Sprawled out along the western banks of the Hudson River and Upper Bay, Jersey City is the Garden State’s bite out of the famed Big Apple.
It’s connected to mighty New York by ferries and subways, and boasts some of the finest broadside views of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the world.
You can see the Empire State rising to a peak across the waters, while the totemic likes of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty pepper the bay.
The city itself boomed to life with the industrial revolution, going from an outpost of colonial militias before the 1770s to a powerhouse of coal refineries and railroads and red-brick train depots in the 20th century.
Today, that industrial core is now an image of old America, with museums and monuments to the thousands of immigrants that were magnetised to the city by its great promise of opportunity and wealth.
That heritage is balanced out by the bars of party-mad Hoboken and the pretty walkways of the Hudson, making this a top spot for any traveler on the East Coast! Let’s explore the best things to do in Jersey City:
1. Understand the human history of JC at the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration
One of the most iconic sights in America’s modern history, and the first ever federal immigration site in the country, Ellis Island is thought to have processed upwards of 12 million people coming to settle in the United States between 1892 and the early 1950s.
Now a US National Monument and with a spot on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places, the small speck of land between the shores of Jersey City and New York proper attracts visitors with an enthralling immigration museum.
Housed in the very same building where immigrants were processed from 1900 onwards, the institution chronicles everything from the harsh medical checks to the famous folk who passed through the halls. It’s unquestionably one of JC’s must-sees!
2. Check off the Statue of Liberty National Monument
No trip to either the Big Apple or Jersey City could possibly be complete without at least a short jaunt out to what is arguably America’s most defining monument.
Standing tall in the waters of Upper Bay at the end of the Hudson River, the site is instantly-recognisable.
Constructed at the end of the 1800s by none other than Gustave Eiffel, the monument has become a symbol of freedom, democracy and the American dream, seen by the millions of immigrants as they drifted on liners into the ports of Jersey City during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
A gift from the people of France, the site can be accessed by ferry from Liberty State Park. Access is free but those who wish to climb the internal stairs to the crown must book long in advance (only 240 people are admitted each day!).
3. Take in the views from Liberty State Park
Facing Manhattan, Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn from its place on the edge of the Upper Bay, Liberty State Park boasts unquestionably one of the top views of any urban green area in the world.
Once a sprawling industrial space, the redeveloped area now contains large lawns and a patchwork of tidal marshes, all part of the Communipaw Cove natural preserve.
Visitors here can come and walk the so-called Freedom Way, cycle along the winding bike tracks and take stock at the thought-provoking Empty Sky Memorial, built in honour of the September 11 attacks on New York and complete with a remnant of the World Trade Center itself.
The park is also the departure point for cruises out into the Upper Bay (Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty et al).
4. Get hands-on at the Liberty Science Center
Sat on the western edge of the aforementioned Liberty State Park, the Liberty Science Center has been serving up bitesize and hands-on science exhibits to the people and travelers of New York and Chilltown for more than 20 years.
Aspects of the permanent collection include the world’s largest expose of skyscraper construction and design (named, appropriately, Skyscraper!), the Energy Quest, which unravels the truths of energy and energy production, and the adrenaline-pumping Wildlife Challenge (only during the summer), loaded with zip lines and physical challenges.
There’s also an interesting add-on dedicated to the Hungarian Rubik’s Cube, along with an adjoining IMAX theatre (the largest dome IMAX in the country, in fact!).
5. Have a beer and a meal at the Light Horse Tavern
Visitors to this resorted public house from the 1850s can almost imagine the days of Prohibition, when the smoky recesses were occupied by bootleggers and whiskey sippers.
Today, things are a little different, with the spot fusing its deep tradition with a modern cuisine.
The menu focuses on classic East Coast fare, with oysters and Maine lobsters meeting kale salads and crispy cod fillets.
The tavern section of the joint serves up frothy beers and a medley of great pub snacks too, like artisanal cheese platters and baked meatloaf. In short: a real trademark Jersey City joint!
6. Wander the boardwalks of the J. Owen Grundy Park
Jutting into the waters of the Upper Bay from the eastern edge of Jersey City, the J. Owen Grundy Park is another fine place to take in breathtaking broadside views of New York City and the Statue of Liberty.
A patchwork of timber-built promenades and pagodas, it’s alive with local strollers during the summer months, not to mention jogging classes and yoga get-togethers on the weekends.
It’s possible to see the outline of the great Varrizano Bridge in the distance to the south, where the waters divide the Big Apple in two before entering the New Jersey Bight and the Atlantic.
7. Dine on the edge of the Hudson at Battello
This relatively recent addition to the gastronomic line-up of Jersey City (Batello was only opened back in March 2014), this waterside restaurant pokes its way out into the central channels of the Hudson River to offer perhaps the finest dinnertime views in town.
Themed with all the nautical elements you’d expect of an eatery in a yacht club, the spot touts a dinner menu of classic and tasty Italian-inspired meals.
It’s headed up by the respected Ryan DePersio as head chef, whose seafood creations range from tagliatelle with little neck clams to yellowfin tuna carpaccio, from Japanese hamachi to squid ink pasta bowls. Nice.
8. Take stock at the Katyń Memorial
Built by the accomplished Polish-American sculptor and designer Andrzej Pitynski, and raised on the edge of the Jersey City waterfront way back in 1991, the striking outline of the Katyń Memorial is one of the most haunting monuments in town for sure.
A great bronze soldier stands impaled through the back with a bayonet, all rising on a huge monolith that’s surrounded by soil taken from the site of the Katyń massacre.
Not only does the statue stand as a testimony to the great connection between Jersey City and Poland (from where a huge diaspora has come over the years), but is also now a symbol of freedom against oppression, gilded with a plaque that outlines the city’s defiance to terrorism in the post-9/11 era.
9. Kick-back on the lawns of Lincoln Park
The largest green area in all of Hudson County comes complete with a nine-hole golf course (open to the public), miles of tarmacked walking and jogging trails, oodles of tennis courts (upwards of 20 separate courts, in fact), a baseball diamond and soccer fields.
It attracts large crowds of NJ residents with its sporting amenities during the summer, while travelers can come here and wallow in the local vibe.
There’s also a large playground for visitors with kids in tow, along with a series of lakes complete with some gorgeous neo-classical fountains.
10. Feel the power at the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Powerhouse
For the first third of the 20th century this mighty red-brick coal burner close to the waters of Upper Bay was the great engine room of the subway tunnels that connected Chilltown with its bigger brother of New York across the bay.
It burned tonnes of coal each year to power the subterranean transit systems that went below the Hudson to Manhattan, and is now considered one of the jewels of the historic core of Jersey City, along with the likes of the municipal courthouse and city hall.
Today, the spot is just for looking – it’s undergoing important structural restorations that will see it made safe for public access.
11. See the pretty row houses of Paulus Hook
Loaded with row upon row of charming redbrick houses, Paulus Hook is a truly unmissable section of the Jersey City downtown.
Believe it or not, the spot was once the site of an old British colonial fortification; one that saw action during the revolutionary war, when Robert E Lee’s father no less attacked loyalist positions and brought New Jersey into patriot control.
Today, there are no rifles to be seen; just expensive flats and condos, the occasional artisanal coffee shop, enticing bistros and regular ferries across to Manhattan.
There’s also the city’s historic post office, nestled just on the eastern edge of the district.
12. Party the night away in Hoboken
A small and tight-knit city in its own right that clings to the northern fringes of Jersey City, Hoboken might be just a mile square in size but it sure does pack a punch.
It’s a patchwork of historic brownstone homes and tenements, all now infused with a modern energy and youthful vibe to rival anywhere in town.
In fact, there are so many drinkeries and dive bars and cantinas lining the likes of Washington Street, 1st and Newark Street that it’s impossible not to find something to suit your style of party.
Check out Bahama Mamas, thumping with hip hop and local chatter; take a tipple courtesy of the Emerald Isle at McSwiggans; sip meticulously-mixed cocktails at Chandelier Room – the choice is yours!
13. Sip award-winning beers at the Departed Soles Brewing Company
Recently awarded prizes from the prestigious World Beer Cup and a reputation for some of the finest gluten-free beers in New York and the Garden State as a whole make the Departed Soles Brewing Company a real chart-topper for hops heads traveling through Chilltown.
Head down to their establishment in the midst of the Powerhouse Arts District to sample their line-up of both new and traditional ales, going from the A Dark Night Cascadian to the Philoso-Rapper, a fusion of sweet blonde and classic Belgian tripel flavors.
There’s also a range of seasonal brews on offer from time-to-time, each with their own experimental taste and strength – you’ve been warned!
14. Drink coffee and eat pizza at Grove Square
This five-venue conglomeration of pizzeria, coffeeshop, bar and whiskey joint is one of the newest hip and happening establishments to hit Jersey City.
Head down to its prime location on Newark Avenue in the midst of the downtown to sample bona fide Neapolitan pizza pies or authentic Italian dishes cooked up by the revered head chef Gregg Freda. Or, come to settle in the speakeasy for a taste of potent American whiskeys and bourbons.
And if it’s coffee you’re after, then great: the on-site coffeeshop has some of the best beans in all of Chilltown, not to mention a swish and stylish design with oodles of artworks scrawled over the exposed-brick walls. Nice.
15. Get away from the city at Richard W. DeKorte Park
Hugging the banks of the Hackensack River just some 20 minutes by car from the heart of Jersey City, the Richard W. DeKorte Park is one of the first preservation areas in the NJ Meadowlands.
It’s the perfect place to breath the fresh airs of the Garden State away from the fray of the city. There are miles of maintained walking trails and nature exhibits to see, not to mention guided tours of the water reserve and its reed tussocks on pontoon boats.
By winter, the area is alive with waterfowl and American black ducks, while summer brings elegant egrets and ospreys. In short: a great spot for strollers, nature lovers and bird watchers just on the outskirts of Chilltown.