If you think of New England in its purest form, you probably don’t think of the modern-day bustle of metropolitan cities like Boston or Hartford. Chances are, your mind drifts to quietly breathtaking villages marked by quaint business-lined streets and a slow-paced vibe that induces peace.
While there are several cities within the region that match this mental image, no city exudes this special, sacred ambiance quite like Montpelier Vermont. Politically influential yet tiny in virtually every other way, this unassuming capital city is a picture-perfect snapshot of the idyllic small-town New England lifestyle.
A Brief Overview of Montpelier
Founded in 1787, Montpelier has always been a small town. When Vermont was officially granted statehood in 1791, there were only 113 people living here. While the population has grown since it was crowned state capital in 1805, it’s fair to say that it hasn’t exactly exploded. Today, just under 8,000 people live in Montpelier, making it the smallest state capital in the country regarding population.
However, Montpelier’s lack of size is more than compensated by its power as a prime progressive influencer. As state capital, it governs over a state that’s historically been one of the most forward-thinking in the country. Vermont was the first state to formally abolish slavery – it even did it before it became a state – and it was also the first state to officially allow civil unions for gay couples.
With all of this heady influence, it’s almost remarkable that Montpelier has held close to its small-town status. Yet it clutches onto this persona fiercely, embracing it in ways that still manage to push the concepts of modern-day living, from culture to the culinary arts.
What to Do in Montpelier
Some of Montpelier’s small-town charm naturally exudes from its compact size. Downtown Montpelier is roughly five blocks, so it’s an easy area to traverse on foot. Of course, its tiny square footage may lull you into thinking that there’s no need to reserve multiple days to explore what it has to offer. You’d be wrong in this case.
Montpelier is situated in the foothills of the Green Mountains, and some of this natural influence permeates throughout the landscape. Hubbard Park and the North Branch Nature Preserve offer a wealth of hiking trails. These trails turn into excellent spots for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing when winter turns the city into a snowy postcard. Hubbard Park is also home to The Tower, a century-old vista that affords those that climb its stairs a breathtaking panorama of the capital city.
The Winooski River essentially slices Montpelier in two, and its presence provides residents and visitors alike with an abundance of activities, from biking along its adjacent bike trail to maneuvering a canoe or kayak through its waters. The city is also home to a handful of swimming holes that are ideal recreational spots during the summer months.
Just south of Hubbard Park stands arguably Montpelier’s most popular point of interest, the Vermont State House. Designed in 1857 and completed in 1859, this impressive Montpelier Vermont mansion is worth visiting on the merits of its stunning beauty. It looks equally brilliant on the inside – something you can experience for yourself via guided tours when the season is right.
In addition to being home to the state’s governance, it also acts as an anchor for the Montpelier Historic District, a modest slice of town that serves as an active reminder of the city’s past. 450 buildings make up this district, with each building adding character to the community through its architecture and historic significance.
Today, these structures operate as a mixture of government buildings, commercial businesses, and retail stores. Collectively, they capture the essence of the quaint town persona that makes small-town New England such a desirable destination.
Arts and Culture in Montpelier
While state government keeps Montpelier’s heart beating, its soul is found in the city’s art and culture scene. The city has long put a premium on the communal importance of the arts, and this passion can be explored in a host of exciting ways.
Art lovers can drop by City Hall to take in an ever-changing display of paintings and photos from local artists, including works that date back to the 19th century. They can also explore various galleries and exhibits dotted about town, including a sculpture garden chock full of thought-provoking pieces of artistic expression.
Montpelier is also home to plenty of venues devoted to showcasing independent film, live theatre, and music ranging from classical to bluegrass. The city is also home to a vibrant dancing community, replete with venues designed to allow guests of all ages to dance the night away in a charming, non-clubby setting.
Some of Montpelier’s most alluring cultural attractions are doled out in festival form. The city hosts an eclectic mélange of annual gatherings throughout the year, from quarterly art walks to soirees celebrating the season. These festivals offer plenty of family-friendly activities and feature several opportunities to interact with local artisans and experience their crafts.
The Montpelier Food Scene
Farming and agriculture are taken very seriously in this slice of Vermont. Your first clue of this comes by looking at the state seal, which features a cow and two sheaves of grain. Your second clue comes from browsing through Montpelier, Vermont restaurants found in the area. Doing so will lead you to realize that this city is a forbearer of the farm-to-table movement.
Part of this status derives from politics. The state’s 2009 Farm to Plate Initiative was rolled out as a means to build economically sustainable bridges between the local farming community and the restaurant scene. Montpelier’s dining landscape reflects the power behind this initiative. Several of the city’s dining establishments serve up artisanal “slow food” built upon a foundation of local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients.
Dining out is not the only way to enjoy the flavors of Montpelier. Once a week, the city’s downtown hosts the Capital City Farmers Market; a gathering of more than 50 vendors offering their hyper-local edible craft goods. Some of these items drill down into somewhat esoteric levels. That is, unless you find raw goat milk suddenly mainstream.
Of course, no conversation about Vermont food would be complete without mentioning maple syrup. To that end, a visit to the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks is an essential stop. The Morse family have been crafting this Vermont staple for eight generations, and that handed-down skill is practically ingrained in every drop. If you’re still craving something sweet, don’t fret – Ben & Jerry’s headquarters are just 13 miles up the road.
Where to Stay in Montpelier
You won’t find gaudy, glitzy resorts to stay at here. Quaint, rustic Montpelier Vermont hotels and charming bed and breakfasts dominate the city’s lodging scene, and this is a good thing. Their collective presence hammers home the romantic small-town Vermont vibe that makes a stay in Montpelier so appealing. A smattering of budget chain hotels can also be found in and around the city.
The city’s star hotel is The Inn at Montpelier; a historic, classically appointed federal-style lodging venue that feels less of a hotel and more of an elegant old-school settlement. The vibe created is relentlessly New England, but be warned: There are only 19 guestrooms here, and prices make things competitive.
What To Know Before You Go
Like any proper New England city, Montpelier provides four distinct seasons. While summers are mild, winters can be cold and brutal, with winter evening temperatures averaging around single-digit territory.
Of course, Montpelier Vermont weather also brings plenty of snow – about 50 inches worth of the white stuff, to be precise. This makes Vermont a haven for winter activity and Montpelier an ideal hub. However, don’t feel you need to rush out experience the snow in the dead of winter. Snowfall around here is good enough to keep the nearby ski resorts open until April or even May.
Also, don’t forget that Vermont is so tiny, you can get to its eastern and western border from Montpelier in under an hour. This makes it easy for you to devote an afternoon to explore the rest of the state should you feel the need to act on further wanderlust. Doing so would take you to the waterfront city of Burlington, the state’s most populous city.
Montpelier’s combination of size, political influence, adherence to culture, and devotion to the culinary arts makes it the most unique small town in New England. It’s easy to fall in love with its quaint, quiet charm, whether you’re here to explore its compact downtown or ready to strap on a pair of skis and engage in cross-country activity. Who knows – its charm may compel you to one day move here, where you’d be able to join the ranks of literal thousands of people that call the city home.