Gilmore Girls may have gotten a few things right about Connecticut (namely the stunning fall foliage and their depiction of Yale), but, for the most part, people living outside of New England are not too familiar with this small coastal state.
The Nutmeg State is sometimes erroneously labeled as a “drive-through” state en route to more exciting destinations, but although it is flanked by many popular tourist spots in New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, there is plenty to see and do within its borders; so book a charming hotel or Airbnb and explore everything from world-famous restaurants to picturesque beaches and Ivy League history.
Best things to do in Connecticut
Made famous by the eponymous movie, Mystic Pizza has been serving up slices the same way since 1973. Fans of the film are delighted to see the restaurant has a striking similarity to the one in the movie, though due to a size and timing issue, it was not shot there. All of the pies are made with a "secret recipe" sauce. Just like in the movie, it has never been revealed to outsiders. A second location opened in North Stonington, but you’ll want to visit the original locale in the beautiful seaside town of Mystic for a more authentic experience.
Where: New Haven
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, you can ride the antique carousel in Lighthouse Point Park. Built in 1916, the carousel is one of only one hundred of its kind that are still in use today. The park offers incredible views of the New Haven Harbor and Long Island Sound, and with its sandy beaches and warm water, it’s a great place to take a dip.
Where else can you sip Prosecco with a Penguin than at the Mystic Aquarium? Marine life lovers, this one’s for you. A penguin may not be your first choice of drinking buddy, but at the Mystic Aquarium you can enjoy all sorts of treats, including pancakes and pizza, while you meet one of the African penguins and learn all about these cute creatures from their trainers. The aquarium also allows visitors to unwind with their Cocktails with the Whales program. You can even have the opportunity to get in the water and meet a beluga with the Whale Encounter program.
Where: New Canaan
Take a Tour of The Glass House and see the quirky design aesthetic of Philip Johnson, who designed the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art and the former Four Seasons restaurant. He built his weekend home in New Canaan completely from glass; this fascinating example of modern architecture is only accessible by booking a tour of the property (roaming about is not allowed), but due to the very small group tour sizes, you will get an intimate look at the artwork, sculptures, and other buildings designed by Johnson before his passing in 2005.
Connecticut is fortunate to have an abundance of incredible art museums, but the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield is the only museum in the state dedicated solely to contemporary art. The Aldrich has no permanent exhibits, allowing some truly amazing pieces to pass through at any given moment, such as Xu Bing: Tobacco Project, and Martin Creed’s “Half the air in a given space,” which filled the gallery with hundreds of gold balloons.
What began as a small beachside event has blossomed into a major culinary competition attracting thousands of attendees each year. Held in September in Sherwood Park in Westport, Chowdafest allows you to be the judge and sample more than 40 different chowder recipes from restaurants across the country. The winners are determined solely based on votes, and there are a number of categories including Classic New England Clam Chowder and Creative Chowders. Chowdafest also has a sister event in winter called the Great Mac and Chili Fest that swaps out the chowder for more seasonally appropriate chili.
Where: New Haven
Didn’t get a perfect score on the SAT? Don’t worry. You can still get into Yale University, even if it’s just for the day. Current students lead free daily tours of one of America’s oldest universities. You’ll learn all about the rich 300-year history of the school, and have a chance to see inside Yale’s largest library, Sterling Memorial Library, as well as the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Visitors and students have compared Yale’s campus to Hogwarts, due to the gothic style of both the fictional academy and highly respected university, so for Harry Potter fans, this is a must-do.
Samuel Clemens (pen name, Mark Twain) may be most associated with adventures on the Mississippi River, but the writer called Hartford home for a number of years at the turn of the 20th century. His gothic style home was converted into a museum; Mark Twain House was named as “one of the ten best historic homes in the world” by National Geographic. On the tour, you’ll see where one of America’s greatest writers ate, slept and worked, and a few times a year, the museum allows prospective writers to work on their projects in Twain’s library. Clue-inspired ghost tours, writing workshops and author talks are also regularly on the schedule.
Celebrate New England Cuisine at the Sheffield Island Clambake. Every Thursday from June through September the Norwalk Seaport Association organizes a clambake on Sheffield Island. Included with your ticket are roundup ferry tickets, a tour of the island’s lighthouse that was built in 1868, traditional clambake fare like corn on the cob, potatoes, clams, salad, and dessert all served under a beautiful tented pavilion on the lighthouse lawn. Guests are permitted to bring their own beverages (including wine and beer). Make sure to bring plenty of bug spray to ward off twilight mosquitos.
Connecticut is home to 35 wineries spanning the whole state. While visiting them all would be an impossible feat in a day—or even a week—passports are given out along the Connecticut Wine Trail to not only keep track of the places you’ve visited, but to have a log of your favorite wines offered at each vineyard.
Get shucking on a Hummock Island Oyster Tour. Embark on a sunset boat tour of Hummock Island in Westport and learn about the important history of oystering in Connecticut. You’ll also pick up something every oyster lover should know—how to properly (and safely) shuck oysters to enjoy at home. Hummock Island supplies some of the area’s best restaurants will bivalves each day including Blue Hill at Stone Barns, The Whelk and even Whole Foods.
Founded in 2012 by four friends, Two Roads Brewing in Stratford is one of the best breweries in all of Connecticut. Housed in a former machine factory, the spot gets its name from a Robert Frost poem. The award winning brews are worth a visit alone, but even if you’re not a beer drinker, there are a number of fun events happening throughout the year, including Oktoberfest, outdoor movies, food truck appearances and more. Two Roads is a short distance from the Metro North train and even offers complimentary shuttle service from the Stratford train station and the Port Jefferson Ferry landing in Bridgeport.
With the Long Island Sound spanning the entire southern region of the state, you’d be remiss not to visit one of the many beaches dotting the shoreline. Whether you prefer the fine sand of Compo Beach in Westport, or the unmatched views of pink sunsets in Walnut Beach in Milford, you won’t have a problem finding an excellent beach for your tastes. Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison is the state’s largest shoreline park, with over two miles of land to roam.
When most people think of lobster rolls two things come to mind: Maine and mayonnaise. While this is the more traditional way to serve the crustaceans, sometime in the 1920s a restaurant in Milford named Perry's decided to swap the mayo for clarified butter and serve the sandwich served warm instead of chilled. Not surprisingly, this new roll was a hit, and was named for its state of origin. Though Perry’s is unfortunately long gone, you can still get your fix at several places across the state including LobsterCraft in Fairfield, Abbott's Lobster In the Rough in Noank, and Lobster Landing in Clinton.
If you’re into blackjack and poker, Foxwoods Resort Casino in Mashantucket is one of the better spots in the state to get your gambling fix; mostly because if you have non-gamblers in tow—or just prefer a little entertainment with your wagers—Foxwoods also books some pretty big-name comedy talent. Think comedians like Trevor Noah, Joel McHale, John Mulany and Jerry Seinfeld. Even if you lose all your money at the craps table, you’ll still end the night laughing.
If you prefer placing your bets with a side of live music, west Connecticut is home to another major casino, Mohegan Sun, that houses the 10,000 person Mohegan Sun Arena. Here you can catch headlining acts like Britney Spears and U2 for far lower prices than their New York City shows. You can also play a round of golf on their 18-hole golf course or try your hand at table games like craps, blackjack or Pai Gow poker.
If you happen to visit Connecticut in June, you can’t miss roaming America’s Oldest Rose Garden, in Elizabeth Park. It has the distinction of being the first municipal rose garden in the United States and it is also currently the third largest rose garden in the country. Located in Hartford, the park is free and open year round to the public, with six other gardens that have blooms from May until October, so there’s plenty to do even if you’re not present for the rose season. Although there is also a cafe onsite, picnicking is allowed throughout the park and visitors are also welcome to bring their dogs.
Climb Aboard the Essex Steam Train and ride on a historic steam locomotive through the stunning terrain of the Connecticut River Valley. You can choose any number of activities to coincide with your journey including a dinner train service, riverboat cruise or a hiking excursion to Gillette Castle State Park. While not a real castle, the formidable stone structure looks like a medieval fortress and was the home of the late William Gillette, who became famous for his stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
For two weeks each summer, Shakespeare on the Sound presents sixteen open-air performances of any one of William Shakespeare’s plays. Set in Pinkney Park in Rowayton, the major goal of the production is accessibility. All of the performances are open to adults and children of any age, and many do not have a set ticket price. Instead, patrons are encouraged to give the suggested donation (though this is not required).The actors chosen to portray some of literature’s most famous characters are top notch; coming from the Yale School of Drama, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and even Broadway.
On Sundays at the Greenwich Polo Club, you’ll find over 2,000 locals getting their shoes dirty by taking part in the tradition of stomping divots. You may even run into a royal or two, as Prince Harry has played a match at the club, and several other celebrities have been spotted on the grounds. Though many of the global elite attend the matches, it is a delightfully unstuffy affair. Admission is reasonable and picnicking encouraged; make sure you come prepared (with at least a bottle of Champagne, fruit, and cheese) if you don’t want to envy your neighbor for the entire match.
Located on real summer camp grounds in bucolic Kent, this weekend sleepaway for adults will have you running, jumping, swimming and playing without a care in the world. The weekend’s standout activities include Slip ‘N Slide kickball, the battle royale that is color wars, and the fun-but-deadly capture the keg tournament. Club Getaway swaps bug juice for gin and juice with an all-inclusive open bar, and there are fun and festive themed parties at night (and bloody mary bingo in the morning), whether you play hard or party hard (or both) is entirely up to you.
While going to a movie on your vacation may not seem like the most exciting thing to do, the Prospector Theater in Ridgefield is truly one of a kind. The theater’s Eames chair seating and gorgeous starlit ceiling is enough to set it apart, but the true beauty lies in its purpose of creating meaningful jobs for adults with disabilities. Housed in the former Ridgefield Playhouse, this project is the brainchild of visionary Valerie Jensen. The theater is a registered non-profit, and by visiting you can help the “Prospects” (employees) transform their passions into meaningful, confidence-boosting work.