The southernmost state in the New England region of the United States is Connecticut. Also, a part of the tri-state area when combined with New York and New Jersey, this small state is most famous for its idyllic coastline, golden beaches, rolling hills, Taconic Mountains, and autumn landscapes.
While the wide open beach and mountains landscapes are the main draws for tourists, the state actually has a diverse array of attractions. Beyond maritime excursions, the state is known for its big cities, small towns, history, culture, and art. Major urban areas include Hartford, New Haven, Stamford, and Bridgeport. Small towns include Westport, Old Saybrook, Essex, and Kent.
With the perfect blend of urban and wild, historical and modern, there’s no shortage of things to do in this New England state. Suitable for travelers of all ages and interests, Connecticut is eager to please. However, fewer crowds mean that you can look behind the veil and experience the state’s authentic nature.
Livin’ La Vida Connecticut
Visit Connecticut’s Top Towns and Cities
History of “The Nutmeg State”
The first people of Connecticut date back to 10,000 years ago and over time, they eventually became the Native American tribes. The first Europeans to live in the area were Dutch and in 1614, they explored the coastline of the Long Island Sound.
Less than 10 years later in 1623, the Dutch West India Company regularly traded furs in the area. English colonies first began with Puritans from the Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony. They ultimately took the name “Connecticut” from “quinatucquet”, which is a Native American word meaning “beside the long tidal river” – the Connecticut River.
Bringing smallpox to the natives and killing them in the Pequot War led to the formation of the New Haven Colony in 1638. In the decades that followed, the territory was then disputed by the Dutch, New York, and Pennsylvania. Nevertheless, the area continued to grow and Connecticut gained the nickname “The Land of Steady Habits” because of the high levels of conservatism amongst the people.
During the American Revolution, the conservative elite supported breaking from Great Britain. Connecticut would become the 5th US state in January 1788. In tune with its earlier history, the state was an important stronghold for the Federalist Party (conservative) during the early national period (1789-1818).
Although there have been many ups and down since the days of the American Revolution, Connecticut has fared well. The local economy expanded from trading and agriculture to become the wealthiest state in the US based on per capita income.
Capital City of Hartford
Hartford is the capital of Connecticut and also one of the oldest cities in the United States having been first founded in 1635. There were 121,054 people, as of 2020, living in the capital. Interestingly, the city is now a major hub for insurance companies having offices in its business district.
While Hartford is often overlooked as a tourist destination in favor of some of the larger New England cities in the neighboring states, it’s actually a wonderful place to visit. Beyond the historic charm, museums, and parks, the city is known for its literary greats – Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe and one of the must-do activities is to visit the homes of each writer.
Arts and culture are important in Hartford and there are various establishments where visitors can view art collections and live performances. Some of the top places to view art are the Wadsworth Atheneum, Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, and the Hartford Stage. Visitors should also head to the Connecticut Science Center, Connecticut Historical Society Museum, and Museum of Connecticut History to learn more about the state.
For those that want to spend time outdoors, the Elizabeth Park Rose Garden sits on 102 acres and features more than 800 varieties of roses. Next to the State Capitol, Bushnell Park is a popular place for families because of the Stein and Goldstein Carousel that dates back to 1914. Finally, there are a series of riverside parks and plazas where people can walk, boat, fish, picnic, and participate in special events.
Bridgeport, the Largest City in Connecticut
Home to 148,654 as of 2020, Bridgeport is the largest city by population in Connecticut. Located on the Long Island Sound at the mouth of the Pequonnock River, the city is just 60 miles away from New York’s Manhattan Island. Not always a tourist destination, redevelopments in the downtown area have been essential in the revitalization of Bridgeport.
Most visitors will only stay for a short time – one or two days, but that is long enough to see some of the city’s best attractions. Popular areas to visit include Downtown, the Waterfront, and the coast. There are also numerous educational activities suitable for families with young kids.
Some of the best local attractions are the Discovery Museum and Planetarium, Beardsley Zoo, Seaside Park, Monger’s Market, McLevy Park, and Captain’s Cove Seaport. There are also a number of historical sites in Bridgeport worth checking out.
New Haven, “The Elm City”
On the Long Island Sound’s northern shore, New Haven is most famously home to Yale University – a private Ivy League university. Fairly significant in size, there are 134,023 people living in New Haven as of 2020. Although much of the local economy relies on Yale for employment, tourism is also an important industry.
On the university campus, there are quite a few attractions where visitors can learn more about Yale, and its history, and tour the campus. The Yale University Art Gallery, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and Yale Center for British Art are the campus’ top attractions.
Showcasing some of the magnificent local scenery, the East Rock Park & Pardee Rose Gardens is one of the most stunning attractions in the city. Boasting 425 acres, visitors will have over 10 miles of trails to explore. At the heart of New Haven, The Green is a 16-acre park that includes 3 historical landmark churches.
Stamford, “The City That Works”
Known as “The City That Works” because of its extensive list of businesses including Fortune 500 companies, Stamford isn’t often thought of as a tourist destination. Amongst the 135,470 residents, a lot is strictly business, but the city is starting to catch the eyes of more tourists too. Located on the Long Island Sound, visitors will be able to hop from urban parts to coastal beaches, vibrant streets, and a developed waterfront.
On the list of places worth visiting are the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, Cove Island Park, Bedford Street, Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens, Canal Street, Harbor Point, Fort Stamford Park, and the Mianus River Park. Additionally, Stamford is well-rated for its bars and restaurants that provide day and night time entertainment.
A small town of 27,141 people as of 2020, Westport or “WePo” is often considered to be a commuter hub. However, this town actually has some of the best beaches in the state. The main beach and the most popular tourist attraction is Compo Beach, which has a marina, pavilion, playground, sports courts, and a skate park. Families particularly love this beach because of the soft sand and pet-friendly policies.
For visitors who want to stick around to check out more of the town, there are also plenty of attractions off the sand. The downtown area is picturesque with its red brick sidewalks and along the waterfront, guests can dine, shop, or head out onto the water using kayaks and paddle boards.
If you happen to be in town during the summer, the Farmers’ Market currently has more than 45 vendors that set up shop each Thursday (May to November).
Old Saybrook, A Shoreline Town
Another small coastal town is Old Saybrook with a population of 10,481 as of 2020. Oozing New England charm, this community is the perfect place to take a relaxing vacation.
Many people choose to head to the coast to areas like Saybrook Point, Harvey’s Beach, and the Lynde Point Lighthouse. However, just inland the Rocky Neck State Park, The Preserve, and the Clark Community Park also offer plenty of outdoor-related excursions.
In town, visitors tend to congregate along Main Street where there are local shops and restaurants. For educational activities, a few of the best places to go are the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, Florence Griswold Museum, General William Hart House, and the Lyme Art Association.
Greenwich, Wealthy and Luxurious
An affluent enclave along the coast, Greenwich is one of the wealthiest towns in the United States. Home to 63,518 people in 2020, there are a number of billionaires living in town. However, not everyone has to come from money and part of the appeal of the area for tourists are its beaches, parks, and historic attractions.
Sandy spots include Greenwich Point Park and Greenwich Harbor, which have two small islands with excellent beaches. Historical sites that have interesting backstories are the Bush-Holley House, Putnam Cottage, and the First Presbyterian Church. Other attractions include the Bruce Museum, Audubon Center, Babcock Preserve, and the Montgomery Pinetum Park.
The busiest part of town is the Greenwich Avenue Historic District, which is lined with luxury brands and high-class restaurants. Much more than a shopping and dining hub, visitors will love the seasonal displays that are set up along the avenue. Additionally, there are a few spots like the Greenwich Senior Center and the Havemeyer Building that are admired for their impressive architecture.
Small Towns of Essex, Kent and Mystic
Curious travelers who like to head off the beaten path will also find that Connecticut is full of small towns and tight-knit communities. Featuring many of the same attractions as the big cities, the appeal of places like Essex, Kent, and Mystic is that there are fewer crowds to compete. All of these towns are home to less than 7,000 people.
In Essex, the biggest attractions are the Benjamin Bushnell Farm, Essex Steam Train, and the Connecticut River Museum. Points of interest in Kent are the Macedonia Brook State Park, Kent Falls State Park, and the Bulls Bridge. Finally, Mystic is a thriving seaport that is famous for its Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.
Appalachians, Hammonasset Beach, & Gillette Castle
Unknown to most people, Connecticut has a diverse array of landscapes throughout the state that stretches from the coast to the western mountainous region. There are dozens of places where visitors can escape into the local wilderness.
Stretching close to the western border of Connecticut are 48.4 miles of the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Passing through hardwood forests, the state’s section of the trail is most famous for a short stint along the Housatonic River, which is universally accessible. Otherwise, the trail conditions range from easy to moderate.
Located closer to the south-central region of the state is the Gillette Castle State Park. The main feature of the park is the castle, which was built by the American actor William Gillette in 1914.
Often described as an “American fairy tale with European flair”, the castle features 3 stories, a tower, 24 rooms, and 14,000 square feet of living space. Beyond touring the historic castle, visitors can hike, picnic, and camp along the river that runs through the park.
At the Hammonasset Beach State Park, the 2-mile-long beach is the largest in the state. With typically calm water and a wide, flat surface, visitors can walk, hike, swim, camp, boat, fish, bike, and picnic along the shoreline. During the summer months, the beach can be overly crowded as families head down to enjoy the warm weather.
“Find Your Vibe”
Whether you’re looking to be active, lounge around, or educate yourself, Connecticut has you covered. As one of the older states in the US, visitors will find that there is a lot to see related to the nation’s colonial days. However, modern attractions ensure that guests won’t feel too trapped in the past as they explore classic and new destinations.