This little eastern Connecticut town is in Danbury‘s southern outskirts, rolling out into the countryside of Fairfield County.
The quaint and pedestrian-friendly Greenwood Avenue is Bethel’s main artery and has real historical clout, not least as the birthplace of the famed 19th-century showman P.T. Barnum.
The Bethel Historical Society has plotted a couple of walking tours in this historic district with more than two centuries of tales to tell.
One of many things to admire about Bethel is how full of energy the town is, particularly in summer when there’s live music, food trucks and a convoy of classic cars pulling up to the nostalgic Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant.
1. Greenwood Avenue Historic District
The main thoroughfare in Bethel is Greenwood Avenue, which until well into the 20th century was commonly known as Center (or Centre) Street.
The way is fronted by lots of buildings that have been standing in some form for 150 years or more and now hold local shops and restaurants to draw you in.
The Bethel Historical has highlighted a list of landmarks in the town that you can hunt down on the 11-stop Bethel Opera House Tour.
There’s the Fox Brothers’ Hotel and Platt’s Hotel, which in the 1890s shared their space with the local undertaker! At 1 Depot Place stands the old Opera House, dating to 1860. Now the J. Lawrence Downtown restaurant, this building has been a performance venue, billiard hall, skating rink, movie theater, brush factory, space for town meetings and gymnasium in its time.
The wooden building housing the Broken Symmetry Gastro Brewery off Depot Place is in fact Bethel’s former railroad station, built in 1899 and vacated in 1996 when a new station was built further north.
2. Blue Jay Orchards
Just the kind of thing you’d hope to find in New England in fall, Blue Jay Orchards is in over 140 acres and grows 36 apple varieties.
The pick-your-own apple season kicks off with the McIntosh, normally around early September, and continues through late-October.
Open around the end of September, there’s a pumpkin patch with little wheelbarrows for children.
Whenever you come, the farm stand is a must, selling honey extracted on the farm, as well as tasty apple cider donuts, pies, cookies, maple syrup, sauces, jellies, dressings, fruit butters and produce from the farm.
3. Monster Mini Golf and Laser Tag
Spooky fun for the family, this indoor attraction combines mini-golf, laser tag, a laser maze, a ropes course and a video arcade.
The headline is the luminous miniature golf course, under black light and packed with ghoulish animated props and obstacles, while your round will be soundtracked by a DJ.
The monster theme continues in the laser tag arena, designed for players aged five and up and featuring effects like fog, mines, yet more black light and mines.
The arcade has timeless classics and the latest releases, along with ticket machines, and at the glow-in-the-dark ropes course kids can clamber over suspended bridges, cargo nets and rope ladders.
4. Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant
Bethel has held onto a real 20th-century relic at this drive-in eatery established in 1948. Like something from teen movie set in the 50s, the Sycamore Drive-In Restaurant offers curb service out front, so you can enjoy your fresh-ground steak burger, frank or sandwich in the company of your gang in your hotrod.
This place is loved for its homemade root beer, and makes a root beer float that has actually won awards.
There’s also a full breakfast menu for egg sandwiches, wraps, omelets, pancakes and waffles.
And embracing that sense of nostalgia, the Sycamore Drive-in Restaurant puts on a classic car cruise night every Saturday from May to September, with giveaways and a DJ.
5. Bethel Public Library
Centrally located on Greenwood Avenue, Bethel Public Library was founded in 1909, but its building is a little older.
This handsome residence with a Doric portico was the Seelye Homestead, built in 1842 and donated to the town by the descendants of Bethel’s first selectman, Seth Seelye.
The library is a valued resource, as some two thirds of Bethels residents have library cards and use them regularly.
An amazing 84 different services are available at this one amenity.
For children there are storytimes, drop-in crafts workshops and musical activities.
Grown-ups can take part in book clubs and catch a movie every Monday night.
There’s also free Wi-Fi at the library, and a mix of PCs and iMacs for public use.
6. Collis P. Huntington State Park
This state park in more than 1,000 acres of woodland in the south-east of Bethel passed through two eminent industrialist families before being bequeathed to the state by the heirs of Collis Potter Huntington in 1973. Towards the end of the 19th century the banker and industrialist Commodore Walther Luttgen added many of the park-like details to what was then wilderness, creating a chain of ponds, as well as walking trails and service roads.
Later, Archer M. Huntington, stepson of Collis, acquired the estate and move here in 1939. Reminders from that period can be seen at the entrance in the realistic bear sculptures by his wife, the celebrated artist Anna Hyatt Huntington.
The park is crossed by a section of the Blue-Blazed Aspetuck Valley Trail, and offers horseback riding, mountain biking, cross-country skiing in winter and fishing in five ponds.
7. Tarrywile Park & Mansion
You’ll have to go a long way to find a municipal park as gorgeous as Tarywile Park, moments away in the south of Danbury.
This used to be a dairy and fruit farm, now a flowing landscape of woodland, historic orchards, flower garden, open fields, two ponds and picnic areas in 722 acres and served by 21 miles of blazed walking trails.
The Tarywile Mansion (1897) is praised as the one of the finest pieces of Shingle architecture in Greater Danbury, and is used as a community center and events venue.
Smaller members of the clan will be pleased with the Children’s Garden, with a resident troll and a koi pond.
8. P.T. Barnum Birthplace
The celebrated 19th-century showman and politician P.T. Barnum was born in Bethel in 1810. Barnum had a long career in entertainment career, culminating with the creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, the “Greatest Show on Earth”. His story was recently transferred to the silver screen in the musical biopic, The Greatest Showman (2017) starring Hugh Jackman.
The house that P.T. Barnum was born in can be found at 55 Greenwood Avenue and has been here since 1768. It would originally have has a colonial Saltbox design, before taking on the current Greek Revival facade after a fire sometime in the middle of the 19th century.
9. Putnam Memorial State Park
Not far west of Collis P. Huntington State Park is the scene of the Continental Army’s winter encampment between December 1778 and May 1779. This is also Connecticut’s oldest state park, set up in 1887. Hands-on stations at the visitor center go into depth on the life of Major General Israel Putnam (1718-1790), and the daring horseback escape from the British in February 1779 that made him famous.
You’ll also learn more about the encampment that winter, as well as the history of this land.
At the park’s museum meanwhile, you can examine some artefacts recovered from the encampment site.
Sure to hold your attention is a bold sculpture depicting Putnam’s escape by Anna Hyatt Huntington.
10. Danbury Railway Museum
You could also pop into Danbury for this museum at the old Union Station.
The building dates to 1903 and has a Richardson Romanesque design with Colonial Revival touches.
Scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951) were shot at the unusual curved platform here.
Some way east of the station is the New Haven Railroad, Danbury Turntable, built in 1916 and the only intact structure of its kind in the state.
As for the museum, this offers weekend train rides on locomotives like the ALCO RS-1 (1948) New Haven 0673, an EMD SW-8 (1953) Pfizer #1 (Rock Island #838) and GE 44 TON Diesel.
You can ride in a vintage coach from 1925, in a caboose or up in the cab if you pay a little more.
In the station there’s an extensive display of model trains, and in front of the turntable is a pumphouse from 1910, relocated to the museum from the Fairgrounds on Segar Street in Danbury.
11. Bethel Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument
Center Cemetery in Bethel is the resting place for a few more members of the Barnum family (P.T. Barnum was laid to rest in Bridgeport). But possibly the most compelling monument in the cemetery is the pillar honoring the 14 Bethel residents who died in the Civil War.
the monument was hewn from a single block of granite more than four meters tall.
The dedication has been carved in the form of a scroll hanging below the talons of an eagle, flanked by two curls of ribbon reading, “Union” and “Liberty”. At the base is a delicately carved trophy depicting crossed swords and two rifles, together with a soldier’s bedroll, rucksack, hat and belt.
12. Byrd’s Books
Somewhere you have to stop on Greenwood Avenue, Byrd’s Books is an independent bookstore with a warm welcome.
There’s a good chance that you’ll find what you’re looking for in this deceptively large shop, but if they don’t they’ll happily order it for you.
Byrd’s Books does a lot more than just sell paperbacks and hardbacks: For wee ones there’s storytime every Wednesday at 10:00, as well as regular author talks, and even knitting and crocheting nights.
13. Plumtrees Schoolhouse
Worth the short detour to the north-east of Bethel, this adorable little one-room schoolhouse off Plumtrees Road was raised in 1867.
The building has been preserved in its original form, with whitewashes clapboard and a cute little cupola holding a 20-inch bell that was cast in 1896. There was a school here until as recently as 1970, and the building was placed on the Connecticut Registry of Historic Places in 2007.
Today the Plumtrees Schoolhouse is museum about education, although the hours are irregular, so it’s a good idea to make contact before visiting.
14. Ives Concert Park
For entertainment under the stars in summer, the Ives Concert Park is a fabulous venue with a large pond-side bandstand.
The park is named for the Danbury native Charles Edward Ives (1874-1954), one of the United States’ most treasured composers.
Some 65,000 people come to the Ives Concert Park each year, for classical concerts, chamber music, jazz, shows by major recording artists, stand-up comedy and Shakespeare plays.
There’s also a program of children’s events a couple of international festivals all through the summer, showcasing Latin music and Irish and Ecuadorian culture.
15. Food Truck Fridays
Mark the first and third Friday evenings in June, July and August in your diary as a whole fleet of food trucks come to town.
Some 16 food trucks park up at the Bethel Municipal Center Lawn, and you can choose from burgers, grinders (subs), tacos, burritos, artisanal hot dogs, BBQ, lobster rolls and lots more.
And for dessert look no further than Cinnamon Churros.
Each night there will be a stage for bands and artists making waves in Connecticut’s music scene.