Stop the Car at These Roadside Gems Along the Drive in Connecticut
Escape the traffic and actually enjoy the trip.
It’s pretty obvious—to us locals, anyway—when people only know Connecticut as a drive-through state. After mentioning the name in conversation, the surrounding energy shifts, anxiety heightens, and there’s a certain expression that says, “I almost had a meltdown while stuck in 3-hour traffic the last time I drove through there.” To be fair, it’s an all-too-familiar scenario.
Many in the region mentally prepare themselves to brave the stop-and-go drive through Connecticut to get to where they need to be. But I promise you, there are reasons to intentionally stick around the state, reasons not too far of a detour off the highway. Numerous roadside gems make those long drives through the Nutmeg State not just bearable—but, I kid you not, enjoyable.
From dining at the birthplace of the hamburger and picking up a last minute bookshop gift to exploring a 19th-century seafaring village and touring Mark Twain’s ornate gothic home where he penned Adventures of Tom Sawyer, here’s a list of monumental pit stops in Connecticut that are get-out-of-the-car worthy. You may even thank me for escaping the traffic.
Mark Twain penned his most famous works while living in Hartford, Connecticut, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, to name a few. His home-turned-museum is now open to walk through the rooms where the magic happened. Explore the 1874 American High Gothic style that has been preserved and restored over the years, and venture around the garden where the “Huckleberry Candy” flower is planted. Come by the museum for the exhibits about and inspired by Twain—then stay for the six-foot LEGO replica of the iconic author.
This would be Mary Poppins’ dream roadside attraction, if there ever was one. The New England Carousel Museum is dedicated to preserving and celebrating over 100 years of antique wooden carousels. Horses of all shapes, sizes, and colors are on display in the permanent collection. Or you could take a ride on the Venetian indoor carousel, check out the current Quilting Exhibit (depicting carousel horses, of course), or stop by the Museum of Fire History, filled with historical equipment and memorabilia used by firefighters and firehouses—an odd but satisfying pairing.
This three-location biz is known as a “bibliophile’s bliss,” and with roughly half a million books in stock, the title is fitting. Make sure you visit the OG location, the Main Barn, which first opened in 1988. The multi-story space has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jam-packed with just about every genre, subject, and author you can imagine. The Book Barn purchases new books every day, so the collection is ever growing and no two visits are ever the same. If you’re the kind of person who can get lost for hours in a bookstore, you might want to leave a whole day for this one. Oh, and if you happen to have any old books lying around, bring them along and make a few bucks while you’re at it.
Little do most out-of-staters know that there’s a dedicated PEZ visitor center in Connecticut where you can browse, shop, and hear the candy dispensers’ sweet, sweet history. Upon arrival, you’re greeted by a massive wall of iconic PEZ dispensers before walking into the main room, where you can buy (then eat) your heart out. The museum opened in 1927 and has been taking visitors through its historical timeline, memorabilia, and DIY PEZ creations (like a motorcycle) ever since. FWIW, we deemed it as Connecticut’s weirdest roadside attraction.
Known as the birthplace of the hamburger (by the Library of Congress, so you know the credit is legit), Louis’ Lunch has been flipping burgers since 1895. But it’s probably not the kind of hamburger you think of today: the patty comes on two slices of toast with cheese, tomato, and onions—and whatever you do, don’t ask for anything else, like condiments. They like to keep the burgs just as they served it when they first opened. For sides, you can choose between potato salad and chips, and dessert is whatever homemade pie they baked that day. You’ll be lucky if they happen to have apple in stock, because it’s *chef’s kiss* delish.
Vintage toy lovers from near and far travel to Cheshire to visit this nostalgic, family-run toy museum. Spice Girl Barbie dolls from the ‘90s, or Looney Tunes figurines from a McDonalds Happy Meal? Odds are, it’s here. Owner Gerry Barker inherited the Baker Character, Comic & Cartoon Museum from his parents, Gloria and Herb, who collected toys and childhood artifacts through the ‘50s and ‘60s. Today, almost 80,000 pieces are on display, from cast iron elephant ramp walkers that date back to 1873 to early 1900s Disney memorabilia, or a whole shelf dedicated to Beatlemania. Let your inner kid unleash here, no one will judge—in fact, they encourage it.
Avery’s has been making soda out of its red barn since it opened in 1904. Sherman F. Avery was the entrepreneur who started it all, rolling out bottles of cream soda, birch beer, root beer, and ginger ale that he delivered by horse-drawn wagon. Now, over 100 years later, Avery’s still bottles and sells their sodas on-site using the same process—the only thing that’s changed is the mode of delivery transportation.
New flavors have also been added over the years, including their Totally Gross Soda line that is partially inspired by kids coming in and trying to make original flavors (Bug Barf, Kitty Piddle, Unicorn Yack… yep, sounds like kids did this). Buy a bottle or case, take an informal tour, or you can even book a Make Your Own Soda sesh on Saturdays—and maybe make sure your stomach settles before hitting the road again.
Mystic Seaport Museum, the country’s largest maritime museum, takes you back in time via a replicated 1800s seafaring village (think Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, but nautical). The physical space is divided into two parts: the Seaport Village with over 40 old-timey shops—from the Mystic Press Printing Office to the Plymouth Cordage Company Ropewalk—and the Shipyard, a working preservation effort that still uses historic methods to keep antique vessels afloat (literally).
And right now, you can celebrate the holidays of maritime past at Lantern Light Village, a month-long event happening at the Seaport that has everything from horse-and-carriage rides to holiday-themed storytimes by 19th-century residents (read: extremely convincing actors). All in all, you won’t know what decade you’re in while in Mystic—and during these weird times, that doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.