Like many smaller Connecticut towns, East Hampton (population 13,000) often flies under the tourist radar. But that’s not because there’s nothing of interest in this slow-paced, rural-meets-suburban place. East Hampton, covering 36 square miles in the northern corner of Middlesex County, actually offers so much to see and do that it can be difficult to pin down. Is it a historic river town? Is it an exclusive lakefront community? Is it an old factory town, with ramshackle mill buildings dotting the hills? Does it boast ornate historic homes? A walkable town center with distinctive small businesses? Natural beauty? The answer is…yes.
The town of East Hampton is made up of several villages, neighborhoods, and districts, each with a distinct look and personality. With that comes a perplexing mix of place names like Cobalt, Chatham, and Middle Haddam, not to be confused with the nearby town of East Haddam – and that’s without getting into the name of East Hampton itself, which has nothing to do with the town of Hampton, 30 miles to the east. But don’t let that throw you off, because whatever its oddities, East Hampton encompasses wide swaths of unspoiled state park and forest land, a photo-op as scenic as any in Connecticut, one of the best sections of a beloved state-wide linear trail, an iconic manufacturer still going strong after close to 200 years, and a truly authentic old-fashioned small-town atmosphere.
So while you might not spend a full day in East Hampton – although you certainly could – it’s absolutely a place worth stopping the next time you’re just passing through. Here are my picks for where to shop, eat, sightsee, and explore in East Hampton.
ECO Coffee House (82 Main Street)
This corner coffee shop brews small-batch organic espresso and coffee that’s deliciously strong. Step up to their service window to grab a cup before exploring East Hampton. They also offer creative seasonal beverages, as well as heartier food options like sandwiches and soups.
The Black Walnut Bread Co. (81 Main Street)
Get here early, or reserve ahead of time, to snag one of this adorable bakery’s freshly-made and extremely tempting loaves of bread. Flavors rotate regularly, and they also sell other baked goods inside this impeccably decorated brick storefront.
Bevin Bells (17 Watrous Street)
There’s a reason East Hampton is known as Belltown, USA. During its manufacturing heyday in the 1800s, there were 30 bell factories in this little town. As hard as it is to picture now, East Hampton once produced almost all of the small bells used in North America. Today, that legacy is reflected in the Belltown Historic District, located on and around Main Street, and in the bells displayed around town; look out for bells painted with flags, flowers, and – my personal favorite – cats. And the bell-making tradition is kept alive by family-owned Bevin Bells, founded in 1832, which calls itself “the only dedicated bell manufacturer in the United States.” They still make all of those Salvation Army bells you hear ringing outside the supermarket each winter. And while there’s no shop in the factory, you can pop in and purchase a jingling gift or two, from the littlest sleigh bells to themed collections and seasonal designs. (Bevin Bells are also sold at nearby garden center Paul’s and Sandy’s Too.)
Willow (95 Main Street)
This pretty shop sells a little bit of everything in the cute gift department: accessories (think knit hats, scarves, and slippers), candles, ornaments, mugs, Connecticut-themed goods, and home decor bits you didn’t know you desperately needed until you walked in the door.
Little Fish Gallery & Gift (72 Main Street)
The seasonal sidewalk decor outside this sweet boutique is a hint at the bounty inside. Featuring framed paintings, ceramics, jewelry, decorative items, and other lovely things created by local artists and makers, this shop might just be the solution to the problem of what to buy for hard-to-please giftees.
Old Bank Flowers and Greenery (70 Main Street)
This florist doubles as a narrow boutique packed with eclectic gifts. Some are what you’d expect in a flower shop, like painted pots and greeting cards, but there’s also hand-crafted jewelry, candles, soaps, accessories, and more.
Red Door Boutique (73 Main Street)
This women’s clothing and accessories store runs the gamut from cozy casual to glittery glam. From a wide selection of flannel shirts to shiny costume jewelry to dressy tops to fuzzy mittens, it’s full of unexpected gift options.
Comstock Covered Bridge (Colchester Avenue/Route 16 and Comstock Bridge Road)
This picturesque wooden bridge on the edge of the Salmon River State Forest has connected East Hampton with Colchester since the late 1700s. (But don’t worry, it’s been rebuilt, repaired, and reinforced a number of times since then!) It’s one of only three remaining authentic covered bridges in Connecticut; it’s also the only one located in the eastern part of the state. And, it’s the only one closed to vehicular traffic, which makes it not just a must-see, but a must-cross.
Old Mills (Around Main Street and Summit Street)
An undeniable aspect of East Hampton’s unique atmosphere comes from the old mill buildings stacked on its downtown hills. You can’t miss the remaining mills in the center of town, near Summit Street, Watrous Street, and Walnut Avenue; it’s worth a quick drive or walk around the area to view them, but if you’re particularly interested in Connecticut’s manufacturing history, connecticutmills.org has detailed information about each mill’s past and present.
Chatham Historical Society (6 Bevin Boulevard)
Before East Hampton was East Hampton, it was Chatham. Today, the name the town chose when it incorporated in 1767 lives on in the name of the local historical society, which runs a museum dedicated to East Hampton history, from shipbuilding to bell-making and beyond. Even if the museum isn’t open when you visit, swing by to see the preserved one-room Chestnut Hill School House, built c. 1840.
This 512-acre lake, once home to resort hotels, is now ringed with private lanes and waterfront houses. But you don’t have to live in the neighborhood to take in the view. To drive a loop around the lake, start on North Main Street by Stop & Shop, then continue onto Lake Drive, East High Street, Old Marlborough Road, and back onto East High Street to North Main. On the west side of the lake, town-owned Sears Park (68 North Main Street) has a picnic pavilion and large parking area. (It’s closed to non-residents and requires stickers in the summer, but is open and free in the off-season.) While you’re driving, contemplate this fun fact: there’s a private island, called Laurel Island, with vacation rentals, in the middle of the lake.
Middle Haddam Historic District
The street names in Middle Haddam evoke the now-residential village’s past: Shipyard Road, Shad Row, and Blacksmith Hill Road branch off of Middle Haddam Road, which runs through the center of this former Connecticut River port town. The historic buildings here date from 1732, and the area retains the feel of an early New England riverfront community. Architectural highlights include a number of well-preserved Federal and Colonial houses; the diminutive post office; the library, housed in a 1799 store building; and the High Victorian Gothic Revival-style Second Congregational Church, which resembles an illustration from a fanciful children’s book.
Named for an 1870s train route that once drew a line through the air, as it were, between New York and Boston, this rails-to-trails project is now a favorite local walking, jogging, and biking path. Commonly called simply the Air Line Trail, it runs from here to Thomson, through a dozen towns and varied natural environments. The East Hampton portion includes what remains of the Rapallo Viaduct, and its expansive views. Park in the Memorial Garden lot on Main Street, or on Smith Street at the Cranberry Meadow, where cranberries were harvested in the 1920s and ‘30s.
- East Hampton’s shops and restaurants are true independent small town businesses, meaning they have eccentric hours that are likely to change. So check the website and social media of each individual spot you want to visit before showing up.
- There are plenty of free parking lots, as well as street parking, throughout the center of East Hampton.
This post is part of the State of Connecticut’s Do Your Thing CT campaign in support of Connecticut small businesses. Visit doyourthingct.org for more about shopping local this holiday season!