This southern suburb of Hartford lies on the west bank of the Connecticut River, and enjoys grand vistas of the water from spots like the cliff tops at River Highlands State Park.
Cromwell is also a moment or two from the city of Middletown via the Central Connecticut Expressway, which places restaurants, shops and the distinguished Wesleyan University in striking distance.
This portion of the Connecticut River has brownstone geology, providing the building material for the northeast’s big cities, but also trapping 200-million-year-old dinosaur footprints at Rocky Hill’s Dinosaur State Park.
In June the PGA tour comes to town for the Travelers Championship at the private TPC River Highlands.
1. River Highlands State Park
There’s a view to rival any in Connecticut at this state park above the Connecticut River.
Now under a thick layer of woodland, this park was once open farmland and creates a welcome natural buffer surrounded by ever-growing suburbs.
The highest points on the bluffs are at the northern end, where they rise to 45 meters and you can contemplate the river and the east bank between the oaks, white pines and beech trees.
A stream flows west to east through River Highlands and can be followed along the yellow-blazed trail.
This intersects with the main white trail, which departs from the parking lot on Field Road and eventually traces the course of the Connecticut River.
2. Main Street Historic District
In this district, mostly along Main Street in Cromwell, you can witness how an 18th-century village center developed into a 20th-century town.
In these 130 acres, encompassing two greens (Valour Green and Memorial Green) there’s an example of every important architectural style between 1750 and 1935, from Colonial to Colonial Revival.
Most of this transformation took place in the 19th century, and a lot of the Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne houses from this century were constructed or owned by people at the forefront of Cromwell’s industrial and agricultural development.
Stop at the Stevens-Frisbie House (395 Main Street), which is owned by the Cromwell Historical Society and has a well-curated museum open on weekends in July and August.
3. Forest City Brewing
An old brick-built factory at an industrial zone in the north of Middletown is the setting for a family-run craft brewery with a big local following.
Forest City Brewing makes juicy IPAS, chocolate stouts, sour ales and more, and you can hit up their social media accounts to see what’s on tap when you come.
The taproom is open Friday to Sunday for pints, flights and growler refills.
When we wrote this list in September 2019 there were two IPAS, a kolsch, a sour ale and a chocolate milk stout, as well as a guest cider from the New England Cider Co.
4. Middletown Upper Houses Historic District
On the little streets wedged between Cromwell’s Main Street and the west bank of the Connecticut River is a district full of historic houses.
More than half of the 72 contributing buildings go back to before 1820, and are in the Colonial and Federal styles.
Up to the middle of the 19th century this piece of riverside, known as Upper Houses, was an important shipbuilding center and river port for exporting brownstone.
Over time the clues to the district’s former maritime role have disappeared, save for the vestiges of a dock.
Where there was once brisk trade is now a quiet residential area that is worth a detour by car as you head along Main Street.
5. Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park
Enduring landmarks and historic residences in New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington D. C., Philadelphia and many more city’s were constructed with brownstone extracted across the Connecticut River in Portland.
These quarries were worked from the end of the 17th century until a flood and then a hurricane ceased operations in the 1930s.
Over the last 20 years this immense site has been turned into an activity center with 14 zip-lines, an inflatable water obstacle course, an epic rope swing, kayaking, paddleboarding, wakeboarding and rock climbing on walls up to 25 meters high.
The Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park is open from mid-June to the start of September, and opens its doors seven days a week during the school summer break.
6. Dinosaur State Park
About two million years ago a carnivore closely related to the dilophosaurus walked along the sandy shore of a lake at what is now Rocky Hill, and those tracks were preserved in sandstone to be exposed in the 1960s.
After the discovery, the site was turned into a state park, and about a quarter of the tracks (some 500) were housed beneath a geodesic dome while the rest were buried once more.
At this impressive edifice you can study the footprints, check out dioramas depicting Mesozoic-era plants and wildlife, and see a host of other dinosaur-related finds from around Connecticut.
The remainder of these 80 acres is given over to an arboretum, planted with a big collection of coniferous species to evoke Mesozoic woodland.
7. Davison Art Center
Wesleyan University, the renowned liberal arts college, is right in Middletown and has an art museum open in the afternoon from Tuesday to Sunday.
The Davison Art Center is an obligatory visit for its astounding collection of art on paper, running to almost 25,000 pieces.
The print collection is one of best two or three at any American university, and contains works by artists like Dürer, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet and contemporary American artists like Jim Dine.
In addition are important holdings for mezzotint and lithography, as well as some 600 Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts by masters like Utamaro.
8. Van Vleck Observatory
Wesleyan University’s astronomical observatory dates back to 1914 and opens to the public on Wednesday evenings during the academic year.
Depending on the weather you should get the chance to stargaze with two of the observatory’s three telescopes.
Beforehand there will be a riveting half-hour presentation by a department member, dealing with a recent discovery or something space-related that has been in the news.
On the first and third Fridays of the month there are child-friendly activities on “Kids’ Nights”, led by undergraduates and graduates.
9. Kidcity Children’s Museum
Just the ticket for parents with children aged 1 to 7, Kidcity has three floors of imagination play, with exhibits thought up, designed and built by an in-house team.
Among many other things, kids can go shopping on Main Street, build a castle in a Medieval village, tend to a farm, meet aliens on Route 66 and bring in a catch using pulley baskets and conveyors.
Together with all this are playtime classics like dress-up costumes, toy trains, puppets, dolls and building blocks.
10. Still Hill Brewery
This 10-barrel craft brewery calls on more than a decade of beer-making experience and has opened a small and convivial taproom close by in Rocky Hill for pints, flights and to fill growlers.
On tap are a handful of year-round brews like the flagship Still Hill American Pale Ale, which balances citrusy American hops with a robust malt base.
Accompanying these are one-offs and seasonal brews, from IPAs to stouts, pilsners, saisons and English-style ales.
You’re free to order in food from the many restaurants in the area, and there’s almost always a food truck out front on Saturdays.
11. Wadsworth Falls State Park
There are two beautiful waterfalls at this state park in nearby Middletown, both easily discovered on trails.
On the Coginchaug River is Big Falls, where the river, 16 meters across, drops almost 10 meters over a ledge of Hampden basalt.
Little Falls is on Wadsworth Brook and is no less photogenic, with a 12-meter flight of dark sandstone.
Away from the waterfalls there’s a designated swimming area at the park, and you can bring a packed lunch to linger a while longer.
The man initially responsible for the preservation of this wonderful space is Colonel Clarence C. Wadsworth (1871–1941), who conserved the natural beauty of the estate.
The charitable foundation that he created donated these 267 to Connecticut after he passed away.
His Classical Revival mansion, completed around 1911, is today rented out for weddings and other celebrations.
12. Harbor Park
Another great place to go to watch the Connecticut River go by is the linear Harbor Park in Middletown.
The sunrise is especially pretty at this east-facing spot, and it’s the best place to catch Middletown’s Fourth of July fireworks.
Looking upriver from this point you’ll have a clean view of the Arrigoni Bridge, linking Middletown to Portland.
When it was completed in 1938, this steel through-arch bridge was the most expensive bridge ever built in Connecticut, at $3.5 million.
At the park’s south end is the Mattabesett Canoe Club, for cocktails and bites to go with those riverside views.
13. General Mansfield House
A building that captures your gaze on Middletown’s Main Street is this Federal-style brick house with a ceremonious Doric porch.
This is the General Mansfield House (1817) one of the few historic buildings on the street, constructed by the parents of the wife of Joseph K Mansfield (1803-1862), a Union general mortally wounded at the Battle of Antietam.
Since 1959 the house has been the headquarters of the Middletown Historical Society and holds lots of fine decorative arts and Civil War artifacts.
Outside, the gardens to the front and rear are gorgeous, with a formal herb bed to in front , and a neat boxwood garden and 150-year-old ginkgo tree at the back.
14. Travelers Championship
A big piece of northern Cromwell’s riverside is taken up by TPC River Highlands, a prestigious private golf club with a history going back more than 90 years.
Since the early-1980s the course has been owned by the PGA Tour and is run by their Tournament Players Network.
Unless you’re a member, or know a member, a round is out of the question.
But since 1984 this has been the venue for the Travelers Championship, played in June and won by the likes of Jordan Speith and Bubba Watson (3 times) in recent years.
Tickets can be purchased from the PGA Tour site, and are inexpensive, especially if you come for the pre-qualifiers earlier in the week.
Even from Thursday to Sunday you won’t have to pay more than $30 for a full day of first-class golf.
15. Adventure Rooms
This award-winning escape room brand has two locations, one in New Jersey and the other in easy reach in Middletown.
If you like solving puzzles there’s no better way to spend an hour, but you’ll realize quickly that you also need to work as a team.
There’s a choice of six rooms, varying in difficulty and completion rate (one has just 7%), and the minimum team size is normally two but can vary.
All environments are fully immersive, (“Remedy” for instance throws you in to a deserted town 25 years after a nuclear event). As you locate objects and decipher codes, new clues are revealed to you in surprising and creative ways.