New Haven, Conn., may very well be the Rodney Dangerfield of American cities. When I told co-workers I was heading there for the weekend, the reactions were fairly consistent. Eyes flew wide open; chins dropped and voices hit levels almost inaudible to all except dogs. "New Haven? Connecticut?'' was the chorus. Yes, New Haven.

New Haven, Conn., may very well be the Rodney Dangerfield of American cities.

When I told co-workers I was heading there for the weekend, the reactions were fairly consistent. Eyes flew wide open; chins dropped and voices hit levels almost inaudible to all except dogs.

"New Haven? Connecticut?'' was the chorus.

Yes, New Haven.

New Haven may have lost a lot of respect during the 1970s and 1980s when Yale University urged students not to stray from campus into the city itself. But under a newer administration, the school has embraced its hometown and helped revive what was, in 1639, America's first planned city.

Naturally, Yale is New Haven's raison d'etre and a good starting place for your tour. The Mead Visitor Center (149 Elm St.; www.yale.edu/visitor) offers an insider's look at one of America's top universities with free student-led tours seven days a week.

Once we slipped past the gates it was like being transported to the set of a Merchant and Ivory film as we stood in the middle of the verdant Old Campus Yard, surrounded by limestone buildings with gabled roofs and stained glass windows.

Yale, which started out as the Collegiate School in 1701, consists of 12 residential colleges with such Anglicized names as Jonathan Edwards, Farnam and Lanman-Wright.

Students are randomly placed in one of the colleges, where they will spend the next four years living. Each college includes sleeping quarters, dining rooms and even movie theaters or bowling alleys in which the 400 or so other residents of the college socialize.

Although a peek inside a typical dorm room wasn't included, we did get a chance to visit the Commons Dining Hall, which has dark brown, two-story walls and rows of long tables - the setting would not be out of place in a Harry Potter movie.

Off campus, too, there are plenty of places to grab a bite or luxuriate over a five-course dinner, New Haven being a bit of a foodie enclave.

The doyenne of the New Haven culinary scene is Claire Criscuolo, who runs Claire's Corner Copia (1000 Chapel St.; www.clairescornercopia.com).

For more than 30 years, Criscuolo has fed students and townies alike with her vegetarian creations that rely on homegrown and organic ingredients. A salad may include a base of organic spinach topped with succulent pears, pleasingly tart dried cranberries and finished with a flourish of creamy, slightly salty feta cheese.

Criscuolo sees her job as more than satisfying her customers' hunger. She said she wants to fill their souls as well through education on making better food choices and supporting local farmers. Each month, through her Coins for Causes program, all the money placed in a collection jar by the cash register goes to a different charity.

Last year, Claire's customers helped raise $600 to assist New Haven's immigrant community, gave $1,000 to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and $200 to the Walk for AIDS, organized by Yale students.

``It speaks to what this restaurant is,'' said Criscuolo. ``We are feeding people, nourishing people and nurturing people. It's a 10-burner stove of social activism.''

At Zinc (964 Chapel St.; www.zincfood.com), chef/owner Denise Appel uses Connecticut farm products to whip up dishes like wild boar ragout with orecchiette and seared sea scallops with Jerusalem artichoke butter sauce that would feel at home in any top New York City eatery.

But if you're looking for the real New Haven experience head to Louis' Lunch, which claims to be the home of America's first hamburger.

As the story goes, in 1900 a customer came in and asked for something fast that he could eat on the run. Louis Lassen reportedly stuck a broiled beef patty between two slices of bread and sent the guy on his way.

Today, Louis' Lunch continues to offer its burgers on toasted Pepperidge Farm bread adorned with only cheese, tomato and onion. Ketchup is a four-letter word here.

Although up for debate, Frank Pepe Pizzeria (157 Wooster St.; www.pepespizzeria.com), established in 1925, claims to be one of the first places to sell pizza in the U.S. Try the white clam pie, with or without mozzarella, served on a thin crust and overflowing with shellfish.

When you're ready for something sweet, flag down The Cupcake Truck.

Basically a mobile bakeshop, The Cupcake Truck (www.followthatcupcake.com) is almost as if the Good Humor man and Sara Lee had a baby.

Choose from chocolate, red velvet, sweet potato pecan or lemon meringue cakes. Then add a different frosting flavor and even more toppings like M&Ms, chocolate chips or rainbow sprinkles.

Once you fill your tummy, take a little time to exercise your brain at one of the city's cultural hotspots.

Catch a Broadway-bound musical at the city's Shubert Theater on College Street. Or try and spot the next Meryl Streep (a famous alum) among the Yale School of Drama students performing at the Yale Repertory Theatre (www.yalerep.org) on Chapel Street.

If you like your art non-performing, New Haven has you covered at one of Yale's free museums.

Check out the Yale Center for British Art (1080 Chapel St.; www.yale.edu) which purports to have the largest collection of British paintings, prints and rare books outside of Great Britain.

The museum, which originated with the collections of Paul Mellon, includes works by some of the most respected English artists, including Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner.

Even the museum structure is impressive for its Modernism style, designed by Louis Kahn and completed after his death in 1974.

Across the street sits Kahn's first major commission, an extension to the Yale University Art Gallery (Chapel and High streets; www.artgallery.yale.edu) which is the oldest college art museum in the country. Started in 1832 with a donation from John Trumbull on the condition he be buried with his collection - and he is buried somewhere in the building - the museum now houses more than 185,000 pieces from the ancient world to the present.

There are photographs, sculptures, tribal pieces and jewelry sprinkled throughout the three-story building. Asian and African art share floor space with works by Americans and Europeans. The modern display includes paintings by Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol.

If you time it right, you can actually hang out with a Yale class. The day I was there, an art history professor was holding court near some of the religious icons while a French class practiced conversations amid the Impressionists.

So when you return home, you can claim you sat in on a few Yale classes. That should earn you some respect from friends and co-workers unless, of course, they attended Harvard.

If you go

GETTING THERE: The drive to New Haven from Boston is just over two hours, or take Amtrak (www.amtrak.com), which operates about a dozen daily train trips between Boston and New Haven's Union Station; from under $100 roundtrip for regular service, around $200 for Acela.

STAYING THERE: New Haven's newest downtown hotel, The Study at Yale (866-930-1157; www.studyhotels.com) opened last fall across the street from Yale's School of Art. The 124-room facility offers such guestroom niceties as overstuffed leather chairs, a computer workstation below a wall of windows and seersucker bathrobes. Room rates from $209 per night.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.newhavencvb.org.

Find more travel features and the Get Away with Fran blog at www.wickedlocal.com/travel