Things to Do in Burlington
Vermont is a state primarily for people who love the outdoors, and as a place to “get away from it all.” But Burlington, as we Vermonters are fond of saying, isn’t really like the rest of Vermont. Yes, there is plenty to do outdoors here, but there is also a thriving arts scene, tours, museums, live music venues, a plethora of restaurants, and shopping. If the idea of visiting Burlington appeals to you, but you’re wondering how you’ll fill all your time here, you have nothing to worry about. I have compiled a large selection (not exhaustive) of possible activities just for you. (I’ve also created a list of 100 Things to Do in Vermont for those of you who want to see the rest of the state, too.)
Waterfront Park: This park, located at the foot of College Street on Lake Champlain, is often called “the jewel in the crown” of Burlington. Take in a beautiful lake view while strolling on the boardwalk or sitting on one of the swinging benches. Enjoy a concert on the lake or one of our summer festivals, such as the Vermont Brewer’s Festival. Cheer on the teams participating in the annual Dragon Boat races. Buy some food at a local deli and bring it down to the park for a picnic lunch. Or grab a bite to eat at Splash at the Boathouse.
Waterfront Park is a great spot to walk, sun, nap, read and just be outdoors in the summer. The Burlington Bike Path runs through the park. This is a must-see when you visit Burlington, especially in the warmer months.
Church Street Marketplace: The #1 “must see” when you come to Burlington. This pedestrian marketplace is the place for people-watching, dining and shopping in downtown. Street performers entertain on the weekends, and during nicer months, restaurants have their outdoor seating.
Events take place throughout the year on Church Street, such as the Discover Jazz Festival. Dogs are very welcome on the Marketplace, as long as they are on a leash (and as long as owners clean up after them, if you know what I mean).
Burlington Bike Path: If you’re driving to Burlington, be sure to bring your bicycle and/or rollerblades and enjoy the 7+ mile bike path that runs along the waterfront of Lake Champlain. But if you’re flying into town, you can also rent a bicycle or blades (May through October) from Local Motion, which is located at the back of Union Station (at the foot of Main Street), right on the bike path. I’ve also rented a bike from the Ski Rack on lower Main Street; they’ve got a nice selection.
If you head north along the lake, you may want to stop at North Beach for a quick swim. If you aren’t the biking or blading type, you can walk the bike path, too. Be aware there are parts of the bike path that are not in heavily trafficked areas, so do be sure to return to a very public area well before dusk. And do take plenty of drinking water with you. You can watch the sun set from the Boardwalk at Waterfront Park.
Shelburne Museum: If you really want to get a sense of what Vermont is all about, do visit this museum (open May-October). Admission is $20 for adults and it’s totally worth it. It can take the whole day if you want it to (and there is a cafe on site for lunch). Among its treasures are an early 19th-Century blacksmith shop; a circus building and carousel; a 19th-Century store with barber shop, tap room, and post office; a barn with one of the country’s finest collections of stagecoaches, carriages, and wagons; a 19th-Century jail building; a lighthouse; and The Ticonderoga, a restored 220-foot sidewheel passenger steamboat.
The Flynn Center: This performing arts theater is one of the city’s greatest assets and the perfect way for a solo Burlington visitor to spend an evening. They have a very diverse roster of music and dance performances, plays, and traveling Broadway shows here (as well as the occasional interesting speaker, like Rick Steves). A sampling of shows I’ve seen here are CATS, The Full Monty, Rent, the Reduced Shakespeare Company, the Cowboy Junkies, Suzanne Vega, and Rome and Jules, a hip hop version of Shakespeare’s classic by Rennie Harris’s PureMovement. You can also catch performances of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra at the Flynn. If you don’t happen to like what’s playing at the Flynn, check to see if the University of Vermont’s Royall Tyler Theater or St. Michael’s Playhouse is hosting something you might like better.
Nectar’s: This very down-to-earth bar is famous for 2 things: Its gravy fries and being the birthplace of the band Phish. It is a Burlington institution that has been around forever and hosts live music every weekend. There is a pretty big bar here, and it’s busy. Get there early. Be forewarned that they host trivia nights on Thursdays from 7:30-9:30, which is kind of a team sport.
Higher Ground: Another great music venue is Higher Ground on Williston Road in South Burlington. Make a night of it by grabbing dinner first at the Windjammer or Silver Palace (Chinese) next door to the music venue. Higher Ground features a lot of well-known national and regional acts. All shows are standing room only (no seating).
Club Metronome: This is another dance and live music venue, with a 250-person capacity. I’ve never been there (I’m not much of a dancer), so I can’t tell you anything more than that, including whether or not it’s solo-friendly. Located upstairs from Nectar’s. See their website for more info.
Red Square: Located on Church Street, this bar also often has live music.
For other live music happening around town, check the calendar at Seven Days.
If you’d like to take in a movie while you’re in the area, you have several options. The Roxy Theater is located in downtown Burlington. It has small, cozy theaters and shows mainstream movies as well as arthouse films. For a bigger screen and theater-style seating, try the Majestic 10 in Williston or the Essex Cinemas, Essex (Williston is closer). There is also a theater on Shelburne Road in South Burlington, the Palace 9. If you’d like to relive the good ol’ days of movie-going, the Sunset Drive-In in Colchester is open during the summer months.
Tilt Classic Arcade and Ale House (7 Fayette Rd, South Burlington). If you love pinball machines and video games, this is the bar for you! It’s located just off Shelburne Road in South Burlington near Palace 9 Cinema (a few miles south of downtown Burlington). Among their video games are the likes of Asteroids, Mortal Kombat II, Street Fighter II, and Pac Man. They have some nice pinball machines, too, including Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones, Star Wars and the X-Files. They have a large selection of beers on tap, as well as wine and cocktails, and some bar food.
Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour: Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream got its start in a renovated gas station in Burlington (on the corner of College and St. Paul Streets). Today, you can get a scoop at the Church Street store, but if you want to see how the ice cream is made, you have to go to Waterbury. (See Day Tours below.)
VT Teddy Bear Factory Tour: This factory, located in Shelburne, VT, makes custom teddy bears in a wide variety of themes (a firefighter bear, an aviator bear, a “scrubs” bear, a baseball bear, etc.); they’re too cute for words and make great souvenirs if you or someone you know loves teddy bears. This may be a “tourist trap,” but it’s only $4 for 30 minutes, and it’s a lot of fun.
Lake Champlain Chocolate Factory Tour: This factory and store is located on Pine Street in Burlington. You can take a free tour here to see them making their chocolates and try some samples. Check their website for hours.
Magic Hat Brewery Tour: Located at 5 Bartlett Bay Road, which is off Route 7 in South Burlington. Magic Hat is a home grown microbrewery offering free guided tours. You can also give yourself a self-guided tour during brewery operating hours. See their website for tour times and days. Naturally, you can also sample their beers on-site.
Burlington Brew Tours: If you really love your beer, this tour company offers a few different tours where you can sample the best brews the region has to offer–while they do the driving. Keep in mind they need a minimum number of customers to run a tour, so as a solo traveler, you’re dependent on others signing up. If your schedule is flexible, you should check and see if they can recommend a day/time when they already have enough people for the tour. They provide pick-up and drop-off in Burlington and South Burlington.
Burlington Segways: Want to see Burlington by segway? Burlington Segways provides tours of the Burlington waterfront, downtown, and the University of Vermont. One hour ($62) and two hour ($94) tours are offered 7 days a week throughout the summer, all led by locals providing the locals perspective of the city.
Queen City Ghost Walk: Burlington is full of haunted history, and the best place to hear about it is via a Queen City Ghost Walk tour. Since 2002, they’ve been sending chills up the spines of locals and visitors alike every fall weekend leading up to Halloween and then nightly during the latter part of October. Tours are $18; $15 if you purchase in advance.
UVM Historic Tour: This weekly tour, led by UVM Professor Emeritus William Averyt, occurs every Saturday morning seasonally, summer through early fall. This tour is definitely for history and architecture buffs, as the buildings on the University of Vermont campus are among the most beautiful and historically significant in the city. (UVM was founded in 1791 and is one of the oldest universities in the country.) More than a dozen buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places. Tours last 2 hours. For more information and to register for a tour, go to the UVM website.
Historical Trolley Tours of Burlington: You can pick up this trolley at the waterfront on College Street (near the Boathouse). They offer a “North Tour” and a “South Tour”. According to their website, they cover the Ethan Allen Homestead, University of Vermont campus, “scenic vistas,” sea caves, hidden tunnels, and more. The tours cost $24 each ($20 if you’re over 60) and last 90 minutes.
Shelburne Museum: See Highlights, above.
Robert Hull Fleming Museum: This art museum is located on Colchester Avenue on the University of Vermont campus. It’s a teaching museum, but it’s also open to the public. They feature a variety of art and artifacts from many civilizations, though the collection is small. It will not take you all day to tour the collection. Admission is just $5. My favorite space in this museum is the Marble Court, which is gorgeous. The museum is closed during July and August, on certain holidays, and during UVM’s winter recess.
ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center: Located on the Waterfront next to the Burlington Boathouse, this is a relatively young aquarium and science center. Don’t come here expecting to see dolphins and such; this is Lake Champlain, not the ocean. While the museum contains plenty of things for families with children to do, it also has some adult programming. Check out the Events on their website and look closely at their Cafe Scientifique and ECHO After Dark events.
Burlington City Arts/Firehouse Center for Visual Arts: The Firehouse Center hosts art exhibits and events throughout the year. It is located on Church Street. For current schedule, check out their calendar on their website.
Ethan Allen Homestead: This museum is the historic (1787) home of Ethan Allen, founder of Vermont. It also features a recreated colonial tavern, artifacts, and walking trails. It’s only open seasonally, from May through October. It’s a short drive (or cab ride) from downtown Burlington. Admission is $8. For more details, see their website.
Shelburne Farms: This is a 1400-acre working farm and National Historic Landmark. There are 8 miles of great walking trails, a farm store, guided tours, cheesemaking, and adorable farm animals. There is a nice inn and restaurant on site. Admission is $8 for adults.
UVM Morgan Horse Farm: If you are a horse lover, this should be on your itinerary. The farm, located in Weybridge (south of Burlington), is a designated National Historic Site which is open May through October. A small admission fee is charged to visit the grounds. See website for visiting hours and months. They also give tours.
Wineries: You would need a car to reach these. The Charlotte Village Winery is just south of Burlington in the town of Charlotte and 5 miles south of the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory. They offer wine tasting. Boyden Valley Winery is located in Cambridge, VT. They offer tours and wine tastings. Snow Farm Winery is located in South Hero. They offer private tours and tastings and host a summer concert series. See winery websites for more details. (Note: If all you want to do is sample some local wines, I recommend the East Shore Vineyard wine tasting room on Church Street. They have excellent wines.)
Burlington Farmers Market: Every Saturday, Burlington hosts one of the country’s best farmers markets in the middle of town. During warmer months, it’s located in City Hall Park and on St. Paul Street, and during winter, it’s in Memorial Auditorium on Main Street. Here, you’ll find the best local produce, breads, and Vermont-made specialty foods as well as vendors selling food prepared on the spot. Not only is it fun, and a great place to grab a quick, cheap bite to eat, but it can be very surprising to see some of the food being produced in Vermont other than maple and dairy products.
Take a cruise on Lake Champlain aboard The Spirit of Ethan Allen, offering lunch, brunch and dinner cruises (including a Murder Mystery dinner cruise), as well as just scenic narrated cruises, or Northern Lights Cruises, which also offers dinner cruises and special entertainment cruises. The Spirit of Ethan Allen departs from the dock near the Burlington Boathouse at the foot of College Street, while Northern Lights departs from the King Street Ferry Dock. Seasonal.
Whistling Man Schooner Cruises: If you like sailing, you might enjoy this. Sign aboard a Friendship Sloop for a 2-hour sail around Lake Champlain (May through October). See their website for rates and schedule.
Perkins Pier: This popular pier is located at the foot of King Street. When I lived downtown, I hung out here all the time, it’s really a lovely, quiet spot. It’s right on the Burlington Bike Path. There are boat slips here, as well as boat rentals and benches which make it a great spot for watching the sunset. The boat rentals include kayaks, canoes and power boats, and there are also free rowboats for use. There is a parking fee for the lot here.
Swimming: Before you head to any beach in Burlington, check the local news outlets to see if the beach is closed for water quality reasons. This does occasionally happen.
North Beach is located just beyond Burlington High School on a turnoff from North Avenue called Institute Road. It’s open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There is a fee to park here. Facilities include lifeguards, grills, a picnic area (including a shelter), a snack bar. Hours and parking fee available at their website. Oakledge Park is located at the end of Flynn Avenue on the South side of Burlington. There are picnic shelters here and public restrooms but no lifeguard. There is a parking fee. There is a beach here and more of a rocky shore. Leddy Park is also located off North Avenue and has a picnic area as well as beach, a parking fee, and no lifeguard. All three of these beaches are accessible from the Bike Path free of charge.
Skiing: If you came to Vermont to go skiing, what are you doing staying in Burlington? No, seriously, you can drive to some ski mountains from Burlington, but that’s tacking on a lot of road time to your day. You might want to consider staying somewhere near the mountain if you want to ski. Just saying.
The Vermont Lake Monsters: No, this isn’t an aquatic group searching for Champ, the legendary “monster” of Lake Champlain, it’s Vermont’s minor league baseball team. The team is part of the NY-Penn League and makes its home at Centennial Field, located just off Colchester Avenue. See their website for admission price, schedule, etc.
The Vermont Ice Storm: This is a semi-pro team of guys who love football so much they play without being paid for it. They are a member of the AAA Empire Football League. Their home field is the South Burlington High School football field (in other words, don’t go expecting a professional stadium!) off Dorset Street. See their website for more details.
The Green Mountain Derby Dames: Get ready to rrrrrumble! Roller derby is alive and well and happening in the Green Mountain state of Vermont. Talk about a throwback to my childhood–I remember watching roller derby on TV with my uncle. The Green Mountain Derby Dames is Vermont’s first roller derby league. Check out their website for dates and times of events. Home games are generally played at the Champlain Valley Expo in Essex.
Cycling: From the Burlington and South Burlington Bike Paths to riding the roads of Vermont, you’ll spot cyclists everywhere in Vermont during spring, summer, and fall. If you’d rather get around on two wheels than four, you have ample opportunity to do that here.
Golf courses: The greater Burlington area is home to a number of golf courses, including the Jack Nicklaus-designed Vermont National Country Club in South Burlington, Cedar Knoll Country Club in Hinesburg, the Catamount Country Club in Williston, The Essex Country Club in Essex, Kwiniaska Golf Club in Shelburne, and The Links at Lang Farm in Essex. I’m not a golfer, so I really can’t say which of these is the best or more affordable.
Discover Jazz Festival: Held the first week of June every year at various locations around downtown Burlington. Some events are ticketed, others are free. Many restaurants participate with live jazz on site, so you can enjoy the music almost any time.
Champlain Valley Fair: The quintessential country fair. If you live in an urban area, and you haven’t experienced one of these, you really should. Live entertainment, agricultural displays, midway rides and games, and lots and lots of bad-for-you fair food (fried dough, cotton candy, greasy burgers and fries). If you don’t have a car, you can get there by cab or bus.
Burlington City Arts sponsors the annual Festival of Fools which takes place in August. This event features acrobats, jugglers, musicians, comedians, and dancers–all street performers.
Vermont Brewer’s Festival: Brewers participate in this festival by invitation only, based on the quality of their brews. This event takes place every summer in Waterfront Park, Burlington, and includes live entertainment. Tickets to this event are highly coveted. In fact, this year, it sold out in 11 minutes. If you want to attend, you’ve got to be fast on the draw. See their website for more details.
Vermont Pride: Every year in September, Burlington hosts this event celebrating the LGBTQ community in Vermont. There is an entire schedule of events over the weekend, but the capstone is usually the Pride Parade on Church Street. It’s well-attended and a lot of fun.
Dragon Boat Festival: This is a festival organized to support breast cancer survivors. Come cheer on the paddling teams at Waterfront Park, and enjoy some live entertainment and food while you’re at it.
First Night Burlington: If you’re crazy enough to visit Burlington at New Year’s, this is pretty much the only game in town, mainly because it’s become hugely popular and everyone does it. It draws about 20,000 attendees into Burlington each year. There is a packed schedule from mid-afternoon until midnight of a variety of acts taking place at venues all over town. Don’t forget to wear your longjohns.
Ben & Jerry’s Factory Tour: Located in Waterbury. You will need a car to get here. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but it’s also fun. See how the ice cream is made and taste the samples of the day before heading to the scoop shop for a full size portion of your favorite flavor. Combine it with a trip to the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, located on the Waterbury-Stowe Road, and to Stowe, VT. Cold Hollow is a neat little old-fashioned country store that produces apple cider, which you can see being pressed year-round. They also make awesome cider donuts. So yeah, ice cream and donuts on the same day–what could be better than that? Oh, I know, add in the Cabot Annex, where you can sample award-winning Cabot cheeses made right here in Vermont, Lake Champlain Chocolates, and Green Mountain Coffee. On top of that, Stowe is a very picturesque town with lots of shopping and fun outdoor activities, such as horseback riding, the Gondola Skyride at Stowe Mountain Resort, hot air ballooning, and more. If you’re really ambitious, you should hike the mountain. The views from the top are spectacular.
Middlebury is a cute little town about an hour south of Burlington on Route 7 that has shopping and some nice restaurants. While there, stop at the Danforth Pewter workshop and store at 52 Seymour Street. Microbrew fans should make time for Otter Creek Brewing microbrewery at 793 Exchange Street. For a bite to eat, try Mister Up’s located right on the river at 25 Bakery Lane, or Fire & Ice, located at 26 Seymour Street, which has seafood, steaks and a terrific salad bar. (The decor at Fire & Ice is pretty amazing, too.) For a casual, healthy lunch, try the Middlebury Natural Food Co-op, located at 9 Washington Street. They make very good sandwiches. You can combine this with a visit to the Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge.
Poetry fans, as long as you’re down this way, drive the 15 minutes from Middlebury to Ripton and walk the Robert Frost Wayside Trail. It’s an easy walk, with Frost’s poems posted along the way.
Bring your passport if you plan to take a day trip to Montreal, which is about a two-hour drive, one-way. From Burlington, drive north on I-89 to the Canadian border. Once there, take Rte. 133N, and then…well, run yourself a Google map to figure it out. Parking in Montreal can be a pain and be forewarned they have a lot of one-way streets there. I always park my car once and then take the metro or walk everywhere. Here’s a post at TripAdvisor noting a number of different locations where you can park in the city. There are so many things to do in Montreal (from Mont Royal to Old Montreal to shopping to dining to the Botanical Gardens) that I can’t post them all here. (See my posts about Montreal for lots of great ideas.) The trick with a day trip to Montreal is figuring out how to limit yourself to just what you can do in a day!