The smallest capital in the country, and the only one without a McDonald’s, Vermont’s Montpelier (pop. 7,787) was settled in 1787 and designated the state capital in 1805. Today, Montpelier’s economy is based on government, insurance, and tourism.
As you follow US-2 Business into town, the gold dome of the capitol building hovering over the valley ahead signals your arrival in Montpelier. Constrained by the Winooski River on one side and the narrow valley on the other, Montpelier is so compact that you can park your car and find all the sights within a 10-minute walk. (Thankfully, the I-89 freeway and the main US-2 bypass are well away from downtown.) A quick poll of shops along State and Main Streets reveals the cosmopolitan nature of the town: the magical Bear Pond Books (77 Main St., 802/229-0774), along with coffee bars, wine merchants, and multiple combinations of the same.
The north side of State Street opens up into a broad lawn fronting the capitol dome, the focal point of the Republic of Vermont—like Texas, the state takes some pride in the fact that it was an independent “country” before joining the rest of the United States. The state legislature is only in session a few months a year (typically from January to May), so being a Vermont politician is a part-time job. The rest of the year they go about being farmers, businesspeople, and so on, but you can tour the capitol (115 State St., Mon.-Fri.) year-round.
Above the capitol rises Hubbard Park, a 100-year-old, 194-acre green space, with seven miles of hiking trails and a 54-foot observation tower atop the summit, the highest point in Montpelier.
Just west of the capitol is the Vermont Historical Society Museum (closed Sun and Mon., $5), where permanent and temporary displays illustrate different aspects of Vermont’s history, and you can also find lots of 19th-century furniture and a small bookstore and gift shop. Rising up a hill a few blocks farther west, the Green Mount Cemetery is filled with impressive granite monuments. Many of these were carved by the immigrant stonecutters of nearby Barre for their own family plots, and the well-groomed grounds make ideal picnic spots, especially on a summer afternoon.
Montpelier thrived off the granite quarries of the nearby town of Barre. The Rock of Ages quarry (802/476-3119, Mon.-Sat. June-Oct., free), four miles southeast of Barre, is the world’s largest.
Montpelier residents take their eating seriously. Very good and fairly inexpensive food is readily available, thanks to the local presence of the New England Culinary Institute, a cooking school that operates the NECI on Main (118 Main St., 802/223-3188). The nearby Coffee Corner (802/229-9060), on the corner of State and Main Streets, offers breakfast with cheerful hometown ambience (and hearty home fries). Skinny Pancake (89 Main St., 802/262-2253) serves a huge variety of their namesake crepes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with good coffee and sandwiches, too.
For upscale lodgings in period surroundings, go to the Inn at Montpelier (147 Main St., 802/223-2727, $175 and up), two renovated 1820s homes that have been joined into one hotel.