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 center 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. That boom was spearheaded by Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company.
I have to say, I fell in love with Hartford’s healthy cultural scene, great parks and essential visitor attractions.
You can visit the house where Mark Twain wrote his most enduring works, and check out masterpieces by Caravaggio and Monet at the Wadsworth Atheneum. Finally, don’t forget to catch a Minor League game at the new Dunkin’ 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. I’m talking, 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. I was amazed to learn about its 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 center, while the house itself is replete with personal effects. Some of these details bring you closer than ever to one of America’s most beloved authors.
The library is magnificent, with hand-stenciled paneling, and fireplaces imported from India. Meanwhile 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. These span everything from French and American impressionism to bronzes from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome.
I was stopped in my tracks by works by Caravaggio, Monet, Renoir, Dalí, Miró, Ernst and René Magritte. There’s also 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. This is arranged like an exhibition in an aristocratic home in the 16th or 17th century.
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 and a gorgeous rooftop garden bursting with wildlife. I caught the amazing Animal Kingdom 3D at the 30ft x 40ft theater, which has 18,000-watt Dolby surround sound.
The Connecticut Science Center also stages first-rate temporary exhibitions. In recent years these have featured dinosaurs, Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions and real human bodies preserved with “plastination”.
4. Connecticut State Capitol
The state capitol is Impossible to miss for its gold-plated dome 190+ feet above the south-west side of Bushnell Park. This handsome building was completed during the 1870s and replaced the Old State House, which I’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.
I was enthralled by the Connecticut Hall of Fame, recognising the likes of Katharine Hepburn and Mark Twain.
5. Connecticut’s Old State House
Dating to 1796, Connecticut’s Old State House is a magnificent building in a medley of styles. There’s 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. 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.
Something I found particularly neat was the cabinet of curiosities of the minister Joseph Steward (1753-1822). Among other peculiarities there’s 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-fall.
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 enslaved African Americans.
I hardly need to say that this momentous work had an incalculable effect on attitudes towards slavery. It is 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. From there you’ll be given an engaging guided tour through the house. This 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, and bridges. I adore the 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.
My tip is to head for the Overlook for fine vistas of Hartford’s skyline to the east. Meanwhile, 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
Hartford boasts 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 for me is the vintage carousel. This dates back to 1914 and was 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.
Although the current Federal building is the fourth on the site and dates back to the beginning of the 19th century, the cemetery beside it is from 1640. It was 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. I find it quite moving that they were buried here 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 an undeveloped riverbend.
Along almost two miles of waterfront there are trails weaving through dense woodland. I got a minor thrill from the occasional views across to Hartford.
Every now and again you’ll be greeted by public art. Elsewhere there’s a boat launch, lots of picnic tables and a 350-seat amphitheater 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 anchored by the 2,800-seater Mortensen Hall.
This dates back to 1930, while the smaller, modern Belding Theater opened in 2002. Check the schedule for live music from all genres, well-known comedians, musicals, opera, dance and family shows.
The Hartford Symphony Orchestra performs here regularly, and I’m a big fan of their Masterworks series. These are nine+ concerts a season, performing works by history’s most famous composers.
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 187 ft x 40 ft.
12. Real Art Ways
Hartford’s alternative multidisciplinary arts organization started out in 1975. That year 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 center for the arts.
This complex hosts up to three simultaneous visual arts exhibitions. There are also concerts and a schedule of community events, from talks to board game nights.
As a cinephile I adore the two-room Real Art Ways Cinema. This screens 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. It’s all a reinforced concrete structure clad with white limestone.
If you get the chance to take a closer look there’s some masterful modern liturgical 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 marvelous 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. This was all crafted in Paris, taking inspiration from the Sainte-Chapelle on Île de la Cité.
14. Connecticut Museum of Culture and History
Dating back to 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is one of the oldest organizations of its kind in the United States.
It’s based at the sprawling Colonial Revival mansion of the inventor Curtis Veeder. At this rarefied location, the society operates a non-profit museum, archive, library and education center.
Over the last 200+ years the CHS has amassed hundreds of thousands of artifacts, 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.
When I came through, “Connecticut’s Bookshelf” examined the state’s many literary contributions.
The ongoing exhibit, “Making Connecticut” charts 400 years of state history. You’ll get a clear picture of daily life, work, leisure, social change and sports in this patch of New England, with 500 artifacts.
15. Dunkin’ Park
When the Eastern League’s New Britain Rock Cats relocated to Hartford in 2016 they were reborn as the Hartford Yard Goats. The team took up residence at the brand new Dunkin’ 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, revitalizing a neglected part of Hartford on the north side of I-84.
With authentic and restrained architecture, the stadium meshes well with the brick-built Capital Preparatory Magnet School on the north side. I love the window on Trumbull Avenue, which lets you peer right into the home bullpen and beyond it to the field itself..