While New Haven may be best known as the home of Yale University and its stunning ensemble of colleges, art galleries and museums, the wider city has blossomed into a thriving cultural hub in its own right. Spend a day or few leisurely exploring the bustling, multiethnic food scene; verdant open spaces and classy, high-end shops of The Elm City, aptly nicknamed for the majestic elms that line its streets.
Downtown New Haven was the first area built in this city, whose founders first arrived in 1638 from Amsterdam. Now registered as a site of historic importance, the central neighborhood is based around a set of wide streets that crisscross one another in a precise, grid-like structure known as “the ninth square district.” The beating heart of these streets is New Haven Green, a former burial ground that today serves as a large, open space, well used by families and schools.
With so many things to see, eat and do, here’s a selection of some of the highlights:
Locals are especially proud of New Haven’s world-renowned pizza cuisine, which first flourished when Italian immigrants arrived in the early 1900s to work in the factories. Pizza lovers may believe they’ve found heaven as they sample the wide range of pizzerias, many of which can be found in or close to the Downtown area.
The traditional tomato pie that is a New Haven staple consists of a thin, sourdough base cooked to crispy perfection in a clay oven, topped with a layer of tangy tomato sauce and a moderate scattering of Romano cheese, olive oil, garlic and herbs. But, of course, each pizzeria in New Haven has its own specialty.
Insider tip: the local word for pizza is “ah-beets,” derived from the Neapolitan dialect of the Italians who first moved here.
There are numerous family-run pizzerias in New Haven, and Modern Apizza (874 State Street) – founded in 1934 – is one such local sensation. The interior is elegantly faded, with vintage photograph collages papering the walls. Modern Apizza’s most famous dish is the Italian Bomb, laden with bacon, pepperoni, sausage, onion, mushrooms, garlic and strips of red and green peppers. Watch pizza dough being slung in the open kitchen while you wait.
Bar (254 Crown Street) is a relative newcomer and a more hidden gem. A microbrewery-nightclub-pizzeria that launched in 1996, Bar specialises in pies topped with dollops of mashed potato. Exposed brickwork, loft ceilings and candlelit booths make up its sophisticated interior. The vibe shifts from room to room, making Bar a convenient place to spend the evening. After a hearty meal of pizza and beer, get your groove on in the club backroom or enjoy a drink in the intimate lounge. For a taste of the local music scene, catch bands playing live on the weekends.
No list of recommended pizzerias can exclude Sally’s Apizza (237 Wooster Street). Okay, strictly speaking, it’s not in Downtown New Haven, but Sally’s fare is well worth the 15-minute walk to the Wooster Square suburb – “Little Italy” – where the restaurant has been based since 1938. Nestled amongst the charming old brownstones and decadent mansions that comprise this leafy and sought-after neighbourhood, Sally’s turns out pies that are seriously sublime. Try the White Potato Pie, whose toppings of thin, crispy potato slices; mozzarella; Parmesan and rosemary form a savory fusion of tastes and textures.
A short walk down Wooster Street is Sally’s rival Frank Pepe’s (163 Wooster Street), the oldest – and probably most famous – pizzeria in New Haven. Made with freshly shucked clams brought in from New Haven’s Long Wharf, Pepe’s White Clam Pie has practically achieved mythical status on the international food scene. Devotees of the other pizzerias in town will claim that Pepe’s global reputation is not quite deserved. There’s only one way to find out whether they are right.
While best known for its pizza, New Haven boasts an incredible range of other dining options to suit all tastes and budgets.
Louis’ Lunches (261-283 Crown Street) claims to be the birthplace of the American hamburger. A mainstay of the city since 1898, Louis’ great-grandson Jeff Lassen is still faithfully turning out top-notch grilled burgers made from a blend of five different meat varieties.
For a meatless meal, head to Claire’s Corner Copia (1000 State Street), a vegan and vegetarian diner with a rustic charm. Choose from a range of inexpensive multicultural dishes, including Italian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and kosher. For a slightly sweet pick-me-up, try the innovative London Fog drink made with organic earl grey tea, house-made vanilla lavender syrup and coconut milk.
Zinc (964 Chapel Street) is the place to go if you want to be extravagant and enjoy a more upmarket dining experience. Faithful to its emphasis on sustainability, Zinc sources its seed-to-market food as locally as possible. Foodies from near and far rave about this restaurant, where complex and flavorful dishes are complemented by impeccable service and an award-winning wine list. Booking is required.
Coffee Shops & Cafes
To fuel yourself for a day of sightseeing and exploring, head to Atticus (1082 Chapel Street), a quirky bookshop and cafe rolled into one. A popular draw for New Haveners, Atticus is based in an attractive glass-fronted store and serves tasty soups, sandwiches and salads. Locals swear by the bowls of black bean soup.
If it’s a hearty breakfast or brunch you’re after, don’t miss The Pantry (2 Mechanic Street), which serves breakfast all day along with a healthy dose of jazz music riffing in the background. Set up in 1987, The Pantry is a local favourite and often has queues snaking down the street, but the reliably delicious food is always worth the wait. Try the cinnamon roll pancakes or the salmon Benedict.
For a light snack and stop-off during the morning or afternoon, try one of the two Blue State Coffee Shops (84 Wall Street; 320 Congress Avenue). Designed to function more as community spaces than as businesses, the shops are always brimming with students and academics, offering a perfect venue to absorb the distinctive intellectual vibes of Downtown New Haven.
The best streets for shopping in New Haven are Chapel Street and Broadway, where upmarket chains, such as J. Crew, Urban Outfitters and Apple, sit alongside a range of independent and boutique shops.
If you want to get an inexpensive token from your New Haven trip, pop into the Book Trader Café (1140 Chapel Street), which has an impressive selection of second-hand books arranged on towering wooden shelves. The café half of the store is based beneath a beautiful, sun-drenched glass atrium where you can sit and enjoy your new literary purchase over a cup of coffee.
Downtown New Haven has a number of jewelry shops, and the independent Idiom Boutique (1014 Chapel Street) has a lovely range of unique, handmade artisan jewelry crafted by national and international artists. Idiom’s variety of clothes, handbags, and bath and body products make it a perfect place to pick up a gift or two.
A little further afield is Fashionista Vintage and Variety (93 Whitney Avenue), where any lover of vintage couture and eclectic memorabilia could spend all afternoon rummaging through the store for flamboyant hats, alligator bags, pre-Castro Cuban cigar cases and sumptuous outfits. Fashionista is a favourite with TV producers, who sometimes descend on the store to find an era-appropriate wardrobe for their stars.
Green Spaces & Picnic Spots
With the rustling elms, numerous flower-filled courtyards and manicured grounds that comprise Yale University territory, Downtown New Haven is noticeably green. Make like a local by enjoying lunches beneath the shade of the trees or taking a relaxing walk in the generous open spaces.
Particularly popular with Yale University students are the lawns in front of the Sterling Memorial Library (120 High Street), a towering Gothic structure that houses some four million books. As you contemplate the ornate architecture soaring overhead, you might be lucky enough to be serenaded by the university bands and choirs who sometimes perform and practice at this outdoor spot. Another intriguing feature of the area is the Women’s Table, a black stone sculpture designed by Maya Lin to commemorate Yale’s female students.
Wile away a tranquil hour or two while also paying your respects to New Haven’s many luminaries, look no further than Grove Cemetery (227 Grove Street). The neat avenues of stone grave markers, marble obelisks and sarcophagi offer a peaceful retreat from the bustle of life outside the cemetery walls. Admire the imposing Egyptian Revival gate at the entrance of the grounds, designed by famous New Haven architect Henry Austin. There are fascinating and free one-hour tours of the cemetery on weekends – consult the website for current details.
Check to see if there is anything happening on New Haven Green while you’re in town. There are often free outdoor concerts and festivals hosted at this green heart of the city, especially during the summer months. Families come from every corner of New Haven and the surrounding towns to watch diverse performers on the large outdoor stage. Bring picnic baskets and foldout chairs to enjoy the entertainment in leisurely style, but be forewarned — the livelier bands will often have the crowds on their feet, dancing and jiving wildly.
Drinks & Nightlife
Although it has a reputation for being a sedate and sleepy New England city, New Haven has its fair share of things to do once darkness descends.
Café Nine (250 State Street) resembles a rock n’ roll dive bar and provides an intimate setting – nicknamed “the musician’s living room” – where live bands play. Entertainment is varied and ranges from local talent to major recording artists, comedians, burlesque shows and more.
Cask Republic (179 Crown Street) is nirvana for the ale-lover, with a selection of over 60 cask ales, lagers, stouts and porters on draft alone, together with around 150 bottled beers. It’s no surprise that Cask Republic is always busy, even mid-week, as locals flock to soak up the dusky, convivial atmosphere. Come and sit at the bar, order the moreish baked pretzels, and soak up the buzzing chatter while sipping on a cool brew.
For a more quiet and cultural evening, the Shubert Theatre (247 College Street) is a not-for-profit arts, education and community institution that has been offering an eclectic menu of theatre, comedy, dance, opera, jazz, burlesque and more since 1914. Watch out in particular for the pre-Broadway shows that are sometimes shown here at highly affordable prices before migrating to New York.