Mystic is a small town located in the most eastern part of Connecticut and is known for its historic seaport. Mystic is part of New London County, which includes other family friendly towns and cities ranging from New London to Groton to Niantic down to Old Lyme. The area becomes flooded with visitors in the spring and summer due to its close proximity to the Long Island Sound and Atlantic Ocean. However, there is plenty to do in the “off season” too: food festivals throughout the year, the famous Pirate Invasion in the fall, the arrival of Santa via tugboat and holidays strolls in December, and the popular Mystic Irish parade in March. Recently, my family spent a few days of our April break exploring the area. We had so much fun we could have extended our trip to a few weeks! Lucky for us, the area is less than 90 minutes away, so we can return for day trips any time we wish. Here are some of our favorite spots:
Twelve Family Friendly Spots in (or nearby) Mystic:
1. Mystic Seaport, the oldest maritime museum in the country, is one of the most popular destinations in the area. My family has so much fun exploring the recreated 18th century sea village, I devoted a full post to it. Read about our adventures here. There are over 60 different exhibits to see that will engage kids of all ages, and your admission ticket is good for two consecutive days, so you don't need to rush.
2. Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration has some of the most popular and unique sea creatures in the world, like beluga whales, Steller sea lions, and penguins. There are daily feeding demonstrations and many indoor and outdoor exhibits. Again, we spent so much time here, we devoted a whole post to the Aquarium. Read about our adventures here.
3. Coogan Farm is located on Greenmanville Avenue, between Mystic Village and the Seaport. There is a Welcome Center and Gift Shop; Giving Garden, which provides food for for the United Way; and the Art Barn, which hosts art classes. There is also a public park, with marked trails overlooking the Mystic River, which is free to hike and explore from dawn to dusk. You can take the 1.5 mile path to the Denison Nature Center.
4. Denison Pequotsepos (“Babbling Brook”) Nature Center, open year round, has a classroom filled with books and games; a museum dedicated to the woodland, wetland, and meadows with several interactive exhibits; and a lower level filled with turtles, frogs, and snakes native to the area; the Night in the Meadow Theater; a display of birds of prey; and drawers of skulls, skeletons, nests, and eggs. Outside there are six large shelters for owls, a Butterfly Garden, and a Forest Trail. Be careful on the trail, as there are lots of roots and uneven ground. For a full list of programs and special events (Earth Day Celebrations, Moon Walks, Forrest Yoga, and Fireside Stories sound especially fun!) check out their program list.
5. Clyde’s Cider Mill, open from late August through December, is the only steam powered cider mill in the country. Dating back to 1881, the mill offers demonstrations a few times each weekend day through November. There's also a store with homemade goods ranging from hard ciders, jams, and honey to pies, donuts, breads, and kettle corn. Don't miss the pumpkin patch and displays of gourds and Indian corn.
6. Denison Homestead, built in 1717, is laid out to portray life during five generations of Denison family members who lived in the home, ranging from 1730 to 1930. The museum is open from June to October on the weekend and offers hourly tours. The period furniture, clothing, housewares, toys, and other items are well within the grasp of little hands, and the tour navigates through two floors, so it’s better suited for older children. However, ALL ages will surely love the special events offered on the property throughout the spring, summer and fall; check the website. There’s a daffodil festival in the spring (they plant over 10,000 bulbs each fall), artist events in the summer, and war encampment reenactments and harvest festivals in the fall. Many weekends, the Homestead also offers open hearth cooking and loom weaving demonstration that are quite popular. If you’re in the area on Sundays (from June through October), be sure to visit the Farmer’s Market.
7. Stone Acres Farm is a 63 acre working farm in Stonington that dates back to the late 18th century. There is a popular CSA (community Sponsored Agriculture) summer share, the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center which features cooking class and workshops for children (check the schedule here), and two working greenhouses.
8. Stonington Borough is a quintessential New England village with lots of shops, restaurants and waterviews. The Old Lighthouse Museum dates back to 1840 and is open Thursday- Monday from May through October. You can climb to the top and view three states on the horizon. The Captain Palmer House and Museum is a Victorian mansion built in the 1850s and was the home to two sea captains. The property features a beautiful garden and cupola which offers great views of the harbor. Kids will like the collection of dollhouses and model ships. DuBois Beach (at the end of the peninsula) is a small inlet with calm water, perfect for the toddler set. There’s also a great playground located on Northwest Street, a short walk from the beach. Note: there are no public restrooms at the beach or playground. Check out the Dog Watch Cafe for good food and good views.
9. Ocean Beach Park in New London comes alive during the summer. There’s a board walk with an amusement park, three water slides, an arcade, an Olympic size pool, changing rooms, and a half mile of sugar sand beach. There's plenty of activities for younger children including a playground, sprinkler park, and miniature golf. There are four options for food at the park, ranging from a full service restaurant to take out counters and ice cream parlor. Visitors are welcome anytime and there is a good sized parking lot. There are a variety of fees for services, as well as promotional dates and times.
10. Groton Submarine Museum and HS Nautilus is a great way to learn about the history of submarines in the “Submarine Capital of the World.” You’ll need about 2 hours to tour the museum and explore the HS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine. The submarine was my children's favorite part, but it's best suited for children (and adults) who can maneuver in tight spaces. There are outdoor memorials and spots to picnic and enjoy the water views. Note that the complex is closed on Tuesday. You can read about our adventures visiting the museum and sub here.
11. Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park, the site of the largest Revolutionary War battle in Connecticut, has a museum and monument open to the public from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Make sure to check out the cell phone tour while exploring the grounds- just look for the posted signs with instructions and contact information. The grounds are open year round and there are areas for picnicking. There is no fee to explore the museum and monument.
12. Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut in nearby Niantic is the perfect spot for the six and under crowd. It’s a smaller museum (no need for a stroller) but offers many indoor exhibits, as well as an outdoor playscape and obstacle course. Older kids will like the five “clipboard challenge” scavenger hunts, working organ, Light Lab, and the various creation stations. Younger children will be drawn to the market, replica firehouse and lighthouse. There’s even Toddlerland, a special, padded, no shoes-allowed area for kids under four. There’s also a classroom for special programming and themed weeks with demonstrations and craft projects.
Eating with the Locals: There are dozens of restaurants located on or near the water in Mystic, Groton, Stonington, and Stonington Village. Over the years, we have visited several spots and my favorites include:
- Drawbridge Ice Cream is the spot for ice cream in Mystic. It's an easy walk from Red 36 or S&P and you can check out all of the local boutiques offering handmade clothing and home goods. Get the Mystic Mud or Seaport Salty Swirl ice cream.
- S&P Oyster Company has great seafood and great views of the drawbridge that will keep children entertained while they wait for food. They have very good options for non-seafood lovers here.
- Red 36 is located in the middle of the boatyard, leading to the perfect atmosphere with both enclosed and large outdoor patios. Go with the fish and chips or seared scallops- I can attest to both.
- Go Fish in the same parking lot as the aquarium and has a good children's menu- perfect for a post aquarium meal. It's a little fancier, but we felt very comfortable going for lunch with the kids.
- Alice in the Village is located in the same area as Go Fish and is an unique experience, with a perfectly themed tea room and proper tea menu. Note: I would recommend this experience (there is not a traditional menu or single item options) for older children who have a more sophisticated palate.
- Mystic Diner is bright and airy with tons of tables and space for the large weekend crowds. The service has been quick every time I have visited, and the menu is massive. It’s located right next to the interstate entrance and exit ramps, so easy to stop before hitting the road. I've gotten omelettes every time I have visited because I liked them that much.
Staying in the area: There is a bank of popular hotel chains within a half mile of the aquarium and within a mile of the Seaport. We chose to stay at the Residence Inn Mystic Groton (read all the reasons why I love staying at Marriott properties here) and had a good experience.
Disclosure: I was given a press pass to visit the Mystic Aquarium, Coogan Farm, Denison Homestead, Dension Pequotsepos Nature Center, and Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut.