New Haven, CT, may just be New England’s most underrated city. This collegiate town has cultural riches, a thriving culinary scene, and more historic attractions than even most Connecticut residents realize.
New Haven is easily accessible from other major cities in the region, being only hours away from the transportation hubs in New York City, Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston.
While New Haven may not top the list of vacation destinations, if you’re visiting Mystic or other points along Connecticut’s shoreline, be sure to spend a day or more exploring one of America’s oldest cities.
Rain or shine, It Adventure Indoor Ropes Course is the most exhilarating thing to do in New Haven. The indoor adventure park professes to be the largest of its kind in the world: a maze of tightropes, zip lines, and rope bridges, plus a climbing wall and 50-foot freefall.
Once you learn to trust your harness, you can spend unlimited time mastering more than 100 challenges. Eat and use the restroom before you start because once you leave the course, there is no re-entry. Once you've completed the course, take a seat to watch the mesmerizing liquid fireworks display of lights, music and dancing fountains while you recoup.
New Haven is best known as home to Yale University, America’s third-oldest university. Founded down the road in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1701, Yale moved to New Haven in 1716, 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, and both are free. You can download the Yale Campus Tour App and enjoy an audio walking tour around campus or take the fantastic 80-minute, student-led tour, offered twice daily on weekdays and once each afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays. Arrive at the Yale Visitor Center at least 15 minutes before your tour to view an introductory video and see exhibits.
Student guides take visitors to historic 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, such as the university’s famed secret societies like Skull and Bones, some of which date back to the 1830s.
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 that ground-breaking ground beef 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.
While we’re on the subject of New Haven’s culinary innovations, be sure to embroil yourself in the city’s most significant debate: which restaurant makes the best version of another New Haven invention—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”) at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in the city’s Wooster Square Italian neighborhood is still the one to beat. Sally’s Apizza, 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. Many New Haveners will 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. Try all four and decide for yourself.
Yale University operates three must-see museums with collections that rival those of top American museums.
Only one museum has an admission fee, and you can even dodge that by visiting the Peabody Museum of Natural History on Thursday afternoons when admission is by pay-as-you-wish donation. Kids 18 and under are admitted free. With its Great Hall of Dinosaurs, Egyptian antiquities and hands-on Discovery Room, Yale’s Peabody Museum appeals to families. The museum will be closed to the public starting July 1, 2020 for its first renovation in 90 years.
Works of international significance await when you visit the Yale University Art Gallery, which exhibits small and enormous works from its collection of more than 200,000 objects. Across the street, view the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom at the Yale Center for British Art.
Applaud Theater in a Dramatic Setting
Before you head to New Haven, check the schedule of the plays performing at three unique venues in the city.
For more than 50 years, theater lovers have ventured to a waterfront warehouse to see classics reinterpreted, and new works debut at the Long Wharf Theatre. The venue has nurtured more than 30 productions over the years that 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. During its 54-year history, the theater has acted as an impressive incubator for emerging playwrights, including Athol Fugard and Christopher Durang.
If musicals enthrall you, the Shubert Theatre is a beautifully restored 1914 venue, where history has been made repeatedly on stage. Beloved musicals like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music had their world premieres here.
Hear Live Music
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 your destination for memorable performances. The acoustically superb venue—in a 1905 former firehouse with a retro bar—only seats about 70 music lovers, so buy tickets online in advance.
With so many New Haven restaurants earning rave reviews, why not sample nine culinary destinations in one day? On one Saturday most months, Stephen Fries, a New Haven Register food writer and Gateway Community College hospitality management professor, leads a culinary walking tour that’s a gourmand’s dream come true. Buy tickets online in advance for the popular outings, which showcase culinary hot spots and notable chefs, as a tour reservation is required.
A retro experience awaits at New Haven’s enduring Owl Shop, where you can sink into a deep leather chair, order a cocktail, grab something to nibble, and then light up a cigar.
While Connecticut outlawed smoking in bars more than a decade ago, this comfy spot was a long-established tobacconist, and so it's not subject to the new rule. Since 1964, Master Tobacconist Joe Lentine has been on-site, and his custom blends have attracted celebrity fans, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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. The view is particularly stunning during Connecticut’s fall foliage season.
Leashed dogs are welcome in the 425-acre park, and admission is free.