Limiting New London, CT to ten top things to do is rather hard in this town known for its history, arts, and scenery. New London is one of the earliest English settlements in Connecticut, being established in 1649. New London was long considered to have the best deep water port on Long Island Sound, therefore, having Naval and Coast Guard bases up to the present day. New London was the home of famed playwright Eugene O’Neill and has sizeable art offerings including the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the Garde Arts Center, the Hygienic Museum, and more. New London is also the home of one of the top colleges in the United States, Connecticut College. Keeping all this in mind, let’s look at some of the best offerings for things to visit and do in New London.
The Lyman Allyn Art Museum
The Lyman Allyn Art Museum is housed in an impressive building that was commissioned by Harriet Upson Allyn in memory of her father Lyman who was a prominent shipping merchant in the area. The museum houses many paintings from the Hudson River School who were a group of American landscape painters in the early 19th century. Their scenic canvases depicting certain vistas of the Hudson River Valley are incredibly awe-inspiring and fantastic. This truly American aspect of art is housed at Lyman Allyn as well as other paintings and art including an impressive collection of American 18th-century silver and furniture. Winslow Ames was the famed curator of the museum for many years and he amassed an impressive collection of paintings and other works whose focus was largely the 16th through 19th centuries in European and American art. Included in your visit, one should stop by the Deshon-Allyn House, a historical home located on the museum’s site built in Federal style and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Connecticut College Arboretum
Located next to the Lyman Allyn Museum on Route 32 is Connecticut College which houses the Connecticut College Arboretum. Founded in 1931, the Arboretum hosts several different horticultural collections including the Native Plant Collection, the oldest collection that displays plants, trees, and shrubs native to Northeastern North America and the Connecticut Shoreline; the Caroline Black Garden which contains a collection of plants, trees, shrubs and other flora from around the globe; the Lincoln and Lillian Dauby Gries Conifer Collection which displays local trees and shrubs; the Nancy Moss Fine Native Azalea Garden which contains several species of natural and hybrid flowers, and more. The Arboretum runs guided tours of several of the collections. Additionally, the Arboretum holds an Arbo-Fest twice a year in the spring and fall which includes music.
Ocean Beach Park
Ocean Beach Park is an excursion-for-all founded in 1940 after the hurricane of 1938 devastated New London’s beaches and buildings along the shore. The Park has a half-mile beach with a host of attractions for people of all ages. There is a nature trail to hike, an enclave of old-time amusement rides, an arcade where you can win prizes, an Olympic-sized pool, a mini-golf course, a snack area, a gift shop, and more. Ocean Beach is a fabulous venue for weddings and has seasonal evening time entertainment.
New London Maritime Museum
The New London Maritime Museum is a must to visit in the New London area. The Maritime Museum supervises the New London Ledge and Harbor Light lighthouses as well as the Ship Amistad and the New London Custom House. The Museum hosts tours including boat trips of the lighthouses. The New London Harbor Light is walkable or can be viewed on a boat tour. It is one of the nation’s oldest lighthouses and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The New London Ledge Light must be visited by boat and is famous for its fancy brick Federalist structure. It is also on the National Register of Historic places and is reputed to be haunted by one of its early lighthouse keepers.
The New London Maritime Museum also maintains the Ship Amistad and the New London Custom House. The Amistad was a Spanish ship that had captured then illegally sold Africans as slaves in Cuba. The Africans revolted at sea and tried to have some of the crewmen steer them back to Africa. Instead, the crewmen steered the boat up the Atlantic where it was seized in Long Island and brought to New Haven. The leaders of the revolt were imprisoned and tried in Connecticut, with the court finding the defendants being unlawfully seized by the Spaniards and therefore allowed to return to their homeland. The Amistad is a re-creation of the original boat. It was constructed in Mystic Connecticut and is available for touring.
The Maritime Museum also operates the New London Custom House which is open all year round. The Custom House was built in 1833. The impressive building was designed by Robert Mills, the architect of the Washington Monument. By the 1970s the building had fallen into disrepair and was a possible candidate for demolition. A committee was formed to save, restore and preserve the Custom House and in 1983 the New London Maritime Society was formed with the purpose of preserving the Custom House as a museum. The Museum is an impressive Federal Style building that houses many artifacts of the maritime history of the area. The museum is unique in that it hosts craftspeople and speakers who recreate certain aspects of the times like boat making, working on a tugboat, women of the sea, and other parts of life along the shore.
The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center is actually located in two places. The O’Neill theater is located in Waterford and was established in 1964 to honor New London local O’Neill who not only won four Pulitzer Prizes but is the only American playwright to win the Nobel Prize in literature. The O’Neill Center Theater in Waterford also helps emerging artists hone their craft and present their works to a discerning audience before launching their play/work into the greater world. The staff and students of the O’Neill have taken home every major award in the theater and were honored by President Obama with a National Medal of the Arts in 2016.
Up the road from the O’Neill Center and located in New London is Monte Cristo Cottage, Eugene O’Neill’s boyhood home. The 1840s cottage has been upgraded from a cottage to a large stately home over the years and is the setting for two of his greatest plays, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Ah, Wilderness!. The cottage has been lovingly restored to the splendor of O’Neill’s boyhood and exhibits his life and works including many items from his family and the era. A great painstaking effort has been taken to recreate the “experience” of O’Neill’s world and to pass that on to the tourist audience.
Ye Antientist Burial Ground
Old cemetery enthusiasts and amateur historians will be excited to visit Ye Antientist Burial Ground. The burial ground is one of the oldest in the country as well as one of the oldest in New England and New London Country. Antientist was originally the burial ground for a meeting house, as was the custom in much of New England. The lot was established as a graveyard in 1645 and its first adult was buried there in 1652. The graveyard was a common burial place – at the time private cemeteries were almost not heard of. Most early graves here had no markers – stone cutters became more common in the earlier 1700s. Any stone with death dates from the 1600s are surely post 1720 when stone cutters became more common. One can see early tombstones from the 1700s at Antientist and see the evolution of themes and materials of the stones. Several notable people have been interred at Antietist including Gov. Gurdon Saltonstall of Connecticut and Lucretia Harris Shaw who nursed American soldiers back to health while using her home for a hospital during the American Revolution.
Fort Trumbull is a fort and 16-acre park at the intersection of the Thames River and Long Island Sound in New London. The current fort dates from around 1952 although the original fort was built in 1777. Since 1996 the Fort has been a state park where one can tour the fort as well as spend a day relaxing at the park, which hosts special events from time to time. Next to the park is the New London Coast Guard Station, which houses reservists and auxiliaries that patrol the coast.
The United States Coast Guard Academy (with Museum)
The United States Coast Guard Academy, founded in 1876, is the smallest of the five U.S service academies. It is the only academy that does not require a congressional nomination for admittance. The academy functions like other service academies and somewhat like four-year colleges in that it offers several programs which conclude with successful completion of a Bachelor of Science for the cadets. The Coast Guard dates back to 1790, therefore it has a rich history that merits a rich repository of artifacts. Within the academy’s campus is the Coast Guard Museum that hosts a vast collection of uniforms, equipment, artifacts, and other memorabilia from the 1790s on.
The Garde Arts Center
Southeastern Connecticut’s non-profit home for the performing arts, cinema, and education, the Garde Arts Center was founded in 1985 to save, restore and operate in the heart of downtown New London the historic (1926) Garde Theater and Building as a regional cultural gathering place and economic catalyst. Check out their event line-up to grab some tickets for an upcoming show!
With a building history dating back to 1844, the Hygienic Arts Foundation sponsors local artists and hosts events for a wide variety of causes and interests. The Hygienic showcases local artists with periodic exhibitions hosts an annual Salon Des Independants where amateur artists can display one of their pieces and sponsors an artist’s co-operative where up and coming artists can study and display their work while living in a subsidized community where they can share ideas with other co-op artists and participate in working with the public in arts education. Children’s programs including the Artists’ Academy Jr. and Do the Write Thing foster the talents of local children in the arts and writing with workshops and classes. The Hygienic also has special events including music, art shows, lectures, readings, and other creative endeavors for the enjoyment, education, and enrichment of the surrounding community. There is more. The Hygienic Museum and Gallery is a highlight of the New London social scene and a critical component of the New London renaissance.
New London has far more than this including the Garde Arts Center, the Flock Theater, the Thames River Heritage Park, ferries to Block Island, and on. New London is a scenic, cultural and historical treasure trove that should be on everyone’s tourist visit to Connecticut and its shoreline.