24 Things to Do in Connecticut
By Janet Benoir – December 21, 2023
If the allure of quaint towns steeped in history and a vibrant cultural scene captures your interest, consider Connecticut for your next getaway. This New England gem offers a rich tapestry of experiences, from idyllic drives in the countryside to the pleasures of sun-soaked beaches. The fresh offerings of the sea complement the state’s cuisine, enhancing the charm of the coastal life.
Connecticut’s roots run deep, its name nodding to the ‘Quinnehtukqut’ river defined by early Native American inhabitants, shaping the state’s maritime edge. With elements equally appealing to the nature enthusiast and the cultural connoisseur, your visit is poised to be as diverse as the landscape.
Mystic Aquarium is a captivating marine life sanctuary in Connecticut, offering a wealth of indoor and outdoor attractions. It features the only facility in the continental U.S. dedicated to caring for Stellar sea lions, alongside hosting the country’s largest collection of beluga whales. These exhibits are highly praised, with the beluga spectacle being a main highlight.
In addition to the exhibits, there is an array of indoor activities to enjoy. Dive into an underwater world with a stunning jellyfish exhibit or test your bravery at the touch tanks by interacting with sharks and stingrays. These hands-on experiences provide a personal connection with marine life.
Visit New Haven’s illustrious Yale University, founded as the nation’s third-oldest institution of higher education. Tour the historic grounds with student-led expeditions beginning at the Mead Visitor’s Center. Wander through the Gothic-style Sterling Memorial Library and other landmarks within the 14 academic colleges, divided into seven campus areas.
Yale’s treasure trove of attractions includes the Yale University Art Gallery, the foremost collegiate art museum in America, showcasing an expansive collection of almost 300,000 artworks from across the globe. Looking ahead, the Peabody Natural History Museum is set to welcome visitors again in 2024. Check the university’s event calendar for cultural and educational offerings, including film screenings, author talks, workshops, and performances.
Gillette Castle State Park
At the storied Gillette Castle State Park, nestled in the hills of East Haddam, CT, you’re invited to explore the grand residence once owned by William Hooker Gillette, renowned actor and playwright. Gillette’s former home is a medieval fortress-inspired abode, boasting 24 intricately designed rooms. The residence showcases Gillette’s own creative vision, with each element meticulously crafted by skilled local craftsmen. As you traverse the castle’s interior, you’ll be captivated by the detailed stonework and ingenious built-in furniture.
Beyond the castle’s walls, the park extends over 184 acres along the Connecticut River, offering a variety of activities including hiking and picnicking. You can follow a network of walking trails, including a path tracing an abandoned railroad, to uncover exceptional vistas and tranquil picnic spots. While castle tours are an option in the summer, the park’s gates remain open all year for your enjoyment, without any entry fee.
Hammonasset Beach State Park
Hammonasset Beach State Park offers a two-mile expanse of sandy coastline ideal for a range of activities. During the summer, visitors frequent the park to relax on the unspoiled beaches, swim in the ocean, and meander along the vintage boardwalk. The park also provides a variety of options for those looking for more vigorous pursuits, including an ample selection of trails, fishing spots, and locations for observing local wildlife, all accessible throughout the year.
On the park’s southern tip, near Hammonasset Point, the Meigs Point Nature Center is a highlight with its turtle displays and a collection of gardens that display indigenous flora. Note that there is a parking fee for visitors who are not Connecticut residents. Accommodation is abundant in the nearby Madison area, ranging from the upscale Madison Beach Hotel to more quaint settings like the Beech Tree Cottages.
New England Air Museum
Within the vicinity of Bradley International Airport, Windsor Locks, Connecticut, you’ll discover a treasure trove at the New England Air Museum. This establishment caters to both indoor and outdoor explorations, presenting a vast array of aircraft, helicopters, aeronautical engines, and a rich assortment of historical paraphernalia for aviation enthusiasts. The museum’s knowledgeable personnel and volunteers are always available to share insights about the exhibits.
You have the opportunity to engage in interactive activities, such as constructing paper aircraft and participating in family-friendly scavenger hunts, not to mention the experience of operating the Redbird Flight Simulator. Among the notable pieces in the exhibition is the nation’s most ancient surviving aircraft—a hot air balloon basket, along with the earliest airplane crafted in Connecticut. For your convenience, a selection of accommodations is accessible along the Ella Grasso Turnpike, adjacent to the airport’s east side.
Essex Steam Train & Riverboat
Your journey begins at the historical Essex Station, a gem from 1892, setting the scene for a captivating 2.5-hour train and boat excursion. The Valley Railroad Company presents a unique mode of transport through the beautiful Connecticut River Valley, with service mainly in the summer and additional trips during other times of the year. You enjoy the choice between various styles of passenger cars, including distinctive open-air coaches that afford panoramic views and an immersion into the New England ambiance.
The trip takes you on a 12-mile rail adventure through lush landscapes, including the inaccessible-only-by-boat Selden Neck State Park, and the rich wetlands of Chester Creek and Pratt Cove. Then, at Deep River Landing, a scenic riverboat cruise aboard the Becky Thatcher welcomes you. Glide along the Connecticut River and observe landmarks like the Gillette Castle, the historic Haddam Swing Bridge, and the Goodspeed Opera House.
At the heart of this coastal gem, you’ll discover Mystic Seaport Museum, the crowning jewel with its vast assembly of nautical vessels ranging from robust tugboats to elegant schooners. Explore beyond the museum’s bounds, and you’ll find yourself amidst the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, a notable engineering marvel punctuating the area’s charm.
As you amble through the historic downtown, more than 80 unique enterprises await. Choose from eclectic clothing shops, artisan candy artisans, and exclusive art galleries to satisfy your shopping desires. When hunger strikes, indulge in the local culinary scene including the famed Mystic Pizza, seaside seafood diners, and upscale eateries—all offering delightful al fresco dining experiences with horizon vistas.
Lake Compounce Amusement Park
Established as North America’s oldest theme park, Lake Compounce in Connecticut stands out with a blend of classic attractions and modern thrills. You can explore the state’s largest water park here, renowned for its pristine condition—a rarity for a park with such a long history. The park also doesn’t shy away from innovation; it features the Venus Vortex—a high-capacity water slide with a unique design—perched alongside the picturesque lake.
Beyond the adrenaline rush, the water area of the park offers a relaxing beach setting, complete with shaded lounge chairs. The park features two wave pools providing different experiences and a water playground that is perfect for the younger adventurers. Ticket purchase is necessary for everyone over the age of three, granting access to the plethora of water attractions and land-based rides, with prices ranging between $39.99 and $54.99.
PEZ Visitor Center
Embark on a journey through the PEZ Visitor Center, where a 4,000-square-foot exhibit awaits your exploration. With an admission ticket, you receive a detailed guide map, a collectible PEZ neck strap, and a $2 voucher redeemable in the on-site store. Marvel at the company’s vibrant history, watch the precision of the candy packaging process, and admire a vast assortment of PEZ dispenser motifs, featuring the largest one ever made.
The displays are not just for observation; they invite interaction with several engaging activities perfect for visitors young and old. Located conveniently close to the highway, the center is an ideal spot for a break during long drives or a fun detour on inclement days.
Submarine Force Library & Museum
At the Submarine Force Library & Museum, you can immerse yourself in naval history and marvel at the pioneering USS Nautilus. This is the sole museum dedicated to submarines that falls under the stewardship of the U.S. Navy’s History and Heritage Command. Here, an encounter with the Nautilus awaits, distinguished as the first submarine powered by nuclear energy and honored as a National Historic Landmark.
Experience the submarine crew’s life firsthand by navigating through the tight corridors and using the periscope—a unique hands-on encounter. Allocate a minimum of half an hour to fully appreciate the intricacies within the vessel’s confines. Engage with the exhibits as they bring to life the profound legacy of submarine warfare and exploration.
With a length of 410 miles, the Connecticut River originates near the Canadian border and makes its way south to the Long Island Sound by Old Saybrook. Serving as a natural attraction for the numerous communities along its path, the river’s banks present a premier destination for engaging in a variety of outdoor activities.
Venture to Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam for a chance to fish off a dedicated pier or set sail from a public boat launch. The park’s spacious areas also offer you prime views of wintering bald eagles that come to prey and roost along the river’s edge. In Essex, the Connecticut River Museum displays an array of art, historical keepsakes, and hands-on displays that honor the river’s cultural and ecological significance.
Nestled within a palatial Colonial mansion, the Hill-Stead Museum showcases an impressive array of European fine art, featuring masters such as Monet and Degas. The expansive 30,000 square-foot residence retains its original late 19th-century furnishings and decor, offering a glimpse into its elegant past.
The grandeur extends beyond the mansion’s walls to a 152-acre landscape endowed with breathtaking flower gardens and undulating hills. The external charm is enhanced by the walking trails that wind around the property amidst verdant woodlands. The picturesque setting turns particularly dramatic during autumn, with a riot of colors that guests often describe as a dazzling spectacle.
Connecticut Wine Trail
You can embark on a wine-centric journey through Connecticut, discovering 24 wineries that span the state’s diverse regions. Experience fine wines at various locales ranging from rustic countryside to the enticing seashore. The trail offers not only wine tastings but also an array of activities and sights, including live events, farm-to-table dining, and picturesque landscapes.
Visit the renowned Connecticut Valley Winery, celebrated for its extensive selection of fine wines. Explore the storied Haight-Brown Vineyard, a cornerstone of Connecticut viticulture. Enjoy the culinary experience at Sharpe Hill Vineyard, home to a highly praised restaurant. Experience a hint of the ocean at Saltwater Farm Vineyard, where the coastal terroir influences every bottle. Don’t miss the fresh market goods and baked delights at Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market & Winery.
Mashantucket Pequot Museum
You can explore the heritage of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation through an array of sensory experiences at the museum. The immersive journey includes life-sized dioramas, diverse art forms, and educational films. Interactive programs alongside a wealth of archival resources allow for a comprehensive understanding of the Northeast Native Americans. The meticulous recreation of the Pequot Village is often highlighted by visitors for its informative value.
Situated within a 308,000-square-foot complex, the museum also houses a research center, a 320-seat auditorium, several classrooms, and a dining facility. The architecture seamlessly blends with the natural landscape, most notably with its 185-foot tower made of stone and glass, providing panoramic views of the surroundings. Below the surface, two of the museum’s five levels offer an underground perspective.
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
Nestled a few blocks from Ridgefield’s town center, your discovery of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum awaits. Recognized for its ever-changing art exhibitions, you’ll find a fresh experience on every visit, with vibrant displays capturing the imagination. While the museum doesn’t cater specifically to younger audiences, the two-acre sculpture garden outdoors is acclaimed for its expansive collection, offering a blend of nature with artistic flair.
Immerse yourself in the architectural tapestry where the 17,000-square-foot facility stands in the historic district. This venue masterfully combines traditional Colonial aesthetics with a striking display of modern artistry. Should you yearn for rest and refreshment, a leisurely half-mile stroll will lead you to the West Lane Inn, an inviting boutique bed and breakfast.
The Glass House
Nestled amidst nearly fifty acres of lush meadows, The Glass House stands as an embodiment of minimalist elegance. Conceived by architect Phillip Johnson in 1949, it served as his private dwelling. Transparent walls form the perimeter, granting unobstructed views of the verdant environment.
During your experience, you’ll venture beyond the primary residence. A path leads to Johnson’s personal studio and extends to auxiliary structures housing his artistic works and personal collections. These excursions begin at the central visitor’s hub and unravel the story of Johnson’s influence on modernism.
Connecticut Science Center
At this 154,000-square-foot center, your curiosity will be met with a wealth of interactive experiences, designed to engage both adults and children. Spanning six levels, you have access to over 165 exhibits, including a highly engaging 3-D theater. Immerse yourself in the intricacies of sports science, navigate the depths of outer space with the galaxy simulator, or uncover the secrets of human health through medical displays.
Located at 250 Columbus Blvd., Hartford, CT, the science hub is conveniently situated beside the Hartford Marriott Downtown, providing easy access to additional amenities such as various dining options, a fitness center, and an indoor swimming pool. Further your exploration by delving into the River of Life exhibit, where a virtual journey takes you along the 400-mile stretch of the Connecticut River, revealing the wonders of its aquatic ecosystem.
Putnam Memorial State Park
At this Connecticut historic site, you can explore where General Israel Putnam’s Continental Army encamped during the severe winter of 1779, a ground steeped in the influential narratives of the American Revolution. The park’s facilities include an enlightening visitor’s center coupled with a museum that imparts knowledge about the pivotal wartime events that unfolded here.
Entry to Putnam Memorial State Park is complimentary. Stroll along the well-kept educational trail flanked by the forest, which takes you on a journey past reconstructed log cabins and archaeological displays. Commemorative artifacts along the trail, such as bronze statues and cannons from the Civil War era, enhance your experience. The park is also a sanctuary for quiet nature trails, family picnics, and an opportunity for children to observe amphibian life in the on-site pond.
Nestled within 350 acres of picturesque state forest, Mohawk Mountain invites you to experience a diverse range of slopes that cater to all abilities, complete with 26 runs and eight lifts. As a pioneer in snowmaking technology since 1948, this premier destination guarantees snow-covered trails throughout the season. For those who don’t ski, snow tubing offers a thrilling alternative, or you can warm up in the cozy main lodge at the mountain’s base.
Beyond the slopes, indulge in comforts at the mid-mountain lodge, boasting a spacious patio and a stone fireplace—an ideal spot for lunch or post-ski treats. Delight in night skiing on brightly lit trails. Catering to families, you will find the rates more favorable compared to larger resorts. Ski lessons and equipment hire are readily available to enhance your experience.
West Cornwall Covered Bridge
Spanning 172 feet across the Housatonic River, the West Cornwall Covered Bridge has been a fixture of Connecticut’s landscape since 1864. You may be familiar with its charming wooden structure from its cameo in the film “Valley of the Dolls” (1967). This bridge is not only a relic of architectural history but also a functioning part of Route 128, enjoying protection as a listed entity on the National Register of Historic Places.
When visiting, you have the opportunity to enjoy the tranquil surroundings, with a bench offering a vantage point to simply relax and take in the river views, which are often described as particularly breathtaking. Just a stone’s throw away lies the quaint town of Cornwall, ready to enhance your visit with a variety of accommodations, dining experiences, and recreational activities by the river.
Explore the charm of Old Saybrook, where the blend of historical landmarks and seaside serenity embodies the essence of New England. You can navigate the area’s history and coastal beauty using a walking tour brochure available from the local Chamber of Commerce. As you meander, marvel at the antique stores, the early American architectural feats, and the timeless spirit of maritime life.
Take your afternoon to Harvey’s Beach for soothing views and the chance to dip your toes in the bay. The beach is perfect for an evening picnic as the sun sets, casting golden hues across the water (note that parking fees apply). Cap off your visit with a performance at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, offering an array of shows.
When you explore New Haven, you’ll uncover a culinary landscape deeply rooted in tradition and innovation. The city’s prestigious educational institution, Yale University, might be what it’s initially known for, but New Haven’s culinary offerings, particularly its legendary pizza and the original American hamburger, are equally compelling reasons to visit.
Diverse dining options populate the cityscape, from the iconic “hamburger sandwich” at Louis’ Lunch – an eatery engraved in food lore – to upscale establishments like Union League Café and Olea, where gastronomy meets sophistication. Cultural aficionados will delight in the international eats provided by Food Truck Paradise along Long Wharf Drive, offering an assortment of Latin-American street food, from succulent tacos to Cuban plantains.
In the heart of Connecticut, your exploration of Hartford will uncover a plethora of historical and cultural sites. Venture to the Connecticut Science Center or enjoy a performance at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. Don’t miss the Old State House, a landmark that previously buzzed with government affairs from 1796 to 1878, now repurposed as a museum offering a window into the past.
Dive into literary history at the Mark Twain House & Museum, where the celebrated author composed seminal works including “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” This Gothic-style abode, renowned for its beauty, welcomes you through guided tours—booking ahead is advised. Nearby, you can discover the life and influence of Harriet Beecher Stowe, with a museum tribute to her achievements.
Spanning over 1,300 acres, Bridgeport’s array of public parks, beachfronts, and recreational spaces offer a rich outdoor experience. At the heart of it all is Seaside Park, a picturesque expanse with three miles of beaches, cycling trails, and flowering gardens that become a hub of activity in the summer months. Here, you can immerse yourself in activities such as swimming, lounging under the sun, or enjoying a leisurely picnic.
Journeying a short water taxi ride takes you to Pleasure Beach, where tranquility meets the coast. Wander the undisturbed shores and keep an eye out for the local wildlife. For a different pace, stay at the modern Surfside Hotel near the Stratford Seawall, offering serene mornings with the soothing sounds of ocean waves. Meanwhile, Beardsley Park presents a different flavor of outdoor adventure as the location of the Beardsley Zoo.