Roadside America: Princeton, New Jersey, The Quintessential College Town

Breathe it in: the warm aroma of fall leaves and cable-knit sweaters, the musty scent of old buildings and library books, and the added jolt of freshly brewed coffee.

It’s the smell of a college town, but not just any college town: Princeton, New Jersey, home to the fourth oldest Ivy League university in America.

Princeton particularly shines in the fall, when the energy from the start of the school year is fresh and deciduous trees light up the collegiate Gothic campus in shades of red and orange. Driving into town on Washington Road, it’s clear why the Princeton Review consistently ranks Princeton University among the ten most beautiful college campuses in the country.

Located in the south-central part of New Jersey, Princeton is an hour-and-a-half drive from both New York and Philadelphia and an even easier train ride, making it the perfect city getaway. A day trip into town isn’t complete without the following stops.

%Gallery-168518%Nassau Street and Palmer Square

The epicenter of Princeton, Nassau Street is a charming road dotted with restaurants, boutiques, bookstores and a fantastic independent movie theatre. Much of the action is clustered around the historic Nassau Inn in Palmer Square, with artisanal chocolate and olive oil shoppes, along with preppy chains like J. Crew and Kate Spade.

Food-wise, you have an extensive menu to choose from. For a quick bite, grab a salad or sandwich at Olive’s, at 22 Witherspoon. A few doors down, Small World Coffee offers the perfect caffeine fix; try the Grumpy Monkey Blend. For a sit-down meal, Teresa Caffe is a popular date spot among students, with thin-crust pizzas, inventive pastas and delicious house bread, freshly baked down the street at the Terra Momo Bread Company.

And then there’s the ice cream. Three different shops cater to different tastes. Thomas Sweet, at 183 Nassau Street, offers an extensive menu of classic and wacky flavors, including their signature “blend-ins” with candies, nuts or fruits. Halo Pub, at 9 Hulfish Street, excels at richer, heavier flavors, like classic chocolate and vanilla. And my personal favorite, The Bent Spoon at 35 Palmer Square West, specializes in local and artisanal flavors, like New Jersey honey and heirloom tomato sorbet. Their cupcakes are ridiculously delicious too.

Princeton University

The best way to enter Princeton’s campus is through the FitzRandolph Gate on Nassau Street, which leads you directly to the front lawn of Nassau Hall. For several months after the American Revolution, this colonial landmark served as the capital of the United States, hosting the early American government and Congress of the Confederation. It is now home to the university’s administrative offices.

Just to the right of Nassau Hall is a pathway leading to “up-campus.” The imposing Alexander Hall sits on your right. According to Princeton lore, a student designed the building for his architectural thesis and received a failing grade. Later, when the student amassed his fortune, he donated a large sum of money to the university, on the condition that it be used to bring the building to fruition. It holds the Richardson Auditorium, which hosts campus events.

On the left is Blair Arch, one of the university’s prettiest and most photographed landmarks. The arch often plays host to university a cappella groups, who take advantage of its incredible acoustics to perform preppy favorites from days gone by. If you happen to be on campus late on a Thursday or Saturday night, you might be able to elbow your way through the crowd of tipsy coeds to catch a performance.

Left of Blair Arch is a small road leading to the Princeton University Art Museum, which is home to a tightly curated but impressive array of artwork. Current exhibitions include “Dancing into Dreams: Maya Vase Painting of the Ik’ Kingdom” and “The Fertile Crescent: Gender, Art and Society.”

For a full tour of the Princeton University campus, book a free Orange Key Tour, intended for prospective students, at the Frist Campus Center.

Carnegie Lake

Canoeing through the foliage of the D&R Canal to the man-made Carnegie Lake is a quintessential fall experience. Princeton Canoe & Kayak Rental offers four-person aluminum canoes, three-person adventure canoes and kayaks for reasonable rates until November 4. Go in the afternoon, and you may catch the Princeton Crew teams at practice.

[Photo Credit: Flickr via Calgary Sandy]

Hidden Gems: Princeton, New Jersey, a photo essay

Brad Hill, Princetonite, was my guide on a tour through his favorite Princeton, New Jersey haunts on a grey
Friday in March. But first, I gazed in awe at the ivy-covered Ivy-ness of the University.

It’s beautiful, of course, but
we were looking for gems, and hidden ones, at that. Brad’s favorite spot (and mine, as well): Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon St., where the lattes are
poured fast and the Rice Krispie treats are served in gigantic cubes.

One of the best parts about Small World Coffee is their bean-erific logo, emblazoned on the most
impressive array of schwag I’ve ever seen in a
coffee shop (and boy do I know coffee shops, folks). Most of the items, which range from shot glasses to insulated mugs
to girly-shaped tees, can only be purchased in the coffee shop itself.

The shop has a commitment
to organic coffee and foods and a full complement of Princetonites in all their glory. A 15-month-old tried to share
his cookie with me and the most happy barista I’ve ever met served me a mini cupcake in a plastic bubble. I loved every

Zorba’s Grill, 183-B Nassau St., is hidden in plain site
between the campus and the main drag. According to Brad, it’s where most of the professors get their lunch, and the
gyros are great and cheap.

As most college towns,
Princeton is infatuated with ice cream. Next door to Zorba’s is the most popular creamery, Thomas Sweet, 179 Nassau St. With its bubbly graphics and
primary-colored logo, the place looks like a chain. Oh, wait, it is a chain!

Thomas Sweet, the "blend-ins" are famous and made my
mouth water and stomach grumble for more chocolate. They sound like a copycat of (or precursor to) the Blizzard. And I
know you’re asking, Sarah, what is a popular chain on the main drag doing in your "Hidden Gems"

…as a contrast to Halo Pub, 9
Hulfish St. (off Palmer Square), the ice cream store that had far, far more character. And, it appeared, far more
customers on a cool not-quite-spring day.

Why are there more customers?
Possibly because the possibilities are mind-boggling. I love an ice cream store that sells so many flavors I can never
pick one.

Even better: the wall of cows.
I don’t know if that’s what they call it. But that’s what I’m calling it. Every ice cream store needs a wall
of cows.

After all that ice cream I’ve worked up
an appetite for something spicy… Indian food! Princeton seems to be a haven for Indian restaurants, and we ate at a
popular Indian spot on Thursday night. We only ate there, it seems, because the "far better"
Méhék, 164 Nassau St., never answered their phone to take our reservation. Their hours are murky and
their phone isn’t answered, but they’re the best in town. Consider yourself informed.

wouldn’t be a photo essay without a stop at the local camera joint. The man behind the counter at New York Camera, 173
Nassau St., was studiously answering a difficult question from the owner of an old camera, but he took a break to ring
me up for some interesting and very cheap Kodak film.

The shop, like many in
Princeton, was located in a Colonial-era house connected by walkways to the houses behind — in central Princeton, it
seems, there are few yards.

I couldn’t leave the town
without visiting some of the spots made famous by Hollywood. This room, Brad tells me, was the one where the other
members of the faculty gave John Nash their pens in
A Beautiful Mind. Of course, no such real ceremony exists
, and the books that filled the
"library" were added just for the filming. It’s no less stunning and – next time I’m in Princeton — I’m
totally hanging out here with my laptop. The room was empty but for two students last Friday afternoon.

[Photos of Princeton taken March 24, 2006, by Sarah Gilbert.]