Worth a Drive: 8 NYC Suburbs Perfect for a Day Trip

From top-notch global cuisine to natural wonders.

Van Vleck House & Gardens
Montclair, New Jersey | Van Vleck House & Gardens
Montclair, New Jersey | Van Vleck House & Gardens

For many New Yorkers, the concept of “the suburbs” sounds like the unromantic antithesis of NYC itself, and where some New York transplants originally grew up and readily abandoned for a shot at big city life. But the pandemic created an exodus of up to 420,000 former New Yorkers last year, and now, those of us who’ve remained in the city may be feeling adventurous to get some fresh air this spring as well. With air travel still feeling precarious, venturing out of the five boroughs to explore the richness of nearby suburbs provides a great escape while getting a sense of what so many flocked to during COVID-19.

To explore greener, wider, and escape-worthy pastures, we’ve rounded up eight suburban havens that are all under two hours away from NYC by car. Linear parks, outdoor sculpture gardens, and waterfront hamlets are all within reach to recharge and rejuvenate from the effects of NYC’s urban hustle (along with plenty of microbreweries, craft cocktails, and an incredible range of global cuisine). So dust off the driver’s license and explore them all, and as always, don’t forget your mask and please social distance responsibly.

East Hanover, NJ

Distance from NYC: 45 minutes
While big-box stores and the traffic-laden State Route 10 may be among its more recognizable elements, East Hanover is also home to 3,100 acres of freshwater wetland oasis, charming family-owned restaurants, and even a working dairy farm that dates back to well over a century. Troy Meadows, a wildlife preserve of swamplands, upland meadows, and open marshes, is home to endangered species like the blue-spotted salamander, vegetation like native wild rice and tuckahoe, and bird species like herons and hawks. Family-owned pizzeria and restaurant Giulietta & Romeo, which has been in operation for the past 35 years, has traditional Italian pies, pasta, and seafood; classic Italian pastries, cookies, breads and savory goods are on offer at Sorrento Bakery (open 365 days a year); and specialty Greek dishes and seafood are on the menu at East Hanover Diner, opened by a Greek family of brothers who have been in the diner business for over 40 years. Ice-cream sundaes and sweet treats are available at Applegate Farms, which was a family-owned dairy farm as far back as the 1840s, and today, brings their century-old-tradition of homemade ice-cream making to northern New Jersey.

Edison, NJ

Distance from NYC: 1 hour
This New Jersey suburb has a sizable Asian population (50% to be exact) and Little India, the largest and most diverse enclave of South Asians in the United States is located on Oak Tree Road, offering a spectacular array of cuisine—from Jhudpi for thalis and Dimple’s Bombay Talk for chaat to Mysore dosas at Amma’s Kitchen and kebabs at Moghul Express—amidst the sari and mithai shops. The Thomas Edison Center at Menlo Park features a 36-acre park (next to a nature trail) on its grounds (the museum is currently only open on Saturdays). There’s also the 650-acre Dismal Swamp, dubbed the “everglades of New Jersey,” that is home to 175 species of birds as well a few endangered species. Local microbrewery Cypress Brewing offers well over a dozen types of beer, from New England pale ales to Belgian dubbels. The Edison Arts Society regularly features exhibitions by local artists, and in the summers, Roosevelt Park is host to Plays-in-the-Park, a series of musical productions.

Hastings-on-Hudson, NY

Distance from NYC: 45 minutes
At barely three square miles, this tiny townlet attracts visitors with its eco-friendly lifestyle; vibrant, walkable downtown; and a thriving creative community. On Saturdays, the Hastings Farmers Market features everything from Bombay Emerald Chutney (from Yorktown) to artisanal whiskey from Hillrock Distillery (in Ancram). Hikers can visit the Old Croton Aqueduct, a 26-mile linear park (a part of which winds through the village), where the trails also accommodate biking, horseback riding, and bird-watching. Family-owned Galapagos Books, a local fixture since 1987, houses an impressive 10,000 titles in 20 different languages, ranging from “best-sellers to the esoteric” (you may even catch a glimpse of the owner’s dog Lizzie whilst browsing). For coffee and pastries, there’s French-inspired Antoinette's Patisserie (where the beans are locally roasted); Bread & Brine has a seafood market, lobster dinners, and homemade pies (three words: chocolate banana cream); gorgeous Italian fare with locally-sourced produce can be found at farmhouse-turned-restaurant Harvest on Hudson; and go for relaxed classics like shepherd’s pie, burgers, and steaks at Maud’s Tavern.

Maplewood, NJ

Distance from NYC: 45 minutes
A thriving arts community, dynamic downtown (called “The Village” by locals), and festive music community make Maplewood one of the most vibrant suburbs to check out near NYC. Memorial Park, a 25-acre triangular area of sprawling hills and meadows, has streams that run under footbridges, picnic areas, playgrounds, tennis courts, and sports fields. While the beloved theater community (The Strollers and The Theater Project) is currently holding shows via Zoom, some of the popular festivals like Porchfest (local musicians across every genre play on neighborhood stoops and porches) and Maplewoodstock (a two-day arts and music fest held in Memorial Park), canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19, are scheduled to return this year (as permitted). The vibrant downtown is home to charming shops like Kings Food Market, restaurants, and local favorites like independent community bookstore Words, which has hired over 100 autistic youth through its vocational program. For local fare, try Arturo’s for seasonal ingredient laced pizza pies; Coda for craft cocktails and tacos; The Bread Stand for coffee and breads; and Lorena’s (which just relocated to a larger space) for elevated, seasonal French-inspired cuisine.

Montclair, NJ

Distance from NYC: 45 minutes
This eco-conscious suburb (recognized as a Climate Showcase Community by the E.P.A.) ensures living green is a central focus, through its dedication to bike paths, public charging hubs for electric vehicles, energy-efficiency efforts, and recycling and composting programs for its residents. Ideal stops for visitors include the Van Vleck House & Gardens, a 12-acre private estate featuring an Italian villa with numerous gardens, from an azalea walk to the wisteria courtyard; Alfonso F. Bonsal Wildlife Preserve, nearly 20-acres of parkland for hiking and bird-watching; and Edgemont Memorial Park, known for its World War I memorial. While Montclair Film currently offers virtual cinema experiences, the Montclair Art Museum, which features over 12,000 works with a concentration on American and Native-American art, offers socially-distanced visits to its galleries. Outdoor dining spots include Uncle Momo for French-Lebanese fare like Tunisian eggs and lamb tagines; vegan pastry spot Trend Coffee & Tea House, located in a home built in 1860; Samba Montclair for Brazilian cooking in a rustic setting; and Jack’s Seafood Shack for lobster rolls, king crabs, and steak frites. 

Mount Vernon, NY

Distance from NYC: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Mount Vernon may be known mainly for its historical connection to George Washington, but it has evolved into one of the most diverse counties in New York. As home to over 98 nationalities, including the county’s largest West African and West Indian populations, and a dynamic Brazilian community, it’s also where food lovers will not be disappointed with its wide array of restaurants, steakhouses, and bakeries throughout Mount Vernon’s 4.4. square mile area—including The Ox Box Kitchen, for Caribbean and fusion fare like rasta pasta and oxtail; Jamaican soul food like jerk chicken and curried goat at Flavas Kitchen & Catering; Chalanas for authentic Brazilian BBQ, ribs, skirt steak, and caipirinhas (the national drink of Brazil); and breakfasts like the traditional pão com manteiga, baked goods, burgers, and (cold) brew at family-owned Padaminas Brazilian Bakery, which has been open for 20 years. There is plenty to explore for history and nature buffs, like St. Paul’s Church, constructed in 1763 and used as a hospital during the Revolutionary War; and Wilson Woods Park, a 23-acre park featuring a two-story English Tudor-style bathhouse, with a wave pool, cascades and fountains, and areas to picnic and fish.

New Rochelle, NY

Distance from NYC: 45 minutes
With a dynamic downtown that’s flush with architectural diversity (from Art Deco to Neoclassical), 270 acres of parkland, and a waterfront cruise experience along the Long Island Sound, New Rochelle offers plenty of attractions. Parks include Glen Island Park, a 105-acre island park that connects to New Rochelle via a 1920s-built drawbridge, which includes picnic areas, a Neo-Georgian style bathhouse, and a beachside courtyard; and Neptune Park which has bocce courts, a fishing pier, and horseshoe facilities. Downtown offers a variety of interesting shops like the family-owned Main Wines and Liquors, which has been in operation since the 1900s; and Consign it on Main, a 5,000 square foot upscale spot for clothing, jewelry, and furniture (whose goods are often spotted in films). The restaurant scene is a global roundtable of options—Olibar for traditional Peruvian dishes; Coromandel for spicy, signature Indian fare; Korean BBQ Grill for homestyle cooking; and Italian and Argentinian classics at Magno’s Grill. Also downtown is Ruby Dee Park, renamed in 2014 for the legendary singer and civil rights activist, which features artist sculptures, plant gardens, and outdoor events.

Stamford, CT

Distance from NYC: 1 hour
It might seem like another large city filled with Fortune 500 companies, but look a little deeper, and the many charms of Stamford are swiftly uncovered. Cove Island Park, an 83-acre parkland of beaches, intertidal mudflats, and a salt marsh, features a walking trail, cycling path, bird-watching and kite-flying areas, and picnicking spots. Bartlett Arboretum features a dozen glorious gardens, hundreds of species to discover, walkable trails, forest baths, and even botanical illustration classes. There are 80-acres of walking trails at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, a 118-acre museum property that’s home to a working farm, planetarium, and multi-story observatory, as well as numerous art exhibitions. Microbrewery Half Full Brewery offers select hours to try its locally-brewed beers, like their CSAs (community-sourced ales) and Supernova Series (tart, drinkable sours), in their Tasting Room. Restaurants to try include Brasitas, for Spanish and Latin American cuisine; Madonia for a taste of the Mediterranean; and Casa Villa for flavors south of the Rio Grande; F.I.S.H. for new American seafood; and Colony Grill for thin crust, hot-oil topped pizzas.

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Swathi Reddy is a Louisiana-born, NYC-based freelance writer and marketer. Formerly a Food & Wine staffer for over a decade, she can't think of anything better to do in life than talking about food while eating food. Except maybe discussing cocktails (or wine).