Coastal Connecticut is the title often given to the area spanning from Branford to Old Lyme, which includes the towns of Branford, Guilford, Madison, Clinton, Westbrook, Killingsworth, Essex, Deep River, Old Saybrook, Lyme, and Old Lyme. The area is beautiful all times of year, but especially comes to life during warmer summer months. Conveniently located along Interstate 95 (which runs from the New York to Rhode Island state lines), many of the towns border the Connecticut River or Long Island Sound and offer plenty of riverfront and beachfront activities and open spaces. The area is also known for its numerous contributions to the arts and many museums and educational institutions honor the legacy of famous residents.
Here are some of our favorite activities along the shoreline that are popular during the summer:
1. Ride a two or four person rail bike along the 8 mile Rail Trail, starting in Essex. It was one of our favorite activities of summer 2020! The trails are not overall strenuous, a majority of the trail is in the shade, and trails offer beautiful views of the Connecticut River. The Essex Steam Trail also offers train and riverboat combo passes and dinner trains, and definitely check out the North Pole Express during the holiday season (visit with Santa, Mrs. Claus, and the elves at the North Pole!)
Travel Tips: Make reservations online early- dates sell out quickly, and are usually offered Thursday through Sunday. Riders must be at least 8 years old and at least 48” tall. Plenty of parking is available near the start of the trail. Only portapottie restrooms are available. There is a gift shop located near the outdoor admission desk.
2. Take on the persona of a member of the Lyme Art Colony at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme. Home to military sea captain Robert Griswold and his family in the middle 1800s until Florence Griswold’s death in 1937, the 12 acre estate includes art galleries, the main mansion, three additional structures with exhibits, an artist trail, gift shop, and seasonal cafe. Griswold inherited the home from her family and began welcoming boarders in 1899 as a way of making money. Up to 18 artists, who became known as the Lyme Art Colony, would stay in the home at one time. Old Lyme became known as one of the biggest Impressionist art colonies in America, in large part to the Griswold campus. Today, it is open to visitors and welcomes families to explore what life was like for the artists in the early 20th century.
Travel Tips: The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and the Studio and Landscape Center are staffed during summer hours. There is plenty of parking, restrooms are located in the lobby of the Gallery near the gift shop, and the galleries, center, and first floor of the house are handicap accessible. The museum offers plenty of activities geared towards children and special events– check the website for updates. Cafe Flo, which features a variety of snack and lunch options, is open late spring through late fall.
3. Hike around (and explore inside) Gillette Castle, a medieval looking mansion, built from 1914-1919 by Hartford native William Gillette, in East Haddam. The 24 room mansion is open to the public for tours during the peak summer season, and parts of the 184 acre park have trails open to the public year round. We enjoy the shorter blue, red, orange, and yellow trails (see the map here). Guests who would like to explore the castle can drive directly to the parking lot to the left of the castle. in The Visitor Center, which is open in summer months, offers indoor exhibits showcasing the history of the property, background on Mr. Gillette, and information on the Connecticut River area.
Travel Tips: The grounds are open to the public all year from 8am until sunset; the Castle is usually open from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day (there is a nominal fee for tours for ages 6 and older). The Visitor Center (which includes helpful staff, indoor exhibits, a small gift shop, and restroom facilities) and “Sherlock’s Grill” food concession cafe are both open the same times as the mansion. There are tons of picnic tables (and a few grills) located throughout the park and there is a large parking lot in front of the Visitor Center. Read more about our favorite places to hike in Central Connecticut here. Check online for updates regarding pandemic restrictions.
4. Cruise around the Thimble Islands, a collection of 25 inhabited islands just off the harbor in Stony Creek, a village in Branford. We chose the Sea Mist, a 44 foot Carman, two deck boat which offers 45 minute narrated tours hourly on the weekends, and on weekdays in season. The islands were first discovered in the early 1600s and have been utilized for everything from farming to quarrying its famous pink granite. Some of the islands have a singular dwelling and some islands have multiple homes.
Travel Tips: Free parking is available along the street. The nearby Stony Creek Beach has easy water access, and adjacent Madera Park is a great spot to picnic or toss a ball. There is a restroom aboard the SeaMist and drinks and snacks are available for purchase. Guests who get seasickness should stay on the lower, covered deck. The upper deck has no shade, and there are very steep steps to climb.
5. Build a sandcastle at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison. The 930+ acre park includes over two miles of beach (Hammonasset literally means “where we dig holes in the ground”) and a boardwalk for more stable walking. There are several distinct beaches, picnic areas, hiking trails, and over 500 campgrounds. The Meigs Point Nature Center is typically open throughout the year (with extended hours during the summer), but is currently closed due to pandemic restrictions.
Travel Tips: The beach offers free parking for Connecticut-registered cars. The beach does reach capacity during summer weekend and will close; plan on getting there before noon. There are plenty of restroom facilities, outdoor showers, and concessions open during summer months.
6. Follow the timeline of the history of the Connecticut River at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex. Housed in a 1870s steamboat warehouse, the museum showcases a wide variety of sailing artifacts, a replica sailing ship, a combat submarine, and tons of family friendly activities, including the holiday train show that kids of all ages will love.
Travel Tips: The museum is closed on Mondays. Plenty of parking is available on site. Restrooms and a gift shop are available near the admission desk. The museum is handicap accessible.
7. Learn about the history of the area at Fort Saybrook Monument Park in Old Saybrook. The first fort in the area was built by Lion Gardiner in 1630 to guard the area against an attack from Long Island Sound. The first fort was destroyed in a fire in 1647 and was replaced by a similar fort. Visitors can explore parts of the 18 acre space, which includes walking trails, a wooden platform that overlooks the marshes, remains of the Connecticut Valley Railroad’s end of the line turntables, and a boardwalk along the marina. There are several storyboards that showcase the history of the fight for the land between English settlers and the Pequot tribe.
Travel Tips: There is plenty of parking near both the monument honoring Gardiner and the docks (pay attention to signs for marina parking only). During warmer months, an 18 hole miniature golf course and concession stands are open. No need for a stroller, but watch little ones very closely during the marina docks. Indoor and outdoor dining at the adjacent Saybrook Point Resort & Spa’s Fresh Salt is a great option!
8. Tour a sculpture garden at Studio 80 & Sculpture Grounds in Old Lyme. Devoted to arts education and appreciation, there are over 100 sculptures on display throughout the 4.5 acres of various gardens and courtyards. The property is home to artist Gilbert Boro, who invites visitors to interact (get up close!) to the sculptures, some of which are as small as a large rock and some sculptures which are several feet tall.
Travel Tips: The sculpture gardens are FREE to visit every day of the year from 9am-5pm. Studio 80 can be shared with groups and tours, by appointment (currently suspended during the pandemic). No need for a stroller, but the paths are easy to navigate for handicap accessibility. Plenty of public parking is available in the adjacent lot for the Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts.
9. Ride the carousel at Sound View Beach in Old Lyme. The Allan Hershell Carousel dates back to 1925 and is open evenings during the summer months. Competition for the brass ring is fierce. Be sure to leave time for JJ Lawsen’s Gourmet Ice Cream, located next door, offers 32 flavors of hard and soft ice cream, yogurt, and sherbet.
10. Taste test dozens of cookies on our Cookie Trail through Coastal Connecticut. This past winter, we created seven various food-themed trails throughout parts of Connecticut, and the cookie trail was so popular it was featured on our local news station (check it out here). The trail can start in either Branford or Old Saybrook and makes stops at bakeries, coffee shops, and specialty stores in Branford, Guilford, Madison, and Old Saybrook. We’ve since found more great spots to stop for sweets (and other great culinary creations) and will be updating the list soon. For now, check out these great indexes from ShorelineConnecticut.com, ConnecticutMagazine.com, and CTVisit.com (filter by interest and location).
Looking for more fun in Connecticut? Check out our City Guides to Mystic New Haven, and Hartford; our list of 15 Free Things to Do in Connecticut; where to eat in Connecticut; our index of hiking posts throughout Connecticut; and our index of Connecticut posts here. And follow along on our adventures on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.