Best home base town for Connecticut & NYC trip segment
June 7, 2017 8:30 PM   Subscribe

Where should we stay for a few days if we want to visit Mystic Seaport and New Haven/West Haven, plus take a day trip to NYC?

In late July we'll be doing this:
SFO->BOS-> Quincy (for an event)
Renting a car, then Quincy->Amherst area for a day or two
Amherst->???somewhere in CT???

I need help with the CT part. We want to
- spend at least a full day at Mystic Seaport (we might go twice)
- visit some of my spouse's childhood places in West Haven (mostly) and New Haven, go to the Peabody or whatever
- take a day trip to the Ghostbusters thing (no, really) at Madame Tussaud's in Times Square

I'd like to stay in a single location for this part. My concerns are cost, driving (I don't mind driving but I'd love a break from SF Bay Area-style traffic), and making the train trip to NYC as easy as possible.

I have no idea what driving around CT is like, or any experience with East Coast trains. So if you were us, what city or town would you base yourself in? Please show your work.
posted by wintersweet to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Stonington, Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, or Guilford.

Don't drive on a Friday afternoon or Sunday evening on I-95, or any time one would consider rush hour, and you'll be OK. Trains are not super useful but you can definitely take Metro North from New Haven to Grand Central in NYC and it beats driving there.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:42 PM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd push west and stay in New Haven. That makes the Mystic trip a little longer, but you're going to go opposite the bulk of the traffic for the Mystic segment, you can easily catch Metro North from New Haven to NYC, and New Haven has, by far, the best variety of restaurants and "culture" of anywhere in that area for when you return to the area for the evening.
posted by Betelgeuse at 9:05 PM on June 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

I say New Haven, but that's only because I really like New Haven. Go to the food carts outside Yale New Haven Medical School: they are why my trips to Portland are so disappointing every damn time.

The main difference between driving in CT, WA, and CA I've noticed is the lane speed differential: in CT, the left lane is strictly like, 80 or GTFO, and the other lanes are 65. In WA, all lanes are 65 and no one bothers you even if you have been sitting in the left lane for an hour. In CA, all lanes are 80 and you will feel the pressure to go faster. Also, compared to the west coast, rest stops are far more plentiful, so drink your Dunkin' Donuts with abandon.
posted by batter_my_heart at 10:38 PM on June 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I would stay in New Haven. It will make visiting West Haven and New York super easy. There are direct Metro North trains between New Haven's Union Station and Grand Central in New York, and there will be more food options and activity options in New Haven than if you stay in a town like Old Saybrook. Most of the towns along the shore between Mystic Seaport and New Haven are wealthy and are often picturesque, but there isn't a lot going on in them.

Trying to travel by train in eastern Connecticut is just an exercise in frustration. You can drive from New Haven to Mystic in an hour with no traffic. I looked around and the fastest route with the train involves a bus from New London and would take an hour and forty-five minutes and there's basically only one train an hour.
posted by colfax at 2:14 AM on June 8, 2017

In Madison some say "Guilford for culture; Clinton for clams." Guilford has a quaint walkable green in town and some finer dining. Clinton is closer to Mystic and has, clams, and apizza. You can take the Shoreline East to New Haven to connect to Metro North for NYC. Done it many times. Parking etc will be easier there than New Haven. Stop by Ivoryton / Chester on the way back from Mystic for peak New England summer in the area, but there are also some nice birdwatch nature boat trips on the CT river from there. Skip Madison.
posted by Gotanda at 3:46 AM on June 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

New Haven, with the caveat that New Haven is effectively two towns -- one that's wealthy and safe, the other that's poor and dangerous. If a place looks like a bargain, it's probably not somewhere you want to be after dark.

Also, if you like books, go to the Book Barn in, I believe, Niantic. It's amazing.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:06 AM on June 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

There are food carts one block behind the Peabody, on Prospect by the Whale (Yale the hockey rink). They are equal to the Med School downtown carts, and would make the Peabody and lunch a breeze. Nthing New Haven for Metro North to NYC. If you want a suburbish 5 minute drive from your hotel to New Haven, try Hamden, there is a Clarion hotel that is probably less expensive than downtown New Haven. If you want downtown walkable for your hotel in New Haven and have a larger budget, The Study is pretty sweet. Have fun. Oh and pizza, New Haven: Sallys Pepes Modern & Bar!
posted by coevals at 4:17 AM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

You ask about the train setup around here. Effectively there's one train line that's useful to you, running along Long Island Sound all the way from Providence to NYC. There are three train services that use these tracks:
  • Amtrak, which runs (from memory) ~5–6 trains a day. Relatively few stops; a bit more expensive. Trains go all the way up to Boston; pertinent stops for you are Mystic, New London, Old Saybrook, and New Haven. Here's a timetable. In NYC, the trains will drop you at Penn Station.
  • Metro North, which is part of the NYC Metro Transportation system. Commuter rail, so lots of trains going into the city on weekday mornings and leaving on weekday afternoons; less frequent at other times. Runs from NYC (Grand Central) to New Haven.
  • Shore Line East, which runs about 6–8 trains a day from New Haven to New London.
If you were adamant about minimizing your highway driving, I might recommend somewhere along the Shore Line East (particularly Old Saybrook.) However, staying out there requires you to travel at least 30 minutes to pretty much everywhere you want to go, and the NYC trip becomes a bit harder since you can't take advantage of the more-frequent Metro North trains for the whole distance. Given your constraints (and as much as it pains me as a New Londoner), I would say that the New Haven area is your best bet for a base of operations.
posted by Johnny Assay at 4:44 AM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I second the Guilford / Madison option. New Haven really isn't a touristy town, and it's not worth the hassle of getting in/out of it for your other goals. Guilford to Mystic is easy. Guilford to NYC is easy. And it'll be much more pleasant to relax in Guilford in between.

But do get some pizza while you're in New Haven.
posted by Dashy at 5:52 AM on June 8, 2017

I concur about lodging near New Haven.

Fun facts: Connecticut just isn't that big. I live in Stamford at the west end of the state, and it's a bit over 1.5 hours to Mystic, traffic permitting. Unfortunately, traffic on I-95 is legendarily bad in the summer. Also at rush hour any time. I-95 is marked North/South because it runs from Florida to Maine, but it crosses CT in the east/west direction. (East is North, West is South.) The trains run parallel. The intercity Amtrak runs from Providence to Westerly to New Haven to NYC (with other stops). It's cheaper with better choice of trains to take Metro North (the commuter RR) from New Haven. Parking at many of the train stations is scarce due to commuters. (Currently there a garage near the Stamford Station which always has space.) Metro North goes into Grand Central Terminal. Amtrak runs into Penn Station where there are currently fierce delays due to track damage.

About Mystic Seaport: Wear your walking shoes. Do a little research on the website. It's fun to see the bigger vessels but there is also art, maritime and other crafts of the 19th century (blacksmithing, sign carving, sail making, etc), historical artifacts, etc. They have a new building that opened last fall that I've not seen yet. The on-site food is acceptable. (The diner in the former Howard Johnson's building right off the I-95 exit is also acceptable.) Mystic the town is the kind of place people walk around with an ice cream cone. Mystic Pizza is there, but the movie was filmed up the road in Stonington.
posted by SemiSalt at 7:47 AM on June 8, 2017

For mer Mystic resident here. I recommend Old Saybrook. There's a really nice little town beach and hiking trails and things for the family to do after hours. There's plenty of inexpensive lodging and dining. There's some shopping. it's on the Amtrak and Metro North lines to NYC, and you can also even Amtrak to Mystic from there - or it's about a half-hour drive. Lots of fun side trips nearby, like Project O and parks and beaches.
posted by Miko at 8:28 AM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, if you like books, go to the Book Barn in, I believe, Niantic. It's amazing.

Just here to second that. It's a book lover's heaven and nice driving break
posted by TravellingCari at 9:34 AM on June 8, 2017 [4 favorites]

If you stay in New Haven and take the train to NYC--a great plan--make sure you catch the express, not the local train, which has endless stops.
posted by Elsie at 12:08 PM on June 8, 2017

I live in West Haven, 17 years now. It's really gone downhill, like, one or two key businesses have closed up shop every year and nothing's coming in except dollar stores, check cashing places, etc. Ugh. On the plus side, it doesn't feel any less safe than any other small city, and there are still a few key places to visit (Stowe's for seafood, Zuppardi's, the boardwalk, uh, that's about it). The good news is that we definitely don't have SF-level traffic; 95 is shitty, but it's more manageable.

I'd suggest staying anywhere from Branford to Lyme. That would avoid the bridges in New Haven and New London for "normal" driving, and you can hop Shore Line East to Union Station and transfer there. And if you have to drive, traffic is generally at least moving.

Memail me if you want to chat about the area.
posted by disconnect at 12:26 PM on June 8, 2017

I'm gonna nth staying in or near New Haven. I don't know the area very well beyond just driving through, but if your spouse is from West Haven presumably s/he would know which bits to avoid.

I don't really see why you would stay further east. Your train options to NYC are going to be much more limited and/or convoluted and 95 east of New Haven isn't really that bad. It's a little under an hour to Mystic, so very doable for a day trip. I suppose you may want to be closer to Mystic if you're gonna go more than once, but while Mystic is cool I don't think it's worth more than a day.
posted by breakin' the law at 4:11 PM on June 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Milford could be convenient: it's close to New Haven, borders West Haven, and has a Metro-North train station downtown (which brings you to NYC). If you were staying in/near downtown you could walk to the train station - and even one of the beaches. The train from Milford does make local stops until Stamford, where it goes express to 125th St., but if you're not in a hurry the window seat views going down the shoreline can be enjoyable.
posted by mayta at 5:59 PM on June 8, 2017

I think it's important to prioritize here. Do you want maximum convenience (in which New Haven wins), or a nice place to stay and while some time in between day trips? Nothing in CT, not even Mystic, is that far from the train connections at New Haven. So you could even stay in Mystic, drive an hour, and catch your train connections in New Haven or spend the day visiting childhood haunts. And New Haven just doesn't have a ton to offer as a place to stay on vacation.
posted by Miko at 7:06 PM on June 8, 2017

"New Haven doesn't have that much to offer"?


Go to the Peabody. Go to Bernake Library. Go on a crypt tour at the Church on the Green, if you're there on a Saturday. (Serious about that one.)

I highly recommend New Haven, particularly if you can get a place in Wooser Square or the south end of East Rock.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:23 PM on June 8, 2017

Go to the Peabody...

Even with all that, that's just a day. Even with the pizza and Louis Lunch. What I mean is it's not the kind of city base you'd want for a 3-day stayover with a range of daytime and evening activities.
posted by Miko at 8:09 AM on June 9, 2017

There is more than the Peabody. Usually, one or more has a special exhibit running.
posted by SemiSalt at 11:56 AM on June 9, 2017

These are all super useful. Thanks, everyone!
posted by wintersweet at 8:35 PM on June 11, 2017

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