Now that the holidays are over, many of us are finding ourselves scratching our heads — what are we supposed to do on chilly, winter weekends now that Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s are behind us?
Luckily for Central Jerseyans, there are plenty of quaint small towns throughout the region filled with shops, restaurants and unique attractions that make for great day trips.
Since most of the attractions within these bustling small towns are housed indoors, you’ll have a respite from the cold throughout most of your trip — plus, as long as you don’t spend too much time inside one of the eateries or bars, you’ll be able to walk off some of those holiday cookies.
Somerville: foodies downtown heaven
Downtowns in Central Jersey provide a dining wonderland — the opportunity to be surrounded by a plethora of dining options, all within walking distance of one another, with cuisines that are everything from French to Filipino.
However, the one that stands out above the rest — and certainly did in a downtown dining poll we conducted in 2015 — is Somerville, which is home to restaurant favorites such as Verve Bistro, Kumo Asian Bistro, Kyma, Tapastre, Alfonso’s Family Trattoria and much more.
“Downtown Somerville is ideally located in Central New Jersey, it is easily accessible, there is plenty of parking and our downtown is well maintained, attractive and walkable,” said Beth Anne Macdonald, executive director of the Downtown Somerville Alliance. “All of these factors contribute to a perfect ‘recipe’ for dining.”
Besides the wealth of cuisines offered, such as Thai, Chinese, Cuban, French, new American, Mexican, Filipino, Irish, Japanese and Korean, the food and service itself is also at a high caliber. Plus, while dining in Somerville, you’re also sure to catch one of the community events that are frequently held in the borough.
Cranbury: destination for history buffs
Central Jersey is blessed with the presence of cities budding with modernity, but it also has claim to one small town that can call itself one of the oldest in the state. Cranbury, a walkable, 13-square-mile town of about 4,000 people that is home to a historic district, can trace its first buildings to 1698.
Visitors to Cranbury can get a taste of that history by picking up a self-guided walking tour from the Cranbury Museum from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays or at cranburyhistory.org. Although there are 31 sites on the walking tour, a few of the highlights include the Cranbury Museum, which was built in 1834 and contains 18th- and 19th-century furnishings and local memorabilia, and the Cranbury Inn, which is one of the oldest businesses in Cranbury, dating to 1800.
Cranbury is on both the New Jersey Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. Its nomination for the National Register of Historic Places said, “Cranbury is the best preserved 19th century village in Middlesex County… While there are many small mill towns in New Jersey, few are in such an undisturbed environment as that of Cranbury.”
Flemington: shoppers paradise any time of year
Flemington pulled in a ton of holiday visitors this year — and for good reason. The small town is known as a shopper’s paradise, full of stores both locally owned as well as big-name.
Now that the holidays are over, you may not need to go shopping for friends and family any longer, but if you’re looking to pick up a few gifts for yourself, Flemington is the place to go.
The Shoppes at Flemington house favorites such as Anne Taylor LOFT, Ulta Beauty, Home Goods and more, and at the Liberty Village Premium Outlets, you can also find stores such as Coach, Timberland, J. Crew and Brooks Brothers. If you’re looking for something less mainstream, head to Attachments Jewelry, the Downtown Antique Shop or Shoetique, which can all be found along Main Street among many other small businesses.
“Shopping here is so not a chore,” said Judy Goodwin, executive director of the Flemington Community Partnership. “You go into one store and you get to experience something very carefully curated and then next door is the best coffee you have ever had, so it becomes this little adventure.”
Clinton: step back in time to small-town Americana
There aren’t many places left in the world where you can stroll down a pastel-colored Main Street, grab lunch from a restaurant that’s been locally owned for 30 years, shop for leather goods, books and clothes and then hit a museum — all within one block.
However, Hunterdon County has its own picturesque destination such as this that’s reminiscent of a “Norman Rockwell painting,” as Tim Betz, assistant director of the Red Mill Museum Village, said.
Clinton Town, which has a population of about 2,700 and pulls in another 2,500 visitors in the fall and winter seasons, has a downtown area mainly composed of its Main Street, which is filled with businesses such as the Clinton Book Shop, the Hunterdon Art Museum, the Red Mill Museum Village, the Clinton House Restaurant, Fourchette cheese and olive oil shop and much more.
If you want to stop for a meal while in Clinton, you can check out the Clean Plate Kitchen, a healthy alternative to restaurant dining that was recently written about in the New York Times; Dora’s Restaurant, which has options for outdoor dining on its romantic terrace; Towne Restaurant, a 30-year Clinton staple; and Pru Thai, a newer Thai restaurant.
Princeton: bustling, modern city of the arts
New Jersey may be chock-full of bustling downtowns, but many lack the polish that Princeton, a Mercer County municipality that dates to before the American Revolution, possesses. Surrounding the Princeton University campus, Princeton is filled with locally owned shops, restaurants serving cuisine from all ends of the world, and attractions that beat going to the mall to escape the cold any day.
Escape the cold for two hours and check out a cool indie flick by heading to the Princeton Garden Theatre, a nonprofit that plays classic Hollywood movies, foreign language films, filmmaker appearances and lectures, Saturday kids matinees and theatrically broadcast events such as from the National Theatre in London.
Or, check out the Princeton University Art Museum, which may not look like the Museum of Modern Art, but it is one of the world’s leading university art museums with collections of more than 92,000 works.
If you want to take the local arts scene home with you, head to the Princeton Record Exchange, one of the leading independent record stores since 1980, where visitors can buy and sell new and used CDs, used DVDs and used records.