The capital of Connecticut is one of the oldest cities in the United States, dating all the way back to 1635. In the 19th century Hartford became a centre for abolitionism, producing the likes of Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). After the Civil War this was the richest city in the country thanks to a burgeoning manufacturing sector spearheaded by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company.
Since the 1950s Hartford has suffered a few of the problems that afflict former manufacturing towns, but there’s a healthy cultural scene, great parks and some essential museums.
You can visit the house where Mark Twain wrote his most enduring works, check out masterpieces by Caravaggio and Monet at the Wadsworth Atheneum and catch a Minor League game at the new Dunkin’ Donuts Park.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Hartford:
1. Mark Twain House & Museum
In the 17 years that Mark Twain and his family spent at this American High Gothic House, he wrote many of his most treasured works, like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Prince and the Pauper.
A playful building with a steeply pitched roof and turreted chimney stacks, the house was built for the family in 1873 and had modern systems like central heating, a burglar alarm, telephones and gadgets for calling servants into given rooms.
Before you head in there’s an exhibition in the visitor centre, while the house itself is replete with personal effects and details that will bring you closer than ever to one of America’s most beloved authors.
The library is magnificent, with hand-stencilled panelling, and fireplaces imported from India, while at the very top is the Billiards Room, where Twain composed his works and would entertain guests with liquor and cigars.
The Mark Twain House is a living part of Hartford’s cultural scene, hosting silent writing sessions and special ghost and murder mystery themed tours.
2. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The oldest continually operating art museum in the United States has recently been enlarged, and sits in a castle-like building at 600 Main Street.
Inaugurated in 1844, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is an exciting miscellany with celebrated collections of French and American impressionism, European Baroque painting, Modernist masterpieces, early American design, bronzes from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and landscapes by the Hudson River School.
On a typical visit you’ll be stopped in your tracks by works by Caravaggio, Monet, Renoir, Dalí, Miró, Ernst and René Magritte, or Pre-Columbian pottery, Meissen porcelain, Italian majolica or Ballets Russes costumes.
Something to love is the Cabinet of Art and Curiosity in the European Art Galleries, arranged like an exhibition in an aristocratic home in the 16th or 17th century, except for the interactive touch screens!
3. Connecticut Science Center
A great day out for families, the Connecticut Science Center has more than 165 hands-on exhibits.
On six levels, these package topics like the cosmos, gravity, sight and sound, problem solving, energy, the Connecticut River, natural history and human health in fun, inspiring ways.
There’s also a Butterfly Encounter in a tropical greenhouse, a gorgeous rooftop garden bursting with wildlife and a 9m x 12m theatre with 18,000 watt Dolby surround, screening eye-popping movies.
Weekends are often set aside for special events, like the annual Mess Fest in late-June, which has indoor and outdoor activities involving slime, dry ice, rockets and air cannons.
The Connecticut Science Center also stages first-rate exhibitions, which in the last few years have dealt with dinosaurs, Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions and real human bodies preserved with “plastination”.
4. Connecticut State Capitol
Impossible to miss for the gold-plated dome 60-metres above the south-west side of Bushnell Park, the Connecticut State Capitol was completed during the 1870s and replaced the Old State House, which we’ll cover next.
This striking Eastlake Movement building is the seat of the Connecticut General Assembly, the State Senate, the House of Representatives and the office of Connecticut’s Governor.
Monday to Friday you can go inside for free guided or self-guided tours.
These will take an hour, and some of the memorable stops are the Genius of Connecticut statue, the Hall of Flags, the House and Senate chambers, the Legislative Office Building and the Connecticut Hall of Fame recognising the state’s good and the great, from Katharine Hepburn to Mark Twain.
5. Connecticut’s Old State House
Dating to 1796, Connecticut’s Old State House is in a medley of styles, with a Federal exterior, Colonial Revival halls and a Victorian Representative’s Chamber.
The main facade, facing east off Central Row, has a stately Doric portico, raised on a first floor of brownstone quarried in Portland, Connecticut.
The state’s democracy was born at this very spot, and you can go inside to learn its origins on a guided or self-guided tour through the legislative rooms.
In the last few years, light-hearted interactive exhibits detailing Connecticut’s history have been installed to reach youngsters, and on the third floor you’ll come to the Joseph Steward Museum of Curiosities.
This is based on the cabinet of curiosities of the minister Joseph Steward (1753-1822) and among other things has a two-headed calf and a “unicorn’s horn”. The Old State House Farmers’ Market on State House Square can be traced back to 1643 and trades from late-spring to mid-autumn.
6. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
The abolitionist and author Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) lived at this property on Forest Street, not far west of downtown Hartford.
She is best known for the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), portraying the hardship endured by African American slaves.
This momentous work had an incalculable effect on attitudes towards slavery and is even claimed to have “helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War”. Harriet Beecher Stowe spent the last 23 years of her life at this property, which was built in 1871, two years before she moved in.
The adjoining carriage house (1873) holds the Visitor Center and from there you’ll be given an engaging guided tour through the house, which has the largest collection of materials related to the author, comprising decorative arts, fine art, furniture, manuscripts, books and much more.
Further displays are geared towards Abolition, African-American history and changing racial attitudes in the United States, as well as women’s history including suffrage.
7. Elizabeth Park
An Olmsted and Son project, Elizabeth Park was landscaped at the turn of the 20th century on land bequeathed to the City of Hartford by the financier Charles M.
Pond in 1894. His one proviso was that the park be named for his wife Elizabeth, who had passed away some years before.
In over 100 acres, Elizabeth Park has open green spaces, elegant formal gardens, ponds, bridges, two lovely Lord and Burnham greenhouses, walking loops and the highly-rated Pond House Café.
If you’re planning a visit you can consult the website to see what’s in bloom, starting in spring with the daffodils.
The Rose Garden peaks in late-June, and the late-bloomers are the dahlias in autumn.
That Rose Garden is the third largest in the United States, and was the first to be planted by a municipality.
Head for the Overlook for fine vistas of Hartford’s skyline to the east, while every Wednesday morning from April to October there will be volunteers from the Herb Society of Connecticut fielding questions in the Herb Garden.
8. Bushnell Park
The oldest park in the United States to be created with public funds, Bushnell Park was conceived in 1854 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The park was ready in 1868 and is a product of a time when planners were just starting to understand the benefits of open space in cities.
In these 37 acres there’s sculpture, trails and play areas for children and monuments like the George Keller’s Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, dedicated in 1886. But the main draw is the vintage carousel, dating back to 1914 and brought here from Canton, Ohio in 1974. The ride sits beneath a large Turkey Oak, and has a Wurlitzer band organ, 48 delicately carved horses and two lovers’ chariots.
9. Ancient Burying Ground
The First Church of Christ on Gold Street was founded by Puritan Colonial Leader, Thomas Hooker in 1636. And although the current Neoclassical building is the fourth on the site and dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, the cemetery beside it is from 1640 and would be Hartford’s only burial ground for the next 163 years.
Some 6,000 men, women and children are thought to have been interred on this four-acre plot, and were buried irrespective of race, religion or social status.
The Ancient Burying Ground was once considerably larger, but has shrunk as the land around it has been built up over the centuries.
Come to spend a peaceful few minutes perusing the centuries-old gravestones, many of which have inscriptions clearly legible.
The oldest headstone belongs to one Timothy Stanley, who died in 1648.
10. Great River Park
On the East Hartford bank of the Connecticut River is a long ribbon of greenery curling around the undeveloped river-bend.
Along almost two miles of waterfront there are trails weaving through dense woodland, and presenting you with great views across to Hartford.
Every now and again you’ll be greeted by public art, while there’s a boat launch, lots of picnic tables and a 350-seat amphitheatre hosting the free Sounds of Summer concert series in the warmer months.
Get back to Hartford on the Founders Bridge, which deposits you at the landscaped Mortensen Riverfront Plaza.
This space ties downtown Hartford to the riverfront, with its own 2,500-seater stage, as well as docks for trips on the river.
11. Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts
Billed as Connecticut’s premier performing arts venue, the Bushnell Center is made up of the 2,800-seater Mortensen Hall, dating back to 1930, and the smaller, modern Belding Theater, which holds just over 900 and opened in 2002. Check the schedule for live music from all genres, well-known comedians (Leslie Jones and Patton Oswalt in 2019), musicals, opera, dance and family shows.
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra performs here regularly, and their 2019-2020 Masterworks Series featured Dvořák’s Eight, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and concerts for the works of Chopin and Franck, Brahms and Haydn, and Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky.
The interior of Mortensen Hall demands a visit, whoever is on the bill, for its late-20s Art Deco ornamentation.
Overhead is the stunning Drama mural, hand-painted in 1929 and the largest work of its kind in the United States, measuring 57m x 12m.
12. Real Art Ways
Hartford’s alternative multidisciplinary arts organisation started out in 1975 when a group of fiercely independent artists and musicians took over a loft downtown, turning it into studio, living, performance and exhibition space.
In the 1990s Real Art Ways set up shop at a beautiful brick warehouse on Arbor Street, turning it into a one-of-a-kind centre for the arts, hosting up to three simultaneous visual arts exhibitions, as well as concerts and a schedule of community events, from talks to board game nights.
A real draw is the two-room Real Art Ways Cinema, screening independent and acclaimed foreign language movies every day of the week.
13. Cathedral of Saint Joseph
The seat of the Archdiocese of Hartford is a modern construction, raised in the early 1960s after its predecessor burnt down.
The Cathedral of Saint Joseph’s architecture is an International Style reworking of a Gothic church, using a reinforced concrete structure clad with white limestone.
If you get the chance to take a closer look there’s some masterful modern ecclesiastical art to admire.
The massive bronze doors at the entrance have a bas-relief depicting bible scenes.
Then the narthex and nave are divided by a marvellous glass screen representing the Kingdom of Christ on earth and in heaven.
When you go through to the nave you’ll be struck by the rare quantity of stained glass, all crafted in Paris and thought to have taken inspiration from the Sainte-Chapelle on Île de la Cité.
14. Connecticut Historical Society (CHS)
Based at the sprawling Colonial Revival mansion of the inventor Curtis Veeder, the Connecticut History Society is one of the oldest organisations of its kind in the United States, dating back to 1825. At this rarefied location, the society operates a non-profit museum, archive, library and education centre, all with the task of illuminating Connecticut’s history.
Over the last 200 years the CHS has amassed hundreds of thousands of artefacts, books and pamphlets, and has one of New England’s largest costume and textile collections.
These are displayed in up to seven concurrent exhibitions, often timed to coincide with anniversaries or chime with the zeitgeist.
In 2017 “Victorian Fashion Crosses the Pond, 1840-1900” documented Queen Victoria’s impact of women’s style in Connecticut, while in 2019 “Take Note!” documented 75 years of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.
The ongoing exhibit, “Making Connecticut” charts 400 years of daily life, work, leisure, social change and sports in this patch of New England, with 500 artefacts.
15. Dunkin’ Donuts Park
When Minor League’s New Britain Rock Cats relocated to Hartford in 2016 they were reborn as the Hartford Yard Goats and took up residence at the brand new Dunkin’ Donuts Park.
In doing so they became Hartford’s first professional sports team since NHL’s Whalers moved to North Carolina in 1997. The Yard Goats are a Double-A team (Minor League’s second-highest class level) and are an affiliate of MLB’s Colorado Rockies.
The stadium, holding 6,850, was declared Ballpark of the Year for 2017 by Baseballparks.com.
One reason for this is the urban downtown location, revitalising a long neglected part of Hartford on the north side of Interstate 84. With authentic and restrained architecture, the stadium meshes well with the brick-built Capital Preparatory Magnet School on the north side, and has a great touch on Trumbull Street where a window lets you peer right into the home bullpen and beyond it to the field itself.