In Northwest Connecticut, Waterbury is a city with a rich manufacturing history. The nickname here is Brass City. Indeed, brass was the dominant industry throughout the 19th century until clockmaking took over.
With manufacturing mostly in the past, downtown Waterbury is a blend of old and new, with grand 19th-century architecture and a lot of culture.
Along these lines, I’m in love with the Mattatuck Museum, with its excellent collections, and the Palace Theater, a sparkling entertainment venue for the city. Both are in the very heart of the city, which has kept hold of the same central green since the 1680s.
The presence of several universities, including UConn and Post University, help infuse Waterbury with extra youthful energy.
Lets explore the best things to do in Waterbury:
1. The Palace Theater
This ornate Renaissance Revival theater is a beautiful anchor for downtown Waterbury. After a long closure starting in the 1980s, The Palace Theater (1921) was reborn in the 2000s as a hub for performing arts.
This is one of only two surviving venues built by theater magnate, Sylvester Z. Poli (1858-1937), and is considered the finest example.
The theater hosts a range of shows on offer including Broadway musicals, concerts, live comedy, author talks, children’s shows, and a lot more.
I came to see El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico not long ago. Stepping into the opulent, gilt-trimmed auditorium, I was amazed that such a treasure had gone unused for two decades.
2. Mattatuck Museum
For those looking for a window into the history of the Central Naugatuck Valley, look no further than the Mattatuck Museum Arts and History Center.
This museum’s collections are wide-ranging, spanning everything from art by Alexander Calder to brass buttons.
Indeed, this is the repository for the rich collections of the famed Waterbury Button Company. These buttons, numbering more than 15,000 are a compelling window on Waterbury’s past.
The art exhibitions tend to be rooted in Connecticut. For example, when I came, Uprooted featured the work of two locally-based Afghan artists, displaced by the Taliban’s rise to power in 2021.
3. Waterbury Green
Downtown Waterbury converges on this rectangular grassy space. Waterbury Green spans 2 acres, and is the symbolic center point of the city.
True to its name, the park now covers what would have been the original town commons, starting in the 17th century. Those original buildings have long since been lost to waves of development, including industrialization.
Still, I can’t help but be excited to know everything that has happened at this spot. We’re talking, troop musters, rallies, demonstrations, and speeches by the likes of JFK and Robert Kennedy.
Of the monuments, check out the solemn Soldiers’ Monument (1884) at the west end. This 48-foot pillar is capped with a bronze Winged Victory, and honors local veterans of the Civil War.
4. Downtown Waterbury
A rewarding way to spend an hour in Waterbury is taking a look around the compact downtown area. Going through long-term regeneration, downtown Waterbury reflects the city’s diverse makeup, blending culture, dining, shopping and interesting sights.
Some big landmarks that I won’t cover in this article include the Elton Hotel (1904), the monumental Municipal Center (1914-1922), and the John Kendrick House (1860s), which is part of the Mattatuck Museum.
More than 130 buildings contribute to the historic district, interwoven with more modern architecture. There’s ample entertainment downtown, as I’ll show, and a smattering of places to eat.
5. Library Park
The largest green space in the heart of Waterbury surrounds the Silas Bronson Library. When I came by, Library Park had just been dug up and relandscaped, with flowerbeds, a winding trail, and a little plaza area by the library.
As well as being a leafy hangout, it’s the setting for outdoor events in the city. I’d check the local listings while you are in town to see what’s on. One of the big dates on the calendar is the Brass City Jazz Festival in August.
At other times, it’s a spot for summer picnics, a few steps from local eateries, and with Union Station’s tower rising to the east.
6. Seven Angels Theatre
Known for being the only professional theater in the area, the Seven Angels Theatre currently showcases an amazing 200 performances every year.
The theater has been going for decades now, with shows that reflect the tastes of the community. These range from Shakespearian theater to dramas and musicals, and are produced with the help of professional talent from across the country.
Also look out for community productions, as well as concerts, tribute shows, and other specialty acts.
Certainly if you are looking to check out the arts in Waterbury then this is another great place to come. Considering the quality of the performance I found the ticket prices reasonable, and the venue is a fine old building in Hamilton Park.
7. Hop Brook Lake
In the very south of Waterbury, this 270-acre lake overlaps into two other communities including Naugatuck and Middlebury.
The lake was actually created from a dam that was built across Hop Brook in the 1960s. This was eventually followed by a 500-acre recreation area with a sandy beach, trails and picnic areas.
These waters are known for being full of local aquatic life such as largemouth bass and panfish and there are also trout stocked in the lake every year. So if you like fishing then this is the place to do it.
My tip for an extended adventure, is an out-and-back hike on the Larkin State Park Trail, which has a trailhead close by.
8. Waterbury Symphony Orchestra
Based at the Naugatuck Valley Community College, this famous ensemble was founded as long ago as 1938.
The orchestra is dedicated to bringing the enjoyment and appreciation of classical music to the people of Northwest Connecticut. To that end there’s an excellent series of concerts every season, with 100 talented performers from across New England involved.
These are held at the college’s Fine Arts Center, as well as other venues around Litchfield County, including the Palace Theatre. Personally I love it when they combine performances with film.
This might be a festive screening of Home Alone, or soundtracking silent classics like The General.
9. Bank Street Historic District
In downtown Watrrbury, there’s an interesting terrace of commercial buildings between Market Square and Grand Street.
As the surrounding cityscape has been transformed these four turn-of-the-century buildings have stood the test of time.
The terrace includes a highly unusual example of a Queen Anne-style commercial building, which I’d never seen before. This is the theatrical Griggs Building, from 1884, sporting gabled dormers and Corinthian pilasters.
There’s also one of just three examples of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture in Waterbury at the north end of the row.
10. Union Station
Exploring downtown Waterbury, my eye was constantly drawn to the elegant, 240-foot tower of the city’s defunct railway station.
Located on Meadow Street, Union Station (1909) is the most iconic building in Waterbury. It’s also a nod to the city’s love of watches and clocks.
The clock tower on the station was built in 1909 and has over 300 steps to get to the top. This structure is decorated with gargoyles in the shape of she-wolves, and is based on the 14th-century Torre del Mangia in Siena in Italy.
Once a busy passenger depot for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad, the building is now the HQ for the local Republican American newspaper.
11. Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
If I had to pick a favorite building in downtown Waterbury, it would have to be this church on the green. The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is a striking Roman Catholic church, raised in 1928.
Designed by Boston’s Maginnis & Walsh firm, the building takes its cues from Rome’s Baroque Basilica of Saint Mary Major.
Whatever your faith it’s worth taking a peek inside for a glimpse of the splendor, typified by the magnificent depiction of Christ in Majesty in the apse and the gilded baldachin below.
12. Municipal Stadium
I’m a bit of a nerd for baseball history, and will always seek out a ballfield with a story to tell.
Built in 1930, Waterbury Stadium, or Municipal Stadium as it is officially known, started out as a dog track before becoming the home of several local Minor League teams, like the Waterbury Timers.
Some huge names have played at this very place, including Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra in an exhibition game in 1947.
The stadium still hosts games to this day, including youth programs like the Waterbury Gamecocks, and has a capacity of over 6,000 spectators.
13. Hancock Brook Trail
It’s easy to forget that Waterbury’s hectic downtown is mere minutes from lovely tracts of nature. Closest of all, you can get onto a Blue-Blazed trail next to Hancock Brook in the city’s Waterville section.
The trail is on a curious linear loop, with two parallel trails connected at the north and south for a total 2.8 miles. Along this short route I was blown away by some of the scenery, namely from the 660-foot high point, Lion Head.
There are also evocative traces of 19th-century industry, including what’s left of a railroad track laid down next to the river in 1850.
14. Lakewood Lanes
For some relaxing fun in Waterbury, locals flock to the Lakewood Lanes. This is the largest bowling alley for miles.
Lakewood Lanes has been a local fixture for some 60 years, and has 42 different lanes. Chances are, there will be availability whenever you come. These have a synthetic surface, and were in perfect shape when I bowled here.
Every Saturday there’s a Junior League program, introducing young bowlers to the game. Then, weekend evenings bring Galaxy Bowling, with the music turned up and the lights turned down.
In addition, there’s an arcade with two-dozen games, a prize redemption center, and a snack bar serving comfort classics.
15. Waterbury RollerMagic
This is the place to come for old-fashioned roller skating fun. Waterbury RollerMagic has an ultra-smooth maple skating surface, so skating here is a breeze, even if you’re not an experienced skater.
You can rent a pair of skates—old-school skates or rollerblades—and cruise around the rink during public skate sessions. Wednesday Night is Family Skate, while the rink stays open late on Fridays and Saturdays.
There’s also an arcade with a wealth of games, a prize redemption counter, and a full-service snack bar if you get hungry.