Mystic, a shipbuilding and whaling hub in the 17th to 19th centuries, is Connecticut’s best-known shoreline city. Situated on the banks of the Mystic River—the two sides are linked by the state’s most photographed and fascinating upward swing-span bridge—it is home to must-see sights that entertain families and enthrall maritime history buffs.
Some of the best things to do in Mystic, like grabbing a slice of pizza made famous by the movie Mystic Pizza, are famous far beyond Connecticut’s borders. Others, like observing the restoration of historic sea vessels, are hidden treats beloved by local residents that are well worth discovering.
Far more than a home for a vast variety of water creatures including New England’s only captive whales, Mystic Aquarium is a research and rescue facility and a multifaceted attraction that captivates all ages. Allow a full day to experience all the aquarium has to offer including sea lion shows in the Foxwoods Marine Theater, touch tanks, and a 4-D theater.
Mystic Aquarium is perhaps best known for its one-of-a-kind encounter programs, which allow visitors to meet a beluga whale or an African penguin up-close. Although the added fee of around $100.00 for a close encounter is steep, the experience is one you’ll remember for a lifetime.
Mystic Seaport Museum, a 17-acre village on the banks of the Mystic River, is Connecticut’s best living history attraction. Climb aboard the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaling ship in existence and the crown jewel of Mystic Seaport Museum’s collection of historic vessels. You can also see a planetarium show, marvel at extensive collections of maritime art and artifacts, or chat with coopers, shipsmiths, and other village artisans.
One of the most interesting things is to observe the restoration team at work in the Henry B. DuPont Preservation Shipyard. The Mayflower II, a replica of the Pilgrims’ famous ship usually on view in Plymouth, is undergoing extensive restoration in preparation for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing in 2020.
After several hours exploring the venue, sustenance isn't far away as several lunch options are right on site.
The bascule bridge spanning the Mystic River has been in operation since 1922. “Bascule” is French for “seesaw,” and this unique style of drawbridge was patented by Thomas E. Brown—who also designed the Eiffel Tower’s elevator—in 1918.
Much like a seesaw, the bridge is opened by the mechanical lowering of immense counterbalancing weights. When the bridge opens to allow tall boats to pass through, traffic backs up on Route 1. One of the best vantage points for watching Mystic’s bascule bridge in operation is the dock behind the Steamboat Inn.
You wouldn’t skip the Colosseum in Rome. Don’t miss the chance to set sail out of Mystic—Connecticut’s historic shipbuilding port.
From May through mid-October, the two-masted Schooner Argia will take you through the bascule bridge and out dancing on the breezes of Fishers Island Sound. Pack a picnic or snacks and your own beer, wine, or non-alcoholic beverages for a daytime or sunset lighthouse- and island-spotting cruise.
Mystic is home to the only steam-powered cider mill in America still cranking out sweet apple cider and potent hard cider. Each fall, B.F. Clyde’s Cider Mill is a family fun destination for apple cider donuts, fresh-pressed cider, and apple wine tastings. October and November weekends are the best time to go. That’s when you can see the old press in action, operating just as it has since 1881.
Dine in a Treehouse
When the weather’s sunny and warm, one restaurant not to miss is The Treehouse at Oyster Club. It’s a breezy, grown-up hangout high up in the trees, where happy hour—featuring $1.00 oysters and drink specials—lasts for three hours every day.
There can be a wait for this popular spot’s tables at meal times, so go mid-afternoon and ask for a counter seat. Once you get settled in, order some Quahog chowder, steamed mussels, the decadent lobster bisque and a local craft brew or two. The Treehouse is open from Memorial Day weekend through Columbus Day.
The movie that launched Julia Roberts’ career also put a little pizza spot in Mystic, Connecticut, on the map. Mystic Pizza wasn’t actually filmed at the restaurant: A replica was built inside a nearby warehouse. But three decades later, Mystic visitors still love stopping into Mystic Pizza for “a slice of heaven” and the chance to see movie memorabilia. Try the garlicky Seafood Delight pie topped with shrimp, clams, and scallops.
You thought record stores were as extinct as dinosaurs? Not in Mystic, where Mystic Disc has survived for more than 33 years thanks to owner Dan Curland’s vast music knowledge and devoted customers.
Rock, jazz, country, folk, reggae is all represented. If you’re a vinyl collector, you’ll want to spend hours flipping through the bins in the cramped shop. Even if you haven’t owned a turntable in years, the nostalgia factor is worth the visit. Customers can listen to anything before they buy.
Remember the days before mega-malls and Amazon? If so, then you’ll love poking around the cute shops at Olde Mistick Village.
Sporting the look and feel of an early 1700s New England village, this retail complex appeals to gift seekers with shops like Irish Eyes, Sofia’s Mystical Christmas, and Raining Cats and Dogs.
Outdoor activities, books, tea… whatever excites you is likely to have a shop catering to that specific interest–there’s even an old-fashioned kite shop.
Stroll Downtown Mystic
This historic but lively coastal neighborhood stretches along both banks of Mystic River. Downtown Mystic has more than 80 independently-owned shops, restaurants, bistros, ice cream parlors, and souvenir stores. Downtown is the setting for special events such as the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival and the St. Patrick's Day Mystic Irish Parade.
Go Bird Watching
The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center is a lush, green nature reserve where local residents and visitors can go hiking, birding, or look for wildlife. Situated on 350 acres of mixed woods, wetlands, and meadows, you can wander the trails and enjoy looking for marsh birds, turtles, and frogs in the pond and wildflowers in the meadows.
Brave the Aerial Adventure Park
The Fields of Fire Adventure Park offers more than 50 acres of excitement in lush, rugged woods where you can get your adrenaline pumping on the elevated forest trails with 70 platforms, zip lines, bridges, and obstacles. Climbers must be at least 7 years old and the park has adventures for suitable all skill levels. The admission fee ($51–$59) includes instruction and three hours of climbing and scrambling over the challenging courses.