15 Best Things to Do in Southbridge (MA)

Once an atmospheric mill town on the River Quinebaug, Southbridge has an industrial history dating back to the 18th century. The original sawmills and flour mills eventually gave way to the textile and glass-making industries. large scale

The largest producer of these is the American Optical Company, which has been a boon to Southbridge for over 100 years, earning the town the nickname “Eye of the Commonwealth”.

You can still see the huge American Optical building, which presides over the town’s commune, and there’s a museum documenting the company’s time in the town and the broader optical industry.

Southbridge’s 19th-century wealth brought waves of immigration from Ireland and Canada, and the magnificent Notre Dame Parish Church (1916) is a testament to the town’s Canadian-French heritage.  

1. St. John Paul II Parish (Notre Dame Parish Church)

In the late 1860s, Southbridge had a large French-Canadian population, which had grown steadily since the 1830s and increased rapidly after the Civil War.

The parish of Notre Dame was founded in 1869 and funds were raised to replace the original wooden tabernacle that had been erected in the town.

All of this was realized in 1916 with the wonder building at 446 Main Street, with a tower 210 feet tall and a nave nearly 80 feet wide.

It was designed by Quebec architect Joseph Venne (1858-1925), responsible for more than 60 buildings in the Montreal area, as well as three churches in Massachusetts.

With many stucco moldings, the church has a Rococo-style interior, which also blends earlier Roman and Renaissance elements. This work was done by the Roman artist Gonippo Raggi (1875-1959), who also produced more than 30 oil paintings and six murals for the interior, while the Roman-style windows were decorated Imported from ‘Germany. 

2. Gateway Players

Southbridge’s cultural mainstay for half a century, the Gateway Players is a community theater troupe that hosts a season of shows at Elm Street Congregational Church (61 Elm St) in the town center.

The group was founded in 1975 and quickly moved to headquarters donated by Ruth Wells, a member of the family that owns the American Optical Company.

Showcasing the region’s creative and performing talent, a typical season runs from March to December, with up to five productions. In addition to Broadway-style musicals, you can experience original comedies and plays written by local playwrights.  

3. The Ruth Wells Center for the Arts

The elegant Gateway Players HQ is also a vibrant arts center, hosting exhibitions and classes year-round.

On a spacious site at 111 Main St, it was Southbridge’s largest single-family residence when built in the mid-1820s for Ebenezer Ammidown, which spurred the town’s early industrial development. town.

The house was owned by the Ammidown and Dresser family for most of its history, until it was purchased by Ruth Wells in the 1970s and later donated to the Quinebaug Valley Council for the Arts and Humanities (QVCAH)…

You can enter this majestic building to enjoy exhibits covering a variety of fields, from watercolors to photography.

There are studio workshops open on Saturday mornings, while QVCAH has a store if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind piece of clothing, pottery, photography, jewelry, paintings, or home decor. 

4. Sturbridge Coffee Roasters

This fast-growing chain of mini cafes, based in Southbridge, started operating next to Sturbridge in 2004 and moved there soon after.

Located near the Optical Heritage Museum, Sturbridge Coffee Roasters recently opened two more branches in Dudley and Charlton and set up a dedicated roastery in Southbridge in 2019.

For many, it’s the best coffee for miles, even better knowing they roast their own beans nearby.

You can visit for freshly brewed coffee, a strong beer list, hot chocolates, smoothies, teas, and a menu of snacks for breakfast and lunch. A variety of coffee beans or ground coffee are also available at the store, in 12 oz or 16 oz packages. 

5. Bigelow Hollow State Park and Nipmuck State Forest

Cross the Connecticut border and discover 9,000 acres of outdoor recreation opportunities in a state park nestled in a state forest.

At Bigelow State Park, you’ll enter one of Connecticut’s largest uninterrupted forests, all part of the Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor.

This federally designated site preserves a large swath of northeastern Connecticut and central Massachusetts, featuring a typical New England rural landscape, rarely without light pollution amid the western megacity. Northeast.

You can embrace this solitude on 35 miles of trails, traveling to places as remote as the sublime finger-shaped Breakneck Lake, which is only accessible by foot.

Bigelow Lake and the larger Mashapaug Lake are great places for swimming, kayaking, boating, and fishing in the summer.  

6. Escape the Pike

This escape room attraction near Sturbridge is the brainchild of local owners David and Meghan Jaquith, who met in 2003 while in Afghanistan with US troops.

As enthusiasts, the couple visited hundreds of escape rooms around the world, learned what worked and what didn’t, and filtered that experience into their very own Escape the Pike, which opened in 2019.

What’s immediately striking here is the variety of genres and tones, from the family Christmas cheer of North Pole Meltdown to the tech thriller Spy2k to the post-apocalyptic fantasy Merlin’s Vision. Podunk and the Son of the Zodiac, immerse yourself in the story of the infamous serial killer.

With satisfying puzzles, engaging environments, and friendly game masters, Escape the Pike games can accommodate up to eight players, with a 60-minute countdown.  

7. Quinebaug Valley Rail Trail

Southbridge Station was the terminus of Webster’s Southbridge and Blackstone Railroad, chartered in 1849 and quickly incorporated into the Boston and New York Central Railroad.

For much of the 20th century, the road was used by the Providence and Worcester Railroad for freight before being abandoned. There is a long-term plan to turn this route into an 11-mile track between Southbridge and Webster.

So far, you can do a short hike in the southeastern corner of Southbridge, hiking nearly two miles through the scenic Quinebaug Valley to Dudley and connecting to the local trail network. There is a trail and parking just off Route 131 near the Quinebaug River Reservoir.  

8. New York, New Haven & Hartford Passenger Depot (Southbridge Station)

Curiosity at the north end of Southbridge town center is part of the town’s rail heritage.

Now used by the Southbridge Motor Vehicle Registry, there is a former station built in 1910 in the Spanish Colonial style, with a timber-framed structure, stucco walls, tiled roof, and overhanging eaves. out, skylights, painted cornerstones, and French window arches.

Like several buildings in central Massachusetts, it served as a passenger depot until 1930 and is today the only remaining railroad building in the city.

On the track at the back is an old caboose, believed to have been used on the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad.  

9. Grand Trunk Trail

From the Westville Lake Recreation Area, you can begin your walk or bike ride through the four miles of Quinebaug Valley west of Southbridge.

On a proposed but never-completed railway, the track is part of a project that will soon link the towns of Brimfield, Sturbridge, and Southbridge.

The trail would then connect with the 66-mile Titanic Trail, which cuts through much of central Massachusetts from Palmer West to Franklin.

As we put together this list, you can walk or hike northeast to the Westville Dam, which is surprisingly large at 78 feet by 560 feet. You can also go west about a mile, next to a very secluded, heavily wooded riverbank at the bottom of the valley.  

10. Wells State Park

In the other direction, you can drive ten minutes to this rugged state park on the west shore of 104-acre Lake Walker.

Covering nearly 1,500 acres, Wells State Park is made up of hardwood forest interspersed with eastern white pines.

All of this covers a rocky landscape that gives way to wetlands and picturesque pond shores, suitable for boat trips and fishing.

There are ten miles of trails in the park, and one memorable one is the one that leads to the Carpenters Rocks metamorphic rock, named after the owner of a nearby sawmill and gives you great views of the landscape… There is a 60-site campground in the park, with an exclusive beach on Walker Pond.  

11. Optical Heritage Museum

For more than a century until 1984, Southbridge’s economy was fueled by the American Optical Company, which was established in the town through a merger in 1869.

The optical industry was established here long before that time, and you can delve into that history at a museum that opened in 1983.

The Optical Heritage Museum examines Southbridge’s history through the lens of optical technology, with numerous exhibits of vintage eyeglasses, cases, goggles, and optical instruments made in the town.

In the back hall is a series of original paintings by Herbert Morton Stoops (1888-1948), copies of which hung in hundreds of ophthalmologists’ offices around the country in the mid-20th century.  

12. Old Sturbridge Village

New England’s largest living history museum is minutes away in Sturbridge, recreating the rural life of the area in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Founded by the Wells family, Old Sturbridge Village features more than 60 buildings and structures, on more than 200 acres, all with welcoming interpreters to help familiarize you with the language. traditional crafts, customs, and skills.

Many of the buildings are original and were moved to the village from New England.

These include meeting places, multiple residential areas, a school, a bank, a working farm, shops for a variety of trades, and three watermills.

The village changes with the seasons and offers a dense calendar of programs and events, from fairs and craft classes, to dog days and annual celebrations like the candlelit Christmas village, starting at the end of November.  

13. Westville Lake Recreation Area

A little steep from downtown Southbridge, the Westville Dam was built for flood control in the early 1960s by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

As part of the Thames Basin network, the dam has prevented millions of dollars in damage downstream over the past 60 years. USACE continues to manage the site, including a recreation area on the upper river bypass.

The Westville Lake Recreation Area is a great place for hiking or picnicking by the water, with a charcoal grill, a fishing area, and a canoe/kayak launch. Come in winter and there’s pond skating here, as well as one of the best skating hills in the area.  

14. Downtown Southbridge

A few blocks from Main Street, central Southbridge has all the grandeur of a thriving Victorian manufacturing town.

Along this main street are rows of beautiful brick merchant houses, while a number of Renaissance-style towers rise above the cityscape.

See Notre Dame Parish Church (1916), neo-Romanesque Town Hall (1888), former Universalist Church (1840), and neo-Renaissance Elm Street Fire Station (1899), all are on the list of National Historic Sites.

In a town with a recovering population, the center of Southbridge really has a bustling feel and a list of popular places to eat and drink.

Just steps away, you can choose from French bistro classics, seafood, Puerto Rican specialties, Chinese breakfast dishes, American, pizza, Chinese, hot dogs, chicken Fried, and Tacos. 

15. Southbridge Town Common

Unusual for a town, this green space was removed from Southbridge’s central business district and instead sits in the shadow of the former large factory of the American Optical Company.

Now home to a hotel and convention center, this massive brick building with its Renaissance-style tower borders the entire east side of town. To pay homage to what happened before, there’s a giant pair of glasses on the lawn just outside the entrance.

In typical New England style, the common ground is dotted with mature hardwoods and has plenty of benches and picnic tables. At the south end, a stand holds concerts on the Common series, from late June to mid-August.  

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