An easy day-trip or weekend getaway from most major cities of the northeast, Connecticutoffers the perfect mix of New England charm and scenery, Ivy League college town flavor, and enough action to satisfy every food lover and history buff. Here's why New Haven, Mystic, and Essex need to be on your fall getaway bucket list.
See the fall colors
Largely due to the state's temperate seaside weather, the colors of Connecticut's leaves tend to be colorful longer than most in other New England states, typically from early October through early November, so now is the time to go! Catch a glimpse of the fall foliage by taking a ride on the Essex Steam Train, where you can take an hour-long tour through the Connecticut wilderness from the comfort of your comfy swivel chair (first class section only). Part of the Valley Railroad Company's fleet since the late 1800s, the Essex Steam Train offers several touring options Thursday thru Monday: a regular coach seat ($19 for adults, $10 for children), a first class ticket ($31 for adults, $22 for children), and the option to make your trip a steam train and riverboat adventure (from $29 for adults, from $19 for children). Whichever way you choose to ride, you'll learn a little about the history of the area and have access to some of the best views of nature in the state—and a peek at nearby Gillette Castle in East Haddam. Adrenaline junkies can drive about an hour north and experience the fall colors by zip line Sunday thru Tuesday at The Adventure Park at Storrs(from $38 for adults ages 12 and up, $33 for children ages 10 and 11, $28 for children ages 7-9).
Visit the Yale campus and world-class museums—for free!
One of New Haven's biggest draws is that it's home to Yale, a beautiful Ivy League University that offers free guided campus tours Monday thru Friday at 10:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. and on weekends at 1:30 p.m. Tours are about an hour and 20 minutes and depart from the Yale Visitor Center located at 149 Elm Street. If you'd rather stroll the grounds at your own pace, you can purchase a copy of the Blue Trail map at the Visitor Center for less than $5 and have access to a brief history of the campus and suggested routes for exploring the historic campus. Also on campus are top notch museums like the Yale University Art Gallery, home to Van Gogh's Le Café de Nuit among other treasures, the Yale Center for British Art—where you can see pieces by Sir Peter Paul Rubens and William Blake among others (Note: Currently closed for Conservation and reopening in Spring of 2016)—and the Knights of Columbus Museum—all of which are free and open to the public.
Unleash your inner foodie
In New Haven, stop by a student favorite, Claire's Corner Copia, and try the Lithuanian cake. Warm up with a hot Russian fruit tea, kind of like a delicious cross between mulled wine and sangria but with no alcohol and twice as much fruit. Stop by Louis' Lunch to taste America's First Hamburger—a steal at $6; grab a $4 slice of homemade pie and a $2 Foxon Park Soda to wash it all down with. For the best pizza and happy hour in town, head to Kitchen Zinc for signature artisinal pies like Lobster Mac & Cheese or my favorite, Fig & Speck, and a chance to mingle with the Yale after-class crowd for al fresco cocktails, $5 draft beer and wine specials, and half-price pizzas Tuesday thru Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and from 9 p.m. til 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Movie buffs should visit Mystic Pizza, located about an hour away in Mystic, Conn., owned and operated by the Zelepos family since 1973, and the setting for the film starring Julia Roberts. In Essex, about a half hour away, stop by the Essex Coffee and Tea Company on Main Street for a swig of steamed apple cider and according to them, "the best macaroons in the known universe." (I concur).
Experience living history at Mystic Seaport
One of the biggest attractions in Connecticut is Mystic Seaport, a living history village by the sea where you can experience how things were in this late-18th-century maritime settlement. Don't miss the chance to tour the Charles W. Morgan, a historic whaleship, and the Joseph Conrad, a full-rigged ship, both of which are currently docked at Mystic Seaport. You'll also have the chance to walk around town, tour models of what homes were like during the time, visit the chemist, chapel, school house, and print shop among other town staples, and see the L.A. Dunton, a National Historic Landmark 19th-century fishing boat. Mystic Seaport is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and tickets start at $25 for adults ages 18-64, $23 for seniors over age 65, $23 for college students with a valid I.D., and $16 for children ages 6-17. Children ages five and under get in free. The best part? Your ticket automatically includes a second day's admission as long as you re-visit within the week and get it validated on the way out.
Treat yourself to dinner and a show
Connecticut is home to many theatres, but there's nothing quite like seeing a show at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Walking from the parking lot over the bridge and hearing 20s music play as you enter harkens back to the golden age of theater and really makes it feel like you're entering another time. For a great night out, try the Friday Dinner Theatre Package, from $82 per person, for a three-course dinner at the Gelston House and a ticket to the 8 p.m. performance—just make sure you make reservations before 2 p.m. on the day you plan to visit.
Stay in a historic B&B—or in the center of New Haven in style
Use the Westbrook Inn as your base for exploring the Essex, East Haddam, and Mystic areas, all of which are within a 30-minute drive. Not only is this adorable B&B is super elegant—featuring nine Victorian style antique rooms and a two-bedroom cottage—but the owners are really friendly, and best of all, you're just a five-minute walk from the beach. You'll also have private bathrooms, complimentary access to WiFi, and hotel-like amenities like hair dryers, irons, and TV, as well as complimentary use of the B&B's extensive library and game collection. Family game night, anyone? Rooms from $139 a night including free parking and a delicious breakfast in the morning. Stay in the middle of all the action at the luxurious Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale, located on Temple Street, an easy 5 minute walk from campus. New Haven is such an easy city to walk around, with most attractions being within walking distance of the hotel, so I parked my car there and went for a stroll around town. For great views of the Yale campus from above, treat yourself to breakfast (or brunch, lunch, or dinner) at John Davenport's at the Top of the Park, located on the Omni's top floor. Rooms at the Omni New Haven Hotel at Yale start at $185 a night this time of year. Check their website for more info about seasonal sales and packages.
It's easy to get around
New Haven is about a 90-minute drive (or train ride!) from New York City but having a car is highly recommended for exploring the parts of Mystic, Essex, and East Haddam mentioned in this story—I was able to rent a car on Hotwire.com from $27 a day from where I live in Queens, NYC. These places also make a great getaway or day-trip from Boston, Providence, and other cities and areas of the northeast, so make a road trip out of it.
Check out CTvisit.com for more vacation ideas.