You can't miss the gold dome of the Vermont Statehouse. Montpelier's "bling," as a couple of local teen rappers once described the building, doubles as the seat of the Vermont General Assembly. The building is open to the public all summer, with weekday tours every half hour from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. On Saturday, it's 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. If all the old portraits pique your interest, follow up at the Vermont History Museum in the Pavilion Building. Its permanent 5000-square-foot exhibit "tells the story of Vermont's people from 1600 to the present," according to the website. "Using Vermont's motto, 'Freedom and Unity,' as its thematic cornerstone, the exhibition shows visitors how Vermonters have always balanced individual freedoms and community." It includes a short video on Vermont's tradition of civil public discourse, featuring footage from the heated civil unions debate of 2000.
Perhaps because it hosts the political establishment, Montpelier tends to take a rebel stand. A small town with no McDonald's, it's got good, albeit crunchy, taste - and a couple of New England Culinary Institute-operated restaurants in town. The Saturday Capital City Farmers Market is among the top 10 in the country, according to EatingWell magazine. The Hunger Mountain Co-op is first rate.
Montpelier does a lot with a little: The independent Savoy Theater is completely devoted to smart, "art-house" fare and the popcorn comes with optional brewers' yeast; Bear Pond Books hosts readings by local award-winning authors; and in the era of Amazon, Borders and Barnes & Noble, Buch Spieler remains a real music store (it also has great cards. The city supports two local theater companies - at least in the summer. Lost Nation Theater works tirelessly all year round at Montpelier City Hall. And 10 miles north on a dirt road, Unadilla Theater presents surprising "summer fare."
The forest is never far away when you're in central Vermont. In Montpelier, there's a 28-acre reserve on Elm Street. The North Branch Nature Center maintains a network of hiking trails along the Winooski River and through Hubbard Park that links up with a similar system in East Montpelier. Nature programs for all ages include summer camps for kids, lecture series and amphibian monitoring programs.
If there were railroad tracks between Barre and Montpelier, Barre would be "on the other side" of them. It's a working-class city that sprang up around the region's remarkable granite quarries, which are still producing world-class stone. The original laborers were immigrants from Italy and Scotland. Contemporary quarriers are still at work at the Rock of Ages Quarry, where you can observe artisans cutting massive blocks of stone as well as sculpting memorials. Self-guided factory tours can be arranged weekdays from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Quarry tours out of the visitor center run from 9:15 to 3:35 Monday through Saturday. The Vermont Granite Museum of Barre documents the history, geology and technology of the dangerous trade that cut many Vermont lives short. Accidents were common, but a lunch ailment known as silicosis was the biggest killer. The personalized memorials granite workers made for each other - and many other people - are all over the city's remarkable Hope Cemetery. Don't miss Elia Corti's grave. A socialist activist, he got shot at a rally in the recently restored Old Labor Hall.
How do the people of modern-day Barre blow off steam? If it's summer, they go to the Thunder Road SpeedBowl, atop Quarry Hill. Every Thursday night and Sunday afternoon, thousands make the trek to "the nation's site of excitement" to watch mostly local drivers compete in street-stock and late-model races. There's even a state senator (now a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor) - Phil Scott - tearing around the track.
Budweiser and fried dough aren't your speed? There's a nonmotorized way to explore quarry country: The Bike Touring Center at Millstone Hill in East Barre maintains a 50-plus-mile network of bike trails - both challenging singletrack and more moderate ones - that circle dozens of old quarries and "grout" pile lookouts. One hundred years ago, it was the site of a small, independent quarry operation, one of more than 75 in the area. Millstone offers camping, too, and indoor accommodations start at $95.
No trip to central Vermont would be complete without a hike up Hunger Mountain. The four-hour hike is considered "advanced" by the Green Mountain Club. The reward - on a clear day - is stunning views of the Green and White mountains. The most popular approach is from the Waterbury side, but you can also get there from Middlesex.