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AAA World Article

Discovering the Heart of Hartford

From architecture and art to dining and unwinding, Connecticut's capital is a small city that thinks big.

By Ellen Albanese

AAA World Article

Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch
Photo Courtesy of Ellen Albanese

Approaching Hartford by car on Interstate 84, you might conclude that Connecticut’s capital is filled with sterile office buildings, the kind you’d expect to find in a destination once known as the insurance capital of the world, the founding home of industry giants such as The Hartford and Aetna.

Don’t be fooled. In its historic core and in its neighborhoods, Hartford boasts striking buildings, from the ornate gold-domed State Capitol to the fortress-like Wadsworth Atheneum art museum to the soaring glass atrium at the Connecticut Science Center. The city offers attractions for history buffs, art lovers, families and foodies, and most of those adventures begin in a mesmerizing building.

The past influences the present
Looming like a mirage over Bushnell Park, a verdant 50-acre oasis in the city’s historic center, the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch honors the 4,000 men from Hartford who served in the U.S. Civil War. Constructed of Connecticut brownstone, the 116-foot-high structure combines a variety of styles—French Norman towers, a Roman arch and a Greek-style frieze—and is made all the more majestic by the sight of automobiles gliding blithely underneath. (Volunteers offer tours on Thursdays from noon to 1:30 p.m., May through October.) Kids should not miss the park’s 1914 carousel, a riot of colorfully festooned horses still taking riders for a spin on weekends.

The State Capitol, a short walk up Trinity Street from the park, is a feast for the eyes. Completed in 1878, the marble and granite exterior looks like a medieval castle. Inside is a shimmering panorama of marble floors, richly colored walls, soaring arches and intricate stenciling. Guided tours, offered Monday through Friday at 15 minutes past the hour from 9:15 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., begin in the adjoining Legislative Office Building. Visitors can take a seat in the Senate gallery, with its hand-stenciled sunburst wallpaper, stained-glass windows and gleaming wood pews. The House gallery retains the original hand-painted ceiling and 1870s desks. The only clue that 21st-century legislators continue to work in this historic space is an LED voting board displayed prominently on one wall.

Connecticut State Capital Building Interior
A interior view of the Connecticut State Capitol
Photo Courtesy of Ellen Albanese

To see the office of Connecticut’s Kid Governor—yes, there really is a kid governor, duly elected each year by the state’s fifth-graders—head to the Old State House on Main Street, just under a mile from the Capitol. This building, dating from 1796, is a peculiar combination of history, education, culture and oddities. Interactive exhibits encourage kids to think about how the past influences the present by pondering, for example, how a stone mile marker compares with a modern street sign. But the most bizarre element has to be the Museum of Curiosities, filled with taxidermied animals, including deer, birds, giant turtles and an eight-foot American alligator hanging from the ceiling. Other displays feature sea shells, fossilized fish, gigantic insects, butterflies and even a two-headed calf.

The conversation about how the past influences the present continues at the homes of two iconic American authors. Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe were neighbors in an area of Hartford known as Nook Farm. Visitors can tour Twain’s grand, almost gaudy Victorian home with a docent role-playing a character who lived in the house in Twain’s time. Galleries in the visitor center focus on his writing. More modest in comparison, Stowe’s residence has recently emerged from an ambitious renovation designed to focus attention on the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both when it was published in 1852 and today, and to promote a social justice agenda. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe House exterier
Harriet Beecher Stoew House
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism

That focus is clear from the moment you enter the house. On a bright-red wall are quotes from both Stowe’s contemporaries and our own—including Barack Obama,  Laura Bush, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Eleanor Roosevelt—about the impact of a novel that is often credited with laying the groundwork for the American Civil War. Guided tours, including a new family tour geared toward children 5–12, examine race and gender in the 19th and the 21st centuries.

Art lovers can get their classical fix at the Wadsworth Atheneum—which resembles a stone fortress—and check out the work of emerging artists and independent film makers at Real Art Ways, set in a former typewriter factory.

Museum inside
Morgan Great Hall at Wadsworth Atheneum
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism

At the Atheneum, built in 1844 in the Gothic Revival style, a Highlights Tour began with a canvas by Caravaggio painted in 1595, moved on to 17th-century Dutch landscapes, continued with the Hudson River School—one of the Atheneum’s largest collections—and finished with the museum’s strong collection of modern art, including works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Salvador Dalí. By contrast, exhibits at Real Art Ways focus on new works and may include music and dance as well as visual art. And Real Artways provides an outlet for independent film makers, screening indie films seven days a week.

Along with art, Hartford is big on science. And nearly everything about the Connecticut Science Center is big. The sense of scale starts with the 10-story glass atrium known as Science Alley, hung with models of a life-sized skeleton of a sperm whale, the massive head and torso of a Tyrannosaurus rex, and the Hubble Telescope. Families could spend all day here checking out exhibits such as the otherworldly “Exploring Space,” which features figures of astronauts in full space suits, models of rockets hanging from the ceiling, and displays that put you in a space module using a joystick to navigate the star-studded sky.

Connecticut Science Center exterior
Connecticut Science Center
Photo Courtesy of Connecticut Office of Tourism

Steam-powered brews, stunning views
Hartford’s dining scene runs the gamut from casual to upscale, and here, too, distinctive buildings are often part of the draw. Housed in the former 1877 Brown, Thomson & Co. department store, a striking Romanesque building designed by H.H. Richardson, City Steam Brewery offers 18 beers on tap—the signature brew is Naughty Nurse Amber—a menu of pub favorites and a comedy club on the lower level. When steam was introduced to the brewing process in the mid-1800s it was the height of modernization and provided a better quality of beer. Today City Steam Brewery still powers its 23-barrel system with steam, thanks to an arrangement with the Hartford Steam Company.

As elegant as City Steam Brewery is casual, On20, the AAA Four Diamond restaurant on the 20th floor of One State Street, boasts stunning views of the city. A curved wall of windows overlooks the Connecticut River, and the mirrored wall opposite reflects the scene, creating a 360-degree effect. Even if you’re not inclined to splurge for dinner, stop in for happy hour. There’s a friendly vibe at the bar, and happy-hour snacks include such treats as lobster sliders and beef tartare.

Old becomes new
Another distinctive Hartford building that marries history, art, and good food is the Goodwin Hotel. Built in 1881 as an apartment building and later converted to a hotel, the Goodwin reopened in May after a nine-year closure. The interior décor puts a contemporary overlay on the Victorian Queen Anne-style building, with soothing hues of cream and blue, funky lighting—for example, concentric-circle fixtures in the lobby—and lots of geometric shapes in furnishings and accessories. The hotel restaurant, Harlan Brasserie, fuses new American cuisine with French classics, combined with warm and congenial service.

Downtown Hartford is eminently walkable, and walking is the best way to enjoy the striking architecture—old and new, historic and modern, ornate and spare. There is something lovely about a pillared cupola reflected in a plate glass office tower, a golden dome outlined against a modern gray stone façade. They remind us that in Hartford the past is ever present.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of AAA World.

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