This small town in eastern Connecticut has little villages, scenic roads winding into upland countryside and remnants of mills from the 18th and 19th centuries.
The landscape is dotted with public natural spaces linked by paths like the Blue-Blazed Nipmuck Trail.
The presence of the University of Connecticut in Storrs lends Mansfield real cultural cachet.
UConn’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts books plenty of big artists and ensembles, and the William Benton Museum of Art has a celebrated collection of American art and expertly curated exhibitions.
The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is another feather in UConn’s cap, with one of three largest collections for this art form in the country.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Mansfield:
1. Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts
The presence of UConn gives Mansfield the kind of performing arts venue you’d normally expect to find in a big city.
Constructed in the mid-1950s, the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts can seat more than 2,600 people and is the largest college-based presenting program in New England.
Up to 30 nationally and internationally renowned artists and ensembles appear at the center each year.
The selection is eclectic too, ranging from classical music to world music, classical and contemporary dance, comedy and family entertainment.
For a taste, salsa artist Gilberto Santa Rosa, comedian Hassan Minhaj, the Boston Pops and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine were all booked for late-2019.
2. William Benton Museum of Art
UConn’s well-regarded art museum opened in 1967 at the regal Collegiate Gothic building that had been designed in the 1920s as the university’s main dining hall.
The museum’s collection goes back to 1933 when the Connecticut Agricultural College (as UConn was previously known) president Charles Lewis Beach bequeathed his collection to the university, and has grown down the decades.
Today it stands out for its American art, by the likes of Ellen Emmet Rand, Ernest Lawson, Henry Ward Ranger, Childe Hassam, Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Harold Davis.
This is complemented by works by a set of European luminaries like Gustav Klimt, Georges Braque, Edward Burne-Jones and Käthe Kollwitz.
In all there are 6,000 paintings, prints, watercolors, drawings, sculptures and photographs.
A selection from this inventory is constantly on show, along with short-term exhibitions covering individual artists, regions of the world or themes.
3. The Adventure Park at Storrs
Active family fun awaits at this high ropes attraction in verdant mixed woodland in Storrs.
The Adventure Park has eight separate high ropes trails, seven of which have testing elevated transitions to overcome, composed of wood, cable and rope.
The other trail, Pine Rush is a designated zip-line course, with six exhilarating lines.
There are 80 unique challenges at the Adventure Park, so the fun will last as long as you still have the energy! Harness and equipment are provided, along with a safety briefing showing you how to climb and use the park’s zip-lines.
4. Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry
The University of Connecticut’s runs a Puppetry Arts Program, unrivalled in the United States and set up by the great puppeteer Frank W.
Ballard (1929-2010). In Storrs the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is maintained by the university and boasts one of the three largest puppetry collections in the country.
Among 2,500 pieces from all ends of the earth there are body puppets, shadow puppets, marionettes, rod puppets and glove puppets, along with intricately crafted sets and props.
Selections from this reserve are presented in the museum’s exhibitions, and the institute’s research library holds books, clippings, scripts, posters, audio and footage charting the history of puppet theatre around the world.
There’s also a very active calendar at the institute, for performances, puppet workshops for a variety of disciplines, mask-making and more.
5. Mansfield Drive-In Theatre
The largest of Connecticut’s last surviving drive-in movie theatres is right here in Mansfield.
Opened in 1954 and showing films in the spring and summer months, the theatre has 950 berths and three screens 110 feet wide (33.5 metres). Each screen has an evening double bill for new Hollywood releases, and adult tickets cost $11 at the gate and $9.99 in advance online.
A snack bar serves classic movie theatre fare like popcorn, soft drinks, hot dogs, pizza and burgers.
The site doubles as a highly popular flea market on Sunday mornings, trading in a large hall and with dozens of vendors out in the open air selling anything from glassware to ceramics, musical instruments, old signs, furniture and collectibles.
6. Mansfield Hollow State Park
Right after the Second World War the Natchaug River was dammed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers, giving rise to a 500-acre lake for public water supply.
As it’s a reservoir, swimming isn’t allowed at Mansfield Hollow Lake, but fishing, non-motorized boating and kayaking are on the agenda, while the dense forest on the west shore is primed for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking and cross-country skiing on a wide choice of well-tended trails.
The south-eastern leg of the Blue-Blazed Nipmuck Trail passes through the park on its way to 34.5 miles of forests in the north-east of the state.
7. J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum
Huskies fans or anybody interested in the world of college sports will find something to love at this museum on UConn’s Storrs campus.
Every aspect of Uconn’s intercollegiate athletics is documented at the Husky Heritage Sports Museum, with more than a century’s worth of uniforms, pennants, archive photography, vintage balls and trophies.
The experience begins with the National Champions’ Gallery, celebrating the 12 squads in four different sports that have gone the distance.
The most dominant of these are the all-conquering women’s basketball teams put together by Coach Geno Auriemma and claiming five titles between 1995 and 2004. One of the stars from that time, Rebecca Lobo is honoured with a life-size cut out, along with 10xNBA All-Star and UConn alumnus Ray Allen.
You’ll also see their names on 88 oversized banners paying tribute to 88 of Connecticut’s All-American stars, from 17 different sports.
8. Connecticut Repertory Theatre (CRT)
Although it belongs to the University of Connecticut on the Storrs campus the CRT is not to be taken lightly from an artistic point of view, serving as a cultural touchstone for Connecticut and New England.
Productions are designed, directed and cast with visiting professional artists, to create the perfect learning environment for students.
At three auditoriums including the Jorgensen Center’s 485-seat Harriet S.
Jorgensen Theatre, the CRT offers a subscription series of six plays and musicals each season, selling more than 20,000 tickets each year.
The CRT is also the main platform for UConn’s acclaimed Puppet Arts Program.
In store for the 2019-20 season were The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, The Cherry Orchard, Shakespeare in Love and Little Shop of Horrors.
9. Mansfield Center Cemetery
A rare slice of early Mansfield history sits at the corner of Storrs Road and Cemetery Road.
The Mansfield Center Cemetery, on the National Register of Historic Places, dates back to 1693 and its final burial took place in the 1870s.
The site is hailed for its quantity of delicately carved markers (some 180), crafted by some of the masters of the trade from across colonial New England.
These sport a rich variety of funerary symbols, as well as cherubim and geometric patterns and become more elaborate as you work your way through the decades.
The oldest marker is for one Exercise Conant, dated 1722.
10. UConn Forest
North and east of the Storrs campus and contained by the Fenton River is a massive tract of woodland belonging to the university but with trails that can be accessed by the public.
The Nipmuck Trail weaves through UConn Forest, and as well as idyllic streams and peaceful woods there are some abandoned sites to track down.
On high ground near the Horsebarn Hill access point you’ll find the rather eerie remnants of a ski lift leading up from the Fenton River, going back to the 1960s when there was a short-lived ski station here.
Close to Gurleyville Road you’ll happen upon more curious vestiges at a series of long abandoned wire cages erected for animal breeding experiments in the 70s and 80s.
11. Eagleville Preserve
This spot on the Willimantic River in Mansfield has some compelling industrial history to uncover on a light one-mile loop.
Much of the trail is on a riverside terrace, and in spring you’ll hear the calls of migrating birds and frogs in vernal pools.
The preserve is on the site of a large early-19th century cotton mill, one of the first in the state and the foundations of which are under the parking lot.
The river dam was constructed as a reservoir for the millrace to power a waterwheel, which was in operation until the mill turned to steam power at the of the 19th century.
Rifle parts were manufactured here in the Civil War and after the business failed in the Great Depression the mill was repurposed for making rubber soles before finally closing in the 1950s.
A footbridge traverses the now still race, and to the east where the race meets the river there’s a beautiful tract of oak forest on what used to be farmland.
12. Nathan Hale Homestead
A weekend trip well worth making, the childhood home of Connecticut’s state hero is within a comfortable drive west in Coventry.
Nathan Hale (1855-1876) was famously hanged by the British as a spy in the Revolutionary War at just 21 while on an intelligence-gathering mission to New York City.
His supposed last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”. The present house at the Nathan Hale Homestead was raised in the year of his death and can be visited for tours on Fridays and weekends from May to October.
Within are Hale family possessions amassed by the 20th-century antiquarian George Dudley Seymour.
Out on the property you’ll learn how the farm that fuelled the Hale family’s wealth, while to the north and south are the Nathan Hale State Forest’s 1,500 acres of woodland.
13. Connecticut Eastern Railroad Museum
A fine idea on a summer’s weekend, this railroad museum is at the site of the old Columbia Junction Freight Yard in downtown Willimantic.
What you’ll find is a length of track with an absorbing array of rolling stock and a reconstructed roundhouse with foundations dating back to 1892. Look out for the Chaplin Station building, dating from the early 20th century and relocated at the museum in the 1990s.
As for locomotives there’s an EMD SW-8 from 1950, an EMD FL9 from 1960, a Metro-North Railroad SPV (Self-propelled vehicle) from 1981 and an Alco S-4 Locomotive built in 1955 and running the Central Vermont Railway.
A fun touch is the 1850s-style pump car that you can try out.
The big event in the museum’s calendar is Railroad Day in late-August, for music, food and train rides.
14. Cassidy Hill Vineyard
This vineyard over the town line in Coventry grows red and white grapes like Merlot, Catawba, Cayuga White, Traminette, Vidal Blanc for a selection of highly-regarded wines.
Cassidy Hill’s Pink Catawba Rosé won Connecticut Wine Society’s 2018 Amenti del Vino “Best in Show” award in 2018. The setting could not be more picturesque at the vineyard’s hilltop log cabin winery endowed with far-off views over rural Eastern Connecticut.
April to December you can visit to sip wine on the porch or a bench under the “Thinking Tree”, a solitary mature maple next to the vines.
In summer you can while away a Friday evening of wine tasting here with some live music.
15. Diana’s Pool
There’s a wonderful but lightly trafficked natural sight on the Nauchaug River just next door in Chaplin.
Walled by deciduous woodland and rocky banks, Diana’s Pool is between a pair of small, cascades, one filling it and the other draining it.
The prettiest of these is the lower falls, which has a magical curtail of water plunging from little more than a metre up.
The scene is glorious in fall, against the profuse vegetation on the river’s edge.
Both the upper and lower falls are little more than a minute on foot from the parking area.