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10 must-see museums in Connecticut

Whether you're into art or historic homes, Connecticut's best museums have something for everyone – even children
Interior of the Wadsworth Museum
Photograph: Courtesy Wadsworth Atheneum
Anastasia Mills Healy |
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Over the centuries, Connecticut has been home to its fair share of wealthy people who have gifted their collections to institutions so we can all enjoy them.

Not widely known outside art circles, there were influential American Impressionist art colonies throughout the state in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. At the lovely Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, residents painted scenes you can see today. 

The state is king of house museums, and two more well worth visiting are the former homes of Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Aside from fine art, Connecticut boasts two of the foremost museums of their subject in the world: the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, which presents Native American history and culture; and the recreated historic seafaring village Mystic Seaport Museum, where visitors, including children, are immersed in all things nautical.

Connecticut's best museums

Children sit in the lobby of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
Photograph: Mike Shugrue

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art

Connecticut’s answer to the Met, Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum houses impressive collections of everything from Roman antiquities to Miros and Colt firearms and Ballet Russes costumes in five connected buildings. Get ready to lose yourself in landscapes: Frederic Church was from Hartford, and his paintings are well represented in the notable gallery for the mid–19th century Hudson River School art movement. A destination in itself, the Amistad Center for Art and Culture is a separate nonprofit housed on the second floor (but with no separate entry fee). Created to document the African-American experience, its moving exhibitions include slave shackles and a photo of Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939.

Time Out Tip
A 16-foot sculpture of Travelers’ red umbrella logo on the plaza of the insurance giant’s HQ (One Tower Square), across the street from the Wadsworth, can inspire some fun Instagrams.

Sculptures inside Yale University Art Gallery
Photograph: Elizabeth Felicella

Yale University Art Gallery

Ancient Roman coins, John Trumbull’s full-size portrait of George Washington painted from life, a teapot crafted by Paul Revere, Vincent van Gogh’s The Night Café and Edward Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea are housed in the late architect Louis Kahn’s first public commission, across Chapel Street from his last (Yale Center for British Art). Well, you’d have a great collection too, if you were at it for 250 years and people kept willing you their art. Did we mention it’s free?

Time Out Tip
In warm seasons, don’t miss the sculpture garden and rooftop sculpture terrace.

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Long Gallery, fourth floor, Yale Center for British Art
Photograph: Richard Caspole

Yale Center for British Art

Your invitation to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding got lost in the mail? Get your fix of British art at this free, Yale-operated museum that holds the largest collection of UK art outside Great Britain.

All the major players are here, including J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds and William Blake. Some visitors come first and foremost for the architecture: This was Kahn’s last commission, and the building’s use of natural light and natural materials, and the incorporation of a store, was revolutionary in 1977. Works by non-Brits of British subjects or simply art created in Britain are also displayed. Look for Canaletto’s Warwick Castle on the fourth floor.

Time Out Tip: Louis’ Lunch (louislunch.com), which claims to have invented the hamburger, is around the corner. Don’t even think of asking for ketchup.

The living space inside the Phillip Johnson Glass House
Photograph: Michael Biondo

Philip Johnson Glass House

You may look at a photo of the not-so-large Glass House and wonder if it’s worth a trip to New Canaan. It is. The house is part of a compound that includes a light-filled sculpture gallery, a bunkeresque painting gallery with rotating exhibitions and his building Da Monsta, which has no right angles; all are on the tour. Johnson dotted the magnificent 49-acre grounds with surprises like a 30-foot sculpture he liked to climb, Monument to Lincoln Kirstein, near a pond with a pavilion. The house is open from May to November, and tickets must be pre-booked. Tours leave from the visitor center in downtown New Canaan, which is across the street from the Metro-North station and surrounded by restaurants and shops.

Time Out Tip: To continue the architectural pilgrimage, head to the nearby Grace Farms, a free community gathering place whose centerpiece is another glass-walled structure, the SANAA building, understandably nicknamed the River, as it winds serenely down a hill.

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A ship docked at Mystic Seaport Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of the Mystic Seaport Museum

Mystic Seaport Museum

This popular re-created 19th-century seafaring village is full of buildings to explore, like a one-room schoolhouse, a printing shop and a cooperage. But of course, boats are the main draw. Climb aboard Charles W. Morgan, the United States’ last surviving whale ship; take a sailboat, row boat or pedal boat out for a spin; and see the collection of ship figureheads. There are plenty of interactive experiences for kids and a small planetarium to boot.

Time Out Tip: To save the entrance fee, gift yourself a trip here on your birthday, when you can get in for free.

Sol LeWitt’s Complex Form #4 in front of the Museum’s entrance in summertime.
Photograph: P. Vanderwarker

The New Britain Museum of American Art

If American art is your jam, plan a trip to central Connecticut to visit the country’s first museum focused solely on the category. Pieces here stretch from colonial portraits to Ashcan School works and from Hudson River School landscapes to Solon Borglum bronzes. Major artists like Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Motherwell and Andy Warhol are represented, and fans of illustration will linger at the comprehensive collection featuring Norman Rockwell. Another important holding is the mural series “The Arts of Life in America” by Thomas Hart Benton, the first artist to make the cover of Time (1934).

Time Out Tip: Nearby is Lake Compounce —the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the United States (opened in 1846)—which has a wooden roller coaster, a triple-launch steel coaster and a water park.

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Display model of a village at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center
Photograph: Courtesy of Connecticut Tourism

Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center

To a soundtrack of running water and with faux glaciers overhead, descend on an escalator that deposits you in the Ice Age, when the story of the Native Americans of this region began. This enormous museum on the Foxwoods Resort Casino property has cases full of artifacts and several continuously running movies. The highlight is taking an interactive audio tour through a realistically re-created village from thousands of years ago.

Time Out Tip: To the right of the main entrance is an elevator to a small, glass-enclosed 185-foot observation tower. On a clear day a photo of the Foxwoods complex, nestled in 2,000 acres of forest, will look like a postcard.

Beatrix Farrand Sunken Garden at the Hill-Stead Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of the Hillstead Museum

Hill-Stead Museum

 A 15-minute drive from Hartford, this Colonial Revival house turned art museum was built by Theodate Pope Riddle, one of the first female American architects, and has hosted a slew of iconic figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Mary Cassatt and Henry James. It’s also noteworthy for its art collection—which boasts works from Claude Monet, Edgar Degas and James Abbott McNeill Whistler—and for its stately 152-acre grounds with a sunken garden and walking trails.

Time Out Tip: After touring the house, peek in on the sheep in the barn, grab a trail map, and head to the lookout for a bird’s eye view of the Farmington Valley.

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Exterior of Mark Twain House and Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of Mark Twain House and Museum

Mark Twain House and Museum and Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe lived next door to each other in grand old homes in Connecticut’s capital. See where Samuel Clemens wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; take a living history tour led by actors who play his butler, wife, etc.; and save time for the museum, separate from the house. Stowe’s less grand Victorian Gothic home is a social justice learning center that traces the issue of equality for people of all colors, genders, and backgrounds from slavery all the way to today. If you have kids, take the tour geared for them, to learn how Stowe’s words (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) changed the world and how theirs can have impact, too.

Time Out Tip: Make your way through a menu of tapas and craft cocktails at Restaurant Porrón—recently opened by chef Tyler Anderson, four-time nominee for a James Beard Award—in the boutique Goodwin Hotel (goodwinhartford.com), just a few minutes down the road.

Garden at the Florence Griswold Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of Florence Griswold Museum

Florence Griswold Museum

Miss Florence had a good eye for location. Around the turn of the past century, American Impressionists like Childe Hassam were drawn to her yellow Georgian boarding house in Old Lyme (on the way to Mystic if you’re coming from the south) to paint bucolic scenes of her beautiful gardens and the Lieutenant River. The site’s 13 acres remain a respite today. Tour the old house, see rotating exhibitions in the modern gallery, relax over lunch at the open-air restaurant overlooking the water (open May–Oct), wander the property and exhale.

Time Out Tip: On Sunday afternoons in the summer, admission includes painting supplies, and visitors are encouraged to paint en plein air as members of the historic art colony did.

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