Arts & Culture
Whether your tastes run to classic summer theater, Impressionist art, legendary architecture or simply finding the perfect place to do your summer reading, Connecticut is a treasure trove of riches. You’ll feel so smart and cultured when you’re done that you may want to make it a multiday feast!
Sometimes the best visits and vacation days are the ones that don’t involve a lot of logistics and driving from place to place. With that in mind, we’ve devised some days that are simple in design but full of things to see and do: something for the morning, lunch, then something for the afternoon. You may need comfortable shoes, but you definitely won’t need a GPS to get around.
Art & Architecture. One of the great luxuries of downtown New Haven is that so many of Yale’s treasures are practically right next door to each other. Get your art fix at the Yale University Art Gallery, whose recent renovation set the art world buzzing. Its eclectic collections, ranging from Coins and Medals to Modern and Contemporary Art (Hopper, Eakins, John Trumbull), will easily fill your afternoon. Summer exhibitions include Whistler in Paris, London and Venice and The Critique of Reason: Romantic Art, 1760-1860. After lunch, take in a walking tour of the university’s truly impressive architecture. Head for the Yale Visitor Center, where you’ll be able to choose between a regularly scheduled student-led tour or a self-guided tour either via download or by printing out a PDF map.
Two by the Sea. If your interests run to salt water, you’ll be very pleased to learn that two of Connecticut’s top attractions, Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium, are located right up and down the street from each other. At Mystic Seaport, the focus is on America’s long and colorful relationship with the sea. You’ll find a recreation of a 19th-century whaling village, historic boats and ships, classes, workshops and demonstrations. This summer, everyone is looking forward to climbing aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the 1841 whaling vessel that recently emerged from a five-year restoration. Another famous ship, Titanic, is a focus at Mystic Aquarium, but there’s also Exploration: Wild, a new exhibition focusing on the earth’s most captivating habitats – rainforest, Arctic, wetlands, desert and open ocean. Elsewhere at the Aquarium, you’ll find marine life of all kinds, including penguins, beluga whales and fish of every stripe and size.
Dens of Antiquity. If you like antiquing, you’ll think nothing of making a full day of it, and one of the best places is America to undertake such a trip is on Route 6 in Woodbury. Along a five-mile stretch of road between the Watertown line and the junction with Route 64, more than 30 professional dealers have set up shop, selling virtually all categories, periods and styles, related accessories, gifts and bench-made reproductions. Woodbury is also known for its Colonial architecture (the 1750 Glebe House is a real standout), art galleries and a wide array of restaurants. And if you’re up for a short side trip, head east on Route 64 to neighboring Middlebury, where Middlebury Consignment offers an entertaining mix of consignment furniture and furnishing, antiques and new items, as well as a café with outdoor dining.
Hartford Trifecta. There is plenty to see in downtown Hartford – in fact, you can make a day of it without ever getting into your car. Start at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, one of America’s first and consistently great art museums. Here you’ll find contemporary art, 20th-century European art, and 18th- and 19th-century American art, including its beloved collection of Hudson River School paintings, along with European and American decorative arts and costumes & textiles. More than enough for a morning, to say the least. After lunch, it’s on to the Old State House, built in 1796 after a design by Charles Bullfinch, and long a seat of Connecticut government. Inside, you’ll find exhibits relating to Connecticut and Hartford history, and an old-fashioned Museum of Oddities and Curiosities. Finally, there’s the Connecticut Science Center, set in a spectacular location overlooking the Connecticut River. On four levels, the Center offers 165 hands-on exhibits, a state-of-the-art 3D theater (Great White Shark is one of the current films) and daily programs events. The big special exhibit this summer is Extreme Dinosaurs.
The Summer Circuit
Connecticut has a long history as a place to enjoy summer theater. Whether it was called “summer stock” or the “straw hat circuit,” whether it took place in a tent, a barn or a real theater building, the productions were a part of life each summer. They still are. Summer theater remains a big part of the state’s cultural scene, and a great reason to visit Connecticut.
With its first production opening the week of June 17, 1930, Ivoryton Playhouse staked its claim as the first self-supporting summer theater in America. Founded by Broadway’s Milton Stiefel as a retreat from the busy New York scene, Ivoryton found its home in a 1911 rec hall built for employees from a nearby factory. During the intervening years, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Groucho Marx, Helen Hayes and many others have appeared on its stage. This summer, look for Calendar Girls, South Pacific and Memphis to light up the warm nights.
Meanwhile, down in Fairfield County, Lawrence Langner and his wife, Armina Marshall, residents of Weston and well known as theater producers, were looking for a place outside New York to experiment with new plays and reinterpret classics. They found it nearby in an old cow barn that grew to become the Westport Country Playhouse. Following its first production in 1931, the playhouse has seen the likes of Henry Fonda, Julie Harris, Ethel Barrymore and Paul Robeson tread its boards. This summer season brings a world premiere of A.R. Gurney’s Love and Money, and also And a Nightingale Sang and Bedroom Farce.
The founding of the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam goes back to 1876, but after many years of neglect it was reborn in 1963 and has been one of the nation’s great sources for musical theater ever since. In fact, 19 of its productions have gone on to Broadway. This summer, La Cage Aux Folles and the ineffable Guys and Dolls take up residence.
For the true spirit of summer theater, consider a visit to Summer Theatre of New Canaan. Here you’ll find an open-air tent theater with folding chairs (along with some stage-side tables) and a big sloping lawn for parking, tailgating and “field seating.” On the bill this summer are Legally Blonde, Charlotte’s Web and Wizard of Oz.
The Beverly Hills house tour has always been a staple of a visit to Southern California, and we’ve got one in Connecticut, too. Except that with ours, you can go inside the houses and take a look around, and learn about the famous residents, and maybe even something about culture, the arts, architecture and America, too. Here are several of the better-known houses that are open to you.
The Mark Twain House & Museum. The 19-room Victorian gem known by all as the Mark Twain House offers a wonderful look into the life of what many consider to be America’s greatest writer. Twain lived here from 1874 to 1891 and was at his most productive, writing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other timeless classics. Tour the house and visit the adjacent museum as well.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. Right next door to the Twain House is the house of writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin took the nation by storm and was credited by no less than Abraham Lincoln as a factor in the fighting of the Civil War. You’ll learn much about a writer’s life at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and also the Victorian grounds and gardens.
Gillette Castle. William Gillette was a famous actor, best known for his portrayals on stage of Sherlock Holmes. Once he became successful he built a wildly eccentric castle for himself on a bluff overlooking the Connecticut River. Gillette Castle State Park is today open for touring, picnicking or simply strolling the 184-acre park. A look through the castle is a must.
The Glass House. Architect Philip Johnson’s Glass House in New Canaan was completed in 1951 and has stood ever since as an avatar of mid-century modern design. In addition to the main house, where Johnson actually lived, there are a number of “pavilions” on the 49-acre grounds, each an architectural gem in and of itself.
Monte Cristo Cottage. The great playwright Eugene O’Neill grew up in New London, and his family’s summer home, Monte Cristo Cottage, open in summer for public touring. The 1840s cottage is named in honor of O’Neill’s actor father, James, whose most famous role was in The Count of Monte Cristo. The cottage reflects the setting of O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey into Night as described in his set directions and depicted in his sketch for the play.
Lockwood-Mathews Mansion. This may not have quite the pedigree of the others on this list, but the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion in Norwalk is an eye-popping treat and one of the most significant Second Empire Style country houses in the United States. Built between 1864 and 1868 by renowned financier and railroad baron LeGrand Lockwood, it magnificently illustrates the beauty and splendor of the Victorian Era.
A good book and a good place in which to read it – what could be a nicer way to while away a summer afternoon and evening, whether you’re on vacation or just playing hooky for a quick overnight? We suggest you give your summer reading a truly local flavor by choosing a book with a Connecticut setting and then an inn that’s in roughly the same location. You’ll experience the book so much more fully if you can look up from the page and imagine the characters operating right outside your window. We’ve got a few suggestions here, but you might also consult the website placingliterature.com that pinpoints locations, including in Connecticut, where various books are set, and also the related Connecticut Literature Trail. Happy reading!
Read Luanne Rice’s The Perfect Summer while staying at the Bee & Thistle Inn in Old Lyme. Popular novelist and part-time Old Lyme resident Rice revisits the small Connecticut shoreline town of Hubbard’s Point, the setting for many of her books. This time, there’s an unfaithful husband, a disappearance, a possible murder, and a loving look at a family and the issues it must face when a crisis threatens its cohesion. As for the Bee & Thistle Inn, you’ll find many good reading areas, whether indoors or on a porch overlooking lawns and the Lieutenant River.
Read Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road while staying at the Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan. Catch up on this overlooked 1961 classic of yearning, bitter disappointment and betrayal in a prosperous Connecticut suburb, much like New Canaan. Made into a movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (largely filmed in Connecticut), Revolutionary Road more than stands the test of time. As one reviewer put it: “Like The Great Gatsby, this novel conveys, with brilliant erudition, the exacting cost of chasing the American dream.” The comfortable Roger Sherman Inn has been a local fixture - first as a private home, then as an inn - for hundreds of years. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine Richard Yates working on his manuscript in an adjoining room.
Read Katharine Weber’s The Little Women while staying at The Study at Yale in New Haven. Three adolescent sisters – Meg, Jo and Amy – are shocked when they discover their mother’s affair, but are truly devastated by their father’s apparently easy forgiveness of her. Shattered by their parents’ failure to live up to the moral standards and values of the family, the two younger sisters leave New York (and their private school) and move to Meg’s apartment in New Haven, where she is a junior at Yale. They enroll in the local inner-city school and, divorced from their parents, try to make a life with Meg as their surrogate mother. The Study at Yale is a book-themed boutique hotel right next to the Yale campus.
Read Anthony Bailey’s In the Village while staying at the Inn at Stonington in Stonington. This beautifully written classic from 1971 profiles the tiny seaside Stonington Borough at Connecticut’s southeastern tip – the people, the history, and the problems of blending local traditions with modern pressures. Bailey’s “village” has not changed dramatically in the 40-plus years since he wrote the book, and it is easy to walk upon and enjoy the same streets and lanes that he describes. As for your overnight, the Inn at Stonington offers very pleasant rooms right in the center of town and views of many of Bailey’s sights.
Read Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith’s Girls of Tender Age while staying at the Simsbury 1820 House. Here’s a double reading assignment. O’Nan’s critically-acclaimed book is set on the last night of a Red Lobster restaurant in a New Britain mall, and it details the effect of its demise on all involved, especially embattled manager, Manny DeLeon. Tirone Smith’s memoir, set in Hartford, weaves memories of her family and upbringing with the story of a psychopath who preyed on her friend and other little girls. The Simsbury 1820 House, not far from both New Britain and Hartford, offers comfortable rooms, public areas and wide porches for your reading pleasure.
Read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Poganuc People while staying at Winvian in Morris. The author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin grew up in the Connecticut town of Litchfield, and Poganuc People is her warm recollection of life there in the early 19th century. With great fondness and a brilliant eye for detail, the author brings village characters to life, including their views on religion and politics, and creates a lovely profile of a New England village from a time long gone. Winvian, located just south of Litchfield’s present-day center, features individual-themed cottages. One, called Library, offers ideal reading environments and its own collection of books, including many by Connecticut authors.
Making an Impression
Connecticut was an important creative seedbed of American Impressionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With colonies of talented painters taking up residence in Cos Cob, Kent and at Florence Griswold’s boarding house in Old Lyme, many of the great Impressionist scenes painted during those years are scenes of Connecticut. Because of this rich heritage, many museums in the state are home to Impressionist masterworks - in fact, there’s even a Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail that will take you to 17 museums and historic sites throughout the state. As you make your travel plans for this spring, here are a few key sites to put on your list:
The Florence Griswold Museum was the home of the woman who took in and encouraged painters in what was called the Lyme Art Colony. It’s now known as the home of American Impressionism, with one of the best collections of Impressionist works in America. Here you’ll see major paintings by Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman and Willard Metcalf. Be sure to see the ongoing exhibition An American Place: The Art Colony at Old Lyme.
Bush-Holley House is the centerpiece of the Greenwich Historical Society's site on Cos Cob Harbor in Greenwich. Here, the historic buildings, landscape and gardens evoke the turn of the 20th century when Cos Cob became an art colony and cradle of American Impressionism. The Storehouse museum gallery features changing exhibitions.
Weir Farm National Historic Site in Wilton was home to three generations of American artists after Julian Alden Weir, a leading figure in American art and the development of American Impressionism, acquired the farm in 1882. Today, the 60-acre farm, which includes the Weir House, Weir and Young Studios, barns, gardens, and Weir Pond, is one of the nation's finest remaining landscapes of American art.
The newly refurbished galleries at Waterbury’s Mattatuck Museum feature work by Connecticut artists from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, including American Impressionists such as J. Alden Weir and Willard Metcalf.
Widely considered to be the first museum in the world dedicated solely to American art, the New Britain Museum of American Art is renowned for its preeminent collection spanning three centuries. The Chase Family Building features 15 spacious galleries that showcase the permanent collection and 15-20 special exhibitions annually. Works by American Impressionists at the museum include a pastel by Mary Cassatt and works by Theodore Robinson, John Henry Twachtman, J. Alden Weir, Willard Metcalf and 11 oil paintings by Childe Hassam.
Meanwhile, Impressionist Art by the French Masters can also be found in Connecticut, most notably at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art - which houses masterpieces by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Pisarro and Cézanne - and the nearby Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, whose collection includes works by Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet and Whistler.
Museums of a Different Color
If you are looking for an off-the-beaten path attraction or perhaps travel with someone who thinks museums are not for them, explore Connecticut where one-of-a-kind museums display intriguing curios, reveal interesting histories and educate visitors on a variety of little-known topics.
Take a trip down memory lane at the Barker Character, Comic and Cartoon Museum in Cheshire, where comic strip, cartoon, western, television and advertising memorabilia transport visitors as far back as the 19th century. See 80,000 everyday items that children used or played with from 1873 to the present, such as the Lone Ranger gun, Ronald McDonald phone and Roy Rogers lunchbox. The museum also houses the only official Celebriduck Museum in the world. See more than 150 members of the celebrity bathtub duck line, featuring the likenesses of some of the greatest entertainment, athletics and history icons.
In Bristol, see one of the largest collections of antique carousel pieces in the country at the New England Carousel Museum. Learn about the evolution of carousel animals, as well as their place in American folk art history, during a guided tour. And while you’re in town, be sure to see the American Clock & Watch Museum, a delightful repository for well over 1,000 timepieces, many of them beautiful or ingenious or both – and many made in the busy shops of Connecticut.
All the world’s a stage at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Storrs. Located on the University of Connecticut’s Depot campus, the museum exhibits puppets from around the world, as well as those created at the University of Connecticut, the only school in the United States to offer a Master’s degree in puppetry. Some puppets were designed by the famous puppeteer and UConn professor Frank Ballard, while others have been donated by his friends and world-famous puppeteers. The diverse collection includes puppets that date back hundreds of years. The museum also features rotating exhibits.
Want to know about a museum where it is okay to talk trash? The CRRA Trash Museum in Hartford features 6,500 square feet of educational exhibits that begin at the Temple of Trash. Visitors learn about the problems that come with old-fashioned methods of disposal, as well as the solutions, and can watch the on-site Container Processing Facility in operation. Follow recyclables from the tipping floor and through the processing equipment to the final crushing and baling before being shipped to markets or made into new products.
See giant dinosaur fossils, primate skeletons, Native American artifacts and Egyptian mummies at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven. Founded in 1866, this museum contains one of the great scientific collections in North America. Among them is the comprehensive mineralogical and ornithological collections, the second-largest repository of dinosaur artifacts in the United States, and the largest intact Brontosaurus in the world.
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