Among the things you might not know about Waterbury, Connecticut’s fifth-largest city: It was once the Brass Capital of the World, a manufacturing center for brass fittings, furnishings, watches, and clocks. In fact, the Waterbury Clock Co. — you might know it better as Timex — produced the first-ever Mickey Mouse watch in 1933. More than 11,000 were sold on the first day. Landmarks like the 240-foot Union Station Clock Tower are reminders of those days. Another uniquely Waterbury factoid: The city was once home to Holy Land U.S.A., a religious theme park known for its giant cross and a sign reminiscent of the famous “Hollywood” sign in California. Holy Land U.S.A. closed in the 1980s.
Like many industrial cities in the Northeast, Waterbury experienced tough times in recent decades, even earning the sobriquet “Sin City.” But things are looking up in this city of 110,000. On a recent Saturday, the grandly restored Palace Theater was bustling with patrons taking in a matinee show. A new 52-foot-high cross has been erected on the old Holy Land site. As for Sin City: It is now the name of a nightclub. Waterbury may not be one of those super-quaint, looks-like-it-was-decorated-by-Martha-Stewart Connecticut towns, but it’s definitely worth your time.
In town, there’s an outpost of CoCo Key Water Resort and some chain hotels. The best of the lot are the Courtyard by Marriott Waterbury Downtown (63 Grand St., 203-596-1000, from $109, www.marriott.com), located in the heart of downtown, and the Hampton Inn Waterbury (777 Chase Pkwy., 203-753-1777, www.hamptoninn3.hilton.com, from $109). Both properties have indoor pools and fitness centers; the Hampton Inn throws in a free breakfast. Prefer a cozy inn? If you’re willing to stay about 15 minutes from Waterbury, consider Cornucopia at Oldfield Bed & Breakfast (782 Main St. North, Southbury, 203-267-6772, www.cornucopiabnb.com, from $160), a circa 1818 country home in Southbury’s historic district that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The inn offers five guest rooms, and welcomes (well-behaved) children and (small-to-medium-sized non-shedding) dogs.
A local landmark, Frankie’s Hot Dogs (700 Watertown Ave., 203-753-2426, open seasonally, plus additional locations open year round, www.frankieshotdogs.com) might test the resolve of the most dedicated kale-muncher. The restaurant’s been perfecting the art of the hot dog since 1937, and have come up with all sorts of tasty combos, including a bacon-topped Irish dog. Frankie’s lobster roll wins raves too. Not every town can claim a good Turkish eatery — all the more reason to seek out Sultan’s Turkish Kitchen (586 Plank Road, 203-591-8450, www.sultansrestaurantct.com, from $11). Portions are large, so plan to share. The mixed grill and baby lamb kebabs are popular options, and there are several good veggie dishes on the menu. A belly dancer performs on Saturday nights. We braved a snowstorm to get to Domenick & Pia Downtown Pizzeria (3 Brook St., 203-753-3401, medium pizza, $9), but it was worth the effort: Their Neapolitan-style, thin-crust pizza is among the best we’ve had. (For example, they season their broccoli topping, rather than just tossing it on.) The place is small and plain-Jane inside — just a takeout window and a few tables — but folks line up for the pie (also sold by the slice) at this beloved haunt. When it comes to dessert, Fascia’s Chocolates offers a real hands-on experience (44 Chase River Road, 203-753-0515, www.fasciaschocolates.com.Tours on weekends at 12:30 and 2 p.m., $10; $5 if you opt not to make a chocolate bar. Reservations advised.). In an industrial park just off Interstate 84, they offer tastings and demonstrations, taking guests through the chocolate-making process from bean to bar to box. A fun souvenir: a piece of milk chocolate bark you poured yourself, and customized with a choice of three mix-ins.
DURING THE DAY
You’ll spend more time than you intended at the Mattatuck Museum of Arts & History (144 West Main St., 203-753-0381, www.mattatuckmuseum.org, $7), it’s that engaging. Connecticut art and its artists are a major focus, and you’ll also encounter exhibits that feature regional history and Connecticut-born innovations and inventions — plus, a display of 3,000 buttons, including some worn by George Washington. You might remember the advertising slogan, “Timex: It takes a licking and it keeps on ticking,” the theme of a popular series of TV commercials in the 1950s, featuring a wristwatch undergoing torture tests. Try torturing a Timex yourself, and learn the history of these hearty timepieces at The Timex Museum (175 Union St., 203-346-5710, www.timexpo.com, $6). With roots in the 1850s, Timex is having a revival these days (check out its preppy timepiece in the recent J.Crew catalog). The museum houses a collection of unique timepieces and time-related inventions, plus interactive activities like the station where visitors can design a (paper) wristwatch. Interested in antiques? It’s worth a short drive to the town of Woodbury to browse one of Connecticut’s top antiquing zones. Woodbury claims to have more antiques shops per square mile than any other town in the state — more than 35 in all — and many are tucked into barns and 18th- and 19th-century homes along Main Street. Stops include Pantry & Hearth at the 1775 Barn for goods that date to the Pilgrim era, Tillie’s Antiques, and Woodbury Antiques & Fine Art. Also in Woodbury: Whittemore Sanctuary (Route 64, Sherman Hill Road), a pristine natural landscape of woodlands, a bog, and ponds. It’s laced with eight miles of hilly trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, or a simple nature walk if the white stuff has vanished. The sanctuary is maintained by the Flanders Nature Center & Land Trust; pick up a trail map at the sanctuary’s entrance or download one at www.flandersnaturecenter.org.
One of Waterbury’s grandest spaces, the circa 1922 Palace Theater (100 East Main St., 203-346-2000, www
.palacetheaterct.org, ticket prices vary) is resplendent with its marbleized staircases, gilded dome ceiling, and shimmering chandeliers. This performing arts space, restored to its original splendor, is on the National Register of Historic Places. There’s almost always something going on at Seven Angels Theatre (Hamilton Park Pavilion, 1 Plank Road, 203-757-4676, www.sevenangelstheatre.org, ticket prices vary); this professional regional Equity theater stages more than 200 performances each year, including comedies, musicals, dramas, cabaret, youth and children’s programs, and world premieres. If you’re looking for a comfy spot to hoist a brew and maybe catch some music, The Shamrock Pub and Grill (210 Meadow St., 203-596-1902, www.shamrockpubandgrill.com) is a lucky find. Nothing beats a Smithwick’s Irish ale and some shepherd’s pie on a cold night, or maybe a crock of onion soup spiked with Guinness. They offer live music on Friday and Saturday nights, and bring in your own Irish-themed shirt and they’ll trade you for one of their own.
Waterbury is about 130 miles southwest of Boston. For information, visit www.litchfieldhills.com.