Vermont's largest city is inseparable from the state's crown jewel: Lake Champlain. In fact, the best way to approach the Queen City is by water. Arriving by ferry lets you imagine how the bustling burg looked centuries ago to incoming Indians, soldiers, merchants - and tourists?
The Burlington Waterfront used to be a busy shipping center with all the accompanying industrial detritus. Beautification of the urban shoreline didn't start in earnest until the '80s. Now it's recreation central - unless it's pouring rain, in which case you can find refuge in ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. In addition to panoramic views of the water, the aquarium and lake-research facility hosts more than 60 species of live local fish, reptiles and amphibians.
If the weather's good, you have some decisions to make. A 1.5-hour narrated cruise aboard the Spirit of Ethan Allen is one way to get the lay of the lake. It's also an opportunity to brush up on your early American history - which Allen brother is which, for example, and how the War of 1812 was won. In 2009, everyone was talking about French explorer Samuel de Champlain, as the region celebrated the 400th anniversary of his "discovery" of the lake. No doubt his story still figures into the spiel aboard any of the regular cruises leaving from the Burlington Boathouse. It offers deli and cash bar service, plus daily lunch, sunset and dinner deals. The Northern Lights also conducts floating history lessons; the boat leaves from the King Street Ferry Dock.
Not the tour-boat type? Consider a sail on the Friend Ship Sloop. The gaff-rigged boat accommodates up to 12 people and makes three trips a day. If you want a longer sail, you can customize the cruise to fit your fantasy: half day, full day, early morning, sunset. Bring your own wine and cheese. They provide the cooler.
Looking for something even more DIY? Perkins Pier's Waterfront Boat Rentals lets out rowboats, kayaks, canoes, double kayaks, aluminum skiffs and Boston Whalers by the hour - or eight. With more than 130 square miles of lake before you, the only limitation is how long you've got. And, of course, your vessel's horsepower. An easy paddle north will take you to the Rock Point promontory via North Beach, where Burlingtonians go to swim and out-of-towners camp out. Go south to survey Red Rocks Park - a popular swimming and sunset spot - and Oakledge Park. Got a few hours? Check out Juniper Island a few miles off the coast of Burlington. There's an old lighthouse on it. Plenty of poison ivy, too.
Going bareboat? Let's Go Sailing at the Burlington Boathouse rents out a 30-foot sailing sloop to experienced skippers. If you need someone else to take the tiller, they've got a captain for hire.
Biking along the lake is easier to arrange than boating on it. You can rent two-wheelers downtown at the Skirack, North Star Sports or on the waterfront at Local Motion - a cycling advocacy organization. Their free map, Cycling the City, will help you negotiate the Burlington Bike Path, which runs for miles along the city's shoreline, north through Colchester and out onto a narrow causeway that connects Chittenden County with the Champlain Islands. The Island Line Trail sustained major flood damage in the spring of 2011 but should be repaired soon.
You can also just look at the lake instead of getting on or riding along it. The Burlington Boat House has a food concession, Splash, but you don't have to be a customer to sit at the tables on the second-floor deck. At Battery Park, an Adirondack sunset goes down well with a Michigan Dog from Beansie's bus and competitive volleyball. Keep an eye on your fries. The seagulls love 'em. A free, live music concert in the bandshell, courtesy of the Burlington Concert Band, is a sweet after dinner treat, available most summer Sundays from 7-9 p.m.
Burlington has lots of great restaurants - see our 7 Nights Guide to Vermont Restaurants and Bars. The best of them support local agriculture by buying fresh ingredients directly from Vermont farmers. Many of those producers sell their wares at the Saturday morning Burlington Farmers' Market in City Hall Park. For a more in-depth ag experience, check out the Intervale - a fertile flood plain at the north end of Burlington that hosts myriad organic market gardens and a gardening-supply store. Hikers and bikers can explore trails that wind along the Winooski River all the way to the Ethan Allen Homestead, a replica of the simple, 18th-century home occupied by Vermont's rabble-rousing founder. The museum and house are not always open, but the grounds are accessible daily from sunrise to sunset.
The original Green Mountain Boy bit the dust before he could taste a Lake Champlain Chocolate truffle. You can get one - or more! - at the retail store on Church Street. But the best selection may be at the factory at 750 Pine Street. Weekday tours run hourly from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Downtown Burlington is dominated by the Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian-only promenade enlivened by shops, restaurants, food vendors and street performers. But there's more to its charm than commerce: Many of the old buildings have been lovingly restored to their former glory. A nonprofit called Preservation Burlington wants to see more of that and, to fulfill its mission, leads weekly tours with an eye toward architecture of historic and stylistic interest. The downtown, waterfront and Old North End tours are scheduled upon request.
Death doesn't get much more aesthetically pleasing than Burlington's Lakeview Cemetery - the leafiest, most local-celebrity-filled final resting place in the city. If the deceased here could talk, they'd tell a colorful history of the place.
Burlington's got a lot more than history going for it: nightlife, performing arts, colleges, restaurants, great food, lefty politics, snowboard entrepreneurs. On the First Friday of every month, 30-plus venues host public art openings from 5 to 8 p.m. Don't miss the Firehouse Gallery shows. On Saturdays, creative types sell their wares in the Art Market in City Hall Park.
Not artsy-fartsy? Burlington also supports a single-A baseball team: The Lake Monsters play all summer at beautiful, oh-so-green Centennial Field.