A manufacturing town once known for its cutlery and silverware, Wallingford has moved into high-tech industries in the last 25 years.
For you and me Wallingford’s appeal comes from its abundant nature and rural businesses. There are two award-winning vineyards, as well as a cider mill and a beloved farm stand.
Spectacular natural landforms dot the horizon to the east and west on the basalt Metacomet Ridge. You can hike along this fault via the Mattabesett Trail, rewarding you with views for miles from this natural ledge.
The Toyota Oakdale Theater brings in audiences from across central Connecticut. Meanwhile Trail of Terror is a regional Halloween institution in October with amazing production values.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wallingford:
1. Gouveia Vineyards
A pastoral hilltop in the rural south of Wallingford is fluted with more than 32 acres of vineyards, maintained by the Gouveia family.
The winery produces 90,000 bottles a year, using knowhow imported from Portugal by the founder Joe Gouveia. He grew up in a village near the city of Viseu.
Gouveia Vineyards grows a wide array of grapes, including Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Seyval Blanc, Traminette, Muscat, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, for a brief summary.
Cresting the hill and blessed with panoramic views in all directions is the beautiful Stone House. This welcomes visitors for wine tasting all year, as well as Cellar Tours on weekends from spring to autumn.
At a wine tasting you can try five pre-selected wines and one of your choice. My perfect time to come is a Friday or Sunday when there’s always live music booked.
2. Toyota Oakdale Theatre
Wallingford may be a town of modest proportions, but is home to a massive multi-purpose venue that serves the region.
The Oakdale Theatre started out as an open-air stage for summer stock in 1954. Later it became a concert venue played by the likes of Paul Anka, Tom Jones, The Who and The Doors.
A wooden dome was added in 1972, and then the venue went through its biggest transformation in the mid-90s at a cost of $21m.
Now there’s a cavernous main auditorium holding 4,803 and the smaller Dome accommodating 1,649.
The bill is busy with world-famous touring artists, tribute acts, dance companies, and sports entertainment shows. Parents like me will appreciate the live shows for children, featuring the likes of Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol.
3. Paradise Hills Vineyard
Another recommended stop on the CT Wine Trail is Paradise Hills, a boutique, Tuscan-inspired winery in 65 acres of undulating countryside.
The Ruggiero family has been tending these vines since 1997, cultivating Vignoles, Chardonnay, Seyval Blanc, Cayuga, Vidal Blanc, Tramenet and Chambourcin grapes, among others.
The idyllic terroir benefits from lots of summer sun and plenty of drainage. Wine tastings take place daily, at a sophisticated copper indoor bar and an outdoor bar during the summer.
On a first come, first served basis you can sample a selection of award-winning reds like Landon Noir and St.Croix. I fell in love with the white Traminette varietal, with floral aromas and hints of melon, white peaches and lime.
I’d check the winery’s calendar before you come because there’s also regular live music.
4. Farmer Joe’s Gardens
For the people of Wallingford and Meriden this farm stand provides baskets of super-fresh organic produce as part of a community-supported agriculture program.
But I’m pleased to report you can visit the store for freshly harvested fruit and vegetables. There’s also meat, eggs, milk, butter, cream, preserves, honey, maple syrup, spreads, sauces, garden decor, and a lot more.
If you’re here with children you could turn it into a little outing. There are barnyard animals like goats, chickens, and a potbelly pig in pens at the back.
5. New England Cider Company
Cider has been given the craft brewery treatment at this mill in an industrial area by the Quinnipiac River.
And just like a craft brewery the New England Cider Company runs a cozy taproom where you can sample the fruits of their press on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The company was established in 2013 by two friends with years of home-brewing experience.
When I made this list there were six ciders on tap. Options included Cranberry, Beet, Blueberry, and Raspberry. There are family games, and you can order a selection of cheese and charcuterie to go with your cider.
6. Downtown Wallingford
Welcoming you in Wallingford’s old center are close to 80 locally-owned businesses. Intriguing stores and international eateries line several blocks of Center Street.
The south side is dominated by Center Street Cemetery, dating all the way back to the 1670s.
When I last browsed downtown Wallingford there were stores for vintage video games, exotic specialty foods, candy, jewelry, unique gifts, flowers, and more.
For food and drink there are coffee shops, a deli, a craft brewery, diners, a couple of pizza joints, and spots for cuisines like American comfort food, Italian, Mexican, and Thai.
Try to be in town for Celebrate Wallingford. This two-day festival takes place in early October, showcasing the best of the town with arts & crafts, food, live entertainment, and children’s fun.
7. Quinnipiac Linear Trail
This well-maintained walking trail is in a natural, undeveloped corridor between the west bank of the Quinnipiac River and the Wilbur Cross Parkway.
The paved route, designed for walking, biking and skating, continues for more than a mile from Community Lake in the south.
I enjoyed my stroll through groves of red maples, cedar junipers and red oaks, bordered by meadows. The trail crosses the Quinnipiac on a recently constructed iron bridge, going underneath the Wilbur Cross Parkway.
What’s interesting to me is how much of the landscape is manmade. For instance, Community Lake was created by a dam to power the local silverware industry.
That dam broke in 1979, and these woods and meadows now grow on what used to be the lake bed.
8. Mattabesett Trail
Wallingford is on the route of a 50-mile Blue-Blazed walking path. The Mattabesett Trail bends through central Connecticut on a horseshoe-shaped route from the Connecticut River at Middletown to Lamentation Mountain in Berlin.
The portion of the trail passing through Wallingford is hoisted on the Metacomet Ridge, an immense basalt fault formed at the end of the Triassic Period, 200 million years ago. The ridge shoots north to south through Connecticut and Massachusetts for 100 miles.
The local high point for me, quite literally, is Tri-Mountain State Park. It can only be reached on foot and contains the 750-foot Trimountain. This peak merges with Besek Mountain to the north and Fowler Mountain to the south.
9. Nehemiah Royce House
An essential detour, this historic saltbox-style house is at 538 North Main Street, on the southern end of the little Dutton Park.
Nehemiah Royce (1636-1706) was a local carpenter, joiner and blacksmith. From 1693 he represented Wallingford at the Court of the Connecticut Colony.
His house is the oldest in Wallingford, and dates to 1672. I was fascinated to discover that the house was twice visited by George Washington. First in 1775 during the Revolutionary War, and then in 1789 when he gave an address by an elm in front of the building.
The Nehemiah Royce House has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1998. The property is owned by a preservation trust which opens the building up for tours and seasonal events.
10. On Track Karting
There’s high-octane family fun at this indoor karting facility staffed by a friendly team that puts safety first.
“Arrive & Drive” is available at On Track Karting, allowing you to simply show up, pay, and take part in a registration process. Then you can enter an eight-minute heat session at one of the longest and fastest tracks in the United States.
For additional races you can buy “race credits”, for individual races, but everything is cheaper in bulk. People aged 15 and up will get behind the wheel of a 6.5-horsepower GT5 Sodi kart, capable of an eye-watering 40 mph.
Juniors above the age of seven will race in slower, 4-horsepower karts with a top speed of 25mph.
Party packages are available, and if you want to take your hobby to the next level you can join the “Pro Club”. This lets you test your skills against the fastest karters in the area in ultra-quick 9-horsepower karts.
11. Doolittle Park
This well-appointed local park has a lot of amenities for children and anyone who wants to be active. There’s a cluster of baseball fields, as well as tennis courts and a basketball court, all in good condition.
A pavilion offers needed shade in summer, and is surrounded by plenty of benches and picnic tables.
The recently improved playground is a real feather in Doolittle Park’s cap. It’s divided into two sections, for toddlers and for bigger kids, both with an unusual amount of equipment to keep youngsters entertained.
Best of all in my opinion is the Wallingford Garden Market. This has a nice community of vendors selling fresh produce, specialty foods, cut flowers, arts and crafts, smoothies, homemade sauces, essential oils and much more.
The market sets up around the pavilion every Saturday, mid-June through late September..
12. Sleeping Giant State Park
Wallingford’s southwestern boundary grazes this state park protecting one of the Metacomet Ridge’s many extraordinary landforms.
Sleeping Giant is a basalt ridge that in profile literally looks like a giant sleeping on its back. Features like a head, chin, chest, hips, knee and feet all identifiable.
The giant is 2.75 miles long and 1.75 miles across, and its highest point is the left hip. This summit is crowned by an observation tower built as a WPA project during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The monument is on the National Register of Historic Places, and offers breathtaking panoramas of the Quinnipiac and Mill River Valleys.
13. Wharton Brook State Park
Somewhere to go to get away from it all for a couple of hours, Wharton Brook State Park is a wooded idyll on the five-acre Allen Brook Pond.
The park is renowned for its coniferous woodlands, with impressive pitch pines climbing to 100 feet.
Wharton Brook State Park was established in 1919 as a “Wayside Park”. This was a forerunner to highway rest stops, in a much trafficked part of Connecticut, now beside I-91.
You can walk the short trails, take picnics and go for a swim in the pond in summer. This is also stocked with trout regularly between Opening Day and Memorial Day.
The property and its stand of pines took damage in a tornado and microburst in 2018, but was open to the public after a few months. Several years later, when I wrote this article there was a temporary closure for several months of maintenance.
14. Trail of Terror
Running for some 30 years now, this creepy outdoor attraction is open only for the Halloween season and relies on a dedicated band of volunteers.
Every year there’s a new theme, new story, new costumes, and new special effects. And I appreciate how there’s always a dash of humor to go with the scares.
The size of Trail of Terror also shocked me, as instead of a few minutes it will take up to an hour to get through the 30-odd interactive scenes. These are all brought to life by 50+ costumed actors.
When I wasn’t terrified I was in awe of the amount of work that went into the props, set design and characters. Advanced tickets go on sale as early as August and are worthwhile because the queues for this popular attraction can be up to two hours long.
When I wrote this article the year’s theme was “Harvest”, which had real Children of the Corn vibes.
15. Tyler Mill Preserve
The same tornado that hit Wharton Brook State Park in May 2018 also struck this nature preserve in the very south of the town.
Tyler Mill would stay closed for a year, but these 1,400 wooded acres have long since reopened to hikers.
Tyler Mill has an almost overwhelming choice of walking trails. The steep topography puts it up there with the best places in the area for mountain biking.
For walkers there’s a trail for every experience level, the best of which leads up to a beautiful lookout if you have the energy. During my hike I spotted deer and a distant black bear in the woodlands.