Sitting in the shadow—quite literally—of the New York City skyline, Northern New Jersey is one of the largest population centers in the United States. It also happens to go completely ignored by, well, almost everyone. Millions of people live here in relative obscurity, in a patchwork of historic towns, gritty, post-industrial urban environments and impossibly charming (and remote-feeling) villages that are actually just a few minutes from the various tunnels—and one very iconic bridge—to Manhattan.
So much more than a string of bedroom communities, Northern New Jersey, much like the rest of the Garden State, has its own unique heritage, a wealth of beautiful architecture, an impressive amount of natural beauty and a slew of can’t-miss places to stop and dive into the culture. Headed for New York? Here are just a few must-see spots—all are just a short hop out of the city; all will give you a new appreciation for one of the country’s most misunderstood places.
Great Falls, Paterson
It’s the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution—the guy who spearheaded that whole effort is the subject of a little Broadway musical you may have heard of, the one that snapped up all of the statues at the Tony Awards. Nearly 100 feet high and more like a mini-gorge, the falls figured memorably into the first episode of “The Sopranos.” Even if they weren’t famous, this dramatic bit of nature smack in the middle of architecturally-impressive Paterson would still be worth the trip.
Glenmont, West Orange
Of all the envy-inducing historic homes hugging the sides of the pretty Watchung Mountains, inventor Thomas Edison’s brick pile in the exclusive Llewellyn Park section of West Orange is easily one of the most famous. It’s part of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, designated in 2009, preserving the sites important to Edison’s life and work—work that literally changed the world. Don’t miss the self-guided tour of the original laboratory, which recently underwent extensive restoration efforts.
Eagle Rock Reservation
Anyone wishing that New York had one of those hilltop vantage points where you could take lots of cool skyline pictures—like, say in the Hollywood Hills, high above Los Angeles—needs to take a trip to this 400-acre preserve in the Watchungs, located between the tony suburbs of Montclair and West Orange. Everyone comes up here for the terrific city views, but don’t miss the hiking trails, particularly in the fall, when the leaves turn.
Palisades Interstate Park
The Hudson River. Endless forest lands, particularly impressive, not to mention colorful, during the area’s lengthy fall foliage season. Soaring cliffs. Peek-a-boo views (and sometimes, full-on ones) of the George Washington Bridge. They didn’t have Instagram when the Rockefellers decided to keep a vast chunk of Northern New Jersey riverfront from being developed, but it got here as soon as it could.
Branch Brook Park, Newark
One of the largest and oldest urban parks in the United States (it’s so old, it was redesigned by famous American park guy, Frederick Law Olmsted, in 1900) is the setting for a terrific annual spring celebration, centered around the park’s many cherry trees. Any time of year, don’t miss a stop at Newark’s iconic Basilica of the Sacred Heart—America’s fifth largest cathedral—and a prominent player in the opening credits of “The Sopranos.”
Even the most Jersey-skeptic types will find the patio scene on a gorgeous summer’s night in downtown Montclair—one of the most civilized suburbs in the entire region, no contest—hard to resist. Claim a chair and order a drink at one of Church Street’s civilized eating and drinking establishments and watch the world go by—in good weather, this feels a bit more like Los Angeles than anything near New York.
Liberty State Park, Jersey City
Come for this waterfront park’s impressive September 11th memorial, to pause and reflect in the wide open spaces, to admire the impressive and recently restored historic rail terminal sitting right on the water, for brunch at the swank Liberty House Restaurant, to see an abundance of Manhattan skyline porn or the rear view of Lady Liberty—just get here. (Be prepared to take pictures. Tons of them.)
White Manna Hamburgers, Hackensack
Hungry? A bite to eat at Bergen County’s favorite old school burger joint is a must. Sitting on the banks of the Hackensack River since the 1940s, this holdover from the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens still reels in the hungry, not to mention the people who make TV shows catering to people who are always hungry. Get a double cheeseburger with onions—just don’t eat it in your car, unless you want your car to smell like double cheeseburger with onions for the next few days.
Booking a trip?
If you’re looking for the lowest airfares to Newark/New York, start by noodling around on CheapFlights or BookingBuddy—both will compare multiple sites at once, saving you a lot of running around. When you’re ready to book, we recommend Orbitz or Expedia—both offer 24-hour cancellation policies, allowing you to lock in the lowest fare while you finalize your plans. (As always, read the fine print first.) Just on here looking for the best Newark/New York hotel deals? Start by searching TripAdvisor, or Hotels.com, but don’t book anything without a stop at Priceline, where you can save up to 60% on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars, over the years.). Finally, if you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—BookingBuddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing, with just a couple of clicks.
Image National Park Service