Where's your happy place - the place where you feel safe, free to be who you are, happy?
For the longest time, I pinpointed my happy place to be the Everglades. I loved (and still love) alligators and wildlife, and we had visited the Everglades enough for me to justify labeling it as my happy place. After traveling a bit more, however, I realized that there's so many other places that I love and would want to revisit continuously (yeah, I'm that kind of person), like Jenny Lake, Leipzig, San Francisco, DISNEY WORLD...... the Everglades, as much as I love them, are a part of this list of great memories and places.
And after several months of living away from home, I've refined my definition of a happy place to be somewhere that I would never want to give up or that comforts me: my home, Lullwater Park, and downtown Princeton. Princeton is a quiet suburban town that's full of events, history, and great food. It's located in Central Jersey, about 15 minutes away from the Casperson Rowing Center (where the U.S. Olympic team practices!) and just one hour away from both Philadelphia and New York City.
Here are some of my favorite spots in Princeton:
Shall we begin with the obvious?
Princeton University's campus is absolutely beautiful, from its lush green spaces to its collegiate gothic architecture. You'll find buildings covered in ivy, tiger statues and tiger printed "P's", and modern statues scattered around. Stop by the Princeton University Art Museum or watch a swim meet; if you're lucky, you may even hear the 7,897 pipe organ being played while visiting the Princeton University Chapel (you'll certainly see the beautiful stained glass windows). I even had the privilege to perform with my school orchestra (an organ concerto!) during my sophomore year of high school in the chapel!
The popular Princeton Public Library also hosts exhibits and free lectures by Princeton University professors (weekly!) if you're in the mood to learn something new. And if you're seeking some thrill, Princeton's Tour Company offers Ghost tours!
While it's on Princeton's campus, I figured this deserves it's own little spotlight. This building surrounding the fountain reminds me strongly of Lincoln Center while the fountain itself is unlike anything I've seen before. There's even statues of animal heads -- 12 animals, each from the Chinese Zodiac -- how cool is that? During the summer, you'll see kids running through and splashing in the water; one of my favorite summer memories is when my best friend, visiting from San Diego, and I ventured off to the fountain during a warm summer night to cool off and see the beautiful lights.
Like any college town, Princeton too has its Panera Bread and Starbucks, but it also offers so much variety and diversity, making it the perfect hub for any foodie. I'm still working my way through the extensive list of restaurants that Princeton has to offer, but I've listed below the ones that I've been to as well as several local favorites (no personal experience myself, but we can trust the popular opinion).
Tortuga's Mexican Village: If you're a long-time reader, you're probably rolling your eyes right now. I discovered Tortuga's last January thanks to my wonderful Spanish teacher/role model, and I've been there several times since (1, 2, 3). It's one of my brother's favorites too - he loves their chips and pico de gallo, and I'm 99.999% sure that he's ordered their lunch special every single time. Prices aren't dirt cheap like most Chinatown eats, but they're not ridiculous either ($-$$), especially considering how large their portions are and how authentic the food is. Tortuga's is located a few blocks away from Nassau St, so if their parking lot is full, you won't have too much trouble finding parking. It's also across the street from Aurelio's Cocina Latina, Tortuga's "competition", although the cuisine is Latin not Mexican. Regardless, if Tortuga's line is long, try Aurelio's! It's next on my restaurant bucketlist :)
(like many Princeton restaurants/shops, Tortuga's is cash-only, so always check the websites prior to visiting!)
Despana: I've personally never been to the Despana in Princeton, but I have stopped by the one in New York City. You can find Spanish specialty goods, many of which are imported from Spain, and tapas. Despana is significantly more expensive, but the experience is unique and you can't find anything quite like it anywhere else.
Nassau Sushi: Nassau Sushi's food is good, but I think I mostly like it because of the environment. The interior is all wooden and has samurai swords hanging on the wall. The biggest downside to this place is that it's overpriced compare to its nearby Sushi Palace.
Sushi Palace: I will have to give Sushi Palace the credit of serving the best sushi that I've eaten in Princeton (shh, we can extend Princeton's borders to Kingston for this post). They have a great all-you-can-eat sushi buffet with more than enough options but they also have great off-the-menu/lunch special items as well. I find that their sushi tends to be great in quality no matter what you get - both the sushi buffet sushi and the off-the-menu sushi are filling and have substantial amounts of filling (less rice). Above all, the food is fresh and inexpensive, but you need to be aware of the popularity of this place before coming (lots of people and noise).
PJ's Pancakes: PJ's is crowded at all times of the day, and it's known for its Italian food in addition to its breakfast offerings. While PJ's has locations in other areas as well, the one on Nassau St. has a cute little outdoor sitting area! As someone who loves to cook, I have high standards when I eat out -- the food at PJ's is average and overpriced, but it's an iconic Princeton establishment that continues to reap quite a bit of business.
House of Cupcakes: This charming little cupcake store has grown significantly over the years, mostly because of their triumph on Cupcake Wars!
Fruity Yogurt: A favorite of many high school students is Fruity Yogurt because not only do they have the best selection of frozen yogurts and toppings, they even have Asian drinks that used to only be found in Chinatown - bubble tea, Thai Iced tea, Vietnamese Coffee, you name it. The interior is also warm and inviting, making you want to pop in for a frozen treat even in the middle of winter.
Thomas Sweet: This creamery has an old-fashioned charm to it, and they're known for their machine that mixes your ice cream with your toppings.
Winberie's: I went to this pub during my freshman year of high school with the basketball team as a bonding activity. From what I remember, Winberie's, with its brick walls, old fashioned tables/stools, and tvs streaming sports games, looks like a pub that you'd find in the UK.
Triumph Brewery: While we're continuing with the theme of pubs, Triumph is certainly on the opposite side of the spectrum - it has a modern, New York City vibe with its twinkle lights and young clientele. What I love about this place (aside from their mushroom burger) is how you can see the brewery from where you're dining.
Whole Earth Center: Ah, another home away from home. I believe this is one of the few co-ops in the Greater Princeton area, and you'll certainly find vegan marshmallows, coconut shortening, gluten-free baking ingredients, (and parking) here!
Small World Coffee: Small World has two locations in downtown Princeton, but you'll find that both are equally as popular, trendy, and overpriced ;) They are, however, known for their strong coffee, delicious baked goods, and their cozy environments.
infini-T Cafe: Like Small World, infini-T is on the pricier end, but you can't find any other vegetarian/vegan/gluten-free place that specializes in fair-trade teas, so there are some justifications for the high costs. I visited infini-T for the first time over winter break, and had their coconut chai latte with coconut milk, while my friend, Maureen, got their vanilla bean chai latte. I loved the richness of the latte albeit more sweet than I'd prefer. I think it's also really cool how you'd be able to find Indian, Turkish, and Mediterranean dishes here too.
All in all, the environment is very eclectic and cozy, making it a great place to meet up with friends/Princeton University professors or to study at.
Mamoun's: I haven't been here, but Mamoun's has several locations, including one in NYC, and it's supposedly quite famous! The food isn't very expensive, and if it's that famous, it has to taste decent.
The Bent Spoon and Halo Pub: I've heard countless stories of how great these two creameries are - The Bent Spoon is the more famous of the two, but they're both known for serving 50+ ice cream flavors (both serve dairy-free sorbets too!).
(7/8/16 Update: I recently visited The Bent Spoon and tried their coconut sorbet and blood orange sorbet. I don't think I've ever had sorbet that creamy and delicious! The coconut sorbet was the better of the two, though both were amazing. Unfortunately, The Bent Spoon is expensive for ice cream - a "small", which is about the size of a condiment cup (two small scoops), costs about $5. I visited Halo Pub with friends; while I didn't try anything, my friends told me that they prefer Halo Pub because it's not as expensive -- though it's still pricey -- and give larger portions. Both places are very crowded and popular! During the summer time, you might catch an outdoor movie on the Nassau Inn lawn by The Bent Spoon, or, you might see a crowd of people watching live music performers outside of Halo Pub!)
Now onto little shops and landmarks:
Princeton Record Exchange: If you know me well, you'll know that I love to sift for little treasures. I think this little love of mine began when I was 7 or 8 years old and dug through basement boxes and my mom's closet for long-lost toys and trinkets. I love to shop at thrift stores for clothes, and now, since my discovery of PREX, I can extend my thrifting adventures to the world of DVDs! PREX is like the Disney World of the $5 movie bin at Walmart -- you'll even find $1 deals! Beyond that, as the store name suggests, you'll find hundreds of records and even CDs. Not only can you buy items from here, you can also sell old DVDs/CDs/records. During my short first visit, I found complete seasons of Friends, Mean Girls, Disney movies, and I left with season 3 of The Office (for $4, I believe!) :)
You'll certainly find more than enough boutiques and little shops to wander into in downtown Princeton, from a higher-end consignment store, Green Street Consignment, to a Princeton souvenir store (that sells Princeton University sweaters for about $20!). Palmer Square is a quieter area on Nassau St. that's full of brick-wall restaurants, small stores, and the historic Nassau Inn. Most stores in Princeton don't stay open very late (unlike NYC stores), but I find the quiet summer nights to be incredibly peaceful and comforting. You'll know that you're in Palmer Square when you see the iconic tiger statue.
And if you're in the mood for entertainment, you can often find musical performances at Princeton University and Palmer's Square. If you're in the mood for a live show or movie, however, you'll need to stop by Princeton Garden Theatre, an old-fashioned looking, non-profit, theater that shows old classics, foreign films, new Hollywood movies, and live performances.
Let's take a quick stop a little outside of downtown to Terhune Orchards!
Terhune Orchards: New Jersey is called "The Garden State", so you can't leave without stopping at Princeton's Terhune Orchards for their famous apple cider donuts. My childhood is studded with trips to Terhune for their various seasonal festivals (Peach, Apple, Blueberry), and while their donuts are great, I always feel compelled to come back because I love their beautiful yellow labradors.
Princeton also has its own Farmer's Market, and while it seems to draw decent-sized crowds each Saturday, you should prioritize visiting New Jersey's #1 (three-year running, I believe!) farmer's market just 10 minutes away in West Windsor. (You can take a "dinky" from Princeton's train station to the Princeton Junction train station, where the farmer's market is held at!
For more adventures outside of downtown Princeton, look to Princeton's Forrestal Village, which is located about 10 minutes away. It's a quieter conference center with a fitness center/spa, beautiful hotels, restaurants (my personal favorite - Teriyaki Boy's), and shops.
If you feel like you need to do some physical activity to burn off all the great food you eat here, Princeton is full of hiking/recreational trails, ice skating rinks, horse stables (The U.S. Olympic equestrian team supports this very stable!), and boating rentals (check out Carnegie Lake -- some people even skate on it -- when it's safe to, of course!).
While the Delaware River and Washington Crossing State Park aren't far off, you can explore history right in Princeton by visiting Princeton Battlefield. This grand monument, which is sitting in a giant field on an ordinary road, is reminiscent of Ancient Roman/Greek architecture (I apologize to the architecture enthusiasts out there; I cannot differentiate between the two).
More recently in history is none other than the famous Albert Einstein -- fun fact: a good friend's/former teacher's grandfather cremated Albert Einstein. (WHAT?!) Take a tour of Einstein's house or explore Princeton University, where he worked at for several years. Pi day also holds a special spot in the locals' hearts; and I believe I'll be home for Spring break just in time for the celebrations this year ;)
Have I convinced you to visit Princeton, yet? The next time you have the chance, step into Princeton and take advantage of everything, from the nature to the education to the diversity, that it and its surroundings has to offer. You'll thank me for it ;)
P.S.: A quick tip about parking: don't be intimidated by the meter parking on the main streets; there are parking garages throughout downtown that are available for the same cost. Plus, on the weekends, you can even find free parking in Princeton University parking lots (hint: there's one behind the block that Thomas Sweets/Nassau Sushi is on!).