15 Best Things to Do in Groton (CT)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
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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 I reckon it’s no shock that Groton should have a wonderful submarine museum. 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, I’m 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, and little islands. There’s also 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

Mystic Seaport MuseumSource: singh_lens / shutterstock
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.

Dating back to 1929, it’s made up of a working preservation shipyard, bustling old-time waterfront, and a tapestry of gardens.

Throughout there are museum buildings with captivating exhibitions for maritime history and art. Docked close by are sloops, schooners, a steamer, and a whaling ship from 1841. 

By my reckoning, you’ll need hours to explore the 19th-century maritime village, where each building retains its original role. That means you can find sextants and the like in the nautical instruments shop, and watch casks being assembled at the cooperage.

A real star is the whaling boat, the Charles W. Morgan, which sets the scene on the water. This is officially the world’s oldest surviving merchant vessel. It’s also the only wooden whaling ship from the American merchant fleet still intact.

2. Mystic Aquarium

Mystic AquariumSource: Ritu Manoj Jethani / shutterstock
Mystic Aquarium

This jaw-dropping maritime attraction holds more than 10,000 animals. Among them are a 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 harbor seals and northern fur seals.

Touch pools allow you to feel the backs of bamboo sharks and stingrays. Meanwhile, a new exhibit when I was here was Dino Seas. 

This high-tech space features hands-on stations, animatronic megafauna, and two awesome 4D movies. Added to that is a two-story indoor playspace, and live amphibians and reptiles.

3. Downtown Mystic

Downtown MysticSource: andysartworks / shutterstock
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 inviting small businesses.

These might be seafood restaurants, taverns, ice cream parlors, galleries, or lots of little shops for maritime accessories, artisan candy, fashion, home design, high-end pet gear, and handmade gifts.

Eventually I collapsed, ice cream in hand, on the quayside at Mystic River Park. Here you can watch 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 paddleboards and kayaks to see that bridge from a new angle.

4. The Submarine Force Museum

The Submarine Force MuseumSource: Raymond Deleon / shutterstock
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. 

This makes it a repository for a variety of vessels, components and artifacts relating to submarines. The most noteworthy of these is the USS Nautilus, which I’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 a model suspended from the ceiling caught my eye. This was 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 center 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. There’s also a wide range of submarine weaponry and artifacts relating to the USS Nautilus.

5. USS Nautilus

USS NautilusSource: Raymond Deleon / shutterstock
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. That feat was 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.

I took a self-guided audio tour through the two forward compartments. It was kind of eerie to step into cramped spaces like the crew’s mess, control room, periscope room, stores, galley, crew’s quarters, and forward torpedo room.

6. Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park

Fort Griswold Battlefield State ParkSource: Chris Grover / shutterstock
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, burned New London to the ground and then took Fort Griswold after bitter fighting.

A massacre ensued, when 88 surrendering American troops were put to death by the British. The fort’s earthworks are still intact, and a couple of buildings have been restored. 

I was thrilled with the hot furnace and powder magazine, and the Ebenezer Avery House, which sheltered the wounded after the battle. This is open for tours on summer weekends.

Meanwhile, 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 128 feet high and raised in 1830.

7. Bluff Point State Park

Bluff Point State ParkSource: Jennifer Yakey-Ault / shutterstock
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. The path wends 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. I’d also inquire about a permit for clamming, as the estuary is highly productive.

8. Mystic River Bascule Bridge

Mystic River Bascule BridgeSource: Svineyard / shutterstock
Mystic River Bascule Bridge

I found the drawbridge connecting the Groton side of Mystic to Stonington on Route 1 super satisfying to watch in action. It’s 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. It 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 lasts about five minutes.

9. Avery Point Light

Avery Point LightSource: Allan Wood Photography / shutterstock
Avery Point Light

The headland poking into Long Island Sound at Avery Point is occupied by several distinguished looking buildings. Accompanied by outdoor sculpture, these belong to the University of Connecticut’s Marine Sciences campus.

The Jacobethan Bradford House here dates to the late-19th century and is modeled on the famous Newport mansions.

I enjoyed my walk along the seafront trail around the point. This is 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. It still stands as the last lighthouse erected in the state to serve as a navigational aid.

Lastly, 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

Eastern Point BeachSource: TheBrassGlass / shutterstock
Eastern Point Beach

This small beach has all I could want for a day by Long Island Sound. For starters, the surf is tranquil at Eastern Point Beach. This is thanks to offshore reefs, and because the beach is withdrawn at the mouth of the Thames River next to Avery Point.

There’s a swath of pale 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 the parking lot has a fee, which can be steep for non-residents.

11. Mystic Museum of Art

Mystic Museum Of ArtSource: Mystic Museum Of Art / facebook
Mystic Museum Of Art

The Mystic Art Association was founded by the landscape painter Charles Harold Davis (1856-1933) in 1913. Its initial members were the various 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. It spans the start of the 20th century to the present, with pieces by Robert Brackman and Henry Ward Ranger.

When I put this list together the main exhibition was the enthralling Unfettered: Liberating Creative Expression. This show traced the emergence of abstraction in American art post-WWII, with pieces by the likes of Robert Motherwell (1915-1991).

12. Outer Light Brewing Company

Outer Light Brewing CompanySource: Outer Light Brewing Company / facebook
Outer Light Brewing Company

Groton has a great little craft brewery in a trucking depot by the railroad tracks. Something I love about Outer Light is that it has perfected a small core of four year-round beers. 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. There’s a much-loved diner, Norm’s, a couple of minutes up the road.

13. Haley Farm State Park

Haley Farm State ParkSource: Morrowlong / Wikimedia
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, and I was amazed to find their headstones in the park.

Caleb Haley, who worked this land at the turn of the 20th-century was a prolific wall-builder. 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. A bike trail winds through the landscape as part of a 7.5-mile route linking Mystic with Groton.

14. Poquonnock River Boardwalk

For a light walk in Groton there’s a nature-rich boardwalk trail next to the Poquonnock River.

Starting in the south at Depot Road (not far north of Bluff Point) this path runs for just over half a mile up to Poquonnock Road,

The timber on the boardwalk was a little weathered when I visited, but still in good shape. 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.

You’ll find 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

Argia Mystic CruisesSource: Schooner Argia / facebook
Argia Mystic Cruises

The last commercial sailboat in Mystic sets sail all summer long on four voyages each day. These are a Morning Sail, Noon Sail, Afternoon Sail and Sunset Sail.

The Argia is a fine vessel, 81 feet long and built from Honduran mahogany on white oak frames.

On the accommodating wooden deck I got to see Mystic from the perspective of generations of sailors. The schooner heads 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.

15 Best Things to Do in Groton (CT):

  • Mystic Seaport Museum
  • Mystic Aquarium
  • Downtown Mystic
  • The Submarine Force Museum
  • USS Nautilus
  • Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park
  • Bluff Point State Park
  • Mystic River Bascule Bridge
  • Avery Point Light
  • Eastern Point Beach
  • Mystic Museum of Art
  • Outer Light Brewing Company
  • Haley Farm State Park
  • Poquonnock River Boardwalk
  • Argia Mystic Cruises