Visiting Montpelier: A Capital City with Local Flavor
April 23, 2015
If you’re planning on visiting Montpelier and haven’t already heard, it’s is the only state capital without a McDonald’s.
This little tidbit has long been a popular piece of trivia about Vermont’s capital city. At one point, I think it was even a question on Jeopardy.
When the fast-food giant tried — and ultimately failed — to open at the corner of Elm and State Streets in the 1990s, many Montpelier citizens were in an uproar and banded together to get the proposal defeated. Ever since, the lack of golden arches seems to be a badge of honor for Montpelier residents (and the rest of Vermont).
Still, the absence of a McDonald’s is hardly the most interesting thing about this offbeat Vermont city.
Montpelier is one of the smallest state capitals in the country with just 8,000 residents. Even so, its restaurants, live music offerings, arts scene, parks, trails, and historic buildings make the city an inviting, fun, and interesting place to visit.
That Montpelier Vibe
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes Montpelier feel offbeat (its nickname in the local media is “Montpeculiar”). Montpelier is home to a mix of outdoor enthusiasts, artists, young families, small business owners, state employees, political operatives, and grassroots activists.
Montpelier was named for a small city in the Languedoc region of France. A narrow floodplain along the Winooski River was chosen in 1805 as the current site of the Vermont State House.
Vermont’s first legislators chose to conduct government business in Montpelier – a place noted for its unusual number of whiskey distilleries — and named it after a French town known for wine and brandy. Très intéressant.
Over time, Montpelier became known as place of progress. It’s the capital of the first state to formally abolish slavery, and the first to allow civil unions for gay couples. Today, Montpelier is forward-thinking, community-minded, a little funky and crunchy, and a place with excellent local food.
Somehow, the city manages to encapsulate Vermont perfectly.
MONTPELIER RESTAURANTS: FOOD & DRINK
89 Main Street
A business that started out as a street cart in 2003, the Skinny Pancake now has restaurant locations in Burlington, the Burlington International Airport, and Montpelier. The menu offers everything crepe – breakfast, lunch, dinner, sweet and savory. You can also enjoy live music on weekends, and patio seating in the warmer months.
52 State Street
Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick recently dined at Kismet, a local food, organic, and vegetarian hotspot on State Street. Bacon Tweeted the following on April 5: “Thanks to #Kismet restaurant for the amazing brunch @kismetvt #MontpelierVT try the hot sauce!” Enough said.
Three Penny Taproom
108 Main Street
A favorite local hangout for craft beer aficionados, Three Penny offers an impressive list of beers and ciders from Vermont beer producers – Lawson’s Finest, Citizen Cider, and Hill Farmstead – as well tasty fare that includes flatbreads, salads, sandwiches, and larger entrees. A hop lover’s paradise.
The North Branch Café
41 State Street
The North Branch Café is a nice place to go for tea, wine, or a snack after a hike or a walk downtown. The café serves a variety of loose leaf teas and fine wines from around the world. Food offerings include cheese plates, hummus, olive tapenade, and pastries from local bakers. The cafe opened two years ago and is a perfect addition to downtown.
Montpelier Farmers’ Market
Looking for fresh produce, grass-fed beef, or Vermont-made crafts? Enjoy the Capital City Farmers’ Market outdoors every Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm on State Street between May and October. More than 60 percent of the products at the farmers’ market include local produce, meat, cheese, plants, honey, maple syrup, and wool. It’s definitely the place to be in Montpelier on Saturday mornings in the spring, summer, and fall.
Vermont State House
115 State Street
Montpelier was chosen as the permanent seat of the legislature in 1805, and the current building that stands was built in 1859 (the original was demolished in 1836, and the second was destroyed by fire in 1857). The statue of Ethan Allen on the steps of the State House is made from Danby Marble, and the black-and-white floor of the lobby was quarried on Isle La Motte and in Proctor. The Roman lady atop the gold-leafed dome is Ceres, goddess of agriculture. The Friends of the Vermont State House offer free guided tours between July and October twice a day on weekdays and on Saturdays. During the rest of the year, tours are self-guided with an audio component. If nothing else, stop and take a nice long look at this beautiful building while you’re strolling down State Street.
Getting there: The Vermont State House is hard to miss on State Street. Metered street parking is available.
The Vermont Historical Society Museum
109 State Street
Managed by the Vermont Historical Society, the museum tells the story of Vermonters from the year 1600 to present time. The museum’s exhibit covers Vermont’s geological history, Abenaki Indian life, agriculture, transportation, tourism, and changing landscapes.
Getting there: The museum is located on the ground floor of the replica of the Pavilion Hotel, a five-story landmark that occupied the site between 1870 and 1966. Metered parking is available on State Street.
Hubbard Park sits on 200 acres on a forested hill that overlooks downtown and the Vermont State House. The park, located on land donated to the city in 1899, includes several miles of hiking and Nordic ski trails, as well as picnic areas and a 54-foot stone observation tower that offers panoramic views.
Getting there: Access trails from behind the Vermont State House at 115 State Street (metered street parking is available on State Street). Or from downtown, take Elm Street/Route 12 to Winter Street and find limited street parking near the park’s gate.
North Branch Nature Center
713 Elm Street
Located off Route 12 just north of downtown Montpelier, the North Branch Nature Center is a 28-acre reserve along the North Branch of the Winooski River. The center offers nature programs for adults and children, bird walks, as well as walking trails. For more challenging terrain, walk beyond the bridge that crosses the North Branch of the Winooski River on the southeastern tip of the property and hike trails managed by the Vermont Association for Snow Travelers. Trails at the center are open every day.
Getting there: From State Street, take Elm Street/Route 12 north, and you’ll see the center on your right. Parking is available on site.
Enjoy live music at Sweet Melissa’s, Positive Pie, Charlie O’s, and Skinny Pancake. Coffee houses, including Capitol Grounds, now convert into music venues in the early evening. Buch Spieler, an independently-owned record store on Langdon Street, hosts live music on an inside stage.
Montpelier’s Art scene is also thriving. Montpelier Alive hosts a quarterly Art Walk in many locations downtown. In September, the city hosts its annual ArtsFest to highlight all types of art as well as street performances of buskers, fire-dancers and other artists.
Betsy’s Bed and Breakfast
74 East State Street
High Hill Inn
265 Green Road in East Montpelier (10 minutes from Montpelier)
As I mentioned earlier, Montpelier reflects so much about Vermont. If you want to understand what the Green Mountain State is all about, head to the capital city. Just don’t expect to grab a Big Mac while you’re in town.
What else would you recommend? Let me know your favorite restaurants and places to go when visiting Montpelier.
**IF YOU GO: Take Exit 8 off Interstate 89 and follow signs to downtown. The Capital Region Visitor Center is located at 134 State Street. Call 802-828-5981. For more information about restaurants, arts, and events, visit Montpelier Alive at montpelieralive.org.