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Montpelier: 13 miles SE of Waterbury; 9 miles NW of Barre; 178 miles NW of Boston; and 39 miles SE of Burlington

Montpelier may very be the most down-home, low-key state capital in the U.S. (and it's certainly the one with the smallest population); the glistening, iconic gold dome of the capitol building is about the only showy or pretentious thing in the entire city. Rising up behind it isn't a bank of mirror-sided skyscrapers but a thickly forested hill. Montpelier, it turns out, isn't a self-important center of politics, just a small town that happened to become home to state government. Restaurants, coffee shops, and diverse cultures flowed in as a result, and today it's quite an agreeable place to pass an afternoon or stay a night if you yearn to know how small-town Vermont really ticks. Yes, the capitol is worth a quick visit, as is the local historical society; more than that, though, Montpelier is worth visiting to experience a small, clean New England town that's more than a little friendly and cultured.

Montpelier is centered on two main boulevards: State Street, lined with government buildings, and Main Street, where many of the town's stores and restaurants are found. It's all quite compact and cordial -- and walkable. The downtown sports a pair of hardware stores next door to each another, good shops, and the Savoy Theater (tel. 802/229-0509 or 802/229-0598), one of the best art movie houses in northern New England. A large cup of cider and popcorn slathered with real, unclarified butter here costs less than a small popcorn at a mega-mall cinema anywhere else.

Nearby Barre (pronounced "Barry") is more commercial and less charming, with more of a blue-collar, red-state ethos than Montpelier, and it shares an equally important past: This was once the hub of Vermont's huge granite quarrying industry. A connection to the granite industry is still glimpsed occasionally, from the granite curbstones lining Barre's long Main Street to the signs for commercial establishments carved out of locally hewn rock. Barre attracted talented stone workers from Italy and Scotland (it even has a statue of Robert Burns), who helped give the turn-of-the-20th-century town a lively, cosmopolitan flavor.

About 10 miles west of Montpelier, Waterbury is at the juncture of Route 100 and I-89, making it a commercial center by default if not by design. Set along the Winooski River, it tends to sprawl more than other Vermont towns, perhaps in part because of the flood of 1927, which came close to leveling the town. It's also because the town has attracted an inexplicable number of food companies (including Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Store and Green Mountain Coffee) that have built factories and outlets in what were once pastures. With its location between Montpelier and Burlington, and its easy access to Stowe and Sugarbush, Waterbury has begun to attract those looking for the good life.

Downtown, with its brick commercial architecture and sampling of handsome early homes, is worth a brief tour, but most travelers are either passing through or looking for "that ice-cream place." Despite its drive-through quality, Waterbury makes a decent home base for further explorations in the Green Mountains; in Burlington, 25 miles to the west; and in Montpelier just to the east.