12 Things To Do in Hartford, Connecticut

Last Updated on February 27, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Known as the insurance capital of the world, Hartford, Connecticut offers visitors much more than just policies and premiums. Located along the Connecticut River, it features a vibrant dining scene, cultural attractions, historic sites, sports, and outdoor adventures.

With its prime location in the center of the state, Hartford makes an excellent home base to explore the surrounding regions like the Litchfield Hills with their rolling hills, state parks, and small towns. Or head east along the coast to experience Connecticut’s beaches and seafood shacks.

But before venturing farther afield, get to know the city itself. Hartford rewards those who take the time with charming neighborhoods, innovative restaurants, and cultural landmarks.

Here are the 12 best things to do in Hartford to discover why residents love their city.

Explore Mark Twain’s Gothic Revival House

One of Hartford’s most famous residents, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, lived in the city from 1874-1891. His iconic Gothic Revival style house sits in its original location on land granted by the government in recognition of his literary achievements.

The museum features films, interactive exhibits, rare artifacts, and guided tours of the home itself. Wander through the rooms where Twain wrote classics like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Visitors can even see the entranceway and grand staircase that inspired the set designs for Broadway’s The Prince and the Pauper musical.

After exploring the home, guests can relax in the garden or browse the museum store filled with Twain-themed gifts and books for sale. The Mark Twain House provides the perfect introduction to Hartford’s impressive literary legacy.

Stroll Through Elizabeth Park & Rose Garden

Hartford boasts several spectacular green spaces but none as beloved as Elizabeth Park & Rose Garden. Though small in size, it packs a big punch when it comes to beauty and amenities. Visitors enter past a robust perennial garden exploding with bright blooms before encountering more formal spaces.

The centerpiece, of course, is the Rose Garden itself. Here visitors find over 15,000 bushes representing over 800 varieties of roses. Different sections feature different types, like old garden roses, hybrid tea roses, and miniature rose plants. Seasonal blooms occur continuously from June through late fall.

Several pleasant walking paths wind around small lakes and wooden footbridges past weeping willow trees. Pack a picnic lunch to eat alfresco on the Great Lawn. Sports lovers can play a game on the tennis courts or golf driving range. Before leaving, stop by the Pond House Café for a light meal on the patio.

See the City from Downtown Hartford’s Observation Deck

Get your bearings with a birds-eye view of Hartford from downtown’s free Observation Deck. Perched on the 31st floor of the Hartford 21 Apartment Building, it offers unobstructed 360-degree views of the city and Connecticut River below.

Visitors can pick out landmarks like the distinctive onion domes of the Ukrainian National Home of Hartford. Or gaze out at the foliage turning red and gold in autumn. Interpretive signs identify buildings and explain some history. It makes for the perfect place to start any walking tour of the city.

The Observation Deck is small and gets crowded during busy times. Weekday early mornings or evenings tend to be the least crowded. Prepare for tight squeezes with strollers or wheelchairs in the small elevator ride to the top.

Tour the Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses

What do Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe have in common? They both lived in Hartford in the late 1800s during the city’s peak as a literary powerhouse. The Twain House highlights life later in the famous author’s career. Meanwhile, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center focuses on the early years of the woman who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, one of the most impactful books of its time.

The center features Stowe’s home, including the parlor where she researched and wrote her influential novel. Interpretive exhibits chronicle her life from growing up in Hartford to becoming a prominent author and reformer. An African American Historic Site, it documents Stowe’s first-hand research into slavery’s cruelties and her work supporting freed slaves.

Visitors should allot time to explore both homes for a complete picture of two 19th century lives dedicated to using words to change society. Convenient combination tickets allow easy access to the Twain House, Stowe Center, plus two other local museums.

See the Stars at the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts

Since its doors first opened in 1930, the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts has hosted legendary stars, Broadway musicals, orchestras, and much more. Its Mediterranean Revival style building boasts one of the top venues on the East Coast in terms of size, amenities, performers hosted, and architectural beauty.

The Mortensen Hall main stage presents touring musicals direct from New York like Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen. Meanwhile, the intimate Belding Theater books special engagements by famous musicians and comedians. Other facilities like the jazz club Café and Terrace attract rising talents.

Local performing groups like the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, Connecticut Opera, and Hartford Chorale all call it home for seasons filled with dazzling concerts. Special student matinees and events like “Classical Kids” introduce young audiences to the magic of live performance.

With its stunning looks and star-studded seasons, the Bushnell Center shines as one of Hartford’s most treasured institutions. The variety ensures appealing options for arts lovers of all kinds to enjoy.

Explore Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

As the oldest continuously operating art museum in the country, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art makes visitors feel as if they’ve entered a Renaissance palace. Its Gothic Revival architecture certainly looks the part on the outside. Inside, a world-renowned collection spanning 5,000 years transports guests across time and around the globe.

The breadth and depth of pieces befits the museum’s august history. Highlights include early American furniture, sculptures by Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Surrealist canvases by Salvador Dali, and decorative arts from imperial China. Recent years brought renovations and additions to provide an exceptional platform for its treasures.

Don’t miss seeing five paintings showcasing different periods by Picasso or the new Quiet Skies multimedia installation under the central Morgan Great Hall. Special exhibitions and events occur year-round as well. Conveniently located next to the Connecticut Science Center, the Wadsworth completes a full day immersed in art and science.

Catch a Show at the Bushnell Park Carousel

Riding a gloriously decorated merry-go-round while surrounded by rose gardens seems like something from the Victorian past. Yet that nostalgic experience comes to life at downtown’s Bushnell Park Carousel.

Its 48 intricately carved horses and other animals date back to 1914, when the carousel delighted Crescent Park patrons. Now restored to its jewel-toned and gold-leaf glory, families once again flock here. Visitors can admire the carousel artistry for free or purchase tickets to enjoy a ride, with proceeds going toward its upkeep.

The city hosts special events at the carousel like outdoor movies nights where families can ride before settling in with popcorn on the lawn. Live music performances allow riders to spin to the sounds of jazz bands or rock groups. For a sweet treat, grab an ice cream from the on-site parlor to enjoy after going round and round on this national historic treasure.

Explore Connecticut Science Center

The Connecticut Science Center makes discovering STEM subjects fun and engaging for all ages. This dynamic museum offers 150+ hands-on exhibits spread out over nine galleries. Popular spaces like KidSpace invite little ones to play and learn with water tables, climbing structures, and more sensory focused stations. Older kids gravitate towards the mock crime lab to analyze evidence or engineering areas to construct contraptions.

Interactive displays throughout cover topics like forensics, space exploration, sports science, health, and Maker studios. Traveling blockbuster exhibits visit too, previously featuring subjects like dinosaurs or mummies of Egypt’s pharaohs. Films at the 3D theater provide an extra immersive scientific adventure. Special events like 21+ evening socials add grown-up science fun to the center’s stellar offerings.

With dynamic exhibits, special programming, and seasonal camps, the Connecticut Science Center fires up imaginations about science and all its possibilities. It anchors an entire district dedicated to sparking innovation known as Hartford’s Front Street.

Tour Historic Houses & Museums

In addition to the Mark Twain House and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, several other excellent historic homes and specialty museums exist around Hartford proper. Architecture buffs relish seeing the Isham-Terry House with its 16 rooms of Victorian style or the Butler-McCook House filled with family heirlooms. The American School for the Deaf Museum traces groundbreaking history in special education needs.

Meanwhile, military history comes alive at the campus of the Governor’s Foot and Horse Guard. Living historians reenact Colonial through Civil War era drills and camp life weekends from April through October. Sports fans shouldn’t miss a trip to the National Hockey League’s Hall of Fame showcasing hockey memorabilia and the United State Golf Association Museum featuring centuries worth of equipment and photos.

From author’s legacies to battles to beloved American pastimes, Hartford’s unique museums enlighten visitors on special interests past and present. Excellent combination deals make visiting several easy and affordable.

Cheer on the Hartford Yard Goats at Dunkin’ Donuts Park

Since moving into their custom downtown stadium in 2017, the Hartford Yard Goats minor league baseball team has been bringing families fun in the stands. Affordable tickets make catching a game possible for all budgets. Promotions like Thirsty Thursdays with beer specials or Sunday Family Fun Days featuring player meet and greets keep things exciting.

Not only is watching baseball here an excellent Hartford experience, but the stadium itself appeals to senses of whimsy. Its name comes courtesy of corporate sponsorship by a certain coffee and donuts shop. Look for giant steaming coffee cup sculptures and larger-than-life donut creations sprinkled around the park.

The downtown location nestled into Hartford’s lively Front Street dining and entertainment area makes for easy pre and post-game activities. Arrive early to wander the lively streets or linger after for dinner. A night out cheering for the hometown team becomes a whole evening’s adventure.

Shop and Dine on Pratt, Trumbull, and Farmington Streets

Downtown Hartford hosts a walkable district perfect for whiling away an afternoon shopping and dining. Known as Pratt, Trumbull, and Farmington Streets, the connected roads feature boutiques, salons, cafes, and restaurants in both historic buildings and newer sleek structures.

Shopaholics love browsing local outposts like Penny Lane Homemade Foods stocked with Connecticut made jams, honey, maple syrup and more. Meanwhile, Spruce Home & Gift carries stylish home goods and accessories. Zagara’s Marketplace impresses foodies with gourmet packaged items perfect for gifts or personal pantries.

When hunger strikes, Hartford’s dining scene offers almost too many tempting options. Family-owned Sorella continues serving sublime Italian fare in sleek digs after over four decades in business. Trendy newcomer The Russell draws cosmopolitan crowds craving small plates and craft cocktails inside its chic industrial space. And regional favorite Bear’s Smokehouse BBQ plates up melt-in-your-mouth brisket, ribs, and more smoked meats.

Whether shopping for local keepsakes, ingredients for a gourmet picnic, or just drinks and dinner, downtown Hartford’s walkable district delights. Don’t forget to gaze up at the impressive architecture too as you go from storefront to storefront.

Explore Riverfront RecPlex

Hartford transformed tired industrial land along the Connecticut River into a recreational showpiece known as Riverfront RecPlex. Everything from playgrounds to a skate park to an inflatable water park means waterfront fun for all ages. Rent bikes or grab your own to traverse the scenic East Coast Greenway hiking and biking trail running right through the facilities.

The park contains dedicated areas perfect for picnics, family reunions, company outings, and more gatherings looking to relax and play. Practice your swing at the mini-golf course or cheer on players in sand volleyball. Let kids burn off steam climbing the multi-level structures while parents read under shady pergolas. Cool down lazily tubing down the lazy river encircling the inflatable floating playground.

Riverfront RecPlex takes full advantage of its riverside location with scenic lookout points, boat slips and plenty of space to cast fishing lines. Free community events like outdoor movies or festivals happen throughout warmer months too. See a new side of Hartford while having fun by the water.

Conclusion

With its revitalized neighborhoods, charming New England character and wealth of cultural attractions, Hartford offers plenty for visitors to experience. Excellent dining and craft breweries reward after days spent in museums or exploring outdoor trails. Catch a show downtown before toasting a minor league baseball win or cheering on a hockey legend at the city’s shrines to the arts and athletics.

By the banks of the Connecticut River, Hartford continues growing into one of New England’s most welcoming and entertaining urban destinations. Use this list of top things to do get to know this historic yet innovating capital even better on your next visit.

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