By a natural harbor on the South Shore, Plymouth is the place where the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower in 1620.
You can grapple with this world-changing history at a multitude of attractions and landmarks, from living history at Plimoth Patuxet to the exceptional Pilgrim Hall Museum, where the personal possessions of several Pilgrims have been preserved.
In “America’s Hometown” you’ll get a clear picture of who the Pilgrims were, how they lived and what they stood for, while understanding the Native American Wampanoag tribe, on whose assistance the early colonists depended.
As well as that momentous history, Plymouth has many of the things that you want from a New England coastal town, like a pretty downtown area, marvelous ocean views and inviting beaches.
1. Pilgrim Hall Museum
A trove of Pilgrim artifacts, the Pilgrim Hall Museum is the oldest continuously operating public museum in the United States.
Opened in 1824 and with a solemn Green Revival main building composed of Quincy granite, this attraction is the logical starting point in Plymouth.
There’s an unparalleled amount of contemporaneous Pilgrim items to uncover here, helping you get a sense of the crossing and life in the early colony.
Among the most important pieces are the turned chair of the colony’s spiritual leader, William Brewster, a bible belonging to governor William Bradford and a cradle brought by Mayflower passenger and expectant mother Susanna White.
Also remarkable is a painting of Edward Winslow from 1651, the only surviving portrait of a Pilgrim painted from life. Central to the exhibit is the story of the Wampanoag, the indigenous people who were here for millennia before the Mayflower arrived, and present today.
2. Plimoth Patuxet
There’s a cluster of living history museums around Plymouth, under the umbrella, Plimoth Patuxet.
The main location is in the east of the town by the Eel River, where you can visit the recreated 17th-century English Village, as well as Historic Patuxet, a settlement for the Wampanoag tribe.
The English Village recalls life in early Plymouth, featuring timber-framed homes, kitchen gardens and faithful reproductions of everyday objects from the periods.
Dedicated costumed reenactors open a window on the period, while interpreters are available to give you extra context.
At Historic Patuxet you can visit a wetu to understand the domestic and family lives in Wampanoag communities.
Outside you might see a craftsperson working on a mishoon (traditional canoe), while there’s often a dish being made in the cooking area, and a range of crops like squash, corn and beans growing in the garden.
3. The Plimoth Grist Mill
Also part of the Plimoth Patuxet Museums is a detailed and working reconstruction of the water-powered mill built on Town Brook by the Plymouth Colonists in 1636.
Run by John Jenney (1596-1644), this transformed life in Plymouth, automating a manual corn-grinding process that had been taught by the native Wampanoag.
Completed in 1970, the Plimoth Grist Mill is on the same site as the original mill (burned in 1837), and incorporates many historic elements, including millstones dating back 200 years, salvaged from a site in Pennsylvania.
A visit is educational, as you’ll get to know every step of the 17th-century corn milling process, with friendly staff explaining their jobs as they carry them out.
4. Plymouth Center
One of the most rewarding things to do in Plymouth is to do some exploring under your own steam, casting your gaze out over the Plymouth Bay and navigating the town’s historic streets.
And no street is more historic than Leyden Street, the first street plotted in Plymouth in 1620, and the oldest continuously inhabited street in the thirteen colonies.
This carries you up the slope to the Town Square, where the First Parish Church at the base of Burial Hill is a continuation of the original Pilgrim Church four centuries ago.
In the other direction, near the foot of Leyden Street is Cole’s Hill, site of the first cemetery for the Mayflower Pilgrims, now a public park littered with interesting monuments, overlooking the bay.
5. National Monument to the Forefathers
Commanding Plymouth from the southwest is the massive National Monument to the Forefathers.
At 81 feet tall, this is believed to be the largest solid granite monument in the country, and pays tribute to the ideals of the Pilgrims, as understood in the 19th century.
Represented by allegorical sculptures are the virtues Education, Law, Liberty and Morality, while rising from the very center is Faith, with her right hand pointing toward heaven.
The monument was first conceived in 1820 and was a long-term undertaking, completed in 1888 and dedicated in 1889. Get up close to see the list of the 51 people who came over on the Mayflower on the right and left panels.
6. Brewster Gardens
Flanking Town Brook in Plymouth Center is a sweet public park on what was the original garden plot granted to Elder William Brewster (1566–67-1644), the community leader.
This was a logical place for the Pilgrims to settle, thanks to the abundant freshwater and grasses along the banks providing building material.
You can keep this in mind as you wander the brookside nature trail through Brewster Gardens, leading from the mouth at Water St, upstream to the Plimoth Grist Mill.
The park was laid out in the 1920s and has an assortment of monuments to browse. One is the iconic Pilgrim Maiden Statue (1922) by Henry Hudson Kitson, dedicated to the intrepid spirit of the immigrant women.
7. Burial Hill
Any walking tour in Plymouth has to include the sharp climb to this early cemetery, with a stirring panorama of the coastline and townscape.
Given its prominence this hilltop was initially used as a fort, which also served as a meeting house and parish church. The burying ground was established here sometime during the 1620s, and the exact date is difficult to pinpoint as the first burials used wooden markers.
The earliest stone marker here dates to 1681 (Edward Gray), and you can track down the graves of several Mayflower passengers.
Part of the experience at Burial Hill is appreciating the early stone markers from the 17th and 18th century, considered invaluable works of early Euro American folk art.
8. Plymouth Rock
Along with the National Monument to the Forefathers the other element of the Pilgrim Memorial State Park is the glacial erratic boulder in the harbor, integral to the mythology of the Mayflower.
This rock is held as the disembarkation point of William Bradford and the Mayflower passengers—based on the recollection of one Thomas Faunce, son of an early colonist.
According to Faunce, several original Mayflower passengers told him this was the exact spot. He made that claim in 1741 at the age of 94, 121 years after the landing.
So whether you want to take it all with a pinch of salt, there’s no denying that the rock is imbued with a certain symbolism.
The boulder sits under a Doric portico, and you can make out the scar caused in 1774 when the town broke the rock into two, with one piece relocated to Town Square. After moving to Pilgrim Hall in 1834, this was finally reunited with the rest of the rock in 1880.
9. Mayflower II
In the mid-1950s an exact replica of the Mayflower was constructed as a tribute to the cooperation between the United Kingdom and the United States during WWII.
Using reconstructed blueprints, the project involved manual construction by English shipwrights, setting sail from Plymouth, Devon in April 1957 and arriving in Plymouth, Massachusetts two months later.
When we wrote this article, Mayflower II was berthed at State Pier in Pilgrim Memorial State Park, and visitable as a museum ship.
The four-masted vessel is 106 feet long and 25 feet wide, and you may wonder just how 102 people, including three pregnant women, endured a ten-week crossing in such a confined space.
10. The Jabez Howland House
A brief stroll along Sandwich St from Brewster Gardens will bring you to the only surviving house in Plymouth where Mayflower Pilgrims are known to have spent time.
This is the Jabez Howland House, built in 1667 by Jacob Mitchell, who was the son of Pilgrim Experience Mitchell.
The property was purchased by Jabez Howland, the son of Mayflower passengers John Howland and Elizabeth Tilley Howland, who remained here until 1680.
The house was a private residence until it was converted into a museum in 1912, and is endowed with period furniture and captivating 17th-century artifacts unearthed nearby at Rocky Nook in Kingston, MA.
11. Plymouth Long Beach
Near Plimoth Patuxet along Route 3A is the exit for the breathtaking barrier beach jutting out into Plymouth Bay for three miles.
Long Beach is patrolled by lifeguards May 28 through Labor Day, and if you come on a sunny day this could be the perfect break from Plymouth’s weighty historical pursuits.
Washed by knee-high waves (these can vary), the shore is mostly sandy, but also has some coarse gravel and a lot of large rocks, so water shoes will come in handy here.
Close to the exit sits Sandy’s, a hut serving South Shore favorites like lobster rolls, fried scallops and fried clams.
12. Nelson Memorial Beach Park
Arguably the best place in Plymouth just to stop and appreciate the ocean is this public park not far north of Plymouth Jetty.
The Nelson Memorial Beach Park has a small patch of coarse sandy shore, ideal for a walk or hanging out by the bay.
For kids the highlight has to be the state-of-the-art splash pad, installed in the 2010s and open throughout the summer.
There’s also a traditional playground, picnic tables, benches and a launch ramp for canoes and kayaks. Just behind is the North Plymouth Rail Trail, along a former branch of the Old Colony Railroad (1845), and continuing for 1.2 miles to the Cordage Park commercial area.
13. Plymouth Farmers’ Market
A fitting activity in a place like Plymouth is visiting a market where everything for sale is seasonal and locally sourced.
Outdoors on Thursday afternoons, mid-May through October, the Plymouth Farmers’ Market is held at Plimoth Patuxet and has an abundance of seasonal fresh produce, farm-raised meats, cheeses, honey, and delicious prepared foods.
Think wood oven pizza, homemade pies, artisanal toffee and frozen desserts made with seasonal produce.
There’s always live music while you shop, but also plenty of fun for children, with storytime via the Plymouth Public Library and face painting.
14. The Jenney Interpretive Center
On the other side of Town Brook from the Plimoth Grist Mill is The Jenney, which looks at the ongoing impact of the 51 Pilgrims on American life.
Inside you can pore over detailed exhibits studying the lives of the stories and beliefs of the people who arrived on the Mayflower, touching on topics like faith and family, but also slavery and abolition.
The Jenney is known for its interpretive walking tours, given by guides in period clothing. The most popular tour is a 90-minute walk around Plymouth, stopping at important locations like Plymouth Rock, Brewster Gardens and Plymouth Center, all colored with info about protagonists and important events some 400 years ago.
There’s also a guided walk for more context about the National Monument to the Forefathers.
15. Myles Standish State Forest
In Plymouth’s hinterland you can escape to an immense public recreation area, encompassing more than 12,000 acres of pitch pine and scrub oak forest.
Myles Standish State Forest is a water-rich landscape known for its ponds, with more than 20 ranging from 2 acres to 86 acres in size.
The forest’s four campgrounds are set on the banks of these water bodies, and swimming is available at College Pond in the summer months.
If you come with a bicycle, there are more than 15 miles of paved trails, with in-depth brochures and trail info available from Forest Headquarters by East Head Pond in Carver.
There’s also 13 miles of hiking trails and 35 miles of horse trails, with a designated horse camping area at Charge Pond.