“A dead whale or a stove boat.”
This line from Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick is inscribed on a bronze and granite statue across from the New Bedford Free Public Library. In simple terms, it meant: “It’s either you or the whale. What’s it gonna be?” For the city’s sailors, whalers, and deckhands, it was an even more stark mantra: “Failure is not an option.”
For more than 100 years, New Bedford was “the city that lit the world.” At its peak during the whaling industry’s heyday, whale products — oil, blubber, meat, and bone — poured into its port from every corner of the world. It was a Gold Rush on the high seas for immigrants from Cape Verde, the Azores, and mainland Portugal. Today, it’s still the most profitable fishing port in the United States, besting even Alaska.
Remnants of this maritime past dot the skyline. Century-old church spires, widow’s watches, copper whale weathervanes, and the rooftops of “towering” three-story Captain’s homes along Millionaire’s Row tell the story of a city built on the backs of god-fearing sailors. New Bedford’s maritime roots profoundly shaped its present-day rough and tumble ethos, and the folks here like it the way.
But the edges of its gritty facade have softened in recent years. The city — once merely a footnote for Providence and Boston tourists en route to Cape Cod — is coming into its own as a legit New England destination. Boutique shops, craft brewpubs, a world-class theater, and downtown walking tours guided by the National Park Service are all breathing new life into The Whaling City. Here’s the lowdown on our favorite places to eat, play, shop, and stay in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
New Bedford is whaling. It’s impossible to understand the city’s past and present without an appreciation of its rich whaling history. First-time visitors would do well to head to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It’s the world’s largest, providing an exhaustive look into the history, implications, and influence of whaling, both locally and globally. A few blocks away is Seamen’s Bethel, a historic, nearly-200-year-old whaler’s chapel that’s among New England’s most iconic thanks in large part to Moby-Dick.
Eat and Drink
After more than a century of heavy immigration from mainland Portugal and the Azores, New Bedford culture is inextricably linked to the motherland. Nowhere is this more evident than the city’s food scene. From tiny, no-nonsense mom-and-pop takeout joints to sophisticated fine-dining restaurants, there’s an authentic Portuguese restaurant on almost every other street. Ask a dozen locals which is best, and you’ll hear a dozen different answers.
Tia Maria’s is a picture-perfect blend of charming European cafe and traditional Portuguese eatery. In winter, grab a galão (a Portuguese hot drink of espresso and foamed milk) and a pastel de nata (an egg custard tart that’s arguably Portugal’s signature dessert) and head to the intimate back lounge to while away a few hours with a copy of Moby-Dick. When the weather warms up, cafe tables provide a great alfresco base to people-watch along the city’s cobblestone streets.
For afternoon drinks while keeping tabs on the Patriots, Rose Alley Ale House is among downtown’s best watering holes. The real hook here is their dozens of ever-changing tap handles that represent a majority of great Massachusetts and New England brews. dNB Burgers likewise offers a solid if brief beer menu. However, it’s most noteworthy for having some of the best burgers and fries in all of New England. Your order: New Bedford poutine (with house-made chouriço) and the Wrangler 3.0 Burger. Wash it down with a Portugal Libre (Full Rich Madeira wine, Cane Cola, Angostura bitters, and a lime finish).
For fine dining, Cork is a sophisticated yet unpretentious wine bar that’s the best in the city for a romantic dinner. The intimate interior is awash in beautifully preserved, century-old, exposed brick, stone, and timber. In order: Start with the calamari, fill up on the daily scallop special (New Bedford scallops are the best and freshest in the country), and finish with their seasonal creme brulee. Back every course with a three-pour wine flight.
When the daily summertime ferries arrive from Martha’s Vineyard and the islands, tourists hit up The Landing. Theirs is a solid selection of New Bedford-branded souvenirs — all walk a fine line between authentic and kitsch. For 100-percent local, one-of-a-kind artisan goods, Hippo is the place to shop downtown. The boutique store sells everything from unique screen-printed New Bedford T-shirts to handmade men’s soaps and shaving essentials to whale-inspired knick-knacks.
For more niche wares, stop at Purchase Street Records, a 300-square-foot blip of a store that manages to house more than 10,000 vintage vinyl records. Creative types will also appreciate the beautiful, organized chaos in every piece at Paradise Mcfee Studio. The gallery is full of works that cleverly combine nostalgia, art history, pop culture, and kitsch.
The lack of boutique hotels in its downtown core is a testament to the infancy of New Bedford’s tourism scene. In fact, the only “traditional” hotel is a Fairfield Inn & Suites.
But, if you’re looking to sidestep a big-box hotel stay for more authentic digs, look to Airbnb. Hillman House, for example, is a large apartment in a beautiful family home with thoroughly modern amenities in the city’s West End neighborhood. This two-story penthouse apartment in a historic stone building (right above the aforementioned Cork restaurant) offers panoramic harbor views from its private rooftop deck. Just across the bridge from downtown, neighboring Fairhaven provides even more maritime-themed lodging like this docked 29-foot Chris Craft with views of downtown New Bedford.
Featured image courtesy of Destination New Bedford.