New Haven, Connecticut has always been a city of innovation: the lollipop, hamburger, the phone book, and first public tree planting. Since the 1990s, the city’s downtown area been undergoing a revitalization of older buildings being repurposed into shops, restaurants, and bars. Yet, at the same time, New Haven has keeping up its history as a place for higher learning and culture.
And the best part is that you can see a lot of it on foot.
For a work assignment with Info New Haven, I spent the weekend in the city during the 20th annual International Festival of Arts and Ideas. Held every June, this festival is a roughly two-week event of exhibits, lectures, and musical and artistic performances that take over just about every public space, gallery or theater venue in and around New Haven. Along with offering much discussion and insights on the arts, the nice thing about this festival is that 80 percent of these events are free.
For me, highlights included the evocative performance artist Taylor Mac and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love. I also got to see “Sinatra: An American Icon.” a temporary photo exhibit on the crooner’s legacy – he’s been to New Haven too – at the Yale School of Art.
Culture is a year-round find in downtown New Haven. First there’s the Shubert Theatre, where many great long-running Broadway shows were first introduced. “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and a musical that would be renamed “Oklahoma!” made their debuts there. And then Yale Repertory Theatre stages well-established plays and world premiere productions.
As for art, pay a visit to the Yale University Art Gallery, which houses modern pieces like Rothkos, Pollocks and Picassos, sculptures, antiquities, and decorative pieces. And admissions is free. Another place to visit is the Yale Center for British Art. Although it’s closed until spring 2016 because of conservation project, keep it mind as it holds quite a collection of British art outside of the United Kingdom.
Culture aside, New Haven might not be thought of as a college town but Yale University has been a fixture in New Haven since the 1700s. The public can visit the campus through private tours led by undergraduates, who give a history lesson about this Ivy league institution that has its surprising facts. For example, I learned that Yale’s dorms are called colleges and about a tradition involving rubbing the left foot of a former president for good luck.
While exploring New Haven, consider rewarding your appetite. One way to get familiar with New Haven’s restaurant scene is through Taste of New Haven, a food/drink tour company. Founder and New Haven native Colin Caplan took my group around on a tour of six diverse restaurants.
Our stops included:
– Meat & Co., an artisan sandwich shop in New Haven’s Ninth Square Historic District. It’s the innovative and rotating combos that make their sandwiches interesting and tasty.
– Ordinary, a dark-paneled restaurant and lounge. This place started off as a Colonial tavern (in those days called an ordinary because alcohol could be sold there) and later was the Hotel Taft with famous guests including Babe Ruth and Hollywood greats like Katherine Hepburn and Marlon Brando stopped in. The Ordinary is also quite a nightspot, and cocktails like “Cricket Hill Smash” fit the bill.
– Miya’s Sushi, a three-decade, family-owned restaurant that implements environmental practices in sushi making by using sustainable seafood. Miya’s has even gone a step further in creating a menu of dishes made with invasive species (non-native plants or fish).
– Soul de Cuba, a home-style café focusing on Afro-Cuban culture. There’s a sense of family here, as photos of the employees’ relatives grace the walls, along with great cubanos and fresh mojitos.
Pizza is New Haven’s signature dish brought over by Italian immigrants and first served in bakeries. The city’s most recognized pizzeria is Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, or mainly known as Pepe’s, a 90-year-old “apizza” establishment with a history of using coal-fired ovens to bake its thin crust pies. To get a taste of New Haven pizza, Caplan took us to Bar, a restaurant/nightclub with a brewery that serves a unique white pie with a mashed potato and bacon topping.
Two other standouts have their respective legacies.
Louis’ Lunch has been credited as the birthplace of the American hamburger. Today, this continuously family-owned place still uses cast iron grills from 1898 to cook freshly made burgers — with no need for ketchup. And don’t ask for it.
Claire’s Corner Copia serves vegan and gluten-free orders extending to sandwiches, salads, breakfast orders, Mexican entrees, smoothies and desserts. Next to Claire’s, Basta dishes authentic Italian with a modern twist. Start off with the Sicilian Calamari, Farfalle Funghi or Farfalle di Stagione Con Fagoli. For dessert, definitely get their coconut chocolate bites or tiramisu.
For overnight stays in New Haven, here are two suggestions. First, the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale is not even 10 minutes from Union Station, and close by the New Haven Green. Its John Davenport’s restaurant has sky views of the city and serves regional cuisine with breakfast/buffet, brunch, lunch and dinner options. And The Study at Yale has a studious feel from bookshelves and reading chairs in its lobby area and guestrooms. Its farm-to-table Heirloom Restaurant incorporates regional and artisan food finds in Connecticut and the surrounding New England region.
Disclosure: My time in New Haven was as a guest of INFONewHaven, based on an itinerary they provided.