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15 Top-Rated Things to Do in New London, CT

Written by Shandley McMurray
Feb 8, 2021

A pretty seaside town, New London bursts into life each summer. Visitors from near and far wind their way through the previously quiet downtown core. Boats cruise to nearby lighthouses, musicians perform in the streets, fountains splash kids playing in the waterfront square, and restaurant patios spill over with diners.

Weekenders hoping to soak up a little sun spend hours at the town's main tourist attraction - Ocean Beach Park - while history buffs flock to ancient buildings like the Hempsted Houses and Nathan Hale Schoolhouse. No matter where your interests lie, you'll find something fun to do in New London.

Once the second greatest whaling port in the world (circa 1830), this historic town is peppered with buildings ranging in style from Federal to post-Revolutionary to Greek Revival. Over the years, it's become a haven for artists, which is evidenced by the numerous galleries and vibrant murals spotted through town.

Not sure what to do first? Our list of the best things to do in New London will help.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Take a Break at Ocean Beach Park

Binoculars on the boardwalk at Ocean Beach Park
Binoculars on the boardwalk at Ocean Beach Park | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

Voted one of the best beaches in Connecticut, Ocean Beach Park is a family destination you won't want to miss. A sweeping crescent of soft, pale sand graces the pristine beach, which stretches to the azure Atlantic Ocean. It won't take long to believe you're in the Caribbean, not Connecticut.

The strand is flanked by a wide, half-mile long boardwalk created to honor Tony Pero, a well-loved local who spent nearly 50 decades working at the beach. It boasts covered benches offering a break from the sun and binoculars to spy on sunbathers or get a closer look at the New London Ledge Light.

Set up a beach chair, pop open an umbrella, and get ready to spend hours enjoying the remarkable view. No need to pack food as there are plenty of concession stands, a seasonal café, and a restaurant onsite. There's also a Nature Walk and Bird Watching Observation Deck to enjoy.

If you hate sitting still, or have kids who need frequent entertainment, check out the park's main attractions. A carousel, Olympic-sized pool, amusement rides, arcade, splash park, 18-hole miniature golf course, and giant water slide are all on hand for added fun. These require an additional fee.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, visitors must pay to park (this includes admission). Walk-ins are also charged a fee. Home to many a fun event (including fireworks and movie nights), special happenings often come at an extra cost.

Address: 98 Neptune Avenue, New London, Connecticut

Official site: http://ocean-beach-park.com/

2. Touch a Cannon at Fort Trumbull State Park

Aerial view of Fort Trumbull
Aerial view of Fort Trumbull

Visiting Fort Trumbull State Park is one of the best things to do in New London, especially on a sunny day. Nestled atop a hill, this historic stronghold boasts lovely views of the Thames River and a history lesson you won't forget.

The first Fort Trumbull was built in the 18th century to protect the harbor from attacks by the British. The fort you see today is the third (a.k.a. the masonry fort) and was built in the mid-1800s.

Multiple signs are posted around the fort and its ramparts, making it easy to embark on a self-guided tour. Two Rodman cannons lie in the South Battery, which was built in 1840 behind a low parapet made of earth and granite. This once held eight cannons and smaller siege guns.

For a more in-depth experience, book a guided tour. Then, head inside to see living quarters as they would have appeared in the 19th century, as well as a 1950s office and mock laboratory. Interactive exhibits are found in the visitor center, which is open between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

While on the fort's grounds, take time to walk down to the boardwalk and fishing pier. The waterfront walk is particularly lovely.

Address: 90 Walbach Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://portal.ct.gov/DEEP/State-Parks/Parks/Fort-Trumbull-State-Park

3. Take a Cruise from New London's Harbor

The Mystic Whaler docked in New London's Harbor
The Mystic Whaler docked in New London's Harbor

A popular summer weekend destination, travelers flock to this southeastern Connecticut gem to enjoy its main draw - the waterfront. One of the best ways to appreciate its beauty is by heading out to sea.

The Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Cruise is a popular excursion for locals and tourists alike. Each journey sets sail on a high-speed SEA JET to visit nine lighthouses and two Revolutionary-era forts stretching from New London to Long Island. Note: Tours only run from April to November.

Charming Mystic lies just 15 minutes east, and its popular Mystic Whaler Cruises are available from New London's harbor. Climb aboard the Mystic Whaler, a reproduction of a 19th-century cargo schooner. Depending which package you choose, you'll sail along the coast while enjoying a delicious meal or ogling a sunset.

Cross Sound Ferry

Mystic Whaler Cruises

4. Become One with Nature at the Connecticut College Arboretum

A lush pathway leads to a pond at the Connecticut College Arboretum
A lush pathway leads to a pond at the Connecticut College Arboretum | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

Nature lovers will adore the beautiful Connecticut College Arboretum. Boasting 750 acres of lush landscape (which includes the well-manicured college campus), this natural utopia was first opened in 1931 and provides a much-needed breath of fresh air in the heart of New London.

The arboretum is maintained to teach the next generation about sustainability and increase their wealth of knowledge about ecology and the environment. Essentially a "living laboratory," it is used by students to conduct research and by others to enjoy a nice break from reality.

Multiple trails wind their way through the grounds, which includes a 120-acre Campus Landscape (featuring shrubs and trees from across the globe), 30-acre Native Plant Collection (with North American plants and wildflowers), and three-acre Caroline Black Garden (boasting a variety of woody plants).

Insider's tip: Free guided tours are offered during the summer.

Address: 270 College Avenue, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://www.conncoll.edu/the-arboretum/

5. Get Inspired at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum

Sculptures adorn the front garden of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum
Sculptures adorn the front garden of the Lyman Allyn Art Museum | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

The Lyman Allyn Art Museum first opened its doors in 1932. Housed in a lovely neoclassical building, its collection is vast. Over 17,000 objects are on display from eras ranging from ancient times to today. The works come from across the globe, offering guests a wide variety of genres.

The museum was made possible through a donation made by Harriet Allyn, in memory of her father, a whaling ship captain. A sculpture trail snakes through 12 acres of verdant grounds surrounding the building; the giant creations serve as appetizers for the elaborate works found inside.

In addition to a permanent collection featuring Louis Comfort Tiffany's varied creations are changing exhibitions, special programming, lectures, concerts, and design programs. Kids particularly enjoy the Playthings of the Past interactive exhibit, which showcases toys, dolls, and books from bygone eras.

The American Perspective exhibition is another star attraction focusing on American works from colonial times through the 20th century.

Address: 625 Williams Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://www.lymanallyn.org/

6. Shop and Eat in New London's Historic Waterfront District

Shops and restaurants line Bank Street in New London's Historic Waterfront District
Shops and restaurants line Bank Street in New London's Historic Waterfront District | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

More than 30 restaurants and a bevy of shops and performing arts venues line the 26 blocks that make up New London's Historic Waterfront District. Part of the Thames River Heritage Park, this vibrant area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.

Over 220 historic buildings pepper the 78 acres comprising this creative hub. Live music floats through the district on summer days, bringing renewed energy to streets once traveled by ancient whalers and historic icons like playwright Eugene O'Neill.

Grab a bite at an outdoor patio, visit an art gallery, admire the old Nathan Hale Schoolhouse, or practice some retail therapy. There's no shortage of fun things to do in New London's busiest section.

Daddy Jack's (181 Bank Street) is a family-run gem featuring fresh dishes and great music. Enjoy a Pad Thai at the well-priced Noodles & Rice Bistro (165 Bank Street). Or treat yourself to a luxuriant meal with a view at On the Waterfront (250 Pequot Avenue).

Looking for something to satisfy your sweet tooth? Head to Berry's Ice Cream for a double scoop. Then, hop on the Thames River Heritage Park Water Taxi (1 Waterfront Park) for a maritime tour of the river's most impressive historic landmarks.

7. Catch a Show at the Garde Arts Center

The Garde Arts Center serves up entertainment in the historic Garde Theater
The Garde Arts Center serves up entertainment in the historic Garde Theater | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

If you're looking to be entertained, head to the Garde Arts Center. A non-profit performance organization, its main attraction is the Garde Arts Theater, a lavish, Moroccan-themed movie palace built in 1926. Upon its stage, you can catch a comedy show, concert, dance performance, or film.

Under threat of being demolished in 1985, the Garde Arts Center was founded to help save, restore, and run the historic theater. Their goal was to use the building as a performance and local gathering place to encourage creativity and a sense of community.

In addition to hosting entertaining events, the Garde Arts Center offers educational programming, as well as family and special events.

Address: 325 State Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://gardearts.org/

8. Feel Small at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument

The Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument stands tall and proud in the heart of the waterfront district
The Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument stands tall and proud in the heart of the waterfront district | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

The Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument holds a prominent position in Parade Plaza, which lies just across from Union Station. This iconic obelisk dates to 1896 and towers 50 feet over the heart of downtown. It was erected to honor local war veterans.

At the top lies an allegorical figure representing peace. Below that sit sculptures and carvings featuring a sailor holding a telescope and a Union soldier. Engraved in the granite are the names of important battle sites during the Civil War and American Revolution.

Beside the obelisk lies the giant, bronze Whale Tail Fountain, a popular place for kids to cool off on a hot summer's day. This is a life-size replica of a sperm whale diving into the ocean after surfacing to breathe.

9. Get Creative at Hygienic Galleries

A Grecian-style mural graces the side wall of the Hygienic Galleries
A Grecian-style mural graces the side wall of the Hygienic Galleries | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

The Hygienic Galleries are housed in the Hygienic Building. Rebuilt in the early 1900s, the original structure was burned by British forces in 1786. Today, it is owned by Hygienic Art, Inc., a company that brought life back to this once derelict building and strives to spruce up downtown.

Inside, you'll find artists' studios and a public art gallery showing off interesting works from creators of all kinds. The fun doesn't stop there. In 2001, the company converted a once dark and unfavorable corner at the rear of the building into a serene and inviting outdoor space.

Intricate wrought-iron fences enclose the sculpture garden (a.k.a. the Garden of Hygienia), which highlights a phenomenal mural (part of the New London Mural Walk) gracing the building's side wall. This pretty spot is a nice place to find quiet among the busy streets.

Address: 79 Bank Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://www.hygienic.org/

10. Get Cultured at the New London Custom House Maritime Museum

The New London Custom House Maritime Museum brings historic beauty to Bank Street
The New London Custom House Maritime Museum brings historic beauty to Bank Street | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

Built in 1833, the New London Custom House Maritime Museum harkens back to a time when the city was an essential whaling port. It was designed by architect Robert Mills, who was also responsible for creating the Washington Monument.

Today, the "nation's oldest continuously operating U.S. Custom House" is home to a museum filled with maritime relics from the town's storied past. Through its exhibits and educational programs, the non-profit museum aims to educate visitors about New London's importance as a maritime heavyweight.

In addition to its interesting displays and events, the Custom House also arranges lighthouse tours and sightseeing boat trips in the area. The New London Maritime Society (the organization in charge of the museum) also runs the New London Harbor Light, Race Rock Light Station, and New London Ledge Light.

Insider's tip: The museum is open from 1 to 5pm every Wednesday through Sunday, so plan accordingly. Also, the museum shop is filled with books and cute souvenirs perfect for any sea lover.

Address: 150 Bank Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://nlmaritimesociety.org

11. Cruise to the New London Ledge Light

The New London Ledge Light
The New London Ledge Light

The picturesque New London Ledge Light was first lit in 1909. A square, redbrick house topped by a circular lantern make up this unconventional beacon, inspiring photographers to keep clicking. Legend has it, the locals weren't willing to gaze upon an unattractive lighthouse that differed from their colonial and French homes.

Standing stoically in Fishers Island Sound, at the mouth of the Thames River, this unique lighthouse was designed to warn boats of dangers near New London Harbor. Although the New London Harbor Light already existed, boat traffic to the popular port was so busy a new lighthouse was required.

Owned by the New London Maritime Society, the lighthouse is preserved and run by the volunteer New London Ledge Lighthouse Foundation. The best way to visit is by boat, so book a lighthouse cruise during your stay. Some companies stop here, allowing visitors to disembark for a self-guided tour.

12. Hempsted Houses

The stone Nathaniel Hempsted House was built by Joshua Hempsted's grandson
The stone Nathaniel Hempsted House was built by Joshua Hempsted's grandson | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

Robert Hempsted was one of the earliest English Settlers of what is now New London. In 1678, his son, Joshua, built the western half of the frame house that still stands today and kept a well-preserved diary depicting everyday life from 1711 to 1758.

His house, named the Joshua Hempsted House, has been deemed the "best-documented house of its period in New England." Years later, Joshua's son, Nathaniel, built the stone house on the corner nearby. It's fittingly known as the Nathaniel Hempsted House.

While you can admire the exterior of the houses at any time, tours of their interiors and collection of artifacts are only offered on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4pm. Walking tours of the area can also be arranged.

Address: 11 Hempstead Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://ctlandmarks.org/properties/hempsted-houses/

13. Snap Fun Photos along the Wall to Wall New London Mural Walk

A musical mural brightens Eugene O'Neill Drive
A musical mural brightens Eugene O'Neill Drive | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

Scuba divers, gorillas, and musicians, oh my. You can see pretty much everything while wandering along the Wall to Wall New London Mural Walk, a six-block outdoor gallery that uses building walls as canvases in the downtown core.

In all, the mural walk takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour to complete - longer if you become tempted to shop in the stores you pass along the route or grab a bite to eat in one of the tasty restaurants.

The vibrant works are the creations of internationally acclaimed and local artists. They were designed to promote cultural diversity while leading visitors past historic structures and monuments and weaving them around area stores, cafés, and galleries.

14. Nathan Hale Schoolhouse

The front entrance to the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse
The front entrance to the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

Once upon a time, long, long ago (in 1773 to be exact), the Union School was built at the corner of State and Union streets, a few blocks from its current Atlantic Street location. A one-room schoolhouse, this adorable building helps brighten the area.

A young Nathan Hale (the US soldier who was hanged for spying on the British during the American Revolutionary War) taught here briefly after graduating from Yale University. Inside, you can still see graffiti made by some of his students - in the form of names scratched into desks and walls.

Sadly, the museum is infrequently open. If you're hoping to see what school life was like during the 18th century, head here on a Wednesday through Sunday between 11am and 4pm from early June to Labor Day, or on a weekend from Labor Day through the end of September.

Address: 19 Atlantic Street, New London, Connecticut

Official site: https://www.connecticutsar.org/historic-sites/nathan-hale-schoolhouse-new-london/

15. The Whaling Wall

The Whaling Wall is an iconic landmark in New London's Historic Waterfront District
The Whaling Wall is an iconic landmark in New London's Historic Waterfront District | Photo Copyright: Shandley McMurray

In the heart of downtown, you'll find another remarkable tribute to the town's history as a busy whaling port. Known as the Whaling Wall, this colorful mural was painted on the side of a building at the corner of Eugene O'Neill Drive and State Street by environmental artist Robert Wyland.

Created in 1993, this large painting features giant sperm whales, jelly fish, and dolphins. Signs of wear and tear are noticeable at various times throughout the year - large flakes of paint disappear. Luckily, this beloved landmark is touched up annually to bring it back to life.

This large beauty serves as the main attraction on New London's popular Mural Walk. Wyland created it (and 99 others across the globe) to draw attention to the environment.

Address: The corner of Eugene O'Neill Drive and State Street, New London, Connecticut

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