East Hartford is a residential and industrial town set right on the Connecticut River where Hartford’s skyline comes into view.
It takes little more than five minutes to reach one downtown from the other, across the Founders Bridge, so a lot of the best things to do locally can be found a couple of miles across west in Hartford.
But East Hartford does have a few things to recommend it, not least the sumptuous Wickham Park, which is embroidered with lots of ornamental gardens.
The town’s biggest employer is the aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, which has a museum showing off both its high-tech afterburning jet engines and the turbine engines that powered key aircraft in World War II.
1. Wickham Park
This marvellous park on the east side of town is maintained by a non-profit foundation and charges a small fee for cars ($5 mon-fri, $7 on weekends). It’s a small price to pay to visit this mosaic of different gardens, including a wetland garden, lotus garden, oriental garden, English garden, arboretum and Scottish garden, to name just a handful.
The formal Cabin Garden, at the highest point in the park, is a delight for its stirring view west to Hartford.
Alongside the ornamental gardens Wickham Park is a place for recreation, endowed with trails, an 18-hole disc golf course, five tennis courts, two softball diamonds and horseshoe pits.
There’s also an aviary, home to a great-horned owl, red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures and a museum/nature center where you can find out about plant and animal life in the area, and get to know the Wickham Family that donated this former estate in 1967.
2. Great River Park
At East Hartford’s Great River Park there’s two miles of illuminated riverfront fringed by trees and grassy areas.
People cross the Founders Bridge or the Charter Oak Bridge to take in the Hartford’s cityscape from the east bank, but there are plenty of other reasons to come.
There’s engaging outdoor sculpture at Great River Park, food trucks often stop by, while on Thursday evenings in summer there’s a series of concerts at the 350-seater amphitheatre, bringing soul, Latin rhythms and rock ‘n’ roll classics.
On a typical day you could go for a jog or make use of the fitness stations, or just hop across to Hartford to grab coffee or takeout, and go for a picnic by the water.
3. Pratt & Whitney Hangar Museum
On Tuesdays and Thursdays you can visit a hangar at the Pratt & Whitney Campus to check out a collection of engines from the company’s earliest days to the 21st century.
The pièce de résistance has to be the F135 afterburning turbofan, used in the brand new Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.
The aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh was employed by Pratt & Whitney for a time during World War II, and you can view the desk that he worked at while he was here.
Among a variety of piston engines from the interwar and WWII era there’s a R-1340 “Wasp” which powered record flights by Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post, and the R-2800 “Double Wasp”, used for some of the United States’ most important aircraft in the war, like the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
Added to these are numerous jet engines, and intriguing prototypes that were never put into mass production.
In East Hartford you’ll gravitate towards the big city across the river for things to do.
Hartford, like its neighbour over the water, has a gritty reputation but offers the dining, culture and entertainment you’d want from a big urban centre.
Hartford is dominated by the insurance sector, and was the richest city in the United States in the last decades of the 19th century.
At that time Mark Twain was a resident, and his Gothic mansion to the west of the city is hailed as one of the best writer’s home museums in the world.
Broadway musicals, top-tier music artists and world-famous comedians take the stage at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center.
There are outdoor performances at the park, of the same name, the oldest publicly funded park in the United States.
Bushnell Park has a gorgeous carousel from 1914 turning to the strains of a Wurlitzer Organ.
5. Wadsworth Atheneum
Hartford’s fabulous Wadsworth Athenium is the oldest public art museum in the United States, dating back to 1844 and founded by Daniel Wadsworth, son of one of Hartford’s wealthiest men.
The collection, which has grown over 160 years, is both massive and eclectic.
Its strong points lie in Italian Baroque painting, 20th-century Surrealist art, works by the Hudson River School and American Modernism by the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley.
Browsing the galleries you’ll be stopped in your tracks by masterpieces by Caravaggio, Renoir, Joan Miró, Magritte, Max Ernst, Joseph Wright of Derby and many more.
The museum’s decorative arts inventory is also staggering, and features Chinese, Meissen, Vincennes, Sèvres and Chinese porcelain, Italian maiolica, English silver, Venetian glass and a trove of pre-Columbian pottery.
Check out the Cabinet of Art and Curiosity, displaying some 200 objects in the style of a European cabinet of curiosity from the Early Modern Age.
6. Connecticut Science Center
Cross the Founders Bridge and the first big attraction you’ll come to is the Connecticut Science Center, holding nine storeys of hands-on, educational fun.
There are over 165 creative exhibits here, dealing with sight and sound, forces, engineering principles, space exploration, planet earth, human health and a great deal more.
KidSpace is a stimulating play area for children under seven, with building blocks and water experiments, while at Invention Dimension kids can build a LEGO masterpiece and race robots.
There’s a Butterfly Encounter on Level 4 in a tropical greenhouse, and further up the Sports Lab goes into the science behind pro-level performance, while Energy City is all about renewable energy and green lifestyles.
Also catch a show at the museum’s 3D theatre, which has a 9 x 12m screen and an 18,000-watt Dolby sound system.
7. Rentschler Field
The University of Connecticut’s football team’s home field is a 40,000-capacity stadium that opened in 2003. UConn Huskies compete in the NCAA Division I FBS (American Athletic Conference), the highest level college football in the United States.
From the end of August until the end of November you can come to see regular season games against college football giants like the Houston Cougars and Memphis Tigers.
The benefit of the Huskies being one of the smaller teams in the conference is that games rarely sell out at Rentschler Field.
But, all the same, a big contingent of Huskies have made it to the NFL, like Byron Jones of the Dallas Cowboys.
Both the women’s and men’s United States national soccer teams have occasional fixtures at Rentschler Field, and there’s a line-up of events in summer, including fairs and fun runs.
8. Makens Bemont House
One of a group of historic houses next to Martin Park and owned by the Historical Society of East Hartford, the Makens Bemont House was built in 1761. Five bays across, with clapboard cladding and a gambrel roof broken by three dormers, the property has been preserved as an 18th and 19th-century home inside.
The floor is laid with pine boards, and there’s a Federal-style mantelpiece and some Greek Revival flourishes in the north-west chamber.
The house was moved about 800 metres along Burnside Avenue in 1971, and now opens in spring and summer for occasional tours.
9. Martin Park
At this local park you can view the rest of the Historical Society of East Hartford’s little ensemble.
This includes the Burnham Blacksmith Shop (1850) and the Goodwin Schoolhouse (1821). The park itself is well-looked after, and has a basketball court, baseball field, football field, an outdoor pool and playgrounds for toddlers and bigger kids.
There’s also open greenery, framed by hardwood trees if you just want to hang out.
10. East Hartford Golf Club
Any avid golfers itching for a round in East Hartford will find a very serviceable course just across the road from Wickham Park.
The 18-hole par 72 course at East Hartford Golf Club should be forgiving for newcomers, but does pose some challenges like dense tree cover close to the fairways and small greens.
Most of the fairways are pretty simple, except for on the 12th, which has a dramatic dogleg right.
Rates are very economical at $21 for 18 holes during the week and $28 at the weekend.
The Tavern on the Green at the Clubhouse is somewhere to kick back after a long round, and has a tempting menu of apps, salads, burgers, wraps and sandwiches.
11. Connecticut’s Old State House
While you’re in downtown Hartford you could pay a pilgrimage to the place where Connecticut’s democracy was born.
The outside of the Old State House (1796) has been returned to its Federalist style and is thought to have been the first major project by the feted architect Charles Bulfinch.
The lower storey is built from Connecticut brownstone, while the two floors above are from brick, with a white portico, balustrade and cupola.
For just $6 you’ll get access to a compelling museum, the Governor’s office, Connecticut senate and House of Representatives, and a historic cabinet of curiosities.
The museum has lots of interactive exhibits and artefacts like Mark Twain’s bicycle, a fragment of Hartford’s famous Charter Oak (felled by a storm in 1856) and a fire truck from 1912. The Joseph Steward Museum of Curiosities upstairs has oddities like a two-headed calf.
12. Mortensen Riverfront Plaza and Sculpture Walk
The Hartford side of the Connecticut River has been revitalised in the last 20 years, with a project tying to the west bank to downtown Hartford.
At the Mortensen Riverfront Plaza there are grassy terraces for outdoor shows and a quay for trips on the Lady Katharine, which zips off on a programme of themed cruises along the Connecticut River.
North of the Founders Bridge is the Sculpture Walk, which came together in the 2000s.
Here, 16 pieces of public art by renowned sculptors like Don Gummer and Bruno Lucchese have been erected by the water, all dedicated to the life of Abraham Lincoln and accompanied by interpretive plaques.
13. Dunkin’ Donuts Park
Ever since NHL’s Whalers departed for North Carolina in 1997 Hartford has been without a top-level professional team of any description.
But in 2016 the sports scene in the city’s sports scene got a shot in the arm when the Minor League baseball team, the New Britain Rock Cats, switched to Hartford, becoming the Yard Goats.
A compact but perfectly formed stadium was built for them, at the 6,121-capacity Dunkin’ Donuts Park, helping to regenerate a neglected part of the city north of the I-84. The ballpark has a brick exterior to help it fit in with the school building across Pleasant Street, and along Trumbull Street there are windows that let you see right into the home bullpen and the field behind.
The Yard Goats are the Double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, so you’ll witness some young talent destined for baseball’s highest level.
14. Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk
Next to the I-84 to the north-east of the town there’s a group of malls, big standalone stores, drive-ins and sit-down restaurants all on a hilltop site.
The most polished of these is Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk, an outdoor mall on meandering walkways lined with brands like Banana Republic, Gap, Sephora, Clarks, L. L. Bean, New Balance, Pottery Barn and L’Occitane, just to get you started.
Moments away are the Plaza and The Shoppes at Buckland Hills for the likes of Macy’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods, while there are restaurant locations like Red Robin, Olive Garden, Five Guys and LongHorn Steakhouse.
You can make an evening of it with a movie at the Cinemark multiplex, which has an IMAX screen.
15. Gilman-Hayden House
Keep going to the north end of Main Street in East Hartford and you’ll come to a minor historical landmark in a rural/residential neighbourhood.
A private home, the Gilman-Hayden House has been standing since 1784 and has had some eminent occupants in its time.
The Williams family lived here up to the mid-19th century, and are renowned for William Williams (1731-1811), who was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1867, one Edward Hayden took up residence at this property, and he is known for the diary he kept during and after the Civil War.
The building is in the Georgian style, clad with clapboard and spanning five bays.