15 Best Things to Do in New Haven (CT)

Study a map of New Haven a 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 Gothic Revival 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.

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 harbour on Long Island Sound, and has a coast lined with parks for waterside walks and beach trips.

1. Yale University

Yale University

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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.

Make sure to check out the regal mansions on Hillhouse Avenue and the 66-metre Harkness Tower, part of the Memorial Quadrangle and 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 Gallery

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

The joy of the gallery is its wild diversity, as you leap from Greek Archaic period urns from the 6th century BCE to The Night Café by van Gogh, or from a 17th-century Chinese landscape scroll 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).

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3. Yale Center for British Art

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, 200 sculptures, starting with the Elizabethan period in the 16th century but paying special attention to the time between William Hogarth’s birth in 1697 to 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.

4. Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

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Yale Peabody Museum Of Natural History

Up there with best university natural history museums in the world, the Peabody Museum started out in 1866 and just in 2018 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 kindles the most excitement is the museum’s vertebrate palaeontology 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, 47-metre Age of Reptiles Mural, painted over five years up to 1947 by Rudolph F. Zallinger.

Through June 2020 there was also an exhibition showing off the highlights from Yale’s celebrated collection of Ancient Mesopotamian artefacts.

5. East Rock Park

East Rock Park

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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 112 metres.

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 where it is ensconced in landscaped parkland skirted by the Mill River and incorporating wetland areas, a space for birding, sports fields, a canoe launch and, atop the bluffs, the 1887 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument.

The one thing you absolutely have to do is go up to the viewpoint just in front of the monument to bask in the views of Long Island Sound and the harbour.

6. The Green

The Green

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The Green

Everything 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 fungi.

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, which 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 Park

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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 harbour from 1847 until it went dark in 1877. The 24-metre 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 favourite for smaller visitors is the park’s splashpad, when there’s also a concession stand and pavilions for rental.

8. Sterling Memorial Library

Sterling Memorial Library

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Sterling Memorial Library

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

As with all of Yale’s library’s the Sterling Memorial is free and open to the public Monday to Thursday, 08:30-19:00 and Friday 8:30-17:00. 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 artefacts 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 Center

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PEZ Visitor Center

The American base for the famous Austrian candy, PEZ, is right by the Yale West Campus in Orange.

The visitor centre 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 you’ve ever laid your eyes on.

10. Shubert Theater

Shubert Theater

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

In 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 we wrote this article, the 2019-2020 Broadway Season featured Rent, Jersey Boys, Cats, Dreamgirls and Waitress among others.

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

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11. Leitner Family Observatory and Planetarium

Leitner Family Observatory And Planetarium

Yale University’s astronomical observatory was founded in 1830 and continues to use a historic 8-inch Reed refractor that was bought by the university in 1882 in the east dome.

The west dome meanwhile is mounted with a computer controlled 0.4-metre reflecting telescope.

Also at the observatory is a digital planetarium theatre, using a Spitz SciDomeHD projection system, while the main building has displays of vintage instruments, like the 5-inch Dolland refractor used to observe Halley’s Comet in 1835. Every Tuesday night you can pay a visit to the planetarium for a public show, and then if the sky is clear you’ll then get the chance to peer through one of the observatory’s telescopes.

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

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. Knights of Columbus Museum

Knights Of Columbus Museum

The world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organisation was founded in New Haven in 1882 and counts almost two million members worldwide, from Canada to the Philippines.

This well-done museum opened on the organisation’s centenary, in 1982, and has a permanent exhibition charting its past with a 50-metre “Wall of History”. You’ll learn about the Knights of Columbus’ roots as a mutual benefit society to working class and newly arrived Catholic immigrants, and find out about the founder, Michael J.

McGivney (1852-1890). In recent years, the “World War I: Beyond the Front Lines” exhibition has charted the role of the organisation in conflicts like the First World War, when it managed fundraising drives and established hundreds of welfare centres for troops on U.S. soil and abroad.

There’s also a 400-year-old cross from St. Peter’s Basilica, gifted to the Knights of Columbus by Pope John Paul II and a gallery profiling all of the popes since the organisation’s inception in the 19th century.

14. Savin Rock Park

Another place to get the scent of the sea 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 450-metre pier and an amusement with five rollercoasters 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 a restful and well-looked after place to go for a walk or 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 couple of hundred metres to Bradley Rocks at low tide, just past the park’s west end.

15. Grove Street Cemetery

Grove Street Cemetery

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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 the burial ground on the Green and was among the first to have permanent memorials and a structured layout made up 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, which includes high-achieving astronomers, theologians, mathematicians, palaeontologists 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 famous bandleader Glenn Miller, who went missing in 1944 and had formed the 418th Army Air Forces Band at Yale in 1942.

Where to stay: Best Hotels in New Haven, Connecticut (CT)
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List of Image Sources

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

Lighthouse Point Park

  • Yale University: f11photo / shutterstock
  • Yale University Art Gallery: f11photo / shutterstock
  • Yale Center For British Art: gnrklk / Flickr
  • Yale Peabody Museum Of Natural History: f11photo / shutterstock
  • East Rock Park: Christian Hinkle / shutterstock
  • The Green: Jon Bilous / shutterstock
  • Lighthouse Point Park: Jon Bilous / shutterstock
  • Sterling Memorial Library: Albert Pego / shutterstock
  • PEZ Visitor Center: Sean Wandzilak / shutterstock
  • Shubert Theater: Shubert Theater / facebook
  • Leitner Family Observatory And Planetarium: Namkota / Wikimedia
  • Center Church On The Green: Editor B / Flickr
  • Knights Of Columbus Museum: Knights of Columbus Museum / facebook
  • Grove Street Cemetery: LEE SNIDER PHOTO IMAGES / shutterstock