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Fall Travel

Princeton, N.J.

A great long weekend: A college town with an elegant embrace

Princeton's campus. Princeton's campus.
By Larry Lindner
September 12, 2010

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Dashiell Hammett, tycoon Robert Wood Johnson II, Jaws author Peter Benchley, and retired president Grover Cleveland numbered among the many notables who chose to make it their home, and as soon as you arrive, you’ll understand why. Princeton brims with finely scaled architecture and landscaping, a palpable sense of sophistication and engagement, and an uplifting calm. A couple of days in this university burg, loaded with shopping, eating, museums, and theater on gracious tree-lined streets, will leave your spirit recharged and your balance restored.

Getting There: Allow a good five hours for the 275-mile drive from Boston, starting no later than 9:30 a.m. to make it across the George Washington Bridge well before New York’s rush hour.

Friday: A room at the Nassau Inn (800-862-7728; http://www.nassauinn.com), at the very heart of things in Princeton’s Palmer Square, will run in the $200s, though you can sometimes find online deals as low as $189. Ten to 20 minutes away on or near Route 1, you can choose anything from a Holiday Inn Express to a full-service Marriott. Once in Princeton, head for Nassau Street, the spine of the town. On one side, the university and its beautiful Gothic buildings unfold. On the other, you’ll find the shopping and eating and much of the people watching. Park and have a nosh at the Witherspoon Bread Company (609-688-0188; http://www.terramomo.com). Its selections handily rival anything you’ll find in a Parisian boulangerie. After you eat, stroll. You’ll soon notice that while the town is refined and lovely to look at, it’s not precious. The place has a soul, with young people lugging books and laptops, mothers pushing strollers, and businessmen and women making their way to appointments. People are actually nice, too. Many of the shops are one-of-a-kind, featuring clothing, gifts, even furniture. Just past the shopping and the university, the stately homes on the roads around the school are a real estate ogler’s dream. For a little more space, walk around the campus – it’s a page out of Chariots of Fire, this country’s physical incarnation of Cambridge University.

Saturday: Rent a bike at Jay’s Cycles (609-924-7233; http://www.jayscycles.com) or a canoe or kayak at Princeton Canoe & Kayak Rental (609-452-2403; http://www.canoenj.com), and pedal, paddle, or just amble or jog along Carnegie Lake, part of the Delaware and Raritan Canal State Park (609-397-2000; http://www.dandrcanal.com). It’s within walking distance of town. (The rental shop will even put your canoe or kayak in the water for you.) Tree canopies, Japanese honeysuckle, Virginia creeper, and other foliage along the lush greenway, not to mention the diverse bird population, will soothe restless souls. In the afternoon, visit Princeton University Art Museum, which houses a magnificent collection of paintings and other creations (609-258-3788; http://www.princetonartmuseum.org), or take in the funky yet quaint village of Lambertville, a 20-mile drive from Princeton on pretty Route 518. Walk around the shops and galleries and take a five-minute stroll across the Delaware River on the wooden footpath alongside the bridge at the edge of town. Just like that, you’ll be in louder, somewhat bawdier New Hope, Pennsylvania. That evening, back in Princeton, catch a performance at the McCarter Theatre, a world-class venue for live productions (609-258-2787; http://www.mccarter.org).

Sunday: Walk by Albert Einstein’s house at 112 Mercer Street, visit Morven Museum & Garden, a 250-year-old home that has housed five New Jersey governors and opens at noon on Sundays (609-924-8144; http://www.historicmorven.org), or head to Grounds for Sculpture in the nearby town of Hamilton, 35 breathtaking acres of outdoor sculpture, landscape art, and other works that you can walk around, through, and sometimes into (609-586-0616; http://www.groundsforsculpture.org). If none of those appeal, click on visitprinceton.org and see what does. Don’t forget to buy another loaf of bread at Witherspoon’s for the ride home.

For more great long weekend travel ideas, please visit boston.com/magazine