As far as the best places to live in Essex County, the wide range of cities, towns and neighborhoods here pretty much ensures that people of all lifestyles and budgets can find a community that feels like home. From expensive, suburban commuter towns with thriving downtown areas, to the urban grittiness (and, in some areas, urban renaissance), of the state's largest city, you can find this (and everything in between) in this one county. The range of options is actually quite striking.
Where in Essex County Should I Live?
That said, any best places list would certainly include the suburban, family-orientated Maplewood, which is so full of creative energy and communal spirit (not to mention progressive politics) that various trend pieces over the years like to compare it to Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Park Slope.
Other pretty and quiet Essex County communities that have proven to be popular with families include Glen Ridge and South Orange (both known for, among other things, the charming gaslights that illuminate their residential streets); either of the Caldwells (West or North); and tony Short Hills, which, in addition to boasting big, beautiful homes, is also home to the famous, upscale Short Hills Mall.
For more urban-minded folks, the city of Newark, and its Ironbound neighborhood has become increasingly popular in the last decade or so, as much for its welcoming feel for families as for its vibrant commercial stretches of retail stores, restaurants, and nightlife options. There has also be a renaissance in the downtown area, with a number of new luxury residential buildings being opened, along with developments such as the Prudential Center, home of the NHL's NJ Devils.
In short, the best place for you to live depends on whether you want an urban, or suburban, environment.
Lots of People Live Here
Located in the northeastern section of the state of New Jersey, Essex County is bordered to the north by Passaic County and a piece of the somewhat sprawling Morris County, to the east by Hudson County, to the south by Union County, and to the west by, again, Morris County.
Essex County has a population of more than three-quarters of a million residents, making it the third largest such entity in New Jersey. But its smallish size--slightly more than 125 square miles of land--ensures that even its sleepiest, most suburban-feeling corners have plenty of people.
Apartments are generally readily available in this densely populated, but surprisingly varied area. The county offers residents a huge variety of options in terms of apartment size, price, and type of housing, whether urban high-rises, garden apartment complexes, single- or multi-family houses, contemporary towers, or townhouses.
Urban vs. Suburban
Apartments can be found in any number of the area's 22 different municipalities, which run the gamut in terms of housing stock, neighborhood character, and the quality of day-to-day life for their respective residents. For example, among the distinct political areas of Essex County you'll find the suburban, family-neighborhood Maplewood, whose Memorial Park, which dominates the center of town, was designed by the legendary Olmstead Brothers.
Newark is New Jersey's largest city, and is unsurprisingly urban in look and feel. The tiny community of Glen Ridge boasts one of the best public school systems in the state. Then there's Montclair, which is a "commuter" community, with a vibrant downtown of its own containing an energetic and cultural scene. It's also the home to Montclair State University. The town of Essex Fells (not a typo) is also a pretty community in Essex County, and Short Hills is somewhat of a shopping destination, with its namesake, upscale, Short Hills Mall.
South Orange, home of Seton Hall University, has a delightful downtown, centered around the train station, with numerous restaurants and shops, and a nearby park. There's a movie theater and performing arts center. Walk its side streets at night to see one of the few towns still using gas lamps to light the way.
Bloomfield, on the other hand, has more of a blue-collar, middle class feel. While you will find professionals escaping the higher prices of other areas, the town, currently undergoing a bit of a revival, to this day maintains a strong blue collar mentality.
Attractions and Things to Do
Essex County was the first such jurisdiction in the country to begin a Parks Commission, back in 1895. It's current incarnation overseas over 6000 acres of parkland, spread across 22 municipalities. They also operate the zoo, Codey Arena, Essex County Environmental Center, and three golf courses.
The Turtle Back Zoo, located in West Orange, hass undergone a number of renovations and improvements over the years, to become a top destination for families. Adjacent to the zoo is Mini Golf Safari, and Codey Arena, with ice skating rinks offering skating programs. It's also the practice facility for the New Jersey Devils NHL team.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the park system, is the 2000+ acre South Mountain Reservation, adjacent to the towns of West Orange, South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn. It's been preserved mostly in its wild state, with woodlands, streams, creeks, waterfalls and ponds. Part of the Watchung Mountain Range, vistas of NYC and the surrounding NJ communities exist from the eastern ridge, 550 feet above Milburn. There are ten picnic areas, 19 miles of hiking and walking trails, 27 miles of carriage roads for jogging, horseback riding and cross-country skiing, and more.
Newark brings with it NJPAC, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which hosts national touring acts as well as the New Jersey Symphony. Nearby is the Newark Museum, with a mix of its permanent collection and rotating travelling exhibits. Branch Brook Park, located in North Newark, has one of the largest expanses of cherry trees in the country, and the blooms in the spring bring visitors from all over the area.
Sports lovers can be found at the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, home of the New Jersey Devils NHL team. The arena also hosts the Seton Hall basketball team, as well as a number of ice shows, concerts, circuses and more.
Many residents of Essex County commute into New York City for work, and there is large and reasonably-well-maintained infrastructure in place to make sure everyone gets there on a daily basis. Several towns have stations serviced by New Jersey Transit, which runs trains right into Penn Station, in Midtown Manhattan. The PATH train, which is like a subway that runs into downtown Manhattan, has a stop in Newark Penn Station, and, as such, is accessible to Essex County residents. NJ Transit buses provide travel in and between the numerous towns, as well as into NYC. But for when one needs to travel around the country or worlwide, Essex County is home to the Newark Liberty International Airport. In addition, Amtrak stops at Newark's Penn Station, with connections to PATH, NJ Transit trains and buses, and the Newark Subway/Light Rail.