Best New Jersey Towns for Arts and Culture

Classical music is alive and well in New Jersey
With live music, theater, museums, and world-class universities, New Jersey is teeming with artistic and cultural offerings that rival even those of NYC—if you know where to look. Our guide points you to Northern and Central New Jersey’s hottest towns for arts and culture.

Morristown, New Jersey

Vibrant performing arts and perfectly preserved Revolutionary War history in Morristown

Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC) offers everything from classical music to modern  dance, theater to popular music, bringing world-class acts to the area. MPAC hosts such iconic musicians as Chaka Khan, Melissa Etheridge, and Boz Scaggs, comedian Tracy Morgan, as well as theater and plenty of tribute shows to bygone bands.

Morristown’s historical importance is apparent throughout the town, and yes, George Washington slept here, as the town served as his headquarters for two different winter encampments during the Revolutionary War. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Morristown one of its “Dozen Distinctive Destinations.” Historic sites include Acorn Hall, Historic Speedwell, MacCulloch Hall Historical Museum, Schuyler Hamilton House, and Willow Hall. Washington’s Headquarters Museum at the Ford Mansion is an 18th-century home that was occupied by George Washington and his aides during the winter of 1779–1780. Jockey Hollow features an 18th-century farmhouse and reconstructed soldiers’ huts.

Madison, New Jersey

The inimitable Bard and intimate jazz in Madison

New Jersey’s only professional theater company dedicated solely to Shakespeare’s canon and other classic masterworks, the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, on the grounds of Drew University, offers a spectacular annual Main Stage season at the intimate, stateoftheart F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre. An Outdoor Stage production is presented each summer at The Greek Theatre, an openair amphitheater at St. Elizabeth University in Florham Park.  Shanghai Jazz is a hotspot for worldclass live jazz and Chinese/Asian fare. Past performers here include Catherine Russell, Oran Etkin, SaRon Crenshaw, and Cyrus Chestnut.

Montclair, New Jersey

The area’s largest jazz festival and more in Montclair

Montclair is a mecca for the arts, attracting  people from many adjacent towns. On Bloomfield Avenue next to downtown, the Montclair Art Museum—with an impressive permanent collection and important traveling shows—is one of the best-respected art museums in New Jersey. Another major arts institution is the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. This 500-seat theater is one of New Jersey’s major venues for innovative dance, music, and theater. The Wellmont Theater downtown is a 2000-seat concert venue in a 100-year-old converted movie theater. Run by Live Nation (America’s largest concert producer), the theater hosts major rock bands. The nonprofit-run Outpost In the Burbs, operating out of a downtown church, offers one of the metropolitan area’s best assortments of Americana and contemporary folk concerts.

Billed as the NYC area’s largest jazz festival, The Montclair Jazz Festival each summer is a free concert at Nishuane Park, featuring world-renowned jazz artists. This festival is sponsored by Jazz House Kids, a nonprofit music school run by esteemed bassist (and Montclair resident) Christian McBride and his wife, singer Melissa Walker. Another local celebrity, Stephen Colbert, frequently hosts events for the nonprofit Montclair Film group (whose board is chaired by his wife Evelyn McGee-Colbert). In addition to presenting a year-round film program, highlighted by the Montclair Film Festival, the group offers many classes.

West Orange, New Jersey

Valley Arts District and Thomas Edison history in West Orange

The Valley neighborhood has a trendy arts district (extending into neighboring Orange) with outdoor sculpture and murals, as well as Luna Stage, one of New Jersey’s most notable small theaters mounting new and innovative plays, and West Orange Arts Center, a nonprofit fostering the arts with a poetry group, film society, workshops, and other arts programming. Near Eagle Rock Park is the Oskar Schindler Performing Arts Center, a nonprofit-run outdoor amphitheater presenting live music and theater, usually for a small fee. In addition to its popular fitness center, JCC MetroWest has a wide variety of cultural, educational, and arts programming for all ages. At the Essex Green Shopping Center, the AMC Essex Green is a 9-screen multiplex with full service, in-theater dining.

Attracting both locals and tourists, Thomas Edison National Historical Park consists of the fascinating large laboratory complex where many of Edison’s inventions were developed, and the mansion where he lived with his family. Black Maria, the nation’s first moving picture studio, is also here.

South Orange, New Jersey

South Orange, the live music capital of North Jersey

South Orange calls itself the live music capital of North Jersey, and it works hard to live up to that title. Adjacent to the South Orange train station, SOPAC hosts well known singer songwriters, speakers, and occasional theater companies, as well as the annual Giants of Jazz, which draws big name jazz artists from the area for a long night of music. It also houses the town’s movie theater (The Village at SOPAC).

Downtown After Sundown offers live music Friday and Saturday nights throughout the summer at various locations around town. The summer concert series on Floods Hill is a family affair, where large groups bring lawn chairs and picnics or buy food from local food trucks, and kids run up and down the hill and play. For a couple of months each year, SOPAC’s “Playin’ Around South Orange” program installs whimsically hand-painted pianos around town, leading to impromptu concerts by anyone who chooses to sit down and play.. Ten minutes away in Millburn, the 1,200-seat Paper Mill Playhouse, established in 1938, is one of the oldest and best-known regional theaters in the country. It produces all of its own shows, many pre-Broadway productions and revivals of notable musicals.

New Brunswick and East Brunswick, New Jersey

Top state university and booming downtown arts scene in New Brunswick

New Brunswick has a thriving arts and culture scene. The jewel in the crown of the New Jersey State University system, Rutgers offers the community a tremendously robust slate of artistic, cultural, and educational opportunities, with myriad lectures, concerts, and films. Rutgers’ Zimmerli Art Museum is one of the largest university museums in the US, with the country’s largest collection of Russian and Soviet art, as well as Asian and European art, and art of the Americas.

The State Theatre, a renovated silent movie palace and one of the state’s oldest theaters, celebrated its 100th year with a centennial series of shows that continues through 2022, with Jason Isbell, Johnny Mathis, Riverdance, and a number of musicals (their Broadway series, so you don’t have to schlep into NYC). Next door, the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center (NBPAC) presents theater, dance, music, and comedy performances. Just about two blocks from the State Theatre and NBPAC, Tavern on George hosts jazz acts twice a week, sponsored by the New Brunswick Jazz Project. Past shows have featured Ravi Coltrane, Arturo O’Farrell, and Tia Fuller.

Just 10-minutes away, East Brunswick has its own arts opportunities. East Brunswick’s Community Arts Center serves as a hub for town-sponsored educational and cultural activities such as movie nights and musical performances. The arts center includes the Elliot Taubenslag Theater (home to the community theater group Playhouse 22), which presents a series of special events throughout the year, including major Broadway shows, live music concerts, children’s shows, theater festivals, and the widely acclaimed “Third Thursday Play Reading,” a series that allows local playwrights to present their works in front a live audience. In addition, Playhouse 22’s Summer Theater Experience is a unique opportunity for children to learn the world of theater—from acting, to dancing, to designing lights and set pieces. East Brunswick’s largest shopping mall, the Brunswick Square Mall, has an AMC Starplex movie theater in addition to the full range of retail shops typically found in major malls.

Princeton, New Jersey

The nation’s best Ivy League university fosters a vibrant arts scene in Princeton

Princeton University—arguably the country’s best—brings a tremendous amount of arts and culture to the area. Always free and open to the public on the University campus, Princeton University Art Museum hosts an impressive range of exhibitions, including Ancient, Byzantine, and Islamic art, European art, Modern and Contemporary art, and Photography collections. Also on campus is the wonderful McCarter Theatre Center, a nonprofit theater mounting drama, dance, and musical performances and offering educational programs. Also notable is the free-form and peculiar college radio station WPRB 103.3FM, which broadcasts everything from jazz to classical to metal music and is run mostly by University students and alumni. Princeton University Reunions brings upwards of 25,000 university alumni to town every spring for a four-day bash that includes bands, fireworks, sporting events, parades, and plenty of camaraderie. Also in the spring, Communiversity, presented by the Arts Council of Princeton, brings over 225 booths showcasing arts and crafts, merchandise, live entertainment, and great food to the town’s center roads of Nassau and Witherspoon Streets.

The small nonprofit arthouse Princeton Garden Theatre often shows foreign and independent films, such as Belfast, The Power of the Dog, and The Worst Person in the World.

Princeton has many historic homes, including the modest Albert Einstein House on Mercer Street, where Albert Einstein lived from 1935 until his death in 1955, and Drumthwacket, the official residence of the Governor of New Jersey, on Stockton Street.