One fact hit home when visiting Downtown New London’s Historic District on the Thames River waterfront just a salty breeze away from Long Island Sound on Connecticut’s southeastern shore. New London’s entire population is well under 30,000…pretty small compared to other CT coastal cities like Bridgeport and New Haven when exploring urban Connecticut. This town has commuter rail, regular ferry service, and an Amtrak Acela stop all within the District limits.
It all began in this once-upon-a-time whaling town back in 1646 thanks to John Winthrop, Jr.. Walking along State and Bank Streets takes you past remarkably well preserved 18th & 19th century buildings forming the bed rock of the district’s architectural ambiance. You still get the feeling that captain Ahab or a reasonable facsimile may be hanging out in Muddy Waters Cafe taking afternoon tea or comtemplatively smoking a pipe at City Pier. Where fishmongers and sailors once ruled the streets, the roughly 20 blocks comprising the District host a remarkable variety of activities that can easily occupy a week.
Where to Stay & Eat
The only hotel situated in New London’s Historic District is the Holiday Inn Express. This is surprising given the District’s numerous ornate yet solid brick buildings, some of which are notably empty on the upper floors. With an indoor swimming pool and onsite bar/restaurant, staying at the Holiday Inn Express gets your basics covered at a reasonable price. Rooms outfitted with the latest amenities make you feel like you’re situated in an oasis of modernity in an otherwise down-by the-wharfs seaport steeped in antiquity. Walk 2 blocks from the hotel entrance south on Gov Winthrop Boulevard to the ferry terminal where you can catch regular service to Long Island and Block Island. Directly across the Boulevard, head 1 block down Union St. to the vibrant Bank-State Street corridor.
Although the convenience of an onsite restaurant wherever you’re staying is always welcome, fully experiencing the local flavors means you have to dine wherever the everyday regulars congregate. I counted just one chain sandwich restaurant. All the rest are mom & pops each with a unique approach to cuisine and preparation. Having breakfast at Sweetie’s Bakery & Cafe is more like chowing down in a shotgun diner rather than a typical bakery. Breakfast here involves fresh baked muffins made from scratch and some of the hardiest breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever eaten held together by fresh baked breads. Dinner at Seehund German Restaurant & Pub is an excellent choice for freshly prepared German dishes like Saurbraten and Schnitzel made from Piedmontese beef accompanied by a wide array of German beers on tap. Onsite fair trade roasted coffees further down Bank St. at the Bean & Leaf await weary pavement pounding feet.
What to Do
To this day, New London’s naturally deep port accommodates tall ships of all kinds like the Charles W. Morgan, the last of an American whaling fleet once numbering more than 2,700 vessels built in 1841 and now America’s oldest commercial ship still afloat as well as the Amistad and the Virginia. The New London Maritime Society runs Sentinel on the Sound Lighthouse tours ranging from full moon lighthouse trips, Plum Island excursions requiring Federal clearance, to occasionally having the chance to climb up into a lighthouse lantern all within 2 hour trips from shore.
In addition to New London’s readily apparent maritime heritage, the arts have blossomed into quite the walkable artists’ enclave nourished in large part by Hygienic Art on Bank Street. It all started in 1979 when New London’s art community decided to model an art festival after the “Salon Des Independents,” Paris’ late 19th century art movement protesting aristocratic sensibilties by exhibiting their works in cafes located in the ‘seamy’ areas of the city. Now permanently housed in what was once a whaling company’s provisioning store and crews’ quarters, and then the town’s only 24-hour eatery 1919-1996, it was saved from wrecking ball by being listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Besides The Hygenic Art’s outdoor sculpture garden and daring exhibits within, you’ll discover outdoor murals painted by local artists on seemingly every building you look at especially on Eugene ONeil Drive and Green Street.
Look down for the 30 bronze plaques embedded in many of the sidewalks as you’re walking to add context to your adventures via New London’s Historic Waterfront District Heritage Trail. Commemorating landmarks ranging from Colonial to turn of the century, notable sites come alive like the home of Captain Bulkeley who sailed with American Naval hero John Paul Jones; Nathan Hale Schoolhouse; and the English medieval style Hempsted Houses framed by steeply pitched side gable roofs, a massive central chimney and diamond pane windows. The Shaw-Perkins Mansion built in 1756 boasts a rich history which began as a naval war office during the Revolutionary War, a Nathan Hale visit in 1775, and surviving Benedict Arnold’s 1781 burning of New London with only the kitchen being damaged. In addition to must-visit U.S. Custom House & Museum, Whale Oil Row, a collection of Greek Revival buildings built between 1835 and 1845 gives you an authentic glimpse into the grandeur of a whale oil baron’s abode.
Photos Courtesy of Steve Mirsky. Coverage made possible by participating in a partially sponsored trip.