Admit it: You’ve driven through Hartford many times, on Interstate 84 en route to New York City, perhaps, or on a college visit to Trinity or the University of Connecticut. But it’s definitely worth a stop to see what the state capital has to offer. (Trivia tidbit: The state actually had two capitals at the same time. From 1703 to 1875, New Haven and Hartford shared the honors, until Hartford became the sole capital in 1875.)
Famous as the home of author Mark Twain, the city of 125,000 is evolving. Recently Hartford has reclaimed its riverfront, which had been cut off from the city by interstate highways. Now a pedestrian bridge leads to sparkling overviews of the Connecticut River and a space for outdoor concerts and events, plus a boat pavilion and a river walk. And even the “Insurance Capital of the World” has its funky side — where else would you find an old State House that’s home to a two-headed calf? Here are a few highlights, easily explored by foot. Or use the free Hartford Star Shuttle to get around town.
Chain hotels rule downtown, but they’re not a bad bunch. The Residence Inn Marriott (942 Main St., 860-524-5500, www.residenceinn.com, $169-$399) wins points for pedigree: It is set inside a handsome limestone and brownstone building designed by H.H. Richardson in 1876 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Formerly a department store, the hotel offers extra-large bilevel loft rooms, plus a free hot breakfast. Bonus for beer lovers: City Stream Brewery (see below) is in the same building. The Hilton Hartford (315 Trumbull St., 860-728-5151, www.hilton.com, $159-$339) is connected by skywalk to the XL Center (home to UConn basketball and other events), plus it offers an indoor pool and complimentary breakfast. The Ramada Plaza Hartford (50 Morgan St., 860-549-2400, www.ramadahartford.com, $152-$198) offers 350 newly renovated guest rooms, plus some nice package deals, and a convenient downtown location.
One of the city’s top fine-dining restaurants is Max Downtown (185 Asylum St., 860-522-2530, www.maxrestaurantgroup.com, entrees $22-$49), a high-end business lunch spot by day and a romantic spot for wine dinners by night. Go for one of the daily specials, or share a shellfish sampler ($35 for two) from the raw bar. Feng Asian Bistro (93 Asylum St., 860-549-3364, www.fengrestaurant.com, entrees $9-$29) has been named Best Japanese Restaurant in the state by Zagat, among other raves. Its sushi is tops in the city; during a recent visit, three sushi chefs worked their magic, under a flat-screen TV tuned to the Red Sox, no less. One of their special rolls is the vegan-friendly Green Peace, made with asparagus, avocado, cucumber, mango, sun-dried tomato, and kiwi, served with tasty sauces. Tip: Come for lunch, settle in one of the banquettes, and enjoy a Japanese bento box lunch (served weekdays, $9-$14) and a saki. Firebox Restaurant (539 Broad St., 860-246-1222, www.fireboxrestaurant.com, entrees $25-$35) is another good option, featuring a farm-to-table menu (try the duck, or the chickpea gnocchi) and live bluegrass. Craving Italian? Everyone goes to Salute (100 Trumbull St., 860-899-1350, www.salutect.com, entrees $16-$33) to carb-load on garlic cheese bread and “rose pasta” with sweet sausage, mushrooms, and spinach in a light tomato cream sauce.
We know you want to hear about that two-headed calf, so we’ll spill: You’ll find it in the tiny Museum of Natural and Other Curiosities, part of Connecticut’s Old State House (800 Main. St., 860-522-6766, www.ctoldstatehouse.org, $6). The red brick State House might look familiar; it was designed by Charles Bulfinch, who later designed the Massachusetts State House. Look for the George Washington portrait by Gilbert Stuart in the Senate Chamber and Mark Twain’s bicycle in the Mortensen Gallery. Speaking of Twain, you don’t have to be a Twainiac to appreciate the Mark Twain House (351 Farmington Ave., 860-247-0998, www.marktwainhouse.org, $16). Twain and his family lived in this 19-room mansion from 1874-1891; the author wrote his most important works here. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center (77 Forest St., 860-522-9258, www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org, $10; Stowe-Twain combined tour, weekends, $23) next door is a National Historic Landmark; tours offer insights into the life and times of the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” author. The Wadsworth Atheneum (600 Main St., 860-278-2670; www.wadsworthatheneum.org, $10) was the first public art museum in the country, offering extensive collections of Impressionist and Modernist pieces. If the weather’s fine, spend some time at Bushnell Park (1 Jewell St.), a 37-acre green space in the heart of the city, with a lovely, circa 1914 carousel. From there, you’ll get a good look at the grand State Capitol, opened in 1879 and built in High Victorian Gothic style. Got kids in tow? The Connecticut Science Center (250 Columbus Blvd., 860-724-3623, www.ctsciencecenter.org, $19) is home to an IMAX theater and awesome dinosaurs.
The Hartford Stage Co. (50 Church St., 860-527-5151, www.hartfordstage.org) offers an eclectic season of plays and musicals, while the Art Deco-style Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts (166 Capitol Ave., 860-987-6000, www.bushnell.org) features traveling productions of Broadway shows, like “Wicked” and “Sister Act,” plus music and comedy. For live blues music, Black Eyed Sally’s (350 Asylum St., 860-278-7427, www.blackeyedsallys.com) is a lively option, while the best wine bar in town is Bin 228 (228 Pearl St., 860-244-9463, www.bin228winebar.com). City Steam Brewery Café (942 Main St., 860-525-1600, www.citysteam.biz) hosts comedians on weekends at its Brew HaHa Comedy Club. This place has another feature, apparently — ghosts. A TV show about paranormal activity was filmed here.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.