Lake Morey in Fairlee | Favorite Things to do in Vermont
Photo Credit : Mark Fleming
I have lived much of my adult life less than an hour from the Vermont border. No matter the season, Vermont has been like a second home — and not just for me but also for my sons, whose love of the outdoors was sharpened by its mountains, forests, and lakes. Choosing my favorite things to do in Vermont requires discipline. How do I choose from all the beautiful places and attractions I return to time and again? But a bucket can only be so deep, and this one must hold just 10 of my favorite things to do. Have a look, and then let us know your favorite ways to spend the day in the Green Mountain state.
10 Favorite Things to Do in Vermont
BIKE THE CHAMPLAIN ISLANDS
For me, the Champlain Islands, located about an hour’s drive north of Burlington, offer one of the most rewarding bicycling experiences in the Northeast. Take a spin and you’ll discover that many other cyclists agree. You’ll cycle past the lake shoreline, farms that stretch to the water, orchards, and villages with tempting stops for taking photos or sitting outside with food and drinks. Reaching nearly 30 miles to the Canadian border, the islands roll under your wheels: South Hero, Grand Isle, North Hero, Isle La Motte, Alburgh. Lake Champlain Bikeways has maps and detailed routes that can keep you pedaling for days. But this is a bucket list, and if I had one day here in the islands I would stop in Isle La Motte and just meander, exploring every side path, looking to the lake, wishing the daylight would not end.
SEE MORE: Vermont’s Champlain Islands | Freshwater Pearls
PEOPLE-WATCH ON CHURCH STREET IN BURLINGTON
When winter loosens its grip and spring buds start bursting out, it’s time to let a day slide gently by while sitting at an outdoor café table along the four-block-long Church Street Pedestrian Mall in Burlington. There’s a touch of Quebec, a touch of Europe, and a good dose of country Vermont all along the walkway. Street performers gather in the late afternoon and entertain into the night. People walk their dogs, children scamper about, and eating and drinking at a leisurely pace becomes a way of life — even if only for a day. There are so many places here to choose from, but for me there’s only one choice, really: Leunig’s Bistro. It’s been around since the walkway opened in the early ’80s. The feel is Old World; the menu skews French. Close your eyes, feel the sun slanting across the tops of the gaily colored umbrellas, and revel in the feeling of Paris in New England.
SEE MORE: Late Fall Weekend in Burlington, Vermont
NIBBLE YOUR WAY THROUGH THE BURLINGTON FARMERS’ MARKET
Is it fair to have two of my favorite things to do in Vermont be not only in the same town but also — more often than not — on the same day? Whenever I can arrange a visit to Burlington on a Saturday when the farmers’ market is in full swing, I already know the day is special. The market is as much a street fair as a display of the talent and innovation of local farmers. The farmers set up early at City Hall Park, just a quick stroll from Church Street, and roaming along the 90 or so tantalizing booths is irresistible. A little of this, a little of that — I always bring a backpack, and go home with loaves of the freshest, most interesting bread anywhere, wedges of cheese, pickles, jams, craft butters … and that’s from just the first stalls! It is here I have sampled foods not found in most New England towns (crickets, anyone?). If you come to Burlington in spring, summer, or fall and don’t visit the Saturday farmers’ market, you’re missing a bucket list–worthy culinary adventure.
SEE MORE:5 Favorite Burlington Breweries
TAKE A FALL FOLIAGE DRIVE ALONG ROUTE 100
Let us talk about leaves. I could never do a Vermont bucket list and not mention the fall color. Every New England state deservedly basks in tourist attention from late September all through October — but Vermont owns the season in a way no other place in the world does. It’s as if the Green Mountains were placed just so; the dairy farms with the red barns carefully arranged; and the roads, both paved and dirt, designed to lead drivers past villages and farms with so many places to stop and take a photograph it’s a wonder drivers ever arrive at their destination. If I had a friend who hadn’t seen fall foliage in Vermont before and had only a few days to take it in, here’s what we would do: We’d start just north of the Massachusetts border and follow Route 100 all the way to the Northeast Kingdom, passing through more than 30 villages and towns. We’d absolutely stop in Weston at the original Vermont Country Store,making sure to get there early, ahead of the tour buses. We’d drive by or close to nearly every major ski resort in the state (the route is dubbed “the Skiers’ Highway” for good reason). And we’d certainly pull over at the Cold Hollow Cider Mill and fill a bag with apple cider doughnuts that we saw being made right in front of us. There’s no better way to gulp in fall in Vermont than to open the windows and let Route 100 guide you for as long or as short a time as you desire.
SEE MORE:Vermont’s Route 100 | Fall Foliage Drive in Photos
DRINK IN THE CHARMS OF LAKE WILLOUGHBY
Few places in the country boast of more bucket list–worthy lakes than New England: Moosehead Lake in Maine, Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, and of course the 120 miles of Lake Champlain here in Vermont. But for sheer oh-my-gosh beauty — whether you’re paddling, or hiking, or cooling off in the deep, clear water on a hot day — Willoughby is the place to go. Although you have to really want to go there, as it’s tucked into the far reaches of the Northeast Kingdom, it’s worth the effort. When you hike along the mountain trails and look across the water, you’ll feel grateful for the deep cut of the glaciers that created this place. You’ll hear the call of the fjords.
SEE MORE: Prettiest Lakes in New England
FETCH MEMORIES AT DOG MOUNTAIN
The dogs we bring into our lives give us endless joy, laughter, and unquestioning devotion. They also inevitably break our hearts when they leave us after 10, 12, or, if we’re lucky, 15 or 16 years. Still, we can cherish the memories that never fade — and Dog Mountain, a hilly 150-acre farm in St. Johnsbury, is where those memories can join with those of countless other people and their pets. But first, before nostalgia overwhelms, bring the dogs in your life here right now to romp on endless Vermont country acres. The day will be one of their favorites. Then let your heart open (and, yes, no doubt some tears will flow) when you enter the Dog Chapel. Layers of heartfelt cards and mementos become a monument like no other to the human-dog bond. The hundreds of notes here keep alive all those years of ear scratches, belly rubs, ball fetching, and leaps into laps. Dog Mountain was the inspiration of Vermont artists Stephen Huneck and his wife, Gwen. They, too, are no longer among us, but they left a legacy that offers one of the most memorable days you will spend in Vermont.
SEE MORE: Dog Mountain | Home of the World’s Only Dog Chapel
SKATE LAKE MOREY
While today’s generation probably doesn’t know about Hans Brinker and his silver skates, anyone who grew up reading that tale about skating for miles will feel the breathless excitement of stepping onto Lake Morey’s 2-mile frozen trail, the longest swept skating trail in the country. The Lake Morey Resort sits beside the lake, and skate rentals are available. Bring a love of winter and a taste for adventure.
SEE MORE: Winter Fun | 17 Ways to Love Winter in New England
EMBRACE A TOUCH OF LUXURY AT BASIN HARBOR
On my office wall at home I have photos of my youngest son, Josh, paddling a kayak when he was about 5 or 6. We were spending a few summer days at one of the most venerable resorts in Vermont, Basin Harbor in Vergennes. The resort has undergone changes since it began hosting guests in the 1880s, but what hasn’t changed in all these years is the fact that the Beach family still runs the show. And what a show it is! Lake Champlain touches all corners of the property. Adirondack chairs perch on knolls overlooking the water. Cottages poke out from wooded hideaways. At dinner, families stroll the lovely grounds dressed for the occasion (casual elegance has been the standard here for decades). When we were there, it seemed everyone was greeted with hugs. Families come on the same weeks year after year, and deep friendships develop among children and grownups alike. Basin Harbor has practiced being a summer resort for over a century; they know how to make it work. I doubt that many who come here don’t go home saying this is now a favorite place.
SEE MORE: Slow Boat on a Big Lake | Lake Champlain Houseboat Adventure
LET TIME DISAPPEAR AT THE SHELBURNE MUSEUM
There really is no other museum quite like the Shelburne Museum. To call it a museum is actually misleading: This is more adventure, as you duck in and out of the property’s 38 buildings. There’s a carousel, a building decked out with some 400 quilts, another with paintings by impressionist masters that deserve a visit just on their own, and more than 20 gardens. And, yes, there’s an actual steamboat, the Ticonderoga, which arrived on the grounds via the strength of sturdy oxen. The whole show (and it really is as much showcase as museum) is the gift of the idiosyncratic Electra Havemeyer Webb. Born into privilege, she then married into one of the wealthiest families in America. Her obsession with Americana was equal to her ability to acquire whatever her heart desired —and it’s all here. Children love to run around the grounds. Adults love the outrageously eclectic collection that Webb put together. It’s like the most fun attic browse ever, without ever having to worry about what to do with all the stuff.
SEE MORE: Shelburne, Vermont | Could You Live Here?
GET AWAY TO WOODSTOCK
When I wrote about my choices for the most beautiful places in Vermont, many readers demanded to know why I had not included Woodstock. I understand: There is surely no more endearingly quintessential Vermont town. A few minutes’ stroll from one of the finest inns in Vermont, the Woodstock Inn, is a covered bridge. The streets are lined with the sorts of shops and galleries that celebrate talent and taste. Restaurants lure you inside, while tree-shaded streets with handsome homes urge you to continue walking. Quechee Gorge and the Simon Pearce glassblowing studio are a short drive away, as is the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, with its story of environmental awareness and conservation. On weekends, the streets of Woodstock tend to fill up with cars bearing license plates from Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, as this town has long worn the mantle of Vermont’s most cherished destination. I try to come on weekdays, when everything slows a bit, and stroll around, with no particular need to do anything special.
SEE MORE:Wassail Weekend | Holiday Fun in Woodstock, VermontThings to Do in Woodstock, VT | Woodstock Inn
So there you have it. These are the things that I would do on my last days in Vermont. What would make it onto your list of favorite things to do in Vermont?
This post was first published in 2017 and has been updated.
Mel Allen is the fifth editor of Yankee since it began in 1935. His career at Yankee spans more than three decades, during which he has edited and written for every section of the magazine, including home, food, and travel. In his pursuit of stories, he has raced a sled dog team, crawled into the dens of black bears, fished with the legendary Ted Williams, picked potatoes in Aroostook County, and stood beneath a battleship before it was launched. We think Mel is as New England as they come.