15 Best Things to Do in New Haven (CT)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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Study a map of New Haven and you’ll see a four-by-four grid at its heart, dating from 1638 when this was the first planned city in America.

Since 1701 New Haven’s story has been intertwined with that of Yale University, the Collegiate Gothic campus of which is scattered across downtown.

Being a university town, New Haven has a certain dynamism on its walkable streets, and is imbued with culture and great places to eat and go out. On this note, I have to mention New Haven-style pizza, served at businesses that have been going strong since the 1930s.  

Crown Street and Temple Street have everything from pho to sushi and Cubans, and there’s a feast of a cerebral variety at museums like the Yale University Art Gallery, the Peabody Museum and the Yale Center for British Art.

New Haven is at the head of the namesake harbor on Long Island Sound, and has a coast lined with parks for waterside walks and beach trips.

1. Yale University

Yale UniversitySource: f11photo / shutterstock
Yale University

The largest employer in New Haven is the third-oldest institution of higher education in America.

Yale University was founded in 1701 and in its time has produced 61 Nobel Laureates, five U.S. Presidents and 19 U.S. Supreme Court Justices.

Touring the campus you’ll see that, apart from a few head-turning examples of modern architecture, the various schools and libraries are in a stately Collegiate Gothic style.

I was smitten with the regal mansions on Hillhouse Avenue and the 216-foot Harkness Tower, part of the Memorial Quadrangle, looming over High Street.

The Yale University Visitor Center, at 149 Elm Street, is in John Pierpoint House, the oldest private home in New Haven and where you can arrange a guided tour by a knowledgeable undergraduate.

2. Yale University Art Gallery

Yale University Art GallerySource: f11photo / shutterstock
Yale University Art Gallery

In a regal Tuscan Romanesque building a couple of blocks across from the Green is the Western Hemisphere’s oldest university art museum.

Across four floors, all epochs and cultures are covered by the Yale University Art Gallery. Still,  there’s an accent on French Impressionism, late-19th-century American Realism, African sculpture, early Italian painting and modern art.

I was thrilled with the gallery’s wild diversity, as you leap from Greek Archaic period urns from the 6th century BCE to The Night Café by van Gogh.

There’s everything from 17th-century Chinese landscape scrolls to Early Classic Period Mayan carvings, via late Medieval Italian ecclesiastical paintings, and works by Flemish and masters like Rubens and Frans Hals.

Sharing the third floor with those masters is a big dose of modern painting, exemplified by Joseph Stella’s Brooklyn Bridge (1919-20) and Kazimir Malevich’s The Knifegrinder (1912-1913).

3. Yale Center for British Art

Yale Center for British ArtSource: gnrklk / Flickr
Yale Center For British Art

The largest collection of British art outside the UK is held at this museum opposite the Yale University Art Gallery on Chapel Street.

The Yale Center for British Art has gathered more than 2,000 paintings and 200 sculptures. It  starts with the Elizabethan period in the 16th century but pays special attention to the time between William Hogarth’s birth in 1697 and J.M.W. Turner’s death in 1851, roughly correlating with the Georgian period.

Turner, Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough and Constable are all represented, along with 20th-century artists like Barbara Hepworth and Stanley Spencer.

There’s also work by a roll-call of foreign artists who spent time in Britain, like Hans Holbein, Canaletto, Rubens and van Dyck.

The collections of drawings and prints are vast and contain pieces by Hogarth, Blake, John Ruskin, Paul Nash and the pre-Raphaelites, while among the books, manuscripts and maps is every book published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press.

Illuminating recent exhibitions have dealt with depictions of Georgian and Victorian Prisons, British Castles, 18th-century marine painting and Romantic art from 1760 to 1860.

On my last visit, this museum was temporarily closed, but was due to open within a year.

4. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural HistorySource: f11photo / shutterstock
Yale Peabody Museum Of Natural History

Up there with the best university natural history museums in the world, the Peabody Museum started out in 1866 and recently received a $160m donation from the billionaire philanthropist Ed Bass.

You’ll come across wildlife dioramas and compelling permanent exhibitions for ornithology, mineralogy, Connecticut’s Native Americans and the evolution of humans and animals.

But what excites me most is the museum’s vertebrate paleontology collections, up there with the best in the country.

The Great Hall of Dinosaurs is commanded by a mounted skeleton of a juvenile brontosaurus, and has the astonishing, 110-foot Age of Reptiles Mural, painted over five years up to 1947 by Rudolph F. Zallinger.

5. East Rock Park

East Rock ParkSource: Christian Hinkle / shutterstock
East Rock Park

At the north end of the city stands a rugged diabase ridge, formed 200 million years ago, stretching out for 1.4 miles and reaching a maximum height of 466 feet.

The sedimentary stone fringing East Rock has gradually been worn away to reveal igneous bluffs with a reddish tint from their iron content.

You can visit the ridge at the 427-acre East Rock Park, skirted by the Mill River. This incorporates wetland areas, a space for birding, sports fields, a canoe launch and, atop the bluffs, the 1887 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

I highly recommend heading up to the viewpoint just in front of the monument to bask in the views of Long Island Sound and the harbor.

6. The Green

The GreenSource: Jon Bilous / shutterstock
The Green

Everything I’ve listed so far, except East Rock Park of course, is within a few steps of this 16-acre square with lawns, monuments and lots of tree cover on its margins.

The trees are relatively young elms, resistant to Dutch elm disease and planted in the 1980s after its historic predecessors died off from this fungus.

The Green is the central tile of New Haven’s planned city from 1638, and was laid out by its puritan founders to be large enough to accommodate 144,000 people. This was the total that they believed would be spared by the Second Coming of Christ.

Piercing the tree-line are the white towers of three early-19th-century churches, one of which we’ll cover later.

There are dining choices all along the south-west side (chains like Subway, Five Guys, Shake Shack, Chipotle, the Halal Guys), and in summer there’s always some sort of outdoor concert or festival.

A landmark in the calendar is the 15-day International Festival of Arts & Ideas in June, which is anchored here but spreads out across New Haven.

7. Lighthouse Point Park

Lighthouse Point ParkSource: Jon Bilous / shutterstock
Lighthouse Point Park

On the east side of the entrance to New Haven Harbor is an 82-acre park that has beaches defended by rocky outcrops, vistas back over the water to the city and a couple of beautiful old monuments.

One is Five Mile Point Light (exactly five miles from New Haven Green), which guided maritime traffic in and out of the harbor from 1847 until it went dark in 1877. The 80-foot octagonal tower was restored in the 1980s and along with its keeper’s house is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Also cherished, and still operating on national holidays and weekends in summer, is the park’s carousel, dating back to 1911 and one of fewer than 100 still working today.

The ride’s carved figures include 69 horses, two chariots, and rarest of all, a single camel.

Another summer favorite for smaller visitors is the park’s splash pad, when there’s also a concession stand and pavilions for rental.

8. Sterling Memorial Library

Sterling Memorial LibrarySource: Albert Pego / shutterstock
Sterling Memorial Library

Yale University’s main library building dates to 1931. This magnificent structure is in a fitting Gothic Revival style, designed by James Gamble Rogers and fronted by a 15-level book stack tower.

As with all of Yale’s libraries, the Sterling Memorial is free and open to the public Monday to Thursday, 8:30 AM – 7:00 PM and Friday 8:30 AM – 5:00 PM. 

I feel it’s a chance worth taking, to soak up the atmospheric architecture, especially in the main nave with its beautiful coffered ceiling and lofty pointed arches.

The ornamentation tallies with the purpose of each room, so the English study for instance has stained glass evoking Hamlet, King Lear and Lady Macbeth. Also with appropriate decor are the offices for the Babylonian Collection, one of the largest collections of Ancient Mesopotamian artifacts in the world.

This can be viewed by prior appointment and mostly comprises inscriptions on clay tablets, cones and prisms, in Sumerian, Akkadian and Hittite.

9. PEZ Visitor Center

PEZ Visitor CenterSource: Sean Wandzilak / shutterstock
PEZ Visitor Center

The American base for the famous Austrian candy, PEZ, is right by the Yale West Campus in Orange. The visitor center at this modern facility is packed out with everything PEZ.

You can get a full run-down on the history of the brand starting in 1927, take part in interactive quizzes and games and see the high-tech packaging facility in action through viewing windows.

Display cases are loaded with decades’ worth of interesting PEZ memorabilia, all in the shadow of the largest dispenser in the world.

Also neat is a PEZ-themed motorcycle designed by the company from TV’s American Chopper. And of course, the store has the biggest stock of PEZ products I’ve ever laid eyes on.

10. Shubert Theater

Shubert TheaterSource: Shubert Theater / facebook
Shubert Theater

Opened in 1914 by New York theater moguls the Shubert Brothers, the 1,600-seater Shubert Theater quickly became a testing ground for new shows before they opened on Broadway.

In the last 100+ years there have been more than 300 world premieres at New Haven’s Shubert Theater, as well as 50 American premieres and 600+ Broadway tryouts.

Liza Minnelli made her debut in a Broadway production right here in Flora the Red Menace in 1965, while three Barrymores (Ethel, John and Lionel) trod these boards, as well as the Marx Brothers in their vaudeville days.

When I was in town I took the chance to watch Chicago, an old favorite, in this palatial setting. 

Paired with the Broadway season is a helping of live music, from jazz to classical recitals, as well as activities like a summer theater and arts camp for kids throughout the month of July.

11. New Haven-style Pizza

Really, I don’t think it’s possible to visit New Haven and not seek out the city’s famous pizza. In fact people make the trip expressly for pizza crawls, calling at all of the iconic spots, like Sally’s Apizza, which opened in 1938, and Modern Apizza (1934).

Of all the regional pizza variations, New Haven-style may be the one with the most foodie cred. 

For one thing it’s derived from Neapolitan thin-crust, baked in extreme heat in coal-fired ovens, giving it a signature char. It’s essentially cold-fermented dough, tomato sauce, oregano and a coating of pecorino. Mozzarella is a topping rather than a base here.

12. Center Church on the Green (First Church of Christ)

Center Church on the GreenSource: Editor B / Flickr
Center Church On The Green

The Center Church on the Green goes way back to within a year of New Haven’s creation, in 1639, and there’s evidence of the site’s great age underground in the crypt.

The fourth and current church building was constructed in a Georgian style in the 1810s on top of the town’s former burial ground, and all of the remains and gravestones were left in situ.

The oldest stone belongs to a Sarah Rutherford Trowbridge (d.1687), while Benedict Arnold’s first wife Margaret Mansfield (d.1775) is buried here, as well as one of Yale’s founders, James Pierpoint (d.1714).

13. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

A true modern wonder at Yale University is one of the largest buildings in the world devoted to rare books and manuscripts. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library was built in the International style in the 1960s. 

From the outside it’s maybe a little austere, but all the spectacle is on the inside. Here, sunlight filters in through the textured marble panels on the walls. It illuminates an awe-inspiring set of stacks with shelves loaded with invaluable books and manuscripts.

The library is open to the public seven days a week, and there’s a host of permanent and temporary displays. I was truly humbled to view a genuine copy of the Gutenberg Bible, other early printed books, and John James Audubon’s Birds of America.

14. Savin Rock Park

Another place to get the scent of the ocean, and look across Long Island Sound, Savin Rock Park is on the waterfront in West Haven.

From the 1870s to the 1960s, this was known as Connecticut’s Coney Island, with a 1,500-foot pier and an amusement park with five roller coasters on massive wooden frames.

The 1938 New England hurricane and West Haven’s later residential and industrial development put paid to the theme park.

But today’s Savin Rock Park is my go-to for a walk or to laze on a beach on a sunny day.

There’s a boardwalk, with benches and backed by a big patch of grassy foreshore that has hints of the huge amusement park that was here before.

If you’re in the mood you can walk out a few hundred feet to Bradley Rocks at low tide, just past the park’s west end.

15. Grove Street Cemetery

Grove Street CemeterySource: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / shutterstock
Grove Street Cemetery

The world’s first private and non-profit cemetery is fringed by Yale University buildings a couple of blocks north of New Haven Green.

Grove Street Cemetery was set up in 1796 to replace the burial ground on the Green. It was among the first to have permanent memorials and a structured layout made up of ornamental gardens, plots owned by families and paved streets and avenues with names.

Fourteen Yale presidents are among Grove Street Cemetery’s many prestigious burials. These include high-achieving astronomers, theologians, mathematicians, paleontologists and chemists like Lars Onsager (1903-1976), who won the Nobel Prize in 1969. 

Perhaps the most important is Eli Whitney (1765-1925), who invented the cotton gin, while there’s a monument to bandleader Glenn Miller. He famously went missing in 1944 and had formed the 418th Army Air Forces Band at Yale in 1942.

My tip is to get a place on one of the guided tours, happening on Wednesdays and Saturdays, April through November.

15 Best Things to Do in New Haven (CT):

  • Yale University
  • Yale University Art Gallery
  • Yale Center for British Art
  • Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
  • East Rock Park
  • The Green
  • Lighthouse Point Park
  • Sterling Memorial Library
  • PEZ Visitor Center
  • Shubert Theater
  • New Haven-style Pizza
  • Center Church on the Green (First Church of Christ)
  • Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
  • Savin Rock Park
  • Grove Street Cemetery