Need to leave Manhattan for a quieter place, away from the beach crowds, with tree-lined streets, embedded in history, yet cosmopolitan? Do you want to be home in the evening as well?
Princeton, New Jersey, with 31,000 people, 18 square miles, will meet that criteria, literally dripping with history, filled with small local shops, diverse dining spaces and architecture. Less than an hour and a half ride on NJ Transit from Penn Station will find you at the station, opened in 2014, a half mile from the center of town. A slight uphill stroll, or a local bus or taxi ride will have you there in a few minutes. Nassau Street, the main street, separates the center of town from Princeton University, both steeped in history.
To flesh out town and gown differences, a walking tour will answer many questions.
Princeton Tour Company offers a weekly Saturday afternoon walking tour, which will leave little to the imagination. By the end of the two hour, three mile visit (there is some walking uphill, steps, and the pace is a bit fast between stops), you will have learned all about this town.
Founded by Lenni Lenape Native American settlers, chartered as a town in 1682, Princeton’s fascinating Revolutionary War history preceded its place as a center of higher education and a bedroom community for both Philadelphia and New York.
First part of the tour? A visit to the sprawling campus, filled with buildings and greenery.
Princeton University Unmasked
The University started out as the College of New Jersey in Elizabeth NJ for the education of ministers in 1746. Ten years later, it expanded and moved to what is now Nassau Hall on campus, where student population reached 100. In 1783, for about four months Nassau Hall hosted the United States Congress, and many students went on to become leaders of the young republic. In that year, The Treaty of Paris, the armistice between the United States and Great Britain was signed here, and the young nation was recognized formally as a new nation.
Designated as Princeton NJ in 1896, the university expanded soon thereafter under the aegis of then-university President Woodrow Wilson. Today, its 1948 Firestone Library has more than 11 million holdings in approximately 12 buildings throughout the campus. The University Chapel, completed in 1928, can hold 2,000 students. All of this was covered on this part of the tour, which noted that Princeton has 5300 undergraduate students and 2400 graduate students. Also noted? The $37 billion endowment of the university has created a building boom over the last 40 years, with buildings by nine Pritzker Prize-winning architects on campus.
Local Residents and Their Stories
Princeton attracted many notables, many discussed on the tour. Our guide spoke about the life of the town’s most famous citizen, Albert Einstein, who lived here from 1933-1955, as we viewed his former residence. The brilliant scientist had tendency to lose his sense of direction on his local walks, and depended on locals to get him home. Earlier in history, a young man named Alexander Hamilton fired a cannon to rout British officers from Nassau Hall during the Revolution. The short campus lives of famous Princeton dropouts F. Scott Fitzgerald and John F. Kennedy were detailed. If you are able to do the tour, it’s a good way to learn about the town and the university.
If you want to skip a guided tour and walk at your own pace, the town offers much to see on your own. There are three institutions of higher learning here: Princeton University, Princeton Theological Seminary and the Institute for Advanced Study, a think tank for scholars. Make your plans in advance as the university is 70% the size of Central Park. A local map is available to plot out where items of interest are.
When hunger strikes, dining choices abound from snack bars to fancy dining and everything in between. One shopping venue is the Princeton Record Exchange on South Tulane Street, just off Nassau Street, a well-stocked store dedicated to vinyl, CDs and DVDs. Many other interesting local shops are worth a visit in addition.
One Additional Venue
Should you want to add a few hours to your visit, the Grounds for Sculpture will make your visit even more meaningful with Summer Friday, Saturday and Sunday closings at 9 p.m. Founded by Johnson and Johnson heir Seward Johnson, it opened in 1992 on the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds in nearby Hamilton. Nearly 300 contemporary sculptures are sited on 42 landscaped acres, with six galleries indoors. Many of the sculptures are life-sized adaptations of Impressionist paintings. There are few steps or ramps, and the exhibition buildings offer elevators.
The Grounds for Sculpture is located about 12 miles from Princeton, best reached by ground transportation.
When all the touring makes you hungry, Rat’s Restaurant offers excellent meals, priced accordingly. It is open until 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.
Both places are perfect for a late summer or early fall visit. If you would like more information: