This historic shore town on Long Island Sound has more than 20 monuments on the National Register of Historic Places.
You’ll see a few along the Route 146 Scenic Drive. This beautiful road breaks away from I-95 for a circuitous trip through rural and coastal Connecticut.
Drawing your gaze on the coast are the Thimble Islands, scores of little granite skerries off the atmospheric village of Stony Creek.
All but one of the islands are private but you can take an up-close look and discover their long history on a cruise.
Branford has three flourishing craft breweries, two of which I’ll cover on my list. There are also New England signatures like a pick-your-own fruit farm, and an historic house museum.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Branford:
1. Thimble Islands
In and just beyond the natural harbor of Stony Creek there’s a group of more than 100 islands. Some no more than a few feet across and several that are underwater at high tide.
These islands are the remnants of pink granite hilltops, submerged during the last Ice Age.
As a result, the Thimble Islands are unusually stable compared to other islands in Long Island Sound, but are also separated by remarkably deep water.
The largest island in the archipelago is Horse Island. Covering 17 acres, this is kept as an ecological laboratory by Yale University.
In all there are 82 houses across the Thimble Islands, and 14 islands have only one. Meanwhile only six receive electricity via underwater cables from the shore.
The majority of these properties date to the Victorian period, which only adds to the beauty of the seascapes for me.
2. Sailing Trips
As you’d guess, navigating the waters in the Thimble Islands can be treacherous. Luckily there’s a choice of companies based in Stony Creek and waiting to take you out on a voyage.
One, Thimble Islands Cruise, has been shuttling round the islands for more than 40 years and offers 45-minute narrated cruises aboard Sea Mist.
On your journey you’ll learn about the archipelago’s history of quarrying, shellfish farming, bootlegging and agriculture. I was thrilled to get to know historic personalities linked to the area, like pirate William Kidd (1654-1701).
Tours depart from May through October, with hourly sailing from 10:15 AM through 4:15 PM seven days a week in July and August.
3. Shore Line Trolley Museum
The Branford Electric Railway is the United States’ oldest trolley line to remain in service, having been laid down in 1900.
One reason the line has been preserved is that as soon as it closed to regular passenger services in 1947 it became a museum line. This also happens to be the oldest in the country, allowing you to ride its fleet of beautiful vintage trolleys through idyllic scenery.
The line is 1.5 miles long, and the museum’s superb assemblage of vintage rolling stock can be viewed in a series of sheds.
My priority here is Horsecar 76, the oldest surviving horse-drawn tram in the world. Also special is the Third Avenue Railway System 220 (1892), the oldest functioning streetcar in the United States, and Manhattan Railway “G” (1878), the oldest surviving rapid transit car in the country.
More recent but more poignant PATH 745, which was under the World Trade Center on 9/11.
4. Stony Creek Brewery
This craft brewery is a real destination, with a stunning, front-row spot on the Branford River. I was smitten with the deck out front, which has lots of places to sit by the water at cable spool tables.
Stony Creek Brewery was a small-scale contract brand until a major revamp in 2015, when it moved into this capacious riverside location. It’s now the second-largest craft brewery and taproom in Connecticut.
Complemented by seasonal and off-the-wall experimental brews, there’s a hardcore of lagers, sours and Stony Creek’s flagship series of “Cranky” IPAs.
There’s always something going on at the relaxed taproom (open 7 days), be it live music or trivia on Tuesday nights. Food trucks come right up to the waterfront beer garden, for pizza, lobster rolls or tacos.
5. Route 146 Scenic Drive
When long-distance drivers want a break from the monotony of I-95 they take this 13-mile detour through rural Branford and Guilford.
Now, Route 146 Scenic Drive won’t give you awesome mountain vistas or soaring cliffs. Instead it leads you into the Connecticut countryside, by orchards, dairy farms, marinas, orchards, and quaint villages with clapboard houses.
At intervals you’ll find yourself by Long Island Sound, looking out on creeks, marshland and the little islands just offshore.
It’s no secret that fall is a glorious time drive through New England. For a birding detour, you’ll have lots of opportunity to step out to look for raptors circling overhead.
6. Branford Point Beach
This peninsula juts out into the Branford River Estuary, and curled up in its western nook is a well-appointed public beach.
Lifeguards are on patrol here in summer from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. Make sure to bring a packed lunch to the picnic area. I can’t get enough of the views across the water to Indian Neck Point from here.
Facing west, this little bay is also a gorgeous place to be at sunset. The beach has running water, restrooms, changing rooms and a small playground for littler beachgoers.
7. Branford Trolley Trail
The multi-use Shoreline Greenway Trail is a long-term project still in the works when I wrote this article.
When completed this path will be 25 miles long, through a wide variety of coastal spaces in East Haven, Branford, Guilford, and Madison.
For now the route is fragmented into short walks, like the Branford Trolley Trail. This is on a former trolley track, which adds to the fun for me. I love the part crossing a striking steel frame bridge over open marshland.
Take your time and you may catch sight of shorebirds like plovers, whimbrels and sandpipers between March and October.
8. Harrison House Museum
The Branford Historical Society owns this venerable saltbox house at 124 Main Street. You can pay a visit for free on Saturdays, June through September.
The plot dates from 1680, and the building’s architecture is 300 years old as of 2024. There’s a lot of fine woodwork inside, in the chambered summer beams and exposed joists.
The hand-carved oak corner posts caught my attention, as well as a massive hall fireplace dating back more than 250 years.
The property was restored in the mid-20th century and was decorated with period specific furniture and decor. You’ll see wooden chests crafted in Branford four-poster and rope beds, a beehive oven, and historic china.
9. Branford Supply Pond Park
The 350-acre pond just north of the town was dammed more than a century ago to create a reserve water supply for the town.
Once you’re out on the trails it can be easy to forget that you’re so close to Route 1 as the woods are deep.
The paths twisting through the forest are light, well maintained and often edged with wild blueberry and raspberry bushes.
In places there are boardwalks to help you navigate the wetlands. You can also get down to the water to fish or feed the wildfowl (oats or corn instead of bread).
The park is one of the few in Branford where dogs are allowed off-leash. Still, I reckon it’s a good idea to keep an eye out for coyotes here.
10. Rose Orchards
The Rose family has been farming the Branford area since the 17th century, and can be traced back 11 generations at their current 50-acre location.
On the farm Robert, Al and Dave Rose grow tons of produce. This includes apples, berries, summer fruits, tomatoes, squash, pumpkins, lettuce and a great deal more.
In spring and summer you can come to meet the ponies and goats, and pick your own fruit and vegetables. I’m a sucker for their frozen treats—the homemade frozen custard, sundaes and milkshakes all use fresh ingredients.
In fall there are hayrides, a corn and hay maze, and of course pumpkins. Later, the holiday season means Christmas trees, hot cider and wreaths.
The farm stand is open year round, selling all this great produce along with syrups, jellies, jams, cheeses and home-baked pies with 14 different fillings.
Buck’s Grill is also open daily for satisfying breakfast grub, burgers, hot dogs, salads and sandwiches. All items have farm-fresh ingredients where possible.
11. Stony Creek Museum
Before boarding a boat for the Thimble Islands you could take a moment to get in touch with the riveting history of the little coastal community of Stony Creek.
The village was born around a quarry, exploited for the pink granite used in a host of megaprojects. It provided the foundations of the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge, and covers the facades of iconic Manhattan skyscrapers.
On show are samples and black and white photos from the quarry, along with tools used by workers. This history is all endlessly fascinating to me.
Other exhibits include historic fire-fighting equipment, a century-old apothecary, a collection of Sicilian puppets and artifacts relating to the Stony Creek Fife & Drum Corps. The museum will also give you context on the history and unique culture of the Thimble Islands.
Opening times are 1:00 PM to 4:00 PM, Friday through Sunday.
12. Foote Memorial Park
Donated to the town in the early 1970s by the Foote family, this local park is just in from the mouth of the Branford River.
Foote Memorial Park is brimming with amenities for outdoor recreation. There’s a basketball court, three softball fields, a baseball field, tennis courts and a fitness trail. What I like most of all are the open waterfront views, and you can watch the boats coming in and out of the marina.
If you’re here with children there are separate playgrounds for wee ones and bigger kids.
Keep your ear to the ground in summer, as there’s often something happening at the park. This might be yoga classes, summer programs for kids, or outdoor movie screenings.
13. Thimble Island Brewing Company
What started as a small family operation on Long Island Sound has burgeoned into the largest self-distributing microbrewery in Connecticut. Thimble Island has an annual output of 10,000 barrels.
The company features a core of six beers, led by the flagship American Amber Ale. Also on the roster is Coffee Stout (my personal pick), Thimble IPA, Thimble Lager, Ghost Island IPA, and Sea Mist New England IPA.
You can take a peek behind the curtain on a guided tour on Saturdays and Sundays. Meanwhile the brewpub is open seven days a week, pouring pints and flights of those six main beers, along with all kinds of sours and seasonal brews.
The food menu here is elevated pub fare, with the likes of smashburgers, fancy mac & cheese, and wraps.
14. Lake Saltonstall
Forming a high natural boundary between Branford and East Haven to the west is Mount Saltonstall. This basalt landform rises to just under 330 feet above sea level.
It’s part of the Metacomet Ridge, a long fault continuing north for 100 miles to the Massachusetts-Vermont Border. On the way it gives rise to iconic Connecticut natural monuments like New Haven’s East Rock.
At Mount Saltonstall the ridge traps a lake managed by the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.
From one of two parking lots at Hoseley Avenue you can venture on one of the trails on the ridge’s high wooded banks.
There’s a fishing pier if you want to try to land the lake’s plentiful bass. The SCCRWA also manages a boat rental station in the spring and summer.
15. Branford Festival
Across Father’s Day weekend in mid-June, the Branford Festival transforms Branford Center with three days of celebrations.
Following the “raising of the flag” ceremony in front of the stately town hall and courthouse, there’s a feast of live music.
This is mixed with a mouth-watering selection of food vendors, a craft fair, a Father’s Day road race, and a classic car cruise. You’ve also got a rich program of activities for kids, like rides, face painting, inflatables and lots more.
Something I found especially heartwarming was the selection of Father of the Year. Coinciding with Father’s Day, this prize is picked on the basis of an essay-writing competition, open to local children.