You’ll find plenty of things to do in Lowell MA including learning about the industrial revolution, exploring the hidden Mill No. 5 streetscape, visiting a museum or taking in a show.
While it may take some digging, and a willingness to look beyond the surface, there are several interesting things to do in Massachusett’s fifth-largest city. Over the past few decades, Lowell MA has transformed from a depressed mill town into a center for art, music, and history.
Nowhere is this transformation more on display than in Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District, roughly between Middlesex, Thorndike, and Dummer Streets and the Merrimack River. Here, you’ll find a central downtown that takes on characteristics of nearby Boston – with its cobbled streets, ubiquitous red brick buildings, and a nascent hip urban vibe.
While most visitors to Lowell come to learn about the city’s fascinating role in the industrial revolution with a visit to its National Historic Park, there’s more to do and explore. Art galleries are scattered throughout the downtown as well as enjoyable restaurants, artisan shops, and music and theater performances.
15 FUN Things to do in Lowell MA
Here are fifteen of the best things to do in Mill City:
Visit a restored cotton mill from the industrial revolution
Lowell wears its roots in the industrial revolution with pride. In 1826, Lowell MA was incorporated as a mill town, one of the first of its kind in the United States, primarily spinning cotton into cloth. It was here, and in other neighboring towns, where the industrial revolution took root in the United States, ushering in an era of industry.
Visitors can learn about and experience Lowell’s mills at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum, a part of the National Historical Park. The museum’s Weave Room is by far the most interesting exhibit with its eighty 1920s power looms in action. As you enter this enormous factory space, the sound of the machines will overwhelm your senses – giving an understanding of what working conditions were like for mill workers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (115 John Street)
Be sure to also make a stop at the Mill Girls Boarding House exhibit, within the Morgan Cultural Center also within the National Historical Park. Here, you’ll learn what life was like for the hundred or more girls who moved to Lowell to work the machines for six days a week,12-14 hours. The exhibit includes a dining room showcasing what the girls ate as well as a glimpse into their crowded bedrooms. (40 French Street)
Shop, dine, and watch a movie at Mill No. 5
A hidden treasure in Lowell is Mill No. 5. Described as a lively indoor streetscape, this 4th and 5th floor of an old factory building contains storefronts of various themes and styles making you feel like you’ve entered a small village. Inside, you’ll find a cafe, a soda fountain, various boutiques, book and record shops, photography and music studios, an independent cinema, and a farmer’s market on Sundays.
Although Mill No. 5 is only fully open on the weekends, weekday visitors can still enjoy the resident cafe, Coffee and Cotton, from 10 AM – 8 PM Wednesday to Friday, on Saturdays from 9 AM – 8 PM, and Sundays from 9 AM – 5 PM. The warm welcoming space is popular among remote workers or colleagues getting together.
Beware that finding Mill No. 5 can take a bit of effort – it’s easy to walk right past it. But once you’ve found the large number 5 outside the entrance, step inside and follow the enormous illuminated arrow leading you to the elevators which will take you up to the fourth and fifth floors. Mill No. 5 is open Thursday and Friday from 5 PM – 8 PM, Saturday from noon – 8 PM, and Sunday 11 AM – 6 PM, although additional hours vary by shop. (250 Jackson St. No. 401)
Check out Lowell’s arts and crafts scene
Lowell has made a point of nurturing a creative community within its Canalway Cultural District, making it a haven for artists and craft makers.
You’ll find numerous art galleries scattered throughout the city center Such as The Brush, a gallery within the National Historical Park that showcases a variety of arts and crafts, and houses eleven studio artists (256 Market Street). Or Gallery Z, just across the street, is a cooperative art gallery that also has a cafe and theater (167 Market Street). And one street over you’ll find the cooperative art gallery, Ayer Lofts (172 Middle Street).
Slightly further afield is the Western Avenue Studios, a former mill building that provides both studio space and living quarters for more than 350 artists. Here you can visit individual artist studios and attend events. (122 and 160 Western Avenue)
Visit a unique museum
In addition to the museums found within the National Historical Park, Lowell MA also has an art and two niche museums in its city center.
The Whistler House Museum of Art, just steps from the National Historical Park, is a restored 19th-century home showcasing 19th and 20th-century American art, with an emphasis on New England artists. It is also the preserved birthplace of artist James McNeill Whistler. Hours are Wednesday through Friday 11 AM – 4 PM and admission is $12 for adults, students and seniors $8, and children under 12 free. There’s an additional small fee for a docent-led tour. (243 Worthen Street)
Just across from the Historical Park’s Visitor’s Center is the National Street Car Museum’s Lowell branch. While the museum’s headquarters is in Kennebunkport, Maine, this location provides a small representation of the preserved streetcars in the museum’s collection. Hours are Saturdays and Sundays 11 AM – 4 PM and admission to the museum is $3; seniors and youth ages 3-12 are $2. (25 Shattuck Street)
A few steps away on the same street is the New England Quilt Museum which showcases exhibits of both antique and contemporary quilts. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM – 4 PM, and admission is $9 with children under 12 free. (18 Shattuck Street)
Explore Cambodia Town
If you’re up for an adventure off the beaten track, a stop in Lowell’s Cambodia Town is worth a visit. Lowell has the highest concentration of Cambodians in the United States at 20,000, many of whom are refugees or descendants of refugees from the Khmer Rouge’s 1970s genocide.
You won’t find a definite neighborhood in Cambodia Town as you might in say, the Chinatowns in other cities. Instead, Cambodia Town is primarily made up of a few strip mall stores, selling Cambodian products, art, clothing, and groceries as well as numerous restaurants. This ethnic neighborhood is considered to be between Branch, Middlesex, and Westford Streets but you’ll find most stores and restaurants along Middlesex Street within Palin Plaza and the New Palin Market next door.
Attend an outdoor concert or festival
If you’re in or near Lowell during the summer months, be sure to attend one of the city’s many outdoor music events.
The Lowell Folk Festival is, according to its website, the longest-running free folk festival in the country. Officially started in 1990, the festival has continued every year since over a long three-day weekend in July. Five performing stages make up the venue in the city’s center, surrounded by a variety of food vendors, craft demonstrations, and activities for children.
Another way to enjoy music in the city is through the Lowell Summer Music Series. This series runs from the middle of June through the beginning of September with approximately sixteen evening concerts. National recording artists perform in Boarding House Park at 40 French Street and most events are ticketed.
Attend a live performance
Lowell’s Merrimack Repertory Theatre is the place to catch live theater in the city. Productions range from Shakespeare to contemporary comedies. Tickets are from $15-$65 dollars and parking is free.
Cotton and Coffee, located within Mill No. 5, also hosts open mic nights on the first and third Friday of every month and hosts occasional poetry, comedy, and songwriter showcases.
Go kayaking along the Merrimack River
For a different vantage of the city and some outdoor recreation, you can rent kayaks at the UMASS Lowell Kayak Center.
The facility is open every day from Memorial Day weekend through August 31st and weekends in September and October. A shuttle service is available on Saturdays and Sundays to drop boats and riders off in neighboring Tyngsboro, allowing you to paddle along a quiet stretch of the river back to the facility. Rentals range from $15-60 depending on the number of people and duration of the trip. (500 Pawtucket Boulevard)
Other places to visit nearby:
About Kerry Flatley
Kerry Flatley has lived in New England for the past 26 years. She has roots in Maine & Massachusetts, family in New Hampshire, and grew up close to the Connecticut border. She loves all that this region has to offer – the ocean, mountains, islands, history, villages, and cities. When she’s not writing about New England, she’s relaxing at home in the Boston suburbs with her two teenage daughters and husband.