Please note that businesses, attractions, and events throughout New England have been closed and/or canceled in response to the COVID-19 health crisis. Please travel responsibly, and check with individual businesses and event organizers before making travel plans.
Looking forward to a visit to New Haven, Connecticut? Bring your culinary and artistic appetites! Founded in 1638 at the mouth of the Quinnipiac River by English Puritans, New Haven has since grown to become the “Cultural Capital of Connecticut,” and the second-largest city in the state. With Yale University, a handful of theaters and museums, an eclectic mix of dining options located within walking distance of one another, and its prime location between Boston and New York City, New Haven is a great weekend escape. A few years ago I enjoyed a whirlwind New Haven weekend as the guest of Market New Haven, and got a thorough sampling of the wonderful food, history, and culture this coastal city with the small-town vibe has to offer. Ready to share my adventure? Read on for a list of top things to do in New Haven, CT.
Favorite Things to Do in New Haven, CT
It started at the Study at Yale Hotel, a stylish boutique-style hotel just steps from the action of downtown New Haven. The Study was the perfect home base for all of our exploring, and there’s nothing like a comfy bed at the end of a long day of sightseeing.
When it comes to food, New Haven, CT, has plenty to keep your appetite intrigued. First up on our agenda was a top-notch downtown New Haven food tour with Taste of New Haven founder Colin Caplan. A proud local, Colin is a bottomless well of New Haven knowledge and seems to know just about everyone in town. The tours (there are approximately 10 popular options to choose from) are a great way to order up some of the city’s delicious offerings with a side of culture and history, so add it to the menu next time you’re in town.
I’m through with the restaurant puns now, I promise.
Colin was kind enough to put together a custom New Haven food tour for us, which included 6 stops at some of the best restaurants downtown New Haven has to offer. I know, I know…it’s a tough job.
We started with tasty panini-style sandwiches at hip Meat & Co., where you can order at the outside window or head inside to the narrow brick-walled bar. Pictured below is the vegetarian Garden Rustler, which comes with barbecue squash, onion frizzle, house-made BBQ sauce, and Carolina slaw. After that, we headed to the polished Zinc, where Chef Denise Appel served us a delicious and locally-sourced spread that included an heirloom tomato salad, rich tofu curry, and smoked duck breast nachos.
A few doors down, we ducked into the dark and cozy atmosphere of Ordinary, a bar with a historic spirit that carries through to the decor. The location has been a watering and lodging spot since the Colonial days, and when then the Taft Hotel was built there in 1911 (President Taft was an 1878 Yale alum), the drinking tradition continued. After a long and colorful celebrity-strewn run, the hotel closed in the early 1970s and was converted into apartments, but the restored ground-floor bar reopened in 1983, and came under its current ownership in 2013. Step inside today and you feel like you’ve been transported back to the early 1900s — the bar area has a classic vintage feel with carved wooden details and chalkboard menus, while in the adjoining back room, a large moose head mounted over the fireplace keeps a careful glass eye on the scattered tables and upholstered red booths. Sip a custom cocktail and enjoy one their many snacks, like grilled cheese or beer cheese with pretzel bread.
After leaving Ordinary we took a detour through the Yale campus for a bit of history (by this time we needed the exercise), then headed to the family-owned and operated (since 1982) Miya’s Sushi, one of New Haven’s most critically acclaimed eateries, including a James Beard nomination in 2013. (Editors’ Note: Miya’s recently announced its plan to close at the end of 2020.) With a passionate emphasis on sustainable seafood, Chef Bun Lai doesn’t just come up with the creative dishes on the menu, he often forages for the ingredients himself. Eating at Miya’s is an adventure, starting with a massive menu that reads like a book. We were served a pine cone-infused sake, Tokyo fro (crispy potato with optional wax worms), and handcrafted bites made with mugwort, invasive jellyfish, and Asian shore crab that we’d seen a few moments earlier alive and scuttling in a plastic tub — Bun’s catch of the day. Sushi lovers, adventurous culinary spirits, and fans of sustainable eating should definitely visit Miya’s for a memorable experience.
Don’t Miss! See more of Miya’s in a season 3 episode of Weekends with Yankee, our public television show in collaboration with WGBH, and get Bun Lai’s recipe for Crispy Fried Mushrooms.
After Miya’s we dug into a plate of tasty Cuban sandwiches and pitchers of mojitos at the colorful Soul de Cuba Cafe, then filled the last centimeter of room in our stomachs at BAR, a busy New Haven hotspot where the home-brewed beer is just the thing to wash down slices of thin, crisp, heavenly New Haven-style pizza — also known as “apizza” (ah-beets), but more on that later.
Our final stop at BAR was also across the street from a rather well-known culinary mecca known as Louis’ Lunch. If you’re a hamburger fan, then maybe you’ve heard of it…
In addition to these delicious stops, throughout the weekend we also enjoyed breakfast with a view at John Davenport’s, the 19th-floor window-walled dining room at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale; a light lunch at the charming and cozy Atticus Bookstore/Cafe; delicious dinner at Heirloom, the elegant restaurant at the Study at Yale Hotel; and healthy breakfast at Claire’s Corner Copia — a New Haven vegetarian institution since 1975. Do you feel full just reading that list? I do!
Of course, there are more things to do in New Haven, CT, than just eat.
Saturday morning was, unfortunately, quite drizzly, but we headed off to Wooster Square armed with umbrellas and hoped for the best. Wooster Square is a historic neighborhood in New Haven, known for its pizza, pastries, and architecture. A stroll through it is definitely one of my favorite things to do in New Haven, CT.
Our first stop was the Saturday CitySeed Farmers’ Market, where fresh produce, cheese, baked goods, flowers, and more were for sale.
Snacking on cider donuts, we wandered around the neighborhood, admiring the many different examples of Federal, Greek Revival, Italian Villa, Late Victorian, and Queen Anne homes (just to name a few).
If you’re making a list of things to do in New Haven, CT, eating pizza should definitely be somewhere near the top. Also in the Wooster Square neighborhood are New Haven’s other two famous eateries, and alleged rivals in the famed “New Haven Pizza Wars” — Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (since 1925) and Sally’s Apizza (since 1938). If you’re making a list of things to do in New Haven, CT, eating pizza should definitely be somewhere near the top. Comparing the two is well-covered territory (which is why an actual dining visit wasn’t on our itinerary), but both are beloved in New Haven and beyond for their thin crust pies. When The Daily Meal, a national food and drink site, recently ranked the 101 Best Pizzas in America, five New Haven spots made the list, with Pepe’s coming in at #1 for the second year in a row, and Sally’s at #5.
Another favorite in the New Haven pizza scene, #12 on the Daily Meal list, is Modern Apizza (since 1934). We didn’t pass by it, but the pizza is equally amazing. The other local winners were BAR from the Taste of New Haven tour at #24, and another local spot, Zuppardi’s Apizza, at #50. Basically, New Haven pizza fans have a lot to be thankful for. Those of us living in other New England cities and suburbs both salute and envy you!
With the rain intensifying, we sought shelter in some of New Haven’s fine museums, most of which are free to the public. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me on this trip was the Knights of Columbus Museum. It’s by far one of the most unique things to do in New Haven, CT. My childhood in Wakefield, Massachusetts was marked with many celebrations hosted at the local Knights, but I had no idea that the organization was founded in New Haven in 1882 by Father Michael J. McGivney (now being considered for sainthood) as a way to assist low-income immigrant Catholics. It grew into a fraternal benefit society dedicated to charity and Catholic education that has since become the largest Catholic fraternal service organization in the world. In 2013, they gave over $170.1 million directly to charity and performed over 70.5 million hours of community service.
I should note, however, that the museum is housed a building that looks nothing like a church.
But inside is another story. The museum is beautifully curated and arranged, with galleries dedicated to McGivney’s life, the papacy, Christopher Columbus, featured exhibits, and they’ve even got a mangled beam from the Twin Towers on display. Those with an interest in religion (Catholic or not) would especially enjoy visiting. I feel like I could dedicate a dozen photos illustrating the scope of the museum and how impressive it is, but since there just isn’t room, all I can say is “Visit.”
We also visited two of Yale’s wonderful museums — the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art, which happen to be conveniently across the street from one another. Founded in 1832, the Yale University Art Gallery was the ﬁrst college art museum in the Western Hemisphere, and its collection now encompasses over 185,000 works of art that date from ancient Egypt to the present day. In the spirit of total honesty, I’ll admit that art museums are never at the top of my list of places to visit when I travel, but I absolutely loved this one and would gladly visit again. The neat and tidy floors of gleaming exhibits, helpful staff, and informative summaries for each piece (not just the name, artist, and date!) made the experience all the more enjoyable, and being able to stand so close to a famous artist’s creation with relatively few other people jockeying for your spot is a treat. The museum completed a major renovation in December 2012 and it’s an absolute wonder — don’t miss it.
If I’d had more time I would have loved to add a stop at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, but there’s only so much you can fit into a weekend visit. Next time!
New Haven also has a long history with the theater. Its close proximity to New York made it an ideal location for producers to try out shows before opening them on Broadway, and today the Shubert Theater (celebrating 100 years in 2014), Long Wharf Theatre, and Yale Repertory Theatre continue the New Haven theater tradition. During our visit, we were even treated to a YRT evening performance of the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia. What a treat!
Finishing up our weekend visit on Sunday was a quick tour of the Yale University campus — arguably one of the most popular things to do in New Haven, CT! Free tours are offered daily from the Yale Visitor Center and we were fortunate to have the charismatic and knowledgeable sophomore J.T. Flowers as our student guide. The tour included stops at the New Haven Green, Old Campus, Harkness Tower, and some of the university’s libraries.
The largest library, Sterling Memorial Library, was designed by architect James Gamble Rogers to resemble a Gothic cathedral, with a vaulted nave as the entrance hall, stained glass windows, and carved stone details.
Another library, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is one of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, including Yale’s copy of the Gutenberg Bible, which is on permanent display. Unfortunately, the library was closed during our tour, but if you get the chance to see the inside, don’t miss it!
The tour complete, we browsed in the university book store before heading back to the Study to pack up and head for home. Despite having done so much, I was already making a mental list of things to see and do (and eat!) on my next visit to New Haven. Will it be for New Haven Restaurant Week in April? For the annual Wooster Square Cherry Blossom Festival in April? For a Taste of New Haven Pizza and Pints Bike Tour? Only time will tell.
Have you ever visited New Haven, Connecticut? Tell us about your favorite New Haven food and other things to do in New Haven, CT!
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.