New Bedford, the sixth largest city in Massachusetts located about an hour south of Boston, is known as the whaling capital of the world. At the height of the whaling industry in the mid 1850s, New Bedford employed over 10,000 sailors on over 300 ships. There’s no better place to learn about the history of the whaling industry than the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Housed in a building originally built as a bank in 1803, the space was converted into a museum in 1903. My family recently spent the weekend in New Bedford (you can read about all of our adventures here) and visiting the Whaling Museum was one of our trip highlights. Admission tickets to the museum are valid for two consecutive days, so you can take your time exploring.
Traveling with Kids: You’ll need a few hours to fully explore the museum, although children will want to linger mainly in the Lagoda replica and the Casa dos Botes Discovery Center. Strollers are allowed, there are elevators to get to the various floors, and restrooms are located throughout the museum. You cannot bring backpacks or packages in the museum; you’ll need to store them in complimentary lockers in the lobby. There is limited, two hour street parking; better bet is to park in either the Elm Street or Zeiterion PAC Parking Garages. Many other popular sites, restaurants, and shops are located within a short walk.
There are about 20 different exhibit galleries throughout the museum, but here are my family’s top 10 spots in the New Bedford Whaling Museum:
1. The right whale skeleton, a 49 foot, 15 year old female whale (yup, that's whale oil you smell!)
2. The Yankee Whaleboat, which was built to scale, shows how whales were tracked and hunted.
3. The display of items made from whale parts, which includes jewelry, oils, and various tools.
4. Lagoda, the largest ship model in the world, and it’s still only about half the size of the real Lagoda, a whaling ship built in Scituate, Massachusetts in the 1880s. Kids will LOVE steering the wheel, pulling the ropes, and going below deck to check out the captain's quarter. Kids also have the advantage here; parents should don a safety helmet and watch what’s over them.
5. Weapons that were used to hunt the whales and materials used to boil and break down the parts of a whale.
6. Harboring Hope in Old Dartmouth tests your ability to identify (by scent) various fish and whale oils (spoiler: they STINK!)
7. Energy and Enterprise depicts various industries in New Bedford, including the development of manufacturing centers as a result of the railroad and advances in transportation, and the use of coal to power the city.
8. The Scrimshaw Gallery displays the largest collection of scrimshaw, items that have been engraved and carved from whale bones, in the world!
9. Thou Shall Knot teaches you how to make various knots.
10. Casa dos Botes Discovery Center is a great space for kids of all ages. There is over 3,000 square feet of space to move, climb, explore, read, and color. Toddlers can roam safely and freely and older kids will be engaged. This would be the perfect spot to regularly meet for playdates with younger children- there's lots of space to move around, while under the watchful, nearby eye of parents.
Bonus: The upper level harbor view observation deck is a space usually used for functions, but there is a nice outdoor area with binoculars to check out views of the ports and piers.
There’s also a theater for presentations and movies, exhibits on decorative arts, and galleries of painting (but hold onto little ones here, as the painting are within arms’ reach).
Bonus: Admission tickets include admission to two building located directly across the street:
1. The Mariner’s House, home to leading whaling merchant William Rotch, Jr., has galleries with paintings and items from the mid 1800s.
2. The Seaman’s Bethel (Hebrew for “house” and “God”) is a church built in 1832, and is still used today for religious services. It was made famous by Herman Melville in his novel Moby Dick. The Whaleman’s Chapel is located on the second floor (check out the boat shaped pulpit).
Check online for hours for both locations, open year round with various hours. You can take a quick peek at both spots in a half hour. Strollers are allowed, there are elevators to the second floors, and there are public restrooms.