New Bedford, a small city located in the southeastern part of Massachusetts (about an hour from Boston), is known as the whaling capital of the world, due to the protected deep water harbor of Buzzard’s Bay and ideal transportation routes. Indeed, New Bedford has a rich history in whaling, fishing, and commerce. At its peak in the mid 1850s, New Bedford employed over 300 ships and 10,000 fisherman.
My family recently took a weekend trip to visit the New Bedford area and were pleasantly surprised by the variety of family friendly activities, even in the “off” winter season. I started my research at DestinationNewBedford.org and found lots of helpful advice. I printed copies of the Kids Scavenger Hunt for my kids to complete while we were in town, although you can find copies at many local attractions.
Getting Around Town: Many of the streets were built in the mid 1800s, made of what looks like cobblestone (they're actually made of Belgian pavers known as "setts"). Wear sneakers so you have steady footing, and I’d bring the jogger stroller over an umbrella stroller. Many places do not have parking lots and there is limited street parking, especially during the spring and summer. Metered street parking is free on the weekends. Best bet is to park in either the Elm Street or Zeiterion PAC Parking Garages. Many popular museums, restaurants, and shops are located within a short walk.
My Family's Top Six Spots in New Bedford:
1. The Buzzard’s Bay Coalition Richard C. Wheeler Learning Center has a fun scavenger hunt which sends children exploring the exhibit and answering questions about nearby watersheds, salt marshes, and cranberry bogs. There’s a huge 3-D map in the middle of the room. Make sure to be on the lookout for often-hidden hermit crabs in tanks. Check their website for a variety of programming, ranging from story times to strolls, hikes, and walks at various nearby locations. Traveling with Kids: The center is free of charge and located in one, large room. It’s best suited for school age children who can read the displays and fill out the scavenger hunt. The center does allow strollers and toddlers might enjoy the freedom of running around without parents worrying about them getting into trouble. You won’t need more than an hour inside the center. There are no public restrooms, but if you ask, they’ll let you use the office restroom. There are limited parking spaces next to the center and on the adjacent streets. The center is closed on the weekends.
2. The New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center has interactive exhibits on sustainability, knot tieing, ice making tools, wheelhouse technology, and a dictionary of sailor names so you can give yourself a waterfront-worthy nickname. Make sure you dress the part in fisherman gear. Traveling with Kids: The Center suggests a donation per adult and is located on one floor. There is a scavenger hunt for children to complete and I’d plan on spending about an hour to see all exhibits. There are frequent craft projects, story times, and, on the day we visited, a discussion and lively sing-a-long about the Chesapeake Bay (thanks to the staff who taught my kids the verses to “Freezing My Butt off on Chesapeake Bay”- they sang it the whole way home!). There are public restrooms and a small parking lot next to the center. The center is open Thursday- Sunday.
3. Fort Taber Park is a 47 acre complex with a military museum, outdoor sculpture memorials to servicemen and women, large playground, picnic areas, bathhouses, a lawn for picnicking and outdoor concerts, and Fort Rodman, closed to the public. There’s also a pier for fishing and even better views of Buzzard’s Bay. There is a daily parking fee during peak season, but if you're going to visit the military museum, they'll give you a parking pass. If you prefer the sand, stop at East Beach, with plenty of public parking and a reasonable daily rate during peak season. You can also follow the designated bike and jogging paths if you need to get your steps in for the day. Fort Taber Park is about two miles from the main downtown harbor area. Harbor Walk is a paved, lighted trail that runs from the southern peninsula to the park. It sits atop an impressive hurricane barrier, offers beautiful views of Buzzard's Bay, and is pet friendly.
4. Buttonwood Park Zoo is a short, six minute drive from the New Bedford Harborfront. Open all year, they have hourly “zookeeper chats” and touch tanks. For a small space, Buttonwood has an impressive resident list: bison, whitetail deer, bald eagles, cougars, bobcats, otter, seals, black bears, and elephants to name a few. This spring, the zoo is opening Charlie’s Nature Play, a multi sensory, hands on environment for children. The Rainforests, Rivers and Reefs indoor exhibit gets you up close to many smaller birds and fish. Be sure to check out the carousel and be on the lookout for the train. The zoo also has tons of special programming, including story times, art classes, and the popular EggZOOberance to celebrate springtime. Traveling with Kids: Stroller are allowed or you can rent a pull wagon. There is a food court with plenty of tables, small menu of lunch items, and restrooms. You'll pass through a gift shop on your way out of the zoo. Buttonwood has reciprocity privileges for members of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
5. New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park is part of the National Park Service. Whenever we travel, my family always looks for sites (see all the reasons why we love the NPS here) and New Bedford Whaling did not disappoint. The Visitor Center, originally a bank, opened in 1996 as part of the Park system was recently renovated and expanded. Exhibits include a model of the Whaling Bark of 1850; flags used to identity shipowners; a 16 foot outline of a whale’s tail; a guessing game to determine the payoff for merchants, masters, chief mates, seaman; a 20 minute video on the underground railroad system and the whaling industry; and information about the site’s sister site, Inupiat Heritage Center, in Barrow, Alaska-yes, Alaska! There’s also a Kids’ Corner with coloring stations and a block table to recreate the New Bedford Harbor front. Throughout 2018, the Visitor Center is celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass (who escaped slavery in Maryland and fled to New Bedford where he secured his first job, earned money independently and started his family) with exhibits, lectures, and kids activities. Make sure to get your National Parks passport stamps- there are three- and ask for some cancelled stamps hidden behind the front desk. During peak season, the Visitor’s Center offers walking tours, as well as one hour harbor boat tours (for a fee). Throughout the downtown area, be on the lookout for 12 Wayside exhibits, detailing the history of New Bedford. Traveling with Kids: The Center is free, with limited street parking. Hours vary during the seasons, so check the website. Make sure kids pick up a Junior Ranger booklet to complete. Stroller are allowed, there are public restrooms, and there is an elevator for the few steps on the mainly one floor center down to the film viewing room and Kids’ Corner.
6. The New Bedford Whaling Museum was the highlight of our trip. Be sure to carve out an entire morning to explore the museum, Mariner’s Home and Seaman’s Bethel (both located across the cobblestone street from the museum). Bonus: Your admissions ticket is valid for two consecutive days, so you don’t have to rush. There are so many things to see and explore, I’ve devoted a whole post to the museum. Check it out here. Traveling with Kids: Check the website for dates and hours, which vary by season. Strollers are allowed but backpacks and packages must be locked in the free lockers in the lobby. There are plenty of restrooms. There is limited, two hour parking on the streets. Children will undoubtedly want to spend a lot of time in the Lagoda replica and the Casa dos Botes Discovery Center.
Bonus: If you find yourself with an extra day, consider taking a ferry to Martha's Vineyard (1 hour ride) or Nantucket (2 hour ride), two island located off Cape Cod. Check out schedules and rates here.
Eating with the Locals: There were too many local recommendations for us to visit in one weekend, but we did enjoy:
The Black Whale: Tons of seafood options, lots of gluten free choices, and a good kids menu.
DNB Burgers: There's a themed burger for every person (and some yummy options for non-burger lovers).
Freestones City Grill: Fun pub feel with an expansive menu and good options for kids (bonus: prepackaged Teddy Grahams for the ride home!)
Moby Dick Brewing Co: Craft breweries are here to stay and there are plenty of options to try at this restaurant.
Staying in the Harbor front: I’m a big fan of Marriott Hotels (read why here) and Marriott.com is always my first stop when booking accommodations. The Fairfield Inn and Suites in New Bedford just underwent a big renovation, is centrally located to just about every places we wanted to visit (had it not been raining heavily for part of our trip, we would have walked everywhere), and includes a nice breakfast in the morning.
Full Disclosure: I was given a press pass by Destination New Bedford to visit some of these sites. All opinions expressed are my own.