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Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to the best Mystic Seaport things to do. Mystic, Connecticut is one of the oldest and most charming places to visit in New England. And because of Mystic’s long history with the sea, there’s no better attraction in Mystic than the Mystic Seaport. No trip to Mystic is complete without a search for the best Mystic Seaport Things to Do, no matter how much of a landlubber you are.
But we can do so much more with 24 hours in Mystic than just find the best Mystic Seaport Things to Do. We will also head out on the open waters in a Very Special Boat, eat the best seafood that the Connecticut coast has to offer, and even climb into a grave at night. Sound intriguing? I hope so, Internet Stranger! Unless your Saturday evening usually includes climbing into graves at night, in which case I think we should be better friends.
Mystic Seaport Things to Do
Morning: Where to Stay?
When you’re spending at least 24 hours with the best Mystic Seaport Things to Do, you’re going to want to stay in a hotel with a central location. This can either mean walking distance from the Mystic Seaport or walking distance from the Mystic Aquarium. I recommend the Mystic Hilton because, despite the name, it was one of the more affordable conveniently located choices during my search for the Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do.
Also, the Mystic Hilton made getting around Mystic very easy. It’s within walking distance of the Mystic Aquarium, and if the weather is good, it’s a beautiful longer walk from the Mystic Hilton to the Mystic Seaport. But if you’d rather not walk, the Mystic Hilton also has a free shuttle service that can take you anywhere around town. What could be easier?
Mystic Seaport Things to Do
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
If the weather is rainy or snowy, which happens quite often in New England, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out without feeling like some gauche tourist with gross feet.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
If you’re interested in learning more about maritime history, my favorite book on the subject is Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania.
Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do
Morning: Mystic Seaport
The Mystic Seaport is an almost miraculous treasure. It’s the largest maritime museum in the United States, which is enough reason to visit, if you are a Boat Nerd. But even if you are not, you’ll have a blast on a beautiful day exploring the old ships and lighthouses, taking in the numerous collections of nautical artifacts, and even art related to the sea.
When you buy your ticket to the Mystic Seaport, they give you a wristband. This wristband will be good for admission for two full days. You could probably spend two full days seeing all the Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do. But for now, I’ll point you in the right direction with…
approximately top 5: Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do
1) boats! Boats! Boats!
There is something very wrong with you if you visit the Mystic Seaport without getting on a boat! They will literally be all around you. I especially recommend getting on the larger boats that are staffed by docents, aka Semi-Professional Boat Nerds.
The boat you see pictured above was a real New England fishing boat. You can go down and see the little kitchen and unbelievably cramped quarters that the men had to sleep in. The guide said the fishermen were lucky to sleep five hours a day, and they had a real tough life. I suggested it was much easier to live in Mystic now, and the guide cracked up. The vanishing of the American working class and gentrification are truly hilarious!
2) thar she blows!
Any Moby Dick fans out there will be stoked to get on the Charles W Morgan. She is the only wooden whaler still intact in the United States. I don’t really understand why we call her a she when her name is Charles W Morgan. But ships can be gender-fluid too, I suppose.
Life of a whaling boat was very different from life on a fishing boat because the trips lasted longer. As you can see from my photo above, that meant that the ship itself was a lot fancier. But don’t think the working men themselves got to benefit from this fancy-pants-ness. It’s the captain who gets to wallow in luxury. He even had his own private bathroom. Do I really want to know what going to the bathroom was like on a 19th century whaling ship? Probably not.
Many people have negative associations with whaling because whales are majestic creatures and many of them were slaughtered at the height of the whaling period. But there was an upside to the whaling–it made the streets of London safer. The oil from the whales help light the streetlamps of London, which made it less dangerous to walk around at night. Was the trade-off worth it? You decide!
3) voyaging in the wake of the whalers
Now that you’ve been on a real whaling ship, it’s time to head to the whale museum! I know it sounds a bit dry, but I promise it’s one of the Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do. At the Stillman Building, you can see all the whaling artifacts of your dreams…and some of your nightmares!
Whales weren’t just hunted for their oil. They were also used for many luxury items like whalebone corsets and fancy soaps made with whale blubber. I find the whales actually drawn on this corset and the soap packaging to be a little disturbing. If I am getting dressed up for a fancy party or taking a luxurious bath, the last thing I want to think of is sweaty New Englanders slaughtering whales. But maybe this is why I am not a rich lady in the 19th century.
You can also see how popular the whale has been in design, art, and literature. Hey, isn’t that a plastic model kit of the Charles W Morgan in the background there? We were just on it! I think they should sell plastic models of the Charles W Morgan at the Mystic Seaport gift shop and then make little plastic versions of the customer to put on the boat to commemorate the trip. It would be a lot cooler than a selfie.
4) artist in residence
The Mystic Seaport isn’t just dedicated to boats and whales and whale boats. One of the neatest Mystic Seaport Things to Do is check out exhibits of maritime-themed art. They even have artists-in-residence who produce new works about the briny deep. When I was at the Mystic Seaport, the artist in residence was Kevin Sampson. He is a retired cop who now makes sculptures out of found objects.
Sampson actually lived on a boat in the Mystic Seaport while he was creating his pieces. My favorite was the one you see pictured above, the USS Harriet Tubman. Sampson said she was his hero, and he wanted to create a ship in her honor. I completely agree, Mr. Sampson! Also I like his work because it all looks like ghost pirate ships and everyone knows those are the coolest kind of ships out there.
5) special exhibitions
You never know what groovy temporary exhibitions you’ll find among the Mystic Seaport things to do, so be sure to keep an eye out for them. When I was there, I saw an exhibition on the Vinland map, which was one of the oddest stories I’ve ever heard. The Vinland map was “discovered” in the 1960s. That’s why the exhibition opens in a typical 60s living room, pictured above.
The Vinland map supposedly proved that the Vikings had reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus. Some historians believed the map was real, and some believed it was a forgery. This caused a lot of chaos. Many people, including a young Joe Lieberman before he was a Senator from Connecticut, protested the map.
But some Scandinavian-Americans got oddly invested in proving the Vinland map was real, including one dude who threatened Thor’s vengeance against anyone who said the map was fake. I mean, I threaten Thor’s vengeance on people all the time, but that’s mostly just against people who try to speak to me before I’ve had my coffee, and I’m not even Scandinavian. In the end, it turned out the Vinland map was fake. But that still doesn’t prove the Vikings didn’t get to the Americas first!
6) sift bake shop
As great as the Mystic Seaport is, I don’t think dining there is one of the best Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do. Instead, head over to the Sift Bake Shop. The head pastry chef here, Adam Young, was declared the best baker in America by the Food Network in 2018, so you’ll definitely want to eat every single baked good in the shop. Their croissants are impossibly flaky, and the bacon, egg, and cheese croissant is a perfect choice for lunch.
Of course it’s very wrong to leave the Sift Bake Shop without a sweet. What is more appropriate after a morning at the Mystic Seaport than a sea salt chocolate chip cookie? I guess that it would be more appropriate if there were whale blubber in the cookie, but don’t worry. They use absolutely no whale products at the Sift Bake Shop.
Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do
Afternoon: Argia Cruise
After a morning with the coolest Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do, I hope you’re dying to get on the water! We already stepped on the last wooden whaler in the United States. Now it’s time to go for a real cruise on the Argia, the last commercial sailing ship in Mystic. They offer several cruises a day, but for this itinerary you should do the afternoon sail at 3 PM. It lasts for three hours.
Once you are on board, enjoy the gorgeous weather, oodles of free snacks and beverages, and the pleasant commentary from your cheerful guide as you sail around the Connecticut coast. Did you think I’d let you just kick back and relax without learning anything? Foolish mortal! There will most definitely be…
three fun facts: argia
1) can I call this a drawbridge?
Short answer: no! Our first stop on the Argia cruise was a discussion of the famous Mystic Bridge. Many people think it is a drawbridge because it is always lifting up to allow ships to pass underneath. That’s why you always need to give yourself plenty of time when you’re planning on getting across the Mystic Bridge. You might need an extra 15 minutes depending on what the bridge is doing. But Mystic isn’t really the right destination for a person who’s always in a hurry.
Our guide, whom I shall call Herman, said that this bridge is really a bascule bridge. I’m not one hundred percent sure how this is different from the more typical lift drawbridge, but everyone in Mystic seems very proud of having a bascule bridge because it’s more unusual than a drawbridge. So don’t make yourself look like a tourist, call it the Bascule Bridge.
2) can lighthouses be feminist?
You can easily notice that there are many lighthouses along the Connecticut coast. These weren’t put there to be cute. They were built to help the many ships that sailed into Mystic not crash and die a hideous death. Normally we say that you “man” a lighthouse. But can a lighthouse be “womanned”?
Of course! Herman told us that this lighthouse above, the Morgan Point Lighthouse, had a male lighthouse keeper. But when he died, his wife, Frances McDonald, just decided to take over his duties without asking permission. The town didn’t want to officially give her the job because she was a woman but she convinced them.
I really don’t understand arguments that a woman couldn’t be in charge of a lighthouse. Why would people think a woman couldn’t keep watch over the sea and turn on a light if necessary? Did they think she would become super emotional at certain times of the month and decide to crash the ships on purpose? Was the math involved in turning on a light supposed to be too complicated? Sexism really makes no sense.
3) what is the greatest story of all time?
Glad you asked, Internet Stranger! On the Argia cruise, I heard the greatest story these sad ears have ever beheard and that is no lie. One resident of the waters off the Connecticut Coast is the inventor of Segway, Dean Kanen.
Mr. Kanen is a little eccentric, which you’d expect of the dude who created the Segway. He wanted to build a wind turbine on his island, but his neighbors got super cranky and refused. On top of that, because his little island was sort of in both Connecticut and New York, he had to pay two times the taxes on his property.
Mr. Kanen finally had enough of this bureaucracy and decided to secede from the United States. He named his island North Dumpling Island and declared himself Lord Dumpling. He even has a national anthem which consists of the sound of dropping a stone into the water.
This might sound like just a joke to you, but Mr. Kanen actually signed a non-aggression pact with President George HW Bush, so I suppose that means the US recognizes North Dumpling Island. I guess if you’re rich enough you can do what you want.
Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do
Early Evening: Dinner at Sea Swirl
There’s no point in spending 24 hours in Mystic, seeing the Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do, and only dining at French pastry shops and fine dining restaurants. Sooner or later you’re going to want to dine at a seafood shack. There’s about a jillion seafood shacks in Mystic, but I suggest stopping at Sea Swirl. I found out about this shack in an Eater article about the best restaurants in New England. The fried clams on a roll are gorgeously plump and juicy, like a fat clam baby.
24 hour treat: soft serve
Sea Swirl doesn’t just specialize in succulent shellfish. You can also get old-fashioned soft serve ice cream in just about any flavor your heart could desire. I chose pina colada and getting caught in the rain. Eating at Sea Swirl is just like stepping back in time, but not so far back in time that you need to sign up for a tour on a whaling ship just to make ends meet.
Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do
Evening: Mystic Moonlight Graveyard Ghost Stroll
During our last 24 hours in Mystic, we went on the Seaside Shadows Downtown Mystic Ghost Tour. Now it’s time to try their other, more specialized ghost tour, the Mystic Moonlight Graveyard Ghost Stroll. This tour is the only way to get inside the historic Whitehall Burial Ground at night. The start time is different depending on the time of year, so check the website. (Obviously it starts later in the summer when the sun sets later.)
This tour, unlike the downtown ghost tour, isn’t for the faint of heart because you are in a cemetery at night. There was a mom on the tour with her three daughters, and the girls screeched and screamed throughout the entire tour. (I think they were pleasantly spooked, not actually terrified.) But if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll get to learn more than…
three spooky facts: whitehall burial ground
1) are there any really early ghosts?
Really early on European terms? No. But how does a ghost from King Philip’s War sound to you? This war took place in the 1670s between some Native Americans and the New England colonists with their Native American allies. One of the players in this war was Captain John Gallup. He owned the land where the Whitehall Mansion would be built one day. (The Whitehall Mansion plays a prominent role in the history of the Whitehall Burial Ground.)
Do you see the fancy tombstone erected in honor of Captain John Gallup? Well, it’s a bit deceptive. You see, he was killed in King Philip’s War and his body was buried close to the battlefield. He isn’t buried in Mystic at all. They just put the tombstone here so it could be close to his wife, who is buried in the cemetery. His poor ghost must be very confused.
2) who’s the saddest ghost?
A man named Dudley Woodbridge lived in Whitehall Mansion with his wife Sarah. They had many children, but one of them was a boy who died around the age of twelve. They say that he haunts the graveyard and Whitehall Mansion…which is now a hotel. Apparently there was a couple who met at the Whitehall Mansion for an illicit tryst (the gentleman in the couple was already married.)
But the creepy 12 year old boy haunting their love nest kind of put a damper on the evening, so the affair never came off. 12 year old boys tend to have that effect on people.
I will say that I felt a strange tugging at my ankle the entire time we were in the cemetery, even before our guide explained that the 12 year old boy is often drawn to women who might mother him. I’m not sure I believe in ghosts or not, but it was a pretty ookie experience. Make of that what you will!
3) what was my favorite grave?
I was interested in this grave belonging to Quash Williams. He had been enslaved, but he was freed along with his wife and he became a famous lay preacher. One reason he was famous is because he was the first enslaved person who was freed in eastern Connecticut. Sometimes people think that segregation was only in the South, but Quash and all other African-Americans were buried in a separate part of the cemetery, even in Yankee Connecticut.
This headstone is unusual because it wasn’t erected when Mr. Williams died in 1830. Instead, it was erected in 1867 in memory of his Christian virtues. I wonder if it was a coincidence that he wasn’t honored like this until after the Civil War and abolition of slavery.
24 hour treasure: descend into the tomb!
OK, I’m joking a little because we aren’t really going into a tomb. Imagine trying to bury a body in New England in winter. Seems impossible yes? The ground would be way too hard. So instead they put bodies in this little building for storage until the earth thawed and they could dig. And now you get to go inside this building in the dead of night! Lucky you!
Don’t worry, though. They don’t keep dead bodies in this little house any more. Although…what’s that coming up behind you? AHHHHHHH!
That’s the Best Mystic Seaport Things to Do!
What would you do at the Mystic Seaport? Would you rather be Lord Dumpling or a professional whaler? And what’s scarier, the ghost of a 12 year old boy or an actual 12 year old boy? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours with the best Mystic Seaport Things to Do. If you have time after you’ve found all the Mystic Seaport Things to Do, try this itinerary!