Explore museums, a historic downtown district, and famed pizza spot at this maritime town.
Connecticut is famous for many things—Yale, pizza, stately Greenwich homes of Wolf of Wall Street type executives—and is the northern sibling to New York and New Jersey in the tri-state area. But what many don’t know is that Connecticut also boasts picturesque coastal towns like Bridgeport, upscale Westport, and Old Saybrook with fascinating histories and gorgeous landscapes.
However, not many incorporate nautical history, coastal village vibes, and a living museum along with a historic downtown like the town of Mystic. Widely known as the locale for the Julia Roberts film, Mystic Pizza, Mystic derives its name from Missituk, meaning “great tidal river” in a Native American language most likely thought to be from the indigenous Pequot people who once populated this area.
Located approximately 134 miles from NYC and about 2.5 hours by car, Mystic is an ideal getaway for day trippers and weekenders looking to shop, eat, and explore culture with a maritime theme. If all that driving doesn’t spark joy in your soul, Amtrak has direct service from Penn Station to Mystic for $90 one-way. But if you’re ready to get behind the wheel and hit the road, here are seven of our favorite reasons to drive to Mystic, CT.
Check out the sights of Olde Mistick Village before pulling into town
Constructed in the 1970s as a 1720s-style Colonial village, Mistick Village is located off I-95 leading into Mystic and is an all-in-one destination awash with activities. Designed as a walkable and picturesque reconstructed village, take a stroll to check out a water wheel in a duck-filled pond, gazebo, and bungalow-type buildings with colorful facades and colonial-style business signs. The area features shopping, dining, a theater, a village church, and fitness center, all within walking distance to the Mystic Aquarium with penguins and sea lions on display.
This family-friendly experience has something for everyone: Cloak & Wand for wizardry spells, potions, books a la Harry Potter; Becca Rose wellness with locally made products; Munson’s Chocolates with cream, marshmallow, and liqueur-filled chocolates; and Kitch, a food lover’s heaven for all things cooking (Kitch is also home to the pond and water wheel that are a big local photo attraction). Cool down on the lawn with ice cream from Mangos Homemade Ice Cream or iced coffee and donuts from Deviant Coffee and Donuts and choose from a plethora of meal options at spots like Mango’s Wood-Fired Pizza for slices and craft beer, Steak Loft for steak and seafood, Jealous Monk for Belgian frites and beer hall-inspired fare, and Pink Basil for Asian cuisine.
Pound the pavements of the Downtown Mystic Historic District
With its walkability, independent boutique shops and restaurants, galleries, sailboat cruises, and lots more, Downtown Mystic is one of the biggest draws of this historic maritime town. Here, E Main Street blends into W Main Street across Mystic River in a small (but dense) area with businesses clustered around the Mystic Historic District. Affordable, independent shops vending everything from used books, home goods, consignment clothing and more include the woman-owned The Bee’s Knees purveying luxury goods and toiletries; Bank Square Books open since 1988; and Mystic Army Navy selling everything from camo to streetwear.
Pop into Mystic Knotwork, which is recognized as the first and oldest knot shop in the country. It is an intergenerational family-owned shop selling handmade sailor knot bracelets, woven home decorations, and wearable knots for people and pets, and they celebrate the nautical history of Mystic which every independent business here does and is proud of. Another favorite is Hang the Moon for women-made goods covering everything from handmade soaps to pop culture cards and nautical-themed clothing.
And walk on to the wooden bannisters by the Bascule Drawbridge for less trafficked views of Mystic River and its boating scene. Depending on when you visit, you might experience a cultural event, like an arts or book fair in the historic district.
Dine on New England fare and at the famed pizza spot where a Julia Roberts’ character once worked
After hours of taking in the scenery, there are plenty of restaurants and dining options in store. One of many restaurants is Engine Room serving New American food and beers along with a fine-dining sister spot, Oyster Club on Water Street. At the latter, the menu is helmed by head chef Renee Touponce and features a menu of pan roasted swordfish, PEI mussels, a New England raw bar, and more.
Another popular local spot is S&P Oyster Restaurant & Bar serving classic New England seafood with outdoor, floral draped seating that’s especially great in warm weather. Alternatively, scope out some cinematic culinary history at Mystic Pizza, which inspired the 1988 Julia Roberts comedy-drama.
Additional food options include Friar Tuck’s Tavern, a family-owned Irish pub serving classic British meals like bangers and mash, fish ‘n’ chips, Guinness, and seasonal cocktails. Well known for their bar, live entertainment, and late nights, another local favorite in town is Chapter One Food and Drink. Here, must-try dishes include the cajun chicken pasta and scallop risotto, with a happy hour of $1 clams and oysters.
Squeeze in ice cream at the famous Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream right on the Bascule Bridge, but if you desire a healthy snack after all this gluttony, pop into Karma Kitchen Juicery for nutritious juices, teas, and clean eats.
Explore art, history, and nature
Mystic Museum of Art is a waterfront gallery with permanent collections and studio classes for adults and children. Other artistic spots include Studio Jeffrey P’an, a glass-blowing gallery with lighting and sculptures, and Board and Brush Creative Studio, a DIY wood sign workshop you can partake in with friends.
Mystic is home to a number of historic homes like the Denison Homestead, a 300-year-old family farm. Currently, it’s closed for renovations but the grounds are open to a farmers’ market and the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center boasting of hiking trails and a natural history museum. If you are keen on experiencing a working farm, head over to Stone Acres Farm with 63 acres of vegetable production open to visitors. This is a farmer’s market direct from the source and expect to leave with tote bags of fresh organic produce.
Check out the Seaport Museum
If the only activity you have time for is the Seaport Museum, spend all day here and have no regrets. The Mystic Seaport Museum is a reconstructed 19th century seafaring village and is the largest maritime museum in the country. It is replete with historic ships like the Joseph Conrad—a veteran training ship built in 1882 Copenhagen, sunk in 1905, and rebuilt in the 1930s to teach seamanship (and still currently does); Charles Morgan whaleship; and a replica of the famous Amistad.
Listen to a maritime historian tell the story of the Amistad Rebellion—a mutiny by enslaved Africans illegally captured in West Africa and shipped to Cuba before staging a rebellion—and view the Charles W. Morgan, the last wooden whaleship in the world.
Wander the buildings constructed in the architectural style of that era and watch master craftspeople engage in trades that benefitted nautical life here, such as cooperage, blacksmithing, boat building, and printing. The blacksmithing session is particularly interesting as the craftswoman works bellows and an anvil to demonstrate how harpoons were churned out for the whaling industry that was once the lifeblood of the village.
The piece de la resistance of the Seaport Museum is the lighthouse, which is a reproduction of Nantucket Island’s Brant Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse overlooks the calm Mystic River with sailboats gliding silently on the water adjacent to stately homes and verdant foliage visible on the opposite side.
Stay the weekend to enjoy river views
If all these activities leave you too exhausted to drive home or you prefer to pace yourself and experience Mystic over a two-day weekend, there are nautical-themed accommodation options within downtown and its environs.
Whaler’s Inn in downtown is located just before the Bascule Drawbridge on E Main Street and there are 47 rooms in bright decor suitable for couples or family stay. You will be surrounded by restaurant and shopping options with no need to drive anywhere if you choose not to. Another unique accommodation is the Steamboat Inn overlooking the scenic river and most rooms include a river view, along with bicycles on offer to guests.
Still on nautical-themed stays is Spicer Mansion, a luxury boutique hotel on the Stonington side of Mystic. The property dates back to 1853 and was a summer home of renowned sea captain, Captain Spicer. He built it to escape stifling summers in Brooklyn (sound familiar?). There are eight lavishly decorated rooms in sea blues and whites with names like Magellan and Captain Suites, to reflect the seafaring background of its namesake owner and Mystic. The mansion boasts picturesque gardens and galleries, haute cuisine meals, luxury amenities, and picnic basket options for guests to have outside the property. How luxurious!
For something more wallet-friendly, Mermaid Inn of Mystic is in an ideal location a walking distance from the Amtrak Station, Bascule Drawbridge, and Downtown.