Connecticut may be the third smallest state in the U.S., but it boasts over 250 miles of gorgeous coastline along Long Island Sound. With its charming seaside towns, historic landmarks, and breathtaking natural beauty, the Connecticut shoreline offers something for everyone to enjoy. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing beach getaway or an active adventure, here are our recommendations for what to do on the Connecticut shoreline.
Dave grew up in Madison, CT, a picturesque small town on Long Island Sound. We moved to Connecticut soon after our marriage and raised our kids in the state. Though we never lived on the coast, Dave’s family did, so we enjoyed many, many wonderful days in Madison and the surrounding towns. Mom and Dad made sure our kids visited all the local attractions and partook in all of Madison’s summer traditions.
Mom and Dad are gone now, and we live in Massachusetts, but we always make a stop or two on the Connecticut shore when we drive to visit our daughter in New York.
Our Favorite Things to Do on the Connecticut Shoreline
Spend a day in Mystic – Mystic Seaport and Mystic Aquarium
Mystic is a charming small town on the Mystic River in the southeast corner of Connecticut. For all its small size, Mystic has some of the the most popular tourist attractions in the state.
Mystic Seaport is the town’s most famous attraction and is the largest maritime museum in the United States. Mystic Seaport is a living history museum with a recreated 19th-century coastal village, historic ships, working craftsmen, and interesting exhibits. Visit the museum to enjoy a step back in time to Connecticut’s maritime past.
- Mystic Seaport is fully open April through October. After that time, the museum has some exhibits open Thursday-Sunday, October 30 to December 31.
Mystic Aquarium is home to a wide variety of marine species from around the world – beluga whales, California sea lions, African penguins, and hundreds of colorful fish. Visit the aquarium to observe these animals up close, and enjoy sea lion shows and other animal encounters.
We encourage you to visit the aquarium, not only for the attractions, but because this is a non-profit organization dedicated to important marine research, education, and conservation. Mystic Aquarium operates a marine animal rescue program, which focuses on the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of stranded or cold-stunned marine animals. The aquarium’s team works closely with other organizations to provide medical care and rehabilitation for injured seals, sea turtles, and other marine animals.
- Mystic Aquarium is open year round, closing only for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
If you plan on visiting both the Seaport and the Aquarium, consider purchasing a Mystic Pass Card for reduced admission.
Enjoy Long Island Sound and the coastal state parks
The Connecticut shoreline is a paradise for water lovers. Spend the day at the beach or on the water. Long Island Sound is a great place to enjoy various water activities, including kayaking, paddleboarding, and sailing. Most coastal towns have rental shops and marinas where you can rent water sports equipment.
Connecticut’s shoreline is famous for its beautiful beaches. The waters of Long Island Sound are warm by New England standards and there’s little wave action, making these ideal beaches for young children. Many of the beaches are town owned, so if you’re heading to the shore for a day trip consider one of Connecticut’s beautiful shoreline state parks.
Hammonasset Beach State Park, Madison
Hammonasset in Madison is the state’s largest shoreline park, featuring two miles of sandy beaches, picnic areas, and lovely biking and nature trails. If you’re interested in camping at one of the 550 campsites, or in one of the rustic cabins, call early. This is a popular destination in the summer months!
Don’t miss a visit to Meigs Point Nature Center within the park. It’s a free family-friendly nature center where you and the kids can learn about the local environment. (Open year-round Tuesday -Saturday. During summer months the nature center is also open on Sunday.)
Rocky Neck State Park, East Lyme
Rocky Neck State Park encompasses a stunning 710 acres of land and includes a half-mile sandy beach along the Long Island Sound.
Bounded on the west by a tidal river and to the east by a broad salt marsh, Rocky Neck is known for its wildlife. The park’s diverse habitats, including salt marshes and woodlands, offer visitors lots of options. You can swim, fish, hike along scenic trails, picnic, or just enjoy nature observation.
Sherwood Island State Park, Westport
Sherwood Island State Park in Westport is Connecticut’s oldest state park. In addition to a nice beach there are several nature trails that wind through salt marshes, woodlands, and meadows.
Silver Sands State Park, Milford
Sandy beaches, boardwalks, seashells, and shore birds are the attraction to Silver Sands’ beaches in Milford. The park covers 297 acres and offers picnic areas, nature trails, fishing, birdwatching, and swimming options. Over a half mile of shoreline and three quarters of a mile of all-weather boardwalk make this a popular four-season waterfront destination.
Explore the historic towns along the coast
If you’re visiting Connecticut you’ll definitely want to visit some of the charming and historic towns that dot the shoreline. Enjoy the classic New England architecture, the quaint shops, and many art galleries. Stop by a local restaurant or, if time is limited, just treat yourself to an ice cream cone.
Nestled along the Connecticut River, Essex exudes historic elegance and scenic beauty. The town features beautifully preserved colonial and federal-style buildings, and a picturesque harbor. Enjoy a leisurely walk down Main Street, visit the Connecticut River Museum, and take a scenic boat ride along the river.
Madison holds a very special place in our hearts but, even without the family connections, it’s a wonderful town to enjoy. Madison’s main street, the Boston Post Road (or Rt. 1), is lined with charming shops and restaurants. We ALWAYS stop at RJ Julia Booksellers, a two-story independent bookstore with a coffee shop in the rear – a book lover’s dream destination!
Hammonasset State Park is in Madison. But it’s only part of the Madison waterfront. Drive or bike along Long Island Sound past lovely homes and beaches all the way to Surf Club Park, a 45-acre town park with playing fields, beachfront and a lovely picnic area. This is a town property, but open to the public for a fee.
Dave’s high school reunion was held at the Madison Beach Hotel. It’s a new Hilton property on West Wharf. Highly recommend!
Old Lyme is a picturesque town known for its natural beauty and artistic heritage. For years renowned artists have been drawn to Old Lyme, resulting in the establishment of a community of artists in the Old Lyme Art Colony. Visitors today can still visit art galleries or just take a stroll along the Lieutenant River and enjoy the serene coastal ambiance.
Old Saybrook is another favorite destination for our family. Great seafood restaurants and a beautiful harbor. Saybrook Point is a picturesque area where the Connecticut River meets the Long Island Sound. It offers stunning views of the water, with sailboats and fishing vessels dotting the horizon. Kids (of all ages) will love seeing the Saybrook Breakwater Light, a charming lighthouse that has guided ships since the 1800s.
The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center (known as “The Kate”) is a cultural gem in Old Saybrook. The venue, a beautifully restored theater building, hosts a variety of performances, including live music, theater productions, films, and more. Enjoy an evening of entertainment in a historic setting.
Learn about Native American history
Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center is the largest Native American museum in the world. It is dedicated to preserving and showcasing the rich history and culture of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, one of the oldest Native American communities in the United States.
One of the highlights of the museum is the Pequot Village, a life-size recreation of a 17th-century Pequot Native American village. Visitors can explore the village, walk through traditional homes, and learn about the daily lives and customs of the Pequot people.
110 Pequot Trail, Mashantucket
Visit the Thimble Islands
If you have the chance, take a scenic boat tour from Stony Creek harbor in Branford and discover the enchanting Thimble Islands. 25 small, rocky islands make up the Thimble Island archipelago where people in the victorian era built summer cottages. A few hours on the water will give you the opportunity to learn about the islands’ history and legends as you cruise past the unique homes that dot the islands.
Tour the USS Nautilus submarine
The Submarine Force Museum in Groton is the official museum of the United States Navy’s submarine force. The museum is located adjacent to the Naval Submarine Base New London, which is the primary East Coast submarine base for the U.S. Navy.
One of the museum’s main attractions is the historic submarine USS Nautilus, which was the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Visitors can step aboard the Nautilus and explore its interior, including the control room, crew quarters, and torpedo rooms.
- Open Wednesday – Monday year-round (with limited winter hours). Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.
Hike and bike along coastal trails
Nature enthusiasts will find an array of scenic trails to explore along the Connecticut shoreline. Bluff Point State Park in Groton offers breathtaking views of the coastline, with trails that wind through wooded areas and along the water’s edge.
For cycling enthusiasts, check out the Shoreline Greenway Trail. This greenway will eventually connect all coastal communities from Madison to New Haven, but there are pieces of the trail already open for you to enjoy. For more of a challenge cycle the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail. This stretches over 80 miles from New Haven to Northampton, Massachusetts.
Take a lighthouse tour
Long Island Sound has always been a busy waterway so it’s not surprising that the Connecticut shoreline is dotted with fascinating lighthouses. Some, like Lynde Point lighthouse in Old Saybrook, are the elegant and traditional tower shape, but others along the coast, like the Penfield Reef Lighthouse pictured, are built like sturdy little houses.
One of our favorite CT lighthouses is the New London Ledge Light. It’s a pretty red three-story building built in 1909. There are tours that allow entry into the lighthouse during the summer months, but otherwise the lighthouse is best enjoyed from the ocean.
Another lighthouse to put on your itinerary is the Sheffield Island Lighthouse in Norwalk. Plan on visiting on a Thursday evening to enjoy their traditional clambake.
Check out these lighthouse tours to learn more about the workings of these historic structures and many others of the Connecticut shore.
Stop at one of Connecticut’s iconic eateries
Connecticut’s shoreline is home to a vibrant culinary scene. Sample freshly caught seafood, including lobster, clams, and oysters, at waterfront restaurants and seafood stands. Don’t miss some of the local’s favorite places for an inexpensive meal-
Lobster Landing (152 Commerce St, Clinton) is a traditional lobster shack and one of the best places to try the Connecticut lobster roll.
Louis’ Lunch (261 Crown St, New Haven) Reputed to be the birthplace of the hamburger; Louis’ Lunch has been serving a classic hamburger on toast since 1895.
Mystic Pizza (56 W Main St, Mystic) Movie fans will want to stop into the original restaurant for a bit of nostalgia… and a delicious pizza!
Frank Pepe Pizza (157 Wooster Street, New Haven)- This was Dad’s favorite pizza place, with good reason. You can’t find a better coal-fired pizza outside of NYC.
Take a ride on the Essex Steam Train
Essex Steam Train and Riverboat (1 Railroad Ave., Essex)
A vintage steam locomotive pulls restored passenger cars through 12 miles of the Connecticut River Valley. The train ride (about one hour) is narrated.
From the website: “Essex Steam Train offers unique access to several coves and preserves, immersing passengers in an on-board eco-excursion. The train travels near the tidal wetlands of Pratt Cove and Chester Creek — bountiful, natural habitats for birds including Cormorants, Ducks, Swans, Greenland Geese, Blue Heron, Egrets, and Red-winged Blackbirds.”
Combine the ride with a cruise (about 1 hour 15 minutes) on the Becky Thatcher, a replica of a 19th century steamboat.
Check the website for special events and seasonal activities.
A Dozen More Things To Do in Southern Connecticut
Fun places to go if you’re traveling with the family
When we were raising our kids, we tried to do a ‘field trip’ every week. We visited museums, farms, and some wonderful state parks. Of course, in the summer months we headed to the coast, where in addition to beach days we explored some other kid-friendly destinations. A few of our favorites:
Connecticut’s Beardsley Park Zoo (1875 Noble Avenue, Bridgeport) – the AZA accredited Beardsley Zoo is ideal for young children. It’s a small, easy to navigate, park with lots of animals for the kids to enjoy. Bring a picnic!
Fun fact: the first animals in the Beardsley Zoo were retired animals from the Barnum and Bailey circus.
Lake Compounce Amusement Park (185 Enterprise Drive, Bristol) – The oldest continuously operating amusement park in the U.S.! Bring a bathing suit if the weather is warm to enjoy the water park.
New England Air Museum (36 Perimeter Rd., Windsor Locks) – Almost to the Massachusetts state line, but a good museum to include if you’re coming to Connecticut via Bradley International Airport. The museum is right next door.
Nature and outdoor destinations to explore
Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens (151 Brookdale Rd, Stamford) offers a network of walking trails that wind through its expansive grounds, allowing visitors to explore the natural beauty of the area. The trails meander through woodlands, meadows, and wetlands, providing opportunities to observe wildlife and enjoy the tranquility of nature. Interpretive signage along the trails provides educational information about the plants and ecosystems found within the arboretum.
The kids will enjoy this arboretum also. There’s a dedicated Children’s Adventure Garden, with interactive exhibits, hands-on activities, and play areas where children can learn about plants, insects, and the environment.
Bluff Point State Park (55 Depot Rd, Groton) is a designated Coastal Reserve, which means it is protected and managed to preserve its natural resources and wildlife habitats. The park encompasses approximately 800 acres of diverse ecosystems, including coastal forest, salt marshes, and rocky shoreline.
Gillette Castle State Park (67 River Rd, East Haddam) The state park encompasses over 184 acres of woodland along the Connecticut River. The park’s grounds are beautifully landscaped, with walking paths, picnic areas.
Gillette Castle is the centerpiece of the park and is a striking architectural marvel. Built between 1914 and 1919, the castle was the former residence of actor William Gillette, best known for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes on stage. Visitors can take guided tours of the castle to explore its rooms and enjoy some of Gillette’s unusual inventions.
Enjoy historical and cultural treasures
Connecticut is not just beaches and outdoor adventures. There are over 50 connecticut sites on the national register of historic places and the state has a rich heritage in the arts. It’s challenging to limit our recommendations to just a few, but here goes!
The Glass House (199 Elm Street., New Canaan) -A fascinating destination for those interested in architecture. The Glass House, built by architect Philip Johnson, is a one-room glass walled home with only the bath area enclosed. A National Trust Historic Site.
Weir Farm National Historical Park (735 Nod Hill Road, Wilton): The home and studio of J. Alden Weir, a leading figure in the American Impressionist movement. Visitors can tour the studio or just enjoy walking and exploring the extensive property.
Florence Griswold Museum (96 Lyme St, Old Lyme) An important art museum featuring American Impressionist art. The museum is housed in the historic home of Florence Griswold, where the Old Lyme Art Colony was founded.
Goodspead Opera House (6 Main St, East Haddam) Enjoy musical theatre at the historic 1876 riverside opera house. Goodspeed Opera House is said to be the home of the American musical.
Ivoryton Playhouse (103 Main St, Ivoryton) The first continuously operating summer theatre in the United States. (Ivoryton is a village within the town of Essex)
Nathan Hale Homestead (2299 South Street, Coventry) Home of the Connecticut patriot Nathan Hale. Hale was a spy for the Continental Army during the revolutionary war. His famous last words: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
Take a chance at one of Connecticut top-rated casinos
Southeastern Connecticut is home to two of the biggest casino and entertainment venues in New England. Both of these are within a short drive of the Connecticut shore.
Foxwood Resort Casino (350 Trolley Line Blvd, Ledyard)
Mohegan Sun (1 Mohegan Sun Blvd, Uncasville)
Whether you’re seeking cultural immersion, outdoor adventure, or simply a relaxing beach vacation, the Connecticut shoreline has something for everyone. With its blend of historic charm, natural beauty, and coastal allure, this region promises a wonderful experience that will leave you longing to return to Connecticut time and time again.