watching the African penguins at Mystic Aquarium

As chocolate ice cream dribbled down my littlest’s chin, a band played in the background, and the sun set behind my family, I could only think one thing: best vacation ever!

We’ve made visiting Mystic, Connecticut a family tradition for years now. Full of New England charm and nestled halfway between New York and Boston just off Interstate 95, it’s the perfect destination for families living in (or traveling through) the northeast.

Over the years we’ve done our share of exploring the area and there are a few family-friendly spots in and around Mystic that stick out for us.

Things to Do with Kids in Mystic, Connecticut

Mystic Aquarium

I’ve been going to Mystic Aquarium since the early 80s. I remember being so excited packing up our minivan with coolers full of drinks and food that would last our family of six all day. We could barely sit still once we hit the road.

Those warm, fuzzy feelings are what made me want to take our girls there. And, for the past five summers, we’ve done just that.

There are so many cool things about this aquarium.  One of the first exhibits we always check out is the beluga whales—this aquarium has the only beluga whales in New England! It is absolutely amazing to watch a gigantic beluga whale swim right past you. They weigh thousands (!) of pounds but they glide by with ease. Ellie couldn’t get enough of them.

beluga whale at Mystic Aquarium

We also always look forward to the sea lion show. There’s a theme each year (this year it was TV) and the aquarium builds a theatrical performance around it. The sea lions perform tricks, the trainers tell jokes, and you learn a lot of fun facts about sea lions (including how to protect them and some little nuggets about conservation too).

Mystic Aquarium sea lion showsea lion waving hello at the Mystic Aquarium sea lion showsea lion tricks at the Mystic Aquarium sea lion show

Another exhibit that we love is the African penguin exhibit. There’s an outside area where you can watch the little guys waddle around on rocks and interact with the staff. You can ask questions and take pictures and squeal at their ridiculous cuteness. There is also a cool inside viewing area where you can watch them swim underneath the big rocks. Kids go wild for this part! Their little squeals as penguins swim right in front of their faces makes the entire day!

African penguins at Mystic Aquariumwatching the African penguins at Mystic Aquariumup close with the African penguins at Mystic Aquarium

Other bits we never miss include the jellyfish gallery (they’re so cool and weird), the coral (Samantha loves them), and the Birds of the Outback Exhibit (check out the pictures below to see why!). There’s also a ray and shark touch pool, frogs, a giant turtle, and so many different kinds of fish.

We love this place and can’t wait to go back again next year!

jellyfish at Mystic Aquariumcolorful fish and coral at Mystic Aquariumfeeding birds at Mystic Aquarium's Birds of the Outback exhibitbirds at Mystic Aquarium's Birds of the Outback exhibit

Mystic Seaport

Another spot to check out with plenty of family fun is Old Mystic Seaport. It’s a recreated 19th-century seafaring village, filled with historians, musicians, storytellers, and craftspeople who bring New England’s seafaring past to life. The Seaport has something for a variety of age groups—whether you want to explore historic vessels, enjoy a show at the planetarium, visit the children’s museum, make some art or toy boats, or learn something new at the Discovery Barn.

Pro tip: If you plan to visit both the aquarium and the seaport, look for discount packages!

Historic Downtown Mystic

If you like to shop and wander around new places like the girls and I do, you’ll love downtown Mystic. Home to 80 independently-owned shops, you can find clothing, books, home decor and more on this cute little strip. There are also plenty of restaurant options (Mystic Pizza, anyone?) and ice cream too.

Another really cool feature of the downtown area is the drawbridge across Mystic River. It’s operated by enormous weights and is amazing to watch open and close (although it does back up traffic for a bit). We love to grab some dessert from Mystic Drawbridge Ice Cream, bring it down to the water and watch in awe. We were lucky enough to be there on a day when there was music in the park.

We didn’t go this year because of the weather, but last year we also rented a couple of kayaks and did a little sightseeing that way. There are also cruises and harbor tours you can enjoy if you’re not feeling the physical exertion.

eating ice cream in downtown MysticMystic drawbridgestrolling through downtown Mystickayaking on Mystic River

Ocean Beach Park

We were also really bummed to miss out on the beach this time. Ocean Beach Park is a great spot for families. The waves are never too big, which is great for little swimmers. This spot also has a boardwalk with an arcade at the end, which we’ve gone to a few times and which my husband and Samantha always look forward to. It also has some amusement rides (I would skip them), a mini-golf course, and a pool and spray park area we’ve never been able to find.

We’ve always gone early in the day on a weekday and it’s never been too crowded.

Olde Mistick Village

This is another spot we never miss! Olde Mistick Village is designed to look like a 1720s-era New England Village. With lots of unique shops along tree-lined pedestrian lanes and a variety of food options (we tried Jealous Monk, a delicious and new-to-us social hall and beer garden), we can get lost there for hours.

This year the girls were partial to Bestemor’s (a Scandinavian gift shop), Mystical Elements (a shop for all things mystical), and Pop on the Block (a gourmet popcorn shop that lets you sample their delicious treats). And we always stop at Sofia’s Mystical Christmas to buy a new ornament that will remind us of our vacation.

ornament shopping in Olde Mistick Village in Mystic, Connecticutquaint little shops in Olde Mistick Village in Mystic, Connecticut

Other nearby attractions

If you’re looking for some other options, there is also:

  • The Dinosaur Place at Nature’s Art Village
  • Fearless Flyers Academy
  • Mystified: Escape Rooms
  • Aerial Adventure Park at Fields of Fire
  • The Denison Homestead Museum

And for grown-up time: the Connecticut Wine Trail, Foxwoods Resort & Casino, and Mohegan Sun Casino.

Where to Stay: Hilton Mystic

For us, staying at the Hilton Mystic is a no-brainer. Not only is this hotel steps away from the Mystic Aquarium and Olde Mistick Village, but it’s also less than two miles from downtown Mystic, placing it right at the center of all of our fun.

Recently renovated, we love the modern design and the magical outdoor courtyard area that includes twinkle lights, fire pits, and cozy couches. Also, can we talk about the salt water pool?! The girls were absolutely smitten and would’ve been thrilled to spend most of every day there.

This hotel is also really great for families. They have a summer schedule of kid-friendly activities on “Buccaneer Island.” Guests are greeted at Friday check-in by Captain Grinnell, a pirate named after historic Mystic shipbuilders. As if that’s not enough, there are activities at the pool led by a “Director of Fun” and dive-in movies on a poolside big screen. It’s kiddie heaven!

hanging out at Hilton Mysticplaying games in the Hilton Mystic lobby - family-friendly hotel in Mystic, Connecticutenjoying the pool at Hilton Mystic - family-friendly hotel in Mystic, Connecticut6 of the best family-friendly spots in Mystic, CT

Interested in more family-friendly vacation ideas? Check out our trip to Basin Harbor in Vermont.

Big thank you to both the Hilton Mystic (owned and operated by Distinctive Hospitality Group) and Mystic Aquarium for hosting us on this trip. All opinions are my own.

Written by Jennifer Garry
Jen is a freelance writer and girl mom from New York. When she's not knee-deep in glittery crafts and girl talk, you can probably find her sprawled across her couch in the middle of a Netflix marathon with dark chocolate smeared on her face. The struggle is real.