Plymouth spreads out along the coastline of Massachusetts and carries the label of “America’s Hometown.” Here, in 1620, the Mayflower made landfall, the sea-weary passengers stumbled off the ship, and soon the village of Plymouth took shape. After spending months tossed about on the waves of the Atlantic, the group was happy to come ashore, form a colony, and begin a new life.
Just a 45-minute drive south of Boston, the town of Plymouth is an ideal day trip. It’s also just a short drive from Cape Cod. In Plymouth, you can tour reproductions of the Mayflower and the first English settlement, called Plimoth Plantation. The daily life of the Native Americans, here long before the English, is on display at Patuxet. Add to your day a visit to a grist mill, a look at (tiny) Plymouth Rock, and sampling local beers, and you have lots of possibilities for enjoyment.
Pro Tip: If you time your visit for the fall, Plymouth will be showing off its splendid leaves of red and gold. And you can also go to a nearby cranberry bog as the berries are floated up to harvest. The red-colored bogs are an unforgettable sight.
Step Aboard The Mayflower
This full-size reproduction of the Mayflower is newly restored and recently re-docked in Plymouth Harbor. You’ll find the Mayflower at the State Pier in Pilgrim Memorial State Park in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of its arrival in New England. Step onboard this ship and experience firsthand what it was like to live in this confined space for weeks at sea.
This is a living history museum, with people dressed in period clothes and talking with you about their voyage. Be sure to strike up conversations as you move through the ship. You can learn about the mechanics of sailing the ship, as well as daily life onboard.
What struck me immediately was how small this vessel is. It must have been difficult for passengers to spend day after day in the dark confines below deck. The Mayflower picked up people at different ports in England, so some spent as long as nine months on the ship.
Allow about an hour at the Mayflower.
Pro Tip: I began my day here, then headed to Plimoth Plantation and Patuxet Museum, free to spend the remainder of the day, as there’s more to see there. Also, you will beat the crowds by going to the Mayflower early in the day.
Immerse Yourself In The Daily Life Of The Pilgrims At The Plimoth Plantation
Follow the signs and drive about three miles inland from the Mayflower to Plimoth Plantation. This recreation of the English settlers’ first village includes about a dozen buildings, gardens, fences, woodpiles, and livestock. Life in the 1600s is on display, and you can walk through it all. You meet living history guides of all ages who will tell you what they are doing and talk about life in the early days of the village.
The first village was located about three miles away, also on a hill above the water. Plimoth has been recreated using notes, journals, drawings, and archeology. The result brings colonial Plimoth vividly to life. You will feel you have traveled back in time. Interpreters will explain what they are eating for lunch or how they chopped wood for that big pile to prepare for winter. On my first visit, I went with my dad, and he helped build a fence. The wooden nails fascinated him. On my next visit, I watched a young man put on a roof as he explained the process to us.
Feel free to ask the costumed colonists anything about their lives. Nothing is off the table. Discuss religious views, healthcare, education and raising children, cooking, and how they get along with the Native Americans who live nearby. Also, take time to relax on a wooden bench and revel in the historic atmosphere.
Animal lovers will be pleased to know about the plantation’s Rare and Heritage Breeds Program. Many animals originally living here are no longer used in agriculture and are endangered. At Plimoth, these historic breeds are being saved. As you tour, you may see Milking Devon and Kerry cattle, Wiltshire Horned sheep, and San Clemente Island goats. Head for the Nye Barn to find out more.
You may wonder why the plantation spells its name different from the town, substituting “Plimoth” for “Plymouth.” In the 17th century, words were often spelled phonetically without consistency from document to document. Governor William Bradford wrote his history of the colony using “Plimoth,” so the administration of the historical site chose to use his version.
Learn About Wampanoag Culture At The Patuxet Museum
The outdoor Patuxet Museum, located along the banks of the Eel River, is adjacent to Plimoth Plantation and portrays the life of the native Wampanoag people. The Native people you meet here are planting crops, fishing, gathering wild herbs and berries for food, and fashioning reeds into mats and baskets. Homes in this village include the mat-covered wetu and a longer, bark-covered house with three fire pits inside. Food is cooked over an open fire using only the ingredients that were available in the 1600s.
Your experience here differs from Plimoth Plantation because the staff members are not playing a role. They are Native people, dressed in the deerskin style of the 17th century, but they speak from a present-day viewpoint. They will greet you and invite you inside a wetu or talk about what’s growing in the garden. You can learn about Wampanoag history, hear stories, and play a traditional game of hubbub. The Wampanoag People have lived in this region for more than 10,000 years, and they are pleased to share their culture with visitors.
Stop At The Visitor Center
The visitor center at Plimoth Plantation and Patuxet Museum offers museum shops that carry everything from books and toys and specialty foods to Native jewelry.
If you’ve worked up an appetite during your tours, the Plentiful Cafe features menu items adapted from both English colonial and Native cultures. Eat in the spacious restaurant or take your food to go and spread out a picnic on the lawn overlooking Cape Cod Bay.
Find Plymouth Rock
You’ve likely heard that famous Plymouth Rock can disappoint when you finally see it. Still, you must stop by this small boulder when you are in Plymouth. It’s legendary.
The rock became famous through oral history as the landing place of the English colonists. Early settlers would take their children to stand on the rock. Stories of the Mayflower voyage and landing here were imparted from generation to generation.
The rock became a symbol of liberty after the American Revolution. It’s fenced off for protection and awaiting your visit, just a few steps from the Mayflower.
It’s worth knowing that Plymouth is actually the second place the Mayflower landed after its historic voyage. The destination had been the mouth of the Hudson River. But, blown off course, the Mayflower landed far to the south. On November 9, 1620, passengers spied land at last after a long, tortuous voyage and docked at what is now Provincetown, Massachusetts, at the tip of Cape Cod. After a few days here, the Mayflower sailed across Cape Cod Bay to present-day Plymouth. And it was in Plymouth that the group settled.
Learn About Milling At The Plimoth Grist Mill
Mills were essential to an economy that grew corn, and Plymouth had a beautiful one. Plymouth’s Grist Mill is recreated to look as it did in 1636. This fully functional mill runs on water power from Town Brook. Two huge millstones grind corn. Tour the mill, then stop to buy stone-ground cornmeal at the shop.
Savor Local Cuisine (And Beer)
Plymouth is home to a local brewery that produces unique, high-quality ales and lagers. The Mayflower Brewing Company opened in 2007 and is dedicated to “celebrating the history and legacy of beer in America.” Founded by a descendant of John Alden, who was the beer barrel cooper on the Mayflower, this brewery makes traditional-style beers and serves them on the patio. Enjoy food from a variety of food trucks as you sip your lager.
For a delicious restaurant dinner, you can’t go wrong at Carmela’s Restaurant. The Viscariello family runs a successful Italian restaurant in Kingston, Massachusetts, and opened a second location in Plymouth. Fresh ingredients go into their pastas and flatbread pizzas. And gluten-free menu items are available.
Plymouth fans out from the water and climbs up gentle hillsides. The views and fresh sea air alone are worth a visit. Add to that the rich heritage of the area and the opportunities to travel back in time, and you have a fascinating place. You’ll be glad you spent a day reveling in the beauty and history of Plymouth.