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 lifestyle extension, Blue Back Square, are made for walking. I could spend hours exploring the one-off shops, while there’s a big roster of hip international restaurants.
West Hartford merges with its larger neighbor to the east, putting must-sees like the Mark Twain House only minutes away.
The town also benefits from abundant green space. There’s the refined Elizabeth Park, the wild West Hartford Reservoir, and Westmoor Park where children can meet barnyard animals.
The lexicographer Noah Webster, of Webster’s Dictionary, was born in West Hartford. His 18th-century childhood home is not to be missed, and is enriched with personal items.
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 coming, I’d check the website to find out what’s in bloom in the various gardens. Among them is an Iris Garden, Rose Garden (third largest in America), Perennial Garden, Herb Garden, Shade Garden and Robert A. Prill Annual Garden.
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, and rock garden.
Finally, don’t miss the overlook, which grants a panorama of the Hartford skyline to the east.
Elizabeth Park was landscaped by Olmsted and Son at the turn of the 20th century. This was 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 I love about West Hartford is the walkable downtown. This is packed with shops, restaurants and amenities on a backdrop of venerable brick buildings.
Commonly called West Hartford Center, it’s all found around the junction of Farmington Avenue and South/North Main Street. I find the area even more endearing for the raft of independent businesses among the chain stores.
West Hartford Center has been the soul of the city since the 17th century. Today it shines as an example of a main street shopping district.
You could lose track of time browsing jewelers, fashion boutiques, wellness stores, design shops, cute arts and crafts stores. Then you can 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. For me it’s 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 Cinépolis, the first “luxury” theater in the Northeast. This features waiter 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). I mean, his name practically means “dictionary”, and his 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.
The campus 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 20+ first editions, his desk, two clocks and a ring from the early 19th century. The latter has Webster and his wife Rebecca’s hair encased in crystal.
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. When I brought my kids here, the museum had recently relocated to new premises on Mohegan Drive.
This attraction is perhaps best known for its life-sized replica of a sperm whale named Conny. The aim throughout is to “ignite curiosity through science and nature”. In that spirit 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. Meanwhile Imagination Playground comprises modular lightweight play blocks for building and problem solving.
There are live animals at Lizard Lair, Turtle Town, the Wildlife Sanctuary, and the Winged Wonders Butterfly House.
6. Art Museum, University of Saint Joseph
At USJ’s vibrant campus museum there are six galleries for a collection of more than 2,600 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.
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.
I was here for an exhibition for contemporary sculpture. This enthralling show offered a detailed look at the creative process of artists who have contributed works to the USJ campus.
7. Westmoor Park
In the very west of the city there’s a wonderful, self-funded environmental education center. Westmoor Park is couched in a landscape of woodland, perennial gardens, ponds and wildflower meadows over 162 acres.
Children will be enamored of the barnyard animals, with horses, donkeys, cows, llamas, sheep, goats, poultry, rabbits and cats.
The Discovery Room keeps more exotic animals, like leopard geckos, turtles, and a California kingsnake.
Outside, former polo fields were allowed to grow out to become wildflower meadows. Meanwhile 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 colorful creatures.
8. West Hartford Reservoir
This much-loved recreation area comprises a chain of six reservoirs, all fringed with hilly forest for hikes and mountain biking.
There are more than 30 miles of paved and gravel roads crossing these 3,000 acres. Honestly, I can think of few better places to go for a bicycle ride in Central Connecticut.
One off-road hiking path is the scenic, blue-blazed Metacomet Trail, passing through from south to north. A high point for hikers is Deer Cliff, a tall rocky ledge measuring 1.5 miles from north to south.
There’s also intriguing history close to Reservoir #6. Here you’ll come across the site of an encampment by Continental Soldiers in 1778 during the Revolutionary War.
9. Playhouse on Park
This flourishing, intimate performing arts theater 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. I was here for The Complete Works of Jane Austen, Abridged, which was an absolute delight.
Playhouse on Park also strives to produce original plays and musicals through its Playwrights on Park series. There are comedy nights every couple of months, as well as a program 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.
Sprinkled around are mid-market stores like H&M, J. Crew, Hot Topic, Gap, Foot Locker and Banana Republic.
The four anchors when I went to press were Macy’s, Macy’s Men’s & Home, Nordstrom, JCPenney and Jordan’s Furniture.
Meanwhile Westfarms’ eateries have their own storefronts outside and include chains like California Pizza Kitchen, Brio Tuscan Grille, Taco Bell, P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Dunkin’, 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 little children.
Kids can also take on the playscape and sandpit, and there’s a pond with ducks to feed (oats and seeds). With ample room for picnics and a long paved trail, it’s one of my favorite places to stroll in West Hartford.
The path weaves off into a wooded area and the park is lovely in spring when the fruit trees are in bloom.
Other amenities include tennis courts, pickleball courts, a basketball court and a baseball diamond, with a concession stand open during games.
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. Close by is a pond, with a big contingent of Canada geese when I was here.
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. For my money, 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. Twain and his family would live here until 1891 when they were forced to move to Europe because of financial troubles.
I got frisons 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. Twain was an early adopter and installed gadgets like a telephone, while Louis Comfort Tiffany was hired to revamp the exterior in 1881.
An environmentally-friendly visitor center showcasing Twain’s life and work was built next door in 2003.
14. Thomas Hooker Brewery
A Hartford and Connecticut institution, Thomas Hooker Brewery has two locations in the area. The closest is a brewery, taproom and biergarten ten minutes away in Bloomfield.
When I wrote this list there were 19 different beers on tap at this brewery. A few standouts, in my opinion, were Chocolate Truffle Stout, Citrillo (Hazy IPA), and the malty Irish Red.
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 seasonal and year-round beers in cans to go.
15. Celebrate! West Hartford
First held in 1987, there’s a free festival on the grounds of West Hartford’s town hall in June. Celebrate! West Hartford is a two-day event, helping to encourage community spirit with a wide array of activities.
The headline for me is the arts & crafts fair, which has won multiple awards over the years. This features more than 160 vendors, while there’s also a businesses and nonprofit expo, with another 120 exhibitors.
In the mix are carnival rides and games, road races, concerts, and a wonderful food court. This has something to please everyone, with classic fair bites as well as more elevated options.