For many, the Constitution State conjures images of wealth. After all, Connecticut is home to New England coastal charm, affluent communities that frequently dip down to New York City, and, of course, Yale University, a world-renowned Ivy League institution of higher education. But activities in Connecticut aren’t reserved for the superrich. Multiple beaches and an abundance of state parks and forests provide lots of vacation opportunities for families, and history buffs will delight in communities boasting architecture dating back as far as the 17th century. You don’t have to look far to find fun things to do in Connecticut, and we’ve compiled a list of some of the state’s top attractions to help you get started.
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If you’re wondering what to do in Connecticut, the state’s capital is a great place to start. The city is situated in the heart of the state and hugs the west bank of the Connecticut River. Founded in the 1630s, Hartford is among the oldest cities in the US, and it’s no coincidence that many of its major tourist attractions hold historic significance.
One of Hartford’s most-visited sites is the Mark Twain House & Museum. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (better known by his pen name, Mark Twain) lived in the 11,500-square-foot house from 1874 until 1891, and Clemens wrote his most famous works during that period. The stunning house now serves as a museum and offers activities and educational programs. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art is another much-loved Hartford attraction. Founded in 1842 and opened to the public two years later, the Wadsworth Atheneum is the oldest continuously operating public art museum in the country.
For an interactive, educational experience that appeals to guests of all ages, head to the Connecticut Science Center, which features 165 hands-on exhibits exploring geology, astronomy, physics, and more. When it comes to green spaces, Bushnell Park is a must-see. The 37-acre space is the oldest publicly funded park in the US and entertains visitors with a historic carousel, artwork, and regularly scheduled events.
2. Rocky Neck State Park
Located on the shores of Long Island Sound, Rocky Neck State Park is one of the best places to go in Connecticut for some waterfront recreation. The park’s origins date to 1931, when a group of conservationists used their own funds to protect the land until the state authorized its purchase. The 710-acre park is anchored by the Ellie Mitchell Pavilion, a curved building constructed from local stone and wood in the 1930s.
Rocky Neck’s diverse terrain allows for a wide variety of activities. The white sand beach is available for saltwater bathing as well as fishing. Anglers are welcome year-round on the beach’s jetty, where they can fish for winter flounder, striped bass, blackfish, and bluefish. Crabbing is also permitted in certain areas.
Picnicking and hiking are popular land-based activities. The trails are easy and pleasant to walk and reward hikers with photo-worthy views like that of the salt marsh. Bird-watchers can spy herons, cranes, and mute swans in the autumn. For visitors who need more than one day to explore the landscape, 160 wooded and open campsites are open from May to September.
If you’re visiting Connecticut with nature and serenity in mind, consider heading to a rural town. Named after the southwestern county in England, Cornwall has a population of less than 1,500 and is tucked into the lush northwest corner of Connecticut. The community is set within the foothills of the Berkshires and enjoys a heavily forested landscape, prompting its nickname: the Greenest Town in Connecticut.
Hugging the east bank of the Housatonic River, Cornwall serves as a gateway to multiple lakes and state parks and forests. One of the most popular protected areas is Mohawk Mountain State Forest State Park. The rugged sanctuary is a great option for scenic hikes and wildlife spotting. The forest’s Black Spruce Bog is a unique natural area and has one of the only plant communities of its kind in the state. Mohawk Mountain is best known for its ski area, which features both wooded and open downhill runs.
Cornwall is probably best known for the West Cornwall Covered Bridge, which transports vehicular traffic across the Housatonic River. Constructed in the 1860s, the structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the last remaining covered bridges in Connecticut. For more insight into the community’s past, visitors can check out the various exhibitions at the Cornwall Historical Society.
4. Hammonasset Beach State Park
With more than two miles of sandy beach, Hammonasset Beach State Park is undoubtedly one of the best vacation spots in Connecticut. The largest shoreline park in the state opened to the public in 1920 and was an immediate tourist draw. The park served as a US Army reservation during World War II before resuming its popularity as a center of recreation. Today, Hammonasset Beach State Park welcomes more than three million visitors annually.
The beach is the obvious star of the park. Swimming is enjoyable and safe thanks to a stone breakwater built in 1955. Daytime saltwater fishing is available on two jetties during peak season, and night fishing is permitted along the beach. Fish here include winter and summer flounder, bluefish, blackfish, weakfish, scup, and striped bass. Car-top crafts such as kayaks, canoes, and small sailboats are also allowed on the water.
The campgrounds at Hammonasset Beach State Park open Memorial Day weekend and close in mid-October. The park has more than 550 campsites as well as some rustic cabins. An on-site Nature Center houses exhibits and provides interpretive programs. If your priority is relaxation, scope out one of the picnic spots or take a casual stroll along the park’s walking trails. Bike rentals are also available.
The southernmost and westernmost town in the state, Greenwich is one of the best places in Connecticut to visit if your vacation plans include a stop in New York. Located on the Gold Coast, Greenwich is known for its affluent neighborhoods and large commuter population that travels to Manhattan for work. But don’t be intimidated by the hedge funds, investment firms, and polo club; Greenwich also has an interesting combination of historic sites, preserved land, and cultural institutions.
Downtown Greenwich is anchored by the Greenwich Avenue Historic District, a popular tourist destination that was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. This is definitely a district to explore on foot so you can properly appreciate the variety of architectural styles used in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Another can’t-miss spot downtown is the Bruce Museum, which has collections centered on art, science, history, textiles, and ethnology.
Learn about the area’s natural habitats by visiting the Greenwich Audubon Center, which became the National Audubon Society’s first environmental education center when it opened in 1943. The center features seven distinct sanctuaries open to the public. Here, hikers can observe bird species, wildflowers, diverse forestland, and more.
6. Lake Waramaug State Park
If you’re looking for a lakeside vacation in Connecticut, Lake Waramaug can’t be beat. Situated in western Connecticut, Lake Waramaug State Park boasts postcard-worthy vistas thanks to its sparkling blue water and rolling hills covered in lush greenery. The 95-acre landscape was purchased by the state in 1920 and is named after the chief of the Wyantenock tribe, whose people spent summers by the lake.
The lake’s transformation throughout the seasons makes it one of the most beautiful places in Connecticut. Vibrant fall foliage on the lakeside trees and its reflection in the water draws plenty of photographers and leaf-peepers. In wintertime, the frozen landscape becomes a wonderland of ice skating and ice fishing for brown trout, yellow perch, chain pickerel, and largemouth and smallmouth bass.
With summertime come all the quintessential outdoor activities. Swimming and picnicking are popular family pastimes. Canoe and kayak rentals are convenient for visitors from afar who can’t bring their own craft. The park has 76 open and wooded campsites as well as some cabins that are available to rent on weekends. The typical camping season begins on Memorial Day weekend and extends to October.
7. Old Saybrook
When it comes to weekend getaways in Connecticut, quiet and coastal Old Saybrook is a noteworthy option. Situated at the mouth of the Connecticut River, Old Saybrook possesses the quintessential New England combination of waterfront charm and historic sites. European settlers first arrived in the area in 1624 and quickly established a community. The design of the current Connecticut state flag derives from the seal of the Saybrook Colony.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most beloved spots in Old Saybrook is on the water. Harvey’s Beach is considered by many to be one of the best beaches in the state thanks to its soft, white sand and various amenities. Swimming, boating, and fishing are welcome here, and facilities include a children’s playground, restrooms, and a concession stand. For more waterfront fun, consider a fishing charter or a cruise along the Connecticut River.
Known locally as the Kate, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Old Saybrook. Originally opened in 1911 as the town hall, today the center hosts museum exhibits, film showings, concerts, and theater performances. For more history appreciation, stop by the General William Hart House or the Lynde Point Lighthouse, or browse some of the town’s many antiques shops.
8. Devil’s Hopyard State Park
Encompassing 860 miles of rocky, forested terrain, Devil’s Hopyard State Park is one of the coolest places in Connecticut for hiking fans. The exact origins of the park’s name are unclear, which adds to the site’s mysterious appeal. Some say that a man named Dibble grew hops in the area, and eventually Dibble became Devil. Others believe the lore that the park’s perfectly cylindrical potholes are the result of the devil’s hooves burning holes in the ground.
The park is best known for the Eightmile River’s Chapman Falls. This picturesque waterfall drops more than 60 feet over a multistep rock formation. The area’s famous potholes, created by stones eroding the ground after getting caught in swirling eddies, are located near the falls. Both of these natural features are particularly popular with nature photographers. Streams in the park are unsafe for swimming but are great sources of brook trout for anglers.
The falls and other scenic vistas can be accessed via various hiking trails. Biking is also permitted, but animal enthusiasts may prefer to walk so that they can make frequent stops to appreciate some of the best bird-watching opportunities in the state. The park’s 21 wooded campsites are near Chapman Falls and open from April to October.
Situated on the shores of Fishers Island Sound and hugging the Rhode Island border, Stonington is one of the best towns in Connecticut for a relaxing vacation. After colonists from Plymouth arrived in the area in 1649, Stonington became a hub for shipbuilding and the whaling industry. While fishing still contributes to the town’s economy today, Stonington also relies on tourism. The town’s coastal charm, historic preservation, and resort-like atmosphere come together to attract visitors in droves.
Nothing says “vacation” like a beach, and Stonington’s DuBois Beach is one of New England’s best. Open on a seasonal basis, the beach is popular with families thanks to its soft sand, gentle surf, and shaded gazebo. The beach also features jetties for crabbing. Just steps from the beach is one of Stonington’s best known landmarks, the Old Lighthouse Museum. Built in 1840, this distinctive stone structure is the first lighthouse museum in the nation.
Stonington is also a great vacation spot for wine connoisseurs. Founded in 1987, Stonington Vineyards is a founding member of the Connecticut Wine Trail. The winery is about five miles north of downtown and specializes in barrel-fermented chardonnay. Saltwater Farm Vineyard is located on the west bank of the Wequetequock River and features a tasting room housed in a World War II-era airplane hangar.
Mystic is technically a census-designated place located within the towns of Groton and Stonington, but the village unquestionably deserves its own entry on this list. Mystic is a major tourist draw and a must-see in Connecticut. Located at the mouth of the Mystic River, the village was a historically significant seaport between the 17th and 19th centuries and served as a hub of whaling and shipbuilding activity. To this day, many of Mystic’s most-visited sites recall its maritime culture.
The Mystic Seaport Museum is one of the leading maritime museums in the world and Mystic’s most popular tourist attraction. Established in 1929, the museum currently boasts a planetarium, gardens, historic vessels, a recreated 19th-century seaport village, and much more. The Mystic Aquarium is a favorite destination for families. This particular aquarium is known for its animal rescue program and dedication to conservation; it also has the largest outdoor beluga habitat in the country.
Flanking both banks of the Mystic River, Historic Downtown Mystic is a picturesque, walkable neighborhood brimming with local retailers and seafood eateries. This is also the location of Mystic Pizza, the pizza parlor that inspired the 1988 film of the same name. For even more unique shops and restaurants, head about a mile north to Olde Mistick Village.
11. Enders State Forest
In northern Connecticut, about five miles south of the border with Massachusetts, Enders State Forest was initially a 1,500-acre gift of land from the Enders family to the state. The land was officially declared a state forest in 1970, and today Enders comprises nearly 2,100 acres total. The forest is one of the best places to visit in Connecticut for outdoorsy travelers who appreciate waterfalls and diverse topography.
Hiking is the main activity in Enders State Forest. The terrain includes wetlands, forest, and bedrock outcrops, so the trails remain interesting even for experienced hikers. The altitude ranges from approximately 900 feet to 1,100 feet above sea level. While engaging and beautiful, the combination of the park’s varied topography, full tree canopy, and plethora of streams produces slippery conditions, so caution is advised.
The waterfalls are the stars of this forest, and several designated trails will lead hikers to optimal spots to view the falls. Other popular activities here include picnicking, fishing, and bird-watching. Hunting is permitted in certain areas, but heavy restrictions are in place under the terms of the original deed.
12. Talcott Mountain State Park
If you’re looking for Connecticut attractions that combine history, nature, and truly breathtaking views, Talcott Mountain State Park is a must-see. Under 10 miles northwest of Hartford, the state park is anchored by the iconic Heublein Tower, which sits at the top of Talcott Mountain. The 165-foot tower is accessible only via a walking trail.
Built as a private summer home in 1914 by Gilbert Heublein, the Heublein Tower was sold to the Hartford Times Newspaper in the 1940s. Some 20 years later, plans were in place for the tower’s residential development, but conservationists and the government came together to organize the state purchase of the tower and 557 acres of surrounding land. Today, the tower houses a museum that is open on a seasonal basis.
Talcott Mountain’s summit is 1,000 feet high and provides spectacular views in all directions. On a clear day, eagle-eyed visitors can spy New Hampshire’s Mount Monadnock to the northeast, the Berkshires to the northwest, and Long Island Sound to the south. The trail leading to the tower is about 1.25 miles long, and visitors may come across wildlife such as rabbits, foxes, and deer along the way.
Stamford is Connecticut’s third largest city, situated right next to Greenwich on the Gold Coast. Like Greenwich, Stamford is home to a significant number of commuters who take advantage of the one-hour travel time by train between their city and Manhattan. Stamford is also a business hub, but the city isn’t lacking vacation-worthy spots. Like many of the best things to see in Connecticut, Stamford’s top attractions are primarily outdoors.
Only a few miles east of Stamford’s bustling downtown is Cove Island Park, a popular oasis with two sand beaches, a one-mile walking trail, multiple sports courts, a cycling path, a playground, and more. The neighboring Cove Island Wildlife Sanctuary boasts 309 bird species and some 50 species of butterfly. Venture roughly five miles north of downtown to visit the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, a 118-acre property that includes trails, a playground, an observatory and planetarium, a farm, the Bendel Mansion, and many educational exhibits and programs.
If you’re looking to be entertained in a beautiful, historic setting, check out the event schedule at the Palace Theatre. The 1,580-seat venue originally opened in 1927 as a vaudeville house and has since been restored to include a Broadway-caliber stage. The Palace hosts concerts, stand-up comedy, musicals, ballet and symphony performances, and more.
14. Gillette Castle State Park
From an architectural perspective, Gillette Castle State Park is one of the most interesting tourist attractions in Connecticut. Sitting on the east bank of the Connecticut River, Gillette Castle is the former estate of William Gillette, a noted director, playwright, and actor of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The state purchased the castle and its grounds in 1943 from the executors of Gillette’s will.
Gillette himself designed most of the castle, which he named the Seventh Sister after the chain of hills upon which the castle sits. The castle’s exterior was built to resemble a medieval castle, and the interior is filled with Gillette’s personal touches, such as built-in couches, wooden light switches, and uniquely and intricately carved door latches. Gillette’s 184-acre estate also included walking paths and a narrow gauge railroad.
Today, the castle operates as a museum and visitor center and is consistently rated as one of the top attractions in Connecticut. In addition to touring the remarkable castle, guests can stroll the hiking trails and enjoy picnic spots. River camping is also available from May through September for visitors traveling on the Connecticut River.
15. New Haven
New Haven is one of the largest cities in Connecticut and occupies a scenic coastal spot on Long Island Sound, but most people know the locale as the setting for Yale University. Yale’s origins date back more than 300 years, and the educational institution is so inextricably tied to New Haven that most of the city’s top attractions are connected to the university in some way.
A guided tour of the Yale campus provides insight into the university’s centuries of history and gives visitors a chance to observe the school’s diverse architectural styles, which include brutalism, Gothic revival, Georgian, and post-war modernism. Among Yale’s many attractions are the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and the Yale Center for British Art. Yale also boasts several libraries, the most remarkable being the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses a Gutenberg Bible.
If you find the time or the inclination to stray from the formidable Yale campus, consider scoping out some of New Haven’s green spaces. The 425-acre East Rock Park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and centers on a stunning formation that rises 350 above the floor of the Mill River valley. The New Haven Green comprises 16 acres in the middle of downtown and hosts free concerts.
New England states are renowned for their charming coastal communities, maritime culture, and myriad seafood eateries. Connecticut offers all these quintessential attractions, but it also harbors a deep respect for green spaces and the preservation of history. Whether you find yourself in the middle of a forest or staring up at centuries-old architecture, you’re sure to encounter plenty of beauty during your time in Connecticut.
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