Often named among the most liveable small towns in Connecticut, East Lyme contains the sweet seaside village of Niantic in its south-east corner.
Niantic has attracted holidaymakers for well over a century, and has sandy beaches tucked snugly into bays on East Lyme’s indented shoreline.
At the Niantic Bay Boardwalk you can linger for an hour or two with a book or just soak up the widescreen views of the bay.
There’s another beautiful lookout at McCook Park flanked by two more sandy beaches, and on the south-west side of East Lyme is Rocky Neck, with nature-rich wetlands and yet another glorious beach.
Let’s explore the best things to do in and around East Lyme:
1. Niantic Bay Boardwalk
Possibly the best place to pause next to Long Island Sound in all of Connecticut, the Niantic Bay Boardwalk curls around from “The Guy” in the east to Hole-in-the-Wall Beach in the west.
For the first half of this 1.1-mile promenade the boardwalk edges a sandy beach that will look very enticing on a sunny day in summer.
This section is a true boardwalk, in the sense that it carries you over dunes, while the western half is a gravel path over the rocks, with the waters of Long Island Sound breaking a few feet away.
There are benches all along the way if you need a break, and Niantic’s adorable Main Street is just behind for shopping and dining.
2. Rocky Neck State Park
Bounded to the east by a salt marsh and to the west by the tidal Fourmile River, Rocky Neck is a scenic tract of coastal land that was safeguarded in the early 1930s when it was purchased by conservationists and sold to the state.
In summer the park’s appeal is obvious, for the crescent-shaped sandy beach, completely free of stones and sloping gently into the clear waters of the Sound.
There’s also compelling history, and Ellie Mitchell Pavilion (1936), a Works Progress Administration project for jobseekers.
Composed of local timber and granite, this the largest structure from the Depression era in Connecticut.
Around the salt marsh and tidal zone on the park’s margins you can head off on trails to look for herons, cranes and mute swans in fall, while the osprey is a magnificent summer visitor worth keeping an eye out for, catching herring in the park’s Bride Brook.
3. McCook Park Beach
At the western end of the Niantic Bay Boardwalk is McCook Park Beach, which encompasses the bluffs of McCook Point, as well as the two sand beaches either side of it.
The land belonged to the McCook family, descendants of the Union Army chaplain John James McCook, until 1953. McCook point is the site of their summer home, where there are now lawns fringed by copper beeches.
From the point you can survey Long Island Sound, and make out Orient Point at the top of Long Island.
Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, there’s lots of room to spread out on McCook Point Beach and Hole-in-the-Wall Beach, although you will need to buy a day pass to visit and this can be pricey.
4. Florence Griswold Museum
Above the Lieutenant River in Old Lyme, the regal Georgian mansion of Florence Griswold (1850-1937) became the focal point for the Impressionist Old Lyme Art Colony at the turn of the 20th century.
Scores of artists stayed with Florence in that time, including Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf, Matila Browne, Breta and Lydia Longacre and Wilson Irvine, to name just a few.
Every artist who visited the colony was invited to paint a panel in the house, and these total 43, most of which are on show in the dining room.
The house later became a museum, with extra exhibition space provided by the Krieble Gallery, which opened in 2002 and holds exhibitions that change up to four times a year.
The museum has a considerable endowment of Impressionist, landscape and modern painting by artists like Hassam, Milton Avery, Matilda Browne, Frederic Church and Edward Francis Rook.
5. The Book Barn
A wonderland for bibliophiles, the Book Barn is a second hand bookstore with three locations across Niantic, all on Main Street.
In 2019 there were more than 350,000 books at the Book Barn, but this immense library will have grown even by the time you read this.
The quaint Main Barn sits just west of Niantic, while there’s a Downtown Shop by the Niantic Cinema, and Chapter Three is a bit further out of town on West Main Street.
Such is the size of the Main Barn that there’s an information booth at the entrance, with brochures to help you find your way.
Helpful staff can also point you in the right direction, and if you get overwhelmed there’s complimentary tea, coffee, cocoa, cookies and crackers to revive you.
6. Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut
Smaller children can learn and develop creativity through play at this highly-rated children’s museum.
At the Discovery Room here there’s a scientific thread running through all the activities and exhibits, like Microscopes, Train Table, Kaleidoscope, Creation Station, Magnet Wall and Maxi-Rollaway.
In this space there’s also a small collection of animals, including a bearded dragon, a leopard gecko, am observation bee hive, Australian tree frogs and a Russian tortoise.
In the Imagination Room, youngsters can built with foam blocks and role-play everyday situations at a market/cafe, village, market garden and fire station.
The fun continues outside at a playscape with climbing wall, separate area for toddlers, water table, dig pit, zip-line and tree house.
7. Samuel Smith Farmstead
This wonderfully preserved First Period colonial house was built around 1685 and lies in 17 acres in rural East Lyme.
Additions were made circa 1735 and 1812, but the property has held onto its colonial character and is accompanied by a barn and much of its original farmstead.
The building stands 1-1/2 stories tall, with a gambrel roof and five-bay facade.
Inside there’s a central chimney, as well as an unusual fireplace in the basement.
Among the many period features to survive are featheredged wood paneling from the early 18th century.
A restoration project is ongoing, but the Samuel Smith Farmstead is open for tours on Sunday afternoons between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
8. Harkness Memorial State Park
When the heirs and philanthropists Edward and Mary Harkness established their summer home in neighboring Waterford they gave it the grandiose name “Eolia”, after the island home of Aeolus, the Greek god of winds.
Their Renaissance Revival mansion, overlooking the Sound was completed in 1907, and the great Beatrix Jones Farrand was hired to landscape the exquisite formal garden, with terraces, a pergola, colonnade and circular fountain.
The 300-acre estate was left to Connecticut by Mary in 1950, and you can visit to walk among the florid gardens, lawns and lofty trees, marveling at the views of Long Island Sound and touring the 42-room mansion on weekends.
9. Thomas Lee House
It’s humbling to think that this house on West Main Street has been standing since 1660. The Thomas Lee House is one of the oldest wood frame houses in Connecticut in its primitive state, and was first restored in the early-20th century by the historian and preservationist Norman Isham.
Five bays across on the main facade, the house stands 1-1/2 stories tall, with a post-and-beam frame topped with a steeply pitched roof.
The building’s footprint was doubled about 1700, and then a lean-to for the kitchen and adjoining rooms came in 1765. The property was in the Lee family for 200 years before it was purchased by the East Lyme Historical Society in 1914. Inside you can appreciate the wooden paneling, period furniture, cooking implements and everyday tools like bellows and looms.
10. Niantic Farmers’ Market
At Methodist Street, opposite Niantic Bay Bicycles, the Niantic Farmers’ Market sets up every Thursday, 15:00-18:00, from the start of June to the end of October.
In 2019 there were more than 20 regular vendors, all of whom were producers who could vouch for their stock and give you tips on things like preparation and storage.
You could shop here for organic fruit and vegetables, farm-raised meat, eggs, fish, cheese, as well as pies, cannoli, cupcakes, syrups, fresh-squeezed lemonade, Creole cuisine, prepared salads, and lots more besides.
11. Nature’s Art Village
Just over the line in Montville, the sprawling Nature’s Art Village combines shopping and a set of distinct family attractions.
At the Shops you can lose all track of time browsing for arts and crafts, jewelry, educational toys, puzzles, minerals, fossils and beads.
The Past Antiques Marketplace is an immense antiques emporium, with more than 90 dealers on two floors and under one roof.
For family fun you’ve got Copper Creek Mini Golf, the mining-themed Discovery Depot and the Genius Museum, chronicling two centuries of American industrial ingenuity.
12. The Dinosaur Place at Nature’s Art Village
Children will be in awe of this Jurassic-themed attraction at Nature’s Art Village, where some 50 life-sized dinosaur models prowl in 60 acres of woodland.
These beasts are on a well-kept trail here, 1.5 miles long, and arcing around the lake, Raptor Bay.
Across the water is the park’s own volcano, which rumbles and smokes on the hour between 13:00 and 17:00. Kids can have a wild time, let loose at the largest splashpad in New England, at the massive T. Rex Tower Playscape, on Monty’s DINO-Sized Playground or sliding from the mouth of a T. Rex at the MAZEasaurus.
13. Cedar Ridge Golf Course
If you need to squeeze in a round there’s a well-reviewed public course in East Lyme.
Cedar Ridge is an executive par 3 but has 18 holes instead of nine.
You’ll have to use every iron in your bag, as five or six of the holes are more than 200 yards.
The fairways are forgiving, framed by light rough, and with bunkers and water that won’t come into play too much.
But the greens are not to be trifled with, being ultra-quick and laid out on surprising slopes.
As a par 3 Cedar Ridge is great for beginners, but will test seasoned golfers’ putting, pitch shots and iron-play.
Green fees range from just $15 for 9 holes, walking, Monday to Friday, to $40 for 18 with a cart on weekends.
14. Nehantic State Forest
A big block of this 5,000 acre state forest is in East Lyme’s quiet north end.
This state forest is the oldest in New London County, having been purchased in sections from 1926, and occupies parts of Salem to the north and Lyme to the west.
On the East Lyme side there’s hiking to be done on the Nehantic Forest Road and the circuitous un-blazed trails that break off and rejoin it.
Go a short way west and the block in Lyme is more oriented towards outdoor recreation, thanks to the Blue-Blazed Nayantaquit Trail and the boating opportunities at Uncas Pond and Norwich Pond.
15. Fishing Charters
If bottom fishing is your thing, Waterford’s Mago Point, just over the Niantic, has a little community of fishing charter companies waiting to take you onto Long Island Sound to land some big fish from the deep.
Many of these companies, like Sunbeam Fleet, have been in business for decades, with skippers who know the waters like the backs of their hands.
They’ll give you all the pointers you need to help you bring in some monsters, from blue fish to largemouth bass, bonitos, black fish and breams.
Along with Sunbeam Fleet, there’s a whole directory of charter options here, including Petrel Fishing Charters, Mijoy Boat, Lucky Strike, JB Sportfishing, Black Hawk II and Tartan II.