Princeton, NJ

Barbershops, Beamers and blue bloods: Is there more to this Ivy League town than meets the eye?

Picture frame from Bucks County Dry Goods
Picture frame from Bucks County Dry Goods

Princeton appears to be as vanilla as the ice cream that tops a heaping slice of American pie. So we asked the hippest Jerseyite we know—WPRB 103.3 FM DJ Jon Solomon—if there's something we're missing. "Princeton is very quaint, but it isn't really a 'college town,'" he warned. Yeah, we got that. After spending 24 hours in the "downtown" area, we decided that that's a-okay. Who needs a Girls Gone Wild--style summer vacay when you can have mystery novels and peanut-butter pancakes? To find out for yourself take NJ Transit's Northeast Corridor Line (NEC) from New York Penn Station to Princeton Junction.

STAY


Housed in a strip mall harmoniously aligned with the rest of Princeton's picket-fence vibe, the 294-room Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village (201 Village Blvd; 609-452-7900, starwoodhotels.com) is a five-minute bus ride from the city center. The breakfast is overpriced, and the microscopic indoor pool stinks like a locker room, but the kingly down bedding (300 thread count!), outdoor tennis courts and pets-permitted policy more than make up for the shortcomings.

EAT


Breakfast in Princeton starts and ends with PJ's Pancake House (154 Nassau St; 609-924-1353, pancakes.com), founded in the 1960s and relatively unchanged since. Patrons scribble graffiti on the sticky walls and tables while waiting for heaping orders of bacon and skyscraper-like stacks of peanut-butter pancakes. For weekender purposes, snag a seat at tristate fave Triumph Brewing Company (138 Nassau St, 609-924-7855; triumphbrewing.com) and tuck into an oyster po' boy ($14) and seven-beer sampler ($8), featuring a silky honey wheat, a foamy coffee-and-cream stout and medicinal Nuit de Folle.

DRINK


"There are a finite number of liquor licenses in Princeton, and they're very, very expensive to get," says Solomon. The man's not kidding. Students—when not studying string theory, or whatever it is students do in the Ivy League—tend to drink in the private eating clubs, Princeton's bizarre coed answer to fraternities and sororities. To see more people under the age of 40, take a cappuccino-and-red-velvet-cupcake break at one of two Small World Coffee locations (14 Witherspoon St, 609-924-4377, ext 2; 254 Nassau St, 609-921-8011, ext 3; smallworldcoffee.com). Its artsy brews rival Williamsburg's Gimme! Coffee—only Small World isn't above making iced tea.

SHOP


Princeton is overrun with pooh-pooh chains like Kate Spade and Blue Mercury, which makes Paige Petersen's six-year-old boutique, Rouge (51 Witherspoon St; 609-921-0280, rougeprinceton.com), all the more special: It stocks wellies and riding boots, bags by Andrea Brueckner and Rebecca Minkoff, a rainbow of yoga pants and Philosophy body washes in flavors like Waffle Cone and Lemon Custard. Bucks County Dry Goods (51 Palmer Sq West, 609-252-0036) is great for dainty vases, silk pillows and coasters woven from old magazine pages. Also worth sleuthing out: The Cloak & Dagger mystery bookshop (349 Nassau St; 609-688-9840, thecloakanddagger.com), open five days a week and specializing in hard-boiled and historical whodunits.

Grounds for Sculpture
Grounds for Sculpture

SEE


Anyone who has suffered through Meg Ryan's I.Q. knows that Albert Einstein spent his last two decades on Earth shuffling around the verdant streets of Princeton. He lived in a picturesque white house at 112 Mercer Street; the house remains unmarked, as per the doctor's orders. Unfortunately for travelers with a theory-of-relativity jones, the closest you can get to genius is the makeshift Einstein shrine located at the back of Landau (102 Nassau St; 609-924-3494, landauprinceton.com), a family-run shop awash in Princeton Tigers fan gear, walking sticks and an impressive selection of E=MC2 T-shirts. No visit to Princeton is complete without a tour of the handsome university campus: Watch out for stately sculptures by Alexander Calder and Henry Moore, the breathtaking University Chapel (the world's third-largest), Alexander Hall and Nassau Hall, the latter of which served briefly as the country's capital building not long after sustaining damage during the Battle of Princeton. Make sure you check out the serene Carnegie Lake and the Delaware and Raritan Canal. The best way is by boat; you can rent a canoe or kayak for $10--$35, either by the hour or for the whole day (609-452-2403, canoenj.com).

THE BEACON:


So why do people go to Princeton if they're not matriculating? Three words: Princeton Record Exchange. Founded in 1980 by Barry Weisfeld, the airy shop lures die-hard music junkies—you know, the kind whose last download probably wasn't Lil Wayne's "Lollipop"—with thousands of discount CDs, new and used vinyl, DVD box sets and more. "I love the insane bargains here," says Solomon. "Being able to spend less than $20 and walk away with eight or more CDs, all of decent quality, is pretty unreal." Genres run the gamut from Baroque and ambient to bebop and new wave, and the clerks aren't dicks (seriously). (One tip: Unless you're hoping to unload, like, nine crates of 4 Non Blonde's CDs, save your trade-ins for Other Music in NYC; they pay more.) 20 S Tulane St, 609-921-0881, prexnj.com.

THE TAB


One night, two people

Train $23.50 (round-trip)
Hotel 129 (starting price, no tax)
Meals 150
Total $302.50

Travel time 1 hr 10 mins