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It probably goes without saying, but New Jersey doesn't always get credit for being a top arts and culture destination. Instead, it's often relegated to being the punchline to a Real Housewives or Sopranos joke. However, get past the Jersey Shore one-liners, and you’ll discover a treasure trove of cultural gems and arts destinations tucked away throughout the state that is anything but a joke, and worth a special trip to discover.

Sculptures at Grounds for Sculpture near Princeton, New Jersey.

Grounds For Sculpture Near Princeton

This is indeed a sculpture park, as its name implies, but forget all thoughts of static, monochromatic works sitting on a pedestal. Grounds for Sculpture is an entirely different kind of arts environment. Created by Seward Johnson, the 42-acre park is a monument to his whimsical, larger-than-life interpretations of classical works, wrought in monumental, 4-D, technicolor. Manet’s entire Luncheon in the Grass is literally tucked behind a glen and sprawled out on the lawn. A picnic beckons near a lake, like a painting waiting for you to step inside. On top of a hill is a 20-foot-tall woman reclining on a fainting sofa. There are also more traditional works by contemporary sculptors, plus bamboo-lined paths, lovely wooded seating areas, and lots to explore.

When you’re ready for a break, there’s one more hidden treat: Rats Restaurant, a romantic retreat designed to look like the French countryside in a Monet painting. You can also grab a snack at the Van Gogh Cafe, which feels like you’re sipping coffee inside Starry Night.

The Ballantine House in Newark, New Jersey.

A Spectacular Historic Mansion At A Museum In Newark

If you’re not familiar with Newark, it’s easy to write off the city as an urban transportation hub that you pass through on the way from the airport or train station to explore New York City or greener parts of the Garden State. But hidden in the bustling heart of Newark is a vibrant and grown arts center, including a popular Performing Arts Center and one of the state’s biggest arts surprises: The Newark Museum and the Ballantine Home. The museum is actually the largest in the state, although it’s still not very well known. Inside is a collection that ranges from decorative arts; works by great American artists, including paintings by Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O'Keeffe; Global African Art; and perhaps most surprisingly, the largest collections of Tibetan art in the Western Hemisphere (the Dalai Lama has even spent time in the galleries).

But wait, there’s more. Attached to the museum is one of my favorite hidden cultural gems in New Jersey: The Ballantine House. Built in 1885 for the celebrated Newark beer-brewing Ballantine family, this red-brick mansion has been restored to its original glory with gleaming mahogany woodwork, rich fabrics, period furnishings, and myriad elegant details. It’s even more impressive at Christmas when it’s elegantly swagged out for the holiday.

A Beaux-Arts Beauty In Montclair

There are a few tip-offs that the exquisite white Beaux-Arts mansion at the uppermost peak of hip suburbs of Montclair isn’t just another fancy house in the area, including an oversize sculpture of a disembodied head with a tiny man curled up inside its ear by Tom Nussbaum, called Listen, on the lawn. The Montclair Art Museum is a lot like the modern sculpture, full of fascinating surprises. The museum has been collecting and preserving American artwork since 1914, including landscapes from painter George Inness, who lived in Montclair, as well as 12,000 works of sculpture, paintings, ceramics, and a large collection of Native American art and collectibles. Special exhibits here are also worth planning time to see, including an upcoming photography display by Maggie Meiners that reinterprets and updates Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic images of mid-century American life.

The Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey.

The Smithsonian, But In Morristown

There’s no need to go all the way to Washington, D.C., to visit a Smithsonian Museum. The unique Americana collections at Morris Museum in Morristown helped it become the only Smithsonian affiliate in New Jersey in 2019. This museum was special even before the national designation, filled with a mix of whimsy and wonder not seen in any other museum.

Some of the highlights you won’t find anywhere else include player pianos, kinetic art, and automatons that are part of the fascinating Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Mechanical Instruments, which feels like you’ve stepped out of modern times and into a turn-of-the-century vaudeville. There’s also an impressive array of rocks and minerals in the natural science wing and even a room devoted to model railroads for a truly unique taste of Americana.

Follies And Flowers At Greenwood Gardens In Short Hills

I grew up in Essex County driving by the old stone wall that marked the end of the Greenwood Gardens property, often wondering what lay beyond the rolling green lawns (for decades I actually assumed it was a private golf club), never realizing the bounty of historical garden beauty that awaited. The original home and gardens here were commissioned by real estate magnate Joseph P. Day in the early 1900s (he called it “Pleasant Days”). The house was later razed and rebuilt by Peter P. Blanchard Jr. and his wife Adelaide Childs Frick, the only other estate owners.

The Fricks kept all of the incredibly picturesque gardens designed by William Renwick that are reminiscent of a French chateau more than the suburbs of New Jersey. There are terraced gardens, woodlands, grottoes, fountains, Arts and Crafts follies, winding paths, sculptures, urns, and gates all dating back to the early 20th century. As you explore, you’ll also discover a summer house and a tea house constructed of rough local stone and decorated with colorful and playful Arts and Craft Rookwood tiles, all of which have been restored to their original glory.

Great Falls in Paterson, New Jersey.

A Natural Wonder That Inspired An Epic Poem In Paterson

“The past above, the future below, and the present pouring down.” When William Carlos Williams wrote these lines in the epic poem Paterson, he was hoping to cast a spotlight on the thundering Great Falls and the industrial town of Paterson. William became justly famous for his work, but it would take the pouring waters that inspired him another 60 years to get their moment of fame, becoming a national historical park in 2011. Still, even with national status, not many people know about the park, which makes it a great hidden gem to seek out on a visit.

On a self-guided tour, you’ll come face to face with a life-size statue of Alexander Hamilton, who took inspiration from the Falls to create the first planned industrial city here in 1792. Watch the water cascade over the basalt cliffs, then visit the Paterson Museum to learn about the industrial age of silk weaving, another important chapter of the city’s history, and gain your own inspiration from the natural wonder.

The Sounds Of History Illuminated In West Orange

The father of light and recorded sound, Thomas Alva Edison, had his historic labs right in the heart of New Jersey in West Orange. The entire multi-story laboratory and grounds are preserved as the Thomas Edison National Historic Park. A visit is truly both informative and inspiring. You can almost see Edison’s mind at work looking at the drawings in the drafting room that were then turned into reality in the machine shops and test tube-filled chemistry lab. You can even see a rebuilt version of the world’s first movie studio, the Black Maria.

Before or after visiting the birthplace of the cinema and recorded sound, tour the Victorian home, Glenmont, that Edison shared with his second wife and children, in the lovely Llewelyn Park neighborhood.

Pro Tip

For smaller arts gems, stroll the art galleries that dot the urban streets around Jersey City and Hoboken.

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