Portland, a former fishing and trading hub in the state of Maine in the United States is one of the most vibrant small cities this side of the globe. Its rich past combined with its seaside location throws up a host of things to do in Portland, Maine. While many of the attractions are quite predictable, there’s no dearth of unique things to do in Portland Maine.
The city derives its name from the old English world ‘Portlanda’ which means ‘land surrounding a harbor.’ Not surprisingly most of Portland’s attractions lie close to the waterfront with the Old Port district reflecting its past glory. While there are plenty of interesting sites to visit and unique things to do in Portland Maine, you can be sure you’ll never run out of places to eat in this city that lies 277 miles (445 km) from New York. With over 380 restaurants, the city is at the top of the list of cities in the United States in terms of bars and restaurants per capita.
Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine
A visit to the Children’s Museum and Theatre is at the top of unique things to do in Portland Maine for families with children. The museum occupying three floors has something for children of all age groups, including toddlers. Interactive exhibits create a fun learning environment as children touch and squeal their way through interesting discoveries.
Founded in 1976 by the Junior League of Portland, the museum was initially housed in a few rooms in Fort Williams Park. It then moved to a Victorian home until 1991 when its popularity demanded a larger space. Its new location in the former Chamber of Commerce building in downtown Portland has enough space for children to have the time of their lives on an interesting path of discovery.
Casco Bay Islands
Portland is located along the southern edge of Casco Bay, home to numerous islands known as the Casco Bay Islands. The sheer number of islands in the area has earned them the moniker Calendar Islands, meaning there’s an island waiting to be explored every day. Predictably, island hopping is one of the more popular unique things to do in Portland Maine.
While there is a regular ferry service to Peak’s Island, Great Diamond Island, Long Island, Chebeague Island and Cliff Island, many visitors enjoy touring the smaller islands with private companies. Long Island is popular with visitors for its nature trails and peaceful beaches.
Portland Head light
Portland’s most visited landmark is the Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth. Commissioned by President George Washington in 1791, the lighthouse stands as an iconic symbol of Portland. Until 1989, the museum had an active staff but the introduction of machinery reduced their role significantly. The former Keeper’s Quarters is now an interesting museum with a variety of exhibits detailing the maritime history and history of lighthouses.
Allagash Brewing Company
Portland has a vibrant craft beer movement with more than a dozen breweries. However, the Allagash Brewing Company takes credit for pushing this craft to unimaginable heights. If you enjoy your beer then this should definitely make it to the top of your list of things to do in Portland Maine.
Allagash’s White beer, a local version of Belgian wheat beer is what propelled the company to the top of the list of breweries. Visitors to the brewery can enjoy a round of tasting during a tour of the facility.
Portland Schooner Company
One of the unique things to do in Portland Maine is to sail on one of the three historic schooners of the Portland Schooner Company. The three wooden jammers listed on the National Register of Historic Places, take guests out on a two-hour sailing tour. Guests can also take a turn at the wheel or assist the crew in hoisting the sails.
Wendameen, the oldest of the three boats was built in 1912 and can accommodate up to 49 passengers. The other two, Bagheera and Timberwind were built in 1924 and 1931.
Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. and Museum
Founded in 1993, the Maine Narrow Gauge Railroad Co. & Museum operates out of the former Portland Company Marine Complex. It showcases the state’s railway heritage. The fascinating institution preserves Maine’s historic two-foot gauge railroad equipment and passenger equipment.
A 2.4 km (1.5 miles) long railroad along the waterfront of Casco Bay takes visitors around on historic steam and diesel locomotives. There is a selection of programs for visitors that tops the list of unique things to do in Portland Maine. Visitors can either operate a 23-ton four-axle diesel-electric locomotive or just sit back and enjoy the surroundings on the Ice Cream Train Trip.
The Old Port
One of the top attractions in Portland, Maine is the Old Port district. It’s a walk back in time down cobblestone streets lined with 19th-century buildings which now house boutiques, restaurants, and bars. A large part of the shore area has been designated a historic district. A great way to know more about the area is by joining the Walk Through Time in Portland Tour.
In the 1970s, the Old Port underwent a huge transformation when derelict buildings that lay abandoned for years were taken over by real estate developers. Condos, offices, and retail space replaced many of the historical buildings. However, the rest of the historic buildings were saved with the formation of the Old Port Association that same decade. Besides the historic significance, the area is also renowned for its pulsating nightlife and the annual Old Port Festival.
Victoria Mansion, also known as the Morse-Libby House, is a historic landmark. It is one of the least altered examples of Italianate architecture and a fine example of 19th-century American residential architecture. Built as an exquisite summer home for a New Orleans hotelier, the Italian styled villa is definitely worth a visit.
Almost all of the beautiful furnishings belonged to the original owner. Beautiful carpets, frescoes, paintings, exotic woods, and ornate windows adorn the interior. Artist and decorator Giuseppe Guidicini created the frescoes and trompe l’oeil wall decorations. The Turkish smoking room in the house is one of the first examples of Islamic architecture in the United States.
Morse lived in the house until his death and the ownership passed to Joseph Ralph Libby. The Libby family lived in the home for over three decades. Due to back taxes, the house passed to the state and lay abandoned for a few years. It was slated for demolishment but was saved by William H. Holmes who bought it in 1941 for the sole purpose of preserving it as a museum, which it remains to this day.
The home where the revered poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grew up is an interesting museum run by the Maine Historical Society. Restored to its original glory, the house built in 1785 by General Peleg Wadsworth (the poet’s grandfather) is the oldest standing structure on Portland’s peninsula.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow moved in with his family when he was just 8 months old but spent 35 years in this home. When the last owner of the house died in 1901 she bequeathed the home to the Maine Historical Society. It opened to the public a year after her death. The original furnishings and artifacts are still very much a part of the house. It also has a beautifully restored garden.
Portland Farmer’s Market
If you’re one of those people who love the vibrant colors and buzz of a market then the Portland Farmer’s Market is for you. Held twice a week at different locations (depending on the season), the market is a great place to feel the local vibe. Over 40 farmers sell everything from cheese, berries, honey, and flowers. You can also enjoy a variety of delectable homemade bakes.
Another recommended thing to do in Maine, Portland is to spend some time at the historic Eastern Promenade. Spanning 68 acres, the promenade includes a public park and a recreation area. Work on the Promenade began in 1836 and continued intermittently until 1934.
The Promenade encircles the neighborhood of Munjoy Hill at the farthest eastern portion of Portland’s peninsula. You’ll find many many historical sites in the area, including the mast of USS Portland and a mass grave where 21 American soldiers lie buried. Fort Allen Park which abuts the Eastern Promenade to the south is also worth visiting.
International Cryptozoology Museum
Considered to be one of the most unique things to do in Portland Maine, a visit to the Cryptozoology Museum will undoubtedly raise a lot of questions. This small, one of a kind museum features cryptids, animals that exist only in the imagination. Think yeti, Bigfoot and specter moose! These ‘rare and elusive’ beasts share the spotlight here with casts of footprints purportedly belonging to Big Foot, and fur from a yeti on display.
The 26meter tall Portland Observatory located on Munjoy Hill is an iconic symbol of the rich maritime history of the region. The only tower of its kind built in 1807, it used signal flags and a telescope to communicate between ships and the shore. A telescope installed in the cupola of the observatory could identify ships that were miles away. However, in 1939 the telescope disappeared from the tower.
A 45-minute guided tour gives visitors an insight into the tower’s importance in maritime history and the transformation of the port over the years. You can enjoy some of the best views from the top of the tower.
Fort Williams Park
Encompassing numerous historical sites in Cape Elizabeth, the 90-acre Fort Williams Park is not only a lesson in history but offers some spectacular photo ops and a range of recreational facilities. While the most prominent and visited structure in the park is the Portland Head Light, there are lots of other areas worth exploring. A prominent ruin within the fort is the Goddard Mansion built between 1859-1859 for Colonel John Goddard.
Until 1964, the fort actively guarded the entrance to Casco Bay. Evidence of this can be seen in the WWII bunkers and gun emplacements that dot the area. The fort once had three batteries which were removed by 1944. A day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the old batteries were being test-fired, the shock blast destroyed much of the property surrounding Battery Blair.
Tate House Museum
Portland is home to a large number of elegant historic homes but not all are open to the public. Tate House Museum is the only home from the pre-Revolutionary period that is open to the public. The colonial residence and home of Maine’s last British ‘mast agent,’ George Tate, gives visitors an insight into how the 18th-century upper class lived.
There is no dearth of unique things to do in Portland Maine if you know where to look. Battery Steele may not be at the top of the list of attractions but for history buffs, it’s well worth a visit. Located on the ocean side area of Peaks Island, this former US military fortification covers an area of 14 acres. Built in 1942 as part of a comprehensive program to replace obsolete coast defenses, today Battery Steele is a National Historic Site. You’ll find bunkers, fire control towers, and various other buildings at the site which once boasted two 16-inch MkIIMI guns.
Portland Breakwater Light
Also called ‘Bug Light’ because of its diminutive size, the Portland Breakwater Light can be found in a small park in South Portland. Built in 1875, the present cast-iron lighthouse decorated with six Corinthian columns replaced the original 1855 wooden structure. Architect, Thomas U Walter, drew his inspiration for the design from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at Athens.
The area around the lighthouse is popular with locals and visitors. You’ll find picnickers on the well-manicured parkland or others engaged in fishing or boating. It’s a good place to relax and soak in the sweeping views of the city skyline.
Located at the northeastern end of Portland’s peninsula, less than 2 kms (1.2 miles) from downtown Portland, Munjoy Hill is a beautiful area to stroll through. Home to a number of parks and other establishments, the area is mostly residential and relatively free of traffic.
One of the first areas to be settled in the 1630s, the neighborhood gradually expanded to embrace working-class immigrants. In the 90s the area underwent a transformation with a big influx of artists and restaurants. Today the neighborhood is a perfect blend of historical and contemporary Portland.
Portland Symphony Orchestra
Being able to catch a performance of the Portland Symphony Orchestra at the gorgeous Merrill Auditorium is probably one of the most unique things to do in Portland Maine. Recognized as one of the top orchestras of its size in the United States, this professional orchestra that began in 1923 is definitely worth your time.
If you’re in Portland during Christmas then be sure to catch the Symphony’s performance of the ‘Magic of Christmas,’ a tradition that has been in place for over 25 years. Even if you aren’t in town over the holidays, the orchestra regularly performs a wide variety of concerts.
Old Orchard Beach
Just south of Portland is the vibrant Old Orchard Beach with 11 km (7 miles) of sandy beach and a clutch of activities. It’s one of the top things to do in Portland Maine for families especially because of the beachfront amusement park. The amusement park has a variety of rides such as the huge Ferris wheel, two roller coasters, and other family favorites. Old Orchard Pier is popular with adults for its restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues.
Just So You Know:
- Portland has the distinction of having 17 microbreweries, the most per capita of any city in the country.
- Since 1986, America’s first ‘all display fresh seafood auction’ has been taking place in Portland’s Fish Exchange.
- Portland is the birthplace of famous personalities Stephen King, five-time Olympic medallist Ian Crocker, and actor Judd Nelson.
- The city earned the moniker ‘Forest City’ after the construction of the Forest City Cemetery.
- Maine’s first state capital was Portland. It remained the capital for seven years until the more centrally located Augusta got the title.
Where to Stay:
- ⭐⭐⭐ Holiday Inn Portland – By the Bay – Its prime location in Downtown Portland makes this a good hotel to base yourself. Spacious rooms with en suite bathrooms, a fitness center, and an indoor pool are just some of the facilities that guests can look forward to.
- ⭐⭐⭐⭐ Portland Harbor Hotel – Not too far from many attractions near the Portland Waterfront you’ll find the recently renovated hotel. Stylishly furnished rooms and a wide range of facilities make this a popular base. No wonder it’s one of the 11 Best Hotels in Portland, Maine.
- ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ The Francis Name – This luxurious hotel located in Portland’s Bramhall neighborhood is a historic landmark. The former Victorian home has only 15 luxurious rooms so you can expect some impeccable service here.
Get Some Culture:
- Portland Museum of Art – One of Portland’s most respected museums houses a stunning collection of artists from America. Spread across three separate buildings, the museum is a must-visit for art aficionados.
- Carnaval ME – Held at the end of January, the sister event to the famous Carnaval de Quebec promises a lot of fun. During the two day festival, Portland’s historic waterfront becomes a hive of activity. It kicks off with the Bicentennial Winter Ball and continues with live music, light shows, art installations, and various other activities.
Grab A Bite:
- Old Port Culinary Walking Tour – This 3-hour tour through the Old Port will acquaint you with all there is to know about the local food culture. An interesting combination of stories from the area’s social history to its culinary scene makes this tour even more interesting.
- Fore Street – One block from the waterfront in Portland’s Old Port District is the popular Fore Street. Chef and owner Sam Hayward is credited with pioneering Portland’s food obsession. The 3-course menu changes daily but certain signature items are available every day.