Although it’s technically a suburb, Montclair feels more like a small city. It has arts, culture, celebrity sightings, myriad dining options, and a funky downtown filled with unique shops, galleries, and coffee shops, all just 12 miles west of Manhattan. With six train stations dotting the town, it’s easy to reach from New York City as a day trip; but Brooklyn West, as it's sometimes called, is an even better weekend destination. Spend the night and you’ll have time to enjoy a leisurely brunch, wander the scenic parks and gardens, catch a live show, and have time to shop till you drop. I call Montclair home, but after you visit, you’ll probably call it the perfect New Jersey getaway.
Things To Do In Montclair
There are two main neighborhoods to explore on a weekend trip to Montclair. Downtown has a busy urban feel and is traversed by Bloomfield Avenue. Here you’ll find live entertainment, quirky shops, and a number of restaurants. About 2 miles north, Upper Montclair has a quiet Main Street vibe with many quaint spots to grab gifts and everyday essentials, including coffee, baked goods, and flowers. As you navigate from one end of town to the other, you’ll cross Walnut Street, home to several small eateries and bars, and Watchung Plaza, which has two of my favorite spots: the lauded indie bookstore, Watchung Booksellers, and the British savory and sweet baked goods shop The Pie Store.
You can easily walk around Upper Montclair or Downtown, but you’ll need a car to neighborhood hop (the train is geared towards commuters and isn’t a good option for exploring).
Immerse Yourself In Fine Art
Montclair’s Beaux-Arts crown is the Montclair Art Museum, home to a renowned collection of American and Native American art and sculptures that spans nearly three centuries. The museum is a Montclair must-visit as much for what’s on display as for the historic, century-old building it’s housed in, which makes it feel like you’ve been granted entrance to a private collector’s home. Special exhibits here are worth planning around and have highlighted everyone from pop icon Andy Warhol to contemporary artist Kara Walker. There’s a robust art school here, too, that often offers weekend classes and tours.
Shop Till You Drop
Some “mall” shops can be found in town, including Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, and Lululemon on Bloomfield Avenue, and Williams-Sonoma and Gap uptown. But the independent shops and boutiques are what give Montclair its special flavor.
Parallel to Bloomfield Avenue is pedestrian-friendly Church Street, the heart of Montclair window shopping. Stop in at Le French Dad for a baked treat, taste international wines at Amanti Vino, and pick up some coffee beans at Java Love as a Montclair souvenir. Cross the street to Giftbar for home decor, jewelry, and gifts for every occasion and Dolly Moo for handcrafted bath products, including covetable bath bombs and candles.
Stroll Through The Garden
There is plenty of greenery in suburban Montclair, including Edgemont and Anderson parks, both of which are perfect for walks and picnics. But Montclair also boasts a special garden worth a visit. The 140-year-old Van Vleck House and Gardens was originally a private estate and still retains the look of an exclusive mansion, but the gardens are open to the public 365 days a year. The 12 acres of manicured greenery are especially impressive when they bloom in the spring and summer. You can also attend special events ranging from concerts to yoga on the lawn here.
Pay Homage To A Baseball Legend
When you think of Yankee baseball legend Yogi Berra, you may remember his malapropisms, including, “When you come to the fork in the road, take it.” He definitely had a way with a phrase. He was also known in Montclair as a big-hearted neighbor. His memory and achievements are celebrated with both a small museum and minor league stadium on the campus of Montclair State University. The compact museum can be seen relatively quickly, but plan your visit to coincide with a New Jersey Jackals (May through September) game at the stadium. My family loves the low-stakes games with their inexpensive seats, great sightlines, and friendly atmosphere that would make Yogi proud.
Get Star Struck At The Movies
There are several special events in Montclair, but the one that’s best known is The Montclair Film Festival. The deep dive into movies feels like Sundance and usually takes place over a 2-week period (previously in May, but currently in October). However, local celebrity and festival supporter Steven Colbert usually hosts fundraising events throughout the year, so you may be able to catch, say, a conversation with Julia Louis-Dreyfus or Jon Stewart earlier in the year. The festival also draws big wattage names for premieres and panels; there are outdoor screenings and dance parties, too. Plus, Montclair Film runs year-round screenings and classes at its permanent building on Bloomfield Avenue.
See Live Entertainment
Another surprising aspect of this small town is its large arts scene. The Wellmont Theater is a vintage performance space that hosts live music performances in almost every genre. I’ve seen everything from indie band WILCO to soul legend Mavis Staples perform here, plus there are comedians, rap and hip hop artists, and lots of reunion tours and cover bands. In a non-permanent space but still offering notable performances is Outpost in the Burbs. This non-profit hosts singer/songwriters in one of the town’s historic churches (the acoustics are amazing). Past performers have included Steve Earle, Shawn Colvin, and Bettye LaVette, among others.
Best Restaurants In Montclair
Montclair is a town made for foodies. There are dozens of unique restaurants serving everything from American diner classics and steaming bowls of ramen to Neopolitan-style pizza and Ethiopian injera. Starting at the museum and moving south down Bloomfield Avenue is a veritable United Nations of dining options. In Upper Montclair, you’ll find a few quiet date night options, plus several popular sandwich spots. The majority of restaurants in town are BYOB. Still, you can raise a glass at several spots with bars, including Montclair Brewery, which has a lovely beer garden as well as an indoor bar, and Egan and Sons, an Irish pub that also offers home-brewed options. Below are a few of my favorite spots, but you could easily spend a weekend just nibbling your way through town to find where your tastebuds are happiest.
There are many global entries in the Montclair dining scene, but few are quite as transporting as Mesob. If you’ve never had authentic Ethiopian dishes before, the waitstaff will patiently walk you through the menu of stewed veggies, spicy beef tips, and aromatic seafood options. Your choices (I heartily recommend the sampler if you can’t decide) appear on a large silver tray ladled on top of spongy injera. Another plate of the sourdough crepe is used to scoop up the heavily spiced bites; no fork required. It’s BYOB, but there is one drink you should order while you’re here: the strong brew Ethiopian coffee, a house specialty.
A stylish crowd sipping craft cocktails in the outdoor garden, the soaring lofted dining room, the French-inspired menu --- it all combines to make a dinner at Faubourg feel like you’ve been transported to Paris. You’ll definitely want to dress to impress for dinner here; the contemporary space is a perfect spot for an anniversary or a birthday dinner, but equally pleasing for a laid-back dinner of small bites (don’t miss the warm gougeres cheese puffs).
If you’re a noodlehead and can’t get enough of slurpable bowls of steaming broth, this is the spot for you. First, a warning: Ani Ramen is small, it’s popular, and the wait times for a communal table can often exceed an hour. However, if you come early or late (or for a late lunch, which is one of my favorite times to stop by), seats are easier to come by. It’s a short menu, but the ramen is exceptional, as are the small starters such as the pork buns.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Bloomfield Avenue in Upper Montclair, De Novo is my favorite spot in town when I want a well-mixed cocktail, homemade pasta, and always impeccably prepared meat and fish. The burrata ravioli, sesame-crusted tuna, lasagna, and moules frites (mussels and fries), are all great options, but the long list of daily specials is also always tempting. For dessert, I can never resist the ice cream-filled profiteroles. There’s a decadent burger on the menu as well.
My favorite grab-and-go in Montclair, Marcel, serves up Israeli-style breakfasts, including the baked egg and tomato stew shakshuka, fresh-baked babka and croissants, and fabulous Mediterranean-inspired sandwiches (I’m a fan of the herb laden falafel), salads, and dips such as hummus. All are available for takeout, but there are a handful of tables as well. (Brick and Dough on Walnut Street is the same owner with a similar daily menu, plus gourmet pizza at night).
Best Hotels In Montclair
Just a few years ago, Montclair was mostly a day trip destination without a real hotel option, but two fashionable new choices have turned this into a true travel destination.
The MC Hotel
With an impressive on-site art collection and the town’s only rooftop bar, ALTO, with stunning views of the Manhattan skyline, the MC Hotel has become a regional hospitality icon. There’s original artwork in public spaces, including the lobby lounge, and all of the sleek rooms. The hotel spotlights local businesses, stocking beauty items from Dolly Moo, new releases from Montclair Brewery, Dolce Frederica chocolates, and Misunderstood Whiskey in the minibars and hotel shop. In addition to drinks and bites with a view at ALTO, the hotel also sports a ground-level restaurant, Allegory, which takes its inspiration from locally sourced ingredients from the Montclair Farmers Market.
Montclair has a significant population of well-known names that call the town home, including makeup impresario Bobbi Brown, who transformed a 1902 mansion into the boutique The George Hotel. Tucked into a residential corner just a few blocks from Bloomfield Avenue, the stylish property channels a cozy English country home, with a book-filled library and cozy sitting areas near the fireplace. Design-savvy rooms offer up lots of contemporary touches such as Casper bedding, Nespresso coffee makers, Dyson hairdryers, and SMEG mini-fridges. Extra bonus to this stylish stay: Dogs are welcome, so your pet can join you on your weekend away.
The town rolls out the red carpet for May in Montclair, an entire month of programming that includes outdoor entertainment, art fairs, home and garden tours, the opening of the seasonal farmer’s market, and a number of festivals.