The Best of Essex County, New Jersey: Fun for the Whole Family 

Essex County, New Jersey is a great place for everyone: families, singles, young couples, and empty nesters. With its wealth of parks and recreation, museums, educational opportunities, performing arts, restaurants, shopping, and access to public transportation, you’ll never run out of fun things to do and easy ways to get to them.  

Whether you’re a local looking for something to do with your family, someone looking to move to New Jersey, or an out-of-towner looking for an enjoyable day trip, Essex County has something for everyone. Read on to discover the best of Essex County, New Jersey and all the family-friendly activities it has to offer! 

Family-Friendly Activities 

Giraffe House at Turtle Back Zoo. Source: Yelp

Essex County, New Jersey offers plenty of family-friendly activities to enjoy! Start with the South Mountain Recreation Complex, which features the Turtle Back Zoo, an animal lover’s paradise. The zoo is home to over 200 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, so it’s sure to delight all ages. The complex also houses Treetop Adventure Course, a ropes course with over 100 challenges and zip lines, as well as Safari Mini Golf, which offers 18 holes of outdoor mini-golf fun. And no visit would be complete without a trip to Codey Arena – the county’s state-of-the-art ice rink – for some year-round ice skating.  

Person climbing wall at The Gravity Vault in Montclair, NJ.
The Gravity Vault in Montclair, NJ. Source: Yelp

If you’re looking for a unique activity that the whole family can enjoy, check out The Gravity Vault in Montclair, NJ. With more than 14,000 square feet of climbing available, they offer top rope and lead climbing walls for all experience levels. They also offer kids’ classes and can host private climbing parties.  

Indoor playground at Funtime Junction.
Funtime Junction Source: Yelp

For something a bit broader, Funtime Junction is a veritable emporium of games. It was first opened in 1994 and has been voted one of the Best of Essex in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021. With laser tag, toddler playgrounds, soft play spaces, bumper cars, arcade games, and so much more, this is a must-visit spot for kids and adults of all ages. 

Parks and Recreation 

Lake view of cherry blossom tree's blooming at Branch Brook Park.
Cherry Blossom Tree’s at Branch Brook Park

Essex County is home to some amazing outdoor attractions and recreational activities. For those who like to explore the great outdoors, Eagle Rock Reservation offers spectacular views from its highest peak, a lake, and miles of hiking trails. Branch Brook Park is also a great spot for outdoor sports lovers, boasting a lake, jogging trails, and even a roller-skating rink.  

Horticulture enthusiasts will love Greenwood Gardens, Cora Hartshorn Arboretum & Bird Sanctuary, and the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens. Volunteer at one of these utopias of flora and fauna to learn about varied species of flowers and birds, be taught how to care for the soil, and learn how to educate others about the stunning plants and animals that thrive on the premises. Be sure to check their hours of operation, as many outdoor gardens are closed in the colder months.  

Military Park is an ideal spot to learn more about the county’s rich history, while the Thomas Edison National Historic Park offers insight into the life and inventions of the famous inventor. Spend an afternoon exploring the vast grounds of these parks or take part in any of the recreational activities they offer, such as tennis, fishing, disc golf, and bird watching. 


Outside front entrance of The Newark Museum of Art building.
The Newark Museum of Art Source: Wikimedia Commons

Essex County, New Jersey, offers an abundance of ways to explore the arts. From classic museums to interactive experiences, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. The Newark Museum of Art, located in downtown Newark, is one of the largest museums in New Jersey. It houses a wide variety of art from both around the world and locally. The museum also has a wide selection of cultural artifacts, natural science specimens, and interactive displays that make it fun for the whole family.  

The Montclair Art Museum is a short drive away from Oakes Pond at Bloomfield and features American, Native American, and regional art collections. Visitors can view a variety of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and prints. The museum also hosts rotating exhibits and offers educational programs for all ages. 

The Grammy Museum Experience brings music to life with interactive displays and memorabilia from some of the world’s most famous musicians. Fans of all ages will love exploring the exhibits and learning about their favorite artists. 

The Jersey Explorer Children’s Museum provides hands-on learning experiences for children aged 3+. Kids can explore science, technology, engineering, arts, and math in a fun and engaging way. Encouraging young minds through their five senses is imperative to improved neuropathic function and problem-solving. 

Educational Opportunities 

The campus of Rutgers University, with the historic engineering building on the right
The campus of Rutgers University, with the historic engineering building on the right

Essex County, New Jersey is home to a variety of educational opportunities for everyone. For something a little different, try a glass-blowing class offered by Glass Roots in Newark. Here, people can learn about this unique art form and create their own works of glass art.  

Essex County is also home to many higher education institutions, including Kean University, Montclair State University, Rutgers University Newark, Seton Hall University, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. These universities offer a variety of academic programs, as well as research and internship opportunities. 

The county is also home to several community colleges, including Essex County College and Berkeley College’s Newark campus. These institutions offer an array of degree and certificate programs, as well as specialized training courses that are designed to help students prepare for the workforce. 

Performing Arts 

Front outside entrance of Papermill Playhouse Theater with West Side Story signage.
Papermill Playhouse Theater

For those interested in pursuing the performing arts, Essex County has an array of dance schools to choose from, like Grooves Unlimited in Livingston. There are also several theater classes available through community organizations, such as the Studio Players in Montclair. The NJ School of Dramatic Arts and Essex Youth Theater are also wonderful places to learn about theater and film production.  

Of course, if you’re more interested in the performance itself, you won’t want to miss the impressive line-up of shows at the Prudential Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, both in Newark. Further south, the South Orange Performing Arts Center regularly hosts musicals, concerts, and comedy acts. Additionally, Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, known as one of the foremost regional theaters in the United States, delights audiences year-round with musicals, non-musicals, kids shows, and more. For the budding star they, too, offer theatrical training with such notable alumni as Anne Hathaway, Nikki James, Laura Benanti, and Rob McClure.  

In addition to larger venues like NJPAC, Paper Mill Playhouse, and SOPAC, Essex County has several smaller music venues that can offer a more intimate experience. The Montclair Brewery is a great spot to check out live music or a trivia game while enjoying a delicious craft beer. Outpost in the Burbs is another fun, small venue for local and touring bands. 

Restaurants & Bars 

Italian dish at Fascino Source: Instagram

Essex County, New Jersey is home to an amazing restaurant and bar scene for the foodie in your family. From upscale eateries to casual pubs, there is a plethora of dining options in the area. One of the most popular destinations for foodies is Montclair, NJ. This vibrant town boasts a variety of restaurants and bars that feature diverse cuisines from all over the world.  

For those looking for a fine dining experience, head to Fascino. This elegant restaurant offers guests an unforgettable culinary journey. The menu showcases a wide array of Italian dishes from expertly crafted pasta to wood-fired pizzas. Fascino also has an extensive wine list featuring some of the best bottles from around the world to complement their delicious food.  

No matter what type of food you’re craving, you can find it in Essex County. From Mexican taquerias to African-inspired cuisine, there’s something for everyone. The restaurants here, like Odabro African Restaurant & Lounge, Viva Guacamole and Kim’s Sushi, are renowned for their unique flavors and ingredients. Many have earned rave reviews from locals and visitors alike as a result. In fact, Essex County is often lauded as having some of the best food in the entire state of New Jersey.  


Mother and daughter looking into store shop at shopping mall.

Whether you live in Oakes Pond at Bloomfield or the Cider Mill Townhomes, Essex County has a wide variety of shopping opportunities for all types of styles, needs, and budgets. From high-end malls to local downtown shops, there’s something for everyone.  

Verona: Verona’s downtown is home to a mix of unique independent retailers, such as jewelers, boutiques, art galleries, and gift stores. With plenty of parking and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, it’s easy to explore the downtown area and find something special. You can easily live nearby at Linwood Village to make shopping a breeze. 

Livingston: Livingston’s downtown area is known for its small-town charm and friendly atmosphere. There are several boutique stores, antique shops, and gift stores to explore. The Enclave at Livingston is a short trip away, making this a great town to find your next treasure.  

Montclair: Montclair offers a unique downtown shopping experience, with everything from independent clothing stores and bookshops to art galleries and cafes. There are also plenty of restaurants for a quick lunch or dinner. 

West Orange: West Orange’s downtown is home to an eclectic mix of independent stores and eateries. From handmade goods and vintage items to gourmet chocolates and specialty foods, it’s the perfect spot for finding one-of-a-kind gifts and is only a short trip from West Mill Gardens

The Mall at Short Hills: For those looking for a more upscale shopping experience, The Mall at Short Hills is the place to go. The mall features upscale department stores, designer boutiques, and plenty of restaurants from which to choose. 

Bloomfield Center Mall: Located in the heart of Bloomfield, the Bloomfield Center Mall is home to over 100 stores and restaurants. It’s the perfect spot for those looking for a convenient shopping experience with plenty of options. 

Public Transportation 

Outside front view of NJ Transit train.

Public transportation plays a vital role in providing access to Essex County’s many attractions. Newark Penn Station is a major train station found in downtown Newark, serving Amtrak, NJ Transit, and the PATH train services connecting New Jersey to New York City. From the station, visitors can take advantage of Amtrak’s Acela Express and Northeast Regional services, as well as regional buses. The Irvington Bus Terminal also provides easy access to a variety of NJ Transit buses that connect the area with other parts of New Jersey.   

The PATH train system is a great option for traveling between Newark and New York City. It provides express service between Newark Penn Station and the financial district in Lower Manhattan. The Newark Light Rail is another popular option for getting around Essex County. The light rail connects downtown Newark with locations such as the Prudential Center and Rutgers University- Newark. 

NJ Transit provides bus and train service throughout the county. There are buses that supply direct connections to New York City as well as numerous local routes. Trains connect Essex County to other areas in New Jersey, including the Jersey Shore, with these train route lines: Northeast Corridor, North Jersey Coast, Raritan Valley, Montclair-Boonton and, of course, Morris & Essex.  

Essex County Is for Everyone 

Friends smiling having fun.

Essex County is a fantastic place for people from all walks of life. Whether you’re a family with young children, a single professional, a young couple just starting out, or an empty nester, you’ll find something for yourself in Essex County. There’s also a keen sense of community engagement, with a varied population that celebrates diverse cultures and backgrounds. With so much to offer and such a welcoming atmosphere, it’s no wonder Essex County is one of the best places to live in New Jersey.