2025 Destination of the Year: Meet the finalists

2025 Destination of the Year: Meet the finalists

Since 2022, Jersey’s Best has declared three uniquely captivating towns Destinations of the Year. In true eclectic Jersey style, we’ve gone from Cape May’s coastal Victorian vibe, to Lambertville’s riverside charm; and for 2024 it’s Metuchen — a cityscape with all the small town feels. It might make you wonder, “What’s the secret formula?”

Now, as we introduce a whole new quintet of finalists in contention for the Jersey’s Best 2025 Destination of the Year, we plan to keep everyone guessing. Representing the finest examples of New Jersey’s diverse appeal, let’s hear it for this year’s standout nominees: Fort Lee, Hillsborough, Jersey City, Madison and New Brunswick. Never been? This’ll make you want to give ‘em a go.

2025 Destination of the Year: Meet the finalists

Fort Lee Historic Park is a 33-acre cliff-top park area with scenic overlooks, a reconstructed Revolutionary War encampment, and a Visitor Center. Photo courtesy Crossroads of the American Revolution NHA

 

Fort Lee

Perched on the Palisades and just a minutes-long jitney ride away from Manhattan, Fort Lee might seem like a place to pass through on your way to the big city. Stop right there, folks, because this town on the Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge is no place to pass up. The cliff-top views of the Hudson River and the New York City skyline from Fort Lee Historic Park’s overlooks are unparalleled, and a walk through the park’s visitor center and historic encampment area makes for one revolutionary stroll.

Fort Lee is our smallest contender, but it’s no featherweight when it comes to packing a punch. Another “Jersey first” source of pride, Fort Lee is the birthplace of America’s motion picture industry, a distinction celebrated with stunning sophistication at the Barrymore Film Center, a museum and repertory film theatre which opened in October 2022. It’s not the only show in town when it comes to this suburb’s devotion to arts, entertainment, and culture – Fort Lee’s mural project is a vivid reminder of the contemporary vibe downtown. Even the food is a work of art at Ventanas Restaurant and Lounge, fusing modern American, Asian and Latin cuisines in a visually dazzling space.

This town that invented the term “cliff hanger” is in the midst of one right now: Will Fort Lee be our next Destination of the Year?

The 6,300-acre Sourland Mountain Preserve in Hillsborough Township provides passive recreational opportunities in an undisturbed natural setting. Photo by Kathleen Sateary

Hillsborough Township

Though our Destination of the Year distinction can’t be won by duking it out, it’s tough to argue with the 1.5 million visitors enchanted over the years by the beauty and purpose of Duke Farms – one of Hillsborough Township’s many crowning jewels. This 2,700-acre environmental center holds endless promise and delights for conservationists and all who cherish nature and being outdoors. Hillsborough Township boasts an easy harmony of rural and suburban living, designating 40% of its acreage to open space and dedicating the rest to the good life.

“We are humbled and excited to be considered,” says Mayor Robert Britting. “We all believe Hillsborough is the best place to live in the USA and has the most potential compared to any other town in the state.”

Add to that a best place to stay with the opening of a 100-room boutique hotel, making it easy to visit for more than a day to enjoy Dukes Farm, the Sourland Mountain Preserve, farms such as Norz Hill and What a View (goat yoga, anyone?), Royce Brook Golf Club, and the myriad “unknown gem” restaurants — secrets that won’t stay secret for long.

Hillsborough Township’s community events, such as the five-day Rotary Fair, Family Fun Day, and holiday fests, draw tens of thousands to town throughout the year; while the Flounder Brewing Co.’s tasting rooms fill with live music, locals, and folks who often end up wishing they were.

And if Hillsborough Township’s wishes come true, they’ll be raising a glass to a 2025 Destination of the Year win.

During spring and summer, weekly outdoor events are main attractions in Jersey City. Photo courtesy of Hudson County Cultural & Heritage Affairs | Tourism Development

Jersey City

It’s hard to imagine that any other place in New Jersey could compete with Jersey City as a destination when you consider the masses who set sail in its direction for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty over the past century or so. But our friendly competition is all about where to go once you get here, and if you’re looking for urban chic; artistry on display, indoors and out; music, food and faces from around the world; take a look at Jersey City.

There’s quite a lot to look at. Public art is everywhere; and the Jersey City Mural Arts Program has it all mapped out to guide your tour of murals by the dozens. Historic architecture and soaring contemporary high-rises catch the eye at every turn. During spring and summer, weekly outdoor events are main attractions, including the Handmade Market featuring the wares of local artists and makers; and Groove on Grove, the city’s live music series. Journal Square, the city’s business district, is undergoing a transformation — by 2025 and beyond, the landmark Lowe’s Jersey Theater will have completed its restoration; and the opening of the Centre Pompidou x, a satellite of the iconic French museum, promises to further elevate Jersey City’s cultural arts scene — perhaps just in time to coincide with a Destination of the Year title.

Madison’s walkable downtown boasts more than 50 restaurants, including the acclaimed Shanghai Jazz Restaurant and Bar – hailed as one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world. Photo courtesy of Borough of Madison Downtown Development Commission

Madison

From its vibrant center for the arts, to one of the leading Shakespeare theaters in the nation, to the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts, to the stunning, historic street scape of its quaint and lively downtown, the “Rose City” of Madison feels like home, whether you live there or not. Once the world’s number one producer of roses (hence the moniker), Madison is a-bloom with places and things for all kinds of people; and they are drawn in swarms like bees to nectar.

Madison is home to both Fairleigh Dickinson University and to Drew University, where the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has celebrated the works of the namesake playwright for more than 60 years. The four-square-mile hamlet’s walkable downtown boasts more than 50 restaurants, including the acclaimed Shanghai Jazz Restaurant and Bar – hailed as one of the top 100 jazz clubs in the world. Along Main Street, independent shops and unique retailers outnumber by far any national chains; and even Hollywood agrees this downtown is as pretty as a (motion) picture, using it as the backdrop for several films and series. It’s also the setting for Madison’s Bottle Hill Day festival, an autumn celebration enjoyed by thousands.

Life is good in Madison, but a Destination of the Year designation will have everything coming up roses.

The city is home to the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center. Photo courtesy of New Brunswick City Center

New Brunswick

Despite all the serious studies going on at Rutgers University, there seems to be quite a lot of fun and games going on in New Brunswick. That’s hard to avoid with a Big 10 team in town: the Scarlet Knights are a huge draw during college football season, both for stadium spectators and parking lot tail gaiters.

But there’s much more to tackle in this final finalist’s domain. Arts and entertainment team up to dominate New Brunswick’s appeal. The State Theatre NJ anchors the downtown district; and the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center houses four unique arts companies, including the Crossroads Theatre Company, the George Street Playhouse, the American Repertory Ballet, and the Rutgers University Mason Gross School of the Arts. Need more culture? Visit the university-based Zimmerli Art Museum or take a listen to the New Brunswick Jazz Project at Tavern on the George.

And when your soul is sated, your self may still hunger; luckily, dining options abound, from a scattering of food trucks to the sumptuous elegance of the Frog and the Peach. You’ll never be far from food in this vital college town.

Ultimately, when you need comic relief, the Stress Factory comes through in the clutch. And he who laughs last, laughs best – perchance to best the competition and crown New Brunswick the next Destination of the Year.

A Quirky Quintet

Cities and suburbs and farms … oh, my! Which town takes the prize for 2025? Let the guessing games begin!

 

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

Since 2022, Jersey’s Best has declared three uniquely captivating towns Destinations of the Year. In true eclectic Jersey style, we’ve gone from Cape May’s coastal Victorian vibe, to Lambertville’s riverside charm; and for 2024 it’s Metuchen — a cityscape with all the small town feels. It might make you wonder, “What’s the secret formula?” Now,…

Leave a Reply