlers and a mountain lion. When the struggle ended, the settler supposedly dragged the bloody lion into town. A legend was born.—JPC

TEWKSBURY

Hunterdon County

Chart rank: 103
High school rank, 2018: 61
Population: 5,844
Median home price: $636,250

WHY WE LIKE IT: Tewksbury spreads out across rolling hills, farmland and forest, but it’s not so rural that commuting or shopping pose a challenge to residents. Route 78 passes through the 31.7-square-mile township, and the Bridgewater Commons mall is just a 20-minute drive away. Its antique villages—Oldwick, Mountainside and Cokesbury—provide historic charm. Oldwick, the largest settlement, was founded in 1734 and offers a mixture of Victorians and colonials, many protected as historic. On weekends, when traffic is light, bicyclists take to the town’s scenic roads. High schoolers attend North Hunterdon High School in nearby Annandale.

MAIN ATTRACTIONS: Hikers and bird-watchers enjoy the Whittemore Nature Preserve and the Cold Brook Preserve.

FUN FACT: The township is thought to be named after Tewkesbury, England; the two established a sister-city relationship in 2003.—SV

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