Sitting in the shadow – no, really, quite literally – of the New York City skyline, Northern New Jersey is one of the largest population centers that most people know nothing about.
Millions of people live here in a patchwork of very different (and often, wholly unique) towns and cities, in gritty urban environments and impossibly charming and remote-feeling villages that are actually mere minutes from Manhattan (traffic permitting).
So much more than just a bedroom community, Northern New Jersey, much like the rest of the state, has its own unique history, beautiful architecture, an impressive array of natural splendor and a slew of can't-miss places to stop and dive into the culture. Here, just a handful of must-see spots that will change the way you see one of the country's most underappreciated places.
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, that won all of the statues at this year's Tony Awards, it figured memorably into the first episode of "The Sopranos." Even if this was a non-famous waterfall, this dramatic bit of nature smack in the middle of gritty (and architecturally magnificent) Paterson would still be worth the trip.
Of all the envy-inducing historic homes hugging the sides of the 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.)
South Mountain Reservation, West Orange
Many people think of Essex County as the place where Newark is found, but it's also home to this 2,110-acre preserve, featuring a diverse range of landscapes and a network of shaded trails that will lead you to all of them. No matter the season, life always seems a little happier here.
Northern New Jersey is rich in some of the best skyline views New York has to offer, but there's something about the promenade south of Exchange Place in JC – maybe it's the fact that you're basically in Downtown Manhattan at this point, thanks to speedy connections on the PATH train and the ferries – but it's got this so-close-but-so-far vibe that's unbeatable. A worthy destination, any time of day or night.
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 as well as 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.
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 – it's almost like you're somewhere on the super-expensive side of Los Angeles, if Los Angeles were within commuting distance of Midtown Manhattan via train.
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's waterfront from being overdeveloped, but it got here as soon as it could.
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. While you're here, 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."
Come for this waterfront park's haunting 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. Lots of them.)