New Haven, Connecticut, is complex the way wines from the south of France can be. Just when you think you’ve zeroed in on one flavor, another note kicks in. With wine, it’s pretty standard to start rambling on about terroir—that crazy alchemical combustion of air, earth, and weather. But it still doesn’t entirely explain the weird and often unpredictable magic that ensues.
I’m not saying New Haven is magical, but it’s definitely a bit mysterious. The folks who live here are fierce in their devotion, fans in the extreme. And their city is complex in that way that interesting wine tends to be, holding something in reserve, audacious then subtle, and finally, a surprise in store.
Here’s what most people know about New Haven: it’s the home of Yale University. The school’s prestigious roots date back to the 1640s; famous alums include Meryl Streep, Bill and Hilary, the Pres. Bushes, and Anderson Cooper. It’s also home to Skull & Bones, a secret petri dish of future movers and shakers, plus, surprisingly, Paul Giamatti. The school radiates out from the historic New Haven Green, like a sun pulsing out into the cosmos.
The college is a knockout, its various schools quilted together into a medieval tapestry of towers, slate roofs, inner courtyards, and wrought-iron gates. The first night, after checking in at The Study at Yale, a pretty boutique hotel nearby, we went for a stroll. Following on the heels of a few students, we slipped inside a wide, hushed courtyard. Clang. Explored the alcoves and then tried to exit the other side. We were locked in—literally on the inside looking out—until a student came along and released us. Out on the sidewalk, a young woman swooped alongside, jittery and animated…a poet…could she recite a poem…if we liked it…?
It’s the paradox of New Haven, and it’s what makes this city lively and unusual. There’s freshness and grit and tradition here, stewing and fermenting all together. There’s fine dining, creative shopping, and an exciting burst of urban renewal at the bottom of Chapel Street, where startup dreams are blossoming. All of it anchored by blue-blood tradition that dates to this country’s infancy (a charming Eddie Redmayne look-alike toured us through the campus and its stunning Beinecke Rare Book Library).
Speaking of good food, there’s loads of it. Miya’s Sushi, the first sustainable sushi restaurant in the world, is a treat (Bestu James Bondo Ever Roll!). Claire’s Corner Copia has been a beacon of organic goodness since 1975, a spot where Jodie Foster could feel as at home as the generations of Yalies who’ve devoured Claire’s Lithuanian Coffee Cake.
Scattered amongst these touchstones are glittering gems and diamonds in the rough, but at least one treasure sums up the paradox that is New Haven. The Yale University Art Gallery is a feast of Impressionism, medieval art, African treasures, and relics from the ancient world. You can wander through Pollocks and Picassos, or linger over Van Gogh’s Night Café. Take your time. Come back the next day. Or the day after that. In fact, you can come back as often as you like. This magic is free.