This maritime town on the east bank of the Thames River is home to the United States Navy’s primary East Coast submarine base.
A big chunk of Groton’s population is employed either at the base or at General Dynamics Electric Boat, the navy’s main submarine builder.
So it’s no shock that Groton should have a wonderful submarine museum, and docked on the river and ready to be boarded is USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear-powered sub.
Half of the sweet seafaring village of Mystic sits inside Groton’s town limits, so we’re going to include it in this list, especially as the two downtowns are only seven miles apart.
In between there’s a Revolutionary War battlefield, craggy coastline, bluffs, lighthouses, little islands and a preserved parcel of farmland owned by Connecticut’s first governor in the 17th century.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Groton:
1. Mystic Seaport Museum
America’s top maritime museum is a sensational day out, with more than 60 historic buildings and a whole fleet of vessels including sloops, schooners, a steamer and a whaling ship from 1841. The Mystic Seaport Museum was established in 1929, and in amongst the working preservation shipyard, bustling old-time waterfront and gardens there are museum buildings with captivating exhibitions for maritime history and art.
A major event in 2019-20 is a display of seascapes by J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) on loan from the Tate.
You’ll need hours to explore the 19th-century maritime village where each building retains its original role.
So you can find sextants and the like in the nautical instruments shop and watch casks being assembled at the cooperage.
The planetarium explains how sailors used the stars for navigation, while the whaling boat, the Charles W. Morgan, sets the scene on the water.
This is the world’s oldest surviving merchant vessel and the only wooden whaling ship from the American merchant fleet still intact.
2. Mystic Aquarium
This jaw-dropping maritime attraction holds more than 10,000 animals and has host of species that can’t be seen anywhere else in New England.
The stars of Mystic Aquarium are the beluga whales, while this is one of only three facilities in the United States keeping Steller sea lions.
There is also a large colony of over 30 African black-footed penguins, as well as mammals like California sea lions, Atlantic harbour seals and northern fur seals.
Touch pools allow you to feel the backs of bamboo sharks and sting rays, while the animatronic dinosaurs at the Jurassic Giants exhibition are sure to capture children’s imaginations.
Make time for a show, at the Blue Theater or the new 4D Theater screening interactive films.
Elsewhere, “Discover Long Island Sound” brings you up close to the wildlife of the Connecticut coast, like North American lobster and scup, while the reptile exhibit at Scales & Tails keeps all sorts of lizards and snakes and offers the chance to touch the back of a juvenile alligator.
3. Downtown Mystic
On both banks of the river, Mystic is quaint, walkable and quintessentially New England.
Main Street and the little streets and alleys darting off it abound with seafood restaurants, taverns, ice cream parlours, galleries and lots of little shops for maritime accessories, artisan candy, fashion, home design, high-end pet gear, handmade gifts and much more.
A great place to collapse, ice cream in hand, is the quayside at Mystic River Park, watching the water traffic negotiating the famous Mystic River Bascule Bridge.
If you can’t resist the call of the water on a hot day, Adventure Mystic rents out paddleboards and kayaks to see that bridge from a new angle.
4. The Submarine Force Museum
A short way downriver from Naval Submarine Base New London is a museum operated solely by Naval History and Heritage Command, which makes it a repository for a variety of vessels, components and artefacts relating to submarines.
The most noteworthy of these is the USS Nautilus, which we’ll talk about below.
Outside on the front walk are four midget submarines, among them a Japanese Type A two-man mini-sub from World War II.
The Main Hall recounts the history of underwater seafaring, and suspended from the ceiling is a model designed after an illustration in the first edition of Jules Vernes’ 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
You can track the evolution of submarines down the decades on the Model Wall and step inside the attack centre of a Sturgeon Class sub.
Afterwards, the Main Exhibit Area contains a full-size replica of Bushnell’s Turtle, an early submarine used in the Revolutionary War, as well as a wide range of submarine weaponry and artefacts relating to the USS Nautilus.
5. USS Nautilus
Integral to the Submarine Force Museum, the USS Nautilus became the world’s first operational nuclear submarine when it was launched in 1954. The vessel also made history in 1958 when it became the first submarine to make a submerged transit of the North Pole, a feat made possible by its nuclear propulsion system, allowing it to remain underwater for much longer than diesel-powered subs.
The USS Nautilus is Connecticut’s official state ship and was converted into a museum in the mid-80s.
You can take a self-guided audio tour through the two forward compartments, including the crew’s mess, control room, periscope room, stores, galley, crew’s quarters and forward torpedo room.
6. Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park
The largest battle fought in Connecticut during the Revolutionary War took place high on the east bank of the Thames River in 1781. At the Battle of Groton Heights a force, led by Benedict Arnold, burnt New London to the ground and then took Fort Griswold after bitter fighting.
A massacre then ensued, when 88 surrendering American troops were put to the death by the British.
The fort’s earthworks are still intact, and a couple of buildings have been restored, like a shot furnace and powder magazine, and the Ebenezer Avery House, which sheltered the wounded after the battle and is open for tours on summer weekends.
The Monument House Museum next door goes into depth on the battle and its background.
The victims of the massacre are commemorated by the granite Groton Monument, an obelisk 39 metres high and raised in 1830.
7. Bluff Point State Park
At Bluff Point on the east side of the Poquonnock estuary is the last large tract of undeveloped land anywhere on the Connecticut coastline.
The peninsula, cloaked in deep woodland, extends south into Long Island Sound for 1.5 miles and these 800 acres are designated a “Coastal Reserve”. This means that the only way into the park is on foot or by non-motorised vehicle.
You can hike a trail to the park’s eponymous bluff, wending its way through a tunnel of trees and out into open space, finally delivering you to a cliff-top exposed to the wind.
The state park is a valued bird-watching site, and more than 200 species of shorebirds, seabirds and passerine birds have been spotted here.
Saltwater fishers also flock to Bluff Point, casting their lines for bluefish, sea trout, striped bass and summer flounder.
8. Mystic River Bascule Bridge
The drawbridge connecting the Groton side of Mystic to Stonington on Route 1 is satisfying to watch in action, mainly because all of the components are out in the open.
These include two hefty bull wheels driven by two 635-kg electric engines, as well as a pair of immense concrete counterweights overhead on a steel framework.
The bridge’s design was patented by the New York engineer Thomas E.
Brown in 1918 and construction was completed within two years.
The reason for the bridge’s unique configuration is because of the low position of the crossing at high tide, which required the mechanism to be above, rather than below the crossing.
The bridge opens around 2,200 times a year: There are openings at the 40-minute mark every hour during daylight hours between May 1 and October 31, each one lasting about five minutes.
9. Avery Point Light
The headland poking into Long Island Sound at Avery Point is occupied by the distinguished looking buildings and outdoor sculpture of the University of Connecticut’s Marine Sciences campus.
The Jacobethan Bradford House here dates to the late-19th century and modelled on the famous Newport mansions.
There’s a seafront trail around the point, installed with interesting interpretive boards telling you about the ecology of Long Island Sound and the Thames River estuary.
The landmark at the very southern end is Avery Point Light, which was first active from 1944 to 1967 before falling into disrepair.
The lighthouse was reactivated in 2006 following a long-term restoration and still stands as the last lighthouse erected in the state as a navigational aid.
For visitors the wide open skies and views encompassing Pine Island and New York’s Fishers Island make this a special place at sunset.
10. Eastern Point Beach
This small beach has all a family could want for a day by Long Island Sound.
The surf is tranquil at Eastern Point Beach thanks to offshore reefs and because the beach is withdrawn at the mouth of the Thames River next to Avery Point.
There’s a swathe of white sand, fringed by a grassy space with playscapes for kids, as well as volleyball courts and basketball.
Between the middle of June and the start of September the beach is attended by a lifeguard and has a snack bar.
As with any public beach in Connecticut there’s a fee to use the parking lot, and this can be quite steep for non-residents.
11. Mystic Museum of Art
The Mystic Art Association was founded by the landscape painter Charles Harold Davis (1856-1933) in 1913, and made up of the artists who would visit this coastal village to paint.
In 1931 the association established the Mystic Arts Center, and in 2016 this was redubbed the Mystic Museum of Art.
The museum has a small but highly-regarded permanent collection, spanning the start of the 20th century to the present, with pieces by Robert Brackman and Henry Ward Ranger.
When we put this list together there was a exhibition for the famed Mystic-based painter, watercolourist and etcher, Yngve Edward Soderberg (1896-1972).
12. Outer Light Brewing Company
Groton has a great little craft brewery in a trucking depot by the railroad tracks.
Something to love about Outer Light is that it has perfected a small core of four year-round beers, and these are complemented by seasonal and one-off brews.
The four linchpins are the Lonesome Boatman Ale, Libation Propaganda Coffee Stout, SUBduction IPA and Cloudbreak Double IPA.
The family-friendly taproom is open Wednesday to Sunday, whether you want to sit down with a pint, try a flight, fill a growler or take cans to go.
You’re welcome to order in for something to go with your brew, and there’s a much-loved diner, Norm’s, a couple of minutes up the road.
13. Haley Farm State Park
There’s a tract of farmland dating back to the Colonial era in the 17th century at Haley State Park, east of Bluff Point.
The first governor of Connecticut, John Winthrop the Younger (1606-1676) owned a portion of the farm here.
Later occupants include the Chester family whose headstones can still be seen in the park.
Caleb Haley, who worked this land at the turn of the 20th-century was a prolific wall-builder, and the boundaries he raised to divide pastures, as well as the remnants of his homestead are also visible at the park.
Hiking and cycling are the main activities at Haley Farm State Park, and a bike trail winds through the landscape as part of a 7.5-mile route linking Mystic with Groton.
14. Poquonnock Bridge Boardwalk
Starting in the south at Depot Road (not far north of Bluff Point) and coursing for just over half a mile up to Poquonnock Road, is an easy and nature-rich boardwalk trail next to the Poquonnock River.
The timber on the boardwalk is a little weathered, but still in good shape, and there are benches as you go if you want to contemplate the river, the wetland vegetation and birdlife including loons, swans and songbirds in the brush.
There’s a children’s playground at the southern trailhead, and the walk ends at a little gazebo.
A few steps along Poquonnock Road at the north end of the boardwalk is a Dairy Queen for a post-walk treat.
15. Argia Mystic Cruises
The last commercial sailboat in Mystic sets sail all summer long on four voyages each day, a Morning Sail, Noon Sail, Afternoon Sail and Sunset Sail.
On the accommodating wooden deck of the Schooner Argia you’ll see Mystic from the perspective of generations of sailors, and head out onto Long Island Sound to explore Groton and Stonington’s tortuous shoreline, passing lighthouses and little islands.
Complimentary snacks and lemonade are provided, and you’re free to bring your own food for a picnic on deck.
The Argia is a fine vessel, 80 feet long and built from Honduran mahogany on white oak frames.