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- Things to Do in Portland Maine
- Take a Lobster Boat Tour
- All Aboard the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co.
- Explore Portland’s Arts District
- Blueberries and More at the Farmers’ Market
- Wash Down the Oysters with Craft Beer
- Climb to the Top of the Portland Observatory
- Take a Seaside Hike
- Portland Maine’s Best Shopping
Portland, the coastal jewel of southern Maine, is an epic destination for couples, friends or families. Include a stop on your way to or from Acadia National Park. You’ll find a very walkable city with historic 19th century brick buildings, cobblestone streets, funky boutiques and tempting aromas drifting out of the city’s famous restaurants.
Describing someplace as the perfect weekend getaway seems like an overreach. But Portland, Maine, comes pretty close to achieving that distinction. Easily accessible by flights into its local airport, the city’s also within road trip distance of the NYC tri-state area and Boston. And, if your ultimate destination is Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, it’s a welcome pit stop for sightseeing.
What’s there to do? Portland, dubbed Restaurant City of the Year by Bon Appetit magazine, has a food scene you’ll definitely want to check out. After eating your way through town, you’ll be tempted to pronounce the local dishes like a native. Repeat after me. Lob-stah. Chow-dah. Between meals, you’ll find plenty of fun things to do. Here’s where to get a bird’s eye view of Portland, see it from the sea and more.
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Things to Do in Portland Maine
Portland has tons of great restaurants to provide sustenance as you check out the fun things to do: take a seaside ramble, get out on the Atlantic, step back in history, check out the arts or do some shopping. If none of that’s appealing, then Portland might not be for you. And that’s okay. It’ll make those waits to get a table at one of Restaurant City’s hot spots just a little bit shorter.
Get Out on the Water in Portland
Portland is located on a peninsula that juts out into Casco Bay. Originally settled during the early 1600’s, Portland developed into one of the largest commercial ports in the U.S.. You’ll catch glimpses of the Atlantic as you explore the city. But the best place to appreciate the dramatic geography is by getting out on the water.
Ferry to the Islands
Portland has an extensive ferry system that connects the islands of Casco Bay with the city. Operating for over 150 years, the Casco Bay Lines ferry service is based in a terminal in the Old Port District on Commercial Street.
A popular option for visitors is to hop a ferry and take a day trip to explore Peaks Island, the most populated of the bay islands. The best way to get oriented is a 75-minute Spirit of Peaks golf cart tour.
Rent a Boat or Kayak
If you’re more of a DIYer, boat rentals are available from a number of different companies, including Sail Maine, a community sailing center offering hourly rentals to certified skippers.
Want to get up close and personal with the waters of Casco Bay? Then head out in a kayak. Rentals, sea kayaking instructions and tours are available through Portland Paddle.
If you’re traveling with your own kayak and looking for places to put in, check out this list of favorite spots from the folks at Portland Paddle.
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Take a Lobster Boat Tour
For my water adventure, I hopped onboard a lobster boat to learn the art of lobstering. Lucky Catch Cruises offers daily lobster boat cruises. Captain Tom and his crew motored us out into Casco Bay and let us try our hand at lobstering. From July to November, Portland area lobster boats fish in the bay; in the winter, they need to venture farther out into the Atlantic.
It really is all about luck with lobsters. You bait the traps and push them off the boat. Then you check them in a couple of days, before the bait gets old and stinky. When retrieved, you hope to get at least one lobster who meets size requirements; they can’t be too small or too big. You can’t keep female breeders either. Yes. There are boy lobsters and girl lobsters. We learned to tell the difference.
All Aboard the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co.
If your getaway group includes littles or the grands, I suggest taking a ride on the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad. Kids love trains and grownups will enjoy the scenic views of Casco Bay as you travel 35 minutes on a 3 mile long round trip.
Trains leave every hour on the hour, beginning at 10 am, with the final trip at 3 pm. Planning your Portland trip around the holidays? Definitely check out their Polar Express event!
Explore Portland’s Arts District
I get suckered in by art galleries everywhere I travel. While walking by, I’ll catch a glimpse of a painting or photo that I immediately fall desperately in love with. I wander in, saunter up to the object of my affection and, when I see the price, my heart breaks into a million pieces.
It happened to me again in Portland, but it didn’t stop me from popping into a number of galleries during my strolls. Art lovers should also check out the Portland Museum of Art.
Blueberries and More at the Farmers’ Market
If you’re staying in an Airbnb or VRBO rental and need to stock your kitchen, a trip to the Portland Farmers’ Market is a must. It’s held twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays, in Deering Oaks Park.
Visiting Portland in late summer? You’re in for a treat. That’s wild blueberry season in Maine. They’re small, sweet and delicious.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Deering Oaks Park has a large, recently renovated playground for the kiddos and a small wading pool too.
Wash Down the Oysters with Craft Beer
If you drink beer, then you’re familiar with Allagash Brewing Company. Founded in Portland, their signature brew, Allagash White, is an easy-sippin’ Belgian-style wheat beer. Check out seasonal offerings in their beer garden. It’s located outside of town; depending on traffic, it can take you 45 minutes to get there, so plan accordingly.
Prefer to stay downtown? Head to the East End. You’ll find several craft breweries within walking distance of one another. Start at family-owned and operated Rising Tide. Their brews are created to pair with Maine’s cuisine. They suggest drinking their Daymark beer with local oysters. Then toddle over to Austin Street Brewery’s outdoor patio. Finish your tour at Belleflower Brewing, or, for a change of pace, try the rum at Three of Strong Spirits. Their small batch spirits use water from Maine’s Sebago Lake.
Climb to the Top of the Portland Observatory
There are a number of house museums in Portland to visit, including the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, home of the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (“Paul Revere’s Ride”), and the Victoria Mansion. If you only have time for one peek back in time, though, head to the Portland Observatory and take one of the guided tours.
The docent for my tour was an engaging senior citizen, who led us up each of the 7 stories of the octagonal tower in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood. It was a journey the tower’s owner/operator Captain Moody made every day, including just before he died.
The Observatory functioned as a for-profit signal tower from 1807 to 1923. With a state of the art telescope, scouts scanned the sea and sent notifications about approaching ships so that dock preparations could begin for unloading cargo. It is the only remaining signal tower in the United States.
By stopping along the climb for brief Portland history lessons, you’re really able to appreciate the sweeping city views when you reach the top, instead of huffing and puffing.
Take a Seaside Hike
Each time I pushed away from a great meal in Portland, I felt the urge to walk it off. So I did, spending much of my weekend wandering the cobblestone streets that connect the city’s major thoroughfares, Commercial and Congress Streets. I wasn’t alone. Portland’s a city of walkers; the 2.1 mile Eastern Promenade is an especially popular trail, offering sweeping views of Casco Bay.
When I needed a little more exertion and some salty air, I headed to Scarborough Beach State Park, about 20 minutes south of Portland. Parking’s available in the beach lot; check the website for hours and fees.
The parking attendant gave me directions to the trail. He told me to walk down to the beach, make a right and stroll all the way to the end to the pumphouse on the right. You can end your walk here, but I highly recommend scrambling up the rocks and taking the Prouts Neck Cliff Walk.
I did the entire 4.3 mile loop trail. Half of the trail consists of an elevated, narrow cliff path, flanked by hardy foliage with drop dead gorgeous sea views. Then the trail emerges from the bushes and continues on paved streets in a wealthy neighborhood of traditional New England homes. I have a serious HGTV addiction, so I was in heaven.
If you’re looking for other rambles, Portland Trails, a nonprofit urban land trust located on Commercial Street, has trail maps available for $4.95. Or, for a gentler outdoor adventure, head to Fort Williams Park, home of the Portland Head Light, in nearby Cape Elizabeth.
Where to Eat in Portland Maine
The Bon Appetit designation of Portland, Maine, as its Restaurant City of the Year is not surprising. The town is full of great restaurants. Some are destination restaurants, like perennial favorite Fore Street. But don’t limit yourself. Duck into a dive bar like Tomaso’s Canteen. I had a chicken sandwich served Vietnamese banh mi style that was delish.
Following are the must-eats recommended by my Portland friends. What I learned is that compiling a list of the best restaurants in Portland is impossible, but it’s definitely a quest worth pursuing.
Be prepared to wait for a table, unless you’re traveling solo and can snag a single. Alternatively, book a food tour. The three hour Old Port Culinary Walking Tour provides a taste of the city’s flavors.
My son and I checked out Scales based on a recommendation from one of the island residents we met while biking around Great Diamond Island off the coast of Portlan. He sails in once a week because it’s that good.
And it is. The large, bright dining room is located steps away from the ferry terminal. Start with fresh, local oysters. Check out the daily specials. We split a fried scallop appetizer that was as yummy as it was pretty. My lobster roll was the best of many I’d tried during our trip. And we were not disappointed when we chose what our waitress suggested for dessert: a butterscotch sundae with homemade frozen vanilla custard and a strawberry mousse made with the last of the season’s fresh berries.
Go for the chicken and waffles and thank me later. A popular brunch destination, Hot Suppa prepares the best Bloody Mary in Portland, according to my old college roommate.
My roomie says this is her go-to weeknight restaurant and I understood immediately after settling in at the bar. Family-owned and operated (the chef’s wife is the hostess and her brother’s the bartender), it felt like “Cheers”; everyone seemed to know each other and made this out of towner feel at home.
Eventide Oyster Co.
Although it’s a tourist destination attracting large crowds, Eventide is worth a visit to sample the freshest oysters you’ll ever taste. The offerings change daily based on availability. Since I’m not an oyster connoisseur, I let my waitress pick my 1/2 dozen on each of my two visits. That’s right. Two visits in 3 days. They’re that fresh.
Sit at the bar if you want to watch the shuckers do their thing. Don’t come hungry. Your wait time (even for bar seats) will be over an hour.
Highroller Lobster Co.
The lobster roll here features chunks of ocean fresh lobster meat piled into a split top roll. Choose a sauce, if you want to. They offer a number of flavored mayos. I chose to go old school and simply poured melted butter over the top. It was perfect.
The price of restaurant lobster rolls in Portland might make your wallet squawk. If so, head down to Commercial Street and look for one of the pushcart vendors peddling rolls from pushcarts.
No visit to Portland is complete without a stop at Holy Donuts. The secret to the taste of these exquisite snacks? They’re made out of fresh Maine potatoes. The line to enter their Exchange Street location snaked around the block. I’ll wait for a lot of things, but donuts aren’t one of them. Luckily, I happened upon their location on Park Avenue which had no line.
Portland Maine’s Best Shopping
I love to window shop. It’s one of my quirks that confounds my hubby. He just doesn’t get the point. I’ve tried to explain the thrill of the hunt to him, but he just wags his head indicating that this is something he will never understand.
So, when left to my own devices in Portland, I had a blast weaving in and out of the boutiques located in the cobblestoned Commercial Street district.
My favorite, although my credit card might not agree, was Gus and Ruby Letterpress, a whimsical stationery store. If you’re seeking a legit “Made in Portland” souvenir, seek out the Sea Bags shop. The store’s tucked down a side alley on the harbor side of Commercial Street. They offer a variety of nautical waterproof bags, fashioned out of old sails.
Where to Stay in Portland Maine
Marriott offers two lodging options at different price points in Portland. The writer in me was tickled by the lobby of the Press Hotel in Portland, one of Marriott’s Autograph Collection hotels. There are typewriters of all kinds on tables, desks and on the walls, an homage to the building’s history as a newspaper headquarters.
Courtyard by Marriott
On one visit, I stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott on Commercial Street. The hotel feels brand new and features a thoroughly modern interior that makes this budget-friendly property feel luxe. Adding to its appeal is an extra-friendly staff. The front desk clerk was extremely helpful with restaurant recommendations.
Inn at Diamond Cove
Want to make your Portland vacay extra special? Book a room at the Inn at Diamond Cove. It’s located on one of the islands in Casco Bay. You’ll take one of the regularly scheduled Casco Bay Lines ferry rides or book a water taxi to come and go.
I felt like I was a guest at a rich friend’s posh summer house. Rooms are large and well-appointed and there’s an outdoor pool, hot tub and tennis courts. Explore the island’s 100 acres by bike (available at the front desk). Stop at Seaglass Beach, the Moon Garden and end your day at Sunset Park.
I’ll be returning to Portland soon with friends who like to eat, shop and wander. Trying to taste everything Portland has to offer is probably impossible, but I’m willing to give it a try.