If you made a list of 50 cities—the largest one in each state—Burlington, in sparsely peopled Vermont, would be the smallest in the group. But you won't find the faintest whiff of an inferiority complex among the 39,000 residents of what is often called America's most livable city. How many stateside towns are a magnet for lovers of French cuisine and socialist policies (courtesy of Independent Bernie Sanders, the former mayor and now the state's lone congressman)?A bigger city wouldn't even fit here, snug between Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains, where you can lose yourself in summer pleasures without giving a thought to skiing or fall foliage. On New England's "West Coast," size certainly doesn't matter; in fact, it's a liability.
Where to Stay
Downtown Burlington has a dearth of accommodations—to stay close to the action (read: the lake), your only choice is the 256-room Radisson Hotel (60 Battery St.; 800/333-3333 or 802/658-6500, fax 802/658-4659; doubles from $119). Not that it's a bad choice: Book a lake-view room on the top floor, and you'll be seven stories up with a clear shot across to the Adirondacks.
Willard Street Inn 349 S. Willard St.; 800/577-8712 or 802/651-8710, fax 802/651-8714; doubles from $125, including breakfast. If you want to stay in Burlington proper, this 14-room inn a mile up the hill from downtown shopping is your best bet. Opened as an inn four years ago by Beverly and Gordon Watson, the 1880's Georgian-Queen Anne Revival residence is now the handsomest of the city's ivy-covered Hill District mansions. Ask for the cornflower-and-white Nantucket room, which has a massive mahogany four-poster. Have breakfast in the sunny checkerboard-floor solarium; after eating, head to the gently sloping back yard, grab an Adirondack chair, and stare across the lake at... well, you know.
Inn at Shelburne Farms 1611 Harbor Rd., Shelburne; 802/985-8498, fax 802/985-1233; doubles $95-$350; open mid-May through mid-October. These are certainly the grandest accommodations in the area, if not the entire state; if you weren't to the manor born, here you can pretend you were adopted. Twenty-four rooms, 17 with private baths, inhabit a 113-year-old red-brick Queen Anne wonderland, set on a hill overlooking sprawling Shelburne Farms and Lake Champlain. The bedroom furnishings and decoration vary widely, from Empire style to flocked wallpaper and delicate lace. A word of warning, however: the National Register building has no heat or air-conditioning. Fans are provided, but you may want to request a room on the second floor as a safeguard.
Heart of the Village Inn 5347 Shelburne Rd., Shelburne; 877/808-1834 or 802/985-2800, fax 802/985-2870; doubles from $115, including breakfast. Right where the name says it is, an easy walk from the many treats of Shelburne, this restored Victorian has five traditionally decorated rooms (floral prints, wicker) in the main house and four in the carriage house out back. All rooms have private baths, some with claw-foot tubs.
Inn at Essex 70 Essex Way, Essex; 800/727-4295 or 802/878-1100, fax 802/878-0063; doubles from $175. Those who prefer staying in a hotel should head for this modern 120-room facility 15 minutes from downtown Burlington. Stylish it's not, but there isn't a more comfortable place to stay in Chittenden County. Most rooms are quite large; splurge for one with a fireplace and you'll get even more space. The inn is popular with families (for its heated outdoor pool) and inveterate shoppers (for its proximity to the Essex Outlet Fair, with Brooks Brothers, Polo Ralph Lauren, and 20 other stores).
Where to Eat
Leunig's Bistro 115 Church St.; 802/863-3759; dinner for two $60. Geographically, Leunig's is at the corner of Church and College Streets, but in spirit this bistro, with tin ceilings and Toulouse-Lautrec prints, is at the intersection of Burlington and Paris. Start with a bowl of sweet pistou (a soup of tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, and white beans, topped with grated Asiago cheese). The steak au poivre is succulent; the maple crème brûlée, stunningly rich.
NECI Commons 25 Church St.; 802/862-6324; dinner for two $50. The flagship of the New England Culinary Institute, the sleek NECI (pronounced "necky") has chefs-in-training prepare the day's specials (coq au vin, bouillabaisse, osso buco). Whatever dish you order, pair it with a side of Vermont cheddar mashed potatoes.
Smokejacks 156 Church St.; 802/658-1119; dinner for two $55. The newest entry in the downtown scene, Smokejacks is now the most stylish, with its exposed brick, blond-wood barstools, and vibrant local artwork. This being Vermont, cheese pops up in many dishes, such as the crisp Gruyère-stuffed risotto squares, and there's a cheese list, which might include Quebec chèvre or Brin d'Amour from Corsica.
At the University
The campus of the University of Vermont—UVM stands for the Latin universitas verdis montis, "university of the Green Mountains"—offers a few diversions half a mile up the hill from Church Street.
Founded by Ethan Allen's brother Ira in 1791, UVM is home to the McKim, Mead & White-designed Robert Hull Fleming Museum (61 Colchester Ave.; 802/656-2090; admission $3; closed Mondays). Its 20,000-object collection includes photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Walker Evans, as well as paintings by Corot, and the second floor has a sampling of pieces by Vermont artists. The real surprise here is a remarkably well-kept female mummy from the sixth century B.C.
Next door is the Perkins Museum of Geology (802/656-8694), just a small room in an academic building, but it holds a wealth of treasures. You'll see rocks, naturally, such as greenish-gray malachite from Arizona, and brilliant yellow sulfur from Sicily. You'll see dinosaur footprints excavated from South Hadley, Massachusetts. And that's all well and good, until you discover the museum's prize possession, the Charlotte Whale. This 10-foot-long beluga skeleton was found in 1849 in nearby Charlotte under ten feet of sand and clay; it was later determined to be more than 10,000 years old and is now Vermont's official state fossil.
A Day Out in Shelburne
After a couple of hours in downtown Burlington, even Vermont's low-key version of city life might leave you longing for some open space. Drive a few miles south on Route 7, past the strip malls and car dealers of South Burlington, until you hit Shelburne, the gem among Burlington's suburbs. You could spend a sublimely happy weekend here without ever setting foot in "the big city."