A harsh climate keeps this city on Lake Champlain inhospitable much of the year, but when the weather yields, Burlington throbs. Fall is peak ogling season here, when golden light lures homebodies out of doors to savor the last breath of summer. The lakefront fills with cyclists and walkers and the water turns a vivid blue, a sparkling carpet stretching 11 miles to the New York shore.
Built up the sides of a terraced hill, Vermonts largest city is refreshingly walkable. From September onward, the beaches empty, leaving long stretches of white sand for solitary strolls. The waterfront promenade features a boardwalk, benches, and fishing piers. The sloping streets are sprinkled with Victorian mansions, some with their original barns and carriage houses. At the crest of the hill is the University of Vermont, chartered in 1791, a rectangular green fronted by tall brick facades.
Halfway up is the Church Street Marketplace, a row of shops packed neatly in a four-block pedestrian area sprinkled with cafes. A free College Street bus shuttles riders up and down the hill, but most prefer to walk. The higher you go, the better the view.
The best way to get a sense of the city is to walk or bike the mostly flat, 7.6-mile recreational path (bike rentals at Local Motion, 1 Steele St., 802-652-2453, localmotionvt.org, adults $20, children $16 for 4 hours). From Oakledge Park at the southern tip, the path carries you north past the 19th-century tenements built for workers at the adjacent cotton mill complex. Hugging Champlains shoreline, the path takes you over a barge canal, past a train station, ferry dock, and boathouse to the town eyesore, a mothballed generating plant swathed in graffiti. Moving on, you reach the curving sand arc of North Beach, a strip of forest, then the tree-covered strand at Leddy Park, site of a former rendering plant. Along the way you glimpse a cross-section of neighborhoods, from modest to well-heeled, and peddle past raspberry patches, dog parks, and farmland to the mouth of the Winooski River, where Abenakis camped for at least 12,000 years before Europeans settled there.
If it rains, head up Pearl Street to the University of Vermont Fleming Museum for the permanent exhibition on Native American cultures (61 Colchester Ave., 802-656-2090, uvm.edu/˜fleming, adults $5, families $10, seniors and students $3). The highlights include brilliantly beaded and bear-claw-adorned pouches, Abenaki baskets, and the circa 1500 Colchester Jar, unearthed north of town in the 1820s.
Burlingtons most charming bed-and-breakfast is the Willard Street Inn (349 South Willard St., 802-651-8710, willardstreetinn.com, $125-$235), a brick estate in the woodsy hill section. Built in 1881 by a local merchant, it is cherry-paneled with a palm-filled solarium and marble floors. The lake view, if you can snag one, is sublime.
The centrally-located Lang House (360 Main St., 802-652-2500, langhouse.com, $175-$225) is equally atmospheric, with lake and Green Mountain vistas from its turreted third-floor rooms. Built the same year as the Willard Street Inn, its antique interior exemplifies the prosperity entrepreneurs enjoyed in the days when barges, lumber, and steam engines filled the harbor.
But for views alone, the Wyndham Burlington is hard to beat. Its eight stories tower over the lakefront, and its restaurant and watering hole, Seasons on the Lake, provide a glorious perch from which to watch the waves turn shades of pink and orange (60 Battery St., 800-658-6504, wyndhamburlington.com, lakeside rooms $169-$189).
Most of the citys dining is done in a four-block area between Church Street and the lake. Of the newest restaurants, the two most innovative are the sophisticated Green Room (86 St. Paul St., 802-651-9669, entrees $22) a block west of Church Street, and Taste of Burlington (112 Lake St., 802-658-4844, tasteofburlington.com, entrees $14-$27), a waterfront spot with abstract paintings, copper walls, and an aquarium of darting fish.
LAmante (126 College St., 802-863-5200, lamante.com, entrees $20-$23) is a sleek, minimalist ristorante serving classy Italian fare and fine wines. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Boves (68 Pearl St., 802-864-6651, boves.com, entrees $6-$8), the areas oldest restaurant. An Art Deco spaghetti house, it serves excellent homemade sauces sold by the jar. Come with an appetite, as they heap the pasta high for the best price in town.
Burlingtons Church Street pedestrian zone offers a mix of shops from minuscule art galleries to Macys (at the lake end of Burlington Square, a three-floor indoor shopping mall). But a few shops are worth detouring for. Common Threads (3 Main St., 802-865-7910) is like a Paris boutique: comfortable, simple womens clothes in natural colors. Prices arent low, but neither is the quality. Closer to Church Street is a great fine arts shop, Silver Maple Editions, with prints, posters, cards, stationery, and colorful curiosities (129 St. Paul St., 802-865-0133).
Around the corner is the eclectic Bennington Potters North (127 College St., 802-863-2221, benningtonpotters.com/stores) featuring the Vermont-produced stoneware as well as furniture, lamps, kitchen supplies, and housewares on three floors of an old brick building. For Vermonts top contemporary crafts, browse the peerless Vermont State Craft Center at Frog Hollow (85 Church St., 802-863-6458, froghollow.com) a nonprofit with a fine collection of glass, pottery, woodworking, photography, shearling hats, and jewelry.
While roaming the waterfront, dont miss the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center (1 College St., 877-324-6386, echovermont.org, adults $9, seniors and students $8, ages 3-17 $7), a freshwater marine life museum. Its SHOCKTOBER until the end of the month, with a creepy exhibit of live tarantulas, turkey vultures, boa constrictors, hissing cockroaches, and venomous centipedes, along with hair-raising machines and magic lights.
For fresh air, take the 20-minute pedal 2 miles south along the scenic bike path to Oakledge Park (or drive: Turn right onto Flynn Avenue from Route 7 heading south from downtown, and follow it to the end). Off the farthest parking lot is a small path leading to a handicapped-accessible treehouse overlooking fine lake views.
Back on Church Street, sit everyone down for a Vermonster at the Ben & Jerrys Scoop Shop (36 Church St., 802-862-9620, benandjerrys.com, daily 11 a.m.-9 p.m.). Its a brute, with 20 scoops of ice cream, all the toppings, plus brownies, cookies, and bananas.
Four local colleges keep Burlingtons nightlife buzzing summer and winter. Church Streets many eateries stand interspersed among bars, such as Ri Ra (123 Church St., 802-860-9401, rira.com), whose glass and mahogany fixtures were transported from Dublin and Galway. Most nights feature live music. Locals gather here Tuesday nights for pub quiz, a rollicking team trivia game with prizes.
For serious dance music, follow the beat to Nectars (188 Main St., 802-658-4771, liveatnectars.com), the spawning place of Phish that supplies a steady stream of jam and rock bands. Around the corner is Red Square (136 Church St., 802-859-8909, redsquarevt.com), which has touring bands on weekends.
But for pure people-watching, the best bet might be Leunigs (115 Church St., 802-863-3759, leunigsbistro.com), a bistro with a warm European feel whose bar gets cozy as the city quiets down.