‘What are we going to do today?” shouts your energetic child bursting into your bedroom on a cold winter Saturday morning.
Kids! They don’t care about the pressures of your week or your need for sleep. They only know it is family time. And as you shake yourself awake, you know it too.
You also know someone mentioned some place you could take a child, someplace fun, educational, nearby, and affordable. But in the fog of morning you just can’t remember. Ugh!
That was me before I made a list and taped it on my refrigerator to jog my memory and help me get the day going. Unlike a “bucket list,” this one was something for the future: get my son out to learn about the world — and give my wife some time alone.
The list ended up including cultural and educational venues and was focused on helping my son become aware of the region’s history and resources and cultivated an interest in learning (which, I am happy to say, it has).
When I mentioned my list to other parents, the usual response was “Can I have it? Where did you get the info?” Sometimes a desperate dad would even call on a rainy Saturday morning and ask for a recommendation.
Since colleagues and coworkers with children have asked the same questions, it’s time to share the strategy and make a few recommendations.
The trips were designed to be inexpensive — or free — and be simple and quick visits — a “let’s see what’s going on” type of approach. After all, one can return to a free venue over and over. I also thought that it would be good to get out early, so I looked for places with morning hours — that way I could be home in the afternoon to take care of household needs. I also decided to include a visit to a venue’s cafe — or one nearby one — to make the trip fun and more social.
The venues originally selected were the ones mainly around where I lived — Trenton. While I knew places from years living and working in the region, I also did research: checked websites, cut items from newspapers, and trolled the Internet for museums and art in central New Jersey. Eventually the list and opportunities expanded.
I then hand-wrote a list of cultural venues and hung the list on the refrigerator. Now to answer the “what are we going to do?” question I would simply point to something on the list and have the answer. It was the Zen of parenting: no thought, no fuss, and get moving.
With some input from my son, who is now a young adult, I’m sharing some of our “best of” places to go and hope that it may be the start of some family fun mornings or days out.
Here we go:
The New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton, has collections spanning state history, science, and artwork by state and nationally known artists. It can easily accommodate several visits, especially during special events, such as the annual Super Science Weekend. Some recommendations: the museum has a strong collection of New Jersey Native American artifacts, located in several rooms on its lower level. Interpretive signage will tell you that a good number of the objects come from the nearby Abbott Farm National Landmark site in Hamilton (another place to visit when it gets warm).
On the upper floors the fine arts gallery focuses on American and New Jersey art. Look there for American sculptor Daniel Chester French’s miniature version of his Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and famed American artist Thomas Eakin’s sculptural reliefs of Washington crossing the Delaware. Both make a good trip around Presidents Day. Fossil and dinosaurs exhibitions (some of my son’s favorites) are also on view — with the Science Hall being renovated for more in the future. Then there’s the planetarium — the largest in New Jersey — and its shows where the big stars are the constellations of the season.
The museum has a $5 “suggested” donation admission, but the planetarium costs are fixed at $7 adult, $5 child (12 and under). Free weekend parking is available in a parking lot next to and behind the building. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. For information, go to www.nj.gov/state/museum/index.html
The Princeton University Art Museum, located on the college campus, not far from Washington Road, has collections that range from the ancient to the current day. My son enjoyed a visit to the Classical Greek and Roman collection to see the sculptures of gods, satyrs, and nymphs as well as the floor mosaics and fountain. There are also the ancient American and Native American collections, including cultures from Chile to Alaska and Greenland, and Western Art that ranges from the medieval to the contemporary. For one of many highlights, look for George Washington at the Battle of Princeton, painted by Charles Willson Peale, who happened to have fought in the actual battle. Then there’s Andy Warhol’s colorful Brillo Boxes and Red Grooms’ whimsical look at famous New York City artists.
The museum is free and open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. For more information, visit artmuseum.princeton.edu.
Free parking can be found on the lot at Ivy Lane, across from the Lewis Library designed by world famous architect Frank Gehry. A quick walk through the campus — past Nassau Hall which figures in the Battle of Princeton and was once the nation’s capital building — provides the opportunity to head to Nassau Street and several child — and wallet — friendly cafes.
Washington Crossing State Park in Titusville offers several visiting opportunities. The first stop is the Visitors Center Museum and the Swan Collection of Revolutionary War artifacts. Nearby is the Johnson Ferry House. An authentic Colonial-era farmhouse that Washington’s officers used during the famous Christmas Night crossing in 1776, it is now a Colonial era museum. It was one of our frequent stops. Admission to Washington Crossing State Park is free between Labor and Memorial days, and there is no admission for the Visitors Center or the Johnson House. Visit www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html.
Washington Crossing Historic Park across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania features a newly renovated visitor’s center that provides exhibits and education programs. It also features a replica of Emanuel Leutze’s famous painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware River. The park allows visitors to walk through the historic buildings that include McConkey’s Ferry House, where Washington began the crossing, and early 19th century structures. Free. Go to www.washingtoncrossingpark.org.
By the way, if the weather is clear, consider walking across the bridge to get a spectacular view of the famous site on the way to the other side. A few small restaurants can also be found on both sides of the river for a quick snack — pizza and ice cream.
The Trenton City Museum in Cadwalader Park in Trenton, off Parkside Avenue, allows a quick visit with greatness in architecture and landscape design as well as an opportunity to take in exhibitions that highlight art and history. The museum is housed in Ellarslie, the 19th-century mansion designed by American architect John Notman, famous for his Italianate villas and his work on numerous buildings in the Philadelphia and the central New Jersey region (including renovations to the New Jersey State House in Trenton and Nassau Hall in Princeton).
The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who, among numerous parks, was one of the designers of Central Park in New York City. The museum’s upstairs has several rooms devoted to Trenton’s pottery history and features a period room. The first floor is devoted to rotating art and history exhibitions. Admission is free, but a small donation in the box would help. Go to ellarslie.org.
The Clarke House, Princeton Battlefield State Park, 500 Mercer Road, was built in 1772 in what became a Revolutionary War battlefield and was the sanctuary for the wounded Continental Army General Hugh Mercer, who died there. Today it serves as a museum that features Revolutionary War exhibits and artifacts. Visitors can also hike the battlefield and visit the colonnade memorial created by Thomas U. Walter, architect of the United States Capitol Building. Free. www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/princeton.html.
Kuser Mansion in Kuser Park, 390 Newkirk Avenue, Hamilton Township, offers a trip back to the Victorian era. Among the sites in this preserved ornate building are period kitchens, living rooms, and unique home entertainment centers in the region. The Kusers were early investors in motion pictures and had a film projector and screening room set up in their dining room. Tours are free. Visit hamiltonnj.com/KuserMansion
Howell Living History Farm, located in Hopewell (but with a Lambertville address) is a great kid-friendly place to visit (though it is closed most of January). Part of the Mercer County Park System, the farm has been producing crops and livestock since the 1730s and involves visitors in traditional practices, such as corn cracking, blacksmithing, maple syrup and ice harvesting, and so on. It was one of our regular stops and provided some memorable experiences — such as a horse drawn wagon ride across a snowy field.
The official address Is 70 Wooden’s Lane, Lambertville. Park near the visitor center and walk up to the barn and farmhouse through pastures and crop fields. A kitchen and visitor sometimes offer hot beverages and snacks. www.howellfarm.org.
Rockingham, the 1760 farmhouse where George Washington resided from August to November, 1783, helps visitors gain a better understanding of life in the Colonial period. Each room is filled with 18th-century furnishings and artifacts. The site served as General Washington’s final Revolutionary War headquarters and allowed him to visit Nassau Hall in Princeton, which served as the nation’s capital.
It is here that Washington received England’s agreement to end the war and liberate the colonies as well as wrote his Farewell Orders to the Armies of the United States. Admission to the historic house, located on Laurel Road (Route 603) in Kingston, is by guided tour only, set for Saturdays at 10 and 11 a.m. and 1, 2, and 3 p.m. Call in a reservation at 609-683-7132. For more information, visit www.rockingham.net.
The Meredith Haven Fire Museum in Trenton is one of the most unusual and engaging museums in the region. Located in the Perry Street Fire Department Headquarters, it was founded in 1959 and tells the tale of fire fighting in New Jersey’s capital city since 1747. The collection includes approximately 4,000 objects and nearly 700 photographs. On display are vintage engines (sporting elegant art work on their sides), firefighting equipment, uniforms, and “souvenirs” of fires, such as melted telephones.
Look out for the fireman’s pole that connects to the upstairs. The free museum is on the ground floor of the headquarters sporting a giant fire helmet over its entrance, part of the architectural design by famed American architect Robert Venturi. Visitors can park in the lot behind the station and go to the door to request a visit. The Perry Street Fire Department is located at 224 Perry Street and greets traffic taking the Perry Street exit from Route 1. Call 609-989-4038 or visit www.trentonfiremuseum.com.
For A Small Fee
The Old Barracks, located at 101 Barrack Street, Trenton, was built in 1758 during the French and Indian War and housed the Hessian troops during the Battle of Trenton. One of the only such buildings of its kind, it has tours, a museum, and living history events. It’s open Mondays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with tickets $8 adults, $6 students, and free for children five and under. Parking in lots, with meters on street, or at the State Museum parking lot for free — requiring a walk down West State Street, past the State House, historic Petty’s Run and the New Jersey World War II Memorial. Go to www.barracks.org.
Morven in Princeton, the 18th-century home once belonging to Declaration of Independence Signer Richard Stockton, is an opportunity to see one of the great fine homes of the region and a New Jersey-themed exhibition (such “Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Couple of an Age” on view through October). Located at 55 Stockton Street, admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students, and free for children six and under.
Free But Far
Sometimes a little day trip is warranted, especially when you can take children to see something truly significant. Here are some choice destinations that will make you glad you live in this region:
Independence Hall, 520 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia is a must. Many people forget that the birth spot of the nation is free, open all year, has fewer visitors in the winter, and is less than an hour away from central New Jersey. The only expense is getting to Philadelphia — via the River Line and Patco to Market Street, or by car. Pick up tickets either at the Independence Mall Visitors Center or at the hall itself. Visit www.nps.gov/inde/index.htm.
Twin Lights, at 2 Lighthouse Road in Highlands, New Jersey, is the name of the two 19th century lighthouse towers that look like chess pieces. They are poised on top of a hill that Marconi used for testing radio signals on ships in the Atlantic. In addition to a lighthouse museum, a trip up one of the towers provides a view of the Hudson Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and New York City. It’s a free and mind stirring remedy to a cold winter day. About 75 minutes away. www.twinlightslighthouse.com.
Liberty State Park in Jersey City is the most visited state park in New Jersey and offers a nature center designed by Michael Graves, the New Jersey September 11, 2001 Memorial, and a 19th century train terminal — with occasional exhibition. It also provides an awe inspiring view of the New York City skyline and the Statue of Liberty (ferries are also available to the statue). It’s about an hour away. www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/liberty.html.
New Jersey Meadowlands DeKorte Park in Lyndhurst is perhaps the most quintessential New Jersey park. Located in the middle of the meadowlands that most people drive over on the way to Manhattan, the DeKorte Park area boasts a nature center and hiking trails where visitors can spot both hawks and the tip of the Empire State Building rising from the fields of phragmites. The free, public park is about an hour away. www.njmeadowlands.gov.
Other sites worth a visit — but opening up after noon — include the Trent House, the oldest building in Trenton, 15 Market Street, $5 for adults, $4 for children. Visit www.williamtrenthouse.org.
The Princeton Historical Society presents exhibitions on Albert Einstein at its new headquarters at Updike Farmstead at 54 Quaker Road, Princeton, $4 admission, www.princetonhistory.org.
So now when a kid says “What are we going to do?” you can go on autopilot, make a choice, get going, and help a kid have fun — and learn.