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New Bedford, Massachusetts Guide

Once among New England's prime whaling ports, New Bedford is known today for its excellent whaling museum and for the ferries to Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket islands.

New Bedford MA
Whaling Museum on Johnny Cake Hill, New Bedford MA.

New Bedford, like Fall River MA, owed part of its living to textiles, but its fame rests on its history as a 19th-century whaling port.

Herman Melville set his American classic, Moby Dick, in New Bedford as the logical spot to begin a whaling epic, and so it was.

It wouldn't be far wrong to say that without understanding whaling, one can't understand 19th-century New England; and the place to find out about whaling is certainly New Bedford.

During the heyday of whale-oil lamps, New Bedford had about 400 ships out scouting the seas for the monster denizens.

A ship might be at sea for several years, and when it returned to port it could have thousands of barrels of whale oil in its hold, plus whalebone for corsets and collar stays, and priceless ambergris for the making of perfumes.

The story of whaling—how the ships were staffed and equipped, how the search was carried out, how the men pursued and killed the whale, and then butchered and rendered it to get the oil—is all told in the justly-famous New Bedford Whaling Museum on Johnny Cake Hill (map), just up the hill from the city's still-active waterfront piers from which the SeaStreak fast ferry goes daily in summer to Martha's Vineyard Island.

Johnny Cake Hill and New Bedford's historic waterfront district have undergone extensive renovation and restoration in recent years.

Going down to the water's edge along cobbled streets, the Custom House and many merchants' buildings have been restored. The historic center of the city now has an appearance much like it had during its 19th-century heyday—only today it's much cleaner.

New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

Numerous historic sites in New Bedford are included in the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park. The Visitor Center is at 33 William Street in the midst of historic New Bedford.

New Bedford Whaling Museum

Atop Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the historic waterfront district (map), the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a complex of several buildings which fill the block between William and Union streets. The museum is dedicated to the history of New Bedford, with particular emphasis on the story of whaling in the age of sail.

As you enter you'll see the stupefying full-size whale skeletons hanging in the modern three-storey-high main hall. Stairways and platforms allow you to inspect these gigantic specimens pretty well.

Galleries of old photographs and drawings explaining the whaling industry, and other rooms in the museum hold collections of whaling lore: cooperage and chandlery; records of the countinghouse, brokerage, banking, and insurance; and articles of glass, china, and pewter manufactured in the New Bedford area, or owned by leading citizens.

Don't miss the largest ship model in the world: a replica of the bark Lagoda made to exactly one half the ship's original size. Rigging, tryworks, whaleboats, and other equipment are all in place, and you can walk about the model at will. The family who owned and operated the Lagoda donated the model, and the building to house it, to the museum.

  Awashonks Figurehead, New Bedford MA
  Ship's figurehead.

Perhaps the most beautiful exhibit besides the Lagoda is the scrimshaw, the delicate, intricate articles of carved whalebone and tooth which the whalesmen/scrimshander made to while away the long hours at sea. The artistry displayed is almost breathtaking, and the ingenuity revealing of quick and sensitive minds.

When you're done at the Whaling Museum, cross the street to the Seamen's Bethel (chapel), a 19th-century sailors' refuge still in excellent condition.

More about whales? Head for the Nantucket Whaling Museum on Nantucket island, and Mystic Seaport on the Connecticut shoreline.

Seamen's Bethel

Across the street from the Whaling Museum (map), the Seamen's Bethel is a chapel constructed in 1832 "for the moral improvement of sailors," and immortalized in Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Several blocks away, at Pleasant and William, the New Bedford Public Library has displays of whaling books and pamphlets. More...

Rotch-Jones-Duff House & Garden

A beautiful example of Greek Revival architecture as practiced by New Bedford's wealthy whaling merchants, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House at 396 County Street (map) was designed in 1834 by Richard Upjohn, founder of the American Institute of Architects. The period gardens include a wildflower walk.

New Bedford Fire Museum

Anyone interested in the history of firefighting in America will want to take a look at the New Bedford Fire Museum (Tel 508-992-2162) at 51 Bedford Street, corner of 6th Street (map). Come any day in summer to see the restored antique fire trucks and other firefighting equipment, displays of old uniforms, working models of pumps and fire poles, and other memorabilia.

Transportation

New Bedford is 57 miles (92 km) south of Boston, 32 miles 51.5 km) southeast of Providence, 38 miles (61 km) southwest of Plymouth, 15 miles (24 km) east of Fall River.

Intercity Bus

Peter Pan Bus Lines connects New Bedford with Providence RI, Boston MA, Cape Cod MA (Woods Hole and Hyannis), New York City, Hartford CT and New Haven CT. More...

Local Transport

New Bedford city buses are operated by the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority based at the New Bedford Transportation Center, 134 Elm Street (map), which is only a short walk from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park Visitor Center and Johnny Cake Hill.

Train

New Bedford has no direct train service, but you can ride an Amtrak or MBTA Commuter Rail train to Providence, then take a bus to New Bedford.

Ferries to Martha's Vineyard & Nantucket

Seastreak operates large, fast catamaran passenger ferries (no cars) from New Bedford's State Pier (map) four times daily to Martha's Vineyard (to Vineyard Haven from late April to mid-May, to Oak Bluffs from mid-May to mid-October). The voyage takes about an hour. More...

Seastreak's Nantucket ferry departs from the State Pier three times daily in summer on the 1 hour, 40 minute voyage to Nantucket (Steamship Authority Dock). More...

Valet parking ($30 per calendar day) is available right at the State Pier. Ample self-parking is available at the public Elm Street Parking Garage, 51 Elm Street, 3/10 mile (500 meters) northwest of the State Pier ($18 per day); and at the public Whales Tooth Parking Lot, 532 Acushnet Avenue, 6/10 mile (1 km) north of the State Pier ($15 per day).