It happens all the time. Someone from a faraway land writes on a message board that he will be in Hartford for just one day or two, and asks what he should do in that time. Where should he have dinner? What should he see?
And the responses typically range from stupid to lukewarm to missing the point. For now, I’m only interested in those who miss the point, who conflate a once-in-a-lifetime visit with making happy hour or date night plans.
Let me explain. There are perfectly nice restaurants that get recommended to these travelers. This is no slam against them. But perfectly nice does not show character, and that’s what one is after, I think, when asking for suggestions related to a city thousands of miles from home that he is likely to visit once.
Bundle up and head to Park Street. It’s a two-mile walk from the town line to its intersection with Main Street. You’ll find authentic cooking from a variety of cultures: Brazillian, Thai, Portuguese, Mexican, Colombian, Puerto Rican, and more. It’s where you’ll find bakeries open during snow storms and a food court inside a grocery store. Pastelitos de Guayaba. Pandebono. Maduro con Queso.
On this walk, you’ll pass a large park, small library branch, colorful tattoo and piercing parlor, renovated factory buildings, and a few botánicas. There are bright façades, people walking around days and nights and weekends. If two miles gets to be too much, get on the bus. The one thing to be cautious of is the sidewalk quality; ironically, one of the most in-demand sections of sidewalk in Hartford is in the absolute worst condition from Main Street to Park Terrace.
What you’ll see on Park Street is a representation of Hartford’s many cultures — something you’ll miss if you stick to downtown during your entire visit.
While you could spend all day on Park Street, it’s worth making a few departures. The Twain and Stowe houses come to mind, but those are recommended if you are (a) really into the literature of either, or (b) wanting to see cool architecture that is different from wherever you are coming from.
Another way to glimpse at what Hartford is, is to check out an art gallery or two. Real Art Ways, EBK Gallery, and ArtWalk Gallery are where you are likely to encounter the works of local artists. Upward Hartford, a coworking space, also has a gallery. Charter Oak Cultural Center has a gallery and often free or inexpensive performances. If you happen to be in town on a Sunday in January through April, you can listen to live jazz in the Hartford Public Library.
Go to Franklin Avenue for breakfast, dinner, and/or dessert. It isn’t exactly Little Italy anymore, though this is the spot to find Italian desserts and pastries. Modern Pastry and Mozzicato’s have a particular ambience that isn’t found in too many other places in the Greater Hartford area.
Luckily, a number of small local coffeehouses have opened in recent years, meaning that we no longer have to be ashamed of being a city with only chain/franchise shops. Any of them are fine; the one that feels like it most understands where it is would be Story and Soil on Capitol Avenue.
The Connecticut Old State House is another place to get a feel for what Hartford is by learning about what it was. If pressed on time, I would go straight to the “History is All Around Us” exhibit on the lower level , and then squeeze in a quick visit to the Curiosity Room. The Connecticut Historical Society Museum & Library offers statewide history, with its “Making Connecticut” exhibit. There is a room filled with old inn and tavern signs. Be sure to look for the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Program exhibit while you’re there. The Wadsworth Atheneum offers another opportunity to learn a bit about Hartford’s past with its Colt collection.
If you happen to come when it’s not so cold that your nose hairs freeze, consider taking a walk along the Connecticut River. Things to look at: sculptures, huge chunks of ice floating down river, and the skyline from the opposite river bank.
[There will be a summer edition in a few months]