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.
Settle in to a discussion that's somewhat familiar, or be prepared for your head to hurt ("Liquidity Risk and Arbitrage Pricing Theory" just isn't for everyone). Bear in mind that a little cranial discomfort may be worth the free food and drinks that usually accompany talks. You can find the dates, times, and places of all these lectures-sometimes two and three a day-in the Princeton Weekly Bulletin.
If no lecture is to your liking, perhaps some music or theater will do. The cream- of-the-crop students at Princeton put on pro-quality productions at prices that are strictly amateur. Since 1920, student members of Theatre Intime (609/258-4950, princeton.edu/~intime) have done all the acting, directing, fund-raising, and sometimes writing for each season's shows, ranging from wacky comedies (Noises Off) to intense dramas by Jean-Paul Sartre and David Mamet. Performances inside Murray-Dodge Hall's 200-seat theater cost around $12 for general admission ($6 for students), though they're free if you're willing to serve as an usher (call ahead). Quipfire!, the campus improv-comedy group, performs several times a year, charging $5 entrance. The Richardson Auditorium (609/258-5000) inside Alexander Hall hosts mostly classical and jazz concerts that average $15 (less for students and seniors), with some performances free.
If your budget's a bit more flexible, the university's McCarter Theatre (609/258-2787, mccarter.org) presents topnotch professional music, drama, and dance performances (Tony Award winner Blair Brown starred in The Tempest this spring) for less than they would cost at big-city venues (generally starting at $25 to $30). Consult the Princeton Weekly Bulletin or go online to http://calendar.princeton.edu for a schedule of events.
Outside the gates
Even if there were no university here, Princeton would still have its share of history to brag about. The area was settled in the late 1600s, and in early 1777, soon after George Washington famously crossed the Delaware River, his forces defeated Lord Cornwallis in the pivotal Battle of Princeton. Learning about area history is as easy as crossing the street from campus to the Bainbridge House, built in 1766 and now home to the Historical Society of Princeton (158 Nassau St., 609/921-6748, princetonhistory.org). Inside is a free museum with nearly 100,000 artifacts, photographs, and manuscripts. Tours of historic Princeton depart the Bainbridge House every Sunday at 2 p.m. ($6 adults, $3 children), visiting the Princeton campus and the former homes of Albert Einstein, Woodrow Wilson, and Grover Cleveland, among others. The Society also hands out free maps for self-guided walking tours. As for the old battle site, it's now Princeton Battlefield State Park (500 Mercer Rd., 609/921-0074), a peaceful parkland where a preserved 1770-era home is open to visitors as a free museum.
For other diversions, Westminster Choir College (101 Walnut La., 609/921-2001, rider.edu/westminster) offers operas and concerts year-round starting at $7 adults, $5 students or seniors. Landau (102 Nassau St., 609/924-3494) is a family-owned woolen-products store with decent prices and, oddly enough, its own mini-museum of newspaper clippings, artifacts, and photographs of Albert Einstein. The historic Delaware and Raritan Canal (built in the 1830s, running just southeast of campus) is an ideal spot for jogging, bike riding, canoeing, and kayaking.
Subsistence and sleep
Like many rich suburbs in New Jersey, low-budget dining options are limited in Princeton. Your best bet is to think (and eat) like a student, sticking to sandwiches and snacks rather than several-course meals.
Within stumbling distance of campus are two student favorites: breakfast specialist P.J.'s Pancakes (154 Nassau St., 609/924-1353) and sandwich shop Zorba's Grill (183-D Nassau St., 609/924-2454), both of which will fill your belly for under $5. For something a little more formal, try Winberie's (One Palmer Sq., 609/921-0700), which charges $6 to $7.50 for small orders of pasta or chicken. There's a full bar with happy hour specials, and the windows are painted with caricatures of famous alums like Bill Bradley and Brooke Shields.
Real estate is pricey in Princeton, so there are few cheap beds right near campus. However, drive a few miles in almost any direction and it's easy to find affordable lodging. Examples: the Days Inn in Monmouth Junction (six miles from campus, 732/329-4555, daysinn.com; $54 to $100 double) or the Red Roof Inn in Lawrenceville (3203 Brunswick Pike, six miles from campus, 609/896-3388, redroof.com; $50 to $100 double). Go to princeton.edu for more ideas on area lodging.
In the surroundings
A big reason Princeton is such a sought-after address is because of what's nearby. Philadelphia and New York are both reachable in about an hour, but considering your brain may have been working overtime in Princeton, it might be time to let the gears slow down. Don't be ashamed to revel in old-fashioned, lowbrow fun awaiting you at the Jersey Shore or Six Flags Great Adventure (732/928-1821, sixflags.com), both about an hour away by car.