Most travelers taking a weekend trip outside of Boston typically head to Cape Cod, Newport, or Provincetown. But just two hours south by car, New Bedford boasts an enthralling history for an unexpected escape. Hiding in the restored cobblestone streets of downtown -- designated a national park less than ten years ago -- is a trove of whaling history, a thriving art community, and an international dining scene. The diverse population is made up of 100,000 friendly locals with a strong pride in their hometown, and while they dislike the term "up-and-coming" for a city that was once one of America’s wealthiest and most progressive cities, New Bedford has all the makings of the next great weekend destination returning to its former glory.
What to Do: Getting Started
To get the lay of the land, stop by the New Bedford Visitor Center in the heart of the historic downtown for a comprehensive and enthusiastic welcome. Consult with park rangers and local volunteers for the best ways to explore the area, then spend some time with the Center's mini-exhibitions and a 22-minute video for a better understanding of the town’s affluent history, its subsequent decline into obscurity, and finally its current resurrection and revival. Art lovers and architecture fans won't want to miss the photographs of Victorian buildings in the back room that document these transitions.
The former whaling capital of the world is also home to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, which holds an impressive number of artifacts and records. It's first and foremost the largest whaling museum on the planet, housing numerous life-size whale skeletons, interactive exhibits, art galleries, an impressive scrimshaw display, and the Lagoda -- the world’s largest ship model. Considering all it holds, it's hard to imagine that the museum only displays 10 percent of its collection at any given time.
Also surprising is that most of the whaling-era mansions in New Bedford still stand in their original design, showcasing a variety of architectural styles ranging from Greek Revival and Colonial to Gothic and Victorian. Grab a pamphlet by the New Bedford Preservation Society from the Visitor Center and take a self-guided architectural walk to gape at these spectacular homes at your leisure.
And don't forget the shopping. With a number of large antique warehouses showcasing more than 500 antique dealers, you may require a truck to haul your treasures home from New Bedford. Among the standout antique shops include the New Bedford Antiques Center, a two-storey warehouse overflowing with collectables; the New England Demolition & Salvage for architectural artifacts; and CIRCA, one of the best vintage clothing shops we've seen.
Tip: Can't decide when to visit? The second Thursday night of each month is always a good bet. That's when AHA! Night (which stands for "arts, history, architecture") bring special events like live concerts, film screenings, art exhibits, and food tastings to dozens of restaurants, museums, shops, galleries, and community groups.
What Else to See: Delving into Arts and History
Named after the three notable families that owned and lived in the grand mansion, The Rotch-Jones-Duff House is the only former sea captain’s home open to the public as a museum. Following an eight-minute video, visitors can take a self-guided tour through the the masterfully renovated house. While the printed guide and descriptions throughout provide detail, it's the volunteers (many of whom are descendants from the three families), the changing upstairs exhibit, and the various historical and horticultural programs available year-round that make the RJD House a special treat.
Head down to the working waterfront of America's most profitable fishing port, for 13 years in a row, to see the local fisherman go about their daily business. While whaling no longer provides the town with the riches it once did, New Bedford still manages to earn a hefty profit from the area's abundance of scallops. There’s a visitor center just off the port, but we suggest chatting with the fishermen themselves for a memorable experience.
The New Bedford Art Museum knows how to pack a punch with its exhibition space. Multiple narratives are told in the old bank lobby, featuring New England artists, contemporary artwork from around the world, and rotating pieces from the impressive New Bedford Free Public Library collection. Ongoing lectures, workshops, and tours with participating artists bring the shows to life.
Literally hidden from view, rather oddly placed in the back of the New Bedford Antiques Center, is the New Bedford Glass Museum, the world’s second largest collection of glass. There are over 5,000 pieces on display here, including a glass throne, an 1890 glass press, and an intricate Victorian crystal parlor fountain -- one of just a dozen in the world.
What to Eat: Seafood and Ethnic Dining
For an authentic Portuguese meal and cool European vibe, head over to Tia Maria’s European Cafe, where the portions are as big as the smiles from the kind staff. The award-winning Cape Verdean soup is a must, as is the shrimp moçambique with spicy saffron garlic sauce and caçoila stewed pork. Tia Maria’s serves breakfast and lunch every day of the week but dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights. For dessert (or breakfast), give the pastel de nata, a Portuguese egg tart, a try.
The former Citizen's National Bank has been converted into Freestones City Grille, a popular steak and seafood restaurant with a fun, bustling atmosphere and casual interiors. A cup of the award-winning "chowdah" makes a great starter. Should you decide to stay for the occasional live performance or sporting event broadcast on the big screen, Freestones also has a full bar with several New England beers on tap.
Cited by many locals as their favorite restaurant in all of New Bedford, Spicy Lime dishes out traditional Thai food in a lively setting in the heart of downtown. The curry puff stands out, with a light, buttery pastry crust and well-seasoned filling. The traditional pad thai is a classic (and of course delicious).
Cozy, bustling Brick Pizzeria, serves up reasonably priced Napoletana-style pizzas and Italian specialties. The restaurant tends to get packed during peak hours, so arrive early to avoid a wait.
Where to Stay: Cozy Inns Galore
Located across the New Bedford/Fairhaven harbor, the Seaport Inn and Marina is arguably the best value full-service hotel in the area. Each stay comes with a complimentary breakfast buffet, Wifi throughout the hotel, and parking. Facilities like a 24-hour fitness and laundry room, business center, and onsite restaurant are nice extras -- as is an attentive and helpful staff. You can find rooms starting at just over $100 here, but it doesn’t hurt to check the website for special discounts and packages.
To get a taste of what it might have been like to live in New Bedford during its heyday, book one of the five rooms at Orchard Street Manor, a three-storey Georgian Revival home. Believe it or not, rooms at this leading bed and breakfast start at just $125 -- and just $40 more can get you a two-room suite..
The three rooms at Davenport House, a 1912 Jacobethan-style home, make for an intimate and affordable B&B experience. Rooms with private and shared baths range from $95 to $150, but whichever one you choose, there's plenty of window and outdoor garden seating.