A city steeped in maritime history, New London is on the natural harbour of the Thames River just before it flows into Long Island Sound.
Two hundred years ago New London was one of the top whaling ports in the world, and in 1839 was the landing point of The Amistad.
In a seafaring town like this you have no choice but to board a boat, to sail off to spy the sound’s famous lighthouses or make a day trip to the idyllic Block Island off the tip of Long Island.
New London is also a hotbed for the arts in south-eastern Connecticut, furnished with galleries, an opulent theatre, the vaunted Lyman Allyn Art Museum and six blocks of eye-popping murals.
Let’s explore the best things to do in New London:
1. Ocean Beach Park
A place made for one of those timeless summer afternoons, Ocean Beach Park has been hailed by National Geographic as one of the best beaches in the country.
And while you may not want to move from the long, broad crescent of soft pale sand, there’s plenty for families to get up to at the park behind.
You’ve got an arcade with retro games, amusement rides, triple waterslides and 18 holes of miniature golf by the boardwalk If you want to get some laps in there’s an Olympic size pool, while littler beach-goers will have a whale of a time in the kiddie spray park.
And to unwind you could amble along the boardwalk and get a bite at one of the may eateries followed by a treat at the Boardwalk Creamery.
2. Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Tours
Off the coast of New London the waters of Long Island Sound can be treacherous to navigate, which explains the profusion of lighthouses out on the sound within a few miles of the town.
Among them are the historic Plum Island Light, thought to have been the scene of the first amphibious assault by an American army in 1775, or the New London Harbor Light, the oldest lighthouse in the state (1760). The best way to get close to these landmarks is with a Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Tour, departing the harbour from May to October.
In July and August and the second half of June you can choose between a Classic or Lights & Sights Itinerary.
Each route takes in ten lighthouses, as well as Fort Griswold, Fort Trumbull, General Dynamic’s Electric Boat Division and New London’s historic waterfront.
3. Fort Trumbull State Park
There has been a fort on this rise protruding into the Thames River from the west bank since 1777. That first defence was overrun in 1781 during a raid by Benedict Arnold’s forces in the Revolutionary War.
The fort was repaired early in the 19th century, and took on its current design between 1839 and 1852. Fort Trumbull has five sides and four bastions, able to accommodate 52 guns in addition to howitzers for close-quarters fighting.
It was part of the Third System, a network of 42 forts to protect America’s harbours, and in the 20th century became the home of Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory.
Recently given a facelift, Fort Trumbull has compelling information markers, armed gun emplacements, a cannon that you can touch.
Go inside and you can tour living quarters and an office and mock laboratory harking back to the war research conducted here from the WWII to 1970.
4. New London Waterfront District
The city’s lively creative community resides in this 26-block National Register Historic District.
Set in sumptuous early 19th-century buildings are one-off boutiques, quirky restaurants, performing arts venues and galleries, some of which we’ll cover below.
Walking these streets you’ll be following the footsteps of ocean-going whalers, and historic figures both revered and reviled, like playwright Eugene O’Neill and turncoat Benedict Arnold.
Make sure to see the New London County Courthouse at 70 Huntington Street.
Dating to 1786, it’s the oldest functioning courthouse in Connecticut.
At 76 Federal Street, the St. James Episcopal Church (1850) is endowed with beautiful stained glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany.
And when the weather’s good you could lose all track of time at the Waterfront Park in front of Custom House, watching the ferries make their way along the Thames River.
5. Lyman Allyn Art Museum
In a solemn Neoclassical building, constructed from local granite and in 12 acres of gardens and lawns, the Lyman Allyn Art Museum dates from 1930. The collection here runs to more than 10,000 pieces, from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, and dating from the 16th century to the present.
There are works by Ingres, Poussin, Tiepole and Charles LeBrun, but the museum really shines for its collection of American Art, representing the Hudson River School, the Aesthetic Movement and Impressionism.
Outstanding pieces include John F. Kensett’s Bash Bish Falls (1851) and Thomas Cole’s Mount Etna from Taormina (1844). Among the permanent exhibitions, Louis Comfort Tiffany in New London delves into the eminent designer’s links with New London and American Perspectives showcases art on the continent from colonial times through the 20th century.
And for wee ones, Playthings of the Past lets kids get hands on with toys, games, books and dolls across hundreds of years.
6. Garde Arts Center
An opulent place to catch a show, the centrepiece of the Garde Arts Center is the Garde Theatre, which opened as a movie palace in 1926. To give the venue a sense of magic and exoticism, the theatre has a Moroccan-inflected interior, set off by the marvellous 3D bas-relief murals that line the auditorium, painted by Vera Leeper (1899-1969), depicting Bedouins, elephants, sand dunes, mountains and sky.
The theatre was in danger of being pulled down in the 1980s before being rescued with the foundation of the Garde Arts Center, which includes several buildings, one of which houses a compact 120-performance space.
On the calendar at the Garde Theatre is a mix of renowned classic music artists, well-known comedians, touring dance companies, talks by famous personalities and a slew of tribute acts.
7. Submarine Force Library & Museum
The United States Navy’s main submarine base on the East Coast is on the opposite bank of the Thames River in Groton.
This puts a first-class museum managed by Naval History and Heritage Command mere minutes away.
The main attraction at the Submarine Force Library & Museum is the USS Nautilus berthed out front.
Launched in 1954, this was the world’s first operational nuclear-powered submarine, and you’ll be able to tour the front portion of the vessel.
Back on land there’s a compelling line-up of midget submarines in front, together with the sail section from the USS George Washington (1959), the first nuclear sub with ballistic missile capability.
Inside there’s lots to pore over, from submarine models, an attack center from a Sturgeon class sub, a replica of Bushnell’s Turtle (1776), an arsenal of submarine weaponry and artefacts relating to USS Nautilus.
8. Custom House Maritime Museum
The New London Maritime Society, which cares for the New London Ledge Light, the Race Rock Light and New London Harbor Light is headquartered at the stately Custom House, a Neoclassical edifice from 1833. This building is constructed from granite of different shades, with rusticated blocks as the main material, and smooth, lighter toned stone for the Doric columns on its porch and the pilasters that flank the main facade.
The door meanwhile is carved from timber that once belong to the USS Constitution.
In 1839 New London’s Custom House was the landing site of La Amistad, the famous Spanish slave ship captured in a revolt, resulting in a court case that edged America closer to abolition.
Inside you can dip into New London’s whaling industry, go into depth on La Amistad, check out model ships and read up on the many lighthouses in the region.
9. Block Island Express Ferry
Pick a sunny day and there’s no better place to pass a few hours than Block Island, off the tip of Long Island and to the south of Rhode Island.
At this time of year the Block Island Express ferry departs New Island up to five times a day for a crossing time of one hour and 20 minutes.
Once you land at Old Harbor you can spend the day cycling and hiking, and seeking out landmarks, both natural and manmade.
On the islands south coast the Mohegan Bluffs rise more than 60 metres, and the vistas from the Southeast Lighthouse here will leave you lost for words.
You could also just park yourself by Long Island Sound and do as little as possible; Block Island is blessed with 17 miles of beaches! One way to experience the island is on an evening return.
Every Thursday from the end of June the ferry departs New London around 15:00. You can take a relaxed dinner on the island before returning to watch the sun going down over Long Island Sound.
10. Hempsted Houses
One of the oldest surviving houses in Connecticut can be found in New London.
The Joshua Hempsted House went up around 1678, and at this time was the birthplace of Joshua Hempsted the second.
His diary would prove to be one of the most reliable documents for life in colonial New England, detailing the life of his slave Adam Jackson, who lived on the property for more than 30 years.
Something unique about this clapboard building is the main facade’s left gable, which projects out from the main block to create a vestibule.
Beside the Joshua Hempsted House is the stone-built Nathanial Hempsted House from 1759. Both buildings survived the widespread destruction of the Battle of Groton Heights in 1780, supposedly because the Hempsteds were about to celebrate a family reunion with a big meal, which was seized by the raiding British.
You can come for a tour on Saturday and Sunday afternoons from May to October.
11. New London Ledge Light
This extraordinary lighthouse is more than 100 years old but still not as old as it looks.
The New London Ledge Light was actually one of the last lighthouses to be built in New England when it was completed in 1909. Strangely it looks like a mansion stranded at the entrance to New London Harbor, and owes its elegant French Second Empire architecture and mansard roof to the demands of wealthy local residents who wanted the building to reflect their properties on the shore.
While the Ledge Lighthouse looks remote, you make a visit aboard the Project Oceanology vessel, Envirolab II, departing the UConn campus at Avery Point in Groton.
After watching an orientation video in an air-conditioned theatre, you’ll be free to explore the interior in your own time, checking out the keepers’ room and savouring the view from the light tower at the top.
12. New London Mural Walk
It’s fitting that Connecticut’s arts capital should also be home to the largest mural walk in New England.
This spans six blocks of downtown New London, endowed with works by acclaimed international artists, but also allowing you to get better acquainted with the city.
At the time of writing in 2019 there were two dozen murals across six blocks, aided by a CamelTours app that will give you a self-guided tour by scanning the QR code with your smartphone.
The mural walk has been devised to show off the best of New London, and there are shops, galleries and an eclectic choice of restaurants to sidetrack you as you go.
13. Whaling Wall
The anchor for the Mural Walk is the Whaling Wall, by the prolific whale muralist Robert Wyland and found at 23 Eugene O’Neill Drive.
New London is an obvious location for one of Wyland’s “Whaling Walls”, numbering 100 worldwide and painted to raise environmental awareness.
In the first decades of the 19th century this city was one of the three busiest whaling ports in the world, and second only to New Bedford in America.
The primary species hunted was the sperm whale, and this was the species chosen by Wyland for his monumental painting, more than 50 metres long and 12 metres high.
14. Connecticut College Arboretum
Set in 750 acres, the Connecticut College Arboretum was first planted in 1931 includes the verdant campus itself, growing 223 taxa of trees and shrubs, among them Chinese witch hazel and a Japanese pagoda tree.
Elsewhere there are beautiful managed landscapes to explore, like the Caroline Black Garden, growing mature trees, shrubs and grasses from across the globe, with 187 woody taxa like sourwood, Japanese stewartia, weeping cherry and many more.
The 280 square-metre greenhouse holds tropical and desert plants, while you can get to know the species local to this region in the Native Plant Collection, across 20 acres holding 288 taxa found in North America and the New London area specifically.
Within this space are enchanting individual gardens for mountain laurel, azaleas, conifers and regional wildflowers.
15. United States Coast Guard Museum
New London is the home of the United States Coast Guard Academy, which dates back to 1876 and relocated to the city in the 1930s.
The smallest of the country’s five service branches, the Coast Guard was founded in 1790 as the Revenue-Marine, but as of today it’s the only branch without a major dedicated museum.
That is expected to change in the next few years with a project in the pipeline, but in the meantime there’s a collection of weapons, figureheads, uniforms, medals, flight suits and paintings on display at the academy on Mohegan Avenue Parkway.
You can find out about the Revenue Cutters of the those early days, enforcing tariffs, combating piracy, rescuing mariners in distress and even serving as a makeshift navy.
To see the museum, American visitors will need government-issued photo ID, while people from overseas will need to get in touch with the curator.