Named for the Irish city, the town of Waterford in New London County occupies a tab of land surrounded on three sides by water.
Side-by-side on Long Island Sound there’s a rare natural beach, a stately Renaissance Revival mansion in formal gardens and the O’Neill, America’s foremost organization for the development of new works in theater and fresh creative voices.
Waterford is neighbored to the east by New London, placing high-quality attractions like the Lyman Allyn Art Museum within your grasp.
On Waterford’s south-western nook is Mago Point, a little waterfront community with a huddle of maritime businesses, and the port of departure for many a deep-sea fishing trip.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around Waterford, Connecticut:
1. Waterford Beach Park
One of the special things about this quarter-mile beach on Long Island Sound is that, unlike many on the Connecticut coast, it has never been altered by human hands.
The beach is in an undeveloped area, and tracking the shore are some of the most intact dunes to be found in the state, as well as a parcel of tidal marsh.
There are lifeguards are Waterford Beach Park between June and September, and the beach is equipped with wooden walkways, restrooms and a picnic area.
As is common in Connecticut non-residents have to pay a higher rate ($20 on weekdays, $30 on weekends) to use the parking lot.
2. Harkness Memorial State Park
The renowned philanthropists Edward and Mary Harkness built their summer home, dubbed Eolia (island home of the Greek God of winds) on a waterfront plot in Waterford in 1907.
That Renaissance Revival mansion has 42 rooms and is embedded in more than 230 acres of grounds, comprising greenhouses and formal gardens plotted by the esteemed landscape designer Beatrix Farrand between 1918 and 1928. The property became a state park in 1950, and you can visit for a tour on weekends from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Outside, the Alpine Garden is sublime and by the water there’s a piece of sandy shoreline for fishing or beachcombing, although bathing is prohibited here.
3. Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
This highly influential not-for-profit theater company has received two Tony Awards and the 2015 National Medal of Arts, presented by President Obama.
Named for the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Eugene O’Neill, the center was established in 1964 and has had an immeasurable effect on American theater, pioneering concepts like stage readings and play development early in the production of new plays and musicals.
Thousands of new artists have passed through, and more than 1,000 new works have been launched right here, often on their way to Broadway.
O’Neill’s tally of leading programs includes the National Theater Music Conference, the National Playwrights Conference, the National Puppetry Conference, the National Critics Institute and the Cabaret & Performance Conference and the National Theater Institute.
In a spectacular location at Waterford Beach Park, the center has two indoor and two outdoor performance spaces.
As an audience member what you’ll see is the bare bones of new, high-calibre works of performance art, without costumes or sets, in an intimate setting.
The O’Neill also maintains Eugene O’Neill’s boyhood home in New London, the Monte Cristo Cottage.
4. Connecticut College Arboretum
Mingling with the campus of Connecticut College is over 750 acres of plant collections, providing a living laboratory for the college’s botany, environmental studies and biological sciences programs.
Some of the spaces to explore are the Native Plant Collection, the Campus Landscape, the Caroline Black Garden and the Greenhouse, as well as spacious natural areas.
The Native Plant Collection, in 20 acres, dates back to 1931 and holds azaleas, mountain laurel, wildflowers, conifers and ferns.
There are more than 223 taxa of plants of shrubs sprinkled across the campus, while the Caroline Black Garden Grows mature ornamental trees from around the world.
Finally, the Greenhouse has an array of cactuses, a tropical collection and an area for experimentation.
5. Mago Point
There’s a cosy maritime atmosphere on the Niantic River at Mago Point where local businesses like seafood restaurants, a boat dealer, a package store and several fishing charter companies, all crowd the waterfront.
On the north side of the headland is the family-run Mago Point Marina, which is bordered by The Dock.
This is a classic New England fish market, literally on the dock and serving comfort food like lobster rolls and deep-fried platters.
Further along you’ll come to Sunset Landing, specializing in sustainable food, be it vegan options or non-GMO, grass-fed beef, and also taking advantage of the knockout views of Long Island Sound.
6. Fishing Charters
Long Island Sound off Waterford is a prime deep sea fishing spot, and the place to go if you want to haul in some monster striped bass, blue fish, bonitos, strippers, blackfish and bream.
In fact the majority of the maritime businesses based at Mago Point are fishing charter companies, ranging from multiple staff and whole fleets to single vessels.
By our count there were five charter companies based here in summer 2019. The largest operation is Sunbeam Fleet, praised for its professional setup on board, and for its knowledgeable and attentive crew.
They’ll give you pointers to help you improve your technique and will serve snacks and beer.
Honorable mention goes to Mijoy 747, Dot-E-Dee and Petrel Fishing Charters.
7. Ocean Beach Park
Across the line in New London, this beach was recently listed as one of the best in the country by National Geographic.
The shore is clearly the headline attraction here for its soft, sugar white sand and boardwalk behind.
But there’s a lot more going on in Ocean Beach Park.
You can get some laps in, or just enjoy the calmer waters of the Olympic-sized pool, and there’s a health club, food court, cafe and picnic area.
On top of that there are amusement rides, water slides, a mini golf course and an arcade equipped with retro games the 80s, 90s and 00s.
You can sign up for a kayak tour of Alewife Cove with New England Science and Sailing, and in the evenings there’s a program of concerts, outdoor movie screenings, classic car cruise nights and fireworks.
8. Fort Trumbull State Park
Defending the entrance to New London Harbor, Fort Trumbull was first erected in 1770 and overrun by Benedict Arnold’s forces in 1781. But the building standing today dates from 1839 to 1852 and is part of the Third System, 42 coastal defences built during this period.
The fort had a military use until as recently as 1996. In the post-war period the Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory was based here.
Fort Trumbull is held as a masterpiece of its kind and stands apart from the other forts in the system for its Egyptian Revival architecture.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day the fort and its visitor center open up to the public.
There are interpretive panels around the site, and you can touch an original cannon outside.
Inside you’ll tour recreated living quarters from the 19th century and see an office and mock laboratory harking back to the fort’s time as a research facility.
The visitor center has multimedia exhibits, touch screens and 3D models relating almost 240 years of military history at this site.
9. Niantic Bay Boardwalk
Cross the Niantic River to East Lyme and you can saunter along one of the state’s loveliest waterfront walkways.
The boardwalk is just over a mile long, running from the railroad bridge and Cini Park in the east to Hole-in-the-Wall Beach in the west.
The path is slightly raised and crosses dunes on its eastern end, giving you views to savor over Long Island Sound.
That eastern part is a genuine wooden boardwalk, offering access to another dreamy sandy beach, while the western half is laid with gravel and passes over rocks lapped by the Long Island Sound Waters.
Keep an eye out and you may catch sight of a seal in Niantic Bay.
10. Lyman Allyn Art Museum
Donated by Harriet Upson Allyn and named in honor of her father, a wealthy shipping merchant, the Lyman Allyn Museum is in a bold Neoclassical building that opened in 1932. In a collection that runs to more than 17,000 pieces, there’s American decorative and fine art, European Art (particularly on paper) and non-western art from Africa, the Americas and Asia.
The museum presents a comprehensive survey of American painting, from the Hudson River School, via the Aesthetic Movement to Impressionism.
And in the European collection you’ll find pieces by Ingres, Charles LeBrun, Poussin and François Boucher.
A captivating ongoing exhibition studies Louis Comfort Tiffany’s ties to New London, while American Perspectives showcases American art from Colonial times through the 20th century from the perspective of Connecticut and New London County.
For youngsters there’s Playthings of the Past, with hands-on books, dolls and games from different parts of the world and various eras.
11. Lighthouse Cruises
The many little islands and reefs off the coast of New London require a whole network of lighthouses to ensure safe navigation.
Some of these beacons go back more than 200 years, and include the New London Harbor Light (1801), the oldest and tallest lighthouse in Connecticut.
Departing from the docks on Ferry Street in New London, Cross Sound Ferry runs a summer lighthouse cruise schedule aboard two high-speed catamarans.
The Classic Lighthouse Cruise takes around two hours and gives you photo-worthy views of eight lighthouses, including the striking New London Ledge Lighthouse, which is built like a French Second Empire mansion.
For an alternative experience, the Lights & Sights Cruise takes in lighthouses, but also the palatial waterfront properties between Watch Hill, RI and Fishers Island, NY.
The schedule run from May to October, with departures every day in July and August.
12. Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut
Also meriting the short detour to Old Lyme is this interactive museum for children, created to foster interest in different cultures, arts, health and science.
Inside and outside there are three main play areas: The Discovery Room, with a scientific theme, has a variety of hands-on stations, like microscopes, a magnet wall, a pipe organ, live animal exhibits, a train table and the Creation Station for artistic expression.
The Imagination Room is a big indoor playground, where little ones can build with foam blocks, negotiate obstacles and role play at a fire station, seaside village and the multicultural Global Market & Cafe.
A host of activities are available outside, at playscapes, a climbing wall, a zip-line, a dig pit, an area for toddlers and a water table, to name a few.
13. Regal Waterford 9
One of the best bets in Waterford for date nights, this multiplex cinema was given a makeover a few years ago and has earned a lot of affection for its assigned seating and the kind of plush reclining chairs you’d want in your own lounge.
These seats are also sensibly spaced, so you don’t need to worry about adjusting for the people moving along the aisle in front or behind you.
There’s room for snacks too, on little trays that rotate out of the arm rest.
In 2019 a ticket for a new release on Friday night was an affordable $13, although you can expect to pay a bit more for concessions.
14. Crystal Mall
Off the Hartford Turnpike in Waterford is one of the top ten largest malls in Connecticut.
When the Crystal Mall opened in 1984 it was the area’s only regional mall and has been revamped a couple of times since then.
There are more than 100 stores and services here, with national and international staples like American Eagle, H&M, Gamestop, JCPenney, Macy’s, Old Navy, Victoria’s Secret, Hot Topic, rue 21 and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Food-wise you’ve got chains like Buffalo Wild Wings, Olive Garden, Dunkin’, Pizza Hit, Subway and Taco Bell.
Facing off across the Hartford Turnpike is the smaller Waterford Commons, home to Best Buy, DICK’S Sporting Goods, Five Below, Yankee Candle and a cluster of eateries.