Only have a day or two? From connecting with a literary lion to exploring a garden paradise, here are five of the very best things to do in Hartford, Connecticut.
By Yankee Staff
Aug 31 2021
Looking for a break from urbanity? Wander through paradise at Elizabeth Park in Hartford, Connecticut.Photo Credit : Aimee Tucker
Like a pendant on silver necklace, the city of Hartford, Connecticut, sits on the longest and most powerful river in New England, the Connecticut River, as it makes its sinuous way to the Atlantic Ocean. Key to the early fortunes of this city — especially in terms of shipbuilding and trade — the river today is a respite for urban dwellers, who enjoy miles of paths and bridges through four waterside parks. Even more fresh-air escapes are scattered across Hartford, which was at the fore of the national movement toward creating green spaces in cities and now boasts more than 2,300 acres of park land.
A verdant backdrop is just the beginning of what this capital city has to offer. It’s home to such cultural treasures as the Wadsworth Atheneum, the nation’s oldest public art museum, and literary landmarks including Mark Twain’s ornate Victorian home. Foodies visiting Hartford will find everything from award-winning barbecue joints to river-view fine dining (and even, according to Food & Wine, one of the best coffeeshops in America). You could easily spend a week or more exploring this welcoming river city and its environs, but if you have just a day or two, here are the five best things to do in Hartford, Connecticut.
Mark Twain considered his years spent in Hartford to be the best of his life. He was already acclaimed throughout the world when he and his family came to live in the city’s Nook Farm neighborhood in 1871, and his best-known works — including the tales of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn — were written in the magnificent 25-room mansion he built there. Filled with art and artifacts including Tiffany glass and many original furnishings, the house is open to the public as a museum. Even better, it sits next door to another literary attraction, the Victorian cottage where Harriet Beecher Stowe lived the last two decades or so of her life.
Situated in an impressive castle-like Gothic building in downtown Hartford, America’s oldest continuously operating public art museum has been growing its collection since the brushstrokes on Hudson River School landscapes were barely dry. A $33 million renovation completed in 2015 revitalized exhibit spaces for some 50,000 works spanning 5,000 years of human creativity. Highlights include works by Dalí, Magritte, Monet, and Renoir, as well as masters of the aforementioned Hudson River School — Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt — a movement showcased at the Wadsworth with whopping 60-plus artworks.
From June to October, America’s oldest municipally operated rose garden is the undisputed star of Elizabeth Park, a 100-acre urban Eden in West Hartford. There’s more than two acres 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. (It’s no wonder that brides line up on weekends to snap photos under the blooms.) The rest of Elizabeth Park is equally entrancing, from the playgrounds and walking trails to the expansive East Lawn topped with a scenic overlook.
Connecticut’s original seat of government from 1796 to 1878, the Old State House is a Federal-style restoration that comes alive with guides in period costume and Joseph Steward’s Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities (including a “unicorn” horn, a mummy’s hand, and a two-headed calf). Nearby, at the gold-domed State Capitol, you can learn how the state government works today. And don’t miss the 50-acre Bushnell Park, next to the Capitol grounds, the oldest publicly funded park in the United States (built in 1868).
Immediately south of Hartford on the Connecticut River is a treasure trove for fans of historic architecture. The largest historic district in Connecticut, Old Wethersfield boasts 50 houses built before the Revolutionary War; 100 built by the time of the Civil War; and another 150 built shortly thereafter. On Main Street you’ll find the trio of beauties from the 1700s that now compose the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, including a home where, in fact, George Washington slept.
What did we miss? Let us know your picks for the best things to do in Hartford, Connecticut, in the comments below.