Nestled between the intellectual pretensions of New Haven and the hedge-fund haughtiness of the Gold Coast, Bridgeport is a down-to-earth, ethnically rich community that also happens to be the biggest city in Connecticut. Its downtown is studded with architectural gems, many of them former Beaux-Arts or Art Nouveau bank buildings. While a lot of storefronts stand empty for now, "Coming Soon!" signs just about equal "For Lease" or "For Sale" placards, indicating a city on the verge of a renaissance. But there's no need to wait - there's already plenty to do in aptly nicknamed Park City, where the can-do bluster of P.T. Barnum seems to be coming back in style.
Maybe it's the Barnum legacy, but Bridgeport loves a spectacle. The Downtown Cabaret Theatre
(263 Golden Hill St., 203-576-1636, downtowncabaret.org
) hides out in the basement of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Senior Center across from City Hall. Besides cabaret, the company also produces children's theater and hosts occasional concerts. Playhouse on the Green
(177 State St., 203-333-3666, playhouseonthegreen.org
) faces the downtown pocket park called McLevy Green, otherwise surrounded by stately 19th-century bank buildings. Known to locals as the Polka Dot (directional signs still use that designation), the opulent 228-seat theater is well-suited for intimate performances such as the winter play-reading series that began at the end of January. In contrast to that intimacy, Klein Memorial Auditorium
(910 Fairfield Ave., 203-576-8115, the klein.org
) has 1,400 seats to accommodate audiences for the Greater Bridgeport Symphony
(203-576-0263, bridgeportsymphony .org) and occasional touring shows and concerts. The handsome red-brick former home of the Black Rock Bank and Trust Co. was saved from demolition to serve as the Black Rock Art Center
(2838 Fairfield Ave., 203-367-7917, blackrockartcenter.org
). Check the website for current art exhibitions and performances, strong this month with African-American art.
The Discovery Museum
(4450 Park Ave., 203-372-3521, discovery museum.org
, adults $8.50, seniors, children, and students $7, under age 5 free) covers all the bases of science education but has a special dedication to planetary exploration. Even tots can "drive" the simulated lunar exploration vehicle in the basement or trace the path of a NASA Mars robot using a mouse and computer screen. "By 2024, NASA's going to have a base on the moon," says David Mestre, who runs the facility's planetarium. "These kids are going to be the Mars generation, and we have to get them ready." The exhibition of Dee Breger photos of ordinary things (Velcro, a mosquito wing, etc.) as seen through an electron microscope has been held over through February. More straightforward fun and games are the province of the Arena at Harbor Yard
(600 Main St., 203-345-2300, www.arenaat harboryard.com
), host to mega-concerts and, this time of year, the minor league hockey affiliate of the New York Islanders, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers (203-334-4625, soundtigers.com
). In summer the Bridgeport Bluefish
) play their Atlantic League of Professional Baseball games at the Arena. When the weather warms, the dockside shopping and dining of Captain's Cove Seaport
(1 Bostwick Ave., 203-335-1433) opens up - though the kids will probably prefer the long sandy strand of Seaside Park
(1 Barnum Dyke, 203-576-7233), a municipal beach with lifeguards and picnic areas, hiking trails, and ball fields.
In midwinter it's tempting to gravitate to the toasty Rainforest Building at Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo
(1875 Noble Ave., 203-394-6565, beardsleyzoo.org
, adults $9, seniors and ages 3-11 $7) to see tropical plants, monkeys, lemurs, and parrots. But most of the zoo's critters are native to temperate zones so spend the winter outdoors, including the caged Andean condor and the free-roaming gaudy peacocks. The Siberian tigers, with their huge padded feet and rich, glossy coats, romp around in the cold. At the Wolf Observation Learning Facility, huge windows allow visitors to spy on the seven red wolves, born in May, who play together with the sheer abandon of youngsters. Bridgeport's no stranger to exotic animals; local legend says P.T. Barnum used to exercise his circus animals in the parks. Possibly the greatest showman on earth, Barnum has become the focus of the Barnum Museum
(820 Main St., 203-331-1104, barnum-museum.org
, adults $5, seniors $4, ages 4-7 $3), an institution he intended to promote science and industry. Step right up and see General Tom Thumb! Watch the mighty elephant plow the fields of Barnum's estate! View the amazing miniature circus! In all seriousness, the museum does a great job tracing Barnum's life from grocery clerk to circus impresario to politician and social reformer. The Barnum Museum may be a tough act to follow, but the Housatonic Museum of Art
(900 Lafayette Blvd., 203-332-5203, housatonicmuseum.org
, free) at Housatonic Community College features changing exhibitions that are especially strong in late-20th-century art. City Lights Gallery
(37 Markle Court, 203-334-7748) focuses on new local and regional talent in the art world.
Bridgeport lacks the cohesive central shopping district of many cities its age, but some terrific offbeat items lurk in the museum gift shops. The Beardsley Zoo, for example, offers all kinds of stuffed animals from turtles, monkeys, and wolves to zebras, giraffes, and penguins. Kids also might get a kick out of the animal face masks (bear, panda, leopard, lion, or bat), while adults will likely prefer the stylish animal-print umbrellas. The Discovery Museum's lobby shop is small but definitely select. How cool is a kit to build your own screwdriver? The Electric Bug actively demonstrates the motive power of a gyroscope by careening around the room. Small fry into ancient reptiles can get down with a dinosaurs floor puzzle. The Barnum Museum's shop is chock-full of marvels, of course, from reproduction circus posters and boxed sets of 50 magic tricks to copies of Barnum's book "The Art of Money Getting." This way to the egress, folks.
Bridgeport police officers often stop at Chaves Bakery
(1365 State St., 203-333-6254, sandwiches $5.50-$7) for the deli sandwiches on oven-fresh rolls, or for the fabulous pastries: Portuguese (feijão and mimos), Italian (cannoli), and French (cream puffs). The men and women in blue also frequent Miss Thelma's Restaurant
(140 Fairfield Ave., 203-337-9957, entrees $7.50-$10.50), where owner Gloria Garcia dishes up Southern home cooking, including fried chicken and collard greens. On weekends, it's all laid out buffet style. The kitchen slings grub around the clock at Frankie's Diner
(1660 Barnum Ave., 203-334-8971, breakfast $1.75-$7.25, entrees $6.95-$22.95) in East Bridgeport. Formica tables, vinyl-clad booths, and terrazzo floors affirm the diner's authenticity; breakfast specialties include potato pancakes and cheese blintzes. Several fine-dining restaurants attest to Bridgeport's continuing socioeconomic recovery. Ralph 'n' Rich's
(815 Main St., 203-366-3597, dinner entrees $14.50-$25) serves classic Italian-American dishes in polished modern surroundings right across from the Barnum Museum. Joseph's Steakhouse
(360 Fairfield Ave., 203-337-9944, josephssteakhouse.com
, entrees $22.95-$52.50) exudes a masculine elegance with its dark mahogany walls, crisp white linens, and staff in white shirts and aprons and natty black bow ties. Owner Joseph Kustra is fanatical about dry-aged prime beef, and his gargantuan steaks (served cut from the bone) make an excellent winter feast.
Bridgeport's sole hotel is the Holiday Inn Bridgeport
(1070 Main St., 203-334-1234, ichotelsgroup.com
, $109-$159), which serves as the de facto meeting center for the city's professional and social groups. Rooms offer good value, especially at depressed winter prices. Convenient location, cheerful staff, availability of garage parking ($6 overnight), and high-speed wireless Internet connection at no charge help seal the deal.
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