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 that you can experience 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.
1. Naugatuck Center Historic District
Centred on Naugatuck’s tree-shaded Town Green are almost all of the town’s main civic and religious buildings, in an area that 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, while 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, organising live music, lots of fun for kids, craft stalls and a pedestrianised area on Church Street to showcase 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 like Alexander Calder, Anni Albers, Arhsil Gorky, John Trumbull, John Frederick Kensett and Erastus Salisbury Field.
There are around 25 exhibitions here each year, both at the main location on Prospect Street and a palatial new temporary location in the upmarket Rose Hill Area.
In the second half of 2019 the museum had a piece by Jeff Koons, One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, on loan from Art Bridges.
Something we haven’t 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, and the collection features buttons exhibited at the 1878 Paris Exposition and four engraved buttons from General George Washington’s coat.
3. Naugatuck State Forest
A whopping 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, and 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 the 235-metre Beacon Cap, a glacial erratic boulder that you tackle on 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, vantage points over the river valley, as well as the majestic Spruce Brook Gorge, which is woven with cascades.
4. Hop Brook Lake
In the mid-1960s Hop Brook in the very north of Naugatuck was dammed, creating a 42-square-kilometre reservoir spreading into the neighbouring communities of Waterbury and Middlebury.
The surrounding recreation area covers more than 530 acres of birch, ash, oak, hemlock, white pine and hickory woods, supporting 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.
The allocated swimming area is 20 acres and the lake is stocked with trout and has plenty of largemouth bass.
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, which 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 after which this 10-mile chunk was bought by Dr. Charles L. Larkin to set up an equestrian trail.
6. Naugatuck River Greenway
In the near future it will 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 the most part the trail runs through Linden Park, which, along with its restorative river views, has four tennis courts, a basketball court, soccer field and children’s playground.
7. Palace Theater
The feted performance venue designer Thomas W. Lamb (1871-1942) was responsible for this exuberant Renaissance Revival theatre in Waterbury.
On the National Register of Historic Places, the Palace Theater opened in 1921 and is a masterpiece, from the marquee over the sidewalk to the lavishly decorated lobby and auditorium.
The crowning glory here is the dome, which has intricate stuccowork but also a practical use as a parabolic reflector to enhance the acoustics.
It’s all an appropriate setting for big Broadway musicals.
A Bronx Tale, Les Miserables and Finding Neverland were all lined up for the 2019-20 season.
Bob Dylan famously played the Palace Theater with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, and has returned to the venue in the last couple of years.
When we wrote this article in 2019, Brian Wilson and The Zombies were on the programme, as well as a raft of tribute acts, comedians and the venue’s annual Fall Jazz Series concerts.
8. 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, before flourishing as a summer resort and then an amusement park in the decades that followed.
Families get the most out of the park’s midway-style arcade games and amusement rides, including a carousel, tea cups, bumper cars, a pirate ship and many more.
The star of the show is the Wooden Warrior, a wooden rollercoaster 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 line-up of newly constructed slides as well as the Fish Pond, a big splash pad for littler members of the clan.
9. Old Sawmill Grill & Miniature Golf Course
Just past Naugatuck State Forest is a lovable 18-hole miniature golf course accompanied by a restaurant for satisfying grub like 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, and a 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.
10. Hop Brook Golf Course
Naugatuck is the birthplace of the highly successful golfer Billy Burke (1902-1972), whose 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, with summer green fees of $20 on weekdays and $25 on weekends for non-residents (nine holes). Serving the course is upscale Jesse Camille’s Restaurant, which has an Italian-American menu with delights like seared sesame crusted ahi tuna, veal saltimboca with prosciutto and sage and pan-seared scallop with beurre blanc.
11. Nardelli’s Grinder Shoppe
Nardelli’s is a grinder (sub) chain based exclusively in central and western Connecticut.
It all began in Waterbury in the 1920s when the three newly-immigrated Nardelli brothers, Joe, Anthony and Fred, witnessed the huge success of over-stuffed 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, go for the Italian Combo (mayo, provolone, pruzitini, lettuce, tomato, capicola, salami), the Baked Stuffed Pastrami or the Pulled Pork with Coleslaw.