Connecticut History Tour: A Guide to Historic Coastal Sights

Connecticut, like all of New England, has a rich history that remains hidden from most weekend travelers. With the exception of history buffs who purposely plan a trip of historical sites, few casual visitors realize what a great deal of Connecticut history there is to experience, without resorting to stuffy museums and velvet ropes. To help you explore Connecticut, we’ve put together a Connecticut history tour that will take you through the sights, sounds, and history of this humble state, from the Connecticut River banks to the southern most tips of the coastline.

The Essex Steam Railway
Situated in the Connecticut River Valley, the Essex Steam Train is one of eastern Connecticut’s most popular and famous attractions. The train runs on tracks originally laid by the Valley Railroad Company in 1868, and takes riders through some of the most picturesque scenery that Connecticut has to offer. Regular rides go roundtrip from Essex to Chester, though there is also the option to take a longer Dinner Train ride to the end of the line in Haddam. Either way, you’ll see fantastic scenery and enjoy a historic rail line in comfort and style. After your ride, you can stop into the Griswold Inn for another historic trip — opened in 1776, it’s literally as old as the nation itself.

Connecticut History tour stop_Gillette Castle State Park
Gillette Castle
Just north of Essex is the Gillette Castle State Park, one of the most intriguing pieces of Connecticut history you’ll find on the tour. While it may look like a medieval fortress, the building is actually the product of William Gillette, a famed silent film and stage actor of the early 1900s. The castle was originally known as the Seventh Sister, and today it features some of the best examples of local craftsmanship in the Connecticut River Valley. Everything in and around the castle is handmade, including the private three-mile-long miniature railroad. Gillette Castle is both a fascinating look into the past and a diverting study of the man who commissioned it all. Unfortunately, you can’t sleep in any of the mansion’s 24 rooms — but you can stay at the nearby Inn at Middletown, which is just as luxurious (and far less drafty).

Connecticut History Mystic Seaport_Charles W Morgan_oldest commercial vessel still aflot

The Mystic Seaport
Don’t worry, the Mystic Seaport isn’t haunted. However, its beauty and rich history are mystical in their own right. Featuring many one-of-a-kind attractions and sights, the Mystic Seaport is a delight for history buffs, sea lovers, and Captain Ahab look-alikes. If you can only see one thing at the Mystic Seaport, make it the Charles W. Morgan, the last intact wooden whaling ship in the world and the oldest commercial vessel still afloat in the United States. You can also visit the fantastic Museum of America and the Sea and a historic 19th century village. Once you’re finished shouting “Thar’ she blows!” relax to the comfort of the Groton Inn & Suites, just 15 minutes away in Groton, Connecticut.

Old Saybrook and Old Lyme
Old Saybrook and Old Lyme are two sides of the same coin — or to be more accurate, they’re two sides of the Connecticut River where it opens into Long Island Sound. Both towns date back to the early 1600s, making them some of the earliest settlements in the United States and integral parts of Connecticut history. Old Saybrook features a number of attractions, including Fort Saybrook Monument Park and several local museums, while Old Lyme has the honor of being the “birthplace of American impressionist art.” The town’s collections include original pieces by many noteworthy American impressionists including Willard Metcalf, Childe Hassam, and Henry Ward Ranger. There are also plenty of comfortable places where you can extend your stay, such as the Old Lyme Inn and the Saybrook Point Inn & Spa.

Of course, this is just a small sample of all the Connecticut history that one can absorb on a trip to the Constitution State. Plan your own adventure, whether historic or modern, and rest assured there will be no shortage of great Connecticut inns and hotels to choose from.

Photos courtesy of Mystic Seaport and Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism.