By Wayne Jebian
5:25 PM EDT, September 5, 2013
Even if you never leave the county, there are plenty of opportunities to simulate world travel, time travel, or just have a pleasant getaway inside or near the city of Hartford. This is by no means a complete list, but many of the attractions here are free, super-cheap, or unjustly neglected by other "what to do" lists:
1) Sunrise Overlook
Even if you are never up early enough to catch the sunrise, the tips of the hartford skyline poking up over the trees may be the best outdoor view Hartford this side of the city line. It is a favorite spot for lying on the hillside kissing, rolling down the hillside in the grass, or running up the hillside pretending you're Rocky Balboa. (East side of Prospect Avenue, across from Elizabeth Park, near Asylum Avenue.)
2) Buckland Hills Mall Carousel
Manchester's all-weather alternative to the better known Bushnell Park Carousel in Hartford is within spitting distance (please don't) of a food court and upstairs from an H&M, which will allow you to pretend you are discount shopping in Europe.
El Mercado: Flan-tastic
3) Latin Paradise on Park Street
La Plaza Del Mercado at 704 Park Street in Hartford carries at least four brands of flan, but that is only the cherry on top of an indoor bazaar that serves as the centerpiece of a very exciting, pedestrian-friendly Latino shopping district. It is not only the most authentic cultural experience a person can get without a passport; it serves as a model for what a business district for the people can look like.
The West Hartford Center Zen Trail: Zen walking.
4) The West Hartford Center Zen Trail
Get in the mood by testing out the massage chairs at Relax the Back on Farmington Avenue in West Hartford Center, then cross through the Central Building to the north parking lot where you will walk to your right until you find The Beadoir, Inc. There, you will stare at the pretty beads for a while, then head back to Farmington Avenue, cross at South Main Street and keep walking. On your right will be Sugar Beads, where you will go in and stare at more pretty beads. Then cross South Main and walk the brick-and-grass labyrinth to the left of the entrance of the First Church of Christ Congregational. Then head down South Main Street, take the stairs to the left down to Blue Back Square, cross the square to the sidewalk and turn left. Go into The Green Tea House and order some green tea. Are you relaxed yet? Okay then, these are not the droids you are looking for.
5) West Hartford Book Central
It was gutsy of Barnes and Noble to open up across Blue Back Square from the public library, where people could get their books for free, but it was also brilliant because the store is guaranteed to be noticed by people who read. The Noah Webster branch of the West Hartford Library is the literary epicenter of the region for its lectures and events, and you can't beat a good book to transport your brain across the ocean, into space, or wherever.
A Dong: They have it all.
6) Little U.N./Shield Street Plaza
Cora Cora Peruvian Restaurant is already a world-class restaurant stuffed inside the shell of a former fast food joint, and would already provide sufficient reason to come to West Hartford's ethnic shopping zone, but A Dong Supermarket, Pho Boston Vietnamese Restaurant and more simply add to the must-visit quality of this spot for the culinarily adventurous.
7) Kabbalah House
Still a work in progress, this performance space/social club is a new go-to for spiritual pilgrims of central Connecticut. It boasts the spirit of a new age synagogue, a Zen garden and a tropical Caribbean playspace, if its decor is an accurate indication.
Charter Oak Cultural Center.
8) Charter Oak Cultural Center
This former synagogue has evolved into a performance space, art gallery, movie theater, meeting place, dance studio and all-in-one cultural magnet. Best of all, it has that low-key quality of a house of worship in that you can just enter and chill.
9) The Freedom Trail
The Connecticut Freedom Trail is the most complex entry on this list, consisting of scores of sites related to the history of abolition, civil rights and freedom. With 18 marked sites, Hartford has the second highest concentration of markers on the Freedom Trail map, after New Haven, with 20. Nearby Farmington also boasts 13. It's everything from art exhibits to historic houses to graveyards.
10) Lunch Events at the Old State House
There's a two-headed calf upstairs at this historic former state capitol building. Just saying. But the more high-minded will want to get on the mailing list for lunchtime lectures about the most stimulating historical and cultural phenomena in Connecticut's past and present.
11) Little Jamaica/Albany Avenue
The number and quality of West Indian restaurants in and around Hartford is staggering, with so many packed between the 700 and 1300 blocks of Albany Avenue that you might just be tempted to park the car, get out and follow your nose.
12) The North Woods of Riverside Park
There are places inside of some dense cities where you can completely forget how close your are to human habitation, like the rambles in New York's Central Park or the places where hippies camp in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. But the north side of Hartford's Riverside Park, near the Jennings Road exit of I-91, is the wildest of the bunch. You could drive for miles outside of the city and not find a spot this rugged.
The Pool Factory: That sinking feeling.
13) Playing Pool in a Time Warp
The Pool Factory in Manchester, home of $6 per person unlimited play, feels a bit like stepping out of a time machine into 1990s Seattle, with patrons all looking tattooed and in their 20s, even if they're not, and favoring music that you forgot existed. The game room at City Steam also seems to exist in a rift in the time-space continuum, all but forgotten by patrons of this otherwise popular brew pub. Watch the balls trace a wobbly path to the corner pocket after a random tap. What could they have put in your Naughty Nurse?
14) Hartford Denim Co. Workshop
While this is definitely the most expensive thing on this list; they advertise that if you buy their jeans, you get repairs for life. And while they do have a store on Bartholomew Street, it's the actual factory that gets them on this list as a trip back to the industrial glory days of Connecticut. Located in a rehabbed factory building on Arbor Street near Real Art Ways, the workshop is choc full of antique sewing machines that they actually use to make stuff.
15) Pratt Street
It's the brick street that gives Pratt its old-world feel, and it's the coffee shops, restaurants and pubs that make this strip a Park Street for the hipster-yuppie set, the kind of place that would make Hartford seem a lot more liveable if there were more of them.
16) Chilling at Veteran's Memorial Rink
Some people like to ice skate; everybody likes to beat the heat in the summertime. Nobody thinks to just walk into an ice skating rink, soak up the awesomely cool air and zen out watching other people skate. There's also a snack bar. Who cares if the hockey teams bogart all the choice times?
17) Mini-Golf and Ice Cream in Farmington
Riverfront Miniature Golf in the Unionville Section of Farmington has a picturesque setting by the Farmington River, while Farmington Miniature Golf and Ice Cream Parlor is closer and has more kinds of ice cream. Both places will make you feel like a kid again and make your kids feel like, uh, kids.
18) Duckpin Bowling
There are theoretically other places to bowl duckpin-style in the region, but both Ducks on the Ave in Hartford's West End and Holiday Lanes on Spencer Street in Manchester have something gloriously old-school Fred Flintstone about them. Kids and backs love duckpin bowling, but always call first to make sure the place is really open.
19) Antonio's of Simsbury
Take a trip back to 1964, to the restaurant that appears to have inspired IHOP architecture, where the interior is stuffed to the gills with tchotchkes, knickknacks and gimcrackery. Just don't ask which is which; that's like trying to tell the difference between odds and ends. The menu is almost as deliciously old school, with the best fish and chips this side of London and portions that look like the chef bagged Moby Dick. Try the fried pickles.
Westmoor Park: Trails & Critters.
20) Westmoor Park
Officially the second most peaceful spot in West Hartford, this isn't just a park but a model farm with chicks and ducks and geese scurrying around, plus rabbits, sheep, cows, a horse and...llamas? A favorite for summertime day camp programs, it's also free to the public. It has a fair stretch of trails, too, and all unbelievably close to the hustle and bustle of Bishop's Corner shopping center.
21) Relics of Old G. Fox
Fans of chrome trim, this is your Art Deco temple, suggestive of an architectural era from the roaring '20s through "Mad Men," from the marquis straddling 950 and 960 Main Street to the giant shining letter "G" on the escalator. As a bonus, there are still a few vintage hat boxes, posters and floor maps from the era of Beatrice Fox Auerbach still tucked away in gloriously chrome-lined display cases.
22) Hublein Tower Trail
This one is a real climb, and even though a five-year-old can almost do it, plenty of adults will find it tough. The payoff is not only a glorious view of the Farmington Valley, but a unique hospitality property from a bygone era. Definitely worth it to call ahead and see if it's open. Otherwise, it's still one of the region's best and most calorie-burning hikes.
Fisher Meadows: Super calm.
23) Fisher Meadows
This well-kept secret in Avon may not knock your socks off, but it is one of the most pleasant and easy hikes around, especially if you are taking a dog or little ones.
The Reservoirs: Walk by water.
24) The Reservoirs
West Hartford's reservoirs are phenomenal, a total escape from the bustle of urban and suburban life. Some people prefer the entrance at 1420 Farmington Avenue en route from West Hartford Center to UConn Medical Center, while others brave the part on the northbound slope of Avon Mountain. These are vast nature preserves very close to home.
Secret Garden Shops: Get your garden on.
25) Secret Garden Shops
It may be giving short shrift to great garden stores in the region, but the grounds of West Hartford's Gledhill Garden Center on Mountain Road just off Albany Avenue are truly an escape. Another little gem is the Coy Pond at Butler Florist on Park Road near Trout Brook. Bring a quarter for fish food. Kids love it.
Wrought Iron: Very metal.
26) Wrought Iron Works
Driving East on Albany Avenue in West Hartford, on the hill just before Bishop's Corner, is what might appear to be a blacksmith shop out of the Old West. That's pretty much what it is, a place that does iron crafting for those fences and custom trim pieces still common in the old houses. It's totally worth a peek, but slow down with caution; the traffic moves fast here.
The Capitol: It's in the details.
27) The State Capitol
Decadence and governance come together in this peanut-butter-cup-like blend, serving as a tribute to how Connecticut must have really made out like a bandit during and after the Civil War. With details on its details and trim on its trim, this large building is the closest thing within city limits to a European cathedral — also the closest thing in spirit, showing that Connecticans truly worship secular democracy.
The gyro heroes at Tangiers.
All of the flavor of the Middle East and none of the politics are available at this Farmington Avenue market. Glatt Kosher, Halal, Armenian, Lebanese, Bosnian, everything filo...you name it; they've got it under one roof. And if they don't have it, bug them enough and they might just get it, as was the case with Turkish grape sausages. There's a falafel counter, too, which is fortunate because you just might plotz if you can't get a bite right there in the store.
29) Peaberry's Cafe
Sure, it's in a strip mall, but the place feels like chai smells. Leave it to Simsbury to have a coffee shop with the perfect atmosphere, especially on Wednesday in the early evening when the open mic comes out. Fight the temptation to figure out a world-travel comparison for a place that captures the essence of Simsbury. If you lived in Simsbury, you'd just want to stay put.
30) Friday Nights at LaSalle Grocery
Open Mic Fridays are spectacular, which is why a place so remote from downtown Hartford made this list. It's also because while big name headliners at other local venues overshadow the local musicians who turn out to perform for free on Fridays, it doesn't mean they're any better or any more fun. This place has pizza, sandwiches, beer, outdoor seating, great people, a dog water bowl, and no cover. You can't beat that, so save your money on an airline ticket or a cruise and see what Connecticut can do.
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