Visitors eyeing free things to do in Paterson will discover various factors that set the city apart in northeastern New Jersey.
First, Paterson is the largest city and the seat of Passaic County.
Second, it is the first planned industrial center in the U.S., with the Passaic River and its Great Falls powering Paterson’s pioneer mills and factories.
A U.S. Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton, and the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures founded Paterson in 1792.
As an industrial powerhouse, Paterson came to be known for producing firearms and locomotives, as well as custom furniture.
It was also in Paterson where the first steam-powered and electric-powered model trains were invented.
However, the production of silk textiles was the banner of the city’s industrial prowess, so much so that Paterson became known as the “Silk City.”
Various cultures and nationalities have converged in Paterson following its rise as a U.S. industrial center.
Discover this city’s character in the following list of free things to do in Paterson, New Jersey.
Stroll along Paterson’s National Engineering Landmark
Paterson boasts a National Engineering Landmark in the three raceways at its Great Falls Historic District.
These engineering marvels were built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to harness the power from the nearby waterfalls.
The raceways featured canals diverting water from the Passaic River above the falls to power factory waterwheels along their length.
Water flowed through the raceways’ canals at 25 miles per hour, powering the mills and factories that rapidly multiplied in Paterson.
You can stroll from the bend of McBride Avenue and Spruce Street in a self-guided tour of the raceway system and the National Engineering Landmark.
Explore the Upper Raceway Park
The Upper Raceway Park on the stretch of McBride Avenue and Spruce Street opens the system of canals in Great Falls.
This raceway was divided into two parts as it runs sharply through a switchback.
The powerful rush of waters through the Upper Raceway ran several mills in this location.
Pause at the Upper Raceway to view the Barbour Flax Mill of the Barbour Flax Spinning Company, the largest flax manufacturer in the world during the 1800s.
The Rogers Locomotive Works vintage buildings are also located near the Upper Raceway.
Dig Deep into History at the Middle Raceway and Its Mills
Check out the Middle Raceway on McBride Avenue, the oldest part of the Paterson Great Falls raceway system.
Some of the structures in this raceway date as far back as 1794.
Several early 19th-century mills are located here and were restored in the 1980s for other uses.
One standout in the Middle Raceway area is the Franklin Mill building on the corner of Ellison and Mill Streets, which dates back to 1804.
It initially produced cotton and was later converted to manufacturing turbines and steam engines in the 1850s.
Later in 1915, the facility became a foundry and silk mill.
Essex Mill, which produced textiles, is another historic point of interest in the Middle Raceway.
Visit Mary Ellen Kramer Park on a DIY Tour
A stop at Mary Ellen Kramer Park on McBride Avenue is a great way to start a self-guided tour of the National Historic Landmark District of Paterson.
The city government provides free guided tours of Paterson’s district.
Mary Ellen Kramer Park offers several observation areas overlooking the famed Paterson Great Falls cascading on the Passaic River.
At this park, you can also access the scenic Great Falls footbridge providing views of the circa 1914 S.U.M. Hydroelectric Plant.
The elevated vantage points in the park likewise overlook the historic Colt Gun Mill and the ruins of the Allied Textile Mills.
This park was named after Paterson’s “First Lady,” Mary Ellen Kramer, wife of the city’s mayor who served for 14 years and is a prime advocate of the Great Falls Historic District.
Check Out the Colt Gunsmith at Lower Raceway
The Paterson Great Falls’ Lower Raceway on Van Houten Street was set as a power source for the factory buildings on a seven-acre site adjacent to it.
Among these factories is the Gun Mill, where Samuel Colt started manufacturing his legendary pistol and other firearms in 1836.
Three years later, the firearms factory became a silk factory, the first in America and precursor to weaving the “Silk City” title to Patterson.
The stretch of Van Houten Street is also home to the Phoenix Mill, the oldest structure in Paterson that remains complete and standing.
This mill at Lower Raceway originally produced textiles from cotton and later shifted to silk production.
Visit the Vintage Rogers Administration Building
The Rogers Administration Building is the most striking among the structures of the Rogers Automotive Works complex on Spruce Street.
This vintage administration building in the Great Falls Historic District flaunts a red brick facade sporting a restored banner proclaiming “Paterson Silk Exchange.”
The Rogers Administration Building now serves as the headquarters of the charity William Waldman Independence House.
Another agency, the New Jersey Community Development Corporation, holds office at the adjacent Rogers Frame Fitting building.
These two buildings and others in the Rogers complex originally operated not only as cogs of the locomotive industry but also as hubs for the textile industry.
Bite into Vignettes of History in Eastside Park
Established in 1899, Eastside Park spreads over 66 acres in a historic Paterson neighborhood along the Passaic River.
This park is an anchor to the Eastside Park Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The park is bordered by Martin Luther King, Jr. Way (Broadway) in the north, Park Avenue in the south, McLean Boulevard (State Route 20) in the east, and Derrom Avenue in the west.
The historic character of this park is reflected in the 1860s Charles E. Van Buren house built in the Greek revival architectural design.
Eastside Park also features a vintage pavilion and horse stable, plus a ballfield and playground.
See the Public Art of Gaetano Federici
Paterson takes pride in the masterpieces of Italian-American sculptor Gaetano Federici (1880-1964).
Oft-cited as “the sculptor laureate of Paterson,” Federici has a pocket park named after him which would be a great jump-off for a walking tour of his public art in the city.
As its centerpiece, this park on Curtis Place features a monument of Christopher Columbus, which Federici rendered in 1953.
The Hamilton Club Building on Church Street provides a broader overview of the sculptor’s work.
Federici’s studio is recreated on the third floor of this historic building, and 200 of the artist’s sculptures are displayed throughout the building as well.
Other major works of the sculptor are installed for public viewing at the Paterson City Hall, Market Street, Veterans Place, and Colt Street.
Paddle on the Passaic River Blueway
Kayak and canoe access points of the Passaic River Blueway are available in several parks in Paterson.
One of these river entries for paddlers is located at Pennington Park on McBride Avenue, where the Slippery Rock Brook flows into the river.
Canoes or kayaks can also be launched from the city’s Westside Park on Preakness Avenue, where the Molly Ann Brook enters the Passaic.
The Great Falls National Park on McBride Avenue Extension also serves as the paddle’s entrance.
This popular park also offers superb views from its launch point and observation area on Maple Street.
Cast a Line for Pike at Westside Park
Westside Park is located on Totowa Avenue on the north banks of the Passaic River, with the Molly Ann Brook flowing on the park’s eastern periphery.
Its waterfront location makes the 27-acre park a popular destination for inshore fishing.
Significantly, Paterson’s stretch of the river has been stocked with pike.
This stocking adds further to the potential catch of catfish, bass, and trout for anglers casting their lures from Westside Park.
Besides the opportunity for fishing, Westside Park offers several recreational facilities, including basketball and tennis courts, a small playground, and a cricket field.
The park is also home to the historic Van Houten House, which was built in 1831.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this house is the city’s oldest structure.
Impressive in its Greek revival and Dutch architectural design, the Van Houten House once hosted General George Washington.
Tackle the Stoney Ridge Trail
The Stoney Ridge Trail is a 0.6-mile pathway developed near the foot of the Great Falls.
It meanders along the old Morris Canal Route and loops around Paterson’s historic mills' area.
The trail also traverses the Upper Raceway Park and terminates at the Lou Costello swimming pool above the falls.
Steps have been installed to tame the trail’s tough terrain, which offers the experience of being inside a quarry amid an urban environment
The Stoney Ridge Trail's overlook features a railing so that hikers can safely enjoy the sweeping view of the city.
Join the Paterson Poetry Festival
The Paterson Poetry Festival is an annual event in early October that began in 2018.
The nonprofit Word Seed Inc. organizes this two-day festival for poets and poetry lovers.
The event is traditionally hosted on the stairs of the historic Passaic County Courthouse on Hamilton Street in downtown Paterson.
The festival's activities include the competitive Paterson Poetry Festival Slam offering a cash prize.
It also features a Youth Poetry Contest, an Open Mic, and Lit Fest, a creative space for young kids.
The festival has a side event in the Poetry in Motion Car Show in cooperation with Paterson’s Classic Riderz Car Club.
Enjoy the Revelry of the Dominican Parade & Festival
The Dominican community of the city of Paterson presents the richness of the culture, traditions, and folklore of the Dominican Republic in this event.
The Dominican Parade & Festival in downtown Paterson, like other similar celebrations, in the U.S., is held on the second Sunday of August.
This date celebrates the start of the Dominican Republic’s war for “Second Independence.”
Besides its centerpiece parade, the Dominican Parade & Festival picks several women of Dominican origin as festival queens.
These ladies are selected not only based on their beauty but also their contributions to the community.
Other Free Things to Do Nearby
Have Fun at Rifle Camp Park
Rifle Camp Park is located in the borough of Woodland Park, only about three miles south of the city center of Paterson.
The park covers 169 acres, an area that served as a post of the troops of General Washington for observing the movements of British soldiers during the American Revolution.
Rifle Camp Park offers an interpretive nature trail, two marked hiking trails, and playgrounds.
It also features a nature center, an observatory, an amphitheater, a picnic area, and dog parks.
From its overlook, this park offers scenic views, including the panorama of the nearby Garret Mountain Reservation.
Hike the Yellow and White Trail of the Garret Mountain Preservation
The Yellow and White Trail loops around the Garret Mountain Preservation.
This trail is accessible from Mountain Avenue in the Woodland Park borough, some two miles south of Paterson.
This loop trail stretches over 4.7 kilometers, with an elevation gain of 112 meters.
Hikers on this trail will pass several scenic overlooks, including Crow's Nest, a favored area for bird watching.
The Garret Mountain Preservation is a habitat for migratory and endemic birds, as well as wildlife like deer.
Other points of interest here include the historic Lambert Tower, an equestrian center, multi-use fields, pavilions, picnic areas, basketball courts, and restrooms.
The points of interest in Paterson truly deserve a slot in the itinerary of those planning a visit to New Jersey.
The industrialization deeply woven into the history of this city has not diminished its charm and instead contributed much to it.
Best of all for visitors and locals alike, there are many free things to do in Paterson, New Jersey, due to its astute development and diverse cultures.