The Top 10 Things to Do in Burlington, Vermont

Burlington Vermont at Sunset
••• Burlington's waterfront is one of New England's best places to watch a sunset. Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Burlington is Vermont’s largest city, but it feels more like a quirky college town. With a youthful, eco-conscious, independent vibe and an enviable location right on New England’s largest lake — and not far from Vermont’s premier ski mountains — Burlington makes a perfect launchpad for an adventurous getaway. Whether you’re staying at the city’s hip Hotel Vermont, attending school at UVM or Champlain or Burlington College, or just visiting for a day, here are 10 things to do that are distinctly Burlington.

  • 01 of 10

    Take a Boat Trip on Lake Champlain

    Lake Champlain Boat Tours in Burlington, Vermont
    ••• Climb aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen tour boat (at right) for a memorable voyage on Lake Champlain. Denis Jr. Tangney / Getty Images

    The views of New York’s Adirondack Mountains to the west and Vermont’s Green Mountains to the east are reason alone to get out on Lake Champlain while you’re in Burlington. There’s also this business about a Loch Ness-like lake monster, so you’ll want a shot at spotting Champ and photographing this mysterious beast. Consider booking a cruise aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen, which offers a busy schedule of scenic, dining and themed excursions mid-May through mid-October. Lake Champlain Ferries’ trips from Burlington to Port Kent, New York, are also a leisurely way to experience the lake’s natural beauty.

  • 02 of 10
    Church Street Marketplace Burlington, VT
    ••• Burlington's bike- and pedestrian-friendly Church Street Marketplace is the city's shopping and dining destination. Glenn Van Der Knijff / Getty Images

    Burlington’s lively, central, open-air shopping thoroughfare is home to more than 150 shops, carts and restaurants. More than 70% of them are locally owned, so you won’t find typical mall offerings. This is your place to shop for Vermont Flannel Company plaid shirts, Simon Pearce Vermont-blown glassware, Danforth Pewter handcrafted in Vermont and other uniquely local finds. Be sure to stop for a cool scoop of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream: Burlington’s most famous global success story. When the weather’s nice, live music and street entertainers make this retail hub feel like a party.

  • 03 of 10
    Biking in Burlington on Lake Champlain
    ••• Burlington is a bike-friendly city. Dennis Curran / Courtesy of the Vermont Dept. of Tourism and Marketing

    Right in the city, you’ll find 8 miles of paved bike path known as the Burlington Greenway, connecting parks along Lake Champlain’s shore. So, bring your bike or rent one from waterfront outfitter Local Motion. Burlington is also in the process of launching a bike share program. If you’re serious about exploring on two wheels, you’ll be happy to learn that Burlington sits in the midst of an unbelievable 1,600-mile network of bike paths in Vermont, New York and Canada. The Lake Champlain Bikeways include 35 mapped routes from 10 to 60 miles in length.

  • 04 of 10
    Zero Gravity Craft Brewery Burlington
    ••• Sip locally crafted beverages from Burlington breweries like Zero Gravity. "Grisette at Zero Gravity" © Christopher Lehault @clehault, flickr.com Creative Commons License

    Did you know Vermont has more breweries per capita than any other state in the nation? It’s true, and while you’re in Burlington, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to sample fresh, innovative craft beers. Burlington-based breweries with tasting rooms include Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, Foam Brewers and Switchback Brewing Co. In South Burlington, Magic Hat offers free guided or self-guided tours of its 175,00-barrel production facility, plus food and 15 beers on tap at the Artifactory. You’ll also want to look for Heady Topper — brewed about 30 minutes away by The Alchemist — at popular restaurants like Hen of the Wood and  Farmhouse Tap & Grill. This hoppy double IPA has been rated the best beer in the world.

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  • 05 of 10
    Glassblowing in Burlington VT at AO Glass
    ••• Looking for something free to do in Burlington, Vermont? Watch glassblowers at work at AO Glass. © 2013 Kim Knox Beckius

    If you’ve never seen molten glass twirled, blown and molded, you are missing a spectacle. So, stop by the AO Glass factory in Burlington’s arts district Monday through Friday for a glimpse of modern artisans perfecting this ages-old craft. This design and manufacturing facility creates everything from delicate Christmas ornaments to commercial lighting glass. Visitors are welcome to stand outside the garage door to observe and to soak up the warmth that emanates from the 2,100° Fahrenheit furnace. It's a perfect, no-cost activity for a chilly day.

  • 06 of 10
    ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, Lake Champlain, Burlington, VT
    ••• Got kids? Be sure to visit ECHO for hands-on, educational fun. Panoramic Images / Getty Images

    ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain is a multifaceted science center and freshwater aquarium focused on educating visitors about the ecology of Lake Champlain. Home to more than 70 live animal species, a 3-D movie theater and interactive exhibits, this year-round, waterside  attraction is a fun place for kids and adults to observe and learn about everything from invasive species to data visualization: a topic made fun and visually stunning thanks to the 7,500-LED Lake Brite installation.

  • 07 of 10

    Attend a Festival

    Magic Hat Mardi Gras in Burlington Vermont
    ••• The annual Magic Hat Mardi Gras brings a touch of New Orleans to New England each winter. "Magic Hat Mardi Gras Parade 2010" © Church Street Marketplace @churchstreetmarketplace, flickr.com Creative Commons License

    Where else can you see Mardi Gras floats in the snow or laugh non-stop for three days? Burlington is Vermont’s destination for unique festivals. It seems like there's something happening practically every weekend. A few annual events worth keeping on your radar include winter’s Magic Hat Mardi Gras; the Discover Jazz Festival held for 10 days each June at venues citywide; the Vermont Brewers Festival held outdoors on the shores of Lake Champlain in July; August’s annual Festival of Fools, a madcap three days of comedy, busking and music focused on eliciting laughter; the mid-September Grand Point North outdoor music festival at Waterfront Park on Lake Champlain; and First Night Burlington, the city’s alcohol-free, arts-filled New Year’s Eve celebration.

  • 08 of 10
    Radio Bean Burlington VT Coffee Shop and Bar
    ••• Day or night, Radio Bean is a haven for coffee and cocktail drinkers who want all of their senses stimulated simultaneously. © 2012 Rachel Carter

    You will find Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks in Burlington, but in a city that eschews chain establishments of any sort, perfect days start with caffeinated beverages at funky, independent tea and coffee houses like Dobra Tea, Radio Bean or Uncommon Grounds. Some of the city’s popular coffee hangouts morph into night spots late in the day with live music and adult beverages. All offer a glimpse of life in this northern city where offbeat is the norm. Want to bring Vermont-roasted coffee home to friends? Shop at BRIO Coffeeworks.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    Lake Champlain Truffles
    ••• See how decadent truffles are made at Lake Champlain Chocolates in Burlington. "Lake Champlain Truffles" © cacaobug, flickr.com Creative Commons License

    Yes, you can visit a real chocolate factory in Burlington. Take a seat in front of the observation windows, and savor the sweet scent while observing how truffles, caramels and molded chocolates are created. Through-the-window tours — and delicious samples — are free Monday through Friday. Self-guided tours, available when regular tours are not in operation, are the best choice if you are visiting Lake Champlain Chocolates with small kids. And don’t worry: These on-your-own tours include a sample, too. On weekends, you can learn how to appreciate chocolate’s flavor variations during a complimentary guided tasting session. Then, shop for factory-fresh, all-natural favorites like maple caramel dark chocolate bars, almond butter crunch and organic hot chocolate, plus fun assortments.

  • 10 of 10
    ••• Higher Ground

    This live music hot spot in South Burlington is actually two intimate music clubs in one, and that means you’ll find a busy calendar of concerts worth seeing while you’re in Burlington. From local talent and tribute bands to headliners like Elvis Costello & The Imposters, Grace Potter and Gavin DeGraw, Higher Ground books memorable shows for its two stages and for other nearby venues. Most shows are all ages. For more live music events in this city with a thriving cultural scene, check Seven Days' music calendar.