Connecticut offers many free visitor attractions for New England tourists, including the college campus museums and historic sites of New Haven's renowned Yale University, one of the United States' oldest and most acclaimed institutions of higher education. The state's Colonial past and farming community history is on display throughout its rural areas, which can be explored via scenic byways such as Connecticut State Route 169. The free-admission Eli Whitney Museum showcases exhibits honoring the inventor's legacy of innovation, while the rose gardens of Elizabeth Park are home to the United States' oldest collection of curated rose blossoms. CDC information for travelers. Hours/availability may have changed.
1.The Observatory at the Westport Astronomical Society
The Observatory at the Westport Astronomical Society is the premiere astronomical observatory facility of the city of Westport, located at the site of the former BR-73 Nike missile site atop the city's highest elevation point. The observatory, which was originally founded as the Rolnick Observatory, has been the home of the Westport Astronomical Society for more than four decades, offering free-admission public observation nights each clear Wednesday evening between 8:00pm and 10:00pm. It is home to a 16-inch Meade LX200 telescope within its dome observatory and a 25-inch Obsession telescope often hosted outside on its lawn grounds, the largest telescope offered for public use in the state. Free monthly events showcase speakers from major planetariums and scientific organizations around the nation.
182 Bayberry Ln, Westport, CT 06880, Phone: 203-227-0925
2.Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens
Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens encompass 93 acres of gorgeous public parkland and gardens throughout the city of Stamford, home to a splendid collection of regional Southwestern New England plants and trees. The lovely arboretum, which is accessible to the public for free 365 days a year, is home to a collection of more than 3,500 specimens from the United States, along with additional plantings from Mexico, the Caribbean, Peru, the Soviet Union, and Africa. It was founded in 1913 by Dr. Francis A. Bartlett, the founder of the F.A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company, and was transferred to the care of the City of Stamford in 2001, overseen as a nonprofit venture by the Bartlett Arboretum Association. Collections include a conifer garden, a nut tree collection, and a magnolia collection. Visitors can also explore the arboretum's landscaped meadow and woodland areas, including its Woodland Pond and Red Maple Wetland.
151 Brookdale Rd, Stamford, CT 06903, Phone: 203-322-6971
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3.Connecticut State Route 169
Connecticut State Route 169 is a gorgeous National Scenic Byway showcasing one of the United States' last unspoiled natural areas, stretching between the cities of Norwich, Connecticut and Charlton, Massachusetts. The route, which stretches for 32 miles, runs parallel to the beautiful Quinebaug River at several points and crosses through the National Register of Historic Places-listed town of Pomfret within its downtown historic district. It is known for its gorgeous historic communities and stunning views of colorful foliage throughout the autumn months. In 1993, it was named as one of the nation's top scenic byways by Scenic America. Visitors can explore the route for free without tolls and pass by preserved colonial homesteads, historic churches, private schools, and other classic New England town features.
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4.The Eli Whitney Museum
© The Eli Whitney Museum
The Eli Whitney Museum is a unique experimental learning workshop located on the former Eli Whitney Gun Factory site, erected by Whitney in 1798. The family-friendly museum, which occupies a portion of the site along the Mill River, showcases hands-on exhibits and opportunities to participate in building, design, and invention projects. Visitors can learn about Whitney's career and most famous inventions, including his invention of the cotton gin. Other exhibits detail the career of inventor and toy maker A.C. Gilbert and his connection to Whitney's operations. Young visitors can enjoy exhibits such as a water table with canal locks, while families can explore the museum's lovely network of outdoor hiking trails. The museum also conducts a long-term apprenticeship program each year, which has produced alumni such as Emmy Award-winning television creator Jennifer Oxley and world champion sailor Joshua Revkin.
915 Whitney Ave, Hamden, CT 06517, Phone: 203-777-1833
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5.Elizabeth Park's Rose Gardens
Elizabeth Park's Rose Gardens are the oldest municipal rose gardens in the United States, originally established by Elizabeth Park superintendent Theodore Wirth in 1904. The two-acre rose garden, which is located within Hartford's lovely Elizabeth Park, spans 2.5 acres and is open to the public for free throughout the year during daylight hours. More than 15,000 rose bushes and blossoms are showcased throughout the gardens, representing 800 different varieties of native and exotic roses. Roses on the garden's spectacular arches typically bloom between mid-June and early July, while other rose collections continue to bloom into the autumn months. The garden is a recognized symbol of the city of Hartford, known as a popular spot for weddings and photography.
1561 Asylum Ave, Hartford, CT 06105, Phone: 860-231-9443
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6.The Fort Stamford Site
The Fort Stamford Site preserves the historic campus of Fort Stamford, which served as a major fortress during the American Revolutionary War and protected the Connecticut region from British troops in control of New York City and Long Island. Following the signing of the Treaty of Peace in 1783, the fort was sold by the state of Connecticut as surplus property. Its remnants were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, preserving archaeological remains of military earthworks and former structures. Today, the site has been converted into a gorgeous public garden overseen by the Stamford Garden Club, spanning throughout five acres of the former military site. Visitors can stroll through gorgeous fields of magnolias, peonies, and other blossoms and view native birds and wildlife in their natural habitats. A tree dating back to the site's Revolutionary War days has stood in the gardens for more than 250 years.
Stamford, CT 06902
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7.The J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum
The J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum celebrates the intercollegiate athletic teams of the University of Connecticut, located on the college's main campus in Storrs. The free-admission museum, which was opened in 2002, is named in honor of Connecticut basketball and football legend J. Robert Donnelly. Visitors can peruse the museum's exhibits for free during regular business hours throughout the week at the UConn Alumni Center and learn about the college's national and regional athletic victories. Championship trophies are on display, along with vintage sports photography and memorabilia, trading cards, player uniforms, and other athletic artifacts. A six-screen video wall replays some of the Huskies' greatest athletic triumphs throughout the day, while a life-size sculpture of the school's collegiate mascot greets guests at the front door.
2384 Alumni Dr, Storrs, CT 06269, Phone: 860-486-2240
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8.The Knights of Columbus Museum
© The Knights of Columbus Museum
The Knights of Columbus Museum is a nonprofit museum in New Haven honoring the history and faith of the Knights of Columbus Supreme Council. The free-admission museum, which was established in 1982, serves as the Knights' official repository and permanent gallery, showcasing the organization's history, culture, achievements, and artwork since its founding in 1882. Visitors can learn about the Catholic fraternal organization's founder, Venerable Michael McGivney, tracing his life from his childhood in Waterbury to his parish work at St. Mary's Church and St. Thomas Church. A Papal Gallery details the relationship between the Knights and the Vatican, while a 170-foot Wall of History chronicles significant events in the organization's history and development. Other attractions include a 400-year-old cross from St. Peter's Basilica, gifted to the organization by Pope St. John Paul II.
1 State St, New Haven, CT 06511, Phone: 203-865-0400
9.The Merritt Parkway
The Merritt Parkway is a limited-access parkway stretching throughout Fairfield County, constructed as the first leg of Route 15. The parkway, which was the first of its kind at its construction between 1934 and 1940, stretches from Connecticut's state line with New York at Greenwich to Stratford near the Housatonic River. It spans 37 miles along Connecticut's Gold Coast and is known for its scenic panoramas and unique signage. It is named for United States Congressman Schulyer Merritt and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, designated as a National Scenic Byway. In 2010, the Parkway was named as one of America's most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Stunning forest landscapes are showcased throughout the drive, along with uniquely-designed bridges showcasing spectacular individual architecture.
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10.The Museum of Connecticut History
© The Museum of Connecticut History
The Museum of Connecticut History traces the origins of Connecticut's statehood from the Colonial era into its evolution as a New England epicenter in the modern era. The free-admission museum is operated as a part of the Connecticut State Library, housed within the beautifully-restored 1910 State Library and Supreme Court Building in Hartford, adjacent to the state's capitol building. Social, political, military, and industrial artifacts have been on display at the museum since 1910, displayed in four adjoining exhibit areas. Permanent and temporary exhibits include a portrait hall of past Connecticut governors, a display of the 1639 Fundamental Orders, and the Mitchelson Coin Collection, one of the most renowned collections of American coins in the world, showcasing examples of every minted coin produced by the country.
231 Capitol Ave, Hartford, CT 06106, Phone: 860-757-6535
11.The SONO Switch Tower Museum
The SONO Switch Tower Museum preserves the fully-restored 1896 switch tower of the same name in South Norwalk, overseen by the Western Connecticut Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. The free-admission museum is open to the public on weekend afternoons between May and October, showcasing the history of railroading operations at the switch tower since the 19th century. The tower was used to house the mechanism of switching trains between tracks, staffed by operators throwing levers to change tracks. Its purpose was to control areas of the track to prevent trains from crashing into one another and to house the mechanisms for track switching. Visitors can learn about the jobs of railroad operators working at the tower and view preserved equipment on display. Donations are greatly appreciated to ensure continued museum operations.
77 Washington St, Norwalk, CT 06854, Phone: 203-246-6958
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12.The Stamford History Center
© The Stamford History Center
The Stamford History Center preserves the regional cultural heritage and history of the Stamford area, housed within the preserved 1699 Hoyt-Barnum House, constructed for area blacksmith Samuel Hoyt. The center is the major public initiative of the Stamford Historical Society, which was founded in 1901 to preserve objects of Stamford manufacture and artifacts connected to the region's social and cultural history, including its history as a port town. Its exhibit-oriented collections are showcased at the Hoyt-Barnum House, which is open to the public for free throughout the year as a living history facility offering guided tours at select times. In 2016, the house was moved to the Historical Society's North Stamford campus, now showcasing collections such as David Barnum's 1838 inventory of farming and cottage industry era artifacts.
1508 High Ridge Rd, Stamford, CT 06903, Phone: 203-329-1183
13.Steep Rock Preserve
Steep Rock Preserve is a lovely 998-acre nature preserve offering beautiful public hiking trails along the banks of the Shepaug River and its surrounding hillside landscapes. The preserve's lovely nature trails are open to hikers and cyclists of all ability levels, meandering along the river's double oxbow loop route. Visitors can ascend the Steep Rock summit, which raises to elevations of 776 feet, and view stunning panoramas of the Shepaug River Valley's Clamshell section. On the preserve's northern end, carriage roads lead to the preserved foundations of the 1893 Holiday House, constructed as a private retreat for New Yorkers by philanthropist Edward I. Van Ingen. A railroad tunnel, constructed for the Shepaug Valley Railroad in 1872, can be explored by hikers on foot. Three campsites line the river's banks, offering primitive overnight camping experiences.
2 Tunnel Road, Washington Depot, CT 06794, Phone: 860-868-9131
14.The United States Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum
The United States Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum is the only historic submarine museum overseen by the United States Naval History and Heritage Command, serving as a repository for submarine items of national military significance. The museum, which is located on the Thames River in the city of Groton, was established in 1955 by the Electric Boat Company and donated to the Navy in 1964. Today, it showcases a permanent collection of more than 33,000 submarine-related artifacts, including the preserved USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear-powered submarine vessel, which served during the Cold War. Other exhibits include World War II-era midget submarines, working periscopes, and a replica of the 1775 Turtle, the first submarine used in combat. Visitors can explore the Nautilus and its exhibits as part of half-hour self-guided audio tours for free throughout the week.
1 Crystal Lake Rd, Groton, CT 06340, Phone: 800-343-0079
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Tarrywile Park is a spacious 722-acre municipal park overseen by the City of Danbury, showcasing gorgeous rolling hill, woodland, pond, and field landscapes. The park, which is the largest municipal park in the state of Connecticut, is home to several preserved historic structures, including the Tarrywile Mansion, the city's finest preserved Shingle-style residence, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Visitors can explore the home's gatehouse, carriagehouse, greenhouse, and 11-acre landscaped property as part of guided tours with special appointment. The remains of the 1895 Hearthstone Castle, once used as a summer home residence, are also showcased. 21 miles of hiking trails meander through the park, which also offers day-use picnic sites and areas for wildlife observation.
70 Southern Blvd, Danbury, CT 06810, Phone: 203-744-3130
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16.The Silvermine Heritage Area
The Silvermine Heritage Area preserves a lovely unincorporated community in Fairfield County, extending through the southwestern Connecticut towns of New Canaan, Wilton, and Norwalk. The area, which is named for urban legends about historic silver mines in the region, was known as a major arts colony through the early 20th century, home to the Knockers Club artist community, founded by sculptor Solon Borglum. Today, the region remains the home of the Silvermine Guild Arts Center, one of New England's largest and oldest art centers. The Silvermine Tavern, located at the site of a 17th-century grist mill, offers a lovely restaurant experience and an inn with 11 overnight rooms. More than 85 historic buildings are preserved throughout the region's core historic district, Silvermine Center Historic District, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
17.UConn Animal Barns
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UConn Animal Barns are operated by Animal Science students and staff at the University of Connecticut, open to the public for free for visitors to learn about the university's Department of Animal Science program. Visitors can see a plethora of farm animals on display at the facility, including beef and dairy cows, sheep, and horses. More than 200 Jersey and Holstein cows are kept on site throughout the year, along with brood ewes and mature beef cattle. Visitors can observe young animals in their barn residences throughout the summer months or observe the facility's robotic Voluntary Milking System in operation throughout the day. Delicious ice cream treats are offered at the facility's UConn Dairy Bar, while day-use picnic sites let visitors bring their own picnic lunches during visits.
17 Manter Rd, Storrs, CT 06269, Phone: 860-486-2413
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18.Weir Farm National Historic Site
Weir Farm National Historic Site honors the life and work of seminal American Impressionist painter J. Alden Weir, operated as one of only two sites within the National Park Service system devoted to the visual arts. The historic site, which is located in the cities of Ridgefield and Wilton, also honors the careers of other artists who periodically stayed at Weir's farm residence, including luminaries such as Childe Hassam and John Singer Sargent. Visitors can tour the property's 16 buildings as part of guided tours offered by NPS rangers and see several preserved artist studios on the site. A hiking trail is also offered throughout the 110-acre Weir Preserve, which borders the facility and meanders through lovely woodland, field, and pond habitats.
735 Nod Hill Rd, Wilton, CT 06897
19.The Yale University Art Gallery
The Yale University Art Gallery is the oldest university art museum in the Western Hemisphere, originally founded in 1832 to house the donated collections of artist John Trumbull's Revolutionary War paintings. Its current building, which was designed in 1953 by Yale architecture professor Louis Kahn, is a member organization of the North American Reciprocal Museums program and is home to a significant encyclopedia art collection showcasing more than 200,000 pieces of art. Artwork and artifacts span from the ancient era to the present day, highlighting works of African art and sculpture, Italian painting, American decorative arts, and modern and contemporary works by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp. Significant holdings of Mayan and Olmec artifacts are also showcased, along with major collections of American artwork prior to the 20th century.
1111 Chapel St, New Haven, CT 06510, Phone: 203-432-0600
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20.The Yale Center for British Art
The Yale Center for British Art is home to the largest and most comprehensive collection of British artwork outside of the United Kingdom, located on the campus of Yale University in downtown New Haven. The center, which was established as a gift from alumni Paul Mellon in 1966, showcases a collection of over 2,000 paintings and 200 sculptures, with an emphasis on works dating from the late 17th century to the mid-19th century during the Elizabethan period. Major artists represented include William Hogarth, J.M.W. Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, Barbara Hepworth, and Robert Polhill Bevan. Works by artists from North America and Europe are also showcased, including pieces by Peter Paul Rubs, Canaletto, and John Singleton Copley. It is open to the public for free six days a week and presents regular free special event programming, including film showings, concerts, lectures, and family-friendly events.
1080 Chapel St, New Haven, CT 06510, Phone: 203-432-2800
21.The Peabody Museum of Natural History
The Peabody Museum of Natural History is one of the world's largest and oldest natural history museums, founded in 1866 by philanthropist George Peabody. The museum, which is located on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, has been housed at its current location since 1925, showcasing world-renowned collections of natural history specimens. Notable collections include one of the United States' most historically-important fossil collections and a collection of Incan artifacts from the ancient site of Machu Picchu. The museum also holds one of the world's most taxonomically-inclusive ornithology collections and exhibits such as the world's first full-scale reproduction of a Torosaurus dinosaur skeleton. Visitors can peruse the museum's permanent exhibits throughout the week for free and view its stunning preserved skeletons, artifact halls, and artistic murals and dioramas.
170 Whitney Ave, New Haven, CT 06511, Phone: 203-432-8987
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Yale University is one of the United States' top Ivy League universities, widely considered to be one of the world's top institutions of higher education. Its lovely university campus, which was the United States' third institution of higher learning at its founding in 1701, stretches across 260 acres in downtown New Haven and is noted for its gorgeous Collegiate Gothic architecture, along with its iconic modern museum facilities and department buildings designed by architects such as Louis Kahn. In 2011, the campus was named as one of the United States' most beautiful college campuses by Travel + Leisure. Visitors can explore the campus' historic architecture along Hillhouse Avenue, enjoy opportunities for outdoor recreation at the Yale Golf Course, or drop in for guided tours at the university's Mead Visitor Center. Many museums and libraries on campus are open to the public for free, including the Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Yale University Art Gallery.
149 Elm St, New Haven, CT 06511, Phone: 203-432-4771
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22 Best Free Things to Do in Connecticut
- The Observatory at the Westport Astronomical Society, Photo: lunamarina/stock.adobe.com
- Bartlett Arboretum and Gardens, Photo: anphotos99/stock.adobe.com
- Connecticut State Route 169, Photo: javarman/stock.adobe.com
- The Eli Whitney Museum, Photo: The Eli Whitney Museum
- Elizabeth Park's Rose Gardens, Photo: Jennifer/stock.adobe.com
- The Fort Stamford Site, Photo: jipen/stock.adobe.com
- The J. Robert Donnelly Husky Heritage Sports Museum, Photo: eurobanks/stock.adobe.com
- The Knights of Columbus Museum, Photo: The Knights of Columbus Museum
- The Merritt Parkway, Photo: Valeriy/stock.adobe.com
- The Museum of Connecticut History, Photo: The Museum of Connecticut History
- The SONO Switch Tower Museum, Photo: closertoinfinity/stock.adobe.com
- The Stamford History Center, Photo: The Stamford History Center
- Steep Rock Preserve, Photo: Gajus/stock.adobe.com
- The United States Navy Submarine Force Library and Museum, Photo: osmar01/stock.adobe.com
- Tarrywile Park, Photo: Iana Alter/stock.adobe.com
- The Silvermine Heritage Area, Photo: cooperr/stock.adobe.com
- UConn Animal Barns, Photo: Grigorita Ko/stock.adobe.com
- Weir Farm National Historic Site, Photo: Iryna/stock.adobe.com
- The Yale University Art Gallery, Photo: Seventyfour/stock.adobe.com
- The Yale Center for British Art, Photo: JackF/stock.adobe.com
- The Peabody Museum of Natural History, Photo: Oleksii/stock.adobe.com
- Yale University, Photo: Spiroview Inc./stock.adobe.com
- Cover Photo: SeanPavonePhoto/stock.adobe.com
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