24 Top Things to Do in Connecticut

If your idea of a great vacation involves scenic drives through the countryside, sunbathing on the beach, eating fresh seafood and strolling around towns rich with history and culture, then this guide featuring some of the best things to do in Connecticut is just the ticket to start planning your next trip. The word “Connecticut” takes its namesake from the Native American word “Quinnehtukqut” which references the river that runs through the state towards the Long Island Sound, which creates the state’s iconic seaside border. Connecticut is a place whose essence is quite connected to its natural resources. Although highly revered for its stunning fall foliage, outdoor adventures abound year-round, from sailing to skiing, and a cozy tavern is never far away if the weather turns bitter. The presence of an Ivy League university creates a rich cultural landscape, too, which rivals those of the state’s more cosmopolitan neighbors.

Celebrate the Sea in Mystic

This charming seaside village is one of the most iconic destinations in the state thanks to an array of activities, eateries and historic landmarks, like the Mystic River Bascule Bridge. Some of its top attractions include the Mystic Seaport Museum, where visitors can explore the country’s largest collection of historic ships from tugboats to schooners and the Mystic Aquarium. A historic downtown district offers a pleasant place to stroll with more than 80 independent shops like clothing boutiques, artisanal candy stores and art. In addition to Mystic Pizza, the self-entitled setting of a popular romantic comedy film from the 1980s, foodies will find an array of dining options to sample, from seafood shacks to AAA’s four-diamond restaurants — many of which boast waterfront patios and views of the horizon — as well as several local breweries and a chocolate cafe. The Whaler’s Inn gets rave reviews for its cozy accommodations, friendly staff and convenient location just steps from downtown.

Refine Your Mind in Hartford

As the state’s capital city, Hartford is a hotbed of historic and cultural attractions to explore like the Connecticut Science Center, the Bushnell Center for Performing Arts and the Old State House, a national historic landmark that was the center of government activity from 1796 to 1878, which now serves as a museum. One of the city’s most popular landmarks is the Mark Twain House & Museum where the famous literary lived while penning several American classics, including the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Visitors speak highly of the beautiful Gothic-style home and grounds, accessible via guided tour only (advanced reservations recommended). Twain’s neighbor, author Harriet Beecher Stowe, also has a museum dedicated to her life and work located nearby. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art houses its collections ? described by aficionados as “impressive,” “diverse” and “stunning” ? in a 75,000-square-foot castle, and is the oldest public art museum in the country as well as the largest in the state. The Delamar West Hartford Hotel and its on-site restaurant, Artisan is considered one of the best stays and restaurants in town.

Mashantucket Pequot Museum

Founded to bring the story of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation to life, this museum offers a multi-sensory experience. Visitors learn about the history and culture of Native Americans of the northeast through dioramas, films, art, interactive programs, archival materials and a variety of exhibits. Guests of the tribally owned and operated museum say they are surprised by the vastness of the museum, and that they learned a lot from their visit, especially the Pequot Village recreation. The 308,000-square-foot complex is home to the museum with permanent and temporary exhibits, research center, 320-seat auditorium, classrooms, restaurant, archives and a museum shop. Designed in unison with the environment, the architecture of the museum features a 185-foot stone and glass tower with views of the surrounding swamp and region, and two of the facility’s five levels are situated below ground. Ticket prices are $22 for adults and $13 for children.

Address: 110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket, CT 06338

Gillette Castle State Park

A visit to this historic site offers a plethora of activities from hiking and camping to touring the unique home of Connecticut-born William Hooker Gillette, an acclaimed actor and playwright who resided here in the early 1900s. The Medieval-style mansion features 24 rooms and a multitude of custom elements designed by Gillette himself and crafted by local artisans. Travelers remark on the amazing architectural details of the structure, as well as the beautiful views of the river from the outdoor terrace. A network of short walking paths, including one that follows along an old railroad track, meanders throughout the surrounding 184-acre property bordering the Connecticut River offering fantastic scenery and plenty of places to picnic. Castle tours are available in the summer months for a fee; entrance to the park is free and available year-round. The Boardman House bed and breakfast in the nearby town of East Haddam offers elegant accommodations near the riverside.

Address: 67 River Road, East Haddam, CT 06423

Hammonasset Beach State Park

A visit to this sandy, two-mile stretch of protected land is touted as one of the best things to do in Connecticut. Beachgoers flock here in the warmer months to sunbathe on its pristine beaches, swim in the surf and stroll along the historic boardwalk. More active types will also find plenty to do thanks to a network of walking paths, fishing piers and wildlife viewing areas, all of which are open year-round. People say this is a fantastic place to watch the sunset across Long Island Sound. Be sure to stop by the Meigs Point Nature Center on the southern end of the park near Hammonasset Point to take a peek at the turtle habitat and tour its 10 themed gardens which showcase native plant species. Non-residents are required to pay a parking fee to access the park. In addition to the on-site campground, a variety of lodging options are available in the nearby town of Madison, from the luxurious Madison Beach Hotel to the quaint Beech Tree Cottages.

Address: 1288 Boston Post Road, Madison, CT 06443

New England Air Museum

Aviation aficionados of all ages will be amazed by the extensive collection of planes, helicopters, engines and historic memorabilia on display at this unique indoor-outdoor museum located near the Bradley International Airport in the northern Connecticut town of Windsor Locks. Visitors applaud the knowledgeable staff and volunteer docents readily available to answer questions about the exhibits, as well as the hands-on activities for kids, like building paper airplanes, family-friendly scavenger hunts and operating the Redbird Flight Simulator. Highlights of the collection include the oldest surviving aircraft in the country, which is actually a hot air balloon basket, as well as the oldest Connecticut-constructed airplane. A variety of convenient lodging options are located along the Ella Grasso Turnpike on the east side of the airport.

Address: 36 Perimeter Road, Windsor Locks, CT 06096

Eat Your Way Around New Haven

While New Haven is perhaps best-known as the home to Yale University and its accompanying world-class museums, it’s only slightly lesser claim to fame is to creating the first American hamburger. Needless to say, this city takes its food scene very seriously. It especially prides itself on perfect pizza pie making, like the thin crust pizza pies at Modern Apizza, or the “white clam pie” at Frank Pepe’s, which was ranked in the top five best pizza’s in America by the Food Network. In addition to superior American staples ? including the aforementioned “hamburger sandwich” at Louis’ Lunch, which travelers describe as “legendary” and “bucket list” worthy — the downtown area boasts numerous fine dining and global cuisine options such as the highly rated Union League Café and Olea restaurants. The college town also offers an array of budget-friendly food trucks, diners and dive bars, especially along Long Wharf Drive where a cluster of Latin-American street food vendors collectively called Food Truck Paradise whips out tacos, empanadas and Cuban plantains for takeout. Thanks to its location overlooking the Long Island Sound, seafood is a dietary staple in New Haven and is best enjoyed at popular waterfront restaurants like Stowe’s Seafood and Shell & Bones Oyster Bar and Grill. Book a room at The Blake Hotel where you can cap off your feeding frenzy with a cocktail at the High George rooftop bar.

Hill-Stead Museum

Step inside this stately Colonial-style mansion to view a vast collection of European artwork from paintings to textiles, including pieces by Monet and Degas that rival those found in major cities. The 30,000-square-foot estate is appointed with original furnishings and décor from the late 19th century creating an elegant atmosphere that can be experienced on hour-long guided tours offered Wednesday through Sunday between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Masks are required to be worn indoors during your visit. The beauty continues outdoors to the surrounding 152-acre property flaunting picturesque flower gardens, rolling hills and serene walking paths meandering through lush woods. The grounds, which are described by guests as “breathtaking” and “spectacular”, are even more stunning in autumn when the leaves are most vibrant. Located just one mile down the road, the Farmington Inn and Suites provides sophisticated accommodations with a complimentary breakfast.

Address: 35 Mountain Road, Farmington, CT 06032

Yale University

As the third oldest university in the country, as well as one of the most prestigious in the world, a visit to New Haven is not complete without taking time to explore this institution’s scenic grounds, architecturally impressive buildings and world-class amenities. Start your day at the Mead Visitor’s Center with a free guided tour, where student docents lead you by foot to see historic landmarks like the Gothic Sterling Memorial Library and several of the 14 on-site colleges across seven distinct campus regions, while entertaining guests with stories about the university’s lengthy lifespan. Visitors say the iconic Harkness Tower is a good place to take a photo, and is especially popular on graduation day. Families with children can pick up the “Architectural Treasure Hunt” brochure to help keep kids engaged during the tour. Afterward, you can spend time exploring some of the university’s attractions more in-depth, like the Peabody Natural History Museum (reopening in 2024), the 8-acre Marsh Botanical Garden or the Yale University Art Gallery, the oldest university art museum in the country boasting almost 300,000 pieces of art from around the globe. Also be sure to check out the university event calendar, which is chock full of cultural and educational activities that are open to the public like film screenings, author appearances, workshops and live performances. Round out your college-themed visit with a stay at The Study at Yale or The Graduate New Haven hotels.

Address: 149 Elm St., New Haven, CT 06511

Get to Know the Connecticut River

The Connecticut River is a 410-mile waterway that flows south from the Canadian border and empties into the Long Island Sound near Old Saybrook. It provides scenic beauty as well as vast recreational opportunities both on and off the water to the hundreds of communities along its watershed, making a visit to its shoreline one of the best things to do in Connecticut. Head to Eagle Landing State Park in Haddam, where you’ll have access to a fishing pier and boat launch, as well as ample space to view the population of bald eagles that flock here in the winter to nest and fish along the riverbank. The Connecticut River Museum can be found in the town of Essex featuring a collection of artwork, memorabilia and interactive exhibits celebrating the history and wildlife of the waterway, as well as guided river cruises and tours, which are highly recommended by travelers. More adventurous types can explore the waterway via canoe or kayak along the Connecticut River Paddler’s Trail, which maintains a series of campsites and resources for paddlers. With two locations along the river in the towns of Old Lyme and Westbrook, Black Hall Outfitters can help get you out on the water with equipment rentals and guided tours.

Essex Steam Train & Riverboat

Hop aboard a vintage steam train and a riverboat to explore the Connecticut River Valley. Operating daily during the summer months and select dates throughout the year, the Valley Railroad Company offers visitors the chance to step back in time while enjoying the New England scenery. There are two operating steam locomotives, and travelers can choose from variety of passenger coaches and classes, including a seasonal open air car. The 2.5-hour round trip tours embark from the historic Essex Station, which was built in 1892. On the 12-mile journey travelers experience the scenery of the Connecticut River Valley, including the Selden Neck State Park (accessible only by boat) and the wetlands of Chester Creek and Pratt Cove. Upon arrival at Deep River Landing, passengers board the Becky Thatcher riverboat for a picturesque trip along the Connecticut River, taking in views of Gilette Castle, Haddam Swing Bridge and Goodspeed Opera House. Then, visitors get back on board the steam train to return to Essex Station. Recent travelers say the ride is a great family activity and fun for railroad (and riverboat) enthusiasts. Themed excursions including wine and chocolate dinner excursions are also available.

Address: 1 Railroad Ave., Essex, CT 06426

PEZ Visitor Center

Founded in 1925, this popular candy company now produces around five billion sweet treats each year in partnership with its headquarters location in Traun, Austria. Tickets for the self-guided tour of the 4,000-square-foot facility include a map brochure, souvenir PEZ lanyard and a $2 credit to use in the gift shop. Inside you’ll learn about the candy’s colorful history, observe a product packaging line and browse an extensive collection of themed PEZ dispensers (including the world’s largest PEZ dispenser). Interactive games throughout the space keep kids of all ages busy, and with a convenient location near the highway, many travelers say this is a great place to let kids burn off steam during a road trip or on a rainy day. If you’re interested in more than just a quick stop-off, the nearby Courtyard Marriott New Haven Orange/Milford features an outdoor pool and patio.

Address: 35 Prindle Hill Road, Orange, CT 06477

Explore the Connecticut Wine Trail

Claiming to be the fastest-growing wine region in the country, this diversion features a collection of 24 winery members spread across all four corners of the state making it accessible from almost anywhere you wind up. In addition to sipping some award-winning wines, many facilities also offer live music and entertainment, fine dining, farm activities (like apple picking, pumpkin patches and Christmas tree cutting) and scenic views of the Connecticut countryside. A few that stand out include the Connecticut Valley Winery, featuring a full range of award-winning varietals; the Haight-Brown Vineyard, the state’s oldest winery; and the Sharpe Hill Vineyard, boasting a Zagat-rated restaurant on site. Travelers also like the Saltwater Farm Vineyard for its proximity to the sea, which adds a briny terroir to the wines, and the market and bakery at the Bishop’s Orchards Farm Market & Winery. Although springtime is said to be the best time to visit, several wineries are open year-round, offering cozy spaces and festive events in the winter, too.

Lake Compounce Amusement Park

This family-friendly attraction has several claims to fame, including the oldest theme park in North America and home to the state’s largest water park, highlighting so many fun things to do in Connecticut. Despite its age, visitors rave about how clean the park is, as well as its continued investments in updated rides and amenities, like the Venus Vortex water slide, a twirling tube that seats up to four passengers and overlooks the lake. Other popular rides include the Boulder Dash, a wooden “mountain coaster” that zips through the wilderness and the Wildcat, New England’s oldest roller coaster, built in 1927. The water park features a sandy beach area with shaded chaise lounges, two wave pools of varying intensities and a water playground for youngsters. Tickets are required for guests older than 3 years old, which include access to both the water park and dry ride areas. Ticket prices range from $39.99 to $54.99. The on-site campground has rustic accommodations including tent sites, RV hookups, cabins and tipi rentals available.

Address: 185 Enterprise Drive, Bristol, CT 06010

Get Outdoors in Bridgeport

With 1,300 acres of public parks, beaches and recreational areas, the best way to experience this seaside city nicknamed “Park City,” is by heading outdoors. Seaside Park is the crown jewel of the city’s parks system, boasting three miles of shoreline, a dedicated cycling path and gardens where people often gather in the summertime to swim, sunbathe and have picnics. The 370-acre park overlooking the Long Island Sound also features a nature preserve and lighthouse to explore. In the summer you can hop on a water taxi to access the remote Pleasure Beach, with an uninhibited shoreline to stroll and watch for wildlife. Located 2.5 miles east of this secluded gem is the hip Surfside Hotel, where you can wake up to the waves lapping the shore by the Stratford Seawall. Beardsley Park is the site of Connecticut’s only zoo, the Beardsley Zoo, which is home to 300 animals as well as a historic carousel and a botanical greenhouse. Although small in size and variety, visitors report the zoo is well maintained and entertaining for younger children, and that the animals seemed active throughout the day. The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Ticket prices range from $14 to $17. Tickets must be purchased online prior to visit.

Connecticut Science Center

This 154,000-square-foot facility offers a full day’s worth of discovery and hands-on experience for curious folks of all ages with a 3-D theater and 165 exhibits to explore across six floors, including a sports lab, space galaxy simulator and medical experiments designed to make you think. Guests say that young kids especially love the water play area and the butterfly room, while parents enjoy the rooftop patio offering views of the Connecticut River. After looking at the river, head back inside to take a closer look at its ecosystem at the River of Life exhibit, featuring a virtual tour of the entire 400-mile waterway. The Hartford Marriott Downtown hotel is located right next door to the museum with several on-site dining outlets, a fitness center and indoor pool.

Address: 250 Columbus Blvd., Hartford, CT 06103

Submarine Force Library & Museum

The Submarine Force Library and Museum is the only submarine museum managed by the Navy History and Heritage command division of the U.S. Navy. Admission to the museum is free, and guests are invited to step aboard the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine and a designated National Historic Landmark. The famous watercraft was constructed in the early 1950s just a few miles down the Thames River from the museum, making it a hometown favorite attraction. Guests are amazed by their glimpse into the life of a submarine crew and recommend planning to spend at least 30 minutes poking around the narrow galleys, where you can also take a peek through a periscope. Self-guided tour materials are provided via a phone app so you can explore the facility at your own pace, and scavenger hunt activity packets are also available to help kids better engage with the historic nature of the museum. The Hampton Inn Groton is conveniently located near the freeway, and features an indoor pool.

Address: 1 Crystal Lake Road, Groton, CT 06340

The Glass House

Owned and operated by the National Trust of Historic Preservation, the Glass House was constructed in 1949 by architect Phillip Johnson to function as his primary home. Aptly named, the modest yet complex home was designed with walls made entirely of glass to showcase the site’s beautiful surroundings. Guided tours are offered that take visitors beyond the main home into the artist’s studio and outbuildings, including a guest house and several art galleries displaying Johnson’s modernist work and collections (all tours originate from the visitor’s center). The almost 50-acre pastoral property is also a masterpiece and is worth taking the extra time to explore on foot. Tickets are required for admission to the Glass House. Children are allowed to take the tour but must be ages 10 or older. Ticket prices range from $25 to $250 depending on the day and type of tour guests are interested in. The nearby Roger Sherman Inn features sophisticated suites and a highly-rated French restaurant on site.

Address: 199 Elm St., New Canaan, CT 06840

Putnam Memorial State Park

In the midst of the American Revolutionary War, the troops of General Israel Putnam’s Continental Army spent the winter of 1779 camping on this site, which is now the oldest state park in Connecticut. The facility features a visitor’s center and museum to educate visitors on the rich war history of this area. Admission to the park and its facilities are free of charge. Follow a well-maintained interpretive trail through the woods to immerse yourself in the ways of life during this era, with restored log cabins, archaeological sites and memorabilia like bronze statues and Civil War cannons along the way to aid your imagination. Further exploration of the grounds is encouraged by travelers who recommend the area for peaceful nature walks, picnics and taking kids to look for frogs in the pond. The nearby town of Danbury offers a variety of lodging options, from basic chain motels to the upscale Ethan Allen Hotel.

Address: 499 Black Rock Turnpike, Redding CT 06896

Mystic Aquarium

A visit to this oceanic haven is one of the most fun things to do in Connecticut. The indoor-outdoor facility, though on the small side, boasts several unique features, including the only Stellar sea lion care facility and largest beluga whale pod in the continental United States. Guests rave about the whale exhibit and other interactive wildlife “encounters” but warn that many of these attractions are outdoors, making it a little less enjoyable in the winter months. There are plenty of indoor activities, too, such as the mesmerizing jellyfish display or the touch-tank, where you can “pet” several species of sharks and stingrays while facing your fears of the animals intimately yet safely. Stop by the on-site gift shop before you go to pick out a cuddly souvenir of your favorite creature. Timed-tickets must be purchased in advance. Ticket prices range from $28.24 to $39.99. Masks are required to be worn for the duration of your visit. The Hilton Mystic hotel is just across the street, featuring a swimming pool and free parking.

Address: 55 Coogan Blvd., Mystic, CT 06355

Ski at Mohawk Mountain

This ski resort comprises 350 acres of scenic state forest land, 26 ski trails for a variety of skill levels and eight chair lifts. It is the largest ski area in the state, and was the first ski area to implement the use of mechanical snowmaking in 1948, a technology that is now widely used at ski resorts around the world. Non-skiers can go snow tubing or relax with a hot beverage in the main lodge located at the base. A second lodge is situated mid-mountain, featuring a spacious patio, massive stone fireplace and full-service restaurant for skiers to enjoy lunch or après snacks. The fun continues after dark with night skiing down several well-lit runs. Guests mention that prices seem more affordable than some of the bigger resorts, making it great for families with young children. Lessons and equipment rentals are available. The Litchfield Inn is a welcoming estate located 11 miles southeast of Mohawk Mountain offering ski-and-stay packages.

Address: 46 Great Hollow Road, Cornwall, CT 06753

Slow Down in Old Saybrook

The quaint seaside town of Old Saybrook, one of the oldest established communities in the state, is most revered for its idyllic scenes of New England life ? picture sailboats swaying in the harbor, church steeples rising above fall foliage and the silhouette of a lighthouse on a rocky point with the sunset dipping into the water. A nice way to explore the town’s antique shops, historic landmarks and early Colonial architecture is with a self-guided walking tour brochure, provided by the Chamber of Commerce. Head to Harvey’s Beach in the afternoon, where travelers say is a scenic spot to take a stroll, wade in the bay and enjoy a sunset picnic (parking fees required). End your day with a live performance at the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, which hosts everything from country music artists to comedians. Many of the nautical-themed suites at the Saybrook Point Resort & Marina offer sweeping water views.

Drive across the West Cornwall Covered Bridge

Seemingly straight out of a painting you might find in an art museum, a quick detour to visit this photogenic structure is one of the many fun things to do in Connecticut. You might also recognize the 172-foot long wooden bridge ? which has been transporting Route 128 traffic across the Houstantic River since 1864 ? from the opening scenes of the 1967 movie “Valley of the Dolls.” As one of the few of its kind remaining in the state, the structure is now enlisted on the National Register of Historic Places to ensure its continued preservation. Architecture buffs will enjoy studying its unique lattice truss design, while nature lovers can sit on a bench overlooking the river and bask in the serene beauty of the area, which travelers say is outstanding. The nearby town of Cornwall offers a selection of lodging and dining options, as well as guides and outfitters for river recreation.

Address: Route 128, West Cornwall, CT 06796

Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum

This unique art museum houses no permanent collections but rather functions as a gallery space for traveling art exhibits, so no two visits are alike. Visitors applaud the well-curated rotating displays, as well as the two-acre outdoor sculpture garden, but mention it isn’t a great spot to bring kids. The museum sits on a pretty green space just a few blocks from the center of the suburban town of Ridgefield, the first city in Connecticut to receive a Cultural District designation. Located in the town’s historic district, the 17,000-square-foot facility blends old and new with its traditional Colonial architecture juxtaposing the ultra-modern and contemporary artwork found inside. A half-mile walk will deliver you to the West Lane Inn, a boutique bed and breakfast. Admission ticket prices range from $7 to $12, but on the third Saturday of the month admission is free.

Address: 258 Main St., Ridgefield, CT 06877

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24 Top Things to Do in Connecticut originally appeared on usnews.com

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