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New Bedford, MA; A Grungy Working Port With Literary And Historic Appeal

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Working fishing fleet of New Bedford, MA

WHY GO: Once the “City That Lit the World,” more pure, smokeless spermaceti (whale oil) came from whaling ships in New Bedford than from anywhere else. In the heyday of the Whaling Fleets, 750 vessels plied the waters of the world from U.S. shores.  Of those, a whopping five hundred hailed New Bedford alone. One was the Acushnet, on which a 22 year old Herman Melville served for over a year.  His experiences, of course, were chronicled in his classic novel, Moby Dick. In 1996, Congress considered New Bedford the best place in America to tell the story of whaling, designating it a National Historical Park that year. If you haven’t been here in the last 5 years, New Bedford has changed to accommodate a burgeoning tourist business. With upgraded infrastructure, a new full service hotel, trendy wine and beer bars, and the most profitable commercial fishing fleet in America, this Getaway is perfect for history buffs and Melville fans who wish to explore a working waterfront, and be well-fed in the process.

Front door of New Bedford Whaling Historical Park Visitors Center

Things To Do in New Bedford, MA

TOUR: New Bedford Whaling National Historic Park. Begin at the Visitor’s Center to take a 45-minute walking tour of this diverse town. Several narrated walks focus on the History of Whaling, Herman Melville or the Underground Railroad.  In the mid-1800’s New Bedford was home to a large number of Abolitionists who believed that God did not discriminate – people of every color were the same in His eyes. A good number of white residents, especially whaling captains, willingly hired fugitive slaves, whisking them off to sea for six or seven years so that slave traders couldn’t find them. Whaling Captains, in particular, were color-blind; jobs on a whaling ship were based on merit only and each ship housed a virtual United Nations. Sailors were forced to get along, as teamwork increased the whaling profits that were divvied up at the end of each voyage. Frederick Douglas found his first home in New Bedford, and members of the acclaimed 54th Regiment (made famous in the movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington) were recruited in New Bedford. The 54th’s William Carney, was the first African American to earn the Medal of Honor for his service.  Visitor’s Center open daily 9am-5pm. Free.

The 1850's Gals, Ruth and Abby, dish the latest gossip in New Bedford, MA

SEE: Ruth and Abby. Join the fun, the gossip, the banter between two 1850’s busybodies, Ruth and Abby.  Dressed in period garb, they dish about the food of the times, their neighbors, shopping and running a home at the height of New Bedford’s wealth. At the  Mid July – end of August; Thurs 5pm – 6:30pm, Friday 11am-2pm, Sun. 2pm-4pm, Free.

Blue Whale skull still leaching oil at New Bedford Whaling Museum

VISIT: New Bedford Whaling Museum. Four fully articulated whale skeletons hang from the ceiling in the entry hall of one of the best Whaling Museums on the planet. There’s a Humpback, a North Atlantic Right Whale with her ten-month-old fetus, and a Blue Whale – the largest mammal on earth. This juvenile Blue, killed accidently by a tanker in 1998, is half the size of one full grown, and one of only four on display in the world. Amazingly, even after the bones were cleaned and bleached for months, its sinus cavities are still leaching oil, which drips into a Lucite pan fitted beneath the skull and is collected via hose into a graduated beaker within reach of visitors. This is just one of many wow moments you’ll experience among 750,000 artifacts, including the Worlds Largest Collection of Scrimshaw to the Worlds Largest Ship Model (at half scale, the Lagoda Whaling Ship, which can be boarded, was built by aging shipwrights in 1916 inside the then brand new museum hall), to products made from various whale parts, to harpoons – which were kept so sharp, the sailors shaved with them. $14 adults, $6 kids, May-September 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. daily.

Seaman's Bethel made famous in Herman Melville's Moby Dick, New Bedford, MA

VISIT: Seamen’s Bethel. Built in 1832 to counteract the “licentious” temptations of the waterfront, and made famous in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, this church still operates as a house of worship.  Inside, a bow-shaped pulpit juts into a small pew-lined room where cenotaphs (“empty tombs”) of men who did not return from the sea line the walls.  One memorializes poor 18-year-old Charles Petty who, in 1863, was killed by a shark while bathing off the African coast.  Apparently whales weren’t the only creatures to be wary of on these dangerous voyages.

Fish Auction on Blackboard, Wharfinger Visitors Center, New Bedford, MA

VISIT: Waterfront Visitors Center in the Wharfinger Building. Learn “the process of fishing from bringing in the catch to plate.” Focusing on what was once a robust, live seafood auction, you’ll get a sense of the frantic, 20 minute New York Stock-Exchange-like negotiations that took place here before the auction went online in 1985. Afterwards, head to the docks for captivating views of the harbor, and if you time it right, you’ll find some of the 200 commercial fishing boats of New Bedford – scallopers and trawlers – offloading catch. Monday-Friday 9:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. year round
Saturday and Sunday 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day

Acushnet - Harbor Tourboat for New Bedford Harbor Tours

TOUR. New Bedford Harbor Tour. It’s a harbor tour unlike any other – after an hour on the water, you’ll come away knowing why scallop boats are not painted completely, and learn all about one hard-working, fastidious, trash-talking Azorean, known as “The Codfather,” who came to the US dirt poor but managed to amass a fleet of 30 fishing boats (worth tens of millions). If the forecast is bad, you may see the whole fleet at the docks – and get as close to them as possible without being on deck.  You’ll also glide through the longest hurricane barrier (9,100 feet) in the world, which is also the largest stone structure on the East Coast, and hear stories of whaling ships and oil tycoons. Mid-June through end of September, Daily 12 Noon, 1:30, 3:00 & 4:30 PM. September -Weekends Only – Saturday & Sunday, same times. $15 adults, $8 kids.

Running since 1912, the elevator in New Bedford, MA City Hall is oldest in the USA

RIDE: New Bedford City Hall Elevator. Here’s something that not many guidebooks will recommend.  Stop in to City Hall to find the Oldest Operating Elevator in the US – a 1912 Otis human-run steel and wrought iron cage with a curved cushioned bench large enough for six. Ask for a ride to the top floor – the 4th. It’s a time machine for sure. Mon-Fri. 8am-4pm. Free.

Vaseline Glass made with uranium glows green under ultraviolet light at New Bedford Museum of Glass

VISIT: New Bedford Museum of Glass. Hidden in the back of the former Wamsutta Textile Mill (now an antique mall), you might expect this museum to be hokey or commercial or, worse, kitschy, but it’s none of these things. In fact, I recommend this place highly. Glassmaking was a huge New Bedford industry in the 1860’s; tableware, quality cut glass, and fancy chandeliers were all manufactured here.  The Museum of Glass showcases glass of all kind from ancient to contemporary – much of it rare, including shelves of Vaseline Glass, made with uranium, which glows green under ultraviolet light in a dark room. (Listen to the insistent Geiger counter in one of the cases). You’ll find Stuben, Orrefors, Tiffany and Chihuly masterpieces. If you have any interest in decorative glass at all, this unassuming museum is a must-see. Mon- Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun 12 -5pm, $5.

storefront of clothing boutique in New Bedford, MA

SHOP: Ahab’s Wife Boutique –  Besides the fact that the name is perfect for this Melville-town, this little boutique, and the adjoining For Veda, are stocked with distinctly cool fashions. At  Bedford Merchant Gift Shop you’ll find typically “resort” like gifts (like a 6 drawer ceramic jewelry box; $22.50) at very reasonable prices. Festoon yourself with craft jewelry from BeJeweled for a lot less than you’ll pay in other cities.  Be sure to wander the cobblestone streets of the Historic District and stop in to as many of the Art Galleries and studios as you can.

Great tacos and burritos at No Problemo in New Bedford, MA - counter of popular burrito shop

Best Restaurants in New Bedford, MA

LUNCH: No Problemo. A bevy of patrons, from  tattooed skateboarders to boardroom executives, line up for the fantastically fresh burritos, tacos and all manner of handheld Mexican Food.  When asked about a favorite restaurant, most locals mention this for deliciousness, freshness, speed and low price. Tacos start at $2.75, Burritos are $6.50.

LUNCH: Destination Soups. Are the soups “Soup Nazi” good?  I’d say very close, but without the attitude.  Don’t restrict yourself to soup alone, however.  This place does an excellent job with specialty Grilled Cheese, as well, like the Rick Cheese – stuffed with apple, bacon and balsamic vinegar ($3.10 small, $5.70 full size).

EAT: Freestone’s City Grill. The chowder served within this former 140 year old Citizens National Bank Building keeps winning awards. You’ll see why. Close to the Whaling Museum, Freestone’s has been a local favorite for years.

Special Spices and Unique indoor BBQ spit make Churrascaria Novo Mundo a top New Bedford restaurant

EAT: Churrascaria Novo Mundo. Walk into this less-than-nondescript building and you’ll be rewarded with what I’ll go out on a limb to say is one of the top 10 chicken dishes this side of the Azores. Toasted to perfection on an unusual Portuguese indoor barbeque spit, these flattened half chickens come to the table with heaps of fries and rice for just $6.99.

New Bedford, MA's great new wine shop - inexpensive offerings

EAT: Urban Grille. Start with hot foccocia bread and whole-garlic-olive oil, then tuck into Blue Cheese Puffs, Fra Diavlo Mussels over Pasta and finish with Oreo Sweetbread Pudding – all for $40 FOR TWO on Wednesdays – “Date Night.”  Even on other days of the week, inventive entrees are a reasonable $15-$25 each in this hot new restaurant.  Beforehand, pick up a bottle or two of wine (many 2 for $20) at Crush Fine Wine Boutique across the street. It’s the perfect marriage of incredibly inexpensive fine wines and a terrific BYOB restaurant. To sweeten the deal, both Crush and Urban Grill offer a 10% discount for the pairing.

Tasting room of Urban Winery - Travessia in New Bedford, MA

SIP: Travessia Urban Winery. You won’t see a vine in sight, but what you will see, and sip, are some great wines.   Travessia sources grapes from within a ten-mile radius and produces cases of award-winning, light, sweet Vidal Blanc and pleasurable  Pino Noir Rose. Buy local.  Buy a bottle or two of each. Open Wed – Sat Noon – 6pm, Sun. Noon – 5pm.

DRINK: Two bars in repurposed waterfront buildings compliment each other and attract Vineyard Ferry travelers like frat boys to keg parties.  Most nights, you find a vibrant scene at Cork (for wine flights) and Rose Alley (beer flights).

Colorful Lobby of new Fairfield Inn in New Bedford, MA

Best Lodging in New Bedford, MA

STAY: New Bedford Fairfield Inn and Suites. The Mavens don’t usually extoll the wonderment of chain hotels, but this is one of the few exceptions. In punchy blues and orange hues, this new establishment hard by the grungy working docks took a big leap of faith when it opened several years ago.  Now, rooms are nearly 100% occupied in season, because more and more tourists  traveling to Boston or the Cape or who come off the high-speed Vineyard Ferry across the street are choosing to stay overnight.  With helpful friendly staff, this franchise feels more like a B&B, offering a free shuttle within a five-mile radius, free Wi-Fi, a small fitness room that overlooks a sparkling indoor pool and complementary hot breakfast.  Rates – $109 to $249 – vary with size of room and season includes internet, hot breakfast, parking, tea and coffee 24/7, and complimentary shuttle.

STAY; Orchard Street Manor. A former 1845 Captain’s home “on the hill,” Orchard Street Manor is filled with antique gleaned from the world travels of hosts Al and Suzanne Saulniers. Enjoy hot homemade muffins and fresh fruit salads each morning in a unique oval dining room, and great insider information about New Bedford from your gracious hosts.  $125-$250 per night includes gourmet breakfast.

{ 10 comments… add one }

  • Jacob June 25, 2013, 12:52 am

    Fantastic article! We met briefly when you and your friend bought wine from me at Crush. Let me just say again, I could not possibly be prouder to live in New Bedford, and I am grateful that travel writers like you are spreading the word. As far as I’m concerned, the biggest thing holding us back right now is a sorely out of date bad reputation. All it would take for everyone’s mind to change would be for them to come see us for themselves. Walk down the narrow cobblestone streets lined with elegant red brick Victorian buildings downtown, take an AHA! Night stroll and see what New Bedford’s thriving arts scene has to offer, drive around Rodney French Boulevard and check out the magnificent ocean and harbor views, go for a walk around our numerous, immaculately maintained parks from Buttonwood to Hazelwood to Riverside, or dine at our numerous restaurants, from upscale fine dining to beloved ethnic eateries where you’re often the only one ordering in English. Slightly over four years ago I moved from Boston’s southern suburbs to New Bedford, initially lured because it was affordable, but once I saw it for myself it was love at first sight. My then-girlfriend (now wife), a 13th generation Nantucketer, moved here with me, and feels the same way. Two years ago we had our first child, a girl, and so we moved out of our loft apartment on the harbor and bought a house in the West End, where we are excited to raise our growing family. As I predicted when we first arrived, New Bedford has steadily improved, WITHOUT compromising its unique character and quirkiness. It’s the sort of city where parking lots are bulldozed to create parks, rather than the other way around, and chain stores and restaurants seem to know they’re not wanted. When so much of America spent the latter 20th Century destroying history and community to make way for cars, malls, and big box stores, the Whaling City was tightening its belt in tough times (the textile industry collapsed along with the rest of American manufacturing), but most importantly they were protecting their historic sites and other heritage. In 1996 the city’s downtown received the unique blessing of being declared one of the only urban national parks in the whole country, thus preserving it much as Melville would have seen it when he wrote Moby Dick, and granting federal money to ensure that the Belgian blocks are always swept, the Victorian street lamps are always lit, the clapboards on historic buildings are always painted, and the quaint shopfronts lining the streets are always full of unique local businesses. If you love history, if you’re a romantic, if you’d rather walk or bike than drive, and if you wish America was just a bit more “Old World” in feel, then you belong in New Bedford!

    • jeremiah hart June 25, 2013, 1:10 am

      You make me want to come visit your town, Maybe you should write a book!! You could nail it all the way!!

    • Karissa DeCarlo June 25, 2013, 3:38 pm

      Jacob-wonderfully written!

    • Malerie Yolen-Cohen June 26, 2013, 8:24 pm

      Hi Jacob – Wonderfully put! You SHOULD write a book! You obviously love your adopted city very much.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Malerie

  • Chuck June 26, 2013, 12:40 pm

    There are three other bed and breakfast accommodations in the Historic West End in addition to the Ochard St. Manor. They are Captain Haskell’s Octagon House, Davenport House, and the Melville House. Each is different but located within easy walking distance of the downtown and NatIonal Historical Park. Captain Haskell’s is pet friendly.

    The Zeiterion Theatre presents a broad range of nationally and internationally noted acts including music, theater, dance and comedy. The Festival Theater at the Zeiterion presents two professionally produced musicals each summer. An ongoing series of festivals caters to all tastes (musical and culinary) an includes the New Bedford Folk Festival (formerly Summerfest) and a Working Waterfront Festival that give access to working fishing boats and music, spoken word, demonstrations and information relating to commercial fishing industry and cultures. The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament is the largest Portuguese festival outside of Portugal and features food, drink, and a range of music in a joyful and safe setting.

    The Schooner Ernestina, Massachusetts’ official vessel and the oldest Grand Banks fishing schooner, an Arctic exploration vessel and Cape Verdean packet is homeported in New Bedford and docked at State Pier. There are four antique centers and a number of shops that draw merchandise from the attics and collections of the local population.

    New Bedford’s central location along the South Coast which runs from Narragansett Bay to Cape Cod provides a good base for day-tripping to Newport, lovely seaside villages, Plymouth, the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard as well as Providence and Boston. The City’s marina at Pope’s Island has facilities to serve cruising boaters.

    Plenty to see, do and eat.

    • Malerie Yolen-Cohen June 26, 2013, 8:21 pm

      Chuck – Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, New Bedford has so much more than what I wrote about here, but this is not meant to be an exhaustive city guide. As a blog, these represent my own picks for what to do in New Bedford if a visitor only has a couple of days. As a journalist for Offshore Magazine, I covered The Feast of the Blessed Sacrament specifically, and though it is one great festival, these posts are “evergreen” – and apply to all times of year. I did take pictures of the Ernestina, but decided not to include it at this point since visitors can’t board it for now.
      I appreciate your suggestions, though. That’s what makes this site so great. People in the know can add to what I’ve already written.
      Malerie

  • Francis Allen July 2, 2013, 11:52 pm

    New Bedford was a winner venue for our annual seminar held there last May and The Fairfield Inn, indeed, was an outstanding facility. The New Bedford Museum of Glass, plus all the other points of interest in New Bedford make it ideal site for any event as well as a great place for a family visit.

  • Jenny Lee Paiva July 10, 2013, 2:42 pm

    Hello,

    Great article! It seems we have a similar passion for all things South Coast! I am part of the New Bedford Travel Guide team working to provide visiting vacationers and local residents an all access guide to New Bedford and the South Coast. We hope to link up with you soon and perhaps work in unity! I look forward to your response! Thanks!

  • Al Saulniers August 31, 2013, 12:34 am

    Malerie,
    Just stumbled across the site. Great reporting again on New Bedford ! Some of your readers may appreciate our latest book about the history of this unique city that just appeared in June. More about the book on the publisher’s site including reviews at:
    http://www.spinnerpub.com/A_Picture_History_of_New_Bedford_1.html
    Fond regards and keep up the good work,
    Al Saulniers
    The Orchard Street Manor

    • Malerie Yolen-Cohen August 31, 2013, 7:46 am

      Great hearing from you, Al! It’s been a long time since I stayed at Orchard Street, but I remember it fondly (and wow- what a dining room!). Thanks for the link to the book – I’m sure it will help future visitors and historians.
      Thanks for reading and commenting –
      Malerie

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