Hartford hosts the AAC basketball tournament at the XL Center March 9 to 12, when tens of thousands of fans from across the country will be heading into the city to cheer on their favorite teams — which means there will be plenty of competition off the court as well, as attendees vie for seats at eateries and bars in the downtown area.
If you're one of them and new to the area — and you want a break from the hoopla — here's your pick of fun, nearby places to eat, drink, shop and explore.
If you're already in downtown Hartford, you're minutes away with a visit to the Connecticut Science Center, 250 Columbus Blvd., a hands-on, nine-story museum overlooking the Connecticut River. The museum features interactive exhibits, a 3-D digital theater and daily special programs and events.
Craft beer enthusiasts, take note — Hartford has plenty of suds. City Steam brewery, at 942 Main St., features a brewery bar with over a dozen hand crafted beers on tap, live entertainment on weekends, and comedy shows in its Brew Ha Ha Comedy Club. The taproom menu at Hog River Brewing Co., 1429 Park St., features rotating selection of house beers, including German-style ales, IPAs and stouts. (No food served, but food trucks are usually parked outside.) Hanging Hills Brewery, 150 Ledyard St., pours a selection of IPAs, stouts, saisons and ales in their taproom. Just a short way out of the Hartford, the Thomas Hooker Brewing Company, 16 Tobey Road, in Bloomfield, serves up ales and lagers in its taproom. Stop by on a Saturday between noon and 5 p.m. and you'll get a guided tour of the brewery and a tasting for $5.
All the plays aren't happening on the court. Hartford Stage's current
production "Cloud Nine," by British playwright Caryl Churchill, is a comedic exploration of gender swaps, role reversals and sexual politics, and Sea Tea Comedy Theater, 15 Asylum St., features a changing mix of sketch comedy and improv performances.
The stately castle-like building at 600 Main St. is the Wadsworth Atheneum, the country's oldest continually operating public art museum. (If you've only got a little time, duck in between 4 and 5 p.m., when admission is free.)
History and literature buffs will want to visit the Mark Twain House, at 351 Farmington Ave., where visitors can take a living history tour through the rooms where Twain and his family lived and where the Connecticut Yankee wrote some of his most famous works.
Real Art Ways, 56 Arbor St., is an alternative art space featuring foreign and art films, exhibits and special events.
Front Street is loaded for you. The Spotlight movie theater, which also has a bistro and lets you eat and drink while watching your movie, is surrounded by places to eat: Kansas City barbecue at Bear's Smokehouse, Infinity Music Hall and Bistro (check out the concerts schedule here), The Capital Grill, Qdoba and Ted's Montana Grill. Parallel to Front Street is The Blind Pig, a new pizza joint, and Arch Street Tavern.
Other places for great dining in Hartford: At Salute, 901 Main St., and Sorella's, 100 Trumbull St, you'll find creative Italian cuisine. Bin 228, 228 Pearl St., is a wine bar and gastropub. Little River Restoratives, 405 Capitol Ave., offers trendy libations in a vintage atmosphere. Next door to Little River is Bob Ramen, 399 Capitol Ave, a new restaurant with a menu of noodle bowls, buns and dumplings. For an old-school vibe, head out to First and Last Tavern, 939 Maple Ave., a Hartford landmark since 1936, for pizzas, pastas and salads.
If you're feeling lucky, head to one of Connecticut's two casinos — Foxwoods, one of the country's largest casinos, is about an hour drive from Hartford, in Mashantucket. The complex features its own shopping center, Tanger Outlets at Foxwoods, along with a variety of entertainment venues, dozens of dining options, a spa, bowling alley, arcade, ice rink and the Pequot Museum.
Mohegan Sun, with its restaurants, spas, entertainment and sporting venues, and the Kids Quest/Cyber Quest family entertainment center, is about 45-minutes away, in Uncasville. Located in the center of the action is the Wolf Den, which offers free shows by well-known performers. The 10,000 seat Mohegan Sun Area features headlining concerts and sporting events, including championship boxing and professional basketball. the complex has more than 40 dining venues, along with a spa and the Comix Comedy Club.
Less than 15 miles down the road from Mohegan Sun is the new Naskart Indoor Kart Racing & Trampoline Park, an 110,000 square-foot facility that lets you speed around multi-level tracks in electric go-carts. Read more here.
A 15-minute drive from Hartford gets you to West Hartford, one of the area's premier shopping and dining suburbs. The town is home to Westfarms mall, which boasts the state's only Nordstrom department store, along with more than 150 other shops and restaurants.
Head to West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square for more shopping, (Crate & Barrel and West Elm to name a few), and dining options, including Barcelona Wine Bar, 971 Farmington Ave., which features tapas and sangria; Besito, 46 S. Main St., an upscale Mexican cafe; Cheesecake Factory at 71 Isham Road, and Rizzuto's, an Italian trattoria at 111 Memorial Road.
If you're more into culture than retail or culinary pursuits, visit the Noah Webster House at 227 S. Main St. The historic house museum was home to lexicographer Noah Webster. (Blue Back Square is named after his "Blue-Backed Speller," a precursor to Webster's namesake dictionary.)
Another 15-minute ride, this time east, takes you to Manchester, home to the Shoppes at Buckland Hills, the area's other major mall, with a Barnes & Noble, Macy's JC Penney, Dick's Sporting Goods and dozens of other stores. Across the way from the mall is the Promenade Shops at Evergreen Walk complex, with Anthropologie, L.L. Bean, Brooks Brothers and others.
When you're hungry, drive to Main Street, where you'll find a burger or dog at Corey's Catsup & Mustard, featured on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives"; Mulberry Street, which loves to experiment with its pizza; and Lucky Taco, for some casual Tex-Mex.
If you're looking for something more upscale, try Cavey's at 45 E. Center St. Upstairs features Northern Italian cuisine; the downstairs dining room offers modern French dishes.
Middletown, 16 miles south of Hartford, is home to Wesleyan University, cozy cafes, ethnic restaurants and off-beat shopping. If the weather cooperates, wander the campus with its historic buildings, then head to 728 N. Main St. and O'Rourke's diner, where locals have been gathering since 1941 for classic diner food with an Irish twist.
At 606 Main St., is ION (It's Only Natural) restaurant, featuring a creative vegan lunch and dinner menu, and the tiny Tibetan Kitchen, which offers Himalayan and Nepalese food. For your shopping fix, stop by the gallery shop at Wesleyan Potters at 350 S. Main St., to browse their array of juried crafts, then do a little time traveling at Wild Bill's Nostalgia Center, 1003 Newfield St., a fun house of posters bobble heads, records, toys, collectibles, books and all things rock and roll.
It'll take you about 20 minutes to get to Farmington from downtown Hartford, and if you go, make your first stop the Hill-Stead Museum at 35 Mountain Road. Located in a Colonial Revival house, the museum is known for its collection of Impressionist paintings, including works by Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, and James McNeill Whistler.
Afterward, a drive down Main Street takes you through the campus of Miss Porter's School, an elite girl's boarding school founded in 1843. (Notable alumni include Jacqueline Kennedy, Lilly Pulitzer and Mamie Gummer.)
Then, raise a cup at Culteavo, a tea room inside a restored 1860 brick building at 29 Mill St. in the Unionville section of Farmington, or pick up the hipster vibe at 4 Eat & Drink, a bar, craft beer and tapas restaurant at 838 Farmington Ave. For some retail therapy, stop by Design Forum Gallery, a gift and art jewelry store at 902 Farmington Ave., that's filled with one-of-a-kind treasures.