Welcome to Princeton, New Jersey, site of the fourth-oldest college in the US. For many, Princeton is just the university. Welcome to my Princeton. Welcome to the world outside the gates — a world I’ve called home since I was eight years old, a world I’ve been able to see with new eyes after returning from four years abroad.
For those who aren’t part of Princeton’s “Ivy League” (or maybe those of you who are), I suggest that 24 hours in this town shouldn’t be spent toiling away in dark libraries, getting drunk in frat-like eating halls, or sleeping off exams. 24 hours should start at Small World Coffee.
In 10 years I’ve never seen Small World Coffee empty, but don’t be intimidated if there’s a line — the employees are incredibly efficient. As you wait to order, you’ll hear, “Cap to go!” and “Double-iced joe to stay!” shouted from behind the counter.
I recommend the cappuccino. The smooth coffee blends with creamy foam on your first sip, no airy bubbles quickly evaporating away. While sipping on your morning coffee — or chugging it — glance around at the other patrons. Small World is a rare common denominator in Princeton; you’ll see moms or dads with young children getting their morning caffeine fix, business people on their phones, students chatting with friends, hipsters on their computers.
As you exit, check out the photos of world-travel regulars displayed on the wall, each flaunting Small World t-shirts — the iconic bright red standing out in front of the Giza pyramids or getting soaked at a misty Stonehenge.
Caffeinated and ready to go, follow Witherspoon to where it intersects Nassau, forming the epicenter of Princeton. The busy traffic on Nassau serves as the dividing line between town and gown. For a brief glimpse of campus, pass through the official entrance to Princeton University — the FitzRandolph Gate.
The wrought-iron doorway is flanked by two columns, each topped with stone eagles, their wings partially spread and beaks open as they stare at each other above your head. Nassau Hall is centered on the lawn beyond.
Completed in 1756, this is the oldest building on campus. Two bronze tigers rest with dignity on its steps, their backs worn to a matte finish where decades of visitors have perched for photo ops. Snap a photo if you like before passing back through these emblematic gates, exiting the university, and turning your attention back to real town life.
For good student-watching, make your way to Hoagie Haven on Nassau Street. Unchanged since the ‘70s, this family-run place serves stuffed-to-the-brim hoagies and is known for such delicacies as the Phat Lady, a cheesesteak packed with mozzarella sticks and fries, and the Big Cat, four bacon cheeseburgers with four eggs.
If greasy hangover food isn’t your thing, you can grab a sandwich at Witherspoon Bread Company. Classic, simple, and fresh, your choices include a baguette filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, and tomato, or an even more modest ham and butter. Regardless of your choice, take your lunch to the Albert Hinds Plaza in front of the library and once again indulge in some people watching.
For the more morbidly inclined, a post-lunch stroll through the nearby cemetery is in order. The graveyard is a designated historical sight; we’ve been burying people here since 1757. Our most famous dead resident is Revolutionary War captain, vice president, and infamous dueler Aaron Burr.
The Alchemist & Barrister is a Princeton favorite, with almost 50 beers on tap. One of the most popular of their lauded burgers is the Dry Aged, topped with Irish cheddar, smoked bacon, and Guinness-glazed onions.
Just across the street, Agricola advertises their farm-to-table philosophy. Waiters in plaid shirts serve your meal, whether you choose Florida frog legs or decide instead on one of the elaborate flatbreads, perhaps one topped with calamari, house-made chorizo, and fennel. Cocktails have old-timey names like the “Great ‘Dirt’ Road Farm Martini,” which is made with farm-pickled vegetables, and the “Apple of My Eye.”
If you’re looking for some classic Mediterranean cuisine, be it seafood, meat, or pasta, and a glass of Sangiovese, head to Mediterra.
No stay in Princeton is complete before you’ve been to Bent Spoon and sampled some of their gelato. Flavors include lavender mascarpone, basil, and chocolate Earl Grey. Vintage decor and handwritten signs make the small space warm and welcoming. To finish it all off, stroll through campus with your dessert and admire the old stone buildings as they’re transformed by the dim lights and dusk’s soft opal glow.