Does the Victorian era fascinate you?
Or did you find images of decaying industrial and commercial buildings popular a few years ago intriguing?
Then you’re sure to find an abundance of things to do in Hartford, CT.
Connecticut’s manufacturing industry was well-established by the Revolutionary War, and those industries continued to grow well into the 20th Century.
And all that production generated a lot of wealth for Connecticut cities like Hartford.
Hartford was a major cultural and financial center in the Victorian era. It hosted many famous American industrialists, inventors, and artists.
And today, many of those historic holdovers provide the attractions, activities, and things to do in Hartford that draw so many visitors.
Add to this a growing dining scene, and a visit to Hartford is well-worth going off the beaten path.
Ready to plan a trip to Hartford?
Then read on:
Things to do in Hartford, CT, during COVID
I have lived in Connecticut, on and off, since I was born.
But I didn’t truly appreciate the state until the COVID-19 pandemic.
With first international travel, then even local travel, cut-off as an option in rapid succession, exploring Connecticut was the only option for months.
And even in the darkest period of the pandemic, when most points of interest were closed for safety reasons, there were still things to do throughout the state.
In the case of Hartford, we didn’t make a trip up there until the state had begun to open-up again.
Without the museums, dining, and government buildings, it would have been a long drive up from downtown Greenwich just for the sake of walking around outdoors.
And to be honest, I was dragging my feet on visiting: I hadn’t been since high school, and my memories of the city were not pleasant.
Hartford was, in a word, sketchy.
But we found downtown Hartford and nearby towns so delightful in the present that we’ve made the trek back more than a few times since!
And with a majority of the population vaccinated, Hartford and its attractions have largely returned to normal.
Just be sure to wear a mask indoors!
The Top 10 Attractions in Hartford, Connecticut
Including surrounding towns and cities like New Britain, Simsbury, and Wethersfield; there are a lot of options when deciding on the top 10 attractions in Hartford.
But for those interested in 19th Century American history and literature, or the arts scene that remains strong from Hartford’s heyday, here are the top picks:
Mark Twain House & Museum
Mark Twain commissioned this Neo-Gothic mansion in 1873, at the height of his fame and fortune.
It was here that Mark Twain and his family lived some of their happiest years. It’s also where the writer penned some of his most famous works, including:
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Unfortunately, due to a poor investment, Twain lost much of his fortune, and the family was forced to move to Europe.
Even after recovering his fortune, the family could not return to the house. After the death of one of their daughters, Mark Twain’s wife couldn’t bear to live in the house with those painful memories.
And so the house was sold.
But the curators of the museum refurbished the mansion to recreate the opulent days when Twain’s family lived here.
This museum is a major draw both for fans of Mark Twain, and of architecture.
Make a reservation for a guided tour of the Mark Twain House, which is the only way to access the museum. The tour covers the three stories of the mansion, so be prepared to climb lots of stairs.
This museum was my initial reason for visiting Hartford.
Art collector Daniel Wadsworth started this public museum, the first of its kind in the US, in 1842.
Today, were this museum located in New York City or Boston, it would likely be one of the most visited in the Northeast.
But, it’s relative isolation helps keep this under-the-radar wonder accessible.
And yet, this top of the best Connecticut museums can easily overwhelm.
With 50,000 items in its collection, be ready to not be able to appreciate everything in one visit.
The museum does have a heavy focus on 19th and 20th century American artists, but the collection spans 5,000 years of artistic history.
Some of the major artistic draws include the museum’s collections of:
- Hudson Valley School paintings
- Art from the French Revolution period
- Norman Rockwell
- European and American Impressionist paintings
Displays of Connecticut art offer opportunities to learn more about Connecticut’s history, as well.
And the building itself is historic. A Gothic Revival style facade surrounded by wings added later greets visitors to what looks like a castle from the exterior.
But due to the museum’s history of adding wings over the centuries, it can be a little confusing to find your way around. Luckily, the staff are friendly and helpful.
That said, allow as much time as you can to explore every level of this Hartford attraction.
For a city defined by its Victorian architecture, Connecticut’s State Capitol building stands-out.
Thanks to Gothic-style turrets and sculptural details covering the walls, as well as its brilliant gold-leaf dome, the Capitol building looks like a holdover from a medieval European city.
Connecticut taxpayers paid $2.35 million dollars to show-off their wealth via their legislative upgrade.
That’s in 1870s money, by the way. That’s about $47.5 million dollars in today’s money.
Construction of the Connecticut State Capitol finished in 1878 on the former site of Trinity College. The exterior features marble from East Canaan, Connecticut, and granite from Westerly, Rhode Island.
On arrival in Hartford, first head to the Corning Fountain in Bushnell Park to get a great shot across the sweeping lawns to the Capitol Building.
Next, head inside for a free tour of major interior sights, including:
- Artifacts that document Connecticut’s history
- The Hall of Flags
- Where the CT House of Representatives and State Senate Representatives have performed their civic duties, in the same seats installed in the 1870s
Free tours start at 15 minutes past the hour, Monday through Friday, inside the Legislative Office Building. If possible, schedule your tour so you can catch anecdotes not included in the self-guided tour pamphlet.
This huge oasis of tranquility in the center of Hartford is the perfect surrounding for the State Capitol.
The original site of Trinity College, this was the first public park in the United States financed with public funds.
Citizens named the park in honor of Connecticut inventor David Bushnell. Among other things, he invented the Turtle, the first submarine prototype which was used during the Revolutionary War.
For all the changes around it, Bushnell Park remains a haven today.
Aside from the Corning Fountain, some other attractions include:
- 150 varieties of mature trees
- A restored carousel from 1914
- Memorials for veterans of the Civil War and Spanish-American War
A major draw to Bushnell Park is the free jazz festival.
More on that later.
Elizabeth Park Rose Garden
Another holdover from over a century ago, the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden is one of the top attractions in Connecticut.
It checks a lot of boxes:
- It’s romantic, especially in June when the roses are fully in bloom
- Unlike many gardens, it’s one of the top dog friendly attractions in Connecticut
- And best of all, entrance is free
Like many of these Victorian era attractions, Elizabeth Park feels more like a European public garden.
Open since 1904, this is America’s first municipal garden, and its oldest public rose garden.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center
While the ardent abolitionist and writer moved around quite a bit in her life, it’s here in Hartford that a local society preserves Harriet Beecher Stowe’s work and celebrates her life.
During her time here, she was neighbors with Mark Twain, when Hartford was a mecca for writers.
The museum highlights the life and times of a remarkable woman.
If you need a reminder of the dark sides of the Victorian era, this is where to find it in Hartford:
- Inequality on multiple levels
For example, interpretive exhibits feature displays of playbills and merchandise from her most famous work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
There’s even some interesting information regarding how her work was changed in meaning to suit audiences in the American South. This was devastating to Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of the most progressive thinkers of her time. And yet, due to a lack of copyright laws at the time, she was powerless to do anything about it.
Purchase tour tickets at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Visitor’s Center, and get $3 off your tour of the neighboring Mark Twain House.
Connecticut Historical Society Museum
For history buffs of all sorts, a visit to the Connecticut Historical Society Museum is a must.
First founded in 1825, the museum offers both permanent and temporary exhibitions on Connecticut’s history.
Permanent exhibitions include:
- Making Connecticut, which documents the history of Connecticutians from the 1500s to today with historic objects, images, documents, and hands-on activities like sewing a Native American moccasin, working a World War II assembly line, and replacing bobbins in a textile mill. Kids will likely get a kick out of playing “house” in a colonial home.
- Inn and Tavern Signs, a display of over 60 hand-painted signs from the period between 1750 and 1850; when the majority of the population was illiterate but still needed a stiff one at the end of the day. Or at the beginning of the morning.
Hartford Stage may be a regional theatre, but it has earned some national acclaim.
Running out of their large and modern building since 1963, Hartford Stage has earned a reputation for producing innovative revivals of classic live theatre.
This theatre company has earned many top national awards for live theatre, including a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. And it has attracted some major talent over the years, including Kevin Bacon.
And the theatre’s 489-seat space is arranged to ensure no bad seats in the house.
As far as Connecticut date night ideas go, this one is a no-brainer. It’s in a central location near I-84 and I-91, with parking attached, and some fantastic restaurants close-by for exploring Hartford nightlife.
Bushnell Center for Performing Arts
Overlooking Bushnell Park, The Bushnell Center for Performing Arts has been in operation since 1930.
This performing arts center is a favorite in all Connecticut for more than a few theatre-goers. And some even claim that it rivals performing arts centers in New York City.
It’s hard to find a bad seat in either their large or smaller theatre.
Cedar Hill Cemetery
Views on such matters as religion and death took a decidedly Gothic and Romantic turn during the Victorian Era.
And one of the best places to view a lasting monument to the glorification of death, almost to the levels of mysticism, is a Victorian cemetery.
Landscape architect Jacob Weidenmann designed the Cedar Hill Cemetery. He was also responsible for another one of Hartford’s open spaces, Bushnell Park.
Locals designed Cedar Hill as an American rural cemetery, following the tradition of Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
While the cemetery was completed in portions, construction finished on the first section, and the first burial occurred in the 1860s.
Today, the cemetery stretches over 270 acres of landscaped waterways and woodlands.
Some notable people who took their final rest here include:
- Samuel and Elizabeth Colt
- John and Isabella Beecher Hooker
- Katharine Hepburn
- J.P. Morgan
Tours of the cemetery and events happen here from April to October. Entrance to the cemetery is free, though tours and events require a nominal fee.
Connecticut Science Center
One of the newest additions to downtown Hartford is the Connecticut Science Center.
This is the most kid-friendly attraction in Hartford, with plenty of hands-on exhibitions to keep the kids entertained.
Parents can get a bit frustrated, but it’s all about the kids, right?
This massive, 154,000 square foot expanse of glass and steel overlooks the Connecticut River. César Pelli, Agentinian architect of World Financial Center and Petronas Towers fame, designed the building, which opened in 2009.
Favorite activities in Hartford
Once you’ve knocked the major Hartford tourist attractions off your list, there’s plenty more to explore in Insurance City.
And yes, that is the city’s nickname.
Read on for a few top picks in:
- Outdoor activities
- Romantic things to do here
- Free attractions and activities
- Cute towns nearby to Hartford
14 of the best places to eat in Hartford, CT
An urban center in need of a revitalization does have one thing going for it: cheap rents.
And cheap rents are often what initiates a culinary and artistic revival.
Need a real-life example? Check out Hartford’s culinary scene.
In fact, Hartford and nearby West Hartford have some of the most romantic restaurants in Connecticut.
Downtown Hartford restaurants
After exploring the area around Bushnell Park, a few top dining picks include:
- The Italian restaurant, Salute
- Gastropub, Republic at the Linden
- The pizzeria known as The Blind Pig Pizza
- Banh Meee for your Vietnamese favorites
West Hartford restaurants
Head west from Hartford to the appropriately named West Hartford, a suburb with an urban aesthetic, according to the New York Times.
Upscale dining establishments cluster along Farmington Avenue and LaSalle Road:
- Connecticut native restaurant chain, Barcelona
- Italian Restaurant Brico
- Max’s Oyster Bar
- Italian restaurant, Treva
- Zohara Mediterranean Kitchen
Breweries in and near Hartford, Connecticut
If you’re interested in something a little more casual for dinner or an evening drink, the small craft brewery craze is as strong in Hartford as anywhere else.
Some of the best Connecticut breweries are centered around Hartford:
- New Park Brewing in West Hartford
- Firefly Hollow Brewing, in Bristol
- Back East Brewing Company, in Bloomfield
And more than a few of these also make the list of the most dog friendly places in CT:
- Hog River Brewing, in Hartford
- New Park Brewing, in West Hartford
Outdoor activities in Hartford, CT (and nearby)
2020 was the year of finding as many outdoor activities as possible.
Luckily, the Victorians were a fan of the outdoors, no matter how uncomfortably they dressed for it.
And the tradition continues to the present day in Hartford and the Connecticut River Valley.
Dunkin’ Donuts Park
America’s craze for baseball intersected perfectly with Hartford’s heyday. Journalists described a mania for baseball back in the 1840s.
And Dunkin’ Donuts Park is the perfect opportunity to enjoy a minor league baseball game.
The players are skilled, and not as distracted by the drive for fame as in the major leagues.
And the Yard Goats know they need to ensure spectators have a good time while at the stadium.
While there is no bad seat here, beware of foul balls.
Parking across from the stadium is just $5. For a small additional fee, you can join the Yard Goat Club when buying tickets, which offers extra food options and an expanded bar.
Capital Flea Market
One of the newest additions to the list of flea markets in Connecticut, flea market shoppers flock to downtown Hartford on Saturdays and Sundays.
The Capital Flea Market focuses on supporting local entrepreneurs and artisans in selling their wares.
Cute towns near Hartford, Connecticut, for day trips
While Hartford is one of the premier cities in Connecticut, several of the most charming towns in Connecticut surround it.
And those towns have plenty more attractions and activities to explore.
Thanks to a shift in the Connecticut River centuries ago, Wethersfield’s downtown is perfectly preserved from the colonial era.
And the town has an interesting history as the center of the seed-production business at the turn of the 20th century.
Fighting in King Philip’s War burned Simsbury to the ground in the 1670s.
But today’s town is still super cute and walkable. And thanks to playing host to the International Skating Center in Connecticut, many famous skaters have ties to this town.
Some major points of interest include:
- One of the best hiking trails in Connecticut, to the Bavarian-themed Heublein Tower in Talcott Mountain State Park
- The historic Drake Hill Flower Bridge, a historic train bridge across the Farmington River turned historic landmark, covered with flowers and statuary
This is an ideal day trip during Fall in Connecticut, when the flowers on the bridge are still in bloom, but the fall foliage is stunning in the 360-degree view from the top of Heublein Tower.
Settlers from Hartford hoped that naming their town a new version of their hometown would guarantee growth and success.
New Hartford remains bucolic, a short drive from downtown Hartford in Litchfield County.
And it’s a prime destination for outdoor activities:
- For easy skiing winter getaways in Connecticut, Hartfordians head to nearby Ski Sundown
- One of the best Connecticut wineries is in New Hartford, named Connecticut Valley Winery
- And Burdick Road Orchard in New Hartford is one of the top apple orchards in Connecticut for Fall apple picking
Things to do in Hartford, CT, this weekend
Planning your weekend in Hartford is easy, if you have a plan for curating activities.
Below are some quick choices for planning a weekend that’s romantic, inexpensive, or a little bit of both.
Romantic things to do in Hartford, Connecticut
As far as romantic places in Connecticut go, Hartford’s a great choice for an urban weekend getaway.
A couple romantic activities in Hartford, like walking the Elizabeth Park Rose Gardens, even made our list of the most romantic things to do in Connecticut.
And three Hartford-area restaurants are on the list of the most romantic in Connecticut for their romantic ambience:
- ON20, for its sweeping views of the city
- Arugula, for its intimate, contemporary setting
- Artisan, with a 1,500 square foot outdoor garden for a starlit dinner
Spend the day exploring the city’s culture, with museums, or outdoor activities like apple picking, and the evenings enjoying Hartford nightlife, and your weekend is planned.
Free things to do in Hartford
In fact, you could fill your entire weekend with free activities, attractions, and things to do in Hartford.
Some of the absolute best free activities in all Connecticut are centered around Hartford.
Some of the top attractions already mentioned barely scratch the surface:
- Bushnell Park
- The State Capitol
- Elizabeth Park Rose Gardens
Read our guide to free things to do in Connecticut for details on each attraction:
- Coltsville National Historical Park
- Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz at Bushnell Park
- Museum of Connecticut History
- Cathedral of St Joseph
- Connecticut Governor’s Mansion
- New Britain Industrial Museum
- West Hartford Reservoir
- Saville Dam, in Barkhamstead
Keep exploring things to do in Connecticut
Now that you’ve planned your visit to Hartford, what about the rest of your time here?
Keep exploring more things to do in Connecticut, and download the free Connecticut Travel Guide.
More guides to explore include:
- All of the best Connecticut beaches lining the length of the state shoreline
- A guide to the best attractions, activities, and things to do in Mystic
And be sure to check-out our visitor’s guide to our hometown of Greenwich, Connecticut
We hope you discover your love for Connecticut while you’re here!