After centuries as an important center of American politics, industrialization and innovation, by the mid-20th century New Haven was in decline. Loss of industries and population, and failed urban redevelopment of the 1950s and 1960s, had taken much of the life out of the city, except for what went on at and around world-class Yale University and those few stop-worthy pizza joints.
Then, in the mid-1990s, city government, business owners, arts patrons, diverse citizens and the city’s ever-present biggest employer, Yale, came together in a multiyear effort to create a different story in the 21st-century.
Today, the city is known as Connecticut’s “Culture Capital,” with abundant theaters, music and museums, well-preserved history and world-class culinary options. I find that the city has become a perfect long-weekend destination with so much to see, do and eat concentrated in the central downtown area that you can leave the car home, take advantage of frequent Amtrak train service and get a car service or cab for a (short) ride from the beautifully restored Union Station to your downtown hotel. After that, it’s all walkable.
We can be grateful to the city’s English Puritan founders for the concentrated town center. In 1639, a year after arriving, they laid out a nine-square grid plan, three large blocks along each side of a square 16-acre green, making New Haven the first planned city in America. (Although, the country itself wouldn’t be established until nearly 150 years later. )
The New Haven Green, a National Historic Landmark, is a good first stop. It’s still a gathering place and home to concerts and festivals throughout the year, including the renowned International Festival of Arts and Ideas . Walking around the Green, you begin to absorb historic New England. The old town hall and three churches — Trinity, Center and United — still line the Green. The churches offer events and tours such as a festive annual candlelight Colonial Concert presented by Orchestra New England at United Church every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, complete with wigs, waistcoats and 18th-century music.
A free tour of Center Church includes the crypt; for the first 160 years, the city buried its dead in a common burying ground beneath the church and in the open space of the adjacent Upper Green. By the 1790s, the unsightly clutter of graves in the center of town led to establishment of the New Haven City Burying Ground, known as Grove Street Cemetery.
Cemeteries aren’t usually tourist must-sees, but this one should be. Signers of the Declaration of Independence, the first African American diplomat of the United States, famous and infamous politicians, war heroes and six men of the slave ship Amistad who died in New Haven rest here. Enter through the main gate on Grove Street and stop at the visitor center for brochures, maps and stories from the jovial, knowledgeable cemetery superintendent, Seeley Jennings.
Nearby is Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, an innovative architectural accomplishment and one of the world’s largest libraries of its kind . Inside, you can’t help but feel awed by the huge glass stack tower of old and very old books rising six stories in the heart of the museum. Time here is well spent on special exhibits, collection items such as an original Gutenberg Bible and James Audubon’s drawings from “The Birds of America” as well as talks and other events.
Access to the Beinecke and most of New Haven’s cultural sites is free, thanks to Yale, and that includes outstanding art museums on both sides of Chapel Street. The Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art were both designed by Louis I. Kahn, his first and one of his last significant commissions, respectively, and both offer a year-round schedule of exhibitions and programs for the public.
More than 200,000 objects live in the Art Gallery, which is the country’s oldest college museum. It’s an expansive, fascinating collection that includes ancient and modern art and objects from the Americas, Asia, Europe, the Pacific and Africa. The Center for British Art is the largest collection of its kind outside of Britain. It houses masterpieces by J.M.W. Turner, Joshua Reynolds and others along with major artists from Europe and the United States who lived and worked in Britain.
Another sort of culture can be found by shopping at some of the independent retailers along Chapel Street. One not to miss is the Group W Bench — “the oldest head shop on the planet,” according to owner Raffael DiLauro, who founded the landmark store in 1968 and named it after a lyric from Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.” The store is packed full of candles, incense, posters, pottery, tie-died scarves, bobble heads and so much more. The collection of old tin toys in the front windows is worthy of lingering inspection. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find DiLauro, long gray beard and hair, at the cash register ready for a chat.
When it comes to eating, there’s so much good food in New Haven these days that it’s challenging to narrow down the choices. However, a few longtime favorites are not to be missed. Breakfast or lunch at Claire’s Corner Copia opposite the Green has been happening since 1975. Chef Claire Criscuolo — called “the Alice Waters of New Haven” and author of four cookbooks — can still be found in the kitchen turning out hearty portions of tasty organic and sustainable vegetarian and vegan foods. The vegan baked goods, such as an irresistible lemon bar, definitely hold their own.
The Library of Congress has recognized tiny Louis’ Lunch as the birthplace of what the restaurant calls the “hamburger sandwich.” Now you know. Founded in 1895, it’s run by the fourth generation, making round hamburgers ground from five cuts of meat served on square white bread with your choice of cheese, onion or tomato. No ketchup, mustard, lettuce or credit cards. Don’t even ask. And if you, like me, don’t eat meat, try the homemade pie.
At Miya’s Sushi, the coloring-book menu cover announces the restaurant was “established by Mama in 1982” and is “the first sustainable sushi restaurant on earth.” Mama still helps out while her children, award-winning chef Bun Lai and his sister Mie-Sara, are serious and creative about being sustainable. Lai forages on land and sea for ingredients, and the mostly plant-based menu beautifully blends ingredients and tastes from cultures around the world. There is also sustainable fish, invasive fish species and bugs — crickets, grasshoppers and “crispy nutty black soldier fly larvae raised on Miya’s leftovers” on the kids menu! Be sure to try the homemade firecracker sake.
Broadway shows and innovative new theater, music and comedy acts, dance from around the world — they can all be found in New Haven. The Yale Repertory brings together Yale drama students and professionals to present outstanding onstage collaborations. Shows straight from or on their way to Broadway stop at the Shubert Theater as well as concerts, dance and film programs plus a full calendar of arts and education programs with behind-the-scenes tours twice a month.
Across the street, the College Street Music Hall lives up to its name with musical acts in nearly every genre plus comedy shows and live simulcasts. It’s worth venturing out of the compact, nine-square focus of downtown for the renowned Long Wharf Theatre, just a short car ride or half-hour walk. You’ll find innovative performances in two spaces there as well as a gaggle of food trucks in the park that sits between the theater and Long Island Sound.
It being college town, you know there have to be a lot of cafes and coffee in New Haven . There are several local downtown businesses offering good organic brews in comfortable settings. Since 1975, Atticus Bookstore Cafe has served up books, beverages and food. The bakery makes its own crusty bread from New England grain fresh milled daily. Blue State Coffee features fair-trade coffee roasted in small batches from eco-friendly, fair-labor growers. Baked goods are made fresh in-house along with sandwiches, salads and all-day breakfast. Midpoint Coffee is a newcomer that opened in 2018 in a remodeled former garage, a cozy place for tea and organic coffee sourced around the world and brewed Italian-style.
It has been said that New Haven is large enough to be interesting and small enough to be friendly. That makes it perfect for a few days of easy exploring, eating and enjoying.
Barocas is a writer based in the District. Find her on Instagram: @susanbarocas.
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If you go
Where to stay
Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale
155 Temple St.
Full service hotel including fitness and business centers. Rooftop restaurant with expansive views. From about $160.
The Study at Yale
1157 Chapel St.
Contemporary yet cozy boutique hotel in the heart of downtown featuring walls of books and comfy chairs. Rooms have large windows with views. Heirloom Restaurant and Lounge on site. From about $225.
Where to eat
1082 Chapel St.
Coffee, in-house baked goods and light food share the welcoming space with books and more unusual gift items. Sandwiches and salads from $9, a bowl of hearty soups served with a chunk of crusty in-house bread $5.75.
Blue State Coffee
84 Wall St. and 276 York St.
(203)764-2632 and (203)787-9929
Patrons can choose which social justice cause to support with a percentage of their purchase of coffee, in-house baked goods and food with vegan and gluten-free options. Sandwiches from $5, salads from $4.75, and breakfast all day $4.50 to $8.15. Two percent of sales are donated to local nonprofits.
Claire’s Corner Copia
1000 Chapel St.
This casual, family-friendly cafe serves breakfast until noon starting at $5.50, sandwiches and salads from $7.50. Specialty Mexican entrees are made with homemade refried organic pinto beans, guacamole, and salsa. Vegan, gluten-free and other dietary restrictions accommodated. Open every day until 9 p.m.
261 Crown St.
Officially the home of the “hamburger sandwich” since 1895, this old-fashioned joint serves a classic burger Burger $6.25, slice of homemade pie $4 and up. Cash only. Open for lunch only, closed Sunday and Monday.
Midpoint Coffee Brewers
248 Crown St.
Some baked goods, but really all about the coffee. Espressos and Americanos starting at $3, latte $3.85.
68 Howe St.
Sustainable sushi, soups, salads and noodle soups from $12, rolls starting at $5. Opens at 4 p.m. daily, closed Monday.
What to do
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
121 Wall St.
The public exhibition spaces are free and open every day with receptions, readings, concerts and lectures open to the public. Introductory guided tours of public exhibition areas on Saturdays at 1:30.
College Street Music Hall
238 College St.
203-867-2000; ticket box office 877-435-9849
Music groups, comedy shows and live simulcasts in a restored 1926 theater . open Fridays noon to 5 p.m. and two hours before doors open for shows.
New Haven City Burial Ground
227 Grove St.
A tranquil spot to see history through the final resting places for those who made it, including Revolutionary War heroes, Amistad slaves, politicians and artists. Open daily. Free walking tours on Saturdays, starting in May.
247 College St.
203-562-5666 or 800-745-3000 (for extended box office hours)
Broadway musicals, concerts, dance, arts and education programs, films and more presented in the historical theater. Box office, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mon.-Fri. and before shows. Free tour at 11 a.m. the first Thursday and Saturday of each month. Reservations required.
Yale Center for British Art
1080 Chapel St.
The largest collection of British art outside Britain presents paintings, sculpture, rare books and manuscripts, and more from the Elizabethan period to now. Free. Closed Mondays.
Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St.
Ancient and modern art and objects from around the world in the expansive collection at the country’s oldest college art museum. Free. Closed Mondays.
Yale Repertory Theater
1120 Chapel St.
Box office 203-432-1234
Outstanding productions by Yale drama students and others. Tickets from about $20.
Long Wharf Theatre
222 Sargent Dr.
Renowned and innovative professional resident theater located outside the New Haven Green, very worth the walk or short car ride.Tickets from about $25 with special rates for students.
International Festival of Arts & Ideas
Yale campus and New Haven Green
This annual summer festival — which takes place June 8-22 this year — features performing arts, lectures and more. The schedule includes both ticketed and free events; prices vary.
For the author’s full list of New Haven recommendations, visit washingtonpost.com/travel