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WHY GO: A case can be made that Burlington VT – or more generally, the whole of Vermont – begat the Farm to Table dining movement. Ask about the “best” restaurant in town – “and it has to source locally” – one is met with snickers. “Every restaurant here buys from local farms!”
So, yeah, there’s the fantastic food aspect of this University town set on stunning Lake Champlain.
But of course, there is so much more to Burlington and its outskirts. There’s an enviro-hippy vibe, a boutique hotel with poignantly-sourced art, a frenetic, Victorian/mid-century modern B&B that offers something too good to pass up, Teddy Bears, steamships on land, and of course, the beer that has made Vermont in general, and Burlington in particular, an international destination.
So, visit your “Groovy UV” student, stay awhile, and read on.
Things to Do in Greater Burlington VT
TOUR: Vermont Teddy Bear Co
Over 100,000 Vermont Teddy Bears (named after Theodore Roosevelt) are made in this factory. One that, I must admit, I was ready to pass up in favor of spending an extra hour in Burlington a few miles away. I’m glad I didn’t.
This sweet, upbeat tour takes you through all phases of a Vermont Bear’s construction, from Cutting to Hand Sewing, to Stuffing and Distribution. Many bears are made from scratch per order, with personalized monogramming of names and phrases (“marry me”) on paws.
The stuffing – recycled plastic, hypoallergenic – comes out of the machines at 100 miles per hour. Limbs are locked into place, and the back of each bear is hand-stitched to close it well. The company offers 200 outfits, each with a story.
There’s a Mommy Bear with a “Baby Bump,” that, when removed, is a tiny bear in a wearable sling. One fan provided a piece of her wedding dress to have a matching dress made for her own bear.
Now, you can even send in a favorite picture for transfer on a bear’s shirt for the ultimate personalized gift.
The shipping and receiving warehouse, called “Emerald City,” is where the bears are uniquely packed in a decorative box with Vermont Brownie included, “so the bear doesn’t get hungry in transit.” The box even has air holes.
Teddy Bear Doctor
Vermont Bears are considered heirloom gifts and often become part of the family. So it’s heartwarming to discover that the “Bear Hospital” offers free, compassionate care to each patient, forever.
The name of each “sick” bear is listed, with the reason it was sent, on a dry erase board behind Dr. Nancy’s desk and operating table: ACL tear, dog attack, ear fuzz, and the terrifying “Lawnmower.”
Dr. Nancy can fix most of these. But the lawn-mowed bear might be too shredded to make whole. In those situations, they are patched together as well as can be expected, and sent home with a new bear. Due to their durable construction and the fact that they are guaranteed for life, Vermont Teddy Bears are not cheap. The 15” Classic starts at $59.99, with a 6 foot version going for $200.
TOUR: Shelburne MuseumJust Outside of Burlington VT
You’ll need at least three hours (though you can spend a weekend) seeing everything at this 39-building complex comprised of “collections of collections.”
With elements of Williamsburg (VA), Winterthur (DE) and Greenfield Village (MI), the Shelburne Museum is one of the most unique assemblages of buildings, boats and bridges you’ll ever see.
Brought to life by folk-art-collector society dame, Electra Havemeyer Webb, whose family is credited with bringing French Impressionist paintings to New York’s Metropolitan Museum in the 1920’s, and who married James Watson Webb, the son of Eliza Vanderbilt, The Shelburne Museum is as eclectic as Electra was eccentric.
Come to see the 220ft Ticonderoga, a sidewheel steamboat that once plied Lake Champlain and is now permanently situated on the beautifully landscaped 45-acre grounds. It sits across a lawn from the Colchester Point Lighthouse (moved here in 1953), and the 1773 Prentiss Home (moved here from Hadley MA).
You can walk into the 1890 Castleton Jail, churches, barns, and homes, made from stone and wood – each containing exemplary collections of antiques.
The newest building, a contemporary edifice designed by Ann Beha Architects, is counterpoint to the bright red round barn directly across the green. It’s these juxtapositions that make Shelburne Museum so compelling. $24 adults, $12 kids. Open May-October 10-5.
Like it sister attraction, Shelburne Museum, there’s a lot to see on this 1,400-acre working farm; nine points of interest including the Farm Barn, which houses the Children’s Farmyard and cheese-making facilities, the Dairy, where 125 purebred Brown Swiss cows are milked daily to produce the Farmhouse Cheddar (available at the Farm Store), the family summer home, now an Inn, and other attractions.
To maximize your time, take the 1 ½ hour guided tram tour (runs 3 times/day). Or simply ride the wagon over to the Farm Barn’s Children’s Farmyard, which houses newborn animals and educational programming for kids and families.
Vanderbilt Connection to Shelburne Farms
I lucked upon a VIP tour with Marshall Webb, great grandson of Lila Vanderbilt-Webb and her husband, William Seward. There were the original Webb’s who, in 1886, owned the property and built the stately stone homes and barns still standing today.
Marshall and his brother Alec now run the non-profit Shelburne Farms, established in the 1970’s by all six siblings of his generation. Back then, the charitable component was comprised only of a summer camp and vegetable market, while the farm itself remained an active dairy business.
Marshall’s father ran the farm until he died in 1984. Since then, Marshall et. al made education focusing on sustainable agriculture Mission Number One. So much so that the the Environmental Center had to be moved from the smaller Coach Barn to the larger Farm Barn.
The Lake Champlain-set Romanesque/Queen Anne stone manor house, on a landscape designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (who chose what to plant) and Gifford Pinchot (who determined where to plant), was Marshall’s family summer home from the 1960’s to 1974.
In 1987, it became the Inn @ Shelburne Farms, a stunning 24 room seasonal hotel, with no heat or air-conditioning, and a well-regarded restaurant. I asked Marshall how he felt having strangers stay in his old childhood room. “I love it. It’s keeping the house and memories alive,” he said.
Lately, Shelburne Farms is working on renovating an original horse-barn to be used as event space. Also, Green Mountain Power installed a solar panel field, which generates about 30% of the farm’s energy. More comes from firewood, cut from 400 acres of northern hardwood.
Advancing sustainable forestry, Marshall is both the Woodland Manager and “Special Projects Coordinator.” What kind of special projects? Well, the farm is growing its own shitake mushrooms – in tree trunks impregnated with spores – used by chefs at the Inn @ Shelburne Farm.
People are drawn to Shelburne Farms for all kinds of reasons; its history, its celeb-designed landscape, to walk the 10 miles of trails, to eat in the Inn’s restaurant or stay overnight. But mostly to bring children to the Farm Barn to see and interact with the animals. Open mid-May to mid-Oct, daily 10-4, $8 adults, $5 kids, 1.5 hour tours additional $3.
Larger inside than it looks from the outside, this accessible encyclopedic museum provides bite size exposure to the greats.
Enter through a soaring Victorian Era space, with magnificent arched windows. Then continue into the museum’s original entrance – a Greek Revival white marble rotunda with glamorous double staircase to the galleries above.
You’ll find antiquities, Native American artifacts, and European Art. The modern collection includes Warhole, Roachenberg, Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana’s LOVE, and Lichtenstein among others. Open Labor Day to mid-May, Tues, Thurs, Fri. 10-4, Wed 10-7, Sat/Sun noon-4. $5 adults, $3 kids.
ECHO, an aquarium and science center right on the waterfront, is stocked with hands-on learning centers, games, and glass tanks filled with “lots of sturgeon.” Mostly for kids, adults can relax while little ones crawl through the newest exhibit, Champ Lane. Open daily 10-5, $11.50 adults, $10.50 kids.
STROLL: Church Street Pedestrian Mall/BCA (Burlington VT City Arts)
The Church Street Pedestrian Mall is the “Centerpiece of Burlington.” There are lots of shops, restaurants and art galleries. And of course, buskers strumming and singing for their dollars.
My favorite, of course, is the Crow Bookshop, which has been at this location for 20 years.
As you wander, be sure to step into BCA (Burlington City Arts), with three galleries on 4 floors. There’s always something new – art is contemporary, some bordering the provocative. BCA also offers classes – in photography, digital arts and clay and print art.
Breweries in Burlington VT
There are four breweries and one cidery within the confines of Burlington itself. Another, Fiddlehead, is a few miles away, across from the Shelburne Museum. All are listed below:
Foam, set on the waterfront, is a bit tough to find. Pass Skinny Pancake restaurant and Peace Justice shop, to the apartments. It’s in there. Belly up to Foam’s curvilinear, fossil-embedded polished concrete bar (with ameba-shaped blue inlayed lighting) for the signature Saison de Foam – “citrus, peppery, crackling dry.”
Switchback Ale has a flavor profile close to a Red Amber American Pale Ale. For years, Switchback avoided making IPA’s as everyone else was doing it. But in 2015, it launched Connector IPA, which became a favorite. The Connector’s draft pull is based on the World’s Highest Stack of Filing Cabinets (see below), just down the street.
The “World’s Highest Stack of Filing Cabinets,” on Flynn Ave., is a statement about the bureaucratic bullheadedness that prevented a highway from being built. Each of 38 filing cabinets stands for another year that the Champlain Highway was promised and never came to pass. A great Photo Op.
Come for their flagships, Conehead India Pale Ale or Green State Lager. Or break out to try something new.
This brewery focuses on German and English style beers, with Porter and Hefeweizen the two best sellers. Situated in a warehouse out back, you’ll find bites like Bratwurst (what else?), and local ciders and wines from other producers (“not everyone likes beer”). The ice-cold Porter, mild with chocolate-coffee notes is stellar. I’m a new fan.
A bit out of town, this well-regarded brewery shares a building with one of the best pizza joints in Vermont, Folino’s. Every so often Fiddlehead releases Second Fiddle (double IPA), rated 98/100 by Beer Advocate, in cans. On those days, there are lines out the door. Grab a four pack, and head next door. Everyone does.
You’ll be hard pressed to get a seat after work at this very busy cidery, which fulfills its “moral purpose” by purchasing fruit directly from local orchards and farms. No sugar is added to their blends, which consist of fermented whole apples, and natural flavors and colors, like blueberries.
The flagship drink, United Press is a slightly sweet, appley, effervescent brew that tickles the tongue. Ginger lovers will want to order Dirty Mayor, a drier concoction that goes down like a spicy ginger snap. Cider is naturally Gluten-Free. So Citizen offers gluten-free rolls, crackers and sharable snacks for those with allergies. $7 for five samples.
Restaurants in Greater Burlington VT
ICE CREAM: Burlington Bay Market & Café
Don’t call it soft-serve! In Vermont, the kind of ice-cream that comes out of a machine is coined a “creemee.” And yes, you’ll want one – Maple flavor, please – from this stand with a deck overlooking Lake Champlain.
You cannot get fresher meats and produce than this. A “very high percentage” of food served in this Lake Champlain set restaurant is sourced right on property. Beef and lamb come from Shelburne Farm cows and sheep, and from its 7-acre produce garden.
Fish comes right off the boat from Maine. Main courses run $30-$37. That’s rather reasonable when you factor in the vista and ambience. Reservations are really, really tough to get, especially around sunset, when patrons sit outside on the patio or atop Adirondack chairs on the expansive lawn to watch the Lake light up in pink and gold.
Set inside the Hotel Vermont, Jupiter is unlike most hotel eateries that tend to cater to mainstream tastes. This cuisine is innovative and beautiful. Dishes like Sliced Pickled Beets and Sunflower Tahini on Red Hen Bread, and Cured Starbird Salmon Maki with Maple Mustard Miso and Cranberry Ponzu liven up the plates. Cocktails rock. And of course, the local cider (Citizen) and city breweries are well represented on the drink menu.
EAT: Hen of the Wood
Generally at the top of everyone’s list, it’s an earth-to-plate forerunner, and a difficult table to get. Plan ahead.
Take it from a New Yorker – this pizza is fantastic. Plus, it shares a wall with Fiddlehead Brewery – so you don’t have very far to go for your accompanying craft beer.
SNACK: Hong’s Chinese Dumplings
For years, Hong’s food cart (pictured above) was a fixture on Church St. The can’t miss, from scratch dumplings became so famous, and coveted, Hong’s opened up a shop on Pearl St. within steps of its original location. Now, Burlington VT foodies can satisfy their dumpling cravings year round.
EAT: Locals Recommend
The Farmhouse, in a former McDonalds, for casual farm to table and a huge collection of craft beer on tap. American Flatbread, home to the original Zero Gravity Brewery. In fact, there are dozens of recommended restaurants – too many to itemize here.
Where to Stay in Burlington VT
STAY: Hotel Vermont
Hotel Vermont, a chic boutique, is everything an upscale Burlington VT hotel should be. It’s environmentally conscious with judicious use of natural elements in a funky, eye pleasing décor.
And this being Vermont – where locals take beer seriously – Hotel Vermont claims its own “Beer Concierge,” Matt Canning, who arranges day-long Vermont Craft Brewery Tours.
First Impressions of Hotel Vermont
You’ll see the bikes first – lined up in the lobby for guest to use. And then, behind a small reception desk, manned by smiling and ever-helpful staff, Hotel Vermont’s logo writ large. It’s a Mondrian-like composition of inlaid wood of various colors.
This piece, incredibly, was constructed by artist Duncan Johnson from the debris wrought by Hurricane Irene when it blew through Vermont, reducing houses and barns to matchsticks. Not a touch of paint was added to any piece of salvaged wood. So what you see is a splinter of a home, a sliver of a livelihood in its original color. Beauty created from tragedy.
Rooms at Hotel Vermont
Ask for a room on “concierge-level” 6. These offer Lake Champlain views over the rooftop of the hotel next door, and provide snacks day and night in an alcove right off the elevator.
Rooms are fresh and contemporary – blond woods, leather seating and an incredibly comfortable pillow-top bed punched up with a Vermont Flannel Co. throw.
The toilet nook and glass/Vermont marble rainhead shower area are separate rooms, cleverly concealed or open to the bedroom via rolling track doors. Large windows bring in lots of light, and in some cases a sweeping view of the islands within and mountains surrounding Lake Champlain.
STAY: Made Inn Vermont, Burlington VT
Meeting exuberant innkeeper, Linda Wolf, for the first time is like taking a shot of espresso. She’s high-energy and all-in when it comes to granting guests a phenomenal stay, with a vivaciousness that ricochets around the room.
But this Burlington establishment has a growing reputation among fashionistas, rock & rollers, and mid-century modern style fans who also love craft beer. Here’s why.
Contradiction # 1: Revved Vs. Chill
As bouncy as your first exposure to Linda is – that’s as chill as you will soon be after drinking deeply from the can of beer, glass of wine, or goblet of Sangria that she delivers out to the hot-tub patio. Or up to the “Widow’s Watch” 360 degree-view third floor turret.
Contradiction #2: Victorian Exterior, Mad Chic Inside
Made Inn Vermont is outwardly Victorian with “Urban-chic” innards. Exquisite woodwork and high ceilings are to be expected in this 1881 home. But common rooms are quite surprising: crammed with artsy bric-a-brac, vinyl records and record players, snacks, books, games, and colorful, contemporary paintings. It might be a tad cluttered – but it’s Victoriana turned on its head.
Contradiction # 3 – Perfect for Millennials and Hip Boomers
Guests cross generational lines. Millennials love this place, but adventurous Boomers who appreciate free wine, beer and mixed drinks, unlimited snacks and water, and a large collection of vinyl rock and roll records to play in private on a turntable in each room, adore it here as well.
Contradiction #4: Outstanding Guests Rooms, Stylish Private Baths Down the Hall
Guest Rooms are airy and outstandingly designed in funky, cool, mid-century modern décor. Each room is assigned a beautiful private bathroom. Down the hall.
Each fridge is stocked with water and soft drinks. Plus, heavens above, a can of Heady Topper and Focal Banger. Yes, complimentary.
Rooms from $279-$379 depending on size and season. Includes wi-fi, drinks (soft, wine and beer), snacks throughout the day, buffet and made to order hot gourmet breakfast. Well-behaved dogs of any size are welcomed here.