Even to the uninitiated, Hamden is a name that may already ring a bell. This northern suburb of New Haven often ranks highly on lists of America’s most liveable towns.
I’m smitten with the sense of community in Hamden, which you’ll witness at Town Center Park. It’s an idyllic venue for farmers’ markets, free concerts, open-air movies, and the 4th of July fireworks.
You may hear Hamden described as the “Land of the Sleeping Giant”. The name comes from a basalt ridge, almost three miles long and resembling a supine giant.
You can traverse this epic landform on foot, and discover another ancient formation close by at West Rock Ridge.
All the while, New Haven and Yale’s rich architecture and museums will never be more than a few minutes away by car.
1. Sleeping Giant State Park
The natural monument that gives Hamden its nickname is a basalt fault-block ridge that formed around 200 million years ago.
Measuring 2.75 miles long and 1.75 miles wide, and rising 739 feet, the Sleeping Giant can be seen for miles around and grants inspiring 270° panoramas from its summit.
As for the name, in profile the formation looks like a huge man sleeping. I reckon you can identify the head, chin, chest, hip, knee and feet.
The highest point is the left hip, crowned by a Depression-era observation tower, while the head is at 650 feet atop a vertiginous 400-foot cliff.
Make the climb on a clear day and you’ll be able to see as far as Shoreham on the opposite side of Long Island Sound.
The surrounding State Park is a haven for hikers, climbers, bird-watchers and mountain bikers. You can also find special trails for horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
2. Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum
Belonging to Hamden Quinnipiac University, this museum is dedicated to the Irish Great Famine of 1845-1852.
Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum has gathered art, sculpture, artifacts and literature to inform visitors of the starvation. Social, political and economic perspectives make clear the impact on Ireland, its culture and people.
The museum opened in 2012 and has the largest collection of its kind in the world. Most fascinating for me was the way it interprets the famine visually through the work of artists present at the time and those working today.
Represented on the collection are some of Ireland’s most important artists over the last 170 years, from James Mahony to Lilian Davidson.
3. Edgerton Park
Straddling the boundary between Hamden and New Haven, Edgerton Park is a former estate where two important locals built their homes.
The first was for the son of famous inventor Eli Whitney, and this was replaced by industrialist Frederick F.Brewster’s Tudor-style mansion in 1909.
Named “Edgerton” because it was on the edge of town, the house was demolished in 1964. Still, its landscaped grounds, also from 1909, have been preserved.
Edgerton Park is on the National Register of Historic Places and retains its original wall, gatehouse, a bridge from the Brewster estate and a series of greenhouses.
See the Sarah T. Crosby Conservatory, which holds orchids, rainforest species and a desert landscape.
For a spot of culture in summer I’d recommend an outdoor performance by the Elm Shakespeare Company.
4. Hamden Town Center Park
More than just a park, this rambling open property, hemmed by trees, is a vital gathering space for celebrations and events at all times of the year.
An annual highlight, the 4th of July fireworks take place at Hamden Town Center Park. There’s more going on here, all summer long. Think outdoor movie screenings and concerts on Friday nights at the Rotary Pavilion.
I can’t get enough of the farmers’ market, every week on Thursdays from spring to fall, and food trucks pull up regularly on summer evenings.
When there’s nothing in particular going on you can bring children to the playground or take a picnic on the big swath of grass. In winter the landscape is just right for some cross-country skiing.
5. Farmington Canal Heritage Trail
Slicing through Hamden on its 81.2-mile journey from New Haven to Hampden, Massachusetts is a linear walking trail on the railbed of the New Haven and Northampton Company railroad.
The route’s origins go back to the Farmington Canal in the 1820s, becoming a railroad some 20 years later. Since the railroad closed in the 1980s three portions have been turned into walkable trails.
In Hamden you can head to the Farmington Canal State Park Trail. This preserves 17 miles of the canal route for hiking, cycling, jogging and cross-country skiing in winter.
For a fascinating piece of heritage, my tip is to visit Lock 12 a few miles north in Cheshire. It’s the most complete piece of canal heritage in Connecticut, and lies in the namesake Historical Park.
6. No Worries Brewing Company
There’s barely a community in Connecticut without a craft brewery, but the local one in Hamden is a classic of the genre.
The taproom at No Worries Brewing Company comes with a patio, with a gorgeous view of Hamden’s hilly countryside. There’s regular trivia, as well as boardgames, cornhole, darts, and a rotation of food trucks Wednesday through Sunday.
I haven’t even talked about the most important thing, the beer. This is compact, with fewer than a dozen options when I was here. IPAs, Sours and fruit beers are the prevailing styles, and I loved the tropical notes of Head in the Clouds (IPA).
7. West Rock Ridge State Park
This park encompasses a seven-mile trap rock mountain ridge lying to the west of Hamden and New Haven. Like the Sleeping Giant, this is part of the Metacomet Ridge, running from New Haven to the MA/VT boundary.
One of the most prominent natural features in the region, the West Rock Ridge climbs to 690 feet and has sheer, west-facing cliffs.
If you journey to the southernmost point on the ridge, the South Overlook affords wonderful views of New Haven, New Haven Harbor, and Long Island Sound.
Closer to Hamden you can gaze west over the southern Connecticut countryside and towns like Woodbridge.
I had a wonderful time on the Regicides Trail, a seven-mile, Blue-Blazed route on the edge of the ridge.
The trail is named for Edward Whalley and William Goffe, two Roundhead judges who were prominent in the execution of Charles I.
They fled to the Colonies after the Restoration in 1660. Near the southern end of the walk is the Judges Cave, a rock shelter used as a hideout by the pair.
8. Eli Whitney Museum
This museum, touted as an experimental learning workshop, is on the site of the Eli Whitney Gun Factory, which was opened by the famous inventor in 1798. This factory, producing muskets, was at the leading edge of the American Industrial Revolution.
Yet, when Whitney took his first order for 10,000 muskets a few months prior in June 1798, the factory hadn’t even been built, and he had no workforce.
Aimed at children, the museum is all about hands-on learning and trial-and-error. Kids will craft, tweak and test working model buildings, boats, and gliders.
There are all kinds of experiments dealing with light, magnetism, gravity, sound, electricity and energy here.
I was intrigued by the scale model of Whitney’s historic factory, while there’s an annual exhibition of American Flyer Trains to check out.
9. Johnson’s Duckpin Lanes
For an experience specific to this region, I’d try a game of duckpin bowling. This is one of a couple of variants of tenpin bowling around New England.
Duckpin Bowling involves hole-less, handheld balls and short but stout pins. Something that makes it trickier to post a high score is that the ball is small enough to pass between the pins, but you do get three rolls per frame. Rumor has it, this was Babe Ruth’s favorite pastime.
Anyway, the place to go for a game in Hamden is Johnson’s Duckpin Lanes at the Hamden Plaza. This spot has been open since 1955, and has 20 lanes, a game room, and snack bar.
10. Hindinger Farm
The Hindinger family has been working this land to the west of Hamden since 1893. Today they welcome families to stock up on farm-fresh produce, enjoy the rural environment and meet the goats at their new pen.
By using Integrated Pest Management, Hindinger Farm avoids pesticides where possible. They publish a detailed ripening calendar online so you can find out when your favorite peaches and apples will be in season.
The market is my go-to for locally made products, from Connecticut maple syrup to fruit preserves and apple cider.
Try to catch the Strawberry Festival, held around mid-June, and featuring delicious strawberry treats, hayrides, balloon characters and more.
The harvest is marked with a Fall Festival in mid-October, with live music and food provided by a lineup of local vendors.
11. Sleeping Giant Golf Course
For an affordable round of golf, this local public course is just west of the town’s famous natural monument.
Sleeping Giant Golf Course is a nine-hole facility dating back to 1924, and comes complete with a driving range and practice green. As well as reasonable green fees, this place has a refreshing laid-back vibe, which really appealed to me.
Even though the course is flat and easy to traverse on foot, the views from the fairways are full of drama. Every now and then the Sleeping Giant and its wood-shrouded slopes come into view.
12. Lake Wintergreen
Actually within the boundaries of the West Rock Ridge State Park, Lake Wintergreen is minutes from the center of Hamden.
If you’re walking the Regicides Trail there are side trails leading to the water’s edge. Lake Wintergreen has mostly been left to nature, and is a quiet and picturesque location for a walk, with some interesting elevation changes as you go.
Or you could just park yourself on a picnic blanket and savor the tranquility.
There are plenty of entry points around the shore for kayaking and canoeing. I’d urge you to get here early or late in the day, when the sunrises and sunsets are magnificent.
13. New Haven
Hamden is a northern suburb of historic New Haven, home of Yale University and founded by English Puritans in 1638.
Yale endows New Haven with lots of culture, at the Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Yale Center for British Art.
All would be worthy of any city, and all are within walking distance of each other.
For a glimpse into Yale’s history and Collegiate Gothic architecture you can make for the Visitor Center for a tour by a student. This takes you into the solemn Sterling Memorial Library and the riveting Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
The latter has one of the leading collections of its kind in the world, including one of only 49 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible.
I can’t talk about New Haven without mentioning their inimitable pizza style. One of the icons is the Modern Apizza (1934), five minutes from Hamden.
14. Toyota Oakdale Theatre
A venue with a storied history, the Oakdale Theatre opened in 1954 as a theater in the round and was given a permanent roof in the 1970s.
In that time, Paul Anka, Tom Jones, Led Zeppelin, The Who and The Doors all performed here.
As you see it now, the complex, made up of a 4,803-seater main auditorium and the 1,649-seater dome, dates from a $21m renovation in the mid-1990s.
The venue books all kinds of acts, including a lot of major recording artists (Demi Lovato when I was in town). Also lined up are touring musicals, tribute acts, wrestling shows, ballet companies, and shows with children’s favorite TV characters.
15. Lake Whitney
Starting just east of Hamden’s commercial district on Dixwell Avenue there’s a lake on the Mill River. This is lined with lush forest and runs south to the town line with New Haven.
Lake Whitney used to be a water source for New Haven and is now a reserve source for the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority.
I found the shores are remarkably quiet considering they’re right in the middle of town. There’s a striking man-made waterfall pouring back into the Mill River.
In 1778 Eli Whitney used this stretch of Mill River to power his gun factory where the Eli Whitney Museum stands today.
At the very southern end is New Haven’s East Rock Park. This has a sublime view of the city and Long Island Sound from the foot of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.