15 Best Things to Do in New London (CT)

Written by Veronique Raes
Updated on
Our travel recommendations are based on our personal experiences and research, written by locals and travel experts with deep familiarity with the destination. When you book a hotel or tour that we link to, we may earn a commission.

A city steeped in maritime history, New London is on the natural harbor 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. During that heyday in 1839 it was also the landing point of The Amistad, with historic consequences for the United States.

In a seafaring town like this I had no choice but to board a boat. You can 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 southeastern Connecticut. The city is furnished with galleries, an opulent theater, 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

Ocean Beach ParkSource: Ritu Manoj Jethani / shutterstock
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.

I found 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. Elsewhere, 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 many eateries.

2. Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Tours

Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse ToursSource: www.longislandferry.com
Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Tours

Off the coast of New London the waters of Long Island Sound can be difficult to navigate. This explains the profusion of lighthouses out on the sound within a few miles of the city.

Among them are the historic Plum Island Light, which is thought to have been the scene of the first amphibious assault by an American army in 1775. Also important is the New London Harbor Light (1760), the oldest lighthouse in the state. 

The best way to get close to these landmarks is with a Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Tour, departing the harbor, May through October.

In July, 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 a range of other sights. These include Fort Griswold, Fort Trumbull, General Dynamics Electric Boat Division and New London’s historic waterfront.

3. Fort Trumbull State Park

Fort Trumbull State ParkSource: J-BRIDGE / shutterstock
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 defense 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. It was able to accommodate 52 guns, in addition to howitzers for close-quarters fighting.

The fort was part of the Third System, a network of 42 forts to protect America’s harbors. Then in the 20th century it became the home of Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory.

Recently given a facelift, Fort Trumbull has compelling information markers, armed gun emplacements, and a cannon that you can touch.

Go inside and you can tour the facility’s living quarters. My standout was the office and mock laboratory harking back to the war research conducted here from WWII to 1970.

4. New London Waterfront District

St. James Episcopal ChurchSource: St James Episcopal Church (New London, CT) / facebook
St. James Episcopal Church

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 I’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 I could lose all track of time at the Waterfront Park in front of Custom House. Here you can watch the ferries make their way along the Thames River.

5. Lyman Allyn Art Museum

Lyman Allyn Art MuseumSource: Lyman Allyn Art Museum / facebook
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. These come from Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia, 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.

My must-sees 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 this city. Elsewhere, 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

Garde Arts CenterSource: Garde Arts Center / facebook
Garde Arts Center

An opulent place to catch a show, the centerpiece 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 theater has a Moroccan-inflected interior. This is set off by the marvelous 3D bas-relief murals that line the auditorium, painted by Vera Leeper (1899-1969). You can make out Bedouins, elephants, sand dunes, and mountains against the night sky.

The theater was in danger of being pulled down in the 1980s before being rescued with the foundation of the Garde Arts Center. The complex includes several buildings, one of which houses a compact 120-performance space.

There’s a big mix of entertainment, all year at the Garde Theatre. You’ve got 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

Submarine Force Library & MuseumSource: Motorista brasileiro em New York - TransBrazilian Tours / facebook
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. I was able to go aboard 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). This was the first nuclear sub with ballistic missile capability.

Inside there’s lots to pore over, from submarine models to an attack center from a Sturgeon class sub, and a replica of Bushnell’s Turtle (1776). Look out for the arsenal of submarine weaponry, and artifacts relating to USS Nautilus.

8. Custom House Maritime Museum

Custom House Maritime MuseumSource: Custom House Maritime Museum
Custom House Maritime Museum

The New London Maritime Society, which cares for the several lighthouses offshore, 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. There’s 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 belonged to the USS Constitution (1797).

In 1839 New London’s Custom House was the landing site of La Amistad, the famous Spanish slave ship captured in a revolt. The resulting court case edged America closer to abolition.

Inside you can dip into New London’s whaling industry, check out model ships, and read up on the many lighthouses in the region. Most interesting for me was the exhibit for Amistad, recounting the events of 1839 in fine detail.

9. Block Island Express Ferry

Block Island Express FerrySource: Block Island Express / facebook
Block Island Express Ferry

On a sunny day, I can think of no better place to spend a few hours than Block Island. This is 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 island’s south coast the Mohegan Bluffs rise more than 200 feet. 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 3:10 PM. You can take a relaxed dinner on the island before returning to watch the sun going down over Long Island Sound.

10. Hempsted Houses

Hempsted HousesSource: The Hempsted Houses / facebook
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. In particular, it detailed the life of the enslaved 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 this was because the Hempsteds were about to celebrate a family reunion with a big meal, which was seized by the raiding British. When I was here there were tours on the second and fourth weekends, May through October.

11. New London Ledge Light

New London Ledge LightSource: Rosa Creanza / shutterstock
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. The structure owes its elegant French Second Empire architecture and mansard roof to the demands of wealthy local residents. They wanted the building to reflect the refinement of their properties on the shore.

While the Ledge Lighthouse looks remote, you make a visit aboard the Project Oceanology vessel, Enviro-Lab II. This sails from the UConn campus at Avery Point in Groton, or New London’s own City Pier (check departure times).

After watching an orientation video in an air-conditioned theater, you’ll be free to explore the interior in your own time. My highlights were the keepers’ room and the view from the light tower at the top.

12. New London Mural Walk

New London Mural WalkSource: photo by Marc Zimmer / facebook
New London Mural Walk

I reckon 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. It’s also a great way to get better acquainted with the city.

When I was in town 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. There are shops, galleries, and an eclectic choice of restaurants to sidetrack you as you go.

13. Whaling Wall

Whaling WallSource: photo by Marc Zimmer / facebook
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. At that time it was second only to New Bedford in America, of Melville fame.

The primary species hunted was the sperm whale. This was the species chosen by Wyland for his monumental painting, more than 160 feet long and 40 feet high.

14. Connecticut College Arboretum

Connecticut College ArboretumSource: Julie Raccuglia / Flickr
Connecticut College Arboretum

Set in 750 acres, the Connecticut College Arboretum was first planted in 1931, and comprises the verdant campus. Growing here are 223 taxa of trees and shrubs, including Chinese witch hazel and a Japanese pagoda tree.

Elsewhere there are beautiful managed landscapes to explore. I was smitten with the Caroline Black Garden, growing mature trees, shrubs and grasses from across the globe. Among them are some 190 woody taxa, like sourwood, Japanese stewartia, weeping cherry and many more.

The 3,000-square-foot greenhouse holds tropical and desert plants, while you can get to know the species local to this region in the Native Plant Collection. This is set 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

United States Coast Guard MuseumSource: National Coast Guard Museum Association / facebook
United States Coast Guard Museum

New London is the home of the United States Coast Guard Academy. This institution 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. 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. 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.

I was fascinated to find out more about the Revenue Cutters of those early days. They were responsible for enforcing tariffs, combating piracy, rescuing mariners in distress, and even serving as a makeshift navy.

To see the museum, American visitors will need a government-issued photo ID. Meanwhile people from overseas will need to get in touch with the curator.

15 Best Things to Do in New London (CT):

  • Ocean Beach Park
  • Cross Sound Ferry Lighthouse Tours
  • Fort Trumbull State Park
  • New London Waterfront District
  • Lyman Allyn Art Museum
  • Garde Arts Center
  • Submarine Force Library & Museum
  • Custom House Maritime Museum
  • Block Island Express Ferry
  • Hempsted Houses
  • New London Ledge Light
  • New London Mural Walk
  • Whaling Wall
  • Connecticut College Arboretum
  • United States Coast Guard Museum