In the very south-west of Greater Hartford, Bristol has a reputation that belies its small size.
Today Bristol is well-known as the home of ESPN, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries the city was a manufacturing hotbed, and leader in clock-making and doorbells.
That horological heritage is recorded at the American Clock & Watch Museum, where you can discover how inventor Eli Terry introduced mass production to the clock-making process, making timepieces affordable for all.
Lake Compounce, the longest-operating amusement park in the United States, is another local claim to fame, as a 21st-century attraction with high-tech white-knuckle rides alongside historical curiosities like one of America’s oldest carousels.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bristol:
1. New England Carousel Museum
In a capacious former hosiery factory you’ll be dazzled by this wonderfully presented array of vintage carousel memorabilia.
The museum holds many masterfully rendered horses, as well as lions, tigers, ducks, cows, giraffes and pigs.
You’ll discover the history of the carousel, which started out not as an amusement but as a training device for horseback soldiers.
One compelling exhibit shows how carousel horses were crafted and painted, while there’s a working Wurlitzer organ and an indoor carousel for rides.
You’ll be shown around by a knowledgeable guide, who will explain the differences between all of the painted figures.
Upstairs there’s a separate small museum all about the history of fire-fighting, where kids can try on equipment, pull levers and test alarms.
2. Lake Compounce
America’s oldest continuously operating amusement park is right here in Bristol and can be traced back to 1846 when the local entrepreneur Gad Norton opened a lakeside park with rowing, rides, swimming and a gazebo for concerts.
For modern thrill-seekers Lake Compounce has some first-rate rollercoasters, like Boulder Dash, which became the first wooden rollercoaster to be built on the side of a mountain when it opened in 2000. Zoomerang has three inversions and up to 5.2 Gs, while Phobia Phear zips you through an inline twist to a top speed of 62 mph.
The granddaddy here is Wildcat, a rickety wooden roller coaster that has been carrying passengers up its chain lift hill since 1927. Another antique at Lake Compounce is the carousel, built in 1898, making it one of the oldest operating rides in the United States, and running to the tune of a Wurlitzer 153 band organ.
There’s also a waterpark, Crocodile Cove, lots of amusements on the midways and plenty of rides and games for littler children and toddlers.
3. American Clock & Watch Museum (ACWM)
One of just a handful of museums in the United States focussing solely on horology, the ACWM is a world leader when it comes to American industrially-produced clocks from the 19th and early 20th century.
This is a legacy of Bristol’s once ascendant clock-making industry and firms like the Ingraham Clock Company.
The ACWM has gathered more than 5,500 clocks and watches, on show in eight galleries and producing a cacophony when many of them chime on the hour.
You’ll learn the story of the local inventor Eli Terry (1772-1852), who was the first to implement mass-production techniques to build timepieces with interchangeable parts had a massive influence on manufacturing.
The museum’s location is also worth noting, in Bristol’s Federal Hill neighbourhood, within a complex of historic buildings like the relocated Barnes homestead, dating to 1728.
4. Imagine Nation
This early learning centre/children’s museum follows the Reggio Emilia approach in the way it promotes self-directed, open-ended and experiential learning.
At Imagine Nation children aged 2-8 can immerse themselves in 12 interactive “Museum Studios” across three levels and all using real-life objects and authentic experiences.
For a very brief overview, kids can explore and respond to creative media at the Art Studio, engage in the process of design and engineering, learn about physical health and wellbeing through role-play, apply scientific concepts investigating light and shadow and learn about other people, places and cultures at the Multicultural Studio.
5. Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center
One of many things in Bristol’s favour is just how much nature is on the town’s doorstep, waiting for people to experience it.
Newly updated, the Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center has an interpretive centre in 70 acres of forest and fields.
The trails are open every day of the year, from dawn to dusk, while you can check out the visitor centre Thursday through Sunday, 10:00-16:00 (10:00-14:00 on Sunday). There you can browse interactive wildlife and ecology exhibits and view a large array of exotic reptiles and amphibians like yellow-banded poison dart frogs, as well as live birds of prey.
The Nature Center hosts regular craft activities, organises field trips in summer and has a nature-oriented gift shop.
6. Muzzy Field
A sports venue infused with memories, Muzzy Field next to Rockwell Park goes back to 1912 and has a 4,900-capacity grandstand dating from 1939. Buffering the outfield and the brick-clad grandstand is a signature high line of pine trees.
Babe Ruth played in two exhibition games at Muzzy Field, in 1919 and 1920, at one time hitting a home run so far that the ball has never been found.
In the 70s this was the home ground for the Double-A Bristol Red Sox, and big names like Jim Rice and Fred Lynn earned their spurs here at the start of glittering careers.
The ballpark has been refurbished in the 2010s and is the home field for the Bristol Blues, who play in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, as well as three local high school teams, all with healthy rivalries.
7. Lock Museum of America
Just over the town line in Terryville, the Lock Museum of America will hold the key to your heart if you like specialised local attractions.
The museum does pack a historical punch too, as it sits opposite the original site of the Eagle Lock Company, founded in 1833 and at one point the largest cabinet and trunk lock maker in the world.
There’s a whole room devoted to this company, filled with more than 1,000 locks and keys manufactured between 1854 and 1954. The captivating Bank Lock Room displays a multiplicity of vault locks, early time locks and safe locks, while there’s an exhibition of delicately crafted hardware in the Corbin-Russwin Room, with many pieces enamelled or golf-plated.
Finally, the Yale Room hold locks by this famous manufacturer from 1860 to 1950, the highlight being the patent model of Linus Yale Jr’s Mortise Cylinder Pin Tumbler Lock (1865). Fun fact, the village of Terryville is named for Eli Terry’s son, Terry Jr!
8. Hoppers Birge Pond
From the centre of Bristol you can go from the downtown to unfettered wilderness in a matter of minutes.
Hoppers Birge Pond is a nature preserve encompassing a large body of water, wetlands, forest and open fields.
The pond is fine for kayaking, canoeing and fishing, and there are trails snaking off into the hardwood forest, which is spectacular when the leaves turn in fall.
If you keep your eyes peeled you may spot turtles, deer, bobcats, all sorts of waterfowl and foxes.
There’s a space provided for picnics, and a boardwalk crosses the wetlands where you can do some bird-spotting.
The ponds freezes over in winter and you can bring your skates when the ice is thick enough.
If you have a dog, Hoppers Birge Pond is one of those rare public places where off-leashing is permitted.
9. Page Park
Just east of downtown, this park is a prime spot for outdoor recreation, catering to a wide range of activities.
There’s an outdoor pool, a disc golf course, a softball field, a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a basketball court and even a ski hill in winter with its own lodge.
Page Park is also great if you’re not doing anything in particular, with trails for gentle walks, playgrounds, one for kids and one for toddlers, and four different picnic areas.
10. St Stanislaus Church
Built for Bristol’s Polish Roman-Catholic immigrants, St Stanislaus Church was completed in 1919 and serves a community that is now in its second or third generation.
What’s remarkable is that the church continues to give two masses a week in Polish, on Friday nights and Sunday mornings.
Every September there’s also a two-day Dożynki, a Slavic harvest festival on the church grounds.
Going strong for more than 30 years, this event involves traditional Polish music, arts and crafts, costume and a popular Polish food tent preparing kielbasa, pierogies, golumpki and chrusciki.
On an ordinary day, take a peek inside this neo-Gothic building to see the organ, built by Hartford-based Austin Organs in 1956, with two manuals and 13 pipes.
11. Rockwell Park
Bristol’s oldest park dates back to 1914 and straddles the fast-flowing Pequabuck River, coursing through the west side.
One of the park’s distinguishing features is its cobblestone architecture, visible at the three main gates and the buildings and follies dotted here and there.
The grandest of these is the Summerhouse, a pavilion with high round arches and elongated eaves.
Rockwell Park is in just over 100 acres, on what used to be the estate of local manufacturer Albert Rockwell.
In the first decades of the 20th century the Rockwells also contributed funds for new facilities and upkeep.
Today the park has a pond, amphitheatre for summer concerts, gazebo, basketball court, pool, hiking trails, skate park, off-leash dog park and two volleyball courts.
12. Relic Brewing Company
This small batch brewing company a few minutes east in Plainville opens for on-site drinks, tastings and sales in the afternoon/evening from Wednesday to Sunday.
A kind of Aladdin’s cave for aficionados, the Relic Brewing Company will have up to 17 beers on draft, as well as a host of wines and ciders, upwards of 600 rare kinds of whisky (both Scotch and Bourbon) and more than 200 other spirits.
When this list was put together in July 2019 there were eight IPAs on tap, as well as seven non-IPAs and a special earl grey and lemon saison (highly carbonated pale ale). Every Thursday at 19:00 there’s bar trivia, and there’s regular live music, mostly on Friday nights.
13. Bristol Historical Society Museum
If your curiosity for Bristol and its history is still not sated you can call in at the Bristol Historical Society on Summer Street for some extra colour.
The society’s setting could hardly be grander, at Bristol’s first high school, a brick Richardson Romanesque building dating to 1894. The museum is open on Wednesday and Saturday, from 10:00 to 14:00, and has an exhibition mapping Bristol’s story and its most important personalities.
Here you’ll come across pieces relating to the city’s historic clock-making and precision instrument industries, as well as models and all kinds of intriguing keepsakes.
There’s also an archive of documents and newspapers going back more than a hundred years, and fascinating to pore over if you have the time.
14. Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum
Going strong for more than half a century, the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum is a spooky seasonal attraction that has now moved to the Bristol Historical Society Building.
The stars of the show are life-sized and highly detailed figures from movies from the golden age of horror and sci-fi cinema.
Think The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mr Phantom, Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, Zenobia, Frankenstein’s Monster, Red Death and Werewolf of London, all accompanied by authentic classic movie props and memorabilia.
The museum was founded by Bristol local Cortlandt Hull when he was just 13 years old, and in the last 50 years has been visited by the descendants of classic horror stars like Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr, and award-winning makeup artist Dick Smith.
A long-running Halloween tradition in Bristol, the exhibition is open on weekend evenings all through October and followed up by a screening of one of those classic horrors.
15. Bristol Mum Festival
Closing out the summer in style, the Bristol Mum Festival is a four-day event towards the end of September.
Here “Mum” means chrysanthemum, as along with clocks and doorbells, Bristol was once synonymous with chrysanthemums . The festivities kick off on the Thursday with food trucks and live music, and from the Friday to the Sunday there are rides and midway amusements.
On the Saturday you can peruse more than 100 craft and community vendors, and children can take pony rides and make new friends at the petting zoo.
Then on the Sunday there’s yet more live music and food trucks, and a big parade at 13:30, festooned with chrysanthemum blooms.