Centrally located in Connecticut, the capital city of Hartford might not draw in as many visitors as some other New England capital cities, but Hartford’s smaller size makes it a manageable day trip for many. And in the summer, Hartford’s lovely parks and rich history offer plenty for visitors to discover while enjoying the outdoors.
It being June when I visited, I started my day at Elizabeth Park in the city’s west end. Of the park’s 102 acres, it is arguably most celebrated for its 1904 rose garden, the oldest municipally-operated garden of its kind in the country, with varieties including ramblers, climbers, and shrubs in a host of colors. Named “Best Rose Garden” by Yankee Magazine in its “Best Public Gardens | 2014 Home & Garden Awards,” it’s described as “a heady 2.1-acre paradise of wall-to-wall roses, with arches muffled in climbers and Technicolor beds of unfurling buds in every shade of white, red, pink, yellow, and orange—more than 800 varieties in all.”
The fragrance as you stroll is heavenly. The perfume is especially nice as a feature of the park’s annual free summer concert series, taking place in the garden on select Wednesday evenings throughout the warmer months.
Benches encourage sitting, and many do. After all, how often in life can you truly “stop and smell the roses” in the nation’s oldest public rose garden and its 3rd largest?
If you’re hungry, a short stroll from the rose garden is the Pond House Cafe, where local, fresh and organic ingredients are served up for lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, with outdoor seating during nice weather. If it’s just a quick bite you’re after, the Dog House take-out window is also open later in the day and offers hot dogs, ice cream, and cold drinks.
The park is nearly as popular with wildlife as it is with humans.
Just remember to keep your crumbs to yourself!
And by all means, enjoy the view from any of the park’s many scenic spots.
Leaving the natural beauty of Elizabeth Park behind, I headed downtown (just a 10 minute drive) in search of something to eat and some history. Since it was lunchtime on a weekday, downtown Hartford was bustling with office workers enjoying the sunshine and growing number of food trucks.
I made my way to the closest truck with the longest line, Mr. B’s Seafood Express.
Fried haddock, french fries, and the current issue of Yankee under sunny skies. What could be better?
After lunch, it was time for a history lesson.
Named “Best Historic Capital” by Yankee Magazine in its “Best of Hartford, CT | 2013 Editors’ Choice Awards,” the Connecticut Old State House is an ideal spot to sample Hartford’s rich past. The 1796 building is believed to have been designed by famed architect Charles Bulfinch as his first public building, and it was one of Connecticut’s two official state houses. The other was in New Haven. Government business would alternate between the two from year to year until 1873, when all of the action moved to Hartford permanently. When a new Hartford Capitol building opened in 1878, the old one served as City Hall until 1915. Since then, it has avoided demolition more than once (sometimes quite closely) to become one of Hartford’s most engaging and enduring historic landmarks.
After admiring the outside, I headed inside for a quick look. The friendly staff offer guided tours, but if you prefer to go it alone or are pressed for time (like I was) they’ll hand you a laminated guide to refer to as you visit the rooms. (Ed. Note: As of the summer of 2016, the Old State House has been closed ‘until further notice’ due to state budget cuts.)
A lot of history has happened in the Old State House, most notably the 1839 start of the Amistad trial made famous in the 1997 Steven Spielberg film. Heading upstairs, the Statue of Justice offers a silent and imposing greeting. A gilt-covered wooden statue, she was first placed atop the State House cupola in 1827, where she remained for nearly 150 years, until it was decided to bring her inside in 1976 for preservation’s sake. Today, a fiberglass replica is on the top of the building.
To the right is the yellow Federal-style Senate Chamber, with its original Gilbert Stuart Washington portrait. The portrait was commissioned by the Connecticut General Assembly following Washington’s death in 1799, and it’s been in the same spot ever since. The Governor’s Council met privately in this room until the 1818 Connecticut Constitution dissolved the Council and formed the elected Senate. At that time, the railing and benches were added so the public could view the proceedings.
Across the hall is the Victorian-style House Chamber. A few of the notable legislators who served here include showman P.T. Barnum and American Dictionary author Noah Webster.
Across from the Statue of Justice (leaving the politics behind for a moment) is a horse (or boar, or alligator, or 2-headed calf) of an entirely different color — the “Museum of Curiosities.”
Confused? I was! But also more than a little fascinated. It turns out that in 1796, the state General Assembly granted Rev. Joseph Steward permission to use space in the Old State House as a portrait studio. A year later, he established a “Curiosity Room” on the third floor featuring wonders and treasures from around the world. Reproduced today a floor below, Steward’s collection, which includes a two-headed calf, enormous lobster claw, butterfly specimens, an upside-down alligator suspended overhead, and more (much more), is as interesting as ever.
In the building’s lowest level lies its most colorful and interactive exhibits. In the Mortensen Gallery, “History is All Around Us” explores over 300 years of Hartford’s and Connecticut’s history through photographs and objects in an engaging, fun, and informative way that’s both kid-friendly and interesting for adults.
A few minutes walk away from the Old State House was my final slice of summer in Hartford — Bushnell Park. The park is named after Reverend Horace Bushnell, who first presented the idea of a public park financed by public funds. Now the oldest publicly funded park in the United States, Bushnell Park (built in 1868) attracts both locals and visitors with summer concerts, guided historic tours, and even an art gallery. Unfortunately, I only had time for a quick visit and didn’t get to see some of the park’s key features like the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch and Corning Fountain, but it’s hard to miss the rising golden dome of the 1876 Capitol.
The park calls itself “an oasis in the heart of the city where people from all walks of life come to renew their spirit and energy,” and sure enough, I saw many of the city’s residents strolling the park’s paths or enjoying a book on one of its benches.
My favorite Bushnell Park attraction is the park’s 1914 Stein and Goldstein carousel, a fixture in Hartford since 1974. For just $1 a ride, visitors are treated to an old-fashioned ride right back to childhood. Celebrating its 100th birthday in 2014, the Bushnell Park carousel is a treasure.
And finally, since it just wouldn’t be a visit to historic Hartford without it, before heading home I made a quick stop at the Mark Twain House and Museum nearby on Farmington Avenue, decked out for the upcoming holiday with patriotic bunting. You don’t have to pay the admission fee to take a look and enjoy a quick lap around the house, so I took advantage of the museum’s kindness and did just that. The perfect ending to my day in Hartford.
Which Hartford attraction is your favorite?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.