This quiet industrial and residential town is at the geographic heart of Connecticut.
Berlin may not be a honeypot for tourists, but has some stupendous natural landscapes. There’s also a lot of fun things to do for families, especially around the Berlin Turnpike.
My favorite thing about Berlin is the Metacomet Ridge, a 100-mile basalt fault.
The ridge’s peaks were created by lava flows 200 million years ago and stand tall as rugged cliffs while the surrounding landscape has been weathered away over time.
Hiking is definitely on the agenda, as the ridge is crossed in Berlin by two Blue-Blazed walking routes, the Metacomet Trail and the Mattabesett Trail.
1. Ragged Mountain Memorial Preserve
This basalt mountain on the Metacomet Ridge is one of the most beloved hiking and climbing locations in the Hartford area.
Here the ridge reaches a height of 500 feet but climbs precipitously from the east bank of the Quinnipiac River. What you get are far-reaching views over Berlin, Southington and portions of New Britain from the cliff tops.
The main hiking route is the Metacomet Trail (I’ll cover this below), but there’s a whole system of shorter trails all intersecting with a main five-mile loop. So with a bit of planning you can tailor a walk that suits you.
2. Metacomet Trail
I’ve mentioned that the Metacomet Ridge passes through Berlin, and the unusual quantity of ancient volcanic landforms all around makes for some great hiking.
The 50-mile Metacomet Trail follows the course of the ridge from Meriden, just south of Berlin, up to the Massachusetts state line.
As well as Ragged Mountain, there are a few places where you can get onto the route in Berlin. These hikes vary from moderate to strenuous.
Berlin’s Parks and Rec Department has published detailed guides. Perhaps the most spectacular but testing walk takes you into the Hanging Hills up to the Hubbard Park’s castle-like observation tower, Castle Craig (1900), on East Peak.
Setting off from the parking lot at Edgewood Road, there’s an elevation change of 850 feet on this 4.5-mile one-way hike.
3. New Britain Museum of American Art
One of the advantages of being so close to New Britain is that this exceptional museum is only ten minutes away.
When it opened in 1903 it was the first museum in the country devoted exclusively to American art.
The collection runs the gamut, from colonial-era portraits to recently acquired post-contemporary works centered around Graydon Parrish’s famous The Cycle of Terror and Tragedy.
Among the many important artists represented at the museum are Mary Cassatt, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, John Singleton Copley, Marcus Jansen, Frederic Church.
The collection also covers movements like the Hudson River School, American Impressionists and Ashcan School.
One distinguished recurring name in the Impressionism collections is Childe Hassam, with 11 oil paintings.
The museum’s Cafe on the Park looks out on the adjacent Walnut Hill Park (1870), an early commission for the great Frederick Law Olmsted.
4. Safari Golf
I couldn’t help but admire the care that has gone into this 18-hole miniature golf course on a scenic hillside over the Berlin Turnpike.
The greens are set on terraces, traced by large models of giraffes, elephants, gorillas and lions. The whole site is laced with streams, cascades and neatly tended shrubs and perennials.
There are lots of opportunities for photos as you play, including a waterfall that you can walk behind. Then at the end you can reward yourself with an ice pop or frozen cone.
In summer the course stays open as late as 10:00 PM, and if you can manage a hole-in-one on the 18th you win a free game.
5. Timberlin Golf Club
By the base of Ragged Mountain is a highly-rated municipal golf course. These 18-holes were first landscaped in the early 1970s by Al Zikorus.
Just over a decade ago they were given a thorough redesign, re-contouring all of the fairways and adding extra bunkers.
The fairways can be tight here and those bunkers are a real scourge, so your iron game will need to be on point.
A computer-controlled irrigation system helps to keep the greens quick even after heavy rain. I found the rates to be fair, with non-residents able to play 18 holes for under $50 (weekday or weekend).
6. Pistol Creek
This former golf 18-hole course was abandoned in the early 2000s and was bought back by the town in 2008. Berlin paid twice the price to stop the land being turned into condo complexes.
Not only is Pistol Creek a beautiful place to hike, cycle or jog, I found it remarkable to see how this water-rich man-made environment has been reclaimed by nature.
In wet weather you can get around on the paved cart trail. It’s one of the few lingering reminders of what was here before.
Depending on the season you may see herons, kingfishers and the occasional beaver. The former clubhouse is now rented out for private events.
7. Team vs. Time
This innovative escape room brand has two locations, one in Chicago and the other right here in Berlin.
Team vs Time has four rooms to solve, each with a well-crafted back-story and high production values. You’ll be drawn into their historical or fantastical worlds for as long as it takes to get out.
For an idea of what awaits you, there’s “Cure of the Alchemist”, “Save the Queen”, “The Lost Book of Spells”, and “Gangster’s Gamble”.
Each room has its own required team size, stress factor and difficulty level. The only thing that stays the same is the one-hour time limit.
At times I felt like I was in my own movie, apart from when we needed to ask the game master for a hint.
8. Still Hill Brewery
Something Connecticut isn’t low on is craft breweries. I’m happy to report that there’s a great one close by, tucked round the back of a light industrial complex in Rocky Hill.
The taproom at Still Hill is open Thursday through Sunday, and when I stopped by there were 13 beers on draft.
A couple of my personal picks were The Nut on the Hill (Brown Ale), and Sluggy Buggy, an Oatmeal Stout, with rich coffee and chocolate tones.
The taproom has a cool, rustic feel, with regular live music and stand-up comedy. Food trucks show up on a rotating schedule out front.
9. New Britain Stadium
You won’t have to travel for some sports action in Berlin, as the home of the New Britain Bees is a couple of miles along Route 9.
Founded in 2015 and taking over from the defunct Rock Cats, the Bees play in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL).
During the season you can come to the 6,146-seater stadium to see the Bees up against outfits from across New England.
The season runs from late May to the start of August, and the Bees had made the playoffs in the two years before I was in town.
10. Lamentation Mountain
On the Metacomet Ridge there’s another abrupt peak in the south of Berlin.
Lamentation Mountain reaches a height of 720 feet and warrants the climb for painterly cliff-top views west to the Hanging Hills and over Silver Lake immediately below.
The ridge is traversed by another Blue-Blazed walking route, the 51-mile Mattabesett Trail, which intersects with the Metacomet Trail at the foot of the mountain.
I found the hike to be relatively light, leading steadily up to lush deciduous woodland and then those dry basalt ledges.
The Mattabesett Trail continues south as far as Totoket Mountain on the Metacomet Ridge in Guilford. There it cuts northeast through a metamorphic landscape on the way to the Connecticut River at Middletown.
11. Picture Show at Berlin
Berlin has a branch of the nationwide Picture Show cinema chain and you could hardly pick a more luxurious way to enjoy a movie.
Following a recent update, the 12-screen cinema has electric-powered luxury recliners, with footrests and built-in cup holders. The stadium configuration means that there isn’t a bad seat in the house.
There’s lounge-style seating at all screens, so what blew me away was just how cheap it is to watch a movie here. On Tuesdays for instance, tickets were just $5 (all day) when I wrote this article.
12. Karabin Farms
At the western foot of Ragged Mountain is a quintessential New England fruit farm growing 17 apple varieties. Karabin Farms opens for a PYO season on Saturdays and Sundays between mid-August and late-October.
Starting with Zestars and ending with Red Delicious and Cameo, the PYO experience at Karabin Farms includes a free wagon ride through forest to a bucolic orchard. I remember spotting deer and wild turkeys on the way.
In spring and summer you can also call in for flowers, while pumpkin season arrives in Fall, and there’s a choice of cut-your-own and pre-cut Christmas trees from late-November.
The farm stand is a destination in its own right. You can shop here for more produce, as well as farm-raised meats, pickles, local honey, and various grades of maple syrup tapped on the farm.
13. Berlin Batting Cages
Despite the name, this family fun center off the Berlin Turnpike is more than just batting cages.
Of course, the cages are here, and use state-of-the-art technology to help you bump up your batting percentage.
On top of that there’s also two miniature golf courses here at Putter’s Paradise. You can pick between the tricky Challenge Course, or the Fun Course, which has a windmill, bucket wheels and a wishing well.
There’s also a recent grand prix circuit for go-karting, and a bumper boat circuit in a large clear pool. We visited on a hot summer’s day, and my kids loved wreaking havoc with the attached water guns.
14. New Britain Youth Museum at Hungerford Park
If you’re in the area with smaller children or toddlers, this museum and nature center has enough to hold their interest for a couple of hours.
Inside I was diverted by the colorful, lightly educational exhibits at the New Britain Youth Museum, as well as the displays devoted to nature at the Hungerford Nature Center.
This also has tanks for fish, snakes, turtles and lizards. All of these animals came to the center orphaned or injured.
The same applies to the hawks and owls in the aviary, as well as the llamas, goats, sheep, ducks and cows in the barnyard outside.
After visiting the animals you can wander off along the park’s labeled nature trail. My small tip is to pack bug spray if you make this walk during the warmer months.
15. Van Vleck Observatory
Wesleyan University’s astronomical observatory is close to Berlin in Middletown and opens to the public every Wednesday night.
During the observing nights you’ll get to peer through the observatory’s 16-inch and a 20-inch telescope if the skies are clear.
Beforehand there’s a 30-minute presentation by a member of the university’s Astronomy Department. This may deal with specific space news topics, or go into detail on a new discovery.
I attended a Wednesday night session, aimed at high school age and above, but there are kids’ nights on the first and third Friday of the month in the academic year.
You can also come for once-monthly Saturday night observing sessions, run by the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford (ASGH).