Hartford is a city of turnover. Coffee shops open and close, seasonal celebrations and annual events pop up and then are gone, young workers move in and then move out to the suburbs, and it all goes round and round like a revolving door in a busy, shiny office building. All this change is exciting, and it gives Connecticut’s historic capital city a bit of an ambush makeover feel each time you visit.
But Hartford is also a place of grand institutions and long-standing traditions, and while I quite enjoy checking out what’s new, I always tend to return to my old favorites. These are the places that make me remember why I fell in love with this city in the first place, and decided to explore it more often, which led to me living for two years in an eccentric historic apartment in the West End.
So I wanted to write a post about my favorite time-tested things to do in Hartford, about the attractions that aren’t going anywhere. This list of classics could be a guide if you’re visiting Hartford for the first time; a little motivation if you live nearby and haven’t gotten around to exploring the city; or a suggestion if you live in a more distant part of Connecticut (or beyond): go to Hartford, you might just love it as much as I do.
Connecticut’s Old State House is an architectural and design masterpiece outside and in, and it’s also a museum – though it feels more accurate to call it several museums folded into one. Come here to learn about Hartford and Connecticut history, as well as the messy history of democracy and freedom in America. See the delicately appointed rooms where pivotal events like the Amistad trial unfolded, then head to the top floor to visit the whacky little Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities, home to the (in)famous two-headed calf as well as numerous less bizarre but equally fascinating specimens.
There’s also a farmers market here, open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (It’s the oldest in Connecticut, and dates from 1643!)
The Wadsworth Atheneum looks like a European castle looming over Main Street, but the inside is far less intimidating. The oldest continually operating public art museum in the U.S manages to fit a diverse collection of artworks spanning many nations and millennia into a space that’s impressive but not overwhelming.
The museum shop is lovely too, a great place to stock up on artistic gifts or classy Hartford souvenirs even if you don’t have time to peruse the collections.
The Mark Twain House, where one of Hartford’s most famous residents lived and worked, is a gaudy Gothic explosion of Victorian-era opulence. (My favorite “room” is the Conservatory, which the Clemens family called “the jungle.”) You can only view the inside if you join a tour, which isn’t cheap, but the guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about all aspects of the home and the family that inhabited it.
The shop here is also full of unexpected finds, and is a great option for gifts as well as fun little things you never realized you needed yourself.
Parks & Walks
Mortensen Riverfront Plaza and the connecting Riverside Park take full advantage of Hartford’s location on the bank of the Connecticut River. Hang out on the steps overlooking the water, then walk along the paved path to get close the state’s namesake waterway. From here you can see the classically arched bridges you can’t appreciate from the highway, and take in the art of the Lincoln Financial Sculpture Walk, which depicts, in a variety of styles, aspects of the Abraham Lincoln’s legacy.
Bushnell Park is not huge as parks go, but you could probably spend a full day strolling its paths, resting on its benches, and investigating the many statues and other features dotted throughout the park that make it far more than just a green oasis in the heart of the city. The icon of this park is the fairy-tale-like Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch. Or perhaps it’s the Carousel. Or the State Capitol (more on that below.)
Elizabeth Park straddles the Hartford-West Hartford Border, where lively city meets leafy suburb. Best-known for its rose garden – the first municipal rose garden in America and one of the largest in the country to this day – this serene park is also home to several other gardens, greenhouses, a unique collection of trees, walking and biking paths, a cafe with a summer take-out window, and overlooks with views of Hartford’s skyline in the distance.
Charter Oak Landing, located south of downtown, provides a different vantage point in a less-busy area compared to Riverside Park. This waterfront strip has walking paths, picnic areas, and a boat launch, and there’s also free parking right by the water.
The Wallace Stevens Walk is a lesser-known but quintessentially Hartford way to see the city. The route follows the 2.4-mile route that Stevens, insurance executive and acclaimed American poet, walked daily from his office at The Hartford to his West End home. There’s plenty to see in the way of architecture and city life along the way. But the best part – if you like Stevens’s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – are the stones, each one engraved with a stanza of the haunting poem, that mark your progress along the route.
Admiring the Architecture
The Connecticut State Capitol evokes a former era, one when Connecticut thought big – and fancy. The only High Victorian Gothic state capitol building in the country, this gold-domed confection, built in 1878, stands high on a hill above Bushnell Park. Walk all around it to see the symbolic, highly detailed statues and reliefs incorporated into each side of the ornate exterior. There are also tours of the interior of the building.
Trinity College in Frog Hollow will come as a shock to any visitors who believe Yale is the only traditional New England campus to be found in a Connecticut city. Wander around the manicured grounds and stroll the length of the “Long Walk” to appreciate the beauty of this classic college setting, a little bit of college-movie fantasy in the center of a real-life city.
The Colt Armory’s whimsical blue onion dome is familiar to anyone who’s ever driven down I-91 and done a double-take at what appears to be a dollop of St. Petersburg topping an old brick Connecticut factory. The armory and the area around it, called Coltsville, are currently in the process of becoming a National Historic Park. That means there’s not as much to do here in the traditional tourist sense as there will be when the project is completed. However, it’s still worth swinging by to see the iconic building, and the area that played such a significant role in the history of Hartford and the nation.
Hartford is home to many tiny Historic Districts, some of which lend themselves nicely to short walks through neighborhoods with distinctive architecture. Two of my favorites are Congress Street, a charming block of cobblestones and red brick in the South Green neighborhood, and Lewis Street, a glimpse of an older Hartford in the modern bustle of downtown.
Cedar Hill Cemetery, in the South West neighborhood, is a 270-acre park-like burial ground in the tradition of the American rural cemetery. Visitors come here to see the graves of famous people like Katherine Hepburn and J.P. Morgan (there’s a self-guided tour of “notables”) or to walk or drive among distinctive monuments in a peaceful setting.
The much humbler, and older, Ancient Burying Ground somewhat similar to the Central Burying Ground on Boston Common, but without a park to shield it from the action of the city. Here, table tombs and tilted headstones are wedged snugly between busy Main Street, a historic church, and the glimmering 1970s “Gold Building.” The cemetery dates from 1640 and encompasses a wide swath of Hartford history. Thomas Hooker, the Puritan founder of the Connecticut Colony, is buried here; so are 300 or more African Americans – free people, enslaved people, and Black Governors – who lie in unmarked graves.
Two other burial grounds that represent the early history of Hartford can be found not far away. Old North Cemetery in North East is the final resting place of Frederick Law Olmstead and other notable Hartfordites; while Old South Cemetery in Barry Square dates to 1770 and stands on what was once an apple orchard.
The Charter Oak Monument is one of those quasi-attractions that suddenly make a symbol feel real. A simple yet dignified column marks the area where the famous Charter Oak – tree of history, legend, and the back of the Connecticut quarter – stood until it was downed by a storm in 1856.
Pratt Street often has something going on, but I like this block-long “venue” even when it’s just an especially pretty row of local businesses. This distinctive brick street, which is sometimes transformed into a pedestrian-only party, is home to local favorite Hartford Prints, another good choice for Hartford- and Connecticut-themed gear and lovely gifts.
The Hartford Public Library’s downtown branch is sleek, modern, and home to a surprising variety of cultural programming. Check out their ArtWalk gallery, free seasonal concerts, and other exhibits and events.
Though it’s too new to really count as a classic (and arguably too anodyne to count as a particularly Hartford experience) the Front Street District feels like it’s bringing an energy that will benefit Hartford in the future. The Spotlight Theater, Infinity Music Hall, and Barnes & Noble UConn Bookstore are all worthy destinations in their own right, and all create a comforting sense of normalcy for people who might once have been reluctant to venture into Hartford. Add to that the choice of restaurants in this little “district,” and I think it deserves to be recommended to visitors.
-Keep in mind that while most of the places on this list are in downtown Hartford, other neighborhoods also have plenty to offer and are worth exploring.
-Street parking in downtown Hartford is free on weekends and evenings (after 6:00 p.m.) Garages and lots are not free, but may be more convenient if you don’t want to hunt for a space. Outside of downtown, most parking is free at all times. Read parking signs carefully, as different blocks may have different rules. The Hartford Parking Authority has information about parking meters, as well as tips.
-Downtown Hartford is compact and walkable, but you can also get around without a lot of walking (or driving) by using the free shuttle.