Often praised as one of the best small towns in America, West Hartford has a downtown to make most other towns green with envy.
The Center and its recent extension, Blue Back Square, are made for walking and brim with one-off shops and hip international restaurants.
West Hartford is joined to its larger neighbour to the east, putting must-sees like the Mark Twain House only minutes away.
The town also benefits from abundant green space, at the genteel Elizabeth Park, the wild West Hartford Reservoir and Westmoor Park where children can meet farmyard animals.
The lexicographer Noah Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary, was born in West Hartford, and his 18th-century childhood home is a worthwhile museum.
Let’s explore the best things to do in West Hartford:
1. Elizabeth Park
This urban park is a feather in West Hartford’s cap, composed of more than 100 acres of formal gardens set off by the acclaimed Pond House Café.
Before you come you can check the website to find out what’s in bloom in the various gardens, which include an Iris Garden, Rose Garden (third largest in America!), Perennial Garden, Herb Garden, Shade Garden and Robert A. Prill Annual Garden, among many others.
Spring is kicked off with a beautiful display of daffodils, tulips and annuals at the greenhouse.
Some of the other highlights in this landscape of ponds, bridges and mature trees are the farmstead, rock garden and the overlook, granting a panorama of the Hartford skyline to the east.
Elizabeth Park was landscaped by Olmsted and Son at the turn of the 20th century after the land had been bequeathed by financier Charles M.
Pond and named in tribute to his wife, Elizabeth.
2. West Hartford Center
One of many things to love about West Hartford is the walkable downtown, packed with shops, restaurants and amenities on a backdrop of venerable brick buildings.
Commonly called West Hartford Center, this is all found around the junction of Farmington Avenue and South/North Main Street, and all the more endearing for the raft of independent businesses in amongst a few chains.
West Hartford Center has been the soul of the city since the 17th century and draws visitors from far and wide as an example of a main street shopping district at its best.
You could lose all track of time browsing jewellers, fashion boutiques, wellness stores, design shops, cute arts and crafts stores, and then go for a burger, sushi, gyro, pizza, oysters, kebab, tapas or falafel, or whatever else takes your fancy.
3. Blue Back Square
When West Hartford Center was extended east with this sympathetic development in the mid-2000s, Noah Webster’s Blue-backed Speller books served as the inspiration for the name.
Blending seamlessly with the rest of downtown West Hartford, Blue Back Square mixes retail with residential space, and is somewhere to eat, shop and just stroll for a while.
There’s a handful of boutiques joined by a generous helping of bars, cafes and restaurants, for comfort food, hip cocktails, steak, Hawaiian poke or international beers.
And to end the day in style you can catch a movie at the plush Cinepolis, the first “luxury” theater in the Northeast, featuring water service, gourmet concessions and a full bar.
4. Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society
Few people have made an impact on education in America like Noah Webster (1758-1843), whose name practically means “dictionary”, and whose Blue-Backed Speller books taught American children to read and spell across five generations.
At 227 South Main Street, Noah Webster’s birthplace is still standing and was turned into a museum for his life in 1966. This attraction includes the historic house, as well as the hands-on Noah’s Discovery Learning Space, three new exhibition galleries, the Jodik Education Center and a one-room schoolhouse orientation area.
Among the pieces relating to Webster are his desk, two clocks and a ring from the early-19th century with his and his wife Rebecca’s hair encased in crystal, combined with 20 first editions of his books.
The West Hartford Collection deals with life and times in the city from the 1700s to the 1900s and includes a sensational assortment of textiles.
5. The Children’s Museum
One for littler folks, the Children’s Museum has been around since 1927 and is well-known for its life-sized replica of a sperm whale named Conny.
The museum’s aim is to “ignite curiosity through science and nature”, and there’s a world of hands-on fun and live exhibits where kids can burn off mental and physical energy.
By way of introduction, Dinosaurs in Your Backyard has 3D dinosaur models and fossil specimens, while Imagination Playground comprises modular lightweight play blocks for building and problem solving.
There are live animals at Lizard Lair, Turtle Town, the Wildlife Sanctuary (small mammals) and the Winged Wonders Butterfly House (seasonal). On top of all this the Children’s Museum has the second-largest planetarium in New England, complemented by Blue Planet Red Planet, summing up the history of Mars exploration for young minds.
In spring 2019 it was announced that the Children’s Museum would be moving from Trout Brook Drive to a new, larger location on the corner of Elizabeth Street and Asylum Avenue.
6. Art Museum, University of Saint Joseph
At USJ’s vibrant campus museum there are six galleries for a collection of more than 2,100 works ranging from the 1400s to the present day.
The Art Museum’s forte lies in American painting from the 20th century and European and American prints over hundreds of years to the 21st century.
This collection first took shape in 1937 with a donation by the priest Andrew J.
Kelly, and grew again in 1966 with a bequest from another priest, John J.
Kelley (no relation!). Some of the many compelling exhibitions in the last few years have been graphics by Käthe Kollwitz, 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints, Caricatures by Enrico Caruso and photography by Paul Caponigro.
7. Westmoor Park
In the very west of the city there’s a self-funded environmental education centre, all couched in a landscape of woodland, perennial gardens, ponds and wildflower meadows over 162 acres.
Children will be enamoured of the farmyard, keeping horses, donkeys, cows, llamas, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits and cats.
The Discovery Room keeps more exotic animals, like a tropical sun conure, several turtle species, leopard geckos, a sand boa, a blue-tongues skink and a California kingsnake.
Outside, former polo fields were allowed to grow out to become wildflower meadows, and at the ponds you may catch sight of beavers, turtles and ducks, while bobcats and white-tailed deer come to drink here.
The Perennial Garden is in bloom from spring to the end of the autumn, and in summer the Hummingbird and Butterfly Garden thrums with colourful creatures.
8. West Hartford Reservoir
This popular recreation area comprises a chain of six reservoirs along its eastern edge, all fringed with hilly forest for hikes and mountain biking.
The scenic, blue-blazed Metacomet Trail passes through this landscape atop the ridge of the same name on the way from the Long Island Sound to the border with Massachusetts.
On this tough walk you’ll be rewarded with heart-lifting natural sights like waterfalls, sheer cliffs and mountain peaks.
The west side of West Hartford Reservoir is the setting for Deer Cliff a tall rocky ledge measuring 1.5 miles from north to south.
There’s also intriguing history close to Reservoir #6 at the site of an encampment by Continental Soldiers in 1778 during the Revolutionary War.
9. Playhouse on Park
This flourishing, intimate performing arts theatre is integral to the West Hartford community, giving a springboard to emerging artistic talent both on and off the stage.
Every season there will be an eye-catching series of main stage plays and musicals.
On the schedule in 2018-2019 was One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Murder For Two and the Scottsboro Boys (musical). Playhouse on Park also strives to produce original plays and musicals through its Playwrights on Park series, and there are comedy nights every couple of months, as well as a programme of shows especially for young audiences.
Central Connecticut’s top shopping mall is on the line between West Hartford and Farmington, and its name is a portmanteau of the two places.
Westfarms is the third-largest mall in the state, home to some luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Apple, Tiffany & Co.
and Michael Kors, in between midmarket stores like H&M, J.
Crew, Hot Topic, Gap, Foot Locker and Banana Republic.
The four anchors are Macy’s, Nordstrom, JCPenney and Lord & Taylor, while Westfarms’ eateries have their own storefronts outside and include chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Brio Tuscan Grille, Taco Bell, P.F. Changs China Bistro, Dunkin Donuts and Subway.
11. Wolcott Park
One of five neatly tended local parks around West Hartford, Wolcott Park has recently been furnished with a splash pad for littler children.
Kids can also take on the playscape and sandpit, and there’s a pond with ducks to feed (oats and seeds!), and ample room for picnics.
You can also take advantage of the concession stand, tennis courts, a basketball court and a baseball diamond.
A nature trail weaves off into a wooded area and the park is lovely in spring when the fruit trees are in bloom.
12. Fernridge Park
A treasured amenity for generations, Fernridge Park has a great public pool, complete with a splash pad with wacky characters for children.
There are at least six hours of public swim time at the pool each day, while the mornings are normally set aside for lessons.
Also for smaller family members is a pair of well-appointed playgrounds, while there’s an area set aside for picnics.
When it comes to sports you’ve got a baseball diamond, tennis courts, a basketball court and generous grassy spaces for frisbee games.
13. Mark Twain House & Museum
West Hartford and Hartford are contiguous, which puts a lot of interesting sights and attractions in easy reach, and none is more absorbing than Mark Twain’s purpose-built residence.
Less than a mile down the road from Elizabeth Park, this sublime American High Gothic house went up in 1874 and Twain and his family would live here until 1891 when they were forced to move to Europe because of financial troubles.
You may get frissons knowing that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were all written right here in the Billiards Room.
As well as its whimsical design and literary history the house is remarkable for its technology, as Twain was an early adopter and installed gadgets like an early telephone.
In 1881 the interiors were remodelled at great expense under the supervision of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
An environmentally-friendly visitor centre showcasing Twain’s life and work was built next door in 2003, while a tour of the house’s restored interiors is an experience you won’t soon forget.
14. Thomas Hooker Brewery
Thomas Hooker is a Hartford and Connecticut institution, and has two locations in the area, the closest of which is the brewery and tasting room ten minutes away in Bloomfield.
At the time of writing in July 2019 there were 19 different beers on tap at this brewery, like a chocolate truffle stout, a malty Irish red, a Czech-style blonde ale, a summery watermelon ale and an array of creative IPAs, such as Golden Nymph, brewed with a blend of Citra, Calypso and El Dorado hops.
There’s free Wi-Fi, an outdoor patio, and a gift shop selling t-shirts and accessories.
If you don’t have time to stop you can pick up most of Thomas Hooker’s range in cans to go.
15. Iwo Jima Survivors Memorial Park
One of the 20th-century images burned into the world’s consciousness is the photograph of US Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima.
This came on February 23, 1945, during a brutal five-week battle that would leave 6,821 American and 18,375 Japanese dead.
The National Iwo Jima Memorial was erected on the line between New Britain and Newington, barely ten minutes from West Hartford Center.
The memorial depicts that abiding image and was put up by Newington’s Iwo Jima Survivors Association and dedicated in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the famous flag-raising on Iwo Jima.
There’s an eternal flame and monuments to military chaplains and the combat Medical Corps, while the memorial itself bears the names of the 100 men from Connecticut who died in the battle.