Thanks to actress Julia Roberts, this maritime community may be best known as the home of Mystic Pizza, the modest pizzeria that turned into an instant tourist attraction when it became the setting for the 1988 movie named after it. But Mystic's true fame is rooted in its rich nautical history. Situated at the mouth of the Mystic River near the state's easternmost shoreline, this seafaring village was once a thriving fishing, whaling, and shipbuilding center. Today, Mystic has preserved its maritime past while also drawing visitors with contemporary attractions. Boutique stores, art galleries, ice cream parlors, and a slew of restaurants line its cute downtown. Nearby are the nation's leading maritime museum, a top-flight aquarium, and a replica Colonial New England town where you can shop to your heart's content. With or without a slice of pizza, Mystic highlights some of the best Connecticut has to offer.
DoStart your Mystic visit with a stop by the Mystic Depot Welcome Center (2 Roosevelt Ave., 860-572-1102) inside the local train station, which has a helpful selection of maps, guides, and brochures. It's open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Then roam around Mystic's small downtown, which is split by the Mystic River and connected by a short drawbridge called the Mystic River Bascule Bridge. With its many art galleries, antiques stores, booksellers, clothing boutiques, jewelers, and souvenir shops, you could spend hours engaging in what the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce calls "shoppertainment."
The Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration (55 Coogan Blvd., 860-572-5955, mysticaquarium.org), an important educational and research facility, has beluga whales, northern fur seals, penguins, sharks, rays, and sea lions that will captivate both kids and adults.
Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea (75 Greenmanville Ave., 860-572-5315, mysticseaport.org) is a living history museum with historic sailing vessels, a working preservation shipyard, and 17 acres of exhibits depicting 19th-century coastal life in New England.
PlayClasses for children and teenagers in drawing, sculpture, and painting are offered at the Mystic Arts Center (9 Water St., 860-536-7601, mysticarts.org), which also has specialized courses such as Chinese watercolors, nature art, cartoon creatures, and drawing animals. It hosts birthday and scouting programs, too.
For outdoor activities, take the family to the 300-acre Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (109 Pequotsepos Road, 860-536-1216, dpnc.org), which has eight miles of trails, a natural history museum, a nature center store, and educational programs on wildflowers, horseshoe crabs, fireflies, and more.
At B.F. Clyde's Cider Mill (129 North Stonington Road, Old Mystic, 860-536-3354), the country's only remaining steam-powered cider mill, you can buy apple wine, jams, jellies, candy apples, apple pies, and, of course, cider, as well as other homemade treats. Established in 1881, it's open from September through December.
RestMystic is loaded with inns and B&Bs. House of 1833 Bed & Breakfast (72 North Stonington Road, Old Mystic, 860-536-6325, houseof1833.com) is a 19th-century Greek Revival mansion with five guest rooms, a swimming pool, and tennis court.
Brigadoon Bed & Breakfast (180 Cow Hill Road, 860-536-3033, brigadoonofmystic.com), housed in a restored Victorian farmhouse, promises a "touch of Scotland."
Right on the Mystic River, the Steamboat Inn (73 Steamboat Wharf, 860-536-8300, steamboatinnmystic.com) has named its guest rooms after famous Mystic ships, while the Old Mystic Inn (52 Main St., 860-572-9422, oldmysticinn.com) has rooms named after New England authors.
Perched above Mystic Harbor and Long Island Sound, the sprawling Inn at Mystic (3 Williams Ave., 860-536-9604, innatmystic.com) was romantic enough to have been the honeymoon spot of Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart.
Chain lodging includes a Comfort Inn (48 Whitehall Ave., 860-572-8531, choicehotels.com), Days Inn (55 Whitehall Ave., 860-572-0574, daysinn.com), and Best Western (9 Whitehall Ave., 800-363-1622, bestwestern.com).
Or rough it at Seaport Campground (Route 184, 860-536-4044, seaportcampground.com), which has RV and tent sites.
PartyCruise or sail the Mystic River aboard a vessel or chartered boat ride with Voyager Cruises (15 Holmes St., 860-536-0416, voyagermystic.com) or Mystic Whaler (860-535-1556, mysticwhaler.com), or aboard the Sabino (at Mystic Seaport, 860-572-5371, mysticseaport.org), one of the country's last operational wooden, coal-powered steamboats.
Fishing is an option, too, through Benmar Custom Charters (Mason's Island Marina, Old North Road, 860-614-2484, happycaptain.com) or Lorna Anne Charters (Mystic Shipyard East, 18 Stafford St., 860-423-9121, lornaannecharters.com).
Just past the Mystic line, Stonington Vineyards (523 Taugwonk Road, 860-535-1222, stoningtonvineyards.com) makes chardonnays, cabernets, gewürztraminers, and other wines that you can sample in its tasting room.
When nighttime rolls around, relax on the outdoor patio at Voodoo Grill (12 Water St., 860-572-4422, thevoodoogrill.com), which has live music every Thursday and Friday and karaoke on Saturday. Promising "a taste of New Orleans," it also serves Cajun, southwestern, Creole, barbecue, and other Bayou fare, including jambalaya, crawfish, gumbo, catfish, and alligator.
SpendThe biggest concentration of stores in Mystic is at Olde Mistick Village (junction of Route 27 and Coogan Boulevard, 860-536-4941, oldemistickvillage.com), which has more than 60 retailers and restaurants. Among them: Penguins, Otters & Others (860-536-7444), which has marine life gifts and souvenirs; Gray Goose Cookery (860-536-5306, graygoosecookery.com), a gourmet kitchen goods and specialty food store; and Chameleon (860-572-9444), selling funky clothing.
In downtown Mystic, Emporium (15 Water St., 860-536-3891) is an old-fashioned general store selling knickknacks galore, from wigs to kites to funky greeting cards.
The Company of Craftsmen (43 West Main St., 860-536-4189, companyofcraftsmen.com) sells the handiwork of more than 250 contemporary American artisans.
Clothing boutiques include Niza (3 West Main St., 860-536-7270) and Stonewear Clothing (33 West Main St., 860-572-0817).
And Ruby and Maggie's Paw Palace (3 Pearl St., 860-536-1583, rubyandmaggiespawpalace.com) specializes in designer dog clothes, novelty leashes, and other indulgences for your pet. Its motto: "Where Naked Animals Are Frowned Upon!"