Meet Me in the Middle: 18 Best Things to Do in Hartford CT

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One of the top things to do in Hartford CT; tour the Mark Twain House. Credit: Judy Antell

Hartford is a great Connecticut meeting point for people from New York City and Boston. About halfway between the two cities and in the middle of the state, Hartford has plenty of arts and cultural attractions and historic sites. This New England city is easy to get to, with several major highways converging and an Amtrak station. But to see all the things to do in Hartford, you’ll need a car, making it a super Northeast road trip pit stop.

The writer was hosted.

1. Mark Twain House House and Museum

The National Historic Landmark Mark Twain House, where the author lived and raised his family, is open by guided tour only. The huge house is testament to how popular a writer Twain was for a time, though he had to give up the mansion when his fortunes turned.

Although many of the furnishings are from the time period, and not the family’s actual possessions, you get a sense of how well Samuel Clemens lived. Of course – he lived here from 1874 to 1891, writing both The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The Mark Twain House & Museum is a very popular place for school trips, so come late in the day if you want to avoid large groups.

Gift shop items at the Harriet Beecher Stowe house in Hartford CT
Gifts for the budding abolitionist or feminist at the Harriet Beecher Stowe gift shop. Photo credit: Judy Antell

2. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

You can walk from the Twain house to here and explore 11 gardens around the property. In addition to writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin (at a different home), and her work as an  abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an avid gardener. The grounds are open for free, dawn to dusk year round. A Hartford DJ created a soundscape of music and words about race history. We sat on a bench and listened to it from our phones.

To see the National Historic Landmark Victorian Gothic style cottage where Stowe lived, you have to take a guided tour. The tour focuses on social issues, from treatment of women to slavery that resonate today.

SheBuysTravel Tip: I think the Mark Twain House is the top thing to do in Hartford, but if you are planning to see both the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center and the the Mark Twain House, go to Stowe Center first. Then show your receipt at the Mark Twain House to save $3 per ticket.

Downtown Hartford Things to Do

Exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
Exhibit at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Photo credit: Judy Antell

3. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

The museum, founded in 1842, is the oldest continuously-operating public art museum in the United States. Highlights include Greek and Roman antiquities, Surrealist paintings and  Impressionist artworks and the giant Cabinet of Art and Curiosity. The gloriously restored Gothic Revival building is also a huge draw. It’s one of the best places to visit in Connecticut.

If you are here with children, pick up the free family guide, based on Monet’s Water Lilies.

The Wadsworth Atheneum has a happy hour, with free admission  4–5pm Thursday–Sunday. This isn’t really enough time to see the huge collection, but it certainly is a great way to spend an hour.

Red crown-like sculpture in downtown Hartford.
See great art when you walk around downtown Hartford. Photo credit: Judy Antell

4. Outside Art and Architecture

The Wadsworth has placed world class sculpture around Hartford, so you can take a self-guided tour around downtown Hartford, to see all the sculptures. This is a great activity with kids (and restless adults). There are also many well preserved 19th century buildings with stained glass windows.

For kids, the Connecticut Science Center is one of the top tings to do in Hartford CT
Lear how roller coasters work at the Connecticut Science Center. Credit: Judy Antell

5.  Connecticut Science Center

This hands-on museum, walking distance from the Wadsworth, is another fantastic place to take the kids. The Connecticut Science Center has over 165 interactive exhibits, some of which appeal to adults and kids. Race on stationary bikes, learn how roller coasters work and get into a tornado with your friends.

We stayed at the Delamar West Hartford, which has a Family Fun & Learning package. It includes two tickets to the Connecticut Science Center, a plate of cookies in the room and a free cupcake at Taste by Spellbound.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Take advantage of free or low cost street parking in downtown Hartford. We parked next to The Wadsworth Atheneum for free – and walk the couple of blocks to the Connecticut Science Center. Then you don’t have to pay for the pricey garage.

6. Connecticut State Capitol

The Victorian Gothic State Capitol building offers free guided tours, weekdays between 9:15 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. You have to make a reservation here. You can also take a self-guided tour weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.

Fun fact: Hartford didn’t become the capital of Connecticut until 1873; before that, it was a co-capital of Connecticut with New Haven. When it got sole honors, it also got this glorious gold dome-topped 1878 building.

7. Connecticut Historical Society Museum

The Connecticut Historical Society Museum has exhibits on the history and culture of Connecticut.  A permanent, interactive exhibit, Making Connecticut, has over 500 historic objects. Visitors of all ages can try their hand at sewing, stenciling design and working a World War II assembly line. The museum is opening a hands-on Inspire Center that pays homage to a Connecticut inventor Curtis Veeder. The Inspire Center, opening in January 2023, will be open weekends only.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Plan a visit on the first Saturday a the month for Free First Saturdays admission.

8. The Old State House

A National Historic Landmark, the Old State House was home to all three branches of Connecticut state government from 1796 to 1878. You can see beautifully restored rooms and tour legislative chambers. The grounds are used for a Farmers Market and summer concert series on Fridays.

Things to Do Near Hartford

9. Noah Webster House

The birthplace of Noah Webster, this charming museum also houses the West Hartford Historical Society. The National Historic landmark has docent-led tours, or you can take a self-guided tour using one of the museum’s tablets. You learn about how Webster, a teacher, lawyer and abolitionist, also created the first American dictionary and the “Blue-Backed Speller.”

10. First Church of Christ, Congregational

Founded in 1713, this church in downtown West Hartford has been through many iterations. It now includes a library, memorial gardens and a labyrinth.

11. The Hill-Stead Museum

This historic estate, designed by one of the United States’ female architects, is filled with Impressionist art. To see the  Colonial Revival Hill-Stead Museum, you have to take a guided tour. You can also roam the beautiful grounds and walking trails – with your dog – for free.

12. The New Britain Museum of American Art

This museum, focusing on American art, has artworks from the Hudson River School, American Impressionists and Surrealists. There are 20th century sculptures and contemporary artists too.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Our hotel, The Delamar West Hartford, provided free admission.

Green Spaces: Outdoor Things to Do in Hartford, CT

Bushnell Park, one of the top things to do outdoors in Hartford
Take a free tour of Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch at Bushnell Park. Photo credit: Bushnell Park Foundation

13. Bushnell Park

Bushnell Park was the first public park in the United States to be conceived, built and paid for by citizens through a popular vote. But Hartford native Frederick Law Olmsted had to turn down a commission to design it since he was busy in my hometown, designing NYC’s Central Park.

The landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann, who was also a botanist, focused on natural elements instead of a traditional New England green. To this day, Bushnell Park has rare and native trees.

The park offers a variety of free programming throughout the year. Winterfest Hartford includes free ice skating AND free skate rentals.There are free tours of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch on Thursdays from 12-1:30pm, May through October. The arch honors the 4,000 Hartford citizens who served in the Civil War.

Don’t miss the vintage 1914 carousel. The Stein and Goldstein carousel features large horses with big heads and long teeth. You do have to pay to ride the carousel – except on Sundays during Winterfest.

Corning Fountain, by the way, is named for a different Corning than the Corning Glass family. The Corning Fountain namesake had a dry goods store on Main Street.

Ivy-draped gazebo at Elizabeth Park in Hartford.
Smell the roses in Elizabeth Park. Photo credit: Elizabeth Park Conservancy

14. Elizabeth Park

Elizabeth Park, on the National Register of Historic Places, appeals to kids and adults. This early public park has two playgrounds and athletic fields. The rose garden, the centerpiece of Elizabeth Park, has over 15,000 rose bushes and 800 varieties of old and new roses. In addition to the rose garden, the first municipal rose garden in the United States, Elizabeth Park has annual and perennial gardens, a tulip garden and another rose garden, specializing in heritage roses.

The Garmany Visitor Center has info about the park’s history. And bathrooms! There are also several greenhouses at Elizabeth Park.

15. Butler-McCook House & Garden

This the only 18th-century home remaining on Main Street in Hartford. You have to reserve a tour at least a week in advance. But you can always just see the restored Victorian ornamental garden behind the house.

Canoe view on the Connecticut River in Hartford.
Take a boat out on the Connecticut River. Photo credit: Metacomet Canoe and Kayak

16. Connecticut River

Besides walking, biking or running along the Connecticut River, you can  rent canoes or kayaks. Metacomet Canoe and Kayak offers guided tours or you can go out on your own. The boat launch is a few miles from downtown Hartford; you can paddle down to a park just outside downtown and they will pick you up.

Mortensen Riverfront Plaza has sculptures, boat cruises and a stage with seating for 2,500 people. This is something I’ll return to check out in warmer weather.

Read More: Go Luxe in Ritzy Greenwich CT

Woman posing with statue of Noah Webster in Hartford CT
This statue of Noah Webster dominates Blue Back Square. Photo credit: Judy Antell

17. Shop and Eat in the Blue Back Square Neighborhood

Along Farmington Avenue and Main Street you’ll find shopping, from independent shops to large chains like Crate & Barrel and Barnes & Noble. We found lovely gifts at Cookshop Plus, which also has a coffee bar inside, and Penzey’s Spices.

My friend and I feasted at Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen, which had plenty of vegetarian options for me and meat for her. We also ate fresh, spicy Thai food at Prai Kitchen. There are several breweries nearby, but we visited for Sunday to Tuesday, when most were closed. Ah well, another trip!

Woman's hand holding flute of champagne at Delamar Hotel in Hartford CT
This is how you check into a hotel – with a glass of bubbly! Thanks Delamar. Photo credit: Judy Antell

18. Stay in a Boutique Connecticut Hotel

The Delamar West Hartford is located in the Blue Back Square neighborhood. The boutique luxury hotel offers you a glass of champagne when you arrive, so time your visit accordingly.

Once you park your car (overnight parking is free, as is valet parking) you can walk into the downtown area. 

The hotel has special events like a visit with a therapy dog on Thursdays, free wine and cheese and archery lessons for kids on Wednesdays. The hotel has a large lawn so kids can run around and a fire pit for chilly evenings. There is a basket of games and books you can borrow. Since there were no performing arts shows when we visited, we played Scrabble.

Assorted games available to borrow while staying at the Delamar Hotel in Hartford
If you run out of things to do in Hartford, play some games at the Delamar. Photo credit: Judy Antell

The Delamar gym has a Peloton, along with other cardio machines and free weights. If you prefer to exercise outdoors, borrow the free mountain bikes and cycle around the West Hartford Reservoir or local trails.

The spa has a full array of facials and massages. I had a relaxing and restorative massage, perfect after winning (for my ages group, 60 – death) a 10K race the day before. If you smartly reserve an afternoon treatment, you get another glass of bubbly. There are also snacks and herbal teas.

Read More: The Top Hotels in Hartford CT

River view of downtown Hartford CT
River view of downtown Hartford. Photo credit: Judy Antell

Reasons to Return to Hartford

I’ll be heading back to Hartford because I didn’t get a chance to check out any of the performing arts venues in town. Here are some additional attractions:

  • The Museum of Connecticut History, a free museum
  • Bushnell Center, for Performing Arts, where the Hartford Symphony Orchestra plays
  • Hartford Stage, which has had shows transfer to Broadway
  • Touring the local breweries and distilleries
Judy Antell is an empty-nester mother of 3 who spends a lot of time visiting her daughters. Why don’t they live in Brooklyn? Judy and her husband love to travel, by bike, car, or plane, whether to see their kids or have friend or couple adventures, mostly centered around vegetarian food.
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