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. Sure, New Haven may not top the list of vacation destinations. But 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. What are the top things to do in New Haven? Here are 10 attractions you shouldn’t miss.
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Rain or shine, It is the most exhilarating thing to do in New Haven. Yes, it’s called It. And It has an unusual home: Jordan’s Furniture. This indoor adventure park is the largest of its kind in the world: a maze of tightropes, ziplines 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, you’re done. Well, OK, you can still watch the mesmerizing liquid fireworks display of lights, music and dancing fountains… or shop for a sofa.
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New Haven is best known as home to Yale University: America’s third-oldest college. 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: Both are free. You can download this audio tour, and enjoy a self-guided walk around campus. But the best option is an 80-minute, student-led tour, offered twice daily on weekdays and once each afternoon on Saturdays and Sundays. You’ll want to 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 important 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, some of which date back to the 1830s.
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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 descendents still use antique cookers to flame-sear burgers, which are served on toast. Asking for ketchup is a big no-no. But order a “cheese works” like the locals, and your sandwich comes topped with cheese, onions and tomato.
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Choose a Side in the Pizza War
While we’re on the subject of New Haven’s culinary innovations, be sure to embroil yourself in the city’s biggest 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. And 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, has long been a contender for the top spot, but the restaurant’s future is uncertain: It is for sale. Many New Haveners will tell you the pies at Modern Apizza are equally delicious. Try all three, and decide for yourself.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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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. With its Great Hall of Dinosaurs, Egyptian antiquities and hands-on Discovery Room, Yale’s Peabody Museum appeals to families. 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.
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Applaud Theater in a Dramatic Setting
Before you head to New Haven, check the schedule of plays being performed 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 debuted. Long Wharf Theatre, which unveiled a renovated Mainstage in 2012, has nurtured more than 30 productions 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. A surprising number of household-name actors have appeared with Yale Rep during its 50-year history. If musicals enthrall you, the Shubert Theatre is a beautifully restored 1914 venue, where history’s been made repeatedly on stage. Beloved musicals like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music had their world premieres here.
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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, this 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. This acoustically superb venue—in a 1905 former firehouse with a retro bar—only seats about 70 music lovers, so buy tickets online in advance.
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Get an Insider’s Perspective on New Haven’s Culinary Scene
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 these popular outings, which showcase culinary hot spots and notable chefs.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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A retro experience awaits at New Haven’s enduring Owl Shop, where you can sink into a deep leather chair, order a cocktail and something to nibble, then light up a cigar. Sure, Connecticut outlawed smoking in bars more than a decade ago, but because this comfy spot was a long-established tobacconist, it was not subject to the new rule. Since 1964, Master Tobacconist Joe Lentine has been on-site, and his custom blends have celebrity fans including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Live jazz is an added enticement on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
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Want an 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, and admission is free.