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Leaves, mountains, ice cream and cheese: What's not to like in Burlington, Vt.?

Photos by Katherine Snow Smith | Times
Founded in 1791, the University of Vermont is the sixth-oldest college established in New England.

If I loved Burlington, Vt., during a visit with my daughter when the high was 37 degrees, I feel completely comfortable recommending the city as a great destination for fall, when it's considered one of the top leaf-watching spots in the world.

The college town offers history, fine dining, art, music and great outdoor adventures.

I went with my daughter Charlotte in March to check out the University of Vermont, which was on her short list of potential colleges. The day we arrived, we suited up in our borrowed boots and down jackets and strolled the Church Street Marketplace, a pedestrian shopping area closed to traffic for several blocks in the center of downtown.

The 201-year-old First Unitarian Universalist Society church sits at the top of the street, which is lined with independent stores and chains including Urban Outfitters, Lululemon and L.L. Bean. During nice weather, this is where all the farmers markets, musical festivals and arts shows take place.

There are about 100 restaurants, shops, galleries and theaters in downtown Burlington, which lies between the University of Vermont and Lake Champlain. Businesses are housed in historic buildings dating back to the early 1800s with Art Deco and modern facades as well. The structure height of all new construction is restricted to maintain the historic town and not block views of the lake and the Adirondack Mountains. Yes, one minute you're in fun, interesting shops and eateries, the next, you walk out to the street and look up at beautiful, sweeping mountains.

We ate dinner at Pascolo Ristorante, a cozy rustic-chic Italian place that has crisp wood-fired pizza, pasta and some regional New England wines. Though the weather can hamper supply during the winter, many restaurants design their menus around local produce and, of course, local cheese.

Burlington's reigning star of the restaurant scene is Hen of the Wood, owned by chef Eric Warnstedt, who has been nominated seven of the past eight years for Best Chef of the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. The menu includes winter squash fritters, ham-wrapped rabbit loin with apples, locally caught trout, Gulf of Maine hake and brown butter crepes filled with chanterelles, house-made ricotta, braised leeks and squash. Fireplaces bookend the restaurant, which was built with rustic barn wood, vintage doors and salvaged windows. Don't even think about trying to go there without a reservation made at least a few weeks out.

For a slightly lower-brow meal, there's Zabby & Elf's Stone Soup, where sweets, sandwiches, soups and other hot dishes are made from scratch daily. The menu also offers many vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. (Remember, this is Birkenstock country.)

Our second day started with a tour of UVM. Fun fact: The abbreviation doesn't cut the state's name in half, but stands for the Latin words Universitas Viridis Montis, or University of the Green Mountains. Founded in 1791, it's the sixth-oldest college established in New England. The campus is beautiful and old but the students and faculty are very forward-thinking with initiatives like self-sustaining buildings and a bottled-water ban. UVM is also one of a dozen colleges in the country to get 20 percent of its food from local suppliers. After meeting a diverse group of students, watching hockey practice and spending too much money at the Catamount bookstore, we walked a mile down the hill to downtown Burlington.

This time we veered off Church Street to smaller side streets and bought lip balm at a co-op grocery store where members get a 12 percent discount in exchange for volunteering four hours a month. We browsed in three record stores and spent a while at Old Gold vintage clothing.

We walked to the base of town and gazed across Lake Champlain to New York, then warmed up inside the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. It's smaller than the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, but still worth the 45 minutes we spent there.

The Skinny Pancake, which serves more than 40 kinds of crepes, was worth the whole trip. I had one oozing with melted Brie and Vermont apples for lunch and another with Nutella, bananas and whipped cream for dessert. Charlotte's crepe was filled with caramelized onions, spiced vegetables, black beans, rice and salsa. The place is packed with locals and tourists scanning chalkboard menus on the walls. (If you don't make it to the Skinny Pancake in the stone building across from Lake Champlain, there's one at the airport with a full menu that also sells Vermont maple syrup past the security check points so you can take it home in your carry-on.)

Spend a couple of days in Burlington and you'll find live music is almost as much of a staple as syrup and cheese. It's the birthplace of the group Phish, after all. Coffee shops, diners, bars and theaters host local and touring performers almost every night. Popular joints include Radio Bean, Monkey Bar, Nectar's and the Light Club Lamp Shop, which also sells an array of vintage lamps.

You can get a great taste of the outdoors within town on the Burlington Greenway, an 8-mile, paved bike path with shoulders for runners and walkers. It winds from Oakledge Park to the Winooski River, along the Lake Champlain shoreline and through residential neighborhoods. The area also boasts an array of hikes from shorter outings up hills to all-day treks up mountains. The Long Trail, less than an hour away, offers 270 miles including the revered Camel's Hump.

The only thing more synonymous with Vermont than snow and fall leaves is Ben & Jerry's. The ice cream was first sold in 1978 at an old gas station on College Street. The building no longer stands, but there is a plaque in the sidewalk. The Ben & Jerry's factory in Waterbury offers a 30-minute guided tour that starts ever half-hour, featuring the Flavor Graveyard, where visitors can pay respects to "dearly de-depinted" flavors.

We didn't take the tour, but since my daughter is going to be going to UVM next year, I'll definitely get a chance to pay my full respects to Ben and Jerry.

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at [email protected]