Yale University is New Haven's claim to fame and the source of much of its entertainment, indeed, but rest assured there's more to do in this New England city than just study. The stunning sliver of coastline on Connecticut's Long Island Sound has cultural riches, a thriving culinary scene, and a wealth of historic attractions, from the site of the alleged first-ever hamburger to an antique carousel, still in operation.
New Haven is easily accessible from other major New England cities, being only hours away from New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston. And while it may not top the list of vacation destinations in this region, it's worthy of a day trip if you find yourself exploring the Connecticut shore.
The New Haven beachfront is anchored by a majestic lighthouse, erected in 1847, which lends its name to the 82-acre park that surrounds it. Open year-round, this area of East Shore is an oasis for bird watchers and butterfly observers (it's conveniently located right on the Atlantic flyway), as well as beachgoers, boaters, and view seekers, as it looks out toward downtown in the distance. One of its highlights is the century-old Lighthouse Point Carousel, running since 1911. Operating seasonally—from Memorial Day through Labor Day—the carousel includes 69 horses, one of only three camels in the world, and two chariots. It's one of less than 100 still in operation from the 1920s today.
A facility of the Yale Department of Astronomy, the Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium is equipped with two permanently mounted telescopes, a digital theater that uses a high-tech Spitz SciDomeHD system to simulate the universe, and a lecture hall where classes and open-invitation talks are held. While the facility is not exactly meant for public use, on Tuesday nights anyone can come to watch an hour-long show in the theater, then get a close-up look at planets, stars, and nebulae through the institution's top-notch telescopes.
Perhaps the most exhilarating thing to do in New Haven is to embark on one of the largest ropes courses in the world, It Adventure. The indoor park is composed of a maze of tightropes, zip lines, and rope bridges, plus a climbing wall and 50-foot free fall. Once you learn to trust your harness, you can spend unlimited time mastering more than 100 challenges. Once you've completed the course, you're welcome to kick back and watch the mesmerizing liquid fireworks, music, and dancing fountains while you recoup.
New Haven is best known as the home of Yale University, America’s third-oldest university. Founded down the road in Old Saybrook, in 1701, Yale moved to New Haven in 1718, and its three-centuries-old campus is a must-visit for anyone interested in history, books, art, or architecture.
There are two ways to tour Yale, both free: by downloading the Yale Campus Tour App and enjoying an audio walking tour, or by taking a 75-minute, student-led tour, offered every day of the week, sometimes twice daily. Student guides take visitors to iconic campus locations, such as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which counts a Gutenberg Bible among its treasures. They also share insights about college life and Yale traditions, including the university’s famed secret societies like Skull and Bones, some of which date back to the 1830s.
After your tour, swing by one of Yale's three museums, each with collections that rival those of top American museums. The Peabody Museum of Natural History is where science obsessives will find a Great Hall of Dinosaurs, Egyptian antiquities, and interactive exhibits for kids, whereas the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art might appeal more to creatives.
The claim is not undisputed, but if you believe New Haven lore—and even the Library of Congress does—the hamburger was invented by New Haven luncheonette owner Louis Lassen in 1900, when an on-the-run customer requested a meal to go. At Louis’ Lunch, you can taste burgers made the same way as the groundbreaking original. Lassen’s descendants still use antique cookers to flame-sear burgers, which are served up between two slices of toast. Asking for ketchup is a big no-no, but order a “cheese works” just like the locals, and the sandwich comes topped with cheese, onions, and tomato.
You can't visit New Haven without embroiling yourself in the city’s most significant debate: which restaurant makes the best pizza? Back in 1925, Italian immigrant Frank Pepe created New Haven’s signature style of thin-crust, coal oven–baked tomato pie topped with grated cheese. Many Connecticut residents believe the “apizza” (pronounced “ah-beets-a”) at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in the city’s Wooster Square Italian neighborhood is still the one to beat. Sally’s Apizza, however—founded in 1938 and owned by the same family for nearly 80 years, until it changed hands in 2017—has long been vying for the top spot. Though these are the two top pizza institutions in New Haven, many locals will also tell you the pies at Modern Apizza are equally delicious. And to add another contender into the mix, BAR is heralded for its mashed potato pizza. Might as well try all four and decide for yourself.
Applaud Theater in a Dramatic Setting
Before you head to New Haven, check the the Long Wharf Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre, and Shubert Theatre's calendars. For more than 50 years, people have ventured to a waterfront warehouse to see classics reinterpreted and new works debut by Long Wharf. The venue itself has nurtured dozens of productions over the years, some of which have made the leap to Broadway and off-Broadway theaters.
The 478-seat Yale Rep auditorium, located inside a former Baptist church, is an intimate and fascinating place to see a Yale Repertory Theatre performance. Since 1966, the theater has acted as an impressive incubator for emerging playwrights, including Athol Fugard and Christopher Durang. But if musicals enthrall you, the Shubert Theatre is a beautifully restored 1914 venue where history has repeatedly been made with beloved performances like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, both of which had their world premieres here.
Attend a Concert
Toad’s Place is a legendary music dive where Bob Dylan played his storied career’s longest show, and the Rolling Stones famously kicked off their 1989 Steel Wheels tour. These days, the standing-room-only concert venue hosts eclectic, lesser-known acts, but it’s still a cool place for cheap drinks and live bands.
If jazz is more your jam, Firehouse 12 is the destination. This acoustically superb venue—housed in a 1905 firehouse with a retro bar—only seats about 70, so be sure to buy tickets online in advance.
At the enduring Owl Shop, you can sink into a deep leather chair, order a cocktail, grab something to nibble on, and then light up a cigar. Although Connecticut outlawed smoking in bars more than a decade ago, this comfy spot was a long-established tobacconist, and so it's exempt from the rule. The shop is famed for late Master Tobacconist Joe Lentine, who was on-site from 1964, serving up his custom blends that attracted celebrity fans, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Today, live jazz is an added enticement on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
Want a stunning aerial view of New Haven? East Rock Park is named for a 350-foot traprock ridge that overlooks the city, and you can reach the summit via a short walk, bike ride, or drive. At the top, you'll see East Rock itself, a landmark made from molten rock about 200 million years ago. The view from the summit is particularly stunning during Connecticut’s fall foliage season. Admission to the 425-acre park is free and leashed dogs are welcome.
Connecticut History. "Yale University from Colonial Times to the Present." January 19, 2014
Library of Congress. "Connecticut: Louis' Lunch (Local Legacies)." Retrieved March 31, 2021