Thanks to its reputation, many assume stereotypically wealthy Connecticut is lacking in the cheap and free things to do department.
But that’s far from the truth, regardless of where in the state you are.
Much of this list of free things to do in CT I discovered during the Covid pandemic.
Free things to do in Connecticut during Covid
During the pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020, almost anything free and outdoors was fair game.
Major exceptions were state parks, though hiking in state forests were still open to the few who know of them.
Even after the lockdown was lifted in Connecticut, money remained tight. As such, free stuff remained the way to go, either indoors or outdoors.
50 of the best free things to do in CT
So, ready for a whirlwind tour of Connecticut for cheapskates, from its shoreline up to the mountains of Litchfield?
Read on for our list of top free things to do in Connecticut.
Free things to do in southern Connecticut
The term “southern Connecticut” is a tad confusing.
How does one decide what is “southern” in a rectangular state, smaller than 6,000 square acres?
Whatever you want it to be.
I decided that any towns touching the Connecticut shoreline is Southern Connecticut for the sake of this article.
And to quote RuPaul, “My show, my rules.”
Free things to do on the Connecticut shoreline
With more than 332 miles of shore, Connecticut’s coastline offers plenty of opportunities to explore.
Starting from our hometown of Greenwich, and heading eastward all the way to Stonington on the border of Rhode Island:
3 top free things to do in Greenwich, CT
What journalists call the hedge fund capital of America is known for the wealth of its citizens.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t plan an entire weekend getaway here without spending much money.
Especially if you’re into window shopping, long walks on the beach, and hiking in the woods, it can be a paradise without blowing too much cash.
Downtown Greenwich was once a small, provincial borough that has grown into a cosmopolitan shopping destination to rival others throughout the country.
Many visitors compare the Greenwich Avenue shopping district to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California. I think another comparable shopping main street would be King Street of Charleston, South Carolina.
Many shoppers come to spend fortunes at the elegant clothing boutiques, jewelry stores, and other luxury brands. That doesn’t mean you’re obligated to do so, window shopping is always free on our beautiful main street.
Greenwich Point Park
Jutting out into Long Island Sound from the Old Greenwich neighborhood is Greenwich Point Park. Locals know it better as Tod’s Point, after the wealthy industrialist who first filled-in a swampy cluster of islands to create the peninsula.
Greenwich Point Park is definitely the best of the beaches in Greenwich, and one of the most beautiful on the Connecticut coast.
That said, it’s not free to visit year-round.
During the height of the summer season, only Greenwich residents and non-residents willing to pay for hefty beach passes get to step foot on the park.
Come winter, though, it becomes one of the best free things to do in Connecticut in the winter.
It makes the list because a walk along the trails of Greenwich Point Park is a splendid winter activity.
Be sure to walk to the southwestern-most edge of the park to see a sweeping view of the distant New York City skyline on a clear day.
Free hiking trails
After living elsewhere for much of my twenties, I came to appreciate Connecticut for the fact that you can go from the beach to uphill hiking within an hour.
Not many other states can claim that!
And there are a ton of hiking trails near Greenwich, Connecticut. A few personal free favorites include:
- Mianus River Park
- Devil’s Den Preserve
- Mianus River Gorge Preserve
Free things to do in Stamford, Connecticut
There are a couple options as far as free things to do in Stamford, the city next door to Greenwich. Aside from walking around the downtown, a few other free activities in Stamford include:
This park with varied terrain in a manageable space, is only a little over 90 acres. Going for a hike at Bartlett Arboretum is especially pretty in the fall, but any season is lovely.
Soundwaters Coastal Education Center
While nowhere near as famous as the Maritime Center or Mystic Aquarium, this place is impressive as far as free attractions go.
Situated in Cove Island Park, close to the Sound it is focused on studying, Soundwaters Coastal Education Center is home to hundreds of species native to the surrounding coastal habitats.
Afterwards, wander through the larger ecosystems throughout Cove Island Park.
Be warned that parking can be a pain at Cove Island, especially in the summer months.
Free things to do in Westport & Wilton, CT
Drive up the Connecticut coast from Greenwich and Stamford to reach Westport and its inland neighbor, Wilton.
Walking through the two downtowns of these top picks for cute towns in Connecticut is a great free activity, but there are other free attractions here, as well.
The Observatory at the Westport Astronomical Society
The history of this observatory is just as interesting as the night sky.
The Observatory at the Westport Astronomical Society is housed in a former Nike radar site. The Federal government built these sites around major cities throughout the United States during the Cold War. The purpose of this site, in common with others, was to both detect a Soviet strike earlier and provide anti-aircraft defense protection.
The US Army demolished the missile silo before selling the property to the town of Westport, but many of the former base’s buildings remain.
One of which is the former radar pedestal that the Astronomical Society uses as support for their 12.5-inch Newtonian telescope.
They also regularly host a 25-inch Obsession telescope on the lawn, which they bill as “the largest in Connecticut available to the public.”
The Society opens their observatory to casual observers every Wednesday for free from 8 to 10pm for viewing the skies.
Even if you’re not a huge astronomy nerd, star gazing is one of the most (free) romantic things to do in Connecticut at night.
Weir Farm National Historic Site
Head inland from Westport, or along Route 7 and the Norwalk River from Norwalk to get to Wilton.
This cute little town is most famous for the Weir Farm National Historic Site.
This was the summer home of Impressionist painter Julian Alden Weir. Today, this 60-acre site is the only national park dedicated to painting, as an important site for the American Impressionist art movement.
The landscape here has inspired painters for over a century, and you’re welcome to explore the grounds for free to understand why.
While much of the former open fields have since filled-in with trees, it’s still a beautiful place to hike after taking the brief 30-minute tour of the house. And depending on when you’re visiting, bring a picnic to enjoy on one of the well-maintained lawns.
There are even free art supplies for those who are so inspired by the surrounding scenery.
Free things to do in New Haven, Connecticut
At about the middle point of the Connecticut coast between Greenwich and Stonington sits New Haven.
This city is most famous for the very prestigious university that occupies a large portion of its downtown: Yale University.
And the university hosts a large number of the best free things to do in New Haven.
In fact, the list of free activities here is a bit long.
How to manage it all?
With a walking tour!
Walking from the first point on the list, close to New Haven’s Union Station and where I-91 meets I-95, you could walk to or through every attraction on this list in about an hour and 20 minutes.
But you wouldn’t be able to stop anywhere, and you’d be pretty tired by the end after walking up a massive hill.
But walking is the most free way to get around, so up to you.
Knights of Columbus Museum
Compared to the museums of Yale University, visitors often overlook the Knights of Columbus Museum.
But this architecturally striking modern structure hosts both the museum and the headquarters of America’s largest Catholic fraternal organization. As befits the theme, much of the exhibition space is devoted to the history of Roman Catholicism in America.
A display of creches and nativity scenes from around the world is an annual holiday tradition here.
And with free parking as well as free admission, why not pass a few pleasant hours here?
The Center Church-on-the-Green
Walk into downtown New Haven for about 10 minutes to reach New Haven’s City Green.
In the middle of the Green sits the Center Church.
This United Church of Christ religious site was built in 1813. Church members often offer free tours to show some of the more interesting parts of the building, including:
- Inventor of the cotton gin Eli Whitney’s family pew
- A Tiffany stained glass window
- Working pipe organ and harpsichord
But the most interesting point of this church is what’s underneath.
The congregation built this church over New Haven’s oldest burial ground. Rather than move the remains or gravestones, the church’s crypt was built to hold and protect the area.
And this crypt is now one of the best preserved in New England. Dates on the gravestones stretch from 1687 to 1812 and feature names of the area’s founders and earliest citizens. Some notable names include:
- President Rutherford Hayes’ family
- Benedict Arnold’s first wife (not the one who pushed him to betray America)
- Reverend James Pierpont, one of Yale College’s founders
While the jury’s still out on whether this is one of the most haunted places in CT, it’s one of the most interesting.
Yale University Art Gallery
Walk for about 6 minutes along Chapel Street to hit the next free New Haven attraction.
The Yale University Art Gallery is the oldest college art museum in America. It has grown from its founding to become a world-class art museum that easily competes with collections in New York City and Boston.
The Gallery holds 250,000 objets d’art that span human history and across the globe. The museum is especially notable for its ancient Greek and Roman artifacts, African art, and early Italian Renaissance paintings. That said, its collection of contemporary and modern art includes such heavy hitters as Miró, Basquiat, Picasso, Degas, and Rothko.
Even the architecture is a marvel. The Yale University Art Gallery stretches across a block and a half in three buildings, each of a distinctly different architectural style. Visitors enter the modern marvel designed by Louis Kahn in 1953.
And it’s seriously free!
Yale Center for British Art
If you haven’t, somehow, developed museum fatigue from the last free attraction, walk across the street to the Yale Center for British Art.
The Yale archives basically realized that the Yale University Art Gallery was too much in one building, so they took the largest single collection and put it across Chapel Street.
And this collection is massive. The Yale Center for British Art holds the largest collection of British art anywhere outside of the United Kingdom.
While one former guest complained that this museum was just “a never-ending parade of ship paintings”, there is more than that here.
Three hours could get you through almost all of this collection of many of the greatest British artists of the 18th and 19th centuries.
There are plenty of landscapes, portraits, and paintings of ships.
And this New Haven, Connecticut museum is also free, though neither this, nor the Yale University Art Gallery, is open on Mondays.
Yale University Campus
While walking between all the amazing free museums hosted by Yale University, be sure to admire the campus itself.
The Old Campus Courtyard hosts one of the oldest academic buildings in continuous use in America.
And the entire campus of one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in America was designed to match the historic grandeur of the even older universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
In fact, the builders poured acid down the stone walls of the buildings after they finished construction to make them look older. The acid quickly degraded the mortar holding the stones in place, and within a short span of time, the buildings started to shed stones onto the sidewalks below.
The second time around, the builders left nature alone to do the weathering for them.
Yalies were almost called Dummies, but were saved by a large donation from a wealthy local merchant of the name Yale.
How do I know all this? By taking the campus tour, full of Yale history and campus myths. Yale University offers them for free.
When there isn’t a pandemic going on, anyway.
The campus, with its varied architecture and mature trees, is beautiful at night and during the day. The carillon bell ringing at 6 and 7 pm is beautiful and adds to the European charm of the experience.
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
This building is a true marvel, built in 1962.
It is the largest building in the world dedicated to the collection and preservation of rare manuscripts and books.
And while the collection is awe-inspiring, it is the building itself that leads visitors to describe this as a magical place. To help preserve the collection, the building is covered with translucent marble to keep harsh light from damaging the materials. And when those marble windows are lit well enough to illuminate the interior, the sight is spectacular to behold.
The oldest printed item in the collection is a Gutenberg Bible. It’s one of only 48 known surviving examples, printed approximately in 1454. John James Audubon’s Birds of America collection is also a major draw. Both are on display in the mezzanine of the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
The most curious item in the collection, however, is not. The mysterious Voynich Manuscript, also known by its call number, Beinecke MS 408, continues to intrigue visitors.
This manuscript is named for the book dealer who purchased it in 1912, but its origins are a mystery.
The book was donated to Yale’s collection in 1969. And to this day, scholars and code-breakers continue to attempt to understand the riddles and mysteries of the manuscript. The manuscript is written entirely in a strange and likely fictional language and elaborately decorated with symbols and illustrations of fanciful plant life.
While the Voynich Manuscript is not on display, a facsimile is by the front desk.
You too can play Indiana Jones when you visit this library, for free.
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
A 15-minute walk will bring you to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
The exterior of this natural history museum looks like a cathedral, which contributes to an understanding of why this institution is called “the Sistine Chapel of Evolution.”
The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. The museum largely started as a gem collection, but has since expanded into one of the most influential museums and research organizations in the world.
The most famous room in the museum, and my personal favorite as a kid, is The Great Hall of Dinosaurs. This awe-inspiring room features a mounted skeleton of a young 110-foot Brontosaurus. It also contains reconstructed skeletons of:
And on the wall is the famous mural The Age of Reptiles by Rudolph Zallinger.
In fact, the Peabody Museum has one of the largest and historically important fossil collections in America, partly thanks to Othniel Charles Marsh’s part in the Bone Wars.
Other major collections include:
- Incan artifacts from Machu Picchu, the famous Peruvian ruins discovered by a Yale archeologist
- One of the largest and most taxonomically complete collections of birds in the world
The museum also has permanent exhibitions dedicated to mammal and human evolution, Egyptian artifacts, wildlife dioramas, and Native Americans of Connecticut.
But there’s a catch.
The Yale Peabody Museum is only free to visitors between 2 and 5 pm on Thursday afternoons from September through June.
And it’s currently closed for a major renovation as of 2020.
But once it reopens, it will be worth the visit. Its collection has even come full-circle, with a new multimillion-dollar gem hall.
East Rock Park
Walk 40 minutes, mostly uphill, to get to the final destination on this walking tour, East Rock Park.
A bike ride up could be strenuous, but pretty.
Or just drive.
But however you get here, you’ll enjoy the view at the top once you are there.
All of New Haven to the harbor and Long Island Sound stretches out below East Rock Park.
And sitting here to watch the sunset as birds cavort in the gathering gloom of dusk puts East Rock Park high on the list of free romantic things to do in CT for couples.
The park also features hiking trails, and one of the most impressive military monuments in the country in the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial.
Elm Shakespeare Co.
Of course the city hosting some of the most prestigious institutions in America would host free Shakespeare performances.
And so the Elm City does.
The Elm Shakespeare Company hosts Shakespeare in the Park every summer at Edgerton Park in New Haven.
Bring a blanket and a picnic so you can stake a claim on the lawn early with a great view of the stage and enjoy the magic of Shakespeare, all for free.
International Festival of Arts & Ideas
The largest arts and culture festival in Connecticut is an annual fixture in New Haven.
For a few weeks in June, some of the brightest artists, writers, and thinkers of the world descend on the city. While many programs of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas charge admission fees, many more are free to the public, including the free concerts on the New Haven Green.
Free things to do near New Haven, CT
Once you’ve finished enjoying the overwhelming amount of free things to do in New Haven, there’s still more to explore in surrounding towns.
Silver Sands State Park in Milford, Connecticut
In a state where waterfront mansions sell for millions of dollars, and towns battle in court to keep their beach access limited, it’s amazing there are still free beaches.
But Silver Sands State Park is free to the public, for now.
A nice boardwalk hugs the beach from here to Walnut Beach, another neighborhood in Milford.
And the beach is a gorgeous place to watch the sunrise or sunset, regardless of the time of year.
Charles Island sits just off the coast of Silver Sands. Legend has it that Captain Kidd left a buried treasure behind, though no one has ever found it.
If you’re feeling lucky, you can walk out to the island at low-tide to search for treasure. Be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to get back before the bridge gets covered by water again. Also, stay away from the interior of the island in the summer, when it’s home to heron and egret breeding rookeries.
The state has a planned $10 million project to add a concession stand, bathrooms, improve parking, and implement a parking fee. Many residents oppose it, but you may need to hurry to enjoy the park while it’s still free.
Osbornedale State Park in Derby, CT
Osborndale is a 417-acre park sprawling along the east bank of the Housatonic River.
The park is named after Osborndale, a Colonial Revival House on the National Register of Historic Places. American industrialist, philanthropist, and dairy farmer Frances Osborne Kellogg lived and raised award-winning Holstein cattle here.
Before her Holstein and Jersey cow farming operations, the site was mined for silver in the post-Revolutionary War period, and used as a site to bottle spring water.
After Ms Kellogg willed the property to the people of Connecticut in 1956, it has become a recreation site. Visitors can come to Osbornedale State Park for free to enjoy:
- Ice skating
- Educational programs at the Kellogg Environmental Center
Sleeping Giant State Park in Hamden, Connecticut
This park just north of New Haven is a great weekend hiking trip, especially during the Connecticut fall foliage season.
The trails can get busy and parking is limited, but you can park on the street.
The easy trail is about a 45-minute walk, one way, over a trail that includes stretches of gravel and rocks.
Once you get to the top, you can check out the view from the observation tower, have a snack, and snap a couple pictures.
Hubbard Park & Castle Craig in Meriden, CT
Castle Craig is one of the more intriguing towers in a state full of towers built on hills.
I didn’t realize how many are in Connecticut until exploring the state during the Covid pandemic.
Castle Craig, perched on a cliff overlooking Meriden, looks like it’s all that’s left of the ruins of some long forgotten fortress.
In reality, it and the park surrounding it was a wealthy man’s gift to the city below.
A brief history of Hubbard Park
Walter Hubbard, a wealthy industrialist, commissioned the tower with a design inspired by his extensive travels. Visitors see a medieval Turkish tower, others see French Norman influence. It looked more like an ancient Scottish ruin to me, but the design is a mystery to everyone.
Not only did Mr. Hubbard build this tower on a hill, he also hired the Olmsted Brothers, the sons of the man who designed Central Park in Manhattan, to lay out the design of the park below.
Once the work was completed, Walter Hubbard donated the entire property, tower and all, to the city of Meriden in the early 20th century.
What you’ll find at Hubbard Park
The base of the hill features a manicured park where locals come to get their photos. Further in, the terrain gets wilder and includes a large pond and dense forest.
There are several hiking trails of varying difficulty, the white-marked one leads up to Castle Craig. The final few hundred feet ascent are a steep scramble over rocks, but it’s well worth the view.
You can also walk on the road that loops around the pond and up the hill. That road is open to cars in the summer months, but you have it to yourself once they close it to vehicles after October ends. The walk takes longer, but it’s more relaxed and a much gentler slope.
A few words of warning for this free attraction in Meriden:
There are no restrooms or water fountains at the top of the hill, so plan accordingly.
In addition, there are very few barriers separating you and a straight drop down the side of a cliff at the top. So use your common sense and don’t become the reason that the city of Meriden feels obligated to erect barriers partially blocking the view for everyone that visits after you.
Free things to do in Mystic, Connecticut
Head due East from New Haven to reach Connecticut’s most popular tourist destination: Mystic, Connecticut.
Thousands of people can visit this quaint little town on any given day in the summer. Many of its most popular attractions are not cheap: Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium being top activities.
But all is not lost! There are plenty of free things to do in Mystic.
Mystic River Bascule Bridge
Dividing one stretch of Mystic’s cute downtown from the other is the Mystic River, the namesake of the town.
And providing passage across is the Bascule Bridge of Mystic River.
A bascule bridge is a fancy word for a drawbridge. It’s a moveable bridge that uses a counterweight to balance a span with an upward swing so that boat traffic can pass underneath.
The most famous bascule bridge is the Tower Bridge in London. The second most famous one is in Mystic.
Summer months are ideal, when the amount of boat traffic passing through keeps the bridge moving at least once an hour.
Historic Downtown Mystic
Speaking of which, walking around downtown Mystic is another delightful, and free, experience.
If you’ve already dropped a lot of money at Mystic Seaport, you can easily follow the river down to Long Island Sound.
In the warm months, Mystic is a charming and busy little town straddling the mouth of the river. It’s full of shops and restaurants, and even a few historic inns.
Even if you’re not interested in spending money, a stroll among the calm pedestrian traffic is pleasant for admiring the historic architecture lining Main Street. And the beautiful historic homes along the residential streets, especially the Stonington side of town, warrant at least a few photos, especially with the glistening water behind them on a clear day.
Olde Mistick Village
A 42-minute walk (or 6-minute drive) from downtown Mystic is a New England style tourist trap.
Not casting aspersions, it is quite charming.
Olde Mistick Village is an outdoor mall constructed to look like an 18th-century village. The complex of 60 small shops and many eateries are right next to Mystic Aquarium.
Walking around and looking in the various shops is another pleasant and free way to spend an afternoon.
Small boutiques scattered around the village offer such visual delights as accoutrements from Ireland or the Himalayas, Christmas decorations, and even handmade jewelry.
My strongest memory from any childhood trip anywhere in New England was the fudge at some old-timey General Store.
And Franklin’s General Store offers that, plus the many unexpected items you’ll find in a typical general store.
Don’t forget that looking and smelling is free.
A 10-minute drive from downtown Mystic will bring you somewhere that feels a world away.
Enders Island is one of those hidden, unique, treasures of Connecticut.
Like many public and semi-public spaces in Connecticut, Enders Island was a private estate with an Arts and Crafts style mansion at the center.
The final private owner willed the island to the Catholic Society of St Edmund, who continue to occupy the space and host a retreat center and art school.
The outdoor spaces are open to the public for quiet reflection. The garden paths throughout the property are still marked with the imported Italian tiles from when the Enders owned the island.
And displayed in the chapel is a throwback from the Middle Ages.
The Society of the Fathers and Brothers of Saint Edmund have been responsible for the relics of their namesake since the 19th century. The Edmundites were evicted from France in 1903 due to “government anti-clericalism”. They first relocated to England, then settled in Mystic, all the while carrying the severed arm of Saint Edmund.
The shriveled, blackened arm of Saint Edmund resides in an oblong glass container in the Chapel of Our Lady of Assumption on the island.
Free things to do near Mystic, CT
Once you’ve explored Mystic, there are even more free attractions in the surrounding Connecticut beach towns.
Head east from Mystic towards the Rhode Island border to find the historic town of Stonington.
The downtown of this old whaling town is charming and well worth wandering through for the day. The homes are clustered close together, with barely space between them for small alley gardens, in some cases.
A writer described this town as a piece of Nantucket, swept to shore. And between its cute shops, gorgeous views of the harbor, and quaint touches like having Connecticut’s last fishing fleet docking here, it’s easy to understand the reference.
Submarine Force Library & Museum in Groton, CT
During the Cold War, Connecticut was the center of nuclear submarine construction.
The first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus, was completed in Groton in the 1950s. And it instantly became the fastest and most powerful underwater vessel in the world up to that point.
Over its 25-year career, the Nautilus traveled half a million miles on missions across the world, including up to the North Pole. It was parked by the Submarine Force Library & Museum after its decommissioning in 1986.
Visitors to the museum, the only one operated by the US Navy, can get below deck of the Nautilus and learn about the operations of staying underwater for months without coming to the surface.
You’ll also get a feel for the tight quarters these sailors tolerated for months on end.
While the Nautilus is the centerpiece of the museum, there is also a fantastic collection of artifacts tracing the history of submarines from the Turtle, designed by Connecticut inventor David Bushnell and used during the Revolutionary War, to the present day.
Bluff Point State Park in Groton, Connecticut
This 800-acre park near the Groton-New London airport is ideal for hiking or walking.
The main loop trail includes plenty of turn-offs to admire the ocean views, or sit and have a picnic lunch. The main beach is not a major draw, as it’s mostly rocks and seashells. But that means that this free attraction is not often busy.
Connecticut College Arboretum in New London, CT
To the north of the city of New London sits one of the largest arboretums in Connecticut.
The Connecticut College Arboretum started as a 64-acre tract of mature hemlock trees in 1934, and has since expanded to 750 acres of diverse landscape. All to help visitors better understand the botanical world.
The Caroline Black Garden is a five-acre garden of native and exotic ornamental woody plants first established in the 1920s. The Native Plant Collection is 30-acres of plants indigenous to Eastern North America, while 120 acres of woods and shrubs from around the world make up the Campus Landscape.
Keep your eyes open for views of the Thames River and Long Island Sound.
And be sure to bring strong bug spray in the summer months, just in case.
Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Connecticut
Next, drive south from the Arboretum through New London towards Goshen Point.
Harkness Memorial State Park sits on the furthest south tip of the broad peninsula jutting down from New London.
Eolia, the mansion on-site built by the Harkness family in 1906 as a summer home, is ornate and lovely. But the almost panoramic views of the Sound from the house are even more impressive. And the surrounding gardens, lawns, and grounds are worth exploring.
In fact, much of the park offers gorgeous views of the Sound, especially on a sunny, bright day.
There are plenty of photo opportunities for the aspiring, or professional, photographer throughout the gardens.
But there’s a catch.
While parking is free for Connecticut residents, the charge is $15 for out-of-state license plates. But if you bring a picnic or barbecue and spend the day, it’s well worth it.
Downtown Essex, CT
Essex is one of the few American towns to ever be attacked and burned to the ground by enemy forces.
But Essex rebuilt after the War of 1812, and built back better to create the adorable town it is today.
Walking around Essex, visiting the cute shops, and admiring historically significant spots like one of the oldest continuously-operated taverns in America, is all free to do.
And a delight anytime of year.
Be sure to check out one of the towns that inspired the fictional town Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls.
Free things to do in Danbury, Connecticut, and nearby
John Oliver may not be a huge fan of Danbury, but he will allow that one of the free things to do on this list is worth a visit.
Perhaps we’ll someday add The John Oliver Memorial Sewer Plant in Danbury to this list of free things to do in Connecticut.
Though I doubt it.
Tarrywile Park in Danbury, CT
Locals more often associate this idyllic park and its restored mansion with picture-perfect weddings and other events.
But a lake, two ponds, multiple picnic areas, and 21 miles of hiking trails also await at this 722-acre municipal park.
But in a state full of castles and castle-like towers, Hearthstone Castle is the most romantic.
New York photographer E. Starr Sanford first treated Tarrywile Park as his summer retreat.
He built the castle between 1896 and 1899 to have 16 rooms, including:
- A library
- Billiard room
- Nine bedrooms
- Eight fireplace hearths
While the exterior was made from local stone, the wood was largely imported from Italy. Some of the wood still survives on the building’s veranda.
After Danbury acquired the estate as a municipal park, the once grand Hearthstone Castle declined gracefully. The ruins of the castle are now ensconced in the woods, as if from a fairy tale.
As of 2016, the city of Danbury decided to maintain the castle as a walled garden. Hopefully this free Danbury attraction will remain in its current romantic state for many more generations.
Flanders Nature Center and Land Trust in Woodbury, Connecticut
The Flanders Nature Center, an over 2,000 acre preserve, started about 50 years ago to preserve a vestige of the agrarian nature of Woodbury.
The trust started when Natalie Van Vleck, accomplished artist and turkey and sheep farmer, donated the farm to the trust on her death.
The hiking throughout is splendid, with four miles of trails through an orchard, meadows, marsh, pine forests, streams, and more. And educational opportunities abound throughout the property, including learning about the industry of making Connecticut maple syrup at the sugar house on-site.
Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown, CT
In the middle of the achingly quaint New England town of Newtown sits an abandoned psychiatric hospital.
A system of deep tunnels plies the ground under the hospital’s former campus. They lead to confinement rooms, operating rooms, psychosurgery laboratories, and a morgue.
This former institution that once housed over 4,000 patients made the list for being one of the few haunted places in Connecticut that don’t require visitors to do anything illegal to visit for free.
Within limits, of course.
The tunnels and unused buildings are inaccessible to the public (and trespassing is illegal), but much of the campus is open for public use. Meander through the roads, sidewalks, and trails along with local joggers and dog walkers to explore this spooky site used in the 1996 movie, Sleepers, as the Wilkinson School for Boys.
Free things to do in Litchfield County, Connecticut
Want to experience the great outdoors and wide open spaces the way Connecticutians do?
Then head to Litchfield County, with more deer than people.
The vast expanses up here mean there’s lots of free hiking and exploring to do in the Berkshires of Connecticut.
Tapping Reeve House & Law School in Litchfield, CT
Litchfield is one of the most cute towns in Connecticut.
Wandering along its well-preserved downtown is a delightful, free, thing to do here.
But while you’re here, take a short walk away from West Street to one of many firsts in Connecticut, and a top free historic attraction.
Tapping Reeve and his wife, Sally Burr Reeve (sister of Aaron Burr of Hamiltonian fame) settled in Litchfield in 1773. Mr. Reeve established a legal practice, to which Aaron Burr came to live with them and learn the legal profession.
As more wealthy locals sent their sons to Reeve’s practice for legal training, his law profession expanded into America’s first formal law school. By the time the Tapping Reeve House & Law School closed in 1833, more than 1,100 students had matriculated.
Visitors today can experience the life of a Revolutionary era law student with role-playing, interactive and hands-on exhibits.
White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, Connecticut
Have you heard one too many lawyer jokes in your life to want to see how the first American ones were developed?
Then you can do what the locals do and strap on your hiking boots.
Just outside of town sits 4,000 acres of preserved forests, wetlands, and fields along Bantam Lake.
The White Memorial Conservation Center’s 40 miles of trails could take days to fully explore, and all for free.
Outdoor enthusiasts love to hike, bike, and ride horses on the trails in warmer months. The ponds, Bantam Lake, and six miles of the Bantam River are fantastic for canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. And the trails here are the best in the state for Connecticut winter activities like cross-country ski, and snowshoeing.
The Little Pond Boardwalk Trail is especially popular, with a wooden boardwalk traversing above the edges of the pond’s woods and marshes.
Steep Rock Preserve in Washington Depot, CT
Washington Depot is another town that inspired Stars Hollow of Gilmore Girls.
But Steep Rock Preserve provides experiences reminiscent of many epic adventure movies coming out of Hollywood.
- Cross a suspension bridge reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie
- Traverse seemingly untouched wilderness evoking The Revenant
- Discover a former railway tunnel cut through a ridge that bears a striking resemblance to the lair of King Kong
And accessing all of this 974-acre preserve is free.
Free things to do in Hartford, Connecticut
Like Bridgeport on the Connecticut shoreline, Hartford is a fascinating place for visitors intrigued by places which have passed their glory days.
Hartford was once a major cultural and financial center, hosting such famous inventors, industrialists, and artists as Samuel Colt and Mark Twain.
It’s a classic example of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Hartford tore down much of what would later be considered charming about the city in the interest of following trends considered modern.
In this case, Hartford was busy making sure that the automobile was king, with:
- Parking lots galore
- An interstate highway running along the Connecticut River waterfront
These changes made in the Post-War era have had lasting effects on various parts of Hartford’s attempts to bounce back from its Rust Belt image, including hits to the city’s tax base and liveability.
All that to say that Hartford is still a great place to visit. Hold-overs from its heyday, like museums and state government sites, match the more modern renaissance of its artistic and gastronomic scenes.
Many of those historic hold-overs are great free things to do in Hartford, CT.
Coltsville National Historical Park
Look to your left while driving up Interstate 91 from New Haven into downtown Hartford and you’ll see something that appears to be out of place.
A giant onion dome, swathed in bright blue and adorned with gold stars, sits atop an old industrial building right by the highway.
Many visitors to Hartford comment that this building has more in common with Eastern Europe than Hartford, and think nothing more of it.
But this building is actually part of a national historic park, honoring the industrialist who founded it, and the artisans who worked for the family’s company.
Most Americans have heard of Gerald Ford, but not as many non-gun owners have heard of Samuel Colt.
Mr Colt patented a mechanism that allowed a revolver to fire multiple times without reloading.
Western cowboys would not have had their most famous tool on them in the movies were it not for Samuel Colt’s innovation.
And this revolver was manufactured for decades in the east armory of the factory supporting that blue dome.
In fact, the entire campus of Coltsville became a model of 19th century industrial paternalism, something Gerald Ford took to further extremes in the early 20th century.
At its heyday, Coltsville included everything its workers needed to enjoy a quality life:
- A social hall for dances and lectures
- Workers’ housing
- A church
- Sculpted botanical gardens
- Greenhouses filled with tropical flowers and fruits
- Even a huge landscaped park home to deer and peacocks
Today, the National Park Service is setting-up more consistent opportunities to explore Coltsville National Historical Park, including such architectural masterpieces as:
- Church of the Good Shepherd
- Caldwell Colt Memorial Parish House
Both Elizabeth Colt commissioned as memorials to her husband and son, respectively.
After exploring Hartford’s symbol of 19th century industrialization, head into downtown Hartford.
Follow signs for the State Capitol to reach Bushnell Park, an oasis in the heart of the city.
In a state of many firsts, this was the first public park in America financed with public funds.
And the park remains a haven to this day, with a restored 1914 carousel, memorials honoring Civil War and Spanish-American War soldiers and about 150 varieties of mature trees.
Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz
Every July, Bushnell Park plays host to the one of the best music festivals in the entire state.
Founded by Hartford jazz fan Paul Brown in 1992, the festival attracts jazz lovers to free concerts in the park every summer for decades.
All you need to enjoy the music at the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz is a lawn chair, some sunglasses, and maybe a picnic.
Bushnell Park includes sweeping views of the State Capitol Building, especially from the Corning Fountain.
With its resplendent gold-leaf dome and Gothic-style turrets, Connecticut’s State Capitol building looks more European than American. Telling a visitor that it’s either a castle or European legislative building would be more than believable.
The State Capitol was constructed in the 1870s at a cost to taxpayers of a hefty $2.35 million (in 1870s money). This architectural marvel opened to the Legislature in 1878 covered with various statues and carvings covering the outside.
But inside is just as interesting, and free to take a tour of sights such as:
- The Hall of Flags
- Seeing the CT House of Representatives and State Senate representatives in action if they’re in session, as they perform their civic duties in the same seats installed in the 1870s
- Many artifacts documenting the history of Connecticut
Museum of Connecticut History
Walk across the street from the State Capitol to the former State Library and Supreme Court building. Built in 1910, the building has been beautifully restored and now holds the Museum of Connecticut History.
This small but interesting museum highlights Connecticut’s industrial, governmental, and military history.
Historical documents housed at the Museum of Connecticut History include:
- The original 1662 Royal Charter forming the colony of Connecticut
- The 1639 Fundamental Orders
- 1818 and 1964 State Constitutions
Colt firearm enthusiasts will find its collection of early prototypes, factory models and experimental firearms stunning.
Some other cool collections include Connecticut artifacts from the various wars the state and colony was involved in; and Freedom Trail quilts, telling the story of African-Americans in Connecticut.
Cathedral of St Joseph
Head west from downtown Hartford towards the posh neighborhoods near West Hartford.
Down the street from Mark Twain’s home here, across from Aetna’s headquarters, sits another throwback from Eastern Europe.
Here, this free historic attraction is more inline with Soviet architecture.
The original Cathedral of St Joseph was finished in 1892 with twin Gothic towers to mimic Montreal’s Notre Dame.
During morning Mass on New Year’s Eve, 1956, a fire erupted and spread to the wooden ceiling. According to church history, all that remained by the afternoon was “a charred, smoldering, ice-encrusted ruin.”
Almost immediately, the Archdiocese of Hartford commissioned a new cathedral. And they hired Eggers & Higgins of New York, more known for such impressive stone civic buildings and memorials as the Thomas Jefferson Memorial than churches.
But their design created a truly unique monument to Post-War Catholicism.
The Archdiocese consecrated the cathedral the same month that America imposed an embargo on communist Cuba and John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth.
The cathedral, made of concrete and limestone, soars 281 feet into the air. The front includes a massive sculpted frieze of St Joseph surrounded by the people.
While the exterior is intimidating, the gorgeous interior features one of the best examples of modernist ecclesiastical art in America.
Sunlight transforms as it enters the church through multi-colored panels of stained glass friezes crafted in Paris that reach almost 70 feet in height and surround the space.
The largest ceramic tile mural in the world sits behind the altar, depicting Christ in Glory.
Catholic or not, this cathedral is worth a visit, if only to admire the splendid result of an architectural gamble.
Connecticut Governor’s Mansion
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Governor’s Mansion has been the home of governors and their families since 1945.
The mansion was first built in 1909 in the Georgian Revival Style, and an hour-long guided tour of the interior and outdoor sculpture garden is free on Tuesdays.
Visiting the Governor’s Mansion when it’s bursting with Christmas trees, poinsettias, wreaths, and more holiday decorations is an annual tradition on the list of best things to do in Connecticut in December.
Elizabethan Park Rose Gardens
Down the street from the Governor’s Mansion sits a true gem in this posh neighborhood close to West Hartford.
Opened in 1904, Elizabeth Park is America’s oldest public rose garden, and its first municipal one. With 15,000 rose bushes of 800 different varieties in magnificent formations, it’s easy to feel lost in an Elizabethan English rose garden, or somewhere more Continental.
Peak for this popular free attraction is early June, when the sight of blooming roses peaks and the air is heavy with their fragrance.
Other gardens include a wildflower trail, pond, sports and concert facilities, even herb and vegetable gardens.
This gorgeous park can help to better understand why Theodore Wirth, founder of the garden, believed that, “Roses bring joy to the public.”
Free things to do near Hartford, CT
Head west of Hartford (or north from southern Connecticut) to find even more free things to do in Connecticut.
New Britain Industrial Museum in New Britain, Connecticut
After reading a few of the other entries of this list of free things to do in Connecticut, you may have gathered that Connecticut was a heavy-hitter in America’s industrial age.
And no city was more important in the era of American manufacturing than New Britain.
As the New Britain Industrial Museum explains, “out of the blacksmith forges populating 18th-century New Britain grew five major industries that fueled daily life in America for most of the 20th century. From the lock on your front door and the key in your pocket to the appliances in your kitchen and the parts in your car, all of those things and more were either made in New Britain, contained New Britain parts or were made on a New Britain machine.”
This free museum honors New Britain’s major contribution to the American economy with permanent and rotating exhibitions.
West Hartford Reservoir of West Hartford, CT
Once you’ve finished with the well-preserved structure of Elizabeth Park’s Rose Garden, drive westward to the West Hartford Reservoir.
West Hartford’s Reservoir features paved trails along beautiful stands of trees and several different reservoirs. The longer of the two main loops is about three and a half miles. Either is ideal for any mobility level for running, walking, or biking on the marked bicycle lane.
Talcott Mountain State Park & Heublein Tower in Simsbury, Connecticut
While Talcott Mountain State Park isn’t ideal for all mobility levels, the steep uphill trek from the parking lot to Heublein Tower is worth it for those able.
The one and a quarter mile trail brings you to the 165-foot tower, the Heublein Tower. Gilbert Heublein, which is pronounced HIGH-bline, built the tower in 1914. Mr Heublein had promised his fiance that he would build a castle there, decades earlier, and once he made his fortune in Hartford, he did so.
The tower is a throwback to Heublein’s native Germany, architecturally speaking. And the top story is an observatory with panoramic views on a clear day of the Berkshires, Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire, and Long Island Sound to the south.
The view is what puts this free Connecticut attraction on our list of the best hiking trails in Connecticut, as well.
The Drake Hill Flower Bridge in Simsbury, CT
As weird as it is to admit, I’m a flower bridge snob.
The best one I’ve seen is the Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
But Simsbury’s Drake Hill Flower Bridge is a close contender.
This former railroad bridge was decommissioned and the local horticultural society installed plantings all along the bridge over the Farmington River.
Added benefit is that this bridge is within walking distance of downtown Simsbury, a town that feels like it’s the set of a Lifetime movie.
How to discover even more free things to do in CT
Is your desire for an inexpensive weekend getaway to Connecticut not yet exhausted?
Then keep planning your visit to our state by downloading free copies of guides to Connecticut, by season:
Whenever you come to visit, you’ll be sure to enjoy your visit without spending a small fortune!