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]

Talking travel with college admissions guru Katherine Cohen (part 2)

Katherine Cohen is a former reader at Yale’s admissions office, founder of a admissions counseling service, Applywise, and author of two bestsellers about college admissions: The Truth About Getting In and Rock Hard Apps. As the summer season gets into high swing, she’s here to talk about planning college tours as part of a roadtrip.

Read part 1 here.

What are your top five travel itineraries for visits?

Initially, students are interested in a college because of its location or academic offerings-Here are some themed itineraries that cater to those interests.

1. Boston Tour-

If you want a research university, you and your family can easily take the T (don’t call it a train or subway) to visit Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts, Northeastern and Boston College.

If you are looking for a smaller school or one with a unique academic focus, you’ll find the following schools in the Boston area appealing: Lesley University, Emerson College, Wheelock College, Simmons College (for women) Wentworth Institute of Technology and Suffolk University.
2. “Training” through the Ivy League

Many colleges do not let students have cars on campus, so visiting these campuses by public transportation is a great way to travel as students do. You’ll save money on gas and tolls as well as the headache of being stuck in traffic if you take Amtrak to and from Boston to Philadelphia. On this route, you can visit Harvard, Brown, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania quite easily.

3. The Virginia Vacation Road Trip

Families who are looking to combine vacation time and visiting colleges will love this itinerary. You can start or end in either Appalachian Mountains or Virginia Beach–the choice is yours. Take I-64 to visit Washington and Lee University (Lexington,) University of Virginia (Charlottesville,) University of Richmond, and the College of William & Mary (Williamsburg) and Old Dominion University (Norfolk).

4. Midwest Swing

This itinerary gives you the opportunity to see the differences between public and private, urban and rural, and parochial and non-sectarian colleges. Start in Chicago, where you can visit the University of Chicago, DePaul, and Northwestern. Then, head north to visit Marquette in Milwaukee. Go west to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and on your way back to Chicago, visit Beloit in Wisconsin, or Wheaton College in Chicago’s western suburbs. After this visit, you’ll know what type of college best meets your academic and social needs.

5. Pennsylvania Liberal Arts College Tour

Although New England is known for its small colleges, liberal arts institutions in eastern Pennsylvania are closer to one another, ideal for visiting multiple, similar campuses. All these schools are less than an hour and a half drive from Philadelphia. Do your research when choosing which liberal arts college you want to visit. You could easily spend a week (or more) finding the distinctions between these campuses: Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr (for women) Franklin & Marshall, Gettysburg, Dickinson, Ursinus, Muhlenberg, Lehigh, Moravian, and Lafayette.

What are your favorite colleges in terms of “travel destinations”?

Water and mountains really win me over. Pepperdine University in Malibu and the University of California in Santa Barbara have beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. The University of Colorado at Boulder is set on the backdrop of the Flatirons of the Rocky Mountains-there is great skiing and snowboarding nearby. Finally, I love visiting Vermont, not only for the winter sports. You can tour Middlebury, the University of Vermont, Bennington and the Ben and Jerry’s Factory. Vermont is bucolic and beautiful in all seasons.

What’s the ideal one-day itinerary to catch in some sights of New York and see its colleges?

Columbia, NYU, The Cooper Union, The New School. Four very different universities located in one very happening city.

Begin your day at 116th Street and Broadway with a tour of Columbia’s neoclassical campus, shockingly green and neatly enclosed within Morningside Heights, a neighbor to one of the city’s most vibrant communities, Harlem. As one of the oldest universities in the country, Columbia is full of history, so be sure to interrogate your tour guide with questions on the Manhattan Project and the school’s Core Curriculum. Student discounts are available for Broadway shows or Carnegie Hall performances. But if you want a greener afternoon, picnic on a modest piece of Central Park’s 843 acres before taking a stroll by 5th Avenue’s shopping landmarks, such as FAO Schwartz and Tiffany’s.

Now that you’ve had your uptown fun, travel downtown to Washington Square within Greenwich Village, a neighborhood teaming with NYU students. Unlike Columbia, this campus has no distinct border; the best clue you’ll have to distinguish between NYU buildings and the Gap next door (besides the mannequins in the storefront) is a violet flag with a white torch perched outside the university’s buildings. Be sure to visit the school of your choice. The Stern School of Business and the Tisch School of the Arts, both among the very best in their respective fields, couldn’t be more different. Before you rest your weary bones on the Washington Square fountain, swing by Mamoun’s for the very best falafel in the city. If you’re in need of an energy boost, grab some bubble tea in Chinatown or stop by a cafe sandwiched between the many boutiques of SoHo’s side streets.

NYU’s great size masks two other worthwhile schools in lower Manhattan: The Cooper Union and The New School. The Cooper Union begins just east of Greenwich Village at Astor Place. If you have a difficult time finding the place, look for the large Tony Rosenthal sculpture popularly referred to as “The Cube” and its strategic placement between three Starbucks cafes. If you just can’t decide between the three, try a local favorite, The Mud Truck.

To the north of NYU, you’ll find The New School. Much like NYU, The New School is a conglomerate of colleges scattered throughout Manhattan. Just south of Union Square at 5th Avenue and 13th, you’ll find The Parsons’ School of Design, home of Project Runway. But if it’s a small liberal arts environment you want, check out Eugene Lang College (on 13th between 5th and 6th Avenue). Virtuosi, however, must visit Mannes School for Music (uptown at West 85th) for a glimpse at the university’s top notch classical training.

You’re bound to be starving after all this walking, so round the corner onto 6th Avenue and pick up some dollar hot dogs at Grey’s Papaya. If you don’t mind walking a few steps further, wander down Bleeker Street to John’s pizza. There’s nothing finer than treating yourself to the best pizza in New York, promptly followed by the best cupcakes – which you’ll find a few blocks down at Magnolia Bakery. If you’re still college hungry, The Fashi
on Institute of Technology and Julliard are certainly worth investigating.

What resources would you recommend to learn more about visiting colleges on a budget?

The cost of applying and visiting colleges can really add up. Go to to sit down and plan your expenses (you can also download a free tour checklist). Secondly, do your research. Talk to your teachers, counselors, friends and relatives and find out if they are planning trips to areas of the country where you want to visit colleges. You can carpool or find ways that your parents do not need to take a day off to accompany you on college visits. Finally, ask an admissions officer. Some colleges are able to subsidize your campus visit if you meet certain criteria. It certainly doesn’t hurt to ask.

Bonnie and Clyde: the follow-up

Here’s an update to my posting from Wednesday on the Ivy League couple who traveled the world, courtesy of dozens of stolen identities they took on. I found a site with lots of multimedia on their lurid romp, including nice before and after shots (mugshots, to be more accurate).

The bad news is they’re free on bail right now. But what’s somewhat satisfying is that afterwards they went back home and continued to hang out with their neighbors, some of whom they robbed for the last year, and got picked up again by the cops on more charges!

It’s no surprise all of a sudden they want to turn their lives around. To begin, they want a nice cozy deal from the district attorney. I’m really crossing my fingers that the couple will turn on each other, and hopefully this’ll give us some more drama.

Bonnie and Clyde: Ivy League style

From the lovely people at the New York Post comes a holiday story of fraud and greed. A 20-something couple, one of whom went to UPenn, spent the past year jetsetting around the world, on everyone else’s dime. The press has labeled them the “21st century version of Bonnie and Clyde” for going horseback riding in Hawaii and Caribbean, drinking champagne in private hot tubs at posh resorts, and flying back and forth to New York, Paris, London, and Montreal.

What’s really creepy is that they had duplicate keys to 30 of their neighbors’ apartments. Yikes. I did, however, find it somewhat funny like some true Ivy Leaguers, they needed prep books to do anything: “The Art of Cheating: A Nasty Little Book for Tricky Little Schemers and Their Hapless Victims,” was found in their apartment, which coincidentally was paid for with stolen money.

Anyways, just another reminder this holiday season to be careful with your personal data and identity. Cheers!

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.]