10.22.13

A Walk Through History-Filled Princeton

Princeton is a charming little town with a big past. Nancy Depke on the shopping, dining, and must-see historical sites in the city that was one of America’s first capitals.

Princeton, NJ attracts many different people: residents looking for a quiet place to settle down, students attending the university, and tourists interested in a weekend getaway to see its architecture, history, boutiques, and restaurants. I moved here 10 years ago and fell in love with the charming, little town.

Just an hour outside of New York City, Princeton is easy to reach by car or New Jersey Transit (with a quick transfer to the Dinky, the shortest train in America). Prince Town, so named for Prince William of Orange and Nassau, was one of our country’s first capitals, when the Continental Congress fled Philadelphia in 1783 to take up residence in Nassau Hall. Today Nassau Hall is the centerpiece of Princeton University’s campus. 

There are many options to see the city. Because of the town’s deep history, the first place a visitor should stop is Bainbridge House, home to the Historical Society of Princeton (open Wednesday through Sunday). Guides are on hand to recommend the best sites to see, and they also lead their own tours of the town and campus (every Sunday at 2 p.m. for $7). Afterwards, visitors should stop by the Albert Einstein house (112 Mercer St.) where the genius lived from 1933 until his death in 1955. 

“While there are many historic buildings and spots to check out, the real standout attraction is the art.”

Another way to get to know Princeton inside and out is to sign up with Mimi Omiecinski’s Princeton Tour Company.  Her tours include the campus, Einstein’s neighborhood, and the hangouts of F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Robert Wood Johnson. Her two-hour tours leave from the Princeton University U store on Nassau on Saturday afternoons. She is also working on a self-guided cell phone tour. Participants will receive a pin number and be able to tour the historic sites on their own, listening to Omiecinski’s detailed commentary along the way. 

Before taking off for a look around town, fortify yourself at PJ’s Pancakes. Located next door to the Historical Society, it’s a favorite with university students, and the peanut butter and chocolate chip pancakes are highly recommended.

I love strolling down Nassau Street and shopping in the stores along the way, like Green Street Consignment,  Princeton University’s U store, Hulit’s Shoes, Labyrinth Books, Hamilton Jewelers, and Landau’s, a third generation family run store that specializes in woolens. A corner of the store is devoted to Albert Einstein souvenirs and memorabilia.

After reaching Palmer Square (you can’t miss the tiger in the little park), there’s another set of boutique shops including Kate Spade, Zoe, Blue Mercury, and the unique Bucks County Dry Goods.  With many restaurants and bars along the way, there’s no danger of getting thirsty or going hungry. Triumph Brewing Company is near the Square, and Taste of Mexico serves delicious homemade enchiladas. While in the square, check out the Bent Spoon, which is one of the best ice cream emporiums in town. Nassau Inn’s Tap Room is a good place to find the names of the university’s famous alumni, which are carved into the wooden tables. And on the wall behind the bar is one of the largest paintings Norman Rockwell ever produced.

Farther along Nassau Street is Movern Museum and Garden, a national historic landmark, originally built by Richard and Annis Stockton, he a signer of the Declaration of Independence and she a published poet. The house and garden are open for tours to show off the peonies and iris that bloom in May, phlox in June, and dahlias and annuals the rest of the summer

Next, take a long walk down Alexander St. and arrive at Turning Basin Park where you can rent a canoe or kayak to float down the D&R Canal. 

For a good sense of the town’s history, visit the historic Princeton Cemetery, which was established in 1757 and is located at the corner of Wiggins and Witherspoon. Pick up a map that points out the graves of Aaron Burr, Jr., Sylvia Beach, Grover Cleveland, George Gallup, William Drew Robeson and Louisa Bustill Robeson, parents of Paul Robeson, and Richard Stockton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

After soaking up the history at Nassau Hall, walk to Princeton University campus. While there are many historic buildings and spots to check out, the real standout attraction is the art. The university has an outstanding sculpture collection (including pieces by Ai Wei Wei, Picasso, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder, and Louise Nevelson). The campus also boasts a museum with a world-class collection of 72,000 works of art, from Picasso to Warhol. The museum is free and open Tuesday through Sunday. Don’t leave the campus without stopping at the Princeton University Chapel, the third largest collegiate chapel in the world with an enormous collection of stained glass.

Worth a short drive out of town is the Princeton Battlefield State Park, where George Washington fought a decisive battle. The Thomas Clarke House, where American General Hugh Mercer died, is open Wednesday through Sunday. On the way to the battlefield, check out the Governor’s Mansion, Drumthwacket, originally built in 1835. Rooms are open to the public on Wednesday afternoons. 

Another side trip, just a short ride out of town, is the Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton, a 20-minute drive from Princeton. The beautiful 42-acre sculpture park features many of J. Seward Johnson’s life-size tableaus of well-known 19th-century artists, such as Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party and Rousseau’s The Dream. On the grounds is a wonderful restaurant called Rats, which overlooks a recreation of Monet’s Water Lilies. A little on the expensive side, it has a happy hour with half price drinks and hors d'oeuvres, Tuesday through Friday.

If you do decide to spend the night in Princeton and want to stay away from chain hotels, there are two historic inns in town. The Peacock Inn was recently restored and has a marvelous dining room and intimate bar. The restaurant is one of the best in Princeton, with a delicious Sunday brunch.

In the heart of town is the Nassau Inn, with over 180 rooms and a dining room. The food leaves much to be desired, but the pub is cozy in the winter, and there’s outdoor dining in the summer.

For the latest in dining, try the new hot spot Agricola on Witherspoon Street. Only open a couple of months a year, Agricola has a great bar where diners can order the wonderful flat bread pizza, or they can sit in the dining room for a full dinner menu.  My favorite dish is the scallops (beware, the plate is quite small, so order a side dish).  Nearby is another standout restaurant, Elements, a farm-to-table restaurant in a modern minimalist setting with a delicious tasting menu for $69.

Whether you visit for a day or decide to stay for awhile, you’ll leave Princeton with a better sense of American history and the people who helped found the country…and you’ll have some fun along the way.