Live like a local: An insider’s guide to eating, playing and relaxing in the Garden State


Photo courtesy of Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs

Living in New Jersey means we get to live where other people come to play. Guidebooks are written and websites launched to help visitors navigate our state, breaking it down by “places to see” and “things to do,” tips and tricks all quite helpful to those who are here for the main attractions, sometimes even offering a wink-and-nod’s worth of insider information on “local hidden gems.” 

Carving our state into regions delineated by landscape and lure is abundantly useful; but there are deeper distinctions of the lifestyle, culture and patent personality of every community that sculpt our Jersey bedrock. We natives have intimate access and the unique privilege to drive from town to town, region to region, at will, as if we own the place. (We do.) 

We might all be Jersey locals, but there are limits. As the radius expands from our individual focus, the less relatively local we become. But in a state like Jersey where the bird’s-eye view is an ever-shifting land and streetscape, it’s a breeze to get the flock out of town and shake our tail feathers in a whole new stomping ground.  

Ready to play Tourist-Not-A-Tourist? Put on your best When-in-Rome game face and experience these parts of Jersey as only a local can. 

With six state parks, natural and artificial lakes, and a portion of the Delaware Water Gap, things can get pretty rugged out in the Sussex Skylands. Photo courtesy of Sussex County Chamber of Commerce

Going Up the Country  

If you want to blend into the northwestern part of the state, think “outdoorsy;” but you can probably leave the camouflage at home. With six state parks, natural and artificial lakes, and a portion of the Delaware Water Gap, things can get pretty rugged out in the Sussex Skylands. On the contrary, there’s the luxurious Crystal Springs Resort, so the pendulum can swing pretty far the other way. As do the golf clubs — there are 15 scenic courses in Sussex County alone; you can make the rounds as the weather allows. 

“Sussex County’s personality is rural, but with sophisticated amenities,” said Tammie Horsfield, president of its chamber of commerce. “Residents are drawn to this great quality of life where they can enjoy the outdoors and our quaint, tranquil communities.” 

Lake Mohawk generously shares its gorgeous lake views, charming Swiss Alpine architecture and the delights of White Deer Plaza with visitors. Photo courtesy of NJ Advance Media

Sparta is one of them. Of its 11 lake communities, most of them man-made, Lake Mohawk is on the National and State Registers of Historic Places. The exclusive Lake Mohawk Country Club is members only; but it generously shares its gorgeous lake views, charming Swiss Alpine architecture and the delights of White Deer Plaza with visitors. No gas-powered watercraft allowed on the lake lends a particularly tranquil atmosphere perfect for lakeside dining or a burger and a brew after a stroll around the plaza’s unique shopping village. Check online for events on and off the water and float some ideas for fun. 

Newton, the county seat, is enjoying a bit of a rebirth. A more walkabout type of town, its main drag on Spring Street has welcomed new businesses; and the town plays host to its fair share of events, including music in the park, Taste of Newton and its Fall Festival & Car Show. 

Strolling, shopping, antiquing and tasting the local cuisine are great reasons to stop in Andover and land in Lafayette, where — heads up! — the Garlic Festival makes its return in October. 

Vail Mansion is the stately sight of Morristown’s annual Pumpkin Illumination, typically held at the end of October. Photo courtesy of Morristown Partnership

Meet Up in the Middle of Morris 

Leslie Bensley, executive director of the Morris County Tourism Bureau, believes the fighting spirit of George Washington kept the county hanging on and charging forward despite the challenges of the pandemic. “The duality of the county is hip and historic — there’s a vibrancy and a reflection on how important the county’s role is in American history.” 

Life in the Morris environs ranges from rural to small town to suburban sophistication. Routes 206, 513, 517 and 24 wind through some of the state’s prettiest populations; and autumn is one perfect season to make the drive, peep at the leaves and stop along the way to pick pumpkins at Ort Farms in Long Valley or apples at Riamede Farm in Chester. No matter the farm, apple cider fans will be thrilled to the core. Historic downtown Chester, with its antique-y vibe, eateries and store fronts that hark back to early America on Main Street, makes you want to sit a spell on the porch. 

Downtown Chester is a delightful location worth checking out in Morris County. Photo courtesy of Morris County Tourism Bureau

From country roads to downtown boulevards, the backdrop of your Morris County town tour can change with the flick of your blinker. Switch lanes to circle the Green in Morristown, and you’re sure to catch some of that Gen. Washington spirit of which Bensley speaks — enough to make you pull over to join the locals strolling, shopping and sampling the restaurants and bars along South Street. 

Rolling right along, meet Madison and Chatham, two tony towns with walkable town centers, longtime family businesses and trendy new boutiques and restaurants. For a musical interlude, reserve a table at Shanghai Jazz in Chatham to feast on its upscale Asian menu accompanied by world-class live music, Tuesdays through Sundays. 

The closest you’ll come to city life in Morris County might be Parsippany, where you’re more likely to find restaurants, hotels and shopping situated along highway routes 46 and 10; but the beautiful historic community of Mount Tabor must be toured on foot to appreciate its Victorian-style cottages built in the 25-by-16-foot footprints of Methodist meeting tents of yesteryear. 

Jersey City is one of Hudson County’s havens for the arts and culture, with murals splashed across many of its buildings. Photo courtesy of Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs

The Nitty Gritty on the Cities 

The urban landscape in northeast Jersey mirrors that of Manhattan, but with an “objects are smaller than they appear” disclaimer. That’s not a criticism; Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken, Weehawken, Edgewater and all the bright-lights-big-city spots on this side of the Hudson have mighty bragging rights. Havens for the arts, culture and cuisine, with arms that fling open widely to embrace the diversity that makes it all so creative and edgy and chic, these New Jersey cities are concrete jewels, not jungles. 

While Newark’s major attractions — Prudential Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) — are huge visitor draws, there are cultural experiences tucked all over the city. The incomparable Portuguese, Brazilian and Spanish cuisines of the Ironbound, the exhibits of The Newark Museum of Art and the paths and playgrounds of Branch Brook Park, where the cherry blossoms bloom, show off a side of the city some wouldn’t expect to exist. 

The Hoboken Terminal has a flair and grandeur that harkens back to the golden age of rail travel. Photo courtesy of Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs

If the only thing you know about Hoboken is that Frank Sinatra was born there, you really need to get to know it — and its Hudson County neighbors — much better. Director of Tourism and Marketing for Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs Peggy Kelly extends an enthusiastic invitation. 

“Energy and creativity are woven into the fabric of Hudson County, and we have our talented network of neighbors to thank. From artisans and chefs to creatives and family businesses, our neighbors are daring, imaginative and inspiring — and by far the county’s best attraction. To celebrate our brilliant minds and bold thinkers, we’ve launched the Meet the Neighbors miniseries. Tune in (at visithudson.org) to learn the stories behind our brilliant neighbors, and be ready to leave with some newfound inspiration of your own!” 

Spectacular views of the New York City skyline are just one of the sensory pleasures in our cities’ midst. Photo courtesy of Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs

Who wouldn’t want to rub elbows with this interesting, eclectic crowd and wander the sidewalks with a surprise around every corner? Ethnic delicacies from around the world, art that lives in galleries and spills out and up onto walls outside, avenues that turn into pedestrian plazas for al fresco cocktails and dining and live entertainment, spectacular views of the New York City skyline — these are just a few of the sensory pleasures in our cities’ midst. You can visit with a list of “to-do’s,” or you can go with the adventurous spirit of those who first passed through Ellis Island; just see what you find when you get there. 

The Jersey Shore begins in Monmouth County with cool beach towns, like Long Branch. Photo courtesy of Monmouth County Government

Beach Towns that Beckon 

The Jersey Shore begins in Monmouth County, stretches through Ocean County, and waves goodbye at Cape May Point in the county that shares its name. If you live in New Jersey and haven’t been to the beach, it’s tough to articulate a persuasive argument that doesn’t begin with, “Are you kidding me?” Think about it: There are 44 beaches up and down our coast, and each one is different from the next; there has to be at least one spot that complements you and your chair. And if Cape May, the nation’s oldest seaside resort, doesn’t thrill and enchant with its Victorian charm, there truly are no words! 

Big boardwalk towns, like Asbury Park, Point Pleasant, Seaside Heights, Ocean CityAtlantic City and Wildwood, have an assortment of kid-sized and grown-up amusements. If nothing else, have a slice of pizza, tear into some funnel cake and get a twisty Kohr’s custard just to say you’ve lived.  

But if you just want to bury your toes in the sand, listen to the waves or maybe catch a few, do a little surf fishing, and have the option to venture off the beach blanket to see what’s on the other side of Ocean Avenue, the dozens of beaches and beach towns up and down the coast have a wide range of playful-to-placid options. Just think Belmar to Spring Lake, for example — two short miles separate the rollicking from the reserved. 

The inland community of Red Bank, settled riverside on the Navesink, buzzes with an abundance of activities. Photo courtesy of Monmouth County Government

Do keep in mind there’s more to coastal Jersey than the beach. The inland community of Red Bank, settled riverside on the Navesink, is a culture-rich harbor town. The Count Basie and Two River theaters draw big-time performances; and the town center is an energetic hub for dining, entertainment and community events.  

Twenty minutes northwest of Atlantic City’s glitz is the quiet charm of Historic Smithville, with cobblestone pathways and foot bridges, shops, restaurants and more than 40 year-round weekend events you’re free to enjoy, really, for free. 

Paddle through the Pine Barrens to discover the natural wonders that await in America’s first National Preserve. Photo courtesy of Visit South Jersey

The ‘Other’ South Jersey 

That “Garden State” you hear so much about truly blooms on the Jersey side of the Delaware River; from Burlington County through the counties of Camden, Gloucester and Salem, there’s a burst of agrotourism with farms and wineries, and, yes, the blueberry capital of the world in Hammonton. 

No one says it better than Director of Communication for Visit South Jersey, Megan York Parker. 

“South Jersey prides itself on accessibility and overall welcoming vibe. We have something for everyone: From the Pinelands, lakes and rivers to bustling downtowns with revolutionary roots offering dining, history and culture, to sprawling farm fields with agrotourism opportunities and our own AVA wine region, you’ll find the region between the Delaware and the Jersey Shore very full of a range of experiences. We just may be the best-kept secret of the region — but once you know, you know. We’d love for you to come explore for yourself!”  

A former marl pit, the Rowan University Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park in Mantua Township contains thousands of fossils from the Cretaceous Period — the heyday of the dinosaurs. Photo courtesy of Visit South Jersey

There’s much to explore, but where to begin? You want antiques? Head for the farm charm of Mullica Hill. Haunted by the legend of the Jersey Devil? Settle it once and for all with a campground overnight in the Pine Barrens. Looking for a “best small town or place to live,” according to state and national ranks? Spend a day in Moorestown, or visit Collingswood at Christmastime and try not to fall in love with Main Street U.S.A. But for thrills and spills, the Cowtown Rodeo in Pilesgrove is a bucking blast. 

If you just can’t get enough of adorable downtowns with great new restaurants, breweries, art and antiques anyplace else in New Jersey, picture yourself in Pitman; and perhaps book a room at the turn-of-the-century Inn on Holly Bed and Breakfast. 

Ladies and gentlemen of a certain age — 21 and over, that is — can set a course on the Wine and Ale Trail of South Jersey or the Cape May Wine Trail; and the Garden State Wine Growers Association can point you in the right direction. There’s always a robust calendar of events at Jersey’s wineries and breweries, including tastings, tours, live music and the camaraderie that goes along it. Cheers! 

Bordentown is known as a ‘little city with a lot of charm,’ and Farnsworth Avenue is where you’ll find most of it. Photo courtesy of Visit South Jersey

Take the Fork in the Road 

Jersey legend Yogi Berra had it right — when you come to a fork in the road, take it. All roads in New Jersey lead to some local treasure, some fascinating discovery worth your time and travel to experience. When you get there, make friends with the locals. They might let you in on some more little secrets. 

Susan Kronberg is a freelance writer and Jersey girl. A married mother of two, she’s worked in insurance, transportation, marketing, newspapers and private education. Writing is but one thread that connects the patchwork of her professions.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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