Do Hartford's nicknames, "The Insurance Capital of the World" and "Homicide Hartford," inspire travel? Perhaps not. But Connecticut's capital city has its fair share of appeal and offers plenty to do over a long weekend, especially if you're into history and the arts. World-famous authors called Hartford home, and the city can claim many firsts, as you'll soon see. Well-maintained public green spaces, a thriving performing arts scene, grinder sandwiches, and a change of scenery are calling your name.
The Connecticut State Capitol opened in 1878 in Bushnell Park. The Gothic architecture is unique, making for one of the most beautiful capitals in the nation, and yes, that's real gold leaf on the roof. On a free hour-long guided tour, you can see the Senate and House Chambers, 18th-century artifacts, and learn fun facts—for example, the great showman, PT Barnum, was a Connecticut legislator. Statues of Nathan Hale, William Buckingham, and other important figures hug the sides of the building.
In 1894, Charles M. Pond left his estate to the city of Hartford with one condition—it should be named in honor of his late wife. Elizabeth Park Conservancy had none other than Olmsted and Son do its landscaping, and Theodore Wirth created the oldest municipal rose garden in America. When the rose garden was deemed too expensive in the 1970s, the community banded together to keep it going. The result is a triumph in summer with hundreds of rose varieties. Walk or jog the dog-friendly trails, have a picnic, order a meal at the lovely pond restaurant, and admire the cherry trees, dahlias, and tulips in season.
After a five-year renovation ending in 2015, the country's oldest continually operating public art museum is more impressive than ever. You'll find 50,000 artworks within the castle-like building, including Ancient Egyptian bronzes, African American art, and pieces by Van Gogh and Monet. The collections are remarkable for their breadth while spotlighting New England creators, and the Wadsworth's Great Hall is stunning. Regional painters and sculptors like Frederic Church and Alexander Calder are represented, and landscapes by the Hudson River School get their due. The museum offers free admission at certain times of the week and an extensive array of public lectures.
The nine-story Connecticut Science Center opened in 2009 and is now a glassy landmark in the city with an S-shaped magic carpet roof. There's a focus on the youth, but grown-ups will benefit too from the dozens of engaging exhibits on different scientific topics. Between the Mummies of the World and forensic sections, Lego, and the butterfly garden, you're bound to find something attention-grabbing here, whatever your interests. Look for Liquid Lounge adult events on the calendar if you want to avoid kids.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, lived in Hartford for a time and wrote beloved books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn between 1874 and 1891. You can see the 19-room home where he penned these classics on a trip to the city—the architecture and interiors alone are worth a visit. Actors bring the Mark Twain House and Museum to life and share stories of the family and author, but it's best to pre-book a tour.
Connectcut's commercial history, politics, and military involvement come to the fore at this free museum. Samuel Colt was a Hartford resident, and Colt Firearms feature heavily, as do Civil War exhibits and a genealogy library. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on a table here, and Colt's wife sold weapons to fund some of the art in the Wadsworth Atheneum. The State Library and Supreme Court are in the same building.
Reverend Dr. Horace Bushnell wanted to give Hartfordians a green space, a notion that wasn't common at the time. In fact, Bushnell Park, near the Capitol in the heart of downtown, is the oldest publicly funded park in the States. Check its event calendar for concerts at the performance pavilion, or drop by for a calming walk by the Corning Fountain. The vintage carousel is a big draw; there's a skating rink in winter and a Jazz festival in July. Say hi to Horace the Heron at the pond—he isn't just named after the Reverend, but after Horace Wells as well, the dentist who pioneered using anesthetics during treatments.
You'll find TheaterWorks at Bushnell Towers & Plaza. It's a nonprofit professional theater company with an intimate theater seating 195 people and high-quality productions. The lobby and theater are post-renovation gorgeous, and there are no bad seats in the house. This is a cozy place to support the performing arts and stoke a passion for plays where excellent acting, directing, and live music come together.
Bushnell Performing Arts Center is Hartford's premier entertainment venue, AKA Bushnell Memorial Hall or The Bushnell. The Reverend is clearly a central figure in the town's history. Mortensen Hall seats 2,800 and has an Art Deco interior. Parking is accessible and free, which is a plus, but if you're tall, you'll need an aisle seat because legroom is in short supply, especially on the balcony.
Multiple generations of the Butler-McCook family lived at this house for about two centuries. If that weren't amazing enough, an exhibit showcasing the changes on Main Street over the years provides a fascinating perspective of the passage of time. Come and see the charming garden, colonial furniture, and Victorian toys, and learn about the house's former inhabitants.
Hundreds of thousands of items of interest fill the luxury home at 1 Elizabeth St. Fashion, fabrics, diaries, tools, books, and photos give visitors tremendous insight into life in the state in centuries gone by. You can also learn about the Quinnetukut, the Constitution State's indigenous people. Temporary exhibit topics have included "A History of Cleanliness," "Women and Needlework," and "Women's Basketball."
This Charles Bullfinch-designed public building in the Federal style was completed in 1796. A National Historic Landmark, you'll find the Joseph Steward Museum of Curiosities here with its taxidermy and narwhal's horn and a fabulous Friday farmers' market with live music out front.
Literature experts will know about an additional feather in Hartford's cap. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the antislavery book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and lived in the city for 23 years before she died in 1896. The author's former home is conveniently located next to Mark Twain House, and combo tickets will save you a few bucks. The two were friends and neighbors with a shared interest in social justice issues. Learn more about the writer and her bestsellers, including "American Woman's Home" at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, which is open daily.
History buffs have yet another stop on their extensive Hartford itineraries. Isham-Terry House was built in 1854 and bought by Dr. Oliver Isham in 1896. The Italianate mansion contains 15 rooms, stained glass windows, detailed woodwork, and rare items. It is open by appointment, and tours are less formal or structured than elsewhere.
Charter Oak Landing is well-known for its dock from which you can take a boat tour and idle on the river. Fishing is a possibility. But if that's not your cup of tea, how about birdwatching, feeding the birds on a stroll, taking the kids to the playground, or watching an outdoor movie?
Venture 40 minutes west to New Hartford, and you can hone your skiing and snowboarding skills at this resort. Beginners and intermediate skiers can learn the ropes and test their fledgling abilities. Ski Sundown is toddler-friendly and adaptive. The trails are lit for nighttime skiing, vary in difficulty, and go from bunny hills to double black diamond.
The Hartford Stage is on Church Street and presents premiers and revivals. It has 489 seats and knows how to put on a show. Special performances for hearing or visually-impaired folks make this theatre particularly inclusive, and events where audiences can chat with the cast after a performance are edifying.
Cabela's is an experience—it's an outdoor recreation retailer that doubles up as a tourist attraction. This East Hartford branch is the only one in southern New England. You'll come across an aquarium, an indoor mountain stuffed with taxidermy, an archery range, and a wildlife museum.
The Oyster Club is a treat. A farm-to-table restaurant with an enterprising duo, including the talented chef James Wayman, at the helm. Mystic is an hour from Hartford, so if you're in the mood for a day trip and inspired coastal cuisine, make a reservation. If you're hungry in Hartford proper, the city is known for giant grinder sandwiches. Try La Rosa's or Wethersfield Pizza House.
This is a top attraction in Connecticut—a small, under-the-radar gem for fine art lovers. It's the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to American art. The Chase building opened in 2015 and expanded the museum's collection. Look for Thomas Benton's "Arts of Life" murals.