A while ago, I wrapped up a seven-part series on the state parks of Connecticut. And while the parks were my most common destinations, I also explored lots of other areas of the state from time to time. So, as somewhat of a wrap-up of the 6 years I spent calling Connecticut home, here’s a fairly all-inclusive list of things to do if you ever find yourself with some spare time in the Nutmeg State.
1. Go boating at Crescent Lake Recreation Area in Southington
Located in the central portion of the state near Hartford, Crescent Lake and the surrounding land make up Crescent Lake Recreation Area. The area is open for boating, fishing, and hiking, and is also currently participating in a sustainable forest initiative. When my friends and I visited, we hiked a trail around the perimeter of the lake, at times paralleling the lake shore and at others climbing up to high points well above the lake. It wasn’t well-marked, but I think we climbed Bradley Mountain. Well, “mountain.” But I digress.
2. Hike along the Metacomet Ridge in the central portion of the state
The Metacomet Ridge runs north-south through Central Connecticut and Massachusetts and is defined by high, sharp basalt cliffs rising above the Connecticut River Valley. The blue-blazed Mattabesett Trail travels 50 miles (80 km) along the Metacomet Ridge, and can be accessed from numerous local parks and trailheads. Over the years, I was able to hike along the ridge from Giuffrida (juh-FREE-dah) and Hubbard Parks in Meriden, Higby Mountain in Middletown, and Ragged Mountain Memorial Preserve in Berlin.
3. Tour the Mark Twain & Harriet Beecher Stowe Houses in Hartford
Despite its current reputation as a rather lackluster, run-down, income-disparate New England city, Hartford used to be a popular and desirable place to live, particularly among wealthy individuals. As a result, houses belonging to many famous people – including Mark Twain (first photo below) and Harriet Beecher Stowe (second photo below) – still stand within the city and are open for tours. Photography isn’t allowed inside the houses but as you can see from the outside façades, both are large and ornate.
4. See the tallest waterfall in the state in Cheshire
Roaring Brook Falls is the tallest single-drop waterfall in Connecticut, tumbling about 80 feet (25 m). It’s located within land owned by the Cheshire Land Trust, and reaching the trailhead requires driving through a residential neighborhood; on multiple occasions, Pat and I questioned if our GPS was leading us astray, but eventually she directed us to a small parking area. The blue-blazed trail to the falls isn’t long, and the falls itself is very pretty… even if it is somewhat lacking in both roaring and falling.
5. Nourish your inner 7-year-old at Launch Trampoline Park in Hartford
You know you want to. It’s an entire warehouse filled with trampolines. Need I say more?
6. Try to wrap your arms all the way around the Pinchot Sycamore in Simsbury
The Pinchot Sycamore is the largest tree in the state, with a height of 100 feet (30 meters) and a trunk circumference of 28 feet (8.5 meters). The canopy is about 120 feet (36 meters) across and the tree itself is estimated to be 200-300 years old. The tree rises up near the banks of the Farmington River in central Connecticut and is named for famous conservationist Gifford Pinchot, who was a Connecticut native and the first ever chief of the US Forest Service.
7. Nerd out at the Connecticut Science Center in Hartford
If you like learning about the human body or the many inventions of Leonardo da Vinci or outer space, then the Connecticut Science Center is the place for you! We’ve been to the science center three times: once just for a normal visit, once for an event called Liquid Lounge, and once for an event called Science Straight Up. And if you’re thinking those last two sound like there should be alcohol involved… well, there is! It’s the nerdiest happy hour in Hartford. I mean, where else can you touch a real brain, see yourself in infrared, learn about outer space, and watch how a prosthetic arm works all while hanging out with friends and drinking a beer?
8. Go leaf peeping
Yes, that’s really what they call it. For all the things I didn’t love about Connecticut, I can say without a doubt that autumn in New England is hard to beat! For a few weeks every fall, various shades of red, orange, and yellow dominate the landscape, turning the entire region into a kaleidoscope of color.
9. Take way too many photos of whales, sea lions, seals, and penguins at the Mystic Aquarium
Me and my very amateur photography skills weren’t overly successful at actually capturing the animals in motion. There was, however, plenty of oohing and ahhing, because penguins are just so adorable!
10. Tour the Pez Visitor Center in Orange
Located just outside the city of New Haven is the US headquarters for Pez – you know, the tiny fruit-flavored candies that come in the cute dispensers. Pez candies were actually created in Vienna in the 1920s but they later opened a US office in New York City that relocated to Connecticut in 1974. This headquarters is complete with a production factory and visitor center filled with more Pez dispensers and Pez fun facts than I ever thought were in existence. It’s definitely one of the sillier destinations I’ve ever been to, but how could we pass up the opportunity to see something so unique?
So we wandered through the museum, completing their Pez dispenser scavenger hunt, filling our brains with Pez-related knowledge, and checking out the thousands (yes, thousands) of Pez dispensers. They have a dispenser for just about everything you can think of; sports teams, animals, fictional characters, US presidents… you name it, they probably have it. They also have a wall-sized dispenser with every flavor of Pez, so I decided to nourish my inner child by filling up a bucket with every flavor of the tiny candies. I also bought a set of Finding Nemo Pez dispensers.
11. Have a burger and some beer at the Captain Daniel Packer Inne
Located on the shoreline in Mystic, this 250-year-old inn is now best known for its food and large array of beers on tap. There’s a fancy dining room upstairs, but Pat and I stopped by for lunch instead so we sat on the ground floor, surrounded by the bar and some colonial décor as we enjoyed some of the best burgers we’ve ever had, fries, and beer.
12. Speaking of beer…
Visit any one of the ever-growing number of Connecticut craft breweries. The most updated list can be found on the CT Beer Trail website. For some personalized insight, you can also check out my list of breweries Pat and I visited.
13. Gamble, shop, eat, or take in a concert at the casinos
Connecticut is known – at least regionally – for Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, the two large casinos located near the shoreline. Foxwoods is the second largest casino in the nation, and people come from near and far to visit these two locations. Both are more than just a casino, however. There are hotels, restaurants, shopping, performance venues, and Mohegan Sun is home to the Wolf Den – a small stage that hosts regular free concerts. I saw Vienna Teng with a friend a few years back and it was a wonderful, intimate show!
14. Learn some local history in the town of Guilford
Founded in 1639, Guilford is one of the oldest towns in Connecticut. It’s also one of the New England towns that’s managed to retain a large collection of historic buildings, including the Henry Whitfield House (the oldest house in Connecticut and the oldest stone house in New England, built 1639; first photo below), the Hyland House (built 1690), and the Medad Stone Tavern (built 1803; second photo below). Henry Whitfield was one of the founding members, as well as the first minister, of Guilford, hence the large, centrally-located house in which he and his family resided.
15. Visit Weir Farm National Historic Site
As the only National Park Service site in Connecticut, Weir Farm preserves the home and estate of various artists over the years, beginning with impressionist painter J. Alden Weir. There aren’t many NPS sites that preserve the history of American Art, so this is an important and fairly recent addition to the NPS. Weir Farm is free to visit, and you can tour the grounds, house, and studio on your own.
16. Visit the Air Museum in Windsor Locks
If you like planes (and let’s be real, who doesn’t?), the New England Air Museum is the place for you! There are exhibits, all sorts of models and prototypes and real planes (some of which you can sit in… in the photo, Pat is learning how the rudder controls work), and far more flight-related information than I could ever have hoped to retain. And I’m fairly certain we had reduced price admission, courtesy of Groupon!
17. Go paddleboarding on Mansfield Hollow Lake
The list of things I’m planning to buy someday when I have money seems to keep getting longer, but a paddleboard is definitely at the top. I went three separate times on the free UConn Outdoor Center sponsored trips, and all three times were just so relaxing (albeit not always excessively warm, hence the waterproof outfits). It’s a quiet lake without a lot of waves, making the perfect place to explore, take a paddleboard nap… or, if you’re me, practice your paddleboard headstands!
18. Enjoy regionally-renowned ice cream at the UConn Dairy Bar
In my life, I’ve never seen people be so excited about ice cream. But people come from all over New England to sample Dairy Bar ice cream. It’s made right there on UConn’s campus, from cows that graze in university-owned fields. UConn was originally an agricultural college, so there’s a lot of local history and pride surrounding this premium homemade Dairy Bar ice cream. Spoiler alert: it’s delicious!
19. Go rock climbing at Wolf Rock in Mansfield
In addition to paddleboarding, the UConn Outdoor Center occasionally offered rock climbing outings to the nearby Wolf Rock. I’m a mildly experienced climber but without my own gear, so these trips provided the perfect opportunity to get some practice climbing pitches, refresh my memory on knot-tying, and see some gorgeous autumn views from the top of the rock.
20. Nourish your inner adrenaline junkie at The Adventure Park in Storrs
This one falls in the same category as the trampoline park, in that it’s one of those things that’s just fun for people of all ages. It’s a collection of 8 ropes courses high up in the trees that will test your balance, strength, agility, and general fearlessness. It’s a bit pricy, but we had a gift card (thanks, Mom!) that covered the fee for a 2-hour session which – believe me – is plenty of time to completely wear yourself out.
21. Go fruit picking at one of the many orchards across the state
I think we did it all in our time in Connecticut. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, peaches, apples, and pumpkins. There are so many u-pick orchards across the state, meaning nearly every weekend from June-September provides the opportunity for fresh fruit picking, if you so desire.
22. Sip your way along the Connecticut Wine Trail
I don’t actually have any photos for this one because I’m not really a wine drinker and only ever went to one vineyard, but the CT Wine Trail is equally as popular as the Beer Trail. With a variety of wineries throughout the state, there are plenty of options to suit every wine-lover’s palate!
23. Visit any of the many state parks and state forests
If you’ve been following me for a while, you’ve probably read about many of them. If you haven’t, you can learn more here. For a small state, CT has set aside a decent amount of land for hiking, boating, picnicking, camping, recreating, and beachgoing. There’s something to be found for everyone at Connecticut’s State Parks, and they’re beautiful destinations at any time of year.
24. Have a nautical-themed day on the shoreline with a visit to Mystic Seaport and the USS Nautilus Submarine
Admission to Mystic Seaport will set you back about $25 per person, but it’s a living history museum of maritime life in the 1800s and we thought it was worth the money. You can watch demonstrations by craftsmen and tradesmen, poke your head into historic buildings, and learn all about life on the Connecticut coast back then.
If that’s not quite your idea of a nautical-themed day, head on up the road to Groton and take a (free!) tour of the USS Nautilus… the world’s first ever nuclear powered submarine!
25. Day hike a section of the Appalachian Trail
The AT doesn’t spend too much time in Connecticut, but it does cut across the western edge of the state. I really only ever hiked a couple sections of it, but I’d say Bear Mountain is probably the highlight. It’s the highest peak in the state, it’s accessible year-round (though you’ll probably need snowshoes in the winter), and the views from the summit extend out over Massachusetts and upstate New York!
Sure, it’s a small state. And yes, I complained about traffic and winter and humidity when I lived there. But Connecticut is packed full of things to do.
So next time you’re in the area… well… take your pick!