Southwest of Hartford, Bristol is a city with a reputation that belies its size. Today Bristol is known as the home of ESPN, while 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. There 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 of my favorite things about this place.
Old meets new at this 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 old factory I was 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.
I was riveted learning about the history of the carousel. Did you know that the ride 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 firefighting. Here, 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. The origins of Lake Compounce 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. This became the first wooden roller coaster 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. A real highlight for me, it’s one of the oldest operating rides in the United States, 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)
The ACWM is a world leader when it comes to American industrially-produced clocks from the 19th and early 20th century. It’s also one of just a handful of museums in the United States focussing solely on horology,
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, displayed in eight galleries. I got a nice surprise from the cacophony when many of them chime on the hour.
Here you’ll learn the story of the local inventor Eli Terry (1772-1852). He was the first to implement mass-production techniques to build timepieces with interchangeable parts, and had a massive influence on manufacturing.
The museum’s location is also worth noting. It sits in Bristol’s elegant Federal Hill neighborhood, within a complex of historic buildings like the relocated Barnes homestead, dating to 1728.
4. Downtown Bristol
When I last visited Bristol the downtown area was undergoing a transformation, with a lot of work being done to the streetscape around Riverside Avenue and Divinity Street in particular.
There’s a cluster of small businesses dotted around the district. Food-wise you can come for Thai, pizza, deli classics, and a cup of coffee.
There’s a farmers’ market at 111 North Main Street, on Saturday mornings, mid-June through October. Also look out for the weekly Bristol Auto Club Car show here.
If you like grand old architecture, my tip is to set off on a walking tour of Federal Hill. Favored by Bristol’s upper class in the second half of the 19th century, this section abuts downtown to the northeast and has many Italianate and Victorian residences.
5. Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center
One of many things I appreciate about Bristol is just how much nature is on the town’s doorstep, waiting to be experienced.
Updated in the 2010s, the Harry C. Barnes Memorial Nature Center has an interpretive center 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 center on weekends.
There you can browse interactive wildlife and ecology exhibits. There’s also an array of exotic reptiles and amphibians like yellow-banded poison dart frogs, as well as live birds of prey.
The Nature Center hosts regular programs, organizes field trips, 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. At that time, big names like Jim Rice and Fred Lynn earned their spurs here at the start of glittering careers.
The ballpark was refurbished in the 2010s and is the home field for the Bristol Blues. When I wrote this article the Blues were in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. This is a wood-bat league, with a 44-game season in June and July.
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 specialized 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, this was the largest cabinet and trunk lock maker in the world for a time.
There’s a whole room devoted to this company, filled with more than 1,000 locks and keys manufactured between 1854 and 1954.
I was captivated by the Bank Lock Room, which displays a multiplicity of vault locks, early time locks and safe locks. Meanwhile there’s an exhibition of delicately crafted hardware in the Corbin-Russwin Room, with many pieces enameled or gold-plated.
Finally, the Yale Room holds 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 center of Bristol you can go from the downtown to unfettered nature 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. I was lucky enough to be here when the leaves were turning in fall, and it was spectacular.
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 pond freezes over in winter, so you can bring your skates when the ice is thick enough. If you have a dog, Hoppers Birge Pond has one of those rare public spaces 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. The property was donated to the city by DeWitt and May Rockwell Page in 1933.
I have to start with the 18-hole disc golf course, held as one of the best in Connecticut. There’s also a softball field, a baseball diamond, five 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. There are trails for gentle walks, a splash pad, playgrounds—one for older 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 to me 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 close to 40 years, this event involves a slew of traditional Polish activities. There’s music, arts and crafts, costumes, and a popular Polish food tent preparing kielbasa, pierogies, golumpki and chrusciki.
On an ordinary day, take a peek inside this Neogothic building to see the organ. This instrument was 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. This is visible at the three main gates and the buildings and follies dotted here and there.
My favorite 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, and an amphitheater hosting summer concerts. Among the other features are a gazebo, basketball court, pool, splash pad, exercise trail, 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, Wednesday through Saturday.
A kind of Aladdin’s cave for aficionados, the Relic Brewing Company will have up to 17 beers on draft. There’s also a host of wines and ciders, upwards of 600 rare kinds of whisky (both Scotch and Bourbon) and more than 200 other spirits.
When I put this list together there were some exciting new creations. For instance, Death by Whoopie (Imperial Milk Stout) was right up my alley. Food options include cheese boards, kielbasa, nachos and cute English muffin pizzas.
Every Wednesday at 7:00 PM there’s bar trivia, and you can catch 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 color.
The society’s setting could hardly be grander, at Bristol’s first high school, a brick Richardson Romanesque building from 1894. The museum is open on Wednesday and Saturday, from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM.
The permanent exhibition maps Bristol’s story and its most important personalities.
I was fascinated by 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.
14. Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum
Going strong for some 60 years, the Witch’s Dungeon Classic Movie Museum is a spooky seasonal attraction that had recently moved to Plainville when I was around.
The stars of the show are life-sized and highly detailed figures from movies from the golden age of horror and sci-fi cinema.
I’m talking, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Mr Phantom, Bela Lugosi’s Count Dracula, Zenobia, Frankenstein’s Monster, Red Death and Werewolf of London. These are 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. In the last 60-odd years it 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.
As a long-running Halloween tradition in the area, the exhibition is open on weekend evenings all through October. This is followed up by a screening of one of those horror classics.
15. Bristol Mum Festival
Closing out the summer in style, the Bristol Mum Festival is a four-day event towards the end of September.
In case you don’t know, “Mum” means chrysanthemum. Along with clocks and doorbells, Bristol was once synonymous with this flower.
This is a huge event, with many things for many people. By that I mean awesome live music, scores of arts & crafts and community vendors, carnival rides and games, and a Miss Mum Pageant.
Meanwhile children can take pony rides, “touch-a-vehicle”, 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 with 40+ floats festooned with chrysanthemum blooms. If I had to pick one spectacle not to miss, it would surely be the parade, one of the largest in the state.