Summer in Hartford, Connecticut | Gardens, Parks, and History

A summer visit to the Connecticut capital of Hartford, with stops at the Elizabeth Park rose garden, historic Old State House, and the Bushnell Park carousel.

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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.”

elizabeth park rose garden

The famous rose garden at Elizabeth Park.

Aimee Seavey

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.

elizabeth park roses

Roses, roses, everywhere.

Aimee Seavey

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?

elizabeth park roses bench

Stop to smell the roses in Elizabeth Park.

Aimee Seavey

elizabeth park gazebo

A gazebo sits in the center of the Elizabeth Park roses.

Aimee Seavey

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.

elizabeth park pond house cafe

A rear view of the Pond House Cafe in Elizabeth Park.

Aimee Seavey

The park is nearly as popular with wildlife as it is with humans.

elizabeth park baby geese

Hopeful geese of all ages glide by on the lookout for crumbs.

Aimee Seavey

Just remember to keep your crumbs to yourself!

elizabeth park

Signs warn visitors not to feed the fowl, but I saw more than a few breaking the rules!

Aimee Seavey

And by all means, enjoy the view from any of the park’s many scenic spots.

elizabeth park bridge

Enjoy the park’s many beautiful views.

Aimee Seavey

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.

hartford seafood express food cart

A handful of food trucks are popular lunch spots.

Aimee Seavey

Fried haddock, french fries, and the current issue of Yankee under sunny skies. What could be better?

hartford fish and chips

Fish and chips and the latest issue of Yankee makes for a great lunch!

Aimee Seavey

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.)

hartford old state house

Connecticut’s Old State House in downtown Hartford — quiet at 3:20 PM but bustling with food trucks and office workers at lunch time.

Aimee Seavey

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.

Connecticut Old State House Statue of Justice

The gilt-covered wooden Statue of Justice once spent nearly 150 years on the State House cupola.

Aimee Seavey

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.

Connecticut Old State House Senate Chamber

A portrait of Washington hangs in Senate Chamber at the Connecticut Old State House.

Aimee Seavey

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.

Connecticut Old State House House Chamber

The House Chamber in the Connecticut Old State House.

Aimee Seavey

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.”

hartford museum of curiosities

Steward’s “Museum of Curiosities” is not to be missed.

Aimee Seavey

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.

old state house fire truck

A 1912 fire engine is part of the on the “History is All Around Us” exhibit in the lower level Mortensen Gallery.

Aimee Seavey

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.

bushnell park state house

The gold dome of the “new” State House creates a lovely scene in Bushnell Park.

Aimee Seavey

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.

bushnell park sphericon sculpture

Spot the sphericon (and the heron) in Bushnell Park.

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.

bushnell park carousel

Take a spin on the historic Bushnell Park carousel. Just $1 a ride!

Aimee Seavey

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.

hartford mark twain house

The Mark Twain House in Hartford.

Aimee Seavey

Which Hartford attraction is your favorite?

This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.

  • Dorothy

    This is a great article on our capitol city. I love taking photos at Elizabeth and Bushnell Parks. Sadly, due to increasing amounts of financial mismanagement by our legislature, the Old State House is being closed down for an extended time. We are understandable upset that funds can’t be found to keep this treasure open.

  • Thanks so much for sharing, Mona! Weren’t the roses beautiful? I loved hearing that you rode the carousel twice, and that the staff (and your husband) were so helpful. :) Keep an eye out for more about the Bushnell Park Carousel in an upcoming issue!

  • We had a wonderful day in Hartford last Friday. With no agenda planned, we stumbled across Elizabeth Park & had an excellent lunch at the Pond Cafe. Then it was on to Bushnell Park where we rode on the Carousel – twice. Although I had difficulty getting up on the horse (I’m 78 yrs old and not very agile) a nice young man brought me a stool to climb onto & with my husband’s help lifting my leg over the top……well you can imagine the sight that must have been!

    We had already been to the Mark Twain House & Harriet Beecher Stowe House and hope to visit there again. Thanks Hartford !

  • I LOVED visiting Mark Twain’s house around Thanksgiving. It was so beautifully decorated for the holiday and showed the family side of Twain as well as the literary side. I need to go back because I missed my timing on seeing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house!

  • After visiting Mark Twain house visitors can walk across the lawn to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house!


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