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History-steeped Litchfield is full of outdoor and culinary adventures

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bantam river.jpg

The Bantam River meanders through the White Memorial Conservation Center in Litchfield, offering serene paddling.

Inside At The Corner Restaurant & Pub in Litchfield, I haven’t even sat down and a woman behind the bar has already given me a free drink. This has never happened to me before. Maybe my wife and mom are right, and I do look like Gregory Peck, I think as I settle into my chair. It turns out that I bear no resemblance to the Hollywood legend, and the woman behind the bar is a photographer who needed the beer for a picture and doesn’t want it to go to waste. But later, after a sample-heavy tasting at Litchfield Distillery, I ask what the fee is and I’m told the tasting is free.

This unexpected double dose of free alcohol is not what brought me to Litchfield, and Litchfield is most assuredly not a drinking town. But the give-away drinks are the latest example of what I’ve found many times in the past: a trip to Litchfield is always worthwhile. This year the scenic northwestern Connecticut town is celebrating the 300th anniversary of its founding. The country town offers a combination of beautiful scenery, especially its fall foliage, great hiking, and some of the most critically acclaimed food and beverage options in the state.

Town Green, Litchfield, CT

The Litchfield Green isn't a bad spot to bask in the sunshine.

10 a.m.: Breakout bakery

When it comes to bread and cafe-style cuisine, Litchfield has an embarrassment of carb-heavy riches. Bantam Bread was recently named Best in Connecticut in the bread category by this magazine and offers more than a dozen varieties including hard-to-find options like whole-grain spelt, as well as desserts like its fruit crostata. Nearby, Arethusa a mano is a cafe and bakery featuring breakfast and light lunch options, and locals rave about Toast and Co., which is on the top of my list to try. However, of late, my go-to is The Bakehouse. Owned by couple Allison Varian and Jeremy McKendry, this hole-in-the-wall establishment was named this year’s Best Bakery by this magazine. The cupcakes are delectable and the croissants make me want to study poetry to better express my love for them. The Bakehouse is housed on the lower level of the old Litchfield Jail, a historic building dating back to 1812 that has been renovated in recent years to house a mix of businesses. Upstairs you’ll find Luna’s Boutique, offering affordable fashions and specializing in a variety of dresses. The jail is also home to the new bar and restaurant Market Place Kitchen & Bar, featuring outdoor seating overlooking the town green.

11 a.m.: A walk through history

From the old jail, it’s a short walk across the town green to the Litchfield Historical Society. A new exhibit examines some of the businesses that have shaped the town over the past 300 years. There are also permanent exhibits dedicated to the town’s role in the Revolutionary War (the town was home to Benjamin Tallmadge, the leader of the Culper Spy ring), as well as Sarah Pierce’s Litchfield Female Academy (founded in 1792, it was one of the nation’s first institutes of higher education for young women). The historical society also operates the Tapping Reeve House and Litchfield Law School, the nation’s first law school, and the spot where Aaron Burr studied long before his ill-fated spat with Alexander Hamilton. Visitors can experience a day in the life of a student at either the law school or women’s school. There’s also a walking tour map of the historic mansions in the area available at the museum for $2 or for free at litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org/visit. Following along with this map, you’ll see examples of classic architecture including the striking white columns of the Alanson & Eliza (Woodruff Barnes) Abbe house, which dates to 1832.

White Memorial Foundation,Litchfield,Connecticut

White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield is a popular outdoor destination year round.

Noon: Trailblazing

The White Memorial Conservation Center and Mount Tom State Park are both hiking destinations worth traveling to. White Memorial has more than 40 miles of trails. The most popular is the Little Pond Boardwalk (Loop) Trail, a 1.2-mile walkway over and around Little Pond that crosses the Bantam River at two locations. At Mount Tom, there’s a lake with swimming in the summer and a trail that’s just under a mile long that takes you to a stone tower at the 1,325-foot summit. The views are worth the steep walk. Normally, my visits to Litchfield include a stop at one or both of these, but during today’s trip my traveling companion and I make it only part of the way up Mount Tom before a hard rain has us heading for our car.

2 p.m.: New American lunch

If you’re looking for a formal sitdown lunch, a popular local favorite is West Street Grill. Opened in 1990 by James O’Shea and the late Charles Kafferman, it has played host to author Philip Roth, filmmaker Milos Forman and many other celebrities. The specialty is New American cuisine with generous portions. We enjoy the cauliflower tempura and, as with other establishments in town, there is a nice view of the green.

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Dining options abound around Litchfield's Main Street, including West Street Grill.

3 p.m.Early happy hour

Other visitors to town might want to take this time to explore some of the excellent shopping items you’ll find throughout downtown, but we decide to start happy hour early at At The Corner. I enter the bar and am given the free drink mentioned earlier before the second member of my party arrives. I’m excited to see beer from some of Connecticut’s best breweries. Three are on draft from Kent Falls Brewing Co., located not too far from Litchfield, and two from Fox Farm Brewery in Salem, as well as cocktails with names inspired by local history including the Aaron Burr Shot, a blend of flavored bourbons from Litchfield Distillery.

Speaking of the distillery, that’s our next stop. Founded in 2015 by the Baker brothers, this is another Best of Connecticut winner. It’s also a great distillery to visit, with a large tasting room overlooking the distilling and barrel area. Free tours and tastings are offered. We only have time for the tasting but thoroughly enjoy ourselves. I’ve been a fan of Litchfield Distillery since they started and have written about them in the past, but it is fun to try their various products in the same sitting. The distillery offers bourbon in flavors such as coffee, vanilla and maple, as well as more traditional unflavored bourbon, gin and vodka.

5:30 p.m.: Dining in style

You can’t talk about Litchfield without mentioning Arethusa. If you’ve been paying attention to food news in the state, you know that Arethusa was founded by George Malkemus and Anthony Yurgaitis, president and vice president, respectively, of Manolo Blahnik in North and South America. Back in the late 1990s, they bought a Litchfield farm in order to preserve it and began raising award-winning cattle. Today they distribute cheese, milk and ice cream, and are one of the state’s most successful dairy farms. The heart of the company’s retail operations are found in Bantam, a hamlet of Litchfield. Here is where the aforementioned Arethusa a mano cafe is located. Across the street is the dairy store and ice cream shop, and next door to that might just be Arethusa’s crown jewel, Arethusa al tavolo, a temple of haute cuisine. Reservations often need to be made weeks in advance. Chef Dan Magill cut his teeth working under the legendary Daniel Boulud, and today Magill and his team create a variety of molecular gastronomy-inspired dishes that are bursting with farm-fresh flavor. The lamb spare ribs, served over a cucumber yogurt grain salad, the Arethusa gardens cherry tomato salad, and a host of other dishes too numerous to go into here burst with a kaleidoscope of colors and flavors to match. The restaurant provides us with an elevated culinary experience, the perfect close to our day in Litchfield.

5 facts about Litchfield

It was founded 300 years ago by settlers from Hartford and Windsor. 

In 1784 it became home to the country’s first law school.

In 1792, when Sarah Pierce opened the Litchfield Female Academy, it was one of the nation’s first schools focused on providing advanced education to women.

Benjamin Tallmadge, who led the Culper Spy ring for George Washington in the Revolutionary War, called Litchfield home.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield in 1811.

Real estate

Litchfield is home to houses within walking distance to downtown as well as more remote country estates.

For $289,900: A four-bedroom, 1½-bathroom, 2,086-square-foot historic Colonial on 0.56 acres.

For $399,000: A four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,842-square-foot historic farmhouse on 2 acres with a two-story barn.

For $949,000: A five-bedroom, five-bathroom, 4,144-square-foot 1930s carriage house on 2.28 acres.

Mill rate: 27.70

On the calendar

Here are some events to check out if you're visiting Litchfield in October.

Harvest Bounty Brewfest

Oct. 5, 2-6 p.m., Litchfield Community Center — The 13th annual brewfest features beer from more than 20 breweries, wine, food trucks, lawn games, firepits and three live bands. $30 in advance, $35 day of. thecommunitycenter.org

Litchfield County Harvest Festival

Oct. 5, 10 a.m-4 p.m., Borough of Bantam Hall — Dozens of local vendors and artisans will be set up, showcasing food, artwork, crafts and more. The free event is outdoors and is rain or shine.

Apple Harvest Festival

Oct. 5, 1-4 p.m., Tapping Reeve Meadow — The second year of this free event has an apple pie contest, Colonial craftsmanship demonstrations, music, food, games and more. litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org

October wine dinner

Oct. 9, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Saltwater Grille, Litchfield — This five-course meal includes an opening bubbly, four local wines and a dessert cocktail. $75 per person plus tax and gratuity. Reservations: 860-567-4900

A Fall Gathering of Artists

Oct. 11-14, 10 a.m., Litchfield Firehouse — Back for its 20th year, this free-admission four-day exhibition features the works of award-winning Connecticut artists and artisans. Look for original paintings, prints, photography, jewelry, pottery, woodwork, and stained and fused glass. finelineartgallery.com

Lantern Tour of Litchfield History

Oct. 18, 6-8 p.m., Litchfield Historical Society — Explore the dark and scandalous side of Litchfield’s past and conclude at the museum with a historically inspired cocktail and treats. Meet at the Litchfield Historical Society. $15 members, $20 non-members. litchfieldhistoricalsociety.org

Making Strides of Litchfield

Oct. 20, noon, White Memorial Conservation Center — Take a walk with survivors, caregivers and all others dedicated to conquering breast cancer for this American Cancer Society event. Check-in: 10:30 a.m.

Phantom of the Opera: Film and live music

Oct. 22, 7-8:30 p.m., Oliver Wolcott Library — The 1925 silent horror classic will be accompanied by the instrumentation and song of husband-and-wife team and Lakeville residents Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. Free. owlibrary.org

This article appeared in the October 2019 issue of Connecticut Magazine. You can subscribe here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get the latest and greatest content from Connecticut Magazine delivered right to your inbox. Got a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com, or contact us on Facebook @connecticutmagazine or Twitter @connecticutmag.

The senior writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the co-author of Penguin Random House’s “The Good Vices” and author of “Buzzed” and “Gillette Castle.” He is also an adjunct professor at WCSU’s MFA Program and Quinnipiac University