Hey Capital Region residents! If you hop in the car right now, you could be in Hartford, CT, in a little over two hours.
It’s a great road trip destination. I know, because my family and I took a trip to that area a few months ago and haven’t left yet. In truth, we moved to Connecticut for my husband’s job, but still, we’ve found a lot of road-trip-worthy places to visit, and I’m happy to share.
Our search for interesting things to do has led us to a legendary author’s house, a castle, a seriously cool science center and fantastic arts venues. There are amazing restaurants in the area too. Here are some of our favorite discoveries in and around Hartford:
Connecticut Science Center
There aren’t many places where you can experience what it’s like to be in a hurricane, go toe-to-toe with an animatronic dinosaur and commune with a room full of butterflies. You can do all that and more at the Connecticut Science Center. The center’s 165+ hands-on exhibits and activities are designed to educate and entertain. The outer space exhibit gives visitors the opportunity to explore different parts of the universe with the use of a joystick. A water play area is a fun way to learn physics. A video screen offers an interactive drone’s eye view of the entire length of the windy, beautiful Connecticut River. There’s a 3D digital theater, a roof garden with a breathtaking view, four educational labs, plus daily programs and events. When we visited the center with friends, our group ranged in age from 3 to 53. Everybody had a great time and went home a little wiser.
The Mark Twain House and Museum
Samuel Clemens, better known by his pen name, Mark Twain, made Hartford his home from 1874 -1891. A guided tour of his stately 11‚500-square-foot‚ 25-room brick residence will give you a feel for the man who wrote classics including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Built in the American High Gothic style, the house, located in downtown Hartford, is full of ornate woodwork and original furnishings. Tours take between 45 minutes to an hour, but set extra time aside to check out the museum next to the house, where there is much more memorabilia.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
Continue your tour of legendary authors’ homes by walking from Mark Twain’s house right next door to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Beecher Stowe was the best-selling author of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The Stowe Center offers interactive tours and programs designed to inspire action on social justice issues. We haven’t been there yet, but it’s on the list.
The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
The Wadsworth is the oldest continuously-operating public art museum in the United States. Set aside several hours to peruse the three floors of exhibits that range from ancient to contemporary art. The museum’s collection encompasses approximately 50,000 works of art that span 5,000 years, including masterpieces by European greats Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. There are gorgeous sculptures, African American story quilts, Native American baskets, Greek and Roman antiquities and more. My favorite exhibit is the Cabinet of Art and Curiosity, which holds more than 200 intriguing objects: natural specimens, works of art, scientific instruments, and things that will definitely make you do a double-take.
The Bushnell Performing Arts Center
I was recently wowed by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Carmina Burana: Festival of Fate at The Bushnell. I sat near the back of the theater but still felt like I had a great seat. The center offers a variety of concerts, comedy shows and off-Broadway performances, and has programs that specifically cater to kids. Shows this summer include Broadway favorite The Lion King, the dance show Bring it! Live, and a music, poetry and comedy performance by Hot Chocolate Soul. Also of note: the center’s snack bar serves great baked goods and wine.
WEST HARTFORD: EAT HERE
West Hartford is a destination in itself. The large, pedestrian-friendly retail area has a toy shop, a great spice shop, a bunch of boutiques as well as chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Crate and Barrel. A huge statue of lexicographer and West Hartford native Noah Webster surveys the main drag. Restaurants open garage-style doors wide to bring the outside in, strings of lights brighten walkways, music floats on the air and many bars and eateries have outdoor seating. My husband and I have visited multiple restaurants in West Hartford and have been impressed with every one of them.
Here’s a look at three of them:
Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen
We have been to this family-friendly restaurant at least four times and it has never failed to impress. The menu draws inspiration from North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Turkey and Greece. From the mint-infused drinking water to the lamb kofta to the chicken schwarma pita, everything is excellent. Just bring me a whole globe artichoke and the market hummus with a pile of pitas and I will be a happy woman.
Barcelona Wine Bar
One look at the charcuterie and cheese board that arrived at our table and we knew we had chosen wisely. Our hospitable waiter kept a close eye on the pitcher of sangria and never let it run dry. This restaurant has a fun vibe and is a great place to share tapas plates with a group of friends. We tried a variety of menu items, which are influenced by the flavors of Mediterranean, Spanish and South American cuisine. Everything was so good.
Delicious French food, a casual, classy environment -- Avert was the perfect place for my husband and me to bring our college-age daughter to help ensure she’d love living in Connecticut. I’m pretty sure it worked. She was very happy with the roasted duck breast. I was equally pleased with the pork chop dish offered as a special that night. This place has an extensive wine list to complement all of the scrumptious food.
FUN THINGS FARTHER AFOOT:
If you have time during your road trip to venture outside of Hartford you’ll find plenty of interesting places nearby. Here are two destinations we’ve enjoyed:
Gillette Castle State Park, East Haddam
Perched above the Connecticut River is a craggy castle built by William Gillette, the creator of, and first actor to portray, the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes. Constructed over several years in the early 1900s, the 24-room, 14,000-square-foot fieldstone structure has a secret staircase, intricate hand-hewn wooden doors and locks, a hand-carved bar that opens with a secret latch and all sorts of other quirky attributes. Tours are self-guided, but there are volunteers throughout the house to fill you in on fun facts. The 184-acre park also has a picnic area, hiking trails, a small restaurant and a visitors’ center. You can camp there, too.
Talcott Mountain State Park, Simsbury
Stretch your legs with a hike to the Heublein Tower in Talcott Mountain State Park. The well used, 1.25-mile trail is steep in spots, but my husband and I saw many families with young children brave the incline. At the top, there’s more climbing if you’re up for it. Stairs lead to the top of a 165-foot-high tower that was once part of a historic home built by Gilbert Heublein, a food and beverage magnate who manufactured A1 Steak Sauce and Smirnoff Vodka. On the way up the tower, sightseers can tour furnished rooms in the historic residence. At the tower’s top, in what used to be the ballroom, visitors are rewarded with a 365-degree view of rolling hills, as well as a bird’s-eye view of Hartford. The grounds surrounding the tower have picnic tables for public use, so bring lunch along. (Photo by Kelly de la Rocha: The Heublein Tower at Talcott Mountain State Park, in Simsbury, offers a 365-degree view of the surrounding rolling hills and a bird's eye glimpse of the city of Hartford.)
Kelly de la Rocha is a former Gazette reporter and Glenville resident. She lives with her family in Farmington, CT. Reach her at [email protected]