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. Another detail I love is that New Britain is the birthplace of the humble wire coat hanger.
There’s a lot to admire about this city of 73,000. Take the 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 fall.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Britain:
1. New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA)
When this museum 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. You’ve also got 19th-century still lifes and pieces by the Hudson River School, American Impressionists and the AshCan 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.
I was lucky enough to be here for Illuminations, a set of transformative installations by Pakistani-American artist Anila Quayyum Agha.
2. Walnut Hill Park
A marvelous park on the National Register of Historic Places, Walnut Hill Park was laid out by the famed Frederick Law Olmsted. That was in the 1860s, 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 nine-foot Art Deco obelisk for New Britain’s WWI troops.
Accompanying the monument is a fountain, pergola and delightful rose garden. This is a truly romantic place to watch the sun go down.
Also wonderful is the Darius Miller Bandshell, hosting concerts on Monday and Wednesday evenings in July and August. It’s my favorite place to be on a summer evening in New Britain.
3. New Britain Downtown District
If you appreciate grand historic architecture, New Britain’s historic center deserves a walking tour. Maybe it’s reductive to say that everything you see was funded by planers and coat hangers, but I don’t think it’s far off.
A highlight for me is the City Hall Complex (1885), centered on a beautiful Italianate former hotel.
Something else to appreciate about downtown is the work that has gone into its regeneration over decades. Even when I wrote this article there were projects to improve the streetscape and make the center more walkable.
For now, the district stands out as a place to eat and drink, whether you’re in the mood for Thai, fast food classics, Puerto Rican cuisine, or ice cream. A veteran here is Capitol Lunch (510 Main St), a hot dog joint on the scene since the 1920s.
4. Little Poland Festival
North of downtown there’s another vibrant commercial district along Broad Street. This area has been officially designated Little Poland since the 2000s, and boasts more than 100 small businesses, from bakeries to galleries and restaurants.
Meanwhile, the history of New Britain’s Polish community goes back to the early 20th century. This is celebrated every June with one of Connecticut’s most unique street festivals. Now more than a decade old, the Little Poland Festival brings up to 40,000 people to Broad Street.
When I was here I saw folk dancing, arts and crafts vendors, costumed characters, carnival rides, and authentic Polish food, from pierogis to kielbasa.
5. New Britain Stadium
The New Britain Bees, founded in 2015, compete in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League. This wood-bat league is made up of eight teams around New England.
The Bees play their home games at the 6,146-seater New Britain Stadium. They took 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 a baseball aficionado you’ll be sure to see some young talent bound for the big leagues.
There isn’t a bad seat in the stadium, New Britain’s own Alvarium Beer is served at the “Rooftop Beehive” and there’s a play area for younger baseball fans.
I’d also recommend checking the calendar for one of the regular food truck festivals held in the parking lot.
6. New Britain Industrial Museum
Compact but necessary, the New Britain Industrial Museum lifts the lid on New Britain’s manufacturing past. Exhibits here hark 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. I had the time of my life here, browsing a massive cache of locally-relevant hardware.
On show are planes, antique locks, hinges, vintage signage, scales, coffee pots, meat grinders, an alcohol stove and a wealth of photographs and documents.
7. Alvarium Beer Company
Right in New Britain’s industrial zone there’s a brewery and taproom open long hours from Wednesday through 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 cozy space, where everything you see has been made by hand by Alvarium’s small team. There’s honeycomb lighting and a bar crafted from solid steel I-beams and reclaimed red oak.
Also here is an outdoor patio, foosball, shuffleboard and a great sound system to boot. A rotation of food trucks pulls up outside, and there’s also great local kielbasa—this is “New Britski” after all.
8. Stanley Quarter Park
This peaceful tract of woods and water is another good pick if you need to stretch your legs or get some more strenuous exercise. You’ll find Stanley Quarter Park by the Central Connecticut State University campus.
You can hit the 10-station fit trail around the lake, or make the most of the tennis courts (six). There’s also a basketball court, baseball diamond, softball diamonds, skate park and soccer fields (two).
Littler family members have got a playground, and a fishing pond designed especially for children. In warm weather an ice cream truck pulls up when kids get out of school, and is ever-present during the summer break.
I’d try to be around for the “Great American Boom”. This 4th of July fireworks display is a full half-hour show, dubbed one of the best fireworks experiences in Central Connecticut.
9. 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 fossilized tracks are embedded in Jurassic-era sandstone and were laid some 200 million years ago.
Around 500 tracks are visible in a geodesic dome. These were created at 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. Here you’ll find more tracks from the Connecticut Valley and live exhibits with Madagascar hissing cockroaches and lizards.
I love the primordial feel of the arboretum outside, growing more than 250 species and cultivars of conifers. These are combined with ginkgoes, magnolias and other plant families that were around when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.
10. Rogers Orchards
Connecticut’s largest apple grower is just next door to New Britain in Southington. In 250 acres Rogers Orchards harvests an amazing 20 apple varieties. Also growing on the property are nectarines, apricots, peaches and plums earlier in the season and pumpkins in fall.
The company is now in its eighth 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 (I’m addicted to 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.
11. Ragged Mountain
Something that gets me about New Britain is how easily you can escape to nature. This has much to do with the 100-mile Metacomet Ridge, which passes the city to the west.
On the ridge is Ragged Mountain (761 feet), which like the rest of the ridge is composed of volcanic basalt. The views over the lakes from the cliff tops are more than worth the hike.
The good news is that there’s a trailhead barely five minutes from downtown New Britain, at 437 West Lane in Berlin. My one tip is to set off early in the day as there are limited parking spaces at the trailhead.
12. 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.
Activities include preparing something in the kitchen, putting on a puppet show, solving puzzles, playing in an ice cream parlor and enjoying a bit of story time.
At the back is an indoor terrarium and aviary with reptiles, amphibians and birds. Children can meet many of these animals, in the presence of an experienced handler.
A lovely addition is the animal barnyard outside. Here 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.
13. A.W. Stanley Park
This gorgeous public park completed a long-term makeover shortly before I visited. A.W. Stanley Park is a valued community space, especially in summer when families flock to the swimming and wading pools.
To go with these there’s a fishing pond, two baseball diamonds, a pondside nature trail, ping pong table, playscape and picnic areas with a grill.
The public Stanley Golf Course is just next door. This facility offers 27 holes, a 19-station driving range and a teaching academy, all rounded off by the Back Nine tavern restaurant.
14. Karabin Farms
The seasons seem to merge together at this cherished working farm. Karabin Farms produces spring flowers, farm-raised meats, maple syrup, apples, pumpkins, vegetables and Christmas trees, all sold on-site.
For me, it’s a wholesome autumn day out from mid-August to October, when the apple orchards are ready for a pick-your-own visit.
Children will love the free wagon ride to get to these trees. On the way 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 ribeye to filet mignon.
15. Connecticut Theatre Company
If you like to support local arts, I’d look no further than the non-profit Connecticut Theatre Company.
This community theater group puts on five performances a year, with an emphasis on Broadway musicals. For instance, Spring Awakening and the Drowsy Chaperone were on the calendar when I went to press.
The venue has hosted performances since 1955, when the Norden Street Lodge was acquired by the current company’s predecessor.
Each production by the Connecticut Theatre Company is a labor of love made possible by donations and passionate volunteers.