Burlington is the state’s largest city and the cultural heart of Vermont. It makes a great base from which to explore Vermont’s mountains, lakes and quaint New England towns, and is also a worthy destination in its own right. Burlington is best in the summer, when you can swim or kayak in Lake Champlain. Or you can laze around one of the city’s parks or beaches, have a drink and catch a live show on the waterfront, or enjoy an outdoor meal on Church Street (the downtown pedestrian thoroughfare). But during the winter, hotels are less expensive and returning from a day on the slopes to a fireside dinner has few equals.
Home to the University of Vermont, as well as several other schools, Burlington can definitely have a college feel to it (especially at certain bars on a Friday night). But the city is big enough to cater to a variety of tastes and ages. (The metro area has 200,000 people, when including the neighboring South Burlington, Winooski, Colchester, and Essex.) A whopping one third of the state’s population lives in the area.
Burlington is home to Vermont’s most diverse restaurant scene – mostly centered around the Church Street area. A few hidden gems are tucked into side streets. Many restaurants boast farm-to-table, organic fare, and it’s not hard to find offerings from well-known Vermont craft breweries such as Alchemist (Heady Topper) and Hill Farmstead. Shoppers will be happy with the selection of chain and local clothing stores. If you’re in the market for outdoor gear Burlington delivers with a range of shops — including North Face, Patagonia and the locally owned Outdoor Gear Exchange. In the evenings live music can always be heard somewhere. Whether it’s a local DJ at a Church Street bar, or an acoustic trio at a small restaurant venue, there’s always something going on. Summertime festivals celebrating music, food and beer are reason alone for a visit.
Using Burlington as a base, there’s no shortage of day trips available. It’s 30 minutes to the closest ski resort (Bolton Valley), and under an hour to the more well-known resorts (Stowe and Smuggler’s Notch). Or maybe you’ll hike up the state’s tallest mountain, Mount Mansfield, with a stop at a Vermont brewery on the way back. For a laid-back (and calorie-filled) day, tour the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, try one of several great restaurants there, and cool off at a nearby swimming hole.
As with the rest of the state, and New England in general, determining when to visit Burlington depends on what you want to do. Summer is high season , and offers the biggest variety of activities with all the outdoor options from which to choose. But each season has its own charms and activities.
During the warmer days of summer and early fall you can enjoy all the outdoor restaurants in and around Church Street — great for a meal, a drink or just doing some people watching. You also have all the options of Lake Champlain activities – swimming, kayaking, fishing, boating, beach-going etc. Summer also sees the most events, including various music festivals and the Vermont Brewers’ Festival on the waterfront, and the Discover Jazz Festival concentrated on Church Street. Winter brings the cold temps and short days, but also offers cozy fireplace meals and winter sports activities. While many skiers like to stay closer to the slopes (the more popular resorts like Stowe and Sugarbush are about an hour’s drive from Burlington), it’s easy to use Burlington as a base, skiing during the day and returning for the restaurants and shopping in the evening. And within Burlington proper it’s easy to find winter activities from sledding, cross-country skiing and ice skating to shopping and taking in the winter lights on Church Street.
Fall brings the stunning foliage, and is perhaps the best time to get out and take a day hike from Burlington – with cooler temps and without the mosquitos and blackflies that can make being outdoors downright unpleasant in the spring and early summer. In the spring you can get in some late season skiing while enjoying the milder temps, or check out the Mardi Gras parade through Burlington.
And of course year round you can always come to the city to sample beers from one of the various breweries around town, hit Church Street for some shopping and food, or go check out some live music at one of Burlington’s many venues.
You could see most of the main attractions of Burlington in a day – exploring the Church Street Marketplace, the Lake Champlain Waterfront, or maybe spending some time at Oakledge Park or at one of the city’s beaches. But it’s worth spending a few days to really soak in Burlington, and try a few of the many farm-to-table restaurants and beers from one of the various local breweries. Burlington also makes a great base for visiting neighboring towns, hiking in the Green Mountains, or just road tripping around the Vermont. The longer you stay, the more you’ll realize the more there is to see.
The Discover Jazz Festival takes place in Burlington in June of each year and features live music throughout the city. The ten day event sees acts taking place throughout the city — from the Flynn Center to the waterfront area to Church Street Marketplace. Past headliners have included Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald and Trey Anastasio from the band Phish. Check the festival’s website for the latest lineup.
Vermont Brewer’s Festival – Held at Burlington’s Waterfront Park the third week in July, this event brings together dozens of craft breweries – 2015’s event featured 225 beers on tap. Tickets for the 4 tasting sessions (2 on Friday and 2 on Saturday) go on sale in May and often sell out in a matter of minutes. Be prepared to spend a big part of the day standing in line — especially at the more popular breweries like Hill Farmstead and Alchemist.
Lake Champlain Vermont Maritime Festival is held in early August to celebrate Lake Champlain and the Burlington waterfront area. The event features many free activities, from antique boats to silent auctions. There’s live music during the day and ticketed concerts with well-known bands on the waterfront in the evening.
The Grand Point North Festival was the creation of musician Grace Potter, of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals fame. It’s been held in September for the last several years at Burlington’s waterfront, and features Grace Potter headlining sets both nights of the weekend, as well as numerous other acts.
The South End Art Hop arts festival takes place on Burlington’s Pine Street every September, and seems to bring out every Burlington resident, as well as thousands of out of town visitors. The event is spread out all along Pine Street, and features art exhibits, music and live performances. Many of the studios in the area open their doors to the public, and there are always food trucks to be found to grab a bite while wandering between the different venues.
The Burlington Winter Lights Festival is usually held in February, and highlights the light installations and ice sculptures in and around the Church Street Marketplace. Hotel Vermont usually holds its Ice Bar this same weekend — an popular outdoor event with ice sculptures and luges, live music and craft cocktails.
First Night Burlington is an alcohol-free, family-oriented event held every New Year’s Eve in Burlington. Organized by a non-profit organization, the event features live music at numerous venues around Burlington, as well as fireworks both in the evening and at midnight.
As Vermont’s biggest city, the metropolitan Burlington area has all the major modes of transportation — Vermont’s only commercial airport, a train station, car rental, and service from several bus companies.
If you’re just looking to explore Burlington, you can easily leave your car parked for a weekend — getting around by foot or bike is a great way to explore the city, and you don’t have to worry about parking (or indulging in a few Vermont brews!)
And while you can make it to surrounding towns and cities via public transportation — the best and easiest way to explore the state is via car.
Burlington has Vermont’s only commercial airport, which has direct flights to about a dozen cities, including New York and Washington DC. (JetBlue has three daily flights from New York’s JFK).
Visitors – particularly those coming from abroad – should also consider flying into Montreal. It’s about a 2 hour drive from Montreal to Burlington (compared to 3.5 hours from Boston to Burlington). The only catch is that there can be long lines crossing the border, particularly
on weekends, which can add to the trip.
Train – Amtrak’s “Vermonter” service runs a daily route starting in town of St. Albans and finished in DC nearly 14 hours later, with stops several Vermont towns including Essex Junction (near Burlington) and in New York’s Penn Station.
Bus: Megabus has daily service from Burlington and Boston and New York (with stops in Amherst, MA and Hartford, CT). Trip from Burlington to NYC takes about 7 and half hours. Greyhound has service from Burlington to Montreal (4 hours), as well as direct service to Boston (5 hours), with connections from there.
Car: If you’re just staying in Burlington, you probably won’t need a car — most of the main attractions are within biking or walking distance. If you’re thinking of exploring some of the neighboring areas like Shelburne, or trying to take a day trip for a hike or a brewery visit, a car is your best bet.
Bus: A Burlington City bus will take you from the airport to the University Mall in South Burlington – with limited service to the downtown area from there. Local CCTA buses can also get you around Burlington, as well as to the neighboring towns of Winooski, Essex and Williston. Commuter buses (weekdays only) are available to Montpelier, Middlebury and St. Albans. A taxi or an Uber from the airport to the downtown area should cost around $15. The GMTA has service from Montpelier to towns such as Morrisville, Barre and Waterbury (commuter service is on weekdays only).
Bike: Bikes are a great option for getting around Burlington – there are designated bike lanes on several major routes and the Burlington bike path is well worth exploring. Local Motion in Burlington has rental bikes available, as do several local sporting goods stores such as North Star sports.