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WHY GO: Curious about why Connecticut is called “The Constitution State?” Come to Hartford CT to find out. The groundwork for the US Constitution was laid right here – in a 1639 sermon, The Fundamental Orders, by the Reverend Thomas Hooker – calling for a representative government in Connecticut.
In Hartford CT, and the more suburban West Hartford next door, you can tour the State Capitol, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher-Stowe and Noah Webster’s houses, a state-of-the-art Science Center, and America’s first public Art Museum. You can also enjoy a plethora of great restaurants, several breweries, and two new boutique hotels. Obviously, there’s so much more to this Insurance hub than actuarial tables. Come for the business, stay for the pleasure on this Constitutional Getaway.
Things to Do in Hartford and West Hartford CT
This is the only place on earth where you can see Mark Twain’s bicycle, a large Gilbert Stewart portrait of George Washington, rooms in which the Amistad captives were tried, and a two-headed calf all in the same building.
Dwarfed by insurance skyscrapers that surround it, the Old State House was one of two State Capitol buildings in Connecticut (alternating with New Haven) before it became Hartford City Hall in 1878 to 1913.
In 1996, the State House was renovated to include a wonderful interactive exhibit: History Is All Around Us. You’ll find out how Asylum Ave. got its name. Ok, I’ll tell you: it was named after the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, now American School for the Deaf.
From Native American settlement to a colonial era town, as a factory city, then a national insurance hub – the history of Hartford unspools in an entertaining way.
Upstairs, tour the old Court Room where the Amistad slaves and abolitionist Prudence Crandall were tried. Circus master, PT Barnum, served in the CT House of Representatives, which met in these chambers.
Maven Favorite Museum of Curiosities is also on the second floor. Though it’s stocked with Victorian-era oddities, like “newly-discovered” creatures from the China Seas, it also features a Barnum/Ripley esque taxidermied Two Headed Calf – the most photographed curiosity here.
Don’t forget to pick up some CT-made items in the gift shop. Whiffle Balls and Bat sets, made in Shelton, CT, are just $10 each. Open 10am-5pm Mon-Fri., Summer Tues-Sat. $8 adults, $4 children, students, AAA, and free for vets/active military.
Take a self-guided tour of Connecticut’s High Victorian Gothic style State House, built in 1878 and completely renovated in 1989.
Statues of state heroes Prudence Crandall (who was arrested for accepting an African American girl into her private school in 1832), and Nathan “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” Hale stand proudly in these gilded-age halls.
Check out the fountain beneath the staircase used to fill buckets of water for the legislator’s horses hitched to the back porch. The fanciful Victorian-era interior, ornately painted and carved, is worth seeing if only for a few minutes. Guided tours are also available and free, on the hour 9:15-1:15 Mon-Fri.
VISIT: Connecticut Science Center
At nine stories, the LEED Certified green Science Center looms over the Hartford waterfront. Its top floor provides incredible views of the Connecticut River and beyond. But that’s not why you should visit.
Of course, museums like this are the key to making science entertaining and relevant for the newest generations. But you don’t have to be a kid to have a blast here. Step inside a Hurricane Force wind tunnel – where 80MPH gusts whip your eyelashes around.
Give the lifelike “Sim Man” a heart attack or allergies, and see how he reacts: disconcertingly, his eyes swell up as an allergic reaction. Try your skill on the “Downhill Dash” ski racing arcade game, program a 1 ½ ft tall humanoid robot to dance, and create the new big thing in the “Invention, Dimension and Explorer” Exhibit.
Race sailboats, play basketball with a computer, scream your head off in a soundproof room and indulge in other Mad Scientist adventures. Hundreds of games, displays and state of the art experiments will keep you happy for hours, if not days. Open 10am-5pm Tues-Sunday, $24.95 adult, $16.95 kids.
VISIT: Wadsworth Atheneum
Opened in 1844, the Wadsworth was the country’s first public art museum. It has been on the cutting edge of art acquisition ever since. Avant guarde for its time, the Wadsworth was the first American museum to display works by Salvador Dali, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian, and Max Ernst.
And with over 50,000 pieces in a variety of galleries, the Wadsworth is a terrific place to wander and discover those that call to you. If Sol LeWitt is your man, you’re in luck, as his murals grace several soaring spaces throughout the museum.
The “Lady” in John Singleton Copley’s 1780 Portrait of a Lady bears a striking resemblance to Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abby. I could have also lingered longer around the massive John Trumbull oils – especially The Signing of the Declaration of Independence and The Battle Of Bunker Hill. But countless other galleries beckoned.
Sadly, I left without knowing the story behind Jonathan Borofsky’s 1984 “Half A Sailboat Painting,” which is literally, half an oil painting of a sailboat. $10 adults, kids under 12 free, Wed-Fri 11-5, Sat/Sun 10-5.
VISIT: Mark Twain House and Museum, West Hartford
It’s incredible to think that a couple of decades ago, Samuel Clemens’s (pen name, Mark Twain) Hartford home was in danger of financial collapse. Now, no less than National Geographic declares the Mark Twain House one of 10 Best Historic Homes worldwide. (In the US, only the Twain House, Monticello and Mount Vernon made the cut).
Subsequently, Twain lovers flock here by the tens of thousands. After the Southern humorist married Olivia Langdon, a Yankee girl from Rochester, NY in 1870, they moved to Hartford to be near Twain’s publisher. Twain wrote most of his best known books – Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – during his time here from 1874-1891.
Tour Twain’s House
A tour of the 11,500 square foot home takes you through many of the 25 rooms. The first floor, designed by Tiffany to suggest Moroccan, Indian, Japanese and jungle themes, is arguably the most dramatic.
Learn about the joys and tragedies in Twain’s life, why he might have been considered Best Dad Ever to his three beloved daughters, and how he would routinely rile up his prudish wife each evening as she edited his writing by the fireplace.
Livy nicknamed her husband “Youth,” because he always acted like a kid. Twain called his darling wife “Gravity,” as she kept his feet on the ground.
A lover of gadgets and an “early adopter,” Twain installed central heating, purchased one of the first home telephones, and rigged up a bedside gas reading lamp using a rubber tube that extended from his gaslight chandelier (and still set up this way).
My favorite room is on the 3rd floor, where Twain played billiards with friends. I can just imagine the trash talk around the pool table: the great writer’s presence is still palpable there.
According to some staff accounts, in fact, visitors report the smell of cigar smoke, which has on occasion, mysteriously set off the fire alarm. By timed-ticket Tour only, adults $20, kids $11, Open Wed-Mon 10:30-5:30. 90-minute Stowe-Twain House combo tour $23 adult, $15 kids.
VISIT: Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, West Hartford
“So you are the woman who wrote the book that started this Great War…” – purportedly stated by Abraham Lincoln to Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in 1852.
Harriet B. Stowe, daughter, sister and mother of a line of well-known Ministers, first composed what became the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a serialized story in the Washington DC Abolitionist newspaper, The National Era.
From her home in Maine, Beecher-Stowe wrote with seven small children underfoot. (Her husband, who she referred to as “my Rabbi,” was a Professor of Theology at Bowdoin College).
Stowe was surprised by increasing public interest and frenzy over her installments. Released in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a significant best seller in the 19th Century, second only to the Bible. Beecher-Stowe’s book was instrumental in changing public opinion about slavery in America.
As today, there were product tie-ins –commemorative plates, figurines and booklets.
No doubt Solomon Northup took note of all this interest. His memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, was released the following year.
By the time the Stowes moved next door to Mark Twain in the mid 1870’s, Harriet had written most of her 30 published books.
The Stowe Center, a National Historic Site, offers a wide selection of provocative and timely programs and tours. By Tour only, adults $16, kids $10, Open Mon, Wed-Sat 10:30-5, Sun 12-5.
Pay homage to the “Father of American Lexicography,” who’s best known for developing our country’s first word glossary. We have Noah Webster to thank for the heavy dictionary, used and loved by SAT students from coast to coast. But there’s so much more to learn about one of America’s first great educators. He was born in this house on October 16, 1758, and found books and learning far more interesting than farming. So, off he went, at age 16, to nearby Yale University, graduating in 1778.
Tour Webster’s Home
Begin with a 14-minute orientation video to learn about this most underrated Founding Father, who helped shape the new American Colonies into one cultural entity. In effect, Webster was as much a “Nation Builder” as his compatriots, Hamilton, Jay, and Monroe. Like them, Webster was also a Federalist, arguing for a National Government in his essays, “Sketches of American Policy.” (These pre-dated the Federalist Papers, which were based on Webster’s work). He supported a National Government with strong Federal authority, and pushed for investing Congress with the power to make laws.
A man before his time, Noah Webster stated the need for a free and universal education system, and called for the end of slavery, which he wrote, “dishonors a free government.” Webster standardized the American vernacular to divorce it from British spelling and pronunciation, and in doing so, unified the American people in a bond of common language. Until Webster, kids had not learned proper pronunciation of words. He taught precision and uniformity in speech and wrote the first dictionary to record how people actually spoke.
Champion of Women’s Rights
Noah Webster was a champion of women’s rights, was ferociously anti-slavery, a prolific writer, and marketing genius. Webster founded the Union School in New Haven and Amherst Academy (now College) in Amherst MA. These days, however, the man is best known for his Dictionary – first published in 1828, with 70,000 word definitions.
Take a self-guided forty-five-minute tour, via IPad to learn about Webster and the two-hundred-year-old book that has never gone out of print. His childhood home is set up as it would have been in 1774, when he left for Yale. Watch him “speak” in his own words (ah, the wonders of tablets and videos), and gaze upon some of his belongings, including his wedding ring, and a college clothing trunk bedazzled with his initials. Open daily 1-4, $8 adults, $5 kids.
TASTE: Three Craft Breweries in Hartford
Leave it to beer-makers to revitalize former industrial and blighted neighborhoods and bring them back to life. To whit:
New Park Brewing, West Hartford
Brews are simply, and “brightly” named. Lumen, Expression, Fragment. Shine on.
This nano-brewery specializes in German style beer. Its most popular: Golden Messenger – a Kolsch.
Down a blond Hooker (ale), and other brews, within the renovated ruins of the former Colt Arms factory.
DO: Ride the Bushnell Park Carousel
One buck gets you 3 ½ minutes on one of the 48 hand-carved horses of this 1914 carousel. Open seasonally.
EXPERIENCE: Riverfront Recapture Events
From May – November, the Connecticut Riverfront bursts into song, dance and quirky events.
Free transportation! The DASH bus makes 12 stops throughout downtown Hartford from the Convention and Visitor’s Center. Runs every 15 minutes Mon-Fri 7am-7pm. FREE.
Best Restaurants in Hartford and West Hartford CT
On a clear Tuesday eve, the appropriately distanced tables at Artisan were filled with eager eaters. A beachy vibe, the outdoor paved patio gives way to a sandy area peppered with raised vegetable and flower garden beds. Yep – most of the produce on your plate comes right from your open air dining room.
Inside, hand-painted murals and planks of wood from old Hartford area tobacco barns, dress up the walls. The floor is laid with hand-molded bricks. The pewter-top bar now holds bottles of wine where before the pandemic, guests would gather and order rounds. The private “Copper Room” is capped by a gold-leaf embossed ceiling.
During Covid-times, diners access the menu via bar code displayed at the table, minimizing contact. The food is both innovative and traditional. My favorite? The killer addictive Fried Green Tomato Sliders with bacon and slaw (2 for $12). Had I known how good they were, I would have put in three orders and called it a day.
But of course there are other great dishes on tap. I’m a fan of Prosciutto and Mellon ($17), and this version, with a fresh-picked basil leaf nestled between the ham and melon, and set on a splash of hot chili sauce, added a delightful nose-running kick. The Super Food Chopped Salad ($12), rich with kale, garbanzo beans, and other healthy plants, was hearty and heart-healthy. Entrees range from Junbo Sea Scallops ($31) to 8 oz Angus Fillet ($42).
But save room for decadent cheesecake pudding with salted caramel topping. Or the Ricotta Donuts. These balls of goodness emerge hot and light from the kitchen, and keep well in the fridge. They still taste amazing cold, as breakfast the next day. Just sayin’.
EAT/WEST HARTFORD: Locale Love
Besides Artisan, locals also love Vinted – a wine bar offering 60 wines by the glass and great upscale bar food, and Savoy Pizzeria for best pies. Also, Avert (French) and Treva (Italian + Avert spelled backwards) owned by the same team. All are within walking distance of the Delamar Hotel.
EAT/HARTFORD: Parkville Market
This indoor-outdoor food hall – the first in Connecticut – just opened in the gentrifying, formerly industrial, Parkville neighborhood of Hartford. You’ll find some great ethnic foods from around the world in stall after stall – from Puerto Rico to Japan, from Brazil to Mumbai and on and on. I was very satisfied with my customized Poke Bowl ($12) from Hartford Poke Co. A Hawaiian delight in urban Connecticut.
EAT: Max Downtown
Max Downtown is one of nine restaurants in the “Max” group. This high-end, leather-clad, atmospherically clubby steak house also serves up fish from “top of boat” and other inventive dishes sourced from local farms and purveyors. “Chophouse Classics” from $38-$48.
EAT: Trumbull Kitchen
Typical contemporary tavern décor, but small bites are creative and good. Signatures include Rock Shrimp & Sweet Potato Fritters, Grilled Fillet Mignon with Truffled “Tater Tots” and Blue Cheese Fondue, and a delectable Chiang Mai Curried Noodles.
Let’s say it’s zero degrees out with snow in the forecast. What to order at this very popular downtown eatery? Anything pasta. Burgers and sandwiches are very good, but the Sweet Potato Ravioli and Chicken/Shrimp Piccata with onions and leeks tumbled in essence of tomato broth over linguini will warm you till the storm passes.
Hotels in Hartford and West Hartford CT
With 112 rooms, this is the largest Delamar in the 4-hotel group. (Delamars in Greenwich and Southport CT, and the Four Columns Inn in Newfane VT). It’s also the newest, built in a tony shopping/restaurant district from the ground up in 2017.
Normally, a valet would meet you at the car, take your bags in, and steer you to a warm greeting at reception, where you’d be met with a glass of Champaign. But these are not ordinary times. So, instead, I was offered a bottle of water (yes, please), and spoke to the receptionist through plexiglass.
It’s obvious in all three Delamar Hotels, that the owner loves art. The West Hartford property has partnered with the New Britain Museum of Art, which sends over a small curated selection 2 or 3 times a year. When I stayed, an array of Ansel Adams photos were affixed to one lobby wall.
Rooms at Delamar West Hartford
Each room goes through a deep clean between guests through a “Biospray Sanitation” system, and elbow grease. As per Covid-protocols, mini-bars and throw pillows have been removed. The remote for a wall-mounted flat screen TV is wrapped in plastic. The normal turndown service has been suspended – so no chocolate and water on the table pre sleep time. No soft lights and music await you when you return from dinner. Housekeeping is available only upon request. But, these are the things that make travelers safe.
Plus, the positives totally outweigh the negatives.
Sizable rooms, in subtle shades of sand and wood, are soothing and quiet. There are plenty of outlets, a few blessedly on each nightstand. Large windows let in plenty of light. Bathrooms feature Bulgari amenities, large Carrera marble showers and contemporary fixtures. The whole effect speaks “sanctuary:” from the elements, from crowds, from the Virus.
Schedule a mani-pedi, professional massage, or body treatment (one guest at a time) with Biologique Recherche products . But no facials, for obvious mask-mandated reasons.
Rooms at Delamar West Hartford start at $237 per night. Bathrooms in Superior Rooms (those ending in 01) feature sexy soaking tubs. All rooms include wi-fi, parking, and grab and go Continental breakfast.
STAY: The Goodwin, Hartford
This stunning Beaux-Arts red brick hotel stands out in the center of boring downtown Hartford high-rise office buildings. In this case, looks are not deceiving. What’s inside is just as unique as the exterior.
Two Goodwin Brothers build what is now the boutique Goodwin hotel as a prestigious apartment building, near Bushnell Park, in 1881. Just how prestigious? J.P. Morgan and his ilk lived here when visiting his hometown.
The apartment house morphed into a hotel in the 1980’s. Several years ago, the Greenwich Hospitality Group purchased and renovated the interior, retaining some elements of the upscale apartments – and nodding to others with contemporary flair.
Though definitely situated in a corporate zone, The Goodwin is just a couple of blocks from the best downtown restaurants and the entrance to Bushnell Park – so at least you can take a walk and breathe.
Friendly reception staff apologized to me for the Covid closure of Goodwin’s restaurant (it was Porron, will reopen as the Italian Terreno). But, they told me, breakfast (voucher with room) is served in on-site Bar Pina.
Rooms at The Goodwin Hotel
Some rooms have carved and tiled fireplaces. In shades of gold and blue, they are decorated like high-end urban dwellings, with contemporary art, mid-century modern and Art Deco furniture, and unique architectural features. (My room – 418 – has a deep blue ceiling and khaki walls). The bed’s soft leather headboard is a work of art in itself, emblazoned with a funky indigo and gold design.
Bathrooms are stunning, with fleur-de-lis tiled floors and large circular light on the mirror. The spa-like rain shower features beveled white subway tiles and ceramic-teak floor. Rooms from $149-$450 include wifi and $11 breakfast voucher. Two bedroom suites $619+.