Lowell Looks Like Massachusetts but Tastes Like Phnom Penh

What to know about one of America’s first planned industrial cities

December 11, 2023 9:33 am
Lowell National Historic Park
Lowell National Historic Park
Getty Images

Located in Northeast Massachusetts, near the border with Southern New Hampshire, Lowell is home to more than 110,000 residents, also known as Lowellians. Massachusetts’s fifth most populous city was carved out of Chelmsford two centuries ago as one of America’s first planned industrial cities. 

The canals you’ll see in the downtown area were built to power the many textile mills that eventually moved south. While many decaying industrial red brick buildings stood vacant along cobblestone streets for decades, most have been converted to museums and apartments over the past 15 years. Artists and young professionals have moved in from cities like Cambridge to take advantage of the lower living costs. The canals that flow from the Merrimack River into The Acre and Downtown now serve as the backdrop for the Lowell Summer Music Series and the annual Lowell Folk Festival

North of the Merrimack River, you’ll find a two-mile bike path through Riverfront Park. But most of what you’ll want to see, do and eat is south of the river. Below, everything you need to know to plan a trip.

Where to Stay in Lowell

To start, while Lowell is an easy enough day trip from Boston or Manchester, it’s definitely worth spending a night or two. The Sonesta Select Boston Lowell Chelmsford is the only hotel within the city limits. Prices can be as low as half of what you’d pay for a 3-star hotel in Boston, making it a practical base for anyone wanting to use Lowell as a jumping off point for a multi-city New England vacation. Just outside the city limits off I-495, the Holiday Inn Express Chelmsford is another convenient option. Though do be advised: you will need a car if you are staying in Lowell.

The New England Quilt Museum
The New England Quilt Museum

Downtown Museums Will Help Put Local History Into Context for First-time Visitors

Most who arrive via the 40-minute ride from Boston’s North Station will likely go north to the UMass campus or east towards downtown and local attractions like The New England Quilt Museum or Lowell National Historical Park. Those two museums will help put local history into context. From March to November, trolleys from the National Streetcar Museum run through Lowell National Historic Park, which includes seven of the ten original industrial complexes. 

You can easily spend a half day touring the different attractions within the park. Boott Cotton Mills Museum is also open daily and has different exhibits as well as 88 looms. A dozen or more of those weaving machines run periodically during museum hours. 

Kerouac Fans Can Do a Self-Guided Tour of Lowell 

American novelist and poet Jack Kerouac worked on the fourth floor of 15 Kearney Square in Lowell. Nowadays, the building is home to Blue Taleh, one of Lowell’s popular canalside dining spots. His unassuming three-story birthplace at 9 Lupine Road is one of the few attractions north of the river. He’s buried in South Lowell at Edson Cemetery, while Jack Kerouac Park abuts the Eastern Canal. The canal flows past Merrimack and Market Streets, where you’ll find bubble tea shops that are a popular after-school spot for students from nearby Lowell High School. Foodwise, fast casual dining options like Korean fried chicken and mochi donuts (that you used to have to travel to Boston for) are now available downtown.

Welcome to Cambodia Town
Welcome to Cambodia Town
Brian Cicioni

The Lowell Highlands are the Unofficial Cambodia Town

The Lowell MBTA station is located in the northeast corner of the Highlands, which looks like a separate city compared to downtown. The neighborhood is shaped like home plate, with I-495 facing the catcher and the Merrimack River as the northern border. Along Westford, Branch, or Middlesex Streets, you can find durian or jackfruit as easily as an apple or banana. There are more Cambodian restaurants and other businesses in this area than you’ll find in every other New England city combined. Providence is still a very distant second.

This, for the uninitiated, is the area that Sokhary Chau, America’s first Cambodian-born mayor, calls home. 

Beef Loc Lac from Heng Lay
Brian Cicioni

In the Highlands, Southeast Asian Food is Easier to Find than Pizza

During the hot summer months, most of Lowell’s Cambodian restaurants will feel, sound and smell like Phnom Penh or Battambang. But the Highlands look more suburban, with ample parking lots and open spaces. 

If you include bakeries and takeout places, there are more than two dozen Cambodian eateries in Lowell. And most are in the Highlands. The majority are no-frills casual dining spots that give Khmer people a taste of home. But you can’t keep a good thing secret for long. 

Bostonians who realize that Cambodian food is not the same as Thai or Vietnamese come here for everything from Phnom Penh Noodle Soup to Beef Loc Lac. Heng Lay is a popular spot for both dishes. Their loc lac is served with a citrusy black pepper sauce, which is meant for dipping. Phnom Penh has a vast menu of nearly 100 items and is an ideal spot to try prahok. Be sure to try their butterfly milk tea as well.

If you want to impress your Cambodian friends (or be treated like an honorary Khmer by your server), head to Phnom Penh Restaurant and try the tirk kroenug. You’ll get one plate of vegetables for dipping and two bowls. One will have a more than generous portion of steamed white rice, which patrons often eat with their hands. The other will look similar to an eggplant spread. That one is prahok, which is a pungent fish paste known as ‘Cambodian cheese.’

Many first-timers gravitate toward chicken wings, which you can find some version of on most Khmer menus. Le Petit Café serves chicken wings impressively stuffed with glass noodles and other Khmer spices to the point where they nearly double in size. 

There are at least 1,500 Lao-Americans living in Lowell. The Highlands area has a few Laotian restaurants, including NYC transplant Zabb Elle. It’s just one of the places Mayor Chau and his Thai-born wife Somong have taken visitors for a taste of Southeast Asia.


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