Connecticut’s capital city of Hartford has got a lot going for it. It’s one of our country’s oldest and most historic cities. Its 17 diverse neighborhoods mean there’s a lot of variety and something for everyone. Hartford is home to some of the largest corporations in the state, including Aetna and Hartford Financial Services. It’s a prominent center for events and has plenty of options for those who love restaurants, bars, theaters, and more.
As impressive as all that is, we didn’t go to Hartford for any of those reasons. We visited our wonderful nephew, Kyle, who was living there at the time. Kudos to him for selecting a varied itinerary for our weekend together. His plan offered everything from culture and history to nature and exercise to great food and drink.
Besides the sheer fact that we were spending time with him (that alone makes it a favorite), here are a few of my favorite things about our time there.
1. Walk Through Bushnell Park
Downtown Bushnell Park is the oldest publicly funded park in the United States (in existence since the mid-1850s). I’m a big fan of ancient trees with limbs that reach to the skies. Oh, the stories they could tell! These trees have a lot of history. Some are said to be more than 100 years old.
Pro Tip: If it’s running, pay a couple of bucks to ride the vintage 1914 Bushnell Park Carousel. It’s hard to beat 48 hand-carved wooden horses (and two lovers’ chariots) that twirl around an authentic Wurlitzer band organ.
2. Have A Great Lunch Or Dinner At Salute
We had a late lunch at a wonderful little restaurant called “Salute.” It features gorgeous woodwork, an earthy Tuscan color scheme, and hand-painted murals. The Italian menu has traditional favorites and some creative new twists from their accomplished chef. Highly recommended!
3. Tour The Mark Twain House And Museum
How often can you tour a home described as “part steamboat, part medieval fortress, and part cuckoo clock?” That’s how Mark Twain’s biographer, Justin Kaplan, described this magnificent home in Hartford, and he’s right! The Mark Twain House and Museum is a tribute to author Samuel Clemens (pen name: Mark Twain), his family, his home, and his life.
The Webster Bank Museum Center
From the visitor parking lot, take the stairs or use a wheelchair-accessible ramp to get to the museum, which opened in 2003. It holds the ticket counter, museum store, a historic video, and café. All tours start here, and you walk to the house with your guide and tour group.
Pro Tip: Due to capacity limits, advance tickets to tour the home are recommended and can be purchased online. Some outdoor walking is required to get to the house, and the paths are made of stone and gravel.
Pro Tip: You can’t take photos inside the home, so take plenty outside and then just enjoy the tour.
This 11,500-square-foot, 25-room, American high gothic-style mansion was home to Twain and his family from 1874 to 1891. It’s been preserved with architectural integrity, looking much the way it did when they lived there. The house has three floors and a lot of stairs (41 up to the billiard room, the highest point in the tour, and 40 stairs down to the kitchen). The first floor is wheelchair accessible but there’s no elevator for the remaining two floors.
Inside the home, I loved the character of the dark wood, wallpaper, and detailing. A beautiful wooden banister and staircase took us to the three levels of the home. I liked to imagine Twain and his wife, Livy, entertaining guests in the elegant dining room. I could also imagine the storytelling that surely went on in the home between Twain and his three daughters.
I loved the beautiful but small solarium filled with green plants, flowers, and vines. The choice for décor in an elaborate guest bedroom with a stately four-poster bed and a fireplace was beehive and spider web wallpaper on the ceiling (no arachnophobia here!)
The guide showed us the room where Twain wrote his classic work The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Seven years in the making, this classic was written in Twain’s usual process of starting things, letting them sit (ah, the creative process), and then coming back to it. The writer in me was fascinated, wondering if he had any idea how respected his works would become. They are essential reading for generations to come.
The house is impressive at every turn. Twain himself had this to say of it: “To us, our house … had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see with; and approvals and solicitudes and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction.” Beautiful.
4. Hike Talcott Mountain State Park
For exercise, we took a beautiful, wooded trail hike along a bluff in Talcott Mountain State Park, just northwest of Hartford. The 1.25-mile Tower Trail is steep for the first third of a mile and then leveled off. The hike took us to scenic overlooks of the valley and towns below. It took about 30-40 minutes to hike to the Heublein Tower.
5. Climb The Heublein Tower
The Heublein Tower was dramatic against the summer sky. In 1914, Gilbert Heublein built the 165-foot structure as a summer home. It is self-toured. The first couple of floors were various rooms — a sitting area where I would have liked to relax and have a cup of tea, some living spaces, but the pinnacle was the very top of the tower, called the promontory.
From a vantage point of 1,000 feet high, the promontory provides panoramic, 360-degree views of the Connecticut landscape. New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock, some 80 miles away, can be seen on a clear day. On the northwest horizon, the Berkshire Mountains dominate the view.
Pro Tip: The Heublein Tower Museum is open seasonally from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pets, food, drink, and walking sticks are not allowed in the museum.
6. Eat At West Hartford’s Trendy Bartaco
After all our hiking and climbing, Kyle suggested a late lunch at a place called Bartaco. West Hartford is a suburb of Hartford and a foodie town, with plenty of great places to eat. It was about two in the afternoon, but there was a waiting list (it’s that good), so we put our names in and waited outside. When we were seated, we ordered up soft shell tacos, sides of black beans, rice, corn, and of course, chips and salsa. We loved it all.
7. Take An Informal Microbrewery Tour
Next up was a microbrewery tour. Kyle had identified three places for us to try. The first one was Thomas Hooker Brewery — Colt Taproom. We ordered a beer and sat inside at long tables. As we were sitting and sipping, we stacked up their Jenga game and started to play (I should know better than to play Jenga with an engineer! Kyle won every time).
They serve beer, wine, cocktails, and food here. While their brew offerings are continually changing, the website shows at-a-glance how many beers are on tap and how many are in “to-go” cans.
The next stop was Hog River Brewing. This had a big warehouse feel and we always enjoy the variety that comes with brewery stops. They all have their own style, personality, and story. The owner left the corporate world to follow his dreams, in a dramatic “now or never” moment. With a humble start in the industry cleaning kegs, he learned what it took to become a brewer, over time, culminating in the business we see today. It’s always inspiring to see people follow their dreams.
Our last stop was Hanging Hills Brewing. On the website, owner Joe Ploof also has an inspiring story of making it through the pandemic, but his story ends with being flexible and adaptable. Unfortunately, post-pandemic, the facility and tasting room are no longer open. However, their craft beer can still be purchased in the area through their “beer finder” option.
8. Have A Nice Dinner At The Capital Grille
The Capital Grille is an elegant and popular place in Hartford for aged steaks and fresh seafood. The steaks are dry-aged in-house for 18 to 24 days then hand-cut by their own, on-premise butcher. With 350 selections on the wine list and a floor-to-ceiling wine kiosk that holds some 3,500-5,000 bottles, you’re sure to find one just right for you. I don’t think you can have a bad meal here. Our steaks were done to perfection.
Pro Tip: See the “polite notice” disclaimer on their website for the dress code, which they maintain to “better deliver on [their] promise of a refined atmosphere.” I appreciated the standards and didn’t find them stuffy or unrealistic.
In short, we loved our weekend in Hartford with its wonderful mix of culture, history, nature, exercise, great food, and drink. As I mentioned, the highlight was spending time with Kyle, and I think he was glad to “show off his city” for the weekend and give us a taste of some of what Hartford has to offer. When you go, you’ll no doubt enjoy the variety and activity of Hartford and develop your list of favorites.
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