Boasting everything from scenic shores and state parks to centuries-old historic sights and cultural landmarks; Connecticut is an oft-overlooked gem on the Eastern Seaboard. Besides its considerable natural beauty and picturesque beaches, it has a myriad of amazing museums, aquariums and even a couple of amusement parks.
One of the original Thirteen Colonies, a number of interesting old seaports and cities home to attractive historic houses are scattered about the small state. While most lie along the indented Long Island Sound, its capital Hartford can be found at the center of the Connecticut River Valley and Knowledge Corridor.
Although most people head straight to its enticing coast, some pleasant state parks and award-winning wineries lie amidst its rolling hills and charming rural areas. With so many things to do in Connecticut, the Constitution State really does have something for everyone to enjoy.
22. Hill-Stead Museum
Best known for its impressive artworks, architecture and attractive grounds, the excellent Hill-Stead Museum can be found just outside of Farmington. As it lies fifteen minutes drive from the center of Hartford, many people come to see its fine paintings, prints, furniture and photos.
While its wide-ranging collection of decorative arts and French Impressionist masterpieces are a treat to peruse, the historic house itself is just as striking. Built in 1901, it exhibits lovely Colonial Revival architecture with its pretty portico leading on to light and airy rooms that are tastefully decorated.
Surrounding the hilltop mansion are gorgeous gardens to stroll around, home to lush lawns, flowerbeds and ponds. On tours, knowledgeable guides will teach you all about the family, building and point out some of the artworks’ most captivating features.
21. Sheffield Island Lighthouse
Lying at the southern end of the Norwalk Islands, the Sheffield Island Lighthouse has watched over the nearby channels, reefs and rocks for almost two centuries. After taking a scenic ferry ride to the small isle, visitors can explore both the historic lighthouse, its wildlife refuge and beaches.
While the original light was erected in 1828, the current Victorian-style limestone dwelling and its 44 feet high tower only date to 1868. Besides snapping some great photos of the charming building, you can also enter and amble around its ten rooms full of period furnishings.
Some small displays and its friendly curator delve into more detail about the lighthouse that was deactivated in 1902. After your visit, you can wander around its wildlife refuge and sit on the beach before taking the ferry back to Norwalk.
20. Maritime Aquarium, Norwalk
Once you disembark, make sure to find some time to check out the seaside city’s amazing Maritime Aquarium. Set in the South Norwalk part of town, it has dozens of freshwater and saltwater exhibits for visitors to enjoy.
A firm favorite with families, it was first opened in 1988 with nearly 7,000 animals of some 360 or so species now residing within the aquarium. As well as seeing seals at Pinniped Cove and sandbar sharks at Shark Haven, plenty of jellyfish, sea turtles and river otters also occupy its huge tanks.
On top of the 75 superbly done exhibits that primarily focus on the Long Island Sound, it also offers unforgettable animal encounters and live feeding demonstrations. Guests can also watch educational films in its 4D theater and stop by the aquarium’s gift store on the way out.
19. Kent Falls State Park
Named after the dramatic waterfalls that lie at its heart, Kent Falls State Park is a very peaceful and picturesque place to explore. Nestled in the northwest of the state next to the Housatonic River, it contains numerous hiking trails, picnic areas and fishing spots.
Located within the rolling Litchfield Hills region of the southern Berkshires, its rugged confines are centered around a series of twinkling waterfalls. The stunning cascades line part of Falls Brook with the largest drop standing at a staggering seventy feet.
Aside from basking in their beauty and taking some photos, you can hike along its leafy nature trails and fish in its pools. What’s more, the park also has a fantastic replica of a covered bridge to stroll across with picnic areas, park benches and public bathrooms dotted here and there.
18. Mystic Pizza
A popular haunt of both locals and tourists, it was Mystic Pizza that inspired the 1988 hit film of the same name. While you might not see Julia Roberts working as a waitress, the local restaurant is full of movie memorabilia and serves up a mean slice of pizza.
Set alongside the Mystic Main Street, the nostalgic pizza joint has been serving up delicious pizza since the seventies. Incredibly enough, it caught the eye of screenwriter Amy Jones who then wrote a script about the lives and loves of three young waitresses.
This catapulted the small shop to fame and people have flocked to try its tasty pizzas with all kinds of toppings ever since. While sitting and waiting for your meal, you can take a look at all the photos of the movie stars that plaster its walls.
17. Essex Steam Train & Riverboat
A wonderful way to see more of the city and its surroundings is to take a relaxing train or riverboat ride through Connecticut’s gorgeous countryside. Each trip whisks you past some captivating historic sites, spellbinding nature spots and quintessential New England towns.
From the atmospheric old 1892 Essex Station, steam locomotives and their vintage coaches slowly pull guests through the Connecticut River Valley. As well as passing through the quiet and quaint towns of Deep River and Chester, you also see the tidal wetlands of Pratt Cove and Chester Creek.
At Deep River Landing, daytrippers embark on the Becky Thatcher steamboat that meanders its way past the river’s scenic marshes, coves and inlets. On both legs of the journey, knowledgeable guides explain more about the history of the trains, riverboats and region.
16. Mashantucket Pequot Museum
If you want to learn all about Native American history and culture, then the massive Mashantucket Pequot Museum is simply a must. Owned and operated by the tribal nation of the same name, its extensive artifacts, artworks and exhibits lie near the Foxwoods Resort Casino on the reservation.
Routinely praised for its intricately detailed displays and dioramas, it is now remarkably the world’s largest Native American museum. Founded in 1988, it has since expanded considerably with interactive exhibits, photos and video clips perfectly complementing its colossal collection.
The highlight though is its walk-through recreation of a Pequot village from the 1550s. As you walk past its wigwams, you’ll see life-sized figures sharpening arrows, weaving mats and carving canoes. Exhibits on the Ice Age and a caribou hunt also help you learn more about the lives, culture, history and heritage of the US and Canada’s Native Americans.
15. The Glass House
On the western outskirts of New Canaan is a hugely interesting architectural masterpiece for visitors to check out. Appropriately known as ‘ The Glass House’, the brilliant building is widely considered to be architect Philip Johnson’s signature work.
An important and influential project for both him and modern architecture, the historical house was completed in 1949. As it is made almost entirely out of steel and glass, its see-through walls use the surrounding leafy landscapes as ‘wallpaper’. An exquisite example of a minimal structure, its unique design combines the effects of transparency and reflection with those of proportion and geometry.
As well as a visitor center in downtown New Canaan, the expansive estate also has striking outdoor sculptures and outbuildings to tour.
14. New England Air Museum
Full of engine parts, instruments and educational exhibits, the excellent New England Air Museum can be found just outside of Windsor Locks. Lying alongside Bradley International Airport, its huge hangars house more than a hundred vintage aircraft, helicopters and early flying machines.
Established in 1959, the marvelous museum presents the story of aviation, its origins, impact and evolution. While some exhibits focus on WWII glider planes and fighter squadrons, others cover the Windsor Locks Tornado and women pioneers, pilots and astronauts.
Strolling about its big bombers, shiny jets and camouflaged choppers is an amazing experience with informative plaques and accompanying displays. In addition to clambering up into the cramped cockpits, you can also try out fun flight simulators and see old uniforms, photos and personal memorabilia.
13. Yale University Art Gallery
Boasting everyone from Degas and Hopper to Picasso, Rubens and van Gogh is the unmissable Yale University Art Gallery. Part of the prestigious college’s campus in New Haven, it has a multitude of buildings packed with incredible artworks to explore.
The oldest university art museum in the Western Hemisphere, it impressively contains over 200,000 objects, both ancient and modern. While some galleries exhibit ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman artworks, others are dedicated to contemporary paintings, photos and prints. Its grand buildings also house some superb African artifacts and sculptures and a well-regarded collection of Mediterranean masterpieces.
Since opening in 1832, both students and tourists have flocked to see its wide range of works which are constantly being updated and expanded.
12. Mark Twain House & Museum
Located in the West End of Hartford is one of the city’s top tourist attractions: the magnificent Mark Twain House & Museum. Crammed with authentic artifacts and engaging exhibits, they both offer a fascinating look into the life, times, novels and characters of the famous author.
From 1874 to 1891, Samuel Langhorne Clemens and his family inhabited the attractive but eclectic American High Gothic house. It was here that he wrote iconic works such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn under his pen name Mark Twain. Now preserved as a National Historic Landmark, its well-restored interior features original furnishings, photographs and personal memorabilia.
On tours of the pretty property, expert guides teach you more about the life and legacy of one of the nation’s most beloved writers. These also point out fine details about both the building’s design and decoration with other exhibits in the visitor centre covering his classic novels and characters.
11. Dinosaur State Park
Just to the south of Hartford in Rocky Hill, you can find the outstanding Dinosaur State Park and its adjoining arboretum. Besides preserving one of the largest dinosaur track sites in North America, it has miles of nice nature trails and outdoor areas to enjoy.
Back in 1966, a bulldozer operator noticed six large, three-toed footprints while excavating the site for a new office. Further digs miraculously revealed hundreds more with the state park and its giant geodesic dome being set up several years later to protect them all.
Nowadays, visitors can see over 500 footprints which date to more than 200 million years ago. Next to them are life-sized dioramas of plants and creatures and interactive exhibits on dinosaurs, fossils and the founding of the site. Afterwards, you can stroll around its lovely grounds and buy a fun dino dig kit in its gift shop.
10. Connecticut Wine Trail
After so much sightseeing and so many outdoor activities, it is well worth taking a moment to relax, unwind and enjoy some wonderful wine. Scattered across the state are 25 wineries to try; all part of the Connecticut Wine Trail.
As it is one of the fastest growing wine regions in the States, award-winning vineyards are popping up all over the place. While the warmer climes of both the Connecticut River Valley and coast of the Long Island Sound are ideal for growing grapes, so too are the rugged Litchfield Hills. Its diverse geography and growing conditions mean that everything from Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot, Pinot Gris and Riesling are produced in the state.
At its wineries, you can take tours around the vineyards and production facilities before sitting and sampling some terrific wines in the tasting rooms and terraces.
9. Silver Sands State Park
Home to lots of diverse landscapes and ecosystems is the stupendous Silver Sands State Park along the Long Island Sound. Part of the coastal city of Milford, it has myriad outdoor activities to try amidst its beautiful beaches and dunes, marshes and woods.
A pristine spot, its soft sands, rolling dunes and seemingly endless boardwalk lie alongside the wild waters of the Atlantic. Aside from taking in all its divine scenery and exploring its picturesque woods and marshes, there are also plenty of birds and wildlife to spot.
In addition to hiking in the park, you can top up your tan at the beach or swim and splash about in the sea. At low tide, many people amble across the exposed sandbar to the far-off Charles Island.
8. Foxwoods Resort Casino
If you’re looking to game, have a great time and enjoy some exciting entertainment, then Foxwoods Resort Casino is the place to go. With seven casinos, countless restaurants and all kinds of thrilling live shows to choose from, guests will never exhaust all its enticing attractions.
Owned and operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, it has expanded enormously since opening in 1992. Now one of the largest gaming resorts in the US, it includes not just upscale shops and restaurants but top-class spas, theatres and golf courses.
While staying in its lavish hotels, visitors can play games in its arcades, shoot along ziplines or race about go-kart tracks. The main reason many people visit though is for its numerous casinos, which have lots of table games and thousands of slot machines to play.
7. Roseland Cottage
Set in the center of Woodstock is the pretty pink Roseland Cottage. Surrounded by landscaped gardens, the historic house museum and its gorgeous grounds offer up an interesting insight into the lives of America’s upper crust in the mid-1800s.
More a mansion than a cottage, the refined Gothic Revival building was formerly the summer home of businessman Henry Chandler Bowen and his large family. Erected in 1846, it is remarkably well-preserved with its elegant interior remaining virtually intact. Besides the country’s oldest surviving indoor bowling alley, it contains dozens of delightfully decorated rooms full of exquisite furnishings and artworks.
Its twenty or so sprawling gardens are just as pleasant to stroll around as vast flowerbeds, trimmed hedges and immaculate lawns line its winding paths.
6. Gillette Castle
Another incredible historic house to explore is the gigantic Gillette Castle that overlooks the Connecticut River in the south-center of the state. Now the centerpiece of a state park, its unique architecture and interior make it well worth a visit with scenic gardens and woods lying all about it.
Designed and built by the famous actor William Gillette between 1914 and 1919, it showcases some amazing medieval-style architecture. While its craggy castle-like exterior is already special to gaze upon, its imaginative interior is what really sets it apart. This is because its grand rooms are adorned with custom-built fittings and furniture with secret doors and passageways featured throughout.
From the rest of the park, you can enjoy fine views of the mansion’s stone tower and facade and the rushing river down below. As it combines art, architecture, history and nature, the castle is not to be missed with both Hartford and New Haven lying just under an hour away.
5. Hammonasset Beach State Park
A popular and peaceful place to visit, Hammonasset Beach State Park lies along the sparkling Long Island Sound. Home to the state’s largest beach, it has a wealth of outdoor activities to try with both locals and tourists flocking to its seaside in summer.
Studded with seashells, its soft sands and dunes are a treat to wander around with salt marshes, tidal creeks and grassy knolls backing them. While many come to lounge on the pristine beach and swim in the sea, others prefer to hike and cycle with countless campsites being scattered about.
The park also has some fabulous fishing and boating to enjoy while sweeping views over the ocean can be had from several viewpoints. At its Meigs Point Nature Center, visitors can learn more about the local ecosystems and stroke cute creatures in its touch tank.
4. Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Packed with impressive paintings, porcelains and sculptures, the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art can be found right in the center of Hartford. The oldest art museum in the country, its extensive collection has been wowing visitors ever since it first opened in 1842.
Established by the affluent, art-interested Wadsworth family, its umpteen galleries occupy a striking castle-like building downtown. Alongside its four more modern wings, they contain about 50,000 artworks that span more than 5,000 years of art history.
Alongside many masterpieces by Dali, Monet and Renoir, among other big names, are contemporary works by Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art pieces can also be spied next to some superb Hudson River School landscapes.
3. Lake Compounce Amusement Park
The nation’s oldest continuously operating amusement park, Lake Compounce marked another first for the United States. Since 1846, its rides and rollercoasters have delighted guests with food stands, souvenir shops and the state’s largest water park also on offer.
Set just outside the small city of Bristol, its sprawling site lies alongside the lake of the same name, surrounded by lots of lush woods. As well as one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the world, it has an ornately carved carousel, kiddie rides and cool live shows for families to enjoy.
On top of trying out the thrilling Thunder N’ Lightning or death-defying Drop Zone, you can splash about in its wave pools and raft its rapids. Amusement park aficionados can also camp overnight or enjoy some of the seasonal events held at its gloriously green complex.
2. Submarine Force Museum
Just up and across the Thames River from New London is the fantastic Submarine Force Museum. Home to the world’s first nuclear submarine, it contains a staggering number of artifacts, exhibits and old equipment parts.
Managed by the Naval History & Heritage Command division of the Navy, its state-of-the-art facility first opened to the public in 1955. While the USS Nautilus launched that very same year, the sleek sub only ended up in the museum after it was eventually decommissioned in 1980.
While exploring its interior is of course the museum’s main attraction, interesting exhibits also look at the history and development of the ‘Silent Service’ in the US. Artifacts, uniforms, photos and film clips all provide more information on the National Historic Landmark.
1. Mystic Seaport
As it boasts a rich maritime history and heritage, the beautiful old Mystic Seaport is one of the most popular spots to visit in Connecticut. Lying along both banks of the river just inland from the ocean are plenty of centuries-old buildings and boats to check out.
Once one of the nation’s most important shipbuilding ports and whaling centers, the waterfront town is now largely preserved as part of a museum. Clustered along its sparkling harbor are not only lots of attractive historic buildings but an awesome aquarium and several splendid seafood restaurants.
Aside from ambling about its recreation of a nineteenth-century seafaring village, visitors can watch live demonstrations and stop by a working shipyard. You can also set foot on some of the hundreds of historic vessels bobbing about its marinas with the enormous 1841 Charles W. Morgan being the oldest of the lot.