Information for visitors to Connecticut
Central Connecticut is dominated by Hartford, the state's largest city, likewise, New Haven on the coast.
The much-visited southeastern coast of Connecticut spans fifteen miles from Stonington in the east to Niantic in the west, bisected by the Thames (pronounced Thaymz ) River. Each of the handful of tiny, picturesque colonial communities and old whaling villages along the Long Island Sound is a mere stone's throw from the next. No longer are they the iniquitous and rumbustious ports that so inspired Melville, but they're still keen to preserve a sense of their history. The restored nineteenth-century Mystic Seaport justifies at least a day's visit; nearby are the less lovely US Naval submarine base at Groton and the pretty fishing harbor of Stonington Borough .
The modern capital of Connecticut, HARTFORD , on the Connecticut River, is also the insurance center of the United States. Its central gold-domed state capitol, sitting on a hill in Bushnell Park, houses a small museum of Connecticut history; free tours of the capitol are available during the week from 9.15 am until 1.15 pm (July and Aug until 2.15 pm); April - Oct Sat 10.15 am - 2.15 pm. Marginally more thrilling is the antique merry-go-round in the park. The Museum of Connecticut History, across the road at 231 Capitol Ave, holds Colt rifles and revolvers and the desk at which Abraham Lincoln signed the paper that emancipated all slaves during the Civil War (Mon-Fri: 9am - 4pm, Sat: 10am - 4pm, Sun: noon - 4pm; free).
Hartford's pride and joy is the Greek revival Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main St, the nation's oldest continuously operating public art museum, holding some 45,000 pieces, among which are many fine and decorative arts, as well as Old Masters including Rubens' The Return of the Holy Family from Egypt and, in the French Impressionists collection, Renoir's Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil . Lectures and films are put on at the Atheneum Theater, and there's an excellent cafe, too (Tues - Sun: 11am - 5pm; $7, free all day Thurs & before noon Sat).
About a mile west of downtown Hartford on Hwy-4, a hilltop community known as Nook Farm was home in the 1880s to next-door neighbors Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe . Today their Victorian homes, furnished much as they were then, are open for tours (Twain house summer Mon - Sat: 9.30am - 4pm, Sun: noon - 4pm; rest of year Mon, Wed & Sat: 9.30am - 4pm, Sun: noon - 4pm; $9; Stowe house year-round Tues - Sat: 9.30am - 4pm, Sun: noon - 4pm; open Mon June to mid-Oct and in Dec; $6.50). Twain lived at 351 Farmington Ave from 1874 until 1891, writing many of his classic works including Huckleberry Finn, and he spent a fair portion of his publishing royalties building and redecorating this outrageously ornate home, with its unusual black-and-orange brickwork and luxurious Tiffany stained-glass interior.
A succession of remarkably ugly buildings built during the 1950s rather blighted New Haven, but its downtown, centering on the Green, remains both attractive and walkable, thanks in part to some sensitive restoration. This area, laid out in 1638, was the site of the city's original settlement; around the Green are three churches, a grand library and a number of stately government buildings. The park itself is now home to a handful of homeless residents, and borders the student-filled district centered around College and Chapel streets. The surrounding five blocks are a genuinely lively place in which to hang out, filled with bookstores, cafés, clubs and hip clothing stores; the Neon Garage, an art exhibit in a real parking lot on Crown Street, is especially notable for its glass and neon sculptures. There are some very rough pockets, but in general New Haven is reasonably safe to wander around, even at night, especially during term time.
New Haven's prime attraction, Yale University, stands proudly right in the center of things. You can wander at will, though free hour-long student-led tours set off daily from the Yale Visitor Information Center at 149 Elm St (tel 203/432-2300), across from the north side of the Green (Mon-Fri 9am-4.45pm, Sat & Sun 10am-4pm; tours Mon-Fri 10.30am & 2pm, Sat & Sun 1.30pm); it also supplies maps for self-guided tours. Tours will have you trooping to and fro quite a bit, starting with the beautiful old spires and ivy-strewn cobbled courtyards of the old campus (mostly built in the 1930s, but painstakingly distressed to look suitably ancient) and ending up at the remarkable Beinecke Rare Books Library, 121 Wall St, where venerable manuscripts and delicate hand-printed books are viewed with the aid of natural light seeping through the translucent marble walls (Mon-Fri 8.30am-5pm, Sat 10am-5pm, closed Sat in Aug; free). Other buildings of interest include the modernist, Louis Kahn-designed Center for British Art, 1080 Chapel St, where British paintings range from Elizabethan portraits to modern works by Peter Blake and Francis Bacon (Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; free). The impressive Yale University Art Gallery , just across the road at 1111 Chapel St (Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; closed mid-July to Aug; free), and the nation's oldest university art collection, holds American decorative arts, regional design and furniture, and African and pre-Columbian works. Among major European paintings is Van Gogh's famous Night Café, said by the artist to be "one of the ugliest pictures I have done." A quirky Collection of Musical Instruments is at 15 Hillhouse Ave (limited hours, phone ahead tel 203/432-0822), and the Peabody Museum of Natural History , 170 Whitney Ave, is a solid nineteenth-century collection of fossils, skeletons and gems (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; $5).
Since 1900, New Haven's close-knit Italian District has been based among the well-kept brownstones and colorful window boxes of Wooster Street , just beyond Crown Street southeast of the Green. This was where the city's original Italian immigrants settled when they came to work on the railroad. There's little to see here, but there are some incredibly popular restaurants, and it's well worth stopping by when there's a festival on.
Seven miles west of Mystic Seaport, GROTON is a suitably unpleasant name for the hometown of the hideous US Naval Submarine Base , headquarters for the North Atlantic fleet. The USS Nautilus , the country's first nuclear-powered submarine, was built in Groton. In 1958, four years after it was launched, it became the first vessel to sail under the polar icecap. It's now moored on the Thames, and self-guided tours allow access to its terrifyingly claustrophobic corridors, one-person-wide in many places. The sub looks pretty much as it did in the 1950s, complete with pin-ups of Marilyn Monroe. The Submarine Force Museum next door has exhibits on the history of submersibles from the minuscule American Turtle , built in 1775, to the frighteningly powerful Trident (mid-May through Oct Mon & Wed-Sun 9am-5pm, Tues 1-5pm; Nov to mid-May Mon & Wed-Sun 9am-4pm; closed first full week of May and last full week of October; free; tel 860/694-3174 or 1-800/343-0079, ).
NEW LONDON , opposite Groton on the west side of the Thames, is the closest thing the region has to a city, although it spreads over only six square miles. Originally settled in 1646, it was a wealthy whaling port in the nineteenth century and today is home to the US Coast Guard Academy, 15 Mohegan Ave off I-95, where visitors can wander around a museum of coast guard history (Mon-Fri 9am-4.30pm, Sat 10am-5pm, Sun noon-5pm; free) and visit the training tall ship USS Eagle (Fri-Sun 1-5pm; call 860/444-8595 to find out when the ship is in port). Overlooking the academy is the Lyman Allyn Art Museum (Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; $4; tel 860/443-2545), part of Connecticut College at 625 Williams St and specializing in American Impressionist works and local decorative arts. A self-guided walking tour of downtown passes along prosperous Huntington Street, where four adjacent Greek Revival mansions are known as Whale Oil Row . For swimming and sunbathing, the Ocean Beach Park , on Ocean Avenue, has a sand beach and huge saltwater pool, as well as a wooden boardwalk (summer daily 9am-midnight; $2).
New London was the birthplace of boozy playwright Eugene O'Neill . His childhood home, the Monte Cristo Cottage , 325 Pequot Ave, is open for tours, complete with juicy details of his trauma-ridden early life - though they may already be familiar to you from his Long Day's Journey into Night (June-Aug Tues-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 1-5pm; tours Tues-Sat 10am, noon, 2pm & 4pm, Sun 1:30pm and 3:30pm; $5). The writer's influence is further felt at the O'Neill Memorial Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Rd (I-95 exit 82) in nearby Waterford , an acclaimed testing ground for playwrights and actors, where audiences can take pot luck and watch new, often experimental, shows in rehearsal (performances held sporadically May-Aug; tel 860/443-5378).
STONINGTON BOROUGH, five miles east of Mystic, is an overwhelmingly pretty old fishing village, originally Portuguese but now very New England, characterized by appealing whitewashed cottages (which were once factory houses), white picket fences and colorful flower gardens. Its main street, Water Street, is chock-a-block with antique shops and upmarket thrift stores, crowded with well-heeled bargain hunters at the weekend. The Lighthouse Museum at no. 7 dates from 1823 and is full of local memorabilia, maps and drawings; fresh flowers everywhere add a nice touch. You can climb the stone steps and iron staircase to the top for views over the water and Connecticut's neighboring states (July & Aug daily 10am-5pm; May, June, Sept & Oct Tues-Sun 10am-5pm; $4). The waterfront itself is a great place to pass a few sunny hours, peaceful and quiet with a few bobbing fishing boats and clean water for swimming.
The most central place to stay , though not cheap, is The Inn at Stonington at 60 Water St (tel 860/535-2000, ; $160-200), where summer weekend rates start at $175; weekday and winter rates go down considerably. Authentic New England clam chowder, and full meals, can be had at Noah's, 113 Water St (tel 860/535-3925), an old Portuguese restaurant with a friendly, pine-table-trendy atmosphere and delicious home-baked cakes. Two seafood restaurants - Water Street Café, 142 Water St (tel 860/535-2122), and Skipper's Dock, 66 Water St (tel 860/535-0111) - are worth a visit; the former is elegant, the latter less expensive and rowdier, with an open deck sporting fabulous views of the ocean.