If 2020 (and 2021 so far) has been good for anything, it’s been the reminder to appreciate very local travel. Recently I’ve spent less time exploring other states and more time looking at the familiar streets of my own city than I ever have in all my adult life. Fortunately, my local streets are pretty cool. And if you’ve never spent much time in New London, where I live, I want to share those streets with you.
New London is a pocket-sized city (less than 6 square miles) built around a deep-water harbor where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound. From a coast of white sand, dark rocks, and railroad tracks, its narrow streets climb upward and bend into odd configurations where mismatched buildings coexist in an eclectic mix of styles. It has been home to Pequots and Puritans, daring revolutionaries and world-traveling whalers, shipbuilders, sailors, writers, eccentrics, and immigrants from everywhere. It has been burned down by one of the nation’s most notorious traitors and washed out by one of its worst hurricanes, devastated by change and rebuilt every time.
What first drew me in was that the city simply looked interesting, a mishmash of nautical and gritty and artsy, deeply historic yet distinctly different from every other old seaport town on the New England coast. What kept me here was the essence of the city, the way New London’s fascinating past combined with the stubborn resilience of its present to create an atmosphere that tethered me to the place, as if with a long stretchy rope.
It’s a fitting home for someone who constantly craves new locations, as it’s an old city that always feels new, and a small city that always keeps an undiscovered street or surprising edifice hidden beneath its tattered sleeve. As a destination, it is drastically underappreciated, perhaps the result of being a transit hub, where many stop to hop on a train or bus or boat, but few linger.
So when I realized I’d written a post about my favorite things in Hartford, another Connecticut city I’ve lived in (and still love), I figured I owed my current city some attention too.
The following suggestions are not, by any stretch, the only worthy sights in New London. They are simply some of my favorites, the attractions I always recommend to visitors, and the places I return to when I want to re-immerse myself in my city.
New London’s downtown is a compact and colorful area where a hodgepodge of historic buildings are (mostly) occupied by cultural institutions, galleries, independent stores, restaurants, coffee shops, and bars. Its unique appearance comes partly from the blending of its maritime heritage with its modern creativity, and partly from a Revolutionary War attack that remains one of the most defining events in the city’s history. When the traitor Benedict Arnold burned New London in 1781, few downtown buildings were left standing. Therefore, the structures you see today, while venerable (the oldest extant buildings date from the late 18th century), do not have the typical look you’d expect of a New England coastal town founded in 1646.
While downtown New London is designated a historic district (it’s called the Downtown New London Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, and the New London Historic Waterfront District for tourism purposes), for this post, I’m not including it in Historic Sites & Historic Districts (see below.) That’s because it has so much going on that most visitors will see it as a destination or activity in itself.
There are many ways to explore downtown. Because it’s such a walkable area, the easiest is just to wander on your own. Start at the Parade Plaza, the large public space at the foot of State Street facing New London Union Station, which was built in 1887 and designed by Henry Hobson Richardson. Here you’ll find the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, a granite obelisk dedicated to local veterans of the Civil War; the Whale Tail fountain, a work of public art which pays lighthearted homage to New London’s days as the second-largest whaling port in the country; and the Nathan Hale Schoolhouse (see Historic Sites & Historic Districts, below.) The Parade is also a good spot for a socially-distanced meal or coffee, purchased from one of the area’s many eateries.
Then stroll along Bank Street (between, roughly, Brewer Street and State Street) or up the hill of State Street until it ends at Huntington Street. Smaller cross-streets like Washington, Union, Golden, and Green Streets, and the other short blocks within the nub of the city that points into the Thames, are full of artistic and architectural interest. If you like historic trivia, look out for the sidewalk plaques of the Historic Waterfront District Heritage Trail, which tell the stories of 30 buildings throughout the district. If you prefer art, take yourself on a scavenger hunt of New London’s many murals (see Museums & Art, below.)
And while you’re downtown, don’t miss New London’s riverfront (see Beaches & Parks, below.) Even if you skip the beach and other coastal attractions, this is an accessible way to experience the watery side of the city whose motto is Mare Liberum, i.e., Freedom of the Seas.
Museums & Art
New London Mural Walk It’s impossible to miss the murals adorning the walls of New London’s downtown buildings, the largest such collection in New England. Officially called Wall to Wall, this outdoor art exhibit includes two dozen paintings, a few highlights being The Great Sperm Whales by Wyland (on Eugene O’Neill Drive), a row of caryatids on the wall of Hygienic Art (on Bank Street), the WPA-era whaling-themed artwork inside the New London Post Office, and the splashy Sol LeWitt lobby at the Crocker House on State Street. Use a map to navigate, or just keep your eyes open as you walk.
Lyman Allyn Art Museum A manageably small art museum with surprisingly wide-ranging permanent and changing exhibitions, the Lyman Allyn is housed in a Neoclassical building on a hill and surrounded by park-like grounds. Though the museum focuses primarily on American art and furnishings representing three centuries of local and national history, its collections also include art from other eras and other parts of the world.
Custom House Maritime Museum Located, fittingly, inside the oldest continuously operating Custom House in America, this museum is dedicated to New London’s seafaring history and its current role as a modern seaport city. The New London Maritime Society, which runs the museum, also owns three of the area’s lighthouses (see Historic Sites & Historic Districts, below.) Even if you don’t go into the museum, stop in front of it to read the plaque about the Custom House and the Amistad, and walk around the back of the building to see a few more locally-themed artworks.
Beaches & Parks
Ocean Beach Park Perhaps New London’s most popular summertime attraction, Ocean Beach Park is even better in the fall, winter, or spring. Part Coney Island-lite and part wild coast, the park has a wide wooden boardwalk, white “sugar sand” beach, and hidden pockets of nature that feel far away from the colorful playground, pool, and mini-golf course. The boardwalk, along a half-mile of coastline, is ideal for an off-season walk with views of the New London Ledge Light (see Historic Sites & Historic Districts, below) and passing ferries. Continue along the short trail that runs past Alewife Cove to a secluded stretch of beach, where a raised platform overlooks the calmer estuary.
New London Waterfront Park It’s not a park in the green and leafy sense, but thanks to the calming effect of the water below, this strip of downtown riverfront is just as peaceful. Located between Bank Street and the Thames, it’s accessible from State Street (on foot) or the Bank Street Connector (on foot or by car.) The park consists of four piers (City Pier, Customs House Pier, Discovery Pier, and Amistad Pier) linked by about a third of a mile of paved walkway. Though it’s physically almost cut off from the nearby commercial streets, there’s always a lot going on along this stretch of waterfront, whether that’s a special event, a noteworthy ship or two at the docks, or just the movement of flocks of seagulls perched atop the pilings. Even in the coldest weather, locals park their cars here to watch the water as the boats go by.
Fort Trumbull State Park This historic site and state park is an integral part of the city, and has been since its construction centuries ago. Come to see the striking architecture of the fort or to learn about New London’s past; stay to walk on the paved paths, linger on the fishing pier, or relax on a bench overlooking the river. For more information, read my previous post about Fort Trumbull and other historic Connecticut forts.
Connecticut College Arboretum To get away from the city without really leaving it at all, lose yourself in the 750+ acres of native plants, trees, and gardens that make up the Connecticut College Arboretum. Whether you follow the looping trail past the highlights, or just wander where you please, the arboretum is a peaceful respite in any season. For details, read my previous post about the Connecticut College Arboretum.
Historic Sites & Historic Districts
Ye Antientist Burial Ground On a quiet hill overlooking the city (where Benedict Arnold is said to have stood to watch New London burn), a massive copper beech watches over one of the region’s oldest cemeteries. The grave markers here date from the mid-17th century, reminders of the lives and deaths of a cross-section of early New London residents. They range from humble slabs to stone tables. Enter through the gate on Hempstead Street near Granite Street to read the inscriptions beneath the carved soul effigies that seem to watch you as you pass.
Ye Old Town Mill John Winthrop, Jr., procurer of Connecticut’s Royal Charter, governor of Connecticut, and founder of New London, first built a mill on this site in 1650. That structure was destroyed in 1781 (are you sick of Benedict Arnold yet?) and rebuilt soon after. Today, the humble building, with its gambrel roof and waterwheel, is nearly hidden in the shadows of the modern buildings across the street and the highway bridge above. The mill is open only rarely for public events, but the grounds are always worth a stop to see a little piece of Old New London that’s managed to withstand many upheavals around it. (To get there, park on State Pier Road and walk to Mill Street.)
Hempsted Houses Two very different-looking houses on Hempstead Street, built in 1678 and 1759, were home to the Hempsted family for over 250 years. (Yes, the family name is spelled differently than the street name.) The property, now owned by by Connecticut Landmarks, is a museum with a particular focus on slavery in Connecticut. Even if you’re not taking a tour or attending an event here, it’s worth swinging by to get a look at the exterior of these unique homes that survived the Burning of New London. (To really get a sense of the city in Colonial days, read Joshua Hempsted’s diaries of the family’s daily life.)
Starr Street The first historic district in New London to be preserved and restored in the 1970s, Starr Street remains one of the prettiest streets in the city. It’s just one block long, but pastel houses with Greek Revival details and off-kilter brick sidewalks give it a special sweetness. A fun fact to think of when you go: Starr Street’s history goes back further than the 1830s-40s dates on these homes; before that, it was a rope walk, where lengths of fibers were laid out and twisted together to make ropes for ships.
Oil Mill Row These four nearly-identical Greek Revival houses (now offices) stand side by side on Huntington Street just north of downtown. They were built between 1835 and 1845 for prosperous men whose wealth derived from whaling. Many impressive New London buildings from this time have similar ties to the whaling industry, but this row of white-columned homes is particularly striking. If you squint, you can almost imagine the city at the height of the whale-hunting era.
New London County Courthouse The large Georgian building at Huntington Street and State Street is the oldest courthouse in the state and one of the oldest continually used courthouses in the county. Designed by Isaac Fitch, it was built in 1784 (an earlier courthouse had been destroyed in the 1781 raid.) The location at the top of the hill was selected to symbolize the supremacy of the law. Over the years, the building has served many purposes: in addition to being a courthouse, it’s served as city hall, yellow fever hospital, and venue for abolitionist meetings, among others.
Nathan Hale Schoolhouse The one-room school where Connecticut’s State Hero taught before enlisting to fight (and spy on) the British has served different needs and had several locations since its school days. For a while, it was a private home; at another time, it was installed at Ye Antientist Burial Ground as a sort of tourist attraction. It now stands on the Parade Plaza, a diminutive reminder of 1776 between a sturdy office building and a multi-level parking garage.
Lighthouses New London is home to two lighthouses: the classic octagonal New London Harbor Light and the fanciful French Second Empire-style New London Ledge Light. The former is clearly visible from many vantage points along Pequot Avenue, and though it’s on private property, anyone can pass by on the sidewalk and get a good look. The latter sits out in the water, looking like an ornate red house deposited amidst the waves. The New London Maritime Society (see Museums & Art, above) offers occasional tours, and Cross Sound Ferry runs a Lighthouse Cruise which I highly recommend as a way to see these and many more of the region’s lighthouses. (Cruises were suspended at the time of this writing; check their website for updated information.)
Pequot Colony Historic District Today, it blends into a larger residential neighborhood with a slow, beachy feel, but this puzzle-piece-shaped bit of New London retains the memory of a long-lost era. From the 1850s to the 1930s, the Pequot Colony was a summer resort for the very rich and very connected, who flocked to large hotels, rental cottages, and private clubs. Many of these early buildings are lost now. But some, like the Gothic Revival Pequot Chapel on Montauk Avenue, the surviving stable of the erstwhile Montauk Hotel on Lower Boulevard, and the impressive year-round residences that began to spring up as the summer colony grew, still stand. Bordered roughly by Pequot, Montauk, Glenwood, and Gardner Avenues, the district is perfect for strolling. A favorite scenic walk for locals is to follow Pequot Avenue along the waterfront, a route that can easily include more of the Pequot Colony.
Shaw Mansion On Blinman Street, just at the edge of downtown, stands a granite house built by Captain Nathaniel Shaw in 1756. It’s now the home of the New London County Historical Society, but it was once the headquarters of Connecticut’s navy (why yes, George Washington did sleep here) and the base for New London’s famed privateers, who helped earn the city a reputation as a hotbed of Revolutionary fervor. Look out for the iron try-pot, used aboard a whale-ship to turn blubber to oil, in the yard beside the building, and the gazebo-like “Summer House” in the back garden.
Whales Everywhere New London’s nickname is the Whaling City, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that once you start looking for whales, you’ll see them everywhere. The most obvious, aside from the Whale Tail sculpture and Wyland’s whale mural (see Downtown and Museums & Art above), are the Whale Plaques affixed to historic buildings all over the city. Any house or business more than 50 years can get a plaque, but most adorn properties much older than that. Seeing the names of the people who built these places – even ones that don’t necessarily scream “historic!” at first glance – is a daily reminder of the city’s past.
The whale motif continues with subtle whale tails on the pavement near the waterfront, whale shapes carved into on the boardwalk at Ocean Beach Park, whale-themed artwork on the low wall across from the homes of Whale Oil Row, and more. Keep your eyes open, and you’ll be sure to spot some.
The Little Pink House As you might deduce from the frequent nods to Benedict Arnold and other forces of destruction, New London is not a city to shy away from its less savory historical moments. This extends to more recent happenings too, and if you associate New London with Kelo, you might be intrigued to know that the famous Little Pink House was not destroyed following the infamous Supreme Court ruling. Instead, it was saved by a local preservationist and moved to 36 Franklin Street, where it stands as a reminder of the perils of eminent domain.
Surprising Statues Four statues in somewhat improbable surroundings always make me smile when I encounter them around the city.
At the triangle of open space where Hempstead Street and Bulkeley Place meet stands John Winthrop, Jr., a surprisingly interesting guy who looks, in this bronze representation at least, like the stodgiest of Puritans from a Thanksgiving coloring book. One wonders what he’d think of the city surrounding him now.
A newer addition to New London is the statue of Athena, in her role as protector of cities, standing in the large parking lot at Pearl Street and Eugene O’Neill Drive.
Another sculpted lady basks in the sun (or snow, depending) in front of the New London Day building on Eugene O’Neill Drive near State Street. It’s called “Reyna,” and the model was a local woman.
Finally, near City Pier and the Fishers Island Ferry Terminal, you can find a small statue of young Eugene O’Neill, seated on a rock and writing in a notebook. He’s also peering from the “window” of the 1893 trolley station turned tourist information booth, at Golden Street and Eugene O’Neill Drive.
The Edges of the City They’re not postcard-pretty, but some of the most interesting parts of New London, to me – and likely to other travelers who enjoy urban exploration – are its rough edges, where the waterfront hasn’t been polished to a tourist-friendly shine. Walk along South Water Street, between the backs of Bank Street businesses and the railroad tracks and waterfront. Turn off Howard Street down Hamilton Street, past old brick factory buildings and along the docks of Shaw Cove. On the way to Fort Trumbull (see Beaches & Parks, above), turn down Goshen Street and continue until the road runs out at Coits Cove and the Thames. Or look for your own unexpected urban vantage point.