On the rebound

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Resurgence in culture and arts pays off for the insurance capital
By Jane Roy Brown, Boston Globe
Published on 11/01/2006

Picturing Hartford as a travel destination may seem like a stretch for New Englanders, for whom the city conjures visions of insurance company headquarters (or, for those with long memories, a convention center cave-in, a corrupt governor, and a lost hockey team). But the capital of “the land of steady habits,” as Connecticut was once dubbed in reference to the moral rectitude of its citizens, is emerging from its gray-flannel cocoon. Thanks to a conscious effort and a walloping infusion of public and private cash, a rebound is in progress, building on assets that younger cities often lack: a compact urban center, a sense of history, spacious parks, and an established arts community. Glamorous developments of late include Adriaen’s Landing, a riverside complex linking the new Connecticut Convention Center, Marriott Downtown Hotel, and Connecticut Science Center (still under construction by the New Haven firm of world-famous architect Cesar Pelli). Though most retail long ago migrated to outlying malls, dozens of new restaurants have sprouted and good hotels abound, with rates that more families can afford. Best of all, you can ditch the car for the weekend and hit the bricks, or catch the free Star Shuttle (3-11 p.m. on Saturdays, 860-525-9181).

A nice day begs a visit to Bushnell Park, a spacious oasis in the city center and the country’s first publicly financed urban park. One of the park’s most popular attractions is mechanical: a working 1914 carousel (open May-mid-October, Thursday-Sunday 11 a. m.-5 p.m.) in a 24-sided pavilion, brought here from Ohio in the 1970s. For a buck, customers can choose from 48 hand-carved steeds (and two “lovers’ chariots”) and whirl for 3 1/2 minutes to the tunes of a Wurlitzer band organ. The park’s turreted Gothic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch honors Hartford’s Civil War dead. If good weather holds, make a point of strolling to the Connecticut River, which the city is trying to reclaim from the two interstate highways that wall it off from downtown. Walk toward the landmark “boat building” (a.k.a. the Phoenix building) on Constitution Plaza to Riverfront Plaza, a new promenade to an amphitheater and performance tent on the riverbank. (The science center is going up beside it, opening in 2008: ctsciencecenter.org.) Rainy days may require a car or cab trip across the river to the Children’s Museum (950 Trout Brook Drive, West Hartford, 860-231-2824, thechildrensmuseumct.org ), which sports a planetarium and wildlife sanctuary in addition to hands-on exhibits.

Hartford’s Trinity College is one of the reasons that it’s easy to find clubs in this traditionally staid city. Sample the student legacy at Mibar Cafe (1995 Park St., 860- 233-3318), a dance spot with live bands. Sweet Jane’s (88 Pratt St., 860-882-6754) features traditional rock, and Black-Eyed Sally’s (350 Asylum St., 860-278-7427, blackeyedsallys.com, entrees $15-$21) serves up a feast of blues and barbecue. Altrock and hip-hop acts strut at Webster Underground (31 Webster St., 860-525-5553) and Sully’s Pub (2071 Park St., 860-231-8881, sullyspub.com ). City Steam Brewery Cafe (Marriott Residence Inn, 942 Main St., 860-525-1600, citysteambrewerycafe.com , burgers and entrees $8-$19), a brewpub in an 1880s Romanesque building by Boston architect H.H. Richardson, features comedy on weekends.

One sign of Hartford’s bounce back from commuter limbo is a resurgent restaurant scene. One popular spot for lunch and dinner, Mayor Mike’s (283 Asylum St., 860-522- 6453, mayormikes.com , entrees $13-$25), adds Italian and Southwest zest to basic pub fare. And talk about local color: Owner Mike Peters is, in fact, a former Hartford mayor. Peppercorn’s Grill (357 Main St., 860-547-1714, peppercornsgrill.com , pasta and entrees $18-$28) has received critics’ raves for its creative white-tablecloth Italian cuisine since it opened in 1989. For more casual Italian fare with additional offerings of grilled meat and fish, Hot Tomato’s (1 Union Place, 860-249-5100, hottomatos.net , entrees $16-$32) is the place. For a bagel, breakfast sandwich, or an afternoon espresso, head to JoJo’s Coffee Roasting Co. (22 Pratt St., 860-524-1488, breakfast $1.75-$3.50).

Get oriented at the Old State House (800 Main St., 860-522-6766, ctosh.org ), a gilttopped building designed in 1796 by Charles Bulfinch. An interactive exhibit downstairs explores Hartford’s past, from Colonial port to Colt Armory headquarters, insurance capital to cultural destination . On the ground floor, Holcombe Education Center provides an enchanting retreat for kids (Tuesday-Friday 11 a.m.-5 p,m., Saturday 10 a. m.-5 p.m.), and upstairs, Steward’s Museum of Curiosities showcases Victorian specimens. From here it’s a 10-minute walk to the Wadsworth Atheneum (600 Main St., 860-278-2670, wadsworthatheneum.org ), the country’s oldest public art museum, renowned for its Hudson River School paintings. Outside, an abstract Alexander Calder stegosaurus guards a quiet courtyard. For fans of antique firearms, the Museum of Connecticut History (Connecticut State Library, 231 Capitol Ave., 860-757-6535, cslib.org/museum.htm ) near the State Capitol, houses one of the world’s best collections of early Colt firearms, from Gatling guns to automatic weapons.

There is no serious shopping to be done here. So why not splurge on choice seats at one of the city’s high-caliber performance venues? After a $45 million expansion, the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts (166 Capitol Ave., 860-987-5900, bushnell.org ) is the premier stage in town, hosting Broadway shows, children’s theater, and symphony gigs. Multicultural happenings take place at Charter Oak Cultural Center (21 Charter Oak Place, 860-249-1207, charteroakcenter.org ). Connecticut Opera (226 Farmington Ave., 860-527-0713, connecticutopera.org ) stages three shows a season. The regional, Tony Award-winning Hartford Stage Company (50 Church St., 860-527- 5151, hartfordstage.org ) attracts national talent for plays both classic and cutting-edge. TheaterWorks (233 Pearl St., 860-727-4027, theaterworkshartford.org ) puts on more than 200 performances each season in an Art Deco building. The same building houses the innovative dance troupe the Judy Dworin Performance Project (233 Pearl St., 860-527-9800, jdpe.info ). Check the weekend’s happenings at the Greater Hartford Arts Council (860-525-8629, connectthedots.org ).

Because Hartford has long been a business and convention hot spot, virtually every major chain has a hotel downtown within walking distance of restaurants, museums, and theaters. Most include self-parking for $15-$20 a night. A sampling: Crowne Plaza (50 Morgan St., 860-549-2400, ichotelsgroup.com , average rate $180); Hilton Hartford (315 Trumbull St., 860-728-5151, average $174), and Holiday Inn Express (440 Asylum St., 860-246-9900, www.hershahotels.com/holidayinnexpresshartford.htm, average $141). But for a unique, more luxurious experience for basically the same money, try the Goodwin Hotel (1 Haynes St., 800-922-5006, goodwinhotel.com , average $157). This red-brick, four-story Victorian grand dame, a National Historic Landmark, sprawls over an entire city block across from the Civic Center and features a stunning marble atrium.