Day Trip: Exploring Princeton, New Jersey

Rachel Amico, of Travel + Leisure, guides us through a perfect day trip to Princeton, NJ. With her Moment lenses in hand, the town comes alive.

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Cities can be very overwhelming. Usually the relentless activity is thrilling, but constantly weaving through crowds and squeezing onto trains can sometimes feels like you’re fighting for the right to physically exist. Every once in awhile, you have to just get out of town.

Especially if you're in NYC, you might find that Princeton, NJ makes the perfect day trip. Home to the prestigious Ivy League university, Princeton, the town is all sorts of charming. This guide will map out the highlights you shouldn't miss: 


1. Traveling to Princeton, NJ

The journey's half the fun. Enjoy it!

Public transportation in New England is great, so getting to Princeton is fairly easy. From NYC, I hopped on the New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line at Penn Station. There’s a smaller train (aptly referred to as the “Dinky”) that takes riders from the station, over the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park, into the University campus.

From there, most everything in town is within walking distance. I recommend doubling back to Lake Carnegie to start your day looking out over the water. Bring your Moment Macro lens in case you find a few trees with buds on them!


2. Princeton University Campus

Princeton University is steeped in history and has a roster of accomplished alumni and famous faculty. Thomas Jefferson’s VP Aaron Burr, who famously dueled and killed Alexander Hamilton, founded the university and remains buried in the town cemetery. James Madison, Woodrow Wilson, Michelle Obama, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and Jeff Bezos are also all alumni. F. Scott Fitzgerald didn’t graduate, but based his debut novel This Side of Paradise on his experiences there. Cornel West and Joyce Carol Oates are faculty members, and Albert Einstein lectured frequently while living here. It’s all very impressive.

But I can read about the history from my apartment. For me, the best part of the university is the stunning architecture. Nothing can simulate physically walking under its rib vaulted arches, or staring up at its spires and elegant facades. It’s a truly transportive experience and feels both like walking through the past, and walking through fantasy; some sort of mashup between european villages and Hogwarts.

The campus is also littered with fantastic sculptures. Alexander Stoddart’s statue of John Witherspoon sits next to the rather magnificent University Chapel. Near the football stadium, Richard Serra’s “The Hedgehog and the Fox” creates enormous, parallel, pathways that morph the sounds of anyone walking through. Somewhere on campus, you can find one of Yayoi Kusama’s famous pumpkin statues. And of course, there is is James Fitzgerald’s Fountain of Freedom – which is now also permanently lined by Ai Wei Wei’s massive zodiac heads. The fountain is a popular meeting place in the warmer months, and brings me back to my many summer afternoons sitting in the sun doing homework, watching kids splash around. In the off season I love being able to see it up close while staying dry.


3. The town of Princeton

As a town, Princeton is quite small and there are only a few main streets, but they are packed with restaurants and shops. Of course, no brisk afternoon in Princeton is complete without a drink in hand from Small World Coffee, a small coffee shop touting a “sleep is for the weak” motto that is  popular among students. Other than digging for cheap CDs in the bargain section at the Princeton Record Exchange, I was only planning to window-shop elsewhere.

Much of the shopping in town is centered around Palmer Square, which was originally developed in the 30’s by the heir to the New Jersey Zinc Company, Edgar Palmer. A statue of a tiger (the official Princeton mascot) honors his memory in the square center. Considering that constructing the square displaced the majority of Princeton’s poor families during the depression, the plaque leaves a sour taste. In fact, at the moment Witherspoon-Jackson, the neighborhood to which the original displaced families were relocated, is currently fighting for designation as a historic district. If successful, it will be the 20th historical district in Princeton.



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