Things to Do in Princeton NJ: Release Your Inner Einstein

When people hear “Princeton,” the prestigious university often comes to mind first. But Princeton, New Jersey, is much more than just a college town; it’s a place where history, culture, and natural beauty coalesce, offering a variety of activities for all types of travelers. Here’s a look at the best things to do in Princeton NJ.

German-born Albert Einstein settled in Princeton NJ, in 1933 with a $5000 Nazi bounty on his head. But Einstein lived safe, sound, and modestly in this preppy, Ivy League university town until his death at age 75 in 1955.

He was far from the only world-renowned figure who lived in Princeton, though. An engaging walking tour of both the town of Princeton and the Princeton University campus brings you in close contact with a roster of scientific pioneers, ingenious tycoons, “Celebrity Academics,” and other brainiacs of the highest order.

On this IQ-boosting Getaway, discover one of the world’s best sculpture gardens, family-owned shops and farms worth patronizing, some incredible US history, and the best places to eat and stay in Princeton, NJ.

The Getaway Mavens included Princeton in our “12 Romantic New Jersey Getaways” roundup here. Check it out for more to do in the Garden State.

Best Things To Do In Princeton NJ

Princeton University Campus

TOUR: Princeton Tour Company

Take Princeton Tour Company’s 2-hour  “Shameless Namedropping” tour of this tycoon and “Academic Celebrity” studded Ivy League town. Walk along mansion-lined streets and through the Princeton University campus.

This informative, educational, and sometimes outrageous tour will give you a fantastic insider understanding of both the Town and Gown sides of Princeton, NJ.

You’ll see Einstein’s very modest whitewashed home at 112 Mercer Street. In addition, peek inside the exclusive ole’ boys Nassau club. (Women were admitted in 1988 after the Supreme Court got involved). And pass Princeton Theological Seminary – where Mr. Fred Rodgers once taught.

Until his death in 2015,  “A Beautiful Mind” John Nash, remained on the Princeton U. Faculty. Author Joyce Carol Oates still teaches there.

Einsteins Princeton NJ House
Einstein’s Princeton NJ House

In the early 1900s, Princeton President Woodrow Wilson oversaw an expansion of the University, endowing the campus with the gothic look of England’s Oxford and Cambridge.

You might recognize it from several hit movies. A Beautiful Mind, Scent of A Woman, and Admissions were all set here.

Grounds for Sculpture George Seurat Picnic scene NJ

TOUR: Grounds For Sculpture

The vision of Seward Johnson, a prolific, extraordinary, and eccentric contemporary artist, Grounds for Sculpture (GFS) can command the better part of your day. Stumble upon 270 outdoor works, some hidden “like Easter Eggs” in little secret gardens on 42 acres.

GFS, now populated by peacocks, statues, and ornaments of all kinds, was founded in 1992 as a non-profit outdoor museum. Wander on wisteria and birch tree lined “allees.” Discover a provocative Kiki Smith bronze of a girl squatting and peeing (untitled) and Johnson’s favorite installation – a life-size “self-portrait” of himself as Monet painting a Victorian-era lakeside gathering. All art is framed by nature.

Birch Trees Grounds for Sculpture NJ
Birch Trees Grounds for Sculpture NJ

With a new Visitor Center featuring several galleries big enough to park a 747, a new Orientation Screening Room, a 9-11 memorial,  and a major gift shop, GFS is destined to be a global destination.

This is one of the Getaway Mavens 10 Best Places to Propose in NJ

Owners Terhune Orchards Princeton NJ
Owners Terhune Orchards Princeton NJ

VISIT: Terhune Orchards

Gary Mount, his wife Pam, and their daughter, Tannwen, own this 35-crop 200-acre farm, “five miles from downtown Princeton NJ and in another world.”

The Terhune Orchards Farm Store sells fresh-picked produce, flowers, from-scratch pies, apple cider donuts, and house-made wines. (Princetonians favor the package that includes a bottle of wine, flowers, and pie delivered right to campus).

Sip on mulled wine in winter and sangria in summer in the Tasting room. You can “pick your own” anything in season, including first up in the spring: asparagus! It’s sure to be cheaper and fresher than what you’ll find in any grocery store.

Annis Boudinot portrait Morven Museum Princeton
Annis Boudinot portrait Morven Museum Princeton

TOUR: Morven Museum and Garden

Richard Stockton – a signer of the Declaration of Independence – and his wife, Annis, raised six children in this house, now the Morven Museum and Garden, which subsequently served as the New Jersey Governor’s Mansion. An entertaining 45-minute tour will introduce you, through stunning portraits and juicy gossip, to all prominent Stockton’s and their mates.

Women’s History fans will be thrilled to learn about Annis Boudinot, one of America’s first female poets and early advocate for women’s rights, who believed that women were the moral backbone of the fledgling country.

One Stockton daughter married Surgeon-General Benjamin Rush.  A son, nicknamed “The Duke,” was educated at the Princeton Grammar School and attended the College of New Jersey.

Grandson Robert Field Stockton fought in the Battle of Fort McHenry (of Star Spangled Banner fame), rose to the rank of Commodore, was the namesake of a California town, and designed a cannon that exploded accidentally, killing the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy and President Tyler’s future father-in-law.

After NJ Governor Walter Edge purchased Morven from Helen Hamilton Stockton, he transferred Morven to the state for $1. It served as the official Governor’s Mansion until 1982.

Morven went through an extensive restoration and archaeological investigation and re-opened as a museum and garden in 2004. The Stockton Education Center is a state-of-the-art building that expands its range of programming and events, located steps away from the historic mansion.

Antiquities Princeton Art Museum NJ

VISIT: Princeton University Art Museum

The Princeton University Museum covers five thousand years of art and all the world’s cultures on two large floors. But it is surprisingly intimate and beautifully curated, with juxtapositions both experimental and provocative.

Though phenomenal large-scale work is found on the first floor downstairs, the Medieval Church Exhibit is arguably the museum’s most captivating. Stained glass windows, Gothic mantelpieces, and sculptures from France, Spain, and England are undoubtedly spine-tingling during acapella and Chamber Music concerts held on occasion in this space.

Amble through a display of Japanese “Wit and Humor,” Roman mosaics, Grecian urns, Chinese porcelain, and Egyptian artifacts – brought back by students in the Princeton Department of Archeology who have been digging up Cyprus for the past 35 years.

Updike Farmstead Princeton NJ

VISIT: Historical Society of Princeton at Updike Farmstead

Updike Farmstead is one of two Princeton Historical Society’s sites. This one, a Wyeth painting writ large, is surrounded by farmland. (The Historical Society also maintains the Bainbridge House in town, where you can see 65 pieces of Einstein’s furniture and other historical artifacts.)

The land is so idyllic it draws the likes of the Bacon Brothers and Marshal Tucker Band to perform in an annual June fundraiser. The home serves as an art gallery. Crops grown in a small community garden supply area restaurants, with proceeds going to those in need.

Princeton NJ Battlefield

VISIT: Princeton Battlefield State Park

According to the former Executive Director of the Princeton Battlefield Society, Kip Cherry, the Battle of Princeton was the first of General George Washington’s victories against the British Army  –  “the finest army on the planet.” It changed the minds of French officers who were initially hesitant to help an unprepared ragtag American militia.

Looking much like the farmland it was on January 3, 1777, you can just imagine 1,500 Brits facing 5,500 American soldiers at 6:30 a.m. on a field of stubble stiff with frost.

Much of the information about what happened here came from letters, diaries, and pension applications fifty years later. A spy map scrawled for General John Cadwalader references the “college” – now Princeton University.

NJ Audubon Plainsboro Preserve, Cranberry NJ

WALK: New Jersey Audubon Plainsboro Preserve

On a thousand acres with a large lake at its center, the Plainsboro Preserve represents Open Space at its finest.  Lots of wildlife – deer, eagles, foxes, and beavers with an active lodge-titter around five miles of field and woodland trails.

It’s a great representation of Central New Jersey wildlife. Go inside the Visitors Center to coo at Ringo – a full-grown Starling who was found as a featherless infant and is wholly imprinted on humans. A wonderful gift shop stocks a range of bird feeders, feed, local honey, and NJ-made crafts.

WALK/BIKE: Delaware & Raritan Canal State Park

Walk, jog, bike, horseback ride, and even kayak on New Jersey’s 70-mile long D&R Canal New Jersey State Park. Opened in 1834, the canal offered a transportation link between the Delaware and Raritan Rivers. Now, it’s a recreational boon to Princeton students, locals, and of course visitors to the area.

McCarter Theater, Princeton NJ


SEE: McCarter Theatre Center

The McCarter Theatre Center opened in 1930 as the home of the Princeton U. Triangle Club (a la Harvard Hasty Pudding). The two-time Tony Award-winning McCarter Theater has a relationship with the University but is not part of it.

Before heading to Broadway, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town had its tryouts here in 1938. And from 1963-1971, John Lithgow’s father was Artistic Director. The theater won a Tony for Best Outstanding Regional Theater in 1994 and Best Play (Vanya and Sonia And Masha and Spike) in 2013.

TOUR: Drumthwacket

If you’re interested in politics and history, a tour of Drumthwacket (354 Stockton) is a must when you’re in Princeton. This grand residence serves as the official home of the Governor of New Jersey. The stunning Greek Revival mansion offers guided tours that take you through its opulent rooms filled with art and period-appropriate furnishings. Exploring Drumthwacket gives you a fascinating glimpse into both current state politics and New Jersey’s rich history.

COMING SOON: Princeton Einstein Museum of Science

Before the retirement of brothers Henry and Robert Landau, you could walk through third-generation family-owned clothing store, Landau’s, a Princeton icon, opened in 1955 – the year Albert Einstein died – to find a wall of photos and letters to and from Einstein. It hid in a small corner between the Fisherman Knit Sweaters and Loden Coats.

Among them was a copy of Einstein’s 1939 letter to FDR, impelling him to develop nuclear weapons before the Germans did. There was also a 1952 letter from Israel Prime Minister Ben Gurion requesting that Einstein accept the Presidency of Israel.

Einstein Exhibit Landau Brothers Princeton NJ
Einstein Exhibit Landau Brothers Princeton NJ

In 1994, when the movie IQ (starring Walter Matthau) was filming on location in Princeton, townspeople brought letters and other Einstein memorabilia as props for Landau’s front window. The collection proved so popular the Landau brothers decided to create a permanent exhibition inside the store.

The store has since closed, but money is now being raised to create the Princeton Einstein Museum of Science (PEMS), the only museum outside of Europe dedicated to his legacy.

SHOP: Palmer Square

Take a break from all this intellectual stuff and do a bit of frivolous shopping. Palmer Square is the heartbeat of downtown Princeton, or as it’s marketed, “At the corner of modern and timeless.” Across from Princeton University, there’s always something going on there: entertainment, ice-skating in winter, wine tasting, dancing…. What’s going on when you visit? Check out the website to see.

WATCH: A Movie at Princeton Garden Theatre

The Mavens love a good indie theater, and Princeton’s Garden Theater serves that role. If you love a good esoteric flick, you’ll be in heaven. And, even if your taste runs more towards feature films, you’ll find those here as well.

GOOD TO KNOW: Princeton Historic District

The 370-acre Princeton Historic District was was listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and it’s where you’ll find seven of Princeton’s nine National Historic Landmarks.

Best Princeton NJ Restaurants

Agricola Eatery Princeton NJ
Agricola Eatery Princeton NJ

EAT: Agricola Eatery

Chefs at Agricola glean produce from the restaurant’s 121-acre farm just six miles down the road. Chef/Owner Josh Thomsen treats each and every ingredient like a prize.

One year, the farm produced 500 lbs of Nappa Cabbage. What to do with that bounty? Ferment it and serve it as Kimchee!

Agricola is a veritable cornucopia when it comes to fermented and pickled veggies – put up in colorful jars that decorate one windowed wall. Order the appetizer highlighting the best of these spicy-sweet carrots, daikons, green beans, and other “dirt candy” in a perfect sweet-and-sour balance.

Suffice it to say everything that comes out of the kitchen is not just fresh but tenderly and expertly cooked.

EAT/BREAKFAST: PJ’ Pancake House

PJ’s is nothing fancy but is a local institution. Come for burgers or pancakes (“Breakfast All Day”) and eat on wood tables carved with the initials of Princeton students.

Grounds For Sculpture 3-D Painting
Grounds For Sculpture 3-D Painting

EAT: Rat’s at Grounds for Sculpture

Yes, it sounds unappetizing. But Seward Johnson loved Wind in the Willows and had a wicked sense of humor when he named his on-site restaurant Rats.

Lakeside, garden sculptures, stunning landscaping, and  “Gypsy Wagon” entrance are just the half of it. The “modern take on country cuisine” includes repeat-guest favorites such as “Crispy Shrimp Salad,  addictive, hearty Short Ribs, and a Hot Chocolate Crème Brûlée.

Princeton NJ Hotels

STAY: Peacock Inn

The 16-room Peacock Inn is the only boutique luxury lodging in Princeton. But its heritage is pretty awesome.

Albert Einstein stayed here. F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and other notables were purported to have raised more than one glass in the basement when the home was a speakeasy during Prohibition.

Rooms are on the small side, but Japanese-clean design and spa-retreat bathroom more than compensate. In some rooms, the bathroom is almost as large as the bedroom itself. Continental breakfast skews healthy: fresh bagels, Kashi cereal, Chobani yogurt.

Nassau Inn Princeton NJ

STAY: Nassau Inn

Posing as a 1700s town tavern in the center of town, the Nassau Inn, a Princeton landmark, actually extends over a block, with 188 nicely updated rooms and suites.

Bunking here has been a tradition for Princeton parents and grads since a few years after Jimmy Stewart graduated in ’32.

The Yankee Doodle Tap Room is the perfect spot to drink with friends. Have a gape at the signed Princeton graduation pictures on the wall: Adlai Stevenson, Jimmy Stewart, Brook Shields, and Michelle Obama included.

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  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine,, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.