Like peanut butter and jelly or Batman and Robin, there are some things that just naturally go well together.
In Connecticut, it’s history and innovation that pair up to help make the state an ideal tourist destination.
“There is so much to do here, so many multilayer experiences. Most people would be surprised that there’s as much to do and see in Connecticut as there is,” said Randy Fiveash, director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism.
Not defined by a single destination or attraction, Connecticut’s allure comes from the sum of its many parts, which include shopping, dining, gaming and museums.
There are also hundreds of miles of mountainous trails to hike, seaside beaches for picnicking in the sun, and pretty New England towns to spend the day exploring.
The state’s rich historical background provides the ideal backdrop for visitors who want to connect with the past, while progressive new destinations and attractions help keep them firmly rooted in the present.
“It’s a great opportunity to take the historic and juxtapose it with the new,” said Fiveash.
It’s that juxtaposition that helps make Connecticut unique, and is one of the driving forces behind the $14 billion dollars spent by travelers in 2013.
Connecting With the Past Among the state’s biggest attractions is the Mark Twain House & Museum, located in Hartford.
Named as one of the Best Ten Historic Houses in the world by National Geographic, and dubbed “Downton Abbey’s American cousin” by Time magazine, the site draws 60,000 to 70,000 visitors annually.
“We draw a lot of people who might not otherwise come to Hartford,” said Jacques Lamarre, director of communication and special projects for the Mark Twain House & Museum. “We are an international destination thanks to Mark Twain being known all over the globe.”
And whether visitors are coming from near or far, they bring added economic value to the entire region.
“They are staying in hotels, dining in our restaurants, and they want to see other things while they are in town,” said Lamarre. “We really want to make sure that the whole area benefits by our presence here.”
Picturesque Mystic is another of Connecticut’s most popular historic destinations.
Many visitors come to visit the world-renowned Mystic Aquarium, shop the town’s quaint boutiques, and eat at its popular restaurants like Mystic Pizza, the inspiration and location of the Julia Roberts film by the same name, released in 1988.
But they also come to visit one of the largest outdoor museums in New England.
From kayaks to tall ships, Mystic Seaport is home to more than 500 historic watercraft, including the 1841 whaling ship Charles W. Morgan, and boasts the largest collection of marine artifacts in the country.
It is also home to a recreated 19th-century seafaring village, where visitors can step back in time and see what it was like to live in a coastal New England town in the 1860s.
“We get to tell great stories here. That’s what we do,” said Mystic Seaport Director of Communications Dan McFadden. “We tell the story of how the sea played a role in the history of our country.”
Each year, nearly 250,000 people visit the seaport, many of them from outside Connecticut. “We are a significant draw to the Mystic area,” said McFadden. “Most of those people are coming in from New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey.”
And soon they’ll have yet another reason to come.
In the fall of 2016, the seaport plans to open a new 14,000-square-foot exhibition building. The $14 million project will include a state-of-the-art hall that will house exhibits from the museum’s collection, as well as art and artifacts loaned out from other museums around the world. “It’s a pivotal point in the history of the museum,” he said.
Moving Forward With history comes progress, and Connecticut has no shortage of innovations and 21st century options for tourists seeking more contemporary destinations.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro in Hartford is one the newest additions to the city’s expanding Front Street entertainment and dining district, and purveyors of good food and music can find both at the 500-seat music hall and contemporary bistro.
Owner and CEO Dan Hincks opened the venue in August of 2014 and considers the music venue and eatery to be a part of the capital city’s renaissance. “We’re a couple of years into it, and it is gaining momentum,” he said. “Employment is rising, there are more restaurants, and if you’re looking, there’s something to do in Hartford every night of the week.”
Infinity Hall, like many of the other recent additions to the city, including the Connecticut Science Center, and the soon to-be-built baseball stadium, are a part of the city’s forward progress, offering residents and visitors alike plenty to see and do.
“There’s so much history,” said Hincks, “but at the same time, Connecticut is one of the leading states when it comes to innovation and creativity; there are new things happening all the time.”
City Flavor Just 40 minutes south of Hartford, foodies flock to New Haven where, according to Barbara Malmberg, director of marketing for Visit New Haven, they often come looking for two things.
“Pizza and the hamburger sandwich get the most press out of any food we have here,” she said. “When we have groups come to town, they know about hamburgers and pizza. Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s Apizza, and Louis’ Lunch, where the first hamburger sandwich was created.”
Malmberg said they also come for the progressive dining scene, which encompasses more than 130 restaurants, with culinary influences from all over the world.
Among them is Miya’s, a popular sushi restaurant whose chef, Bun Lai, prioritizes sustainability and takes a distinctly untraditional approach to the menu.
“He has a very unique perspective,” said Malmberg. “Last year, he offered a dish that featured cicadas.”
A James Beard Foundation nominated chef, he is also something of a global celebrity, having appeared on the major U.S. networks, Food Network, and Japanese television; he has even been satirized on Saturday Night Live. He has been featured in National Geographic, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Food and Wine, and Saveur, along with numerous other national and international media.
Beyond the food, visitors also come to New Haven for its vibrant arts and cultural scene which includes taking in performances at award-winning theaters like Long Wharf Theatre and the century-old Shubert, along with other cultural and music events and galleries, many of which are affiliated with Yale University.
Alone, the prestigious school attracts about 600,000 visitors annually. “It’s a significant draw from within the state and outside the state,” said Malmberg. “There are a lot of different things for a lot of different tastes, for a variety of people.”
And perhaps that sums up the state’s tourism industry as well.
“There’s a diversity of attractions and experiences that Connecticut has to offer residents and visitors,” said Tourism Director Fiveash. “We wanted to make sure that we speak to what is historic in the state, but also what is new and innovative, too — now and into the future.”
Article originally appeared in the 2015 edition of Doing Business In Connecticut, a publication of the Hartford Business Journal.