Lifestyle

The 22 Best Things to Do in Connecticut

The gateway state between New York and New England, Connecticut offers a best-of-both-worlds mix of city vibes and country charm. From a castle dedicated to Sherlock Holmes lore and a waterfall that inspired a brewery, to the world’s first nuclear submarine and first hamburger, there are plenty of great things to do, see, eat, drink, and experience in Connecticut. These are the very best.

Try New Haven-style pizza

Forget Yale -- the real reason to visit New Haven is to go to Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana or Sally’s Apizza, located a block apart from one another on Wooster Street. Both spots are originators of the thin-crust, charred, and chewy New Haven-style pizza that’s often imitated but never equaled. The divisive debate over which spot is better has raged since the 1930s. Expect a line at both, but at Pepe’s you can avoid it by calling and ordering takeout; at Sally’s the phone is rarely answered.  

Visit Sherlock Holmes' castle

Overlooking the picturesque Connecticut River, Gillette Castle has hidden rooms, sliding furniture secret passageways, and spy mirrors. It was built by the actor William Gillette, who brought Sherlock Holmes to the stage and gave the character his signature deerstalker cap, curved pipe, large magnifying glass, and “elementary, my dear Watson” catchphrase. The Castle is open Thursday-Sunday, 11am to 5pm, from Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day. The best way to get there is to cross the river on the historic Chester-Hadlyme ferry, which carries cars and their passengers for $5 or $6.

Take a steam train and river boat ride

Pair your visit to Gillette Castle with a ride on the Essex Steam Train and Riverboat. Visitors ride in vintage train cars that are pulled by a steam locomotive at 20mph through the scenic Connecticut countryside, crossing trestles and bridges over rivers and creeks. Passengers then board the Becky Thatcher riverboat for a cruise on the Connecticut River. The two-and-a-half-hour trip provides some of the best views you’ll find in the state.

Drink a sour beer

One of the best places to get your sour beer on is at OEC Brewing in Oxford, a small brewery that’s received national attention for its obsession with this tart style. The taproom is open Saturdays from noon-7pm. For a less-intense introduction to the style, Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford offers some mildly sour brews alongside a full lineup of IPAs and other beers. It also has a large, visitor-friendly taproom, and is in the process of expanding with the planned opening of a separate brewing building that will be dedicated to sour and barrel-aged beers.

Experience #lakelife

Candlewood Lake is one of the biggest lakes within striking distance of New York City and the largest in Connecticut at a robust 8.4 square miles. The summer playground of those in the Danbury area, it’s an idyllic spot for fishing, jet skiing, tubing, or just lounging around. Boat rentals are available at Echo Bay Marina in Brookfield and elsewhere. A favorite spot on the lake is Down the Hatch, a waterside bar and restaurant where boaters can dock and enjoy a few drinks.

Eat the world’s first hamburger

Burger lovers everywhere owe Connecticut a debt of gratitude for birthing the hamburger. Honor that food heritage with a pilgrimage to Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, where in 1900, owner Louis Lassen put ground meat between two slices of bread for a customer who was in a hurry. The recipe hasn’t changed since that day: Burgers are served between two slices of bread, with or without cheese, and without newfangled toppings like ketchup (don’t even ask for it).

Climb a tower straight from a fairytale

Jutting out of the otherwise tame Connecticut countryside, the 32-foot Castle Craig looks like something out of J.R.R. Tolkien. Built in 1900, the top of this stone tower in Meriden’s Hubbard Park is 975 feet above sea level and offers stunning panoramic views. You can drive up a service road or hike to the tower, but watch out for the black dog, a legendary creature that allegedly carries a curse if seen three times. The park is open 10am-4:45pm from May 1 through October 31.

Try the state’s best pasta

To sample the best pasta Connecticut has to offer, stop by Aranci 67, an upscale family-owned Italian restaurant in Wilton featuring a variety of Sorrento-style Italian food. The house-made pasta dishes include the mezzi rigatoni, halfcut rigatoni sautéed with fried diced eggplant in a plum tomato sauce, and pappardelle bolognese, pappardelle (large, flat pasta noodles) in a beef, pork and veal meat sauce, topped with a scoop of ricotta cheese.

Go on the Spirits Trail

Following in the footsteps of the craft beer movement, the Connecticut Spirits Trail recently launched with 10 liquor producers. Explore the trail and get your “passport” stamped as you enjoy gins and vodkas, whiskeys and rums, liqueurs and eau de vies, at inviting spots like the Litchfield Distillery in Litchfield, the Hartford Flavor Co. in Hartford, and Westford Hill Distillers in Ashford.

Board a whaling ship

Mystic Seaport in Mystic is a holy site for maritime enthusiasts. The crown jewel of its collection is the venerable Charles W. Morgan, the world’s only remaining wooden whaling ship. Launched in 1841, it’s the sole survivor of a fleet that once totaled more than 2,700 vessels. Spending a few minutes touring this vessel and experiencing the cramped lower quarters, you’ll learn more about life on a whaling ship than in all the 800-plus pages of Moby-Dick.

Try a San Diego-style burrito

Connecticut may seem an unlikely spot to try a Californian delicacy, but the Green Grunion food truck offers one of the best versions of a San Diego burrito outside the city itself. The burrito comes tightly wrapped and jam-packed with griddled ingredients like chicken, chorizo, and, of course, French fries. The Green Grunion’s home base is in Danbury at Kenosia Park, but the truck can often be found at various breweries on weekends.

Explore the nuclear (sub) option

When it was launched into the Thames River in Connecticut 1954, the USS Nautilus immediately outclassed every other vessel at sea. Like something out of a science-fiction novel, the world’s first nuclear submarine could generate its own fuel and oxygen, and stay submerged for months at a time. In 1958, the Nautilus and its crew passed under the North Pole while submerged beneath the ice. Today, the decommissioned vessel is permanently docked in the Thames River and can be toured for free as part of the Submarine Force Museum in Groton, the only submarine museum operated by the US Navy.

Go chasing waterfalls

One of the state’s most popular hiking destinations, Kent Falls is a striking waterfall and a top outdoor destination in a town that is also home to a portion of the Appalachian Trail. Visitors can follow the falls from the parking lot for a quarter of a mile along a paved path to a dramatic 70-foot cascade. Before leaving the area, check out the waterfall’s namesake Kent Falls Brewing Co., a nearby farmhouse brewery.

Bone up on natural history

The Yale Peabody Museum is one of Connecticut’s most influential institutions. Known as the “Sistine Chapel of Evolution,” it contains a variety of fossils that helped popularize Charles Darwin’s work. The museum’s centerpiece, the Great Hall of Dinosaurs, is a one-of-a-kind space that features the mounted skeleton of the first brontosaurus to be discovered, as well as Rudolph Zallinger’s famous mural, The Age of Reptiles, which depicts dinosaurs in all their prehistoric glory.

Catch a concert at a casino

There are a lot of casino options on the East Coast these days, but when it comes to sheer size and scope of activities, Connecticut’s Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun remain safe bets for visitors. Built in the bigger-is-better era of the 1990s, both are giant resorts with several restaurants and intimate concert venues that are great for seeing a band or comedian, as well as hitting the slot machines.

Go whitewater tubing

Farmington River Tubing offers visitors the chance to jump on specially designed river tubes for a 2.5-mile trip down the rushing rapids of the scenic Farmington River. The journey takes you over three sets of rapids, and the company typically operates from Memorial Day through mid-September, but river conditions can change daily, so always call ahead. And prepare to get soaked.

Eat a steamed cheeseburger

One of the country’s most delicious and hyper-local regional delicacies is the steamed hamburger, found primarily in Meriden, Middletown, and surrounding areas. The quintessential example is at Ted’s Restaurant in Meriden, which has been using steamed water to cook its burgers since 1959. Ordered with the works, the juicy burger comes encapsulated in cheese, and coated in mustard, mayo, and ketchup, with all the other standard toppings.

Visit an izakaya

For the best ramen in the state, and arguably anywhere in the US, stop by Kawa Ni (“On the River”) in Westport. Modeled after Japanese gastropubs, this izakaya offers steaming bowls of ramen in a sleek, relaxed setting. There are also craft cocktails, an excellent sake list, and a varied selection of craft beer. Japanese artwork adorns the walls, classic rock plays over the stereo, and somehow it all works.

Spend a day at the races

Connecticut is home to one of the country’s oldest and most unusual racetracks, Lime Rock Park. Set in a rural, remote corner of the state, the park allows spectators to get close to the action; in contrast to the concrete jungles you’ll find at most race venues, this road course offers plenty of green space for picnicking. Founded in 1957, Lime Rock served as the longtime racing home for legendary actor and racing enthusiast Paul Newman. Events take place at the track on many Saturdays throughout the year.

Tour an optical illusion

Hartford’s Austin House, or Facade House, looks like a stately mansion from the street, but its 86-foot-wide front is only -- you guessed it -- a facade. In reality, the house is merely 18 feet deep. Originally the home of Arthur Everett "Chick" Austin, Jr., a magician and the former director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (the Hartford institution that owns the house today), the infamous “Pasteboard Palace” hosted numerous luminaries of the mid-20th century, including Salvador Dalí and Gertrude Stein. Guided tours of the house are available by reservation only.

Unwind with wine

When it comes to the combination of wine and a view, Hopkins Vineyard in Warren can hold its own against any Californian, French, or Italian vineyard. The vineyard is located on a hill overlooking beautiful Lake Waramaug, and visitors can sample wines in the tasting room before purchasing a bottle to enjoy over a picnic outside. Spend the night at the Hopkins Inn across the road, where you can dine on Austrian and American cuisine on an outdoor deck while watching the sunset over the lake.

Sail the sound (or cruise it)

Hugging Connecticut’s coastline, the Long Island Sound is one of the state’s best attractions, and there are a number of great ways to enjoy it. The Mystic Whaler is a tall ship that sails out of New London and offers dinner cruises and Sunday brunch cruises from June through September. Also leaving from New London is a high-speed ferry to Block Island, Rhode Island, and the Cross Sound Ferry from New London to Orient Point, Long Island. In Bridgeport, guests can board The Bridgeport and Port Jefferson Steamboat Company and cruise to Port Jefferson, Long Island.

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Erik Ofgang is the senior writer at Connecticut Magazine and author of Buzzed: Where to Enjoy the Best Craft Beverages in New England and Gillette Castle: A History. He teaches journalism at Mercy College and in Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. Follow him @erikofgang