Princeton, New Jersey
Traditional home to some of the most brilliant brains on the planet, Princeton is the perfect place to indulge highbrow tastes without overspending
Strolling around the stately campus of Princeton University, with its handsome stone architecture, tasteful green squares, and tree-lined walkways, images come to mind of backslapping young men in tweed jackets needling one another with witty inside jokes. The truth is, despite a lingering air of country club privilege, today's student body is vibrant and diverse. And, despite an atmosphere of exclusivity, Princeton readily welcomes the public to take advantage of its many lectures, museums, concerts, and theater opportunities, usually free or at a minimal cost. As a dividend, you'll find a picture-perfect American town just outside the campus gates, with expansive green spaces and historic homes dating from the mid-1700s. There is no denying that the Princeton area is rather ritzy, with homes regularly selling in the neighborhood of $700,000. But everywhere students are present there tend to be cheap spots to eat, drink, and entertain oneself. That rule applies even in college towns where kids pay $38,000 a year for their education.
So, even if you scored below 1500 on your SATs (which, by the way, are administered by the Educational Testing Service located in nearby Lawrenceville, New Jersey), the outsider in Princeton can absorb all the intellectual and artistic ferment without having to fork over the equivalent of a hefty tuition.
Travelers who only know New Jersey as the butt end of "What exit?" jokes will be shocked at first sight of Princeton. Situated halfway between New York City and Philadelphia (easily accessible by train, bus, or car), leafy, attractive Princeton has been a desirable locale since colonial times. The College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton U.) moved here in 1756, the year Nassau Hall was completed. At that point, the grand, four-story Georgian building (now a National Historic Landmark and site of the administrative offices) was the largest in the colonies, housing up to 150 students and teachers. For several months in 1783, the Continental Congress met at Nassau Hall, meaning, in effect, that Princeton was the national capital.
In more recent times, Princeton simply served as a learning base for leaders in every field. Luminaries such as Albert Einstein, John Nash, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill, and Donald Rumsfeld have all called Princeton home, as have two U.S. presidents and more than 30 Nobel Prize winners.
Intimidating as this haven of higher learning might seem, the environment is actually rather inviting. The Frist Campus Center (609/258-1766), off of Washington Road, is a good place to begin a visit. Students gather here to socialize, grab a bite between studies, and watch CNN on the big screen. You can also scoop up maps of campus and town, scout out the bulletin boards, and snatch up a free copy of the Princeton Weekly Bulletin, the bible for finding out what's going on around campus.
Free campus tours depart from the welcome desk inside Frist several times a day, year-round. You're also welcome to wander around on your own. Besides Nassau Hall, be sure not to miss the University Chapel-a misnomer, really, for this high-ceilinged Gothic building with intricate stained-glass windows and seating for 2,000 truly merits the title "Cathedral." The Chapel often hosts free concerts and special art exhibits.
Next to the Chapel is Firestone Library (609/258-4820), a tease because only those with a Princeton ID card can take advantage of its millions of volumes and seating for 2,200. Still, poke your head inside-two floors of exhibitions in the library's galleries (609/258-3184) and the fancifully decorated Cotsen Children's Library (609/258-2697) are regularly open to the public free of charge. Also free is the Princeton University Art Museum (609/258-3788, princetonartmuseum.org), which houses 60,000 works, including a celebrated Monet (Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge) and renowned Asian and pre-Columbian collections. Free talks and tours at the museum are offered about once a week during the school year.
The campus itself is a museum of sorts, living up to its "princely" name with several buildings resembling lordly castles (most notably Blair Hall, with its four-corner turrets and dramatic archways). By no means does all the architecture look to the past, though. Here and there around campus are intriguing modern sculptures, including a large Head of a Woman by Pablo Picasso. Nearby the Picasso is Spelman Hall, a triangle-shaped dormitory designed by another architectural legend, I. M. Pei.
Ivy League entertainment
Visitors cannot sit in on classes at Princeton, but everyone is welcome at the seemingly endless supply of free public lectures, with most being offered during the spring and fall semesters (summers are relatively quiet on campus). Provocative topics such as "Putin as Partner: Russian Foreign Policy in Transition," "The Islamization of the Arab-Israeli Conflict," and "Do Movies Have a Future?" are presented by leading scholars regularly.
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