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Lately billed as New England's rising star, the Insurance City Connecticut's state capital is making a comeback from its low point in the early 1990s when people, jobs, retailers and the major-league hockey franchise left for greener pastures. A revitalized downtown riverfront, a convention center and a hotel-retail-cultural-entertainment complex called Adriaen's Landing were in the works in the new millennium to supplement the buildings of Constitution Plaza, the nation's earliest urban renewal project.
Hartford has many sites of visitor interest. The gold-domed State Capitol and surrounding state government buildings overlook Bushnell Park, a 37-acre downtown expanse of greenery laid out by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It boasts a working carousel of 48 prancing horses and the city-sponsored Pump House Gallery. Beside the park is the newly expanded Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Gravestones date to 1663 in the Ancient Burying Ground, in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers. The Butler-McCook Homestead at 396 Main St. reflects the changing tastes of the family that occupied it from 1782 to 1971. The state-of-the-art Learning Corridor along Broad Street provides a new gateway from downtown to the Trinity College campus. Adjacent to the Mark Twain House in Nook Farm is the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, including the restored home of the author. Elizabeth Park straddling the Hartford/West Hartford border harbors the oldest municipal rose garden in the country.
The Mark Twain House, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford.
Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) had this extravagant, red brick Victorian Gothic mansion designed to resemble a Mississippi River steamboat. He built it in 1873 in Hartford, a publishing center that was America's richest city per-capita at the time and the most beautiful city he ever hoped to see. He referred to this variously as his "dream house," a "palace" and "the loveliest home that ever was," and he and his family lived there for seventeen years at the height of his career. He and other residents gathered about them in the surrounding Nook Farm area the leading literary and artistic lights of the day. The nineteen-room mansion with wraparound porches and towering turrets is where he penned several of his masterpieces. Shown on informative guided tours, the interior is a showplace of Victorian riches. Clemens commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to decorate the first floor, which is one of only two surviving Tiffany-designed interiors open to the public. Full of fascination, the house contains many pieces of Clemens family furniture, including Twain's ornate Venetian bed, his billiards table and an intricately carved mantel from a Scottish castle.
(860) 493-6411. www.marktwainhouse.org. Open Monday-Saturday 9:30 to 5, Sunday noon to 5. Closed Tuesday, Columbus Day to Memorial Day, except December. Adults $9, children $5.
Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St., Hartford.
This art museum is the nation's oldest (1842) and considered among the twelve finest in the country. The early emphasis was on American landscape and historical paintings by prominent artists who were friends of founder Daniel Wadsworth. J. Pierpoint Morgan's gift of 1,325 works in 1917 added priceless European paintings and decorative arts. Under longtime director A. Everett Austin Jr., the Atheneum created one of the most important collections of baroque art in America and gained a national reputation for leadership and daring. Among its more than 50,000 works of art are distinguished collections of Old Master paintings, English and American silver, German and French porcelains, costumes and textiles, Colt firearms and innovative contemporary American art. The Wallace Nutting collection of Pilgrim-Century furniture and decorative arts is the largest of its kind. The Amistad Foundation African-American Collection documents the history of African-American culture from the slave period to the present. The Atheneum is renowned for its collection of Hudson River School landscape paintings, the largest in the world, and for its Matrix Gallery of changing contemporary exhibitions and performances, one of the first of its kind in the country. More than fifteen special exhibitions a year, some of them world-class, are staged. The Museum Café serves innovative lunch fare during museum hours. The museum undertook a major expansion program in 2002.
(860) 278-2670. www.wadsworthatheneum.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 to 5. Adults $7, children $3.
Old State House, 800 Main St., Hartford.
Dwarfed by surrounding office towers, this 1796 Federal-style building designed by Charles Bulfinch is the nation's oldest statehouse. The building is opened and closed each day with a salute from a Revolutionary War cannon. It was the site of George Washington's first meeting with the French during the Revolution and the celebrated 1839 Amistad trial, which is re-enacted regularly in the Great Senate Chamber. The Senate Chamber is restored to its original look in 1796 and the House Chamber to the 1877 period when it was used by City Hall. Costumed interpreters portray pivotal figures in Connecticut history. Children enjoy Mr. Steward's Museum of Curiosities and its two-headed calf.
(860) 522-6766. Open Monday-Friday 10 to 4, Saturday 11 to 4. Free.
>> Hartford Lodging and Dining Suggestions
The Goodwin Hotel, l Haynes St., Hartford. (860) 246-7500 or (800) 922-5006.
>> Hartford Dining Suggestions
Max Downtown, 185 Asylum St., Hartford. (860) 522-2530.
Peppercorns Grill, 357 Main St., Hartford. (860) 547-1714.
Spris, 10 Constitution Plaza, Hartford. (860) 247-7747.
Pastis, 201 Ann St., Hartford. (860) 278-8852.
Trumbull Kitchen, 150 Trumbull St., Hartford. (860) 493-7412.
Carbone's Ristorante, 588 Franklin Ave., Hartford. (860) 296-9646. Click here to read a capsule review.
Costa del Sol, 901 Wethersfield Ave., Hartford. (860) 296-1714.
But for the area's mega-malls, tree-lined West Hartford Center could lay claim to being the retailing mecca for the Hartford region (indeed, a regional magazine called it "the new downtown" for Greater Hartford). As locally owned stores and boutiques sprouted in the heart of Hartford's largest suburb, so did coffee outlets and restaurants. Boosters declared West Hartford Center the restaurant capital of Central Connecticut and one leading restaurateur confirmed that more than half his bookings come from outside the metropolitan area.
The Noah Webster House/Museum of West Hartford History, a 1758 saltbox-style Colonial at 227 South Main St., is the birthplace of the man who Americanized the English language with his "Blue-Backed Speller" and the first American dictionary. Across town on the University of Hartford campus, the Museum of American Political Life is full of fascinating presidential campaign memorabilia.
>> West Hartford Dining Suggestions
Grants Restaurant & Bar, 977 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. (860) 236-1930.
Max's Oyster Bar, 964 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. (860) 236-6299.
Restaurant Bricco, 78 LaSalle Road, West Hartford. (860) 233-0220. Click here to read capsule review.
The Elbow Room, 986 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. (860) 236-6195.
Arugula, 953 Farmington Ave., West Hartford. (860) 561-4888.
Farmington, an aristocratic town dating to 1645, straddles the Farmington River and ascends Talcott Mountain, which separates the Farmington Valley from West Hartford and Hartford. Farmington is the home of the prestigious Miss Porter's School (called simply "Farmington" by its illustrious alumnae) and some of the Hartford area's largest estates as well as office parks and corporate headquarters. A country club occupies one of the four corners in the center of town. Stately white homes built by merchants and bankers in the Revolutionary era still line the main street.
Hill-Stead Museum, 35 Mountain Road, Farmington.
This cultural treasure is important on three fronts: art, architecture and furnishings. The 36-room white clapboard house with rambling wings and a Mount Vernon facade is considered one of the finest Colonial Revival country houses in America. The house was designed by Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the country's first female architects, as a retirement home for her parents, Alfred and Ada Pope. Willed as a museum by its designer and last occupant, it's a pleasantly personal masterpiece of a mansion that remains just as she left it. Arrayed on its walls is the matchless repertoire of one of the earliest American collectors of Impressionist paintings before they became fashionable what Henry James in 1907 called "wondrous examples of Manet, of Degas, of Claude Monet, of Whistler." The furnishings include remarkable mementos of an early 20th-century family, from Corinthian pottery and Chinese porcelain to a first edition of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary and a handwritten letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt. The 150-acre property's elaborate sunken gardens, designed by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, have been reconstructed to their pre-1925 state. A Sunken Garden Poetry Festival is held in the gardens every summer.
(860) 677-4787. www.hillstead.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 to 5, May-October; 11 to 4, rest of year. Adults $9, children $4.
Stanley-Whitman House, 37 High St., Farmington.
The most painstakingly accurate restoration to have been undertaken in a New England house preceded the reopening of this 1720 structure that houses the Farmington Museum, one of the best examples of an early frame overhang house in New England. With rare diamond-paned windows, it is furnished with early American pieces, many the gifts of local residents. The house offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and conditions enjoyed or endured by the early colonists. The grounds reflect the utilitarian uses of a Colonial dooryard garden with culinary, medicinal and herbal plantings.(860) 677-9222. www.stanleywhitman.org. Open May-October, Wednesday-Sunday noon to 4; rest of year, Saturday and Sunday noon to 4. Adults $5, children $2.
>> Farmington Lodging Suggestions
The Farmington Inn, 827 Farmington Ave., Farmington. (860) 677-2821 or (800) 648-9804.
>> Farmington Dining Suggestions
Apricots, 1593 Farmington Ave.. Farmington. (860) 673-5405.
Grist Mill, 44 Mill La., Farmington. (860) 676-8855. Click here to read capsule review.
Piccolo Arancio, 819 Farmington Ave., Farmington. (860) 674-1224. Click here to read capsule review.
>> Avon Lodging and Dining Suggestions
Avon Old Farms Hotel and Seasons Restaurant, 279 Avon Mountain Rd., Routes 10 and 44, Box 961, Avon. Hotel: (860) 677-1651 or (800) 836-4000. Restaurant: (860) 269-0240. Click here to read capsule review.
Avon Old Farms Inn, 279 Avon Mountain Rd., Routes 10 and 44, Box 961, Avon. Hotel: (860) 677-1651 or (800) 836-4000. Restaurant: (860) 269-0240. Click here to read capsule review.
>> Avon Dining Suggestions
Max-A-Mia, 70 East Main St., Avon. (860) 677-6299.
The Phelps Tavern Museum and Homestead, 800 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury.
Three centuries of Simsbury history are recreated in this evolving two-acre complex. The focal point is the Phelps Tavern Museum, where period rooms and interactive exhibition galleries interpret its use as an inn from 1786 to 1849. Three generations of the Phelps tavern keepers are chronicled along with the social history of taverns in New England. The low-key complex also has a one-room schoolhouse, a probate court building, sheds full of Victorian carriages and a museum store. Visitors enjoy award-winning period gardens and the reproduction of a 1683 meeting house, nicely hedged and screened from a nondescript shopping plaza.
(860) 658-2500. Open Tuesday-Saturday, noon to 4. Adults, $6.
>> Simsbury Lodging and Dining Suggestions
The Simsbury Inn, 397 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury. (860) 651-5700 or (800) 634-2719.
>> Simsbury Lodging Suggestions
Simsbury 1820 House, 731 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury. (860) 658-7658 or (800) 879-1820.
Merrywood Bed & Breakfast, 100 Hartford Road (Route 185), Simsbury. (860) 651-1785.
The Linden House, 288 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury. (860) 408-1321.
>> Simsbury Dining Suggestions
Métro bis, 928 Hopmeadow St., Simsbury. (860) 651-1908.
>> Suffield Dining Suggestions
Tosca, 68 Bridge St., Suffield. (860) 668-0273. Click here to read capsule review.
Wethersfield with some argument from nearby Windsor claims to be the oldest permanent English settlement in Connecticut. More than 200 houses erected before 1850 line the streets of Old Wethersfield, the first historic district in Connecticut.
The Wethersfield Museum in the Keeney Cultural Center at 200 Main St. houses changing history exhibits and art displays. It's run by the Wethersfield Historical Society, which also oversees the Hurlbut-Dunham House blending Georgian and Victorian styles at 212 Main St. and the ancient Cove Warehouse with exhibits of local maritime history at Wethersfield Cove. Also open to the public is the 1710 Buttolph-Williams House at 249 Broad St., which contains the best-preserved kitchen of its era in New England. Down the street is Comstock, Ferre & Co., the country's oldest continuously operated seed company, which sells a remarkable potpourri of seeds and plants.
In neighboring Rocky Hill, 200-million-year-old dinostaur tracks are preserved under a geodesic dome at Dinosaur State Park.
Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, 211 Main St., Wethersfield.
These three side-by-side houses provide a good look at late 18th-century New England life. Each is furnished to provide a glimpse into a distinct period of American history. During the Revolution, George Washington plotted military strategy in the parlor of the Webb House and slept in the upstairs chamber. He and Rochambeau met here to plan the battle that led to the decisive American victory in Yorktown. The Webb House murals depicting scenes of the historic conference were commissioned in 1916 by Wallace Nutting.
(860) 529-0612. Guided tours on the hour, daily except Tuesday 10 to 4, May-October; Saturday-Sunday 10 to 4, rest of year. Adults $8, children $4.
>> Glastonbury Dining Suggestions
Max Amoré Ristorante, 140 Glastonbury Blvd., Glastonbury. (860) 659-2819.
Main and Hopewell, 2 Hopewell Road, South Glastonbury. (860) 633-8698.
>> Manchester Lodging Suggestions
The Mansion Inn, 139 Hartford Road, Manchester. (860) 646-0453.
>> Manchester Dining Suggestions
Cavey's Restaurant Upstairs (Cavey's Northern Italian Restaurant), 45 East Center St., Manchester. (860) 643-2751. Click here to read capsule review.
Cavey's Restaurant Downstairs (Cavey's French Restaurant), 45 East Center St., Manchester. (860) 643-2751. Click here to read capsule review.
New Britain Museum of American Art, 56 Lexington St., New Britain.
Visiting this museum founded in 1903 is like going into a private home (which it was), furnished with ornate Victorian furniture and colorful oriental rugs. The informality combined with one of the richest collections of American art in the country make this one of our favorite museums anywhere. An entire room is filled with Thomas Hart Benton murals. Other highlights are works of the Hudson River School, the American Impressionists and the Ash Can School. Upstairs in intimate galleries are paintings by N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Georgia O'Keeffe and Eric Sloane. Also of special interest are the Western bronzes by Solon Borglum and the Sanford B.D. Low Memorial Collection of American Illustration, comprised of more than 1,000 works. Some 300 works are on long-term loan from conceptual artist Sol LeWitt. Newer wings house changing exhibitions.
(860) 229-0257. www.nbmaa.org. Open Tuesday-Sunday noon to 5, Wednesday to 7, Saturday from 10. Adults, $4.
>> New Britain Dining Suggestions
Great Taste, 597 West Main St., New Britain. (860) 229-7373 or 827-8988. Click here to read capsule review.
East Side Restaurant, 131 Dwight St., New Britain. (860) 223-1188. Click here to read capsule review.
Cracovia Restaurant, 60 Broad St., New Britain. (860) 223-4443. Click here to read capsule review.
>> Bristol Lodging Suggestions
Chimney Crest Manor, 5 Founders Dr., Bristol 06010. (860) 582-4219.
>> Middletown Dining Suggestions
Tuscany Grill, 120 College St., Middletown. (860) 349-7096. Click here to read capsule review.
It's Only Natural, 386 Main St., Middletown. (860) 346-9210.
This content is excerpted from New England's Best, by Nancy and Richard Woodworth, copyright 2002, published by Wood Pond Press.