Until the 1990s, Vermont’s largest “city” — just 45,000 strong — kept largely to itself. Tourists tended to stay in and around the mountain resorts, be it Stowe, Killington, Jay Peak or Okemo, and their surrounding towns. Burlington, on the other hand, ruled business and education, largely thanks to three college campuses: University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College and Champlain College. They also provided the zest, adding 15,000 20-somethings to the downtown area through much of the year. Summer, ironically, became the quiet time.
But three things happened in the 1990s that put Burlington more on the map. Local band Phish went national, Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders won election to Congress and Vermont relaxed brewing laws, spawning a new industry. By the end of the decade, it was much different story. Burlington has transformed from a tiny, lefty cul-de-sac to a regional hub of art, culture, cuisine and progressive politics. This has only grown in the decades since.
As more visitors arrived, they discovered what locals (and Quebec tourists) had known for years. Top of the list was Burlington’s astounding natural gifts. Cuddled by two mountain ranges and sitting on the shores of Lake Champlain, Burlington indulges in postcard views, clean air, green forests and heart-bursting sunsets praised by author Rudyard Kipling as one of the two best in the world.
Today, these treasures share the spotlight with a young and vibrant arts, culture and cuisine scene, particularly when it comes beer. In recent years, these flourish especially in the South End, a former industrial district repurposed into breweries, bakeries, art studios, restaurants, farmers market and festival space. This offers visitors a second entertainment hub after the pedestrian-only Church Street Marketplace, the traditional center of all things Burlington.
Here’s your guide to experiencing the best of all of Burlington’s worlds.
What to Drink
Best Craft Brewery: Zero Gravity Brewery
In a city with a brewery or taproom seemingly on every other corner, it’s impossible to name one to rule them all. However, Zero Gravity ekes ahead of the others, thanks to high marks on all elements of the experience. There’s comfortable seating inside and out — heat lamps included — imaginative food options and a line of beers that can stand up to the best in the world. The variety (ale, lager, kölsch, pilsner) is appreciated, too; in a state grown famous for the double IPA, other styles sometimes get short shrift. Located in the South End, Zero Gravity also adds some local flavor into each pint.
Best Cocktail Bar: The Gryphon
In sudsy Burlington, cocktails tend to take a backseat to beer and often feature a blue-collar preference for punch over flavor or balance. Refinement requires a bit more pavement pounding, but the Gryphon is a good place to start. Largely hidden in a corner space of Burlington’s former grand hotel — still visible in the broad coffered ceiling — the petite corner restaurant and bar adopts an intimate lounge ambiance that cozies up at night as the lights go down. That’s the perfect atmosphere for a journey through the creative and well-executed cocktail list that changes often, perhaps including a Rose Fizz with gin, rose-cardamom syrup and egg white, and the Green Tea Mojito with green-tea infused rum and mint syrup.
Best Dive Bar: Finnegan’s Pub
Burlington has changed a lot over the decades, and Finnegan’s has been serving them all since the 1970s. The current version on College Street opened in the ’90s and has changed little in the décor, dark, scruff — and aroma. But that’s the charm that keeps regulars steady (and seats available), and new ownership has installed an impressive draught list of Vermont’s best brews and a much younger and more inclusive crowd in the bar stools. If there’s any bar in Burlington where everybody knows your name, this is it. Just grip the handrail tightly as you descend the black-diamond staircase to the subterranean bathrooms.
Honorable mention: The Other Place, Radio Bean, Olde Northender Pub
Best Hotel Bar: Juniper Bar
Burlington’s hippest high-end accommodation, Hotel Vermont, houses a bar and restaurant of equal quality, spirit and design. Espousing a woody Scandinavian minimalism in bar and dining areas, Juniper impresses from top to bottom. This takes in cocktails, too, as the bar serves some of the best in town. Most are heavily infused with Vermont spirits like Green Mountain Organic Vodka, Mad River First Run Rum and Barr Hill Tom Cat gin, not to mention the sparkling cider pressed from Vermont apples. The bar bites add an artisanal twist, such as hazelnut oil hummus or masa flour-coated hot dogs. Perhaps the peak amenity is the outside terrace with a fire pit and views of the lake, including Juniper Island, which inspired its name.
You Are Here: DallasAll the sweetest parts of Dallas, according to someone who lives there
Where to Eat
Cheap Lunch: The Skinny Pancake
What started as a cart on Church Street in the early 2000s became a full brick-and-mortar restaurant on the waterfront. Success quickly spawned additional branches opening in Montpelier, Stowe, Quechee and, in 2021, Albany, New York. Such rapid growth comes down simply to the popularity of their sweet and savory crepes, stuffed with produce and meat from a range of Vermont farms. In fact, more than 70% of the raw and value-added products are local, and it tastes that way in dishes such as the K-pop with braised VT beef, local kimchi and Korean-style BBQ sauce, or the Hot Apple Crumble with apple compote, toasted streusel and local ice cream. Outdoor seats, in view of the lake, are particularly popular in warm weather.
Best Burger Spot: Farmhouse Tap & Grill
It’s perhaps fitting that Burlington’s finest burgers can be found on the site of a former McDonald’s. In fact, it’s on the same red floor tiles, but any resemblance disappears there. After more than a decade of redesign and reconstruction, the building presents an elegant bistro façade with a black iron-ringed front patio, communal back patio and country-chic interior. The bistro classics on the menu shine, too, including the burgers. While a short list — beef, turkey, pork and chickpea — the meat is pure Vermont, sourced mere miles away from the state’s most respected farms, including Pitchfork, LaPlatte River and Misty Knoll. The same goes for the cheese, bacon and many other culinary accoutrements. Indeed, in these burgers, you can taste Vermont fully.
Nice Dinner: Honey Road
Honey Road, at the bottom end of Church Street, might be mistaken for the Silk Road after looking at its menu. Drawing heavily from the Eastern Mediterranean and turning up the artisanal twist to 11, the kitchen turns out a panoply of tapas that delight the senses — perhaps even more so amid a cold, northern climate. You might encounter sweet harissa chicken wings, seared halloumi cheese drizzled in hot pomegranate honey, grilled octopus in chili oil and a saffron-rose-pistachio ice cream sandwich for dessert. The culinary sophistication is echoed in the design, including the copper-topped bar, sheer curtains and coffered ceiling. Tongues have salivated and wagged enough to earn the restaurant a James Beard Award nomination in 2023.
Honorable mention: A Single Pebble, Leunig’s Bistro, Istanbul Kebab House
Nicer Dinner: Hen of the Wood
There’s a reason this restaurant has remained fixed at the top of nearly every Vermont culinary list since 2005, when it opened inside an 1835 grist mill in nearby Waterbury. If the setting, waterfall included, was an instant hit, the cuisine shot it to number one. Burlingtonians were blessed with their own branch in 2013, this time with a more polished, Danish-esque design, reminiscent of an upscale ski lodge. Nevertheless, you’ll forget all that once the food starts arriving, as there’s nothing else like it in Vermont. The restaurant may claim the food is “simple, uncomplicated and down-to-earth,” but try telling that to the monkfish in preserved tomato, bok choy and basil salsa verde, the ribeye with caramelized corn and smoked cheddar, and duck breast embellish with pickled blueberries, all largely sourced from nearby farms. That’s why most locals save any trip there for a special occasion, and if none are available, simply sitting down for a meal is.
Honorable mention: Bistro De Margot
You Are Here: The Twin CitiesAll the sweetest parts of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, according to someone who lives there
Where to Shop
Best Menswear Shop: Tailfeather
While not exclusively a menswear boutique, Tailfeather nonetheless stocks some of the best men’s clothing in the city — at least if your goal is continual compliments like “Hey man, cool shirt.” That’s because the collection boasts ambitious designs from regional producers not found in most other menswear stores, like One World Brothers, Product Think Tank and Hooked Productions. It’s also clear the curators of Tailfeather care about this and rotate stock regularly, making each visit feel like a refresh.
Honorable mention: Outdoor Gear Exchange
Best Vintage Shop: Vintage Inspired Marketplace
Fresh into its new digs on Dorset Street, this vintage-stuffed marketplace can take up half your day if you let it. That’s because the 2,000-square foot space is festooned with shelves upon shelves of vintage ephemera in endless varieties. These could include a 1960 love chair, well-worn fedoras, unopened baseball card packs, ceramic piggy banks and knickknacks galore. Much of the rest of the stock, as the shop name implies, draws heavily on the vintage aesthetic. So read labels carefully if authenticity matters.
Honorable mention: Old Gold, Barge Canal Market
Best Record Store: Pure Pop Records
Stepping down the somewhat treacherous stairs to this subterranean den of music can intimidate some, but the reward is instant for anyone who put the record store in the book and film High Fidelity on a pedestal. Named after a 1978 track by Nick Lowe and opened two years later, Pure Pop has been the de-facto music store in Burlington for more than 40 years and has seen every fad and format pass through. It also looks — and smells — the part, with decades of foot traffic worn into the carpet, countertops and music cases. At the same time, it also brings them a deep knowledge of music, both in the staff and special-order connections that can locate almost anything. Anyone seeking a human-powered set of music recommendations should start here.
Honorable mention: Burlington Records
Best Bookstore: Phoenix Books
For more than 10 years, this indie bookstore has held court in downtown Burlington and passionately pursued a mission of inclusivity that stocks the shelves with a diverse community of authors. Many of these books are by Vermont writers and publishers, offering a window into the Vermont experience that few other places can provide. The shop’s bright and light ambiance adds yet more charm, extending your lingers naturally. Book launch parties are a regular affair, bringing authors in-house for evening meet-and-greets.
Honorable Mention: Crow Bookshop
What to Do
Best Gallery: The S.P.A.C.E Gallery/Soda Plant
Sharing a single complex, these two “galleries” host more than a couple dozen studios, nooks and crannies of local artists, many of whom you can find in the act of creation. Variety improves the visit, be it handmade movable wooden toys, silver pine tree rings, paper book sculptures, steel and copper geoforms, gothic dolls or abstract canvases. The two also form the heart of Burlington’s biggest annual art event, Art Hop, in September, which essentially transforms the entire South End into an art- and food truck-fueled block party. It’s open regularly throughout the rest of the year, albeit at varying days and times, so confirm before going.
Honorable Mention: Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, Fleming Museum
Best Running/Hiking Trail: Island Line Trail
Perhaps nowhere else has a rail-to-trail initiative so blessed a city. The train line that once ran north-south along the shores of Lake Champlain now supports the 14-mile Island Line Trail, which runs from Oakledge Park in the South End to South Hero Island. The trail consists of two basic parts, a paved forest-girded greenway that extends to the Winooski River Delta, and a gravel track that runs directly into the lake itself, with water lapping on all sides and boats motoring by. In summer, a bike ferry at the north end transports riders up to South Hero Island where your journey can continue. The gravel portion is the most picturesque but challenges more, including open exposure to the elements.
Best Place for Live Music: Higher Ground
Technically in South Burlington, Higher Ground remains the most dynamic local stage, with a robust weekly lineup of live performances. One week might see old-school stalwarts such as Johnny Marr, Living Colour and Neko Case, and the next feature up-and-comers Ariel Posen, Chance Emerson and Molly Tuttle. Cover bands, like Pink Talking Fish — Pink Floyd, Talking Heads and Phish — make regular appearances, too. The max capacity of 700 keeps whatever show you see intimate, albeit mostly standing room-only, while two bars keep lips wetted.
Honorable Mention: Flynn Center for the Arts
Tourist Spot That’s Actually Worth It: Lake Champlain
Lake Champlain made Burlington, Vermont. As a major shipping corridor between New York and Canada with access to the Atlantic Ocean, the lake spent much of its early American history generating wealth for lumber, textile and shipping barons, many of whom built Burlington’s finest houses. Today it generates revenue primarily from tourism, and it’s easy to see why. Not only does it provide a playground for almost any water sport you can think of — jet skiing, kite surfing, kayaking, scuba diving, paddleboarding, swimming, fishing and sailing — it’s also home to the best sunsets in New England.
Where to Stay
Best Luxury Hotel: Hotel Vermont
Named after Burlington’s former Grand Hotel, the Hotel Vermont is arguably Burlington’s only luxury hotel, at least by Vermont standards. It certainly looks the part, attractively respinning traditional Vermont aesthetics into a creative boutique design, including geometric black slate walls, salvaged red oak floors, wrap-around banquettes and wood mosaic art. The 125 guest rooms echo this with natural stone tile walk-in showers, white-oak headboards and a bevy of Vermont products, such as Lunaroma bath products, Vermont Flannel bathrobes and Jeremy Ayers mugs. Corner rooms may add a view of the lake.
Best Boutique Hotel: Blind Tiger
For years, Willard Street Inn remained a classic hidden gem. Located somewhat outside the city center, the handsome Victorian manor home kept oohs and ahhs coming with its lush back garden overlooked by a glassed-in, sunbathed solarium room. It also put it on the National Registry of Historic Places. Nevertheless, its glory days were long past and traditional design tired. New England-based chain Lark Hotels saw an opportunity and conducted a full renovation before reopening in May 2023 as boutique hotel, Blind Tiger. The 14 guest rooms are individually designed, shaped and laid out to make each a different experience, but all are intriguing in some way, be it subway tiled bathrooms, leather sofas or high wingback chairs, cozy reading nooks, modern art and private patios, and a plethora of funky knickknacks to charm the eye at every turn.
This article was featured in the InsideHook newsletter. Sign up now.