The Central Naugatuck River Valley was first settled by Europeans at the very beginning of the 18th century. For much of its past, Naugatuck was part of the city of Waterbury, which is minutes upriver to the north.
There you can immerse yourself in Connecticut art at the Mattatuck Museum, and catch a Broadway show or famous musician at the magnificent Palace Theater.
In Naugatuck there’s ample natural beauty all around. It’s all ready to be experienced on the Naugatuck River Greenway, or along the remote trails of the Naugatuck State Forest.
The beating heart of the town is the 125-year-old green, fronted by churches and striking civic buildings. Things can feel secluded on Naugatucks winding roads, but nothing on my list is more than 15 minutes away.
1. Naugatuck Center Historic District
Centered on Naugatuck’s tree-shaded Town Green are almost all of the town’s main civic and religious buildings. This district has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1999. There are 137 contributing buildings and monuments piled into a relatively small space.
North and south of the green are the Congregational Church and St Michael’s Episcopal Church. Meanwhile on the east frontage are the Borough of Naugatuck Building and the stately Howard Whittemore Memorial Library.
The green was landscaped in 1895 and has paved walkways radiating from the 1885 Civil War Memorial and the Memorial Fountain from 1895.
In mid-May this is the scene for the Naugatuck Spring Festival. On the schedule are live music, lots of fun for kids, and craft vendors. Even if there was nothing else happening, I’d make the trip for the Food Truck Festival, a wonderful showcase for local restaurants.
2. Mattatuck Museum
In a few minutes you can be at this well-curated museum, diving into the history, culture and industry of the Central Naugatuck Valley.
The museum has been around in some form since 1877 and stands out for its art by noted Connecticut-born or based artists. You’ll encounter the likes of Alexander Calder, Anni Albers, Arhsil Gorky, John Trumbull, John Frederick Kensett and Erastus Salisbury Field.
Something I haven’t even mentioned is the museum’s vast button collection, comprising 20,000 examples from all eras and parts of the world.
Button manufacturing was a mainstay of Waterbury’s economy from the end of the 18th century. The collection features buttons exhibited at the 1878 Paris Exposition, and four engraved buttons from General George Washington’s coat.
3. Naugatuck State Forest
Over 5,000 acres in five different “blocks”, the Naugatuck State Forest is spread over eight different towns.
It was all the dream of the local industrialist Harris Whittemore, who bought up several parcels of land in the 1920s to give to the state.
The project was continued by his family after his death in 1928. You can venture into this hilly terrain for hikes, mountain bike rides, bird-watching, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.
Two of the five blocks lie partially within Naugatuck: East and West, either side of Route 8 and a mix of evergreen and hardwood forest, abounding with hemlock.
The East Block is crowned by Beacon Cap. This is a glacial erratic boulder at 770 feet and reached via the Naugatuck Trail, a 5.5-mile Blue-Blazed network of paths throughout the state forest.
In the West Block you can track down four reservoirs, two waterfalls, and vantage points over the river valley. Somewhere close to my heart here is the majestic Spruce Brook Gorge, woven with cascades.
4. Hop Brook Lake
In the very north of Naugatuck, Hop Brook was dammed in the mid-1960s to create a sizable reservoir spreading into the neighboring communities of Waterbury and Middlebury.
The surrounding recreation area covers more than 530 acres of birch, ash, oak, hemlock, white pine and hickory woods. It’s all a surprisingly wild habitat for owls, hawks, black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcats, turkeys and even bald eagles.
There are trails for hiking and mountain biking, as well as amenities for baseball/softball, volleyball, picnics and grilling. As for water activities, you can go swimming, kayaking, boating, and fishing (bass and trout).
5. Whittemore Glen State Park Scenic Reserve
There’s hiking and horseback riding to be done in these 242 acres of woods opposite Hop Brook Lake on Route 63.
If you want to turn your walk into a real hike, the park is the eastern trailhead for the Larkin State Park Trail. This path follows the trackbed of the old New York & New England Railroad for 10.3 miles through Middlebury, Oxford and Southbury.
The line opened in 1881 and was abandoned in 1939. Four years later this 10-mile chunk was bought by Dr. Charles L. Larkin to set up an equestrian trail.
My favorite sections lead through the old railroad cuts, blasted almost 150 years ago.
6. Naugatuck River Greenway
In the future it may be possible to walk or ride next to the Naugatuck River on an unbroken NRG Trail, 44 miles long from Torrington to Derby.
For now there’s the Naugatuck River Greenway, a green passageway linking the many parks by the water.
In Naugatuck this paved trail is 1.1 miles long, from Pulaski Footbridge at 199 River Street to a little park on Maple Street. For me it’s the best way to spend a fall afternoon, when the foliage is breathtaking.
For the most part the trail runs through the delightful Linden Park. Along with its restorative river views, this property has four tennis courts, a basketball court, soccer field, a skate park, and children’s playground.
7. Harvest Moon Festival
When I put this list together the Harvest Moon Festival was coming up for its 40th edition. The Harvest Moon Festival is a two-day shindig in September, taking place on the town green.
Over the last couple of decades the festival has been organized and sponsored by Boy Scout Troop 102.
Every year there are 100+ vendors on the green, many specializing in handmade arts and crafts. You can check out a changing roster of live acts at the gazebo, and there’s delicious seasonal fair food. In that respect, a mainstay is the troop’s own booth serving up fried dough.
8. Palace Theater
The feted performance venue designer Thomas W. Lamb (1871-1942) was responsible for this exuberant Renaissance Revival theater in Waterbury.
On the National Register of Historic Places, the Palace Theater opened in 1921 and is a masterpiece. Everything is splendid, from the marquee over the sidewalk to the lavishly decorated lobby and auditorium.
The crowning glory though is the dome, which has intricate stucco work but also a practical use as a parabolic reflector to enhance the acoustics.
It’s all an appropriate setting for big Broadway musicals. For instance, the Book of Mormon was in town when I compiled this list.
Bob Dylan famously played the Palace Theater with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, and has returned to the venue in the last few years.
9. Quassy Amusement & Waterpark
Also convenient is this summer family attraction that has been entertaining people at Lake Quassapaug since 1908.
On the Waterbury to Woodbury Line, Quassy initially catered to passengers as a trolley park. Then it flourished as a summer resort and amusement park in the decades that followed.
Families get the most out of the park’s midway-style arcade games and amusement rides. I’m talking, a carousel, tea cups, bumper cars, a pirate ship and many more.
The star of the show is the Wooden Warrior, a wooden roller coaster that arrived in 2011 and ranks in the top 50 rides of its kind according to Amusement Today’s Golden Ticket Awards.
There’s a spacious beach area on Lake Quassapaug, while the waterpark has its own lineup of newly constructed slides. Wee ones will adore the Fish Pond, a big splash pad specially for the littles.
10. Old Sawmill Grill & Miniature Golf Course
Just past Naugatuck State Forest is a seasonal 18-hole miniature golf course. In typical New England style, it’s accompanied by a restaurant for satisfying comfort food. On the menu there’s fried fish, burgers, hot dogs, wraps, sandwiches, ice cream, and shakes.
Set beside the Little River, the course is neatly landscaped and has deep woodland looming over it.
As you play you’ll be met by some eye-catching features like a genuine Boston and Maine Railroad caboose from 1939. I loved the replica sawmill, making a nod to the area’s historic lumber industry. Afterwards you can dine under the ceiling fans inside or alfresco on the grill’s deck.
11. Hop Brook Golf Course
Naugatuck is the birthplace of the highly successful golfer Billy Burke (1902-1972). His career pinnacle came when he won the U.S. Open in 1931 after a monster 72-hole playoff.
Burke’s home was Hop Brook Golf Course, a friendly nine-hole municipal course, rated highly for its immaculate and spacious greens.
The course opened in 1923 and welcomes visitors every day. When I was here, the summer green fees were $22 on weekdays and $24 on weekends for non-residents (nine holes).
Serving the course is the upscale Jesse Camille’s Restaurant, which has a contemporary American menu. A few picks are the seared sesame crusted ahi tuna, eggplant parmesan, and the classic French dip.
12. Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe
This grinder (sub) chain is based exclusively in central and western Connecticut. It all began in Waterbury in the 1920s with three newly-immigrated Nardelli brothers, Joe, Anthony and Fred.
They witnessed the huge success of overstuffed Italian sandwiches in New York and started making them at their grocery store.
The Nardellis soon became known as the “Grinder Kings of Waterbury” and by the 70s the shop had branched out to several locations in Greater Waterbury, relocating the flagship store to Naugatuck at 87, Maple Street.
All members of the Nardelli family have worked here at some point and this branch featured on the Travel Channel show “Sandwich Paradise”. Nardelli’s never fails to win “Best Grinder” in CT Magazine’s annual poll and has a menu bursting with hot and cold options.
If you need a tip, I’d go for the Italian Combo (mayo, provolone, pruzitini, lettuce, tomato, capicola, salami). But you can’t beat the Baked Stuffed Pastrami or the Pulled Pork with Coleslaw.
13. Bethany Airport
A little way south of Naugatuck you can explore an airfield that has been given over to nature. The history of Bethany Airport reaches back to the 1920s, and during WWII it became a base for the Civil Air Patrol.
The facility closed in the mid-1960s and features a mixture of hardwood forest and municipal recreation amenities for Bethany. I was intrigued by the main remnant from its aviation days. This is a newly restored hangar, accompanied by a concrete airmail arrow unearthed a few years back.
There are three blazed trails through the woodlands. If you’re eagle eyed, you may see subtle vestiges of the airport in the form of markers in the undergrowth.
14. OEC Brewing
You never have to travel far from the nearest craft brewery in Connecticut. This one sits by the Larkin State Park Trail, just past Naugatuck’s southwestern boundary in Oxford.
The setting is as quaint and New England as can be, in a group of Colonial-style buildings. OEC goes back to 2014, and is inspired by European brewing traditions from Belgium and Germany. So, for me, it makes a nice change from the IPA-forward breweries around CT.
There’s an unusually large selection of beers in the main rotation here (Usual Suspects). Along those lines, the strong points are Lagers, Sours, and English-style ales.
I was also won over by the simple but tasty accompaniments. These include local cheeses, smoked peanuts, and an awesome Bretzel, a sourdough pretzel with mustard.
15. Tomo 68
Naugatuck has a surprising variety of places to eat, dispersed across quite a large area. This Japanese restaurant is on the scenic Prospect St, off Route 8, and has been a fixture for some 20 years..
Tomo 68 shines for its wide selection of sushi, all presented with real artistic flair. In fact, I’d choose to dine in to experience this firsthand. You’ve got the full range of tried and tested rolls and sashimi, but also plenty of unique creations.
Take Bay Breeze, which is fried coconut shrimp with mango and cucumber, topped with spicy crab and sweet chili sauce. Or you could keep it local with the Naugatuck Roll. This has yellowtail, king salmon, tuna, cucumber, avocado, and fish roe.
There’s also a range of poke bowls, teriyaki, and noodle dishes from udon to ramen.