A city once dubbed the “Hardware Capital of the World”, New Britain in Hartford County remains the international headquarters of the tool manufacturer Stanley Black & Decker.
The forerunner for this company was founded here as the Stanley Works back in 1843. There’s a lot to admire about this city of 73,000, for its large Polish-American contingent, an Olmsted-designed park, the classy New Britain Museum of American Art and the New Britain Bees baseball team, who play in the Atlantic League.
Travel a few minutes and you’ll be in rural Connecticut, sprinkled with protected nature and farms that invite you to pick your own apples in autumn.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Britain:
1. New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA)
When this museum backing onto Walnut Hill Park opened in 1903 it became the first in the country to be devoted solely to American Art.
Over time the permanent collection has swelled to more than 8,300 pieces.
There’s a great inventory of colonial and federal portraits by the likes of John Trumbull, John Smibert, John Singleton Copley and Mather Brown, as well as 19th-century still lifes and pieces by the Hudson River School, American Impressionists and the Ash Can School.
Among the 20th-century luminaries are Georgia O’Keeffe and Thomas Hart Benton, represented by his mural series “The Arts of Life in America”. The NBMAA is also assembling a collection of post-contemporary art, with names like Stephanie Deshpande, Richard T. Scott and Patricia Watwood.
When we wrote this article in summer 2019 there were exhibitions for Pablo Helguera and Louise Jones, while a superb show for Ellsworth Kelly and Jake Shear Shaker had just come off the wall.
2. Walnut Hill Park
A marvellous park on the National Register of Historic Places, Walnut Hill Park was laid out by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted some years before his most famous project, Central Park was completed.
The park, mixing clumps of mature trees with ranging lawns, is a little under 100 acres and is draped on a once barren hillside sloping up to the east.
On a formal landscaped plateau the crowning feature is a 2.7-metre Art Deco obelisk for New Britain’s First World War troops.
Accompanying the monument is a fountain, pergola and delightful rose garden, and this is a romantic place to be to watch the sun go down in the evening.
3. Alvarium Beer Company
Right in New Britain’s industrial zone there’s a brewery and taproom open long hours from Wednesday to Sunday.
On tap you can quaff a range of New England IPAs, a coffee stout, a Mexican lager, a fruited sour, a brown ale and a pair of powerful Russian imperial stouts.
The taproom at Alvarium is a cosy space, where everything you see has been made by hand by Alvarium’s small team, including honeycomb lighting and a bar crafted from solid steel I-beams and reclaimed red oak.
There’s an outdoor patio, foosball, shuffleboard and a great sound system to boot.
A rotation of food trucks pulls up outside, and there’s great local kielbasa (this is “New Britski” after all!).
4. New Britain Stadium
The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball is an independent league made up of two divisions and eight teams clustered mostly around the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern United States.
The New Britain Bees, founded in 2015, compete in the Liberty Division and play their home games at the 6,146-seater New Britain Stadium, taking over from the defunct Minor League team, the New Britain Rock Cats (1983-2015), which moved to Hartford.
The Bees have a big community following, and if you’re baseball aficionado you’ll be sure to see some young talent bound for the big leagues, as well as familiar MLB veterans with a thing or two to prove.
There isn’t a bad seat in the stadium, New Britain’s own Alvarium Beer is now served at the “Rooftop Beehive” and there’s a play area for younger baseball fans.
5. Dinosaur State Park & Museum
One of the largest dinosaur track sites in the United States is minutes east of New Britain in Rocky Hill.
These fossilised tracks are embedded in Jurassic-era sandstone and were laid some 200 million years ago.
Around 500 tracks are visible in a geodesic dome and were created at what it is thought to be the sandy shore of a lake by a carnivore resembling a dilophosaurus.
There are also life-sized dioramas of plants and creatures, and a discovery room in the dome where yet more tracks from the Connecticut Valley and live exhibits with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and lizards.
Outside is an arboretum with more than 250 species and cultivars of conifers, along with ginkgoes, magnolias and other plant families that were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
6. Rogers Orchards
Connecticut’s largest apple grower is just next door to New Britain, in Southington.
In 250 acres Rogers Orchards harvests 20 apple varieties, as well as nectarines, apricots, peaches and plums earlier in the season and pumpkins in the fall.
The company is now in its eight generation and has a history that can be traced back to 1809. As well as fresh fruit you can call in for all sorts of homemade treats like honey, syrup, apple-smoked bacon, preserves, cheese, baked goods (try the cider donuts!), as well as flowers and cider.
From early-September to late-October you can visit Rogers Orchards to pick your own apples, Friday to Sunday, weather permitting.
7. New Britain Industrial Museum
Compact but necessary, the New Britain Industrial Museum lifts the lid on New Britain’s manufacturing past, harking back to the time when the city was known as the “Hardware Capital of the World” in the early 20th century.
Big hardware manufacturers like The Stanley Works (now Stanley Black & Decker), Landers, Frary & Clark (LF&C), the P&F Corbin Company (renamed Corbin Locks later) and North & Judd were all headquartered in New Britain.
Open Wednesday to Saturday, the museum has collections from these companies, counting planes, antique locks, hinges, vintage signage, scales, coffee pots, meat grinders, an alcohol stove and a wealth of photographs and documents.
8. Stanley Quarter Park
Another good pick if you need to stretch your legs or get some more strenuous exercise, Stanley Quarter Park is up by the Central Connecticut State University and is packed with things to do for active types.
You can hit the 10-station fit trail around the lake, or make the most of the tennis courts (six), basketball court, baseball diamond, softball diamonds, skate park and soccer fields (two). For littler family members there’s a playground, and a fishing pond designed especially for children.
When it’s warm an ice cream truck pulls up when kids get out of school, and is ever present during the summer break.
The “Big Boom” 4th of July fireworks display is a full half-hour show, dubbed one of the best fireworks experiences in Central Connecticut.
9. New Britain Youth Museum at Hungerford Park
Unassuming from the outside, what this children’s museum lacks in scale and technology it makes up for in charm and imagination.
The New Britain Youth Museum is composed of one long hall broken up into various areas for drawing, crafting and educational play.
Little ones can prepare something in the kitchen, put on a puppet show, solve puzzles, play in an ice cream parlour and enjoy a bit of story time.
At the back is an indoor terrarium and aviary with reptiles, amphibians and birds that children can touch in the presence of an experienced handler.
A lovely addition is the animal farmyard outside, where youngsters can meet rabbits, an owl, a cow, geese, a peacock, llama and goats.
There’s a second location at 30 High Street, set indoors and without animals.
10. Martha Hart Park
The neatly tended Martha Hart Park is set around the Doerrs Pond, which attracts a gaggle of fishers for its big stocks of bass, carp and catfish.
The grassy banks, often claimed by some rather feisty geese, are left open and interspersed with hardwood and softwood trees if you want to idle for a while on a sunny day.
Elsewhere you can make the most of a basketball court and soccer and baseball fields.
11. A.W. Stanley Park
Coming through a long-term makeover when we wrote this article in summer 2019, A.W. Stanley Park is a valued community space, especially in summer when families continue to flock to the swimming and wading pools.
To go with these there’s a fishing pond, two baseball diamonds, a nature trail, ping pong table, playscape and picnic areas with a grill.
The public Stanley Golf Course is just next door, offering 27 holes, a 19-station driving range and a teaching academy, all rounded off by the Back Nine tavern restaurant.
12. Barnes Museum, Southington
A few minutes west in Southington there’s a palatial Greek Revival homestead that was built in 1836 and was home to the wealthy Bradley/Barnes family until it was bequeathed to Southington in 1973. What awaits you at the Barnes Museum is a kind of time capsule, with furnishings, costume, decorative arts, appliances and paintings accumulated by three generations over almost 150 years, all complemented by volumes of absorbing details.
There are land records dating back to 1740, letters from the Civil War, diaries, receipts and masses of other historic documents.
You can take a brief half-hour tour, or opt for a more in-depth hour visit, during which you’ll feel close to the family as you peruse its diary entries, self-composed paintings and personal possessions.
13. Karabin Farms
The seasons seem to bleed together at this cherished working farm producing spring flowers, farm-raised meats, maple syrup, apples, pumpkins, vegetables and Christmas trees, all sold on-site.
Set about ten minutes away by road in Southington, Karabin Farms is a wholesome autumn day out from mid-August to October, when its apple orchards are ready for a pick your own visit.
Children will love the free wagon ride to get to these trees, when you might get to spot wild turkey and deer.
As for the apples, there are zestar, ginger gold, macoun, yellow delicious, gala, red delicious, mutsu, snow sweet and many more.
Stop by the shop for bacon, chops, sausages, turkeys and various beef cuts from rib eye to filet mignon.
14. Crescent Lake
Where New Britain meets Southington is a lake more than 50 acres in size and embedded in more than 220 acres of forest.
Summer at Crescent Lake means fishing, kayaking, canoeing, sailing and boating, while some hardy souls venture out onto the lake for ice fishing in winter.
There are three trails through the rugged wilderness encircling the water, and if you’re in need of a challenge the three-mile orange route beckons you through some stiff terrain.
Mid-September to the end of December is bow-hunting season in these woods, so take care not to stray from the trails at this time of year.
15. Connecticut Theatre Company
If you like to support local arts, the non-profit Connecticut Theatre Company is based at New Britain’s Repertory Theatre, which has been around since 1955. The company was established in 2013 when two local community theatre groups merged.
Each production by the Connecticut Theatre Company is a labour of love made possible by donations and passionate volunteers, but produced with no little talent and providing a great deal of entertainment.