For several decades up to the Civil War, this town on the South Coast was the world’s foremost whaling port.
Whaling pervaded every aspect of life in New Bedford, to the point where more than a dozen city blocks are now a national park to safeguard that history.
One man to pass through New Bedford during its whaling heyday was Herman Melville (1819-1891), and in Moby-Dick (1851) he described the riches created by the industry: “…nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford.”
With a strong Portuguese-American makeup, modern New Bedford harbors the largest commercial fishing fleet in the United States, as well as the largest seafood auction on the East Coast.
1. New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
Thirteen city blocks, several noteworthy landmarks, a clutch of museums and New Bedford’s quaint Historic District all lie within the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, which was designated in 1996.
Along cobblestone streets you can immerse yourself in an industry lost to time, with enlightening ranger-led tours available Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
As well as exploring the old-time townscape, you can visit a whalers’ mansion, see the preserved schooner Ernestina-Morrissey at the docks and go where seamen like Melville would pray before their years-long voyages.
There are many strands to New Bedford’s past here, and as well as whaling you can learn about the renowned abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass (c. 1817-1895), and the many prominent artists associated with the town.
2. New Bedford Whaling Museum
In multiple buildings on a whole city block, this world-class museum sheds light on all aspects of the whaling industry in New Bedford and around the world.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum was established in 1903 and has assembled vast collections, with thousands of logbooks from whaling expeditions, thousands of pieces of scrimshaw and no fewer than five intact whale skeletons.
Allow as much time as you can, as there are 20 exhibit galleries to navigate, steeped in whaling’s history, culture and science.
One memorable exhibit in the Bourne Building is a half-scale model of the Lagoda, a merchant ship built in 1826 and converted for whaling in 1841.
The museum also maintains a fantastic art collection, with New Bedford-based painters like Albert Bierstadt, William Bradford and Albert Pinkham Ryder all represented.
3. Seamen’s Bethel
Whalers would call in at this chapel atop Johnny Cake Hill before setting sail on their long expeditions.
As Melville wrote, “In this same New Bedford there stands a Whaleman’s Chapel, and few are the moody fishermen, shortly bound for the Indian Ocean or Pacific, who fail to make a Sunday visit to the spot.”
The often dissolute lifestyle of whalers had long been a concern, and the chapel was built in 1832 following efforts by the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen.
On the wall you can view the names of New Bedford whalers, and later all fishermen, who died at sea. Melville attended services here in the winter of 1840-41, and his pew in the southeast corner is marked with a plaque.
4. Fort Taber Park
At the very tip of the peninsula there’s a beautifully landscaped 50–acre park looking out over Buzzards Bay.
This has more than a mile of ocean waterfront, but is also imbued with a lot of mostly military history. Fort Taber Park is named for a short-lived earthwork fort, built while stone-built Fort Rodman was under construction.
Mostly intact, the latter was ready in 1863 and remained armed until the end of WWII. Now you can spend some time strolling around the fort and battery structures, while there’s a small museum presenting artifacts, uniforms and photographs from when the fort was active.
Fort Taber Park is the setting for lots of events in the summer, with outdoor concerts, food trucks and military reenactments all on the agenda.
5. Waterfront Visitor Center
At Pier 3, the city’s visitor center is the charming Wharfinger Building. Despite its gambrel roof and brick construction, this building is modern, and was a Depression-era WPA project, erected in 1935.
It was initially the wharf manager’s office, but soon became New Bedford’s official fish auction house following an expansion.
After the fish auction went electronic, the Wharfinger Building became the Waterfront Visitor Center.
There are detailed exhibits about the past, present and future of the commercial fishing industry in New Bedford, and this is the palace to come for info about ferry trips, cruises and a host of other experiences.
If you’re interested in day-to-day life at a modern fishing harbor, you can also pick up a leaflet for the self-guided Waterfront Dock Walk.
New Bedford’s Portuguese heritage is unmistakable in its assortment of Portuguese or Portuguese-American restaurants.
Think old-world fish and seafood dishes like grilled sardines, croquettes, salted codfish and fisherman’s stews, but also tender rotisserie chicken and flame-grilled steaks.
A few local Portuguese mainstays are Churrascaria Novo Mundo, Antonio’s Restaurant, Tia Maria’s European Café and Inner Bay Cafe & Grille.
In a city renowned for its fishing fleet, you can be sure that New England-style favorites like lobster rolls, clam chowder, sautéed scallops are as good as you can get anywhere.
7. Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum
You can tour one of New Bedford’s stately whalers’ houses at this Greek Revival mansion, built in 1834. The Rotch-Jones-Duff House was built by shipwrights for William Rotch, Jr., third in a line of New Bedford whalers.
This residence was designed by English immigrant Richard Upjohn (1802-1878), later responsible for numerous Gothic Revival churches around New England and New York.
Apart from minor changes over time, the Greek Revival character of the house has been preserved, down to the elliptical echinus profiles on the baseboards and corner blocks.
The interiors are furnished in the style of the mid-19th century when the Rotch family was living here, for a clear picture of the lifestyle of a wealthy whaling family.
Outside, there’s a stunning garden, with details from all three periods of the property’s private ownership, such as a magnificent lattice pergola from the 19th century.
8. Zeiterion Performing Arts Center
At one point downtown New Bedford had 17 theaters, and all but one have been lost over the last century.
The sole survivor is the capacious Zeiterion Theatre, which opened in 1923 as the Star Theatre, and is now the seat of the treasured New Bedford Symphony Orchestra.
Another tenant here is the New Bedford Festival Theatre, making this a key hub for the live arts in the South Coast area.
There’s live music of all kinds, as well as opera, plays, comedies, musicals, dance, stand-up comedy and regular movie screenings. In July, this is a main stage for the famous New Bedford Folk Festival.
9. New Bedford Museum of Glass
At New Bedford’s 19th-century industrial peak the city was a center for glassmaking thanks to The Mount Washington Glass Company (later Pairpoint), which moved here from Boston in 1870.
In a collection of more than 7,000 pieces, New Bedford Museum of Glass has many examples of local glass from this company, as well as the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company (1826-1888) and several other makes in the region including Tiffany and Steuben.
The collection also encompasses ancient glass, fine engraved European glass from the 17th to the 19th century and contemporary glass art by the likes of Dale Chihuly. The museum has recently relocated to the beautiful James Arnold Mansion (1821) in downtown New Bedford.
10. Hurricane Barrier Harbor Walk
In the 1960s New Bedford constructed a hurricane barrier to protect its fishing fleet anchored in the inner harbor. Since 2015 it has been possible to traverse this impressive structure for three quarters of a mile.
The Hurricane Barrier Harbor Walk runs along the east side of the peninsula from East Rodney French Boulevard boat ramp, before heading out across the harbor past Palmer Island.
To the north you can see the Palmer Island Lighthouse (1849), while there’s a ceaseless flow of commercial and private boats passing through.
The Hurricane Barrier Harbor Walk is linked to the Saulnier Memorial Bike Trail, with 3.5 miles of paths in New Bedford including another hurricane defense along the New Bedford Covewalk at the head of Clarks Cove to the west.
11. Buttonwood Park Zoo
This little seven-acre zoo on the west side of New Bedford is widely praised as one of the best small zoos in the country.
The zoo is in the charming confines of Buttonwood Park, landscaped in the 1890s by the respected Olmsted, Olmsted & Eliot firm. The origins of the zoo are from a time when there was a zoo and menagerie.
After closing in the 1990s, the Buttonwood Park Zoo was completely revamped, and today has animals from more than 200 species, across five areas.
These are North America East (river otters, beavers black bears), North America West (bison, cougars, bobcats), Aquatics (shorebirds, harbor seals), Elephants, and a small assortment of domestic animals.
12. East Beach
New Bedford is blessed with several public beaches, and by far the largest is East Beach, which curls round towards Fort Taber Park at the south end of the peninsula.
A treat in summer, East Beach is long, wide and sandy, and the abundance of shells makes this a beachcomber’s paradise.
But perhaps the best thing about this spot is the scenery, with a clear view of Butler Flats Light (1898), as well as New Bedford’s many fishing boats and ferries coming and going.
East Beach is patrolled by lifeguards through September 7, and like the rest of the peninsula’s coastline is on the Saulnier Memorial Bike Trail.
13. Cuttyhunk Ferry Company
At New Bedford Harbor you can catch a ferry to several destinations in The Islands, among them Tisbury and Oak Bluff (Martha’s Vineyard) and Nantucket.
But New Bedford is also the main port of departure for picturesque Cuttyhunk, one of the Elizabeth Islands, with a population of around 50 people.
The Cuttyhunk Ferry Company offers a year-round service aboard the M/V Cuttyhunk, a whale watch-style vessel, making the crossing in under an hour.
In summer you can head out in the morning, spend some time hiking the island, soaking up its views and relaxing on its beaches, before returning at mid-afternoon.
There’s a little coffee shop aboard the M/V Cuttyhunk, and the company also offers sunset and seal-spotting cruises.
14. New Bedford Art Museum/Artworks
In a grand former bank building downtown, the New Bedford Art Museum has bolstered the exciting local art scene for over 25 years.
When we wrote this list the museum was in the middle of a long-term expansion project, to double its exhibition space. Mostly dedicated to contemporary art, this attraction has long-term shows by local and regional artists in a spectrum of disciplines.
There’s a slew of events all year, including AHA! (Art, History & Architecture) a vibrant cultural happening downtown on the second thursday of the month. The museum store is also essential if you’re hunting for something unique on a shopping expedition.
15. New Bedford Folk Festival
The city’s most famous annual event is a two-day folk extravaganza, celebrated for more than a quarter of a century now.
Held in July, the New Bedford Folk Festival invites beloved and renowned performers in genres like folk, Celtic, blues and Americana, along with contemporary singer-songwriters.
There are more than 75 performances on seven stages, as well as workshops, 80+ craft vendors, a beer garden and a food court.
For an idea of what to expect, a condensed list of recent performers includes Beau Soleil, Patty Larkin, Dar Williams, Susan Werner, Tom Rush and The Stray Birds.