By now I’ve spent most of the winters I’ve been alive in Connecticut. Every year, I nearly freeze into a human-sized icicle, and yet, every year, I stay. At one point I realized, despite my complaining, there must be something to this whole New England winter deal, right? And there is.
The change from fall to winter helps mark the passing of time, helps fix memories in place in my frazzled brain, and presents an opportunity to see everything with fresh eyes. The colors of the sky and the sand change, just a little, and every house and street and tree looks different with a fresh dusting of snow.
And so, if you’re struggling with winter, or are new to New England, or have loved this season all along and just want some new ideas about how to spend your time until spring, here is a post about all the little lifestyle and travel tips I’ve learned (mostly the hard way) over the years. These little adjustments have helped me see that winter is bearable – and even, sometimes, so beautiful that I almost pity anyone who lives anywhere else.
It sounds counter-intuitive, if you’re like me and thrive in the heat. And it’s not like it helps with the cold thing: going outside will not, in fact, make you feel any warmer. But a winter nature walk in Connecticut is simply too stunning to pass up just because you can’t feel your face. Bundling up and going out is the only way to fully experience the season: the snow glistening in the sun, the smell of fresh air and pine trees, and the stillness of a world where most people would rather stay indoors.
Here are a few of the many places in Connecticut that make it feel totally worth it to scrape all the ice off your car. White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, where trails wind through a 4,000 acre wilderness that can feel like the most remote place on earth. Topsmead State Forest, also in Litchfield, and Harkness Memorial State Park, in Waterford, where you can pretend that you own the fairy tale “cottage” on the property and you’re just going for a brisk walk in your obscenely large yard. Putnam Memorial State Park, in Redding, where you can get a sense of a famous winter in Connecticut history. Chatfield Hollow State Park, in Killingworth, where pine trees grow tall beside a frozen beach and a red covered bridge provides a surprise pop of color. The Connecticut College Arboretum, where secret gates and walkways hide behind groves of trees. And don’t forget that beaches are still an option in wintertime! Many coastal towns, like Madison, East Lyme, Milford, and West Haven, have miles of beaches that become lovely, desolate landscapes when winter comes.
Whether you’re going out for a hike or just going to Stop & Shop – or, for that matter, staying inside all day – you need to dress properly to avoid being miserable. This is, strangely, a lesson it’s taken me my entire life to learn, and the details of it are constantly being refined. The most important clothing items to get you through a cold winter are thick, warm socks; scarves that can be looped around over your face to stop the frigid air going directly into your lungs; a warm hat that covers your ears; a fleece or knit headband, if for any reason you don’t want to wear a hat; leggings and a long-sleeved t-shirt to layer under whatever else you’re wearing; gloves, preferably those glove-mitten hybrids with fingers that flip open; and a really, really warm coat. (Or two or three.) Also crucial: waterproof boots that have good treads and are lined with something fuzzy. Your boots should come up high enough to prevent snow, slush, and freezing rain from dripping over the tops of them if you have to step in a snowdrift or surprise puddle. If you’re not wearing boots, consider bringing some extra socks with you.
Of course, there’s always the time-honored tradition of attempting to avoid the weather by filling your winter with distracting indoor activities. The natural choice here is a museum. For one thing, you can spend hours in a museum. For another, they’re almost always entertaining and educational, so you can feel like you’re being productive and having fun at the same time. Plus, lots of them incorporate a shop and a cafe, so you’re technically doing three different activities without ever leaving the building.
Here are a handful of my favorites. The Connecticut River Museum in Essex, a perfectly curated small museum that showcases Connecticut’s history and blends seamlessly with its waterfront setting. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, a reminder that Connecticut is as grand, cultured, and serious as any other place. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, which is just as grand but smaller. The Canton Historical Museum in Collinsville, a good example of how surprisingly interesting small-town history can be. The Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, which manages to be hyper-local and aware of the world the same time.
Go Shopping (But Make it Wintery)
The best towns for winter shopping are the ones where numerous cute little stores are clustered together, letting you walk from one to the next before the realization of how cold it is sets in. Some go-to shopping towns in Connecticut are New Canaan, Mystic, Essex, Niantic, Kent, Chester, New Haven, and Putnam.
In the winter, I try to avoid malls if at all possible, but I do quite like unusual indoor shopping destinations like the Velvet Mill in Stonington (it’s also the home of Stonington’s winter farmers’ market), and outdoor anti-malls where the atmosphere changes along with the seasons, like Old Mill Pond Village Shops in Granby.
Certain types of stores seem especially appropriate as shopping destinations this time of year. Bookstores are an obvious example. Not only are they often very cozy themselves, they also encourage you to go home with some new books and hide under a blanket reading for hours. (If you want some specific suggestions, I wrote a post about Connecticut bookstores I love.) Garden shops with greenhouses can get you in a tropical mood when the temperature outside is the opposite of tropical. Logee’s, in Danielson, is one that’s worth a trip. And then there are the special little gift-y stores, the ones that tempt you to treat yourself or someone else with a present to brighten up the season. A few I like in this category are Grace, in Niantic; Ivory & Iron, in Essex; The Smithy Market, in New Preston; and Martha’s Herbary, in Pomfret.
Make Your Home Cozy
No matter how much I try to go out in the winter, I end up spending lots of time at home too. That’s partly because my home is my office, but it’s also because the couch starts to look extra tempting when it gets dark around 3:00 p.m. (I exaggerate. Slightly.) The little things I’ve found that make a huge difference in terms of keeping a home livable in winter are: keeping a space heater pointed directly at you while you work, keeping flannel sheets on the bed (if you haven’t tried this it is game-changing!), keeping extra blankets on the bed as well as the couch or wherever else you like to sit, getting up earlier than you need to turn up the heat so you can get up “for real” at the proper time in a somewhat civilized temperature, and keeping extra moisturizer and lip balm everywhere. Also, it’s a cliche because it works: light some candles.
Drink Warm Drinks in Warm Places
These days, many coffee shops are choosing to go for the clean, cool, modern look. Which is great…until it’s 25 degrees outside. In the winter months, I especially appreciate a coffee shop (or any other “third place”) that feels as warm and welcoming as a hot cup of cocoa. Whether the decor is minimal or has that overstuffed living room thing going on, the overall atmosphere has to be cozy and comforting. Here are some Connecticut spots that have this down. Grounded Coffee Company, in Willimantic. Common Grounds, in Branford. Three Bridges Coffeehouse, in Shelton. Victoria Station Cafe, in Putnam. Ashlawn Farm Coffee, in Old Saybrook. Craftsman Cliff Roasters, in Norwich. Muddy Waters Cafe, in New London.
Embrace Quiet Creativity
In summer and early fall, it feels natural to look outward, to explore, to soak up the sun or the colorful flourish of the leaves, respectively. In contrast, winter and early spring (which let’s be honest, is still winter around here) are ideal seasons to go inwards, to get back in touch with whatever sort of creative expression makes you happy. This is true whether you turn to your own creative projects (e.g. taking photographs, making music, knitting) or the creative work of others (e.g. reading books, watching movies.) Even if you’re not into traditionally creative hobbies, winter is a good time for any quiet and industrious undertaking: organizing, decluttering, cleaning, cooking, baking, or ticking things off your home DIY list.
Dash Through The Snow (In a Car)
Sometimes, just after a storm, when the sidewalks are too icy to walk on and the grass is lumpy with snow of indeterminate depth, the roads are, as if by some miracle, perfect. This is the ideal moment to go for a drive on Connecticut’s back roads and appreciate why tourists come to New England in the winter and why so many Christmas movies are filmed here. In moments like this, when the snow makes everything sparkle, even the most familiar destinations are suddenly full of charming little details you never noticed before.
There are two sorts of places I especially like to explore on a winter drive. The first is a forest. While roads through state parks are mostly closed for the season (so you can hike, but not drive), those through state forests remain open, uncrowded, and gorgeous. From Nehantic State Forest in the southeastern part of the state to American Legion and Peoples State Forests in the northwest, Connecticut has over 30 state forests, not to mention innumerable rural and suburban roads that just happen to pass through wooded areas. So the next time it snows, just look on the map for a splotch of green near you.
The second type of location that shines after a storm is a town center with a concentration of historic homes. Older towns like Suffield, Glastonbury, Old Wethersfield, North Stonington, Woodbury, Madison, Guilford, and nearly every town in Litchfield County each have dozens and dozens of preserved historic homes that look like holiday postcards after a snowstorm.
Visit a Winter Town
What is a winter town? It’s a thing I just made up to describe the way that some places just manage to do winter better than others. In Connecticut, when I think of winter, I think of towns like Litchfield, where the neat row of white and brick buildings along the town green are perfectly suited for snowfall; Riverton, in Barkhamsted, where the clock always feels turned back a century or two, especially in the cold; Norfolk, where the topography and eclectic architecture give the town center the feel of a mountain village; Stonington, where frigid temperatures only enhance the simple beauty and character of a borough tied to the sea; and Ridgefield, where wintertime turns Main Street into an old-fashioned illustrated Christmas card.