Exploring Portland, Maine
Food, shopping, and art in Maine’s biggest city.
Maine’s largest city is scenically located on a Casco Bay peninsula. The cobblestone downtown—known simply as Old Port—is lined with art galleries, clothing boutiques, and seafood restaurants that serve up the day’s catch procured at the nearby wharves. It’s a year-round destination, but is especially lively during the summer.
1 Portland Headlight
One of Maineâ€™s great icons, the picturesque white-stucco, black-capped Portland Headlight marks the entrance to the namesake cityâ€™s busy harbor, and lies just seven miles from downtown in Fort Williams Park. Incredibly, it was built in 1794 and was manned until 1989, at which time an automated beacon was installed. The small century-old keeperâ€™s house now operates as a museum, but most visit for a stroll around the well-maintained grounds and for picnics with an unbeatable view. Head to the rocky ravine to the right of the lighthouse for a bit of sobering history; despite the headâ€™s bright light, many met their fates on the sharp rocks below. The names of sailors and ships, including some from the1800s, are scrawled on the craggy boulders for all to remember.
Free entrance to park grounds. Admission: $2 adults; $1 children (6â€“18); free for children under 6.
Park grounds open year-round daily from sunrise to sunset (until 8:30 p.m. in summer); museum open Juneâ€“October daily 10 a.m.â€“4 p.m., spring and late fall Saturdayâ€“Sunday 10 a.m.â€“4 p.m.
2 Portland Museum of Art
This angular I. M. Peiâ€“designed building in the heart of downtown Portland is not only the cityâ€™s shining cultural institution; it also houses the stateâ€™s oldest museum (and with 17,000 objects in its collection, the largest). In addition to crafts and early-American furniture, the museum is home to some impressive works by American artistsâ€”many of them painters with Maine affiliations: Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper. The more international in-house Joan Whitney Payson Collection also features heavy-hitters, with works by Picasso, Matisse, and Monet. The PMAâ€™s biennial shines a spotlight on contemporary Maine artists as well, and itâ€™s well worth timing a visit to take in the surfeit of local talent. Visitors can also partake in everything from watercolor classes to jazz brunches in the cafÃ© on Sundays. In 2006, the museum acquired Winslow Homerâ€™s home and studio on Proutâ€™s Neck, and hopes to open it to the public by 2010.
Admission: $10 adults; $8 students and seniors; $4 children (ages 6â€“17).
Open Tuesdayâ€“Thursday and Saturdayâ€“Sunday 10 a.m.â€“5 p.m., Friday 10 a.m.â€“9 p.m.; also open Monday 10 a.m.â€“5 p.m. from June to mid-October. Guided tours daily at 2 p.m.
3 J's Oyster
This tantalizingly retro white cement block of a restaurant enjoys a great waterside location off Commercial Street. Simply emblazoned on the outside with a bright blue J, this lively sports bar has been a favorite hangout since 1978, and not much has changed, including the staff. Here, itâ€™s all about good drinks and fresh seafood, especially Blue Point oysters, which are bionicly shucked in the round behind the bar and served raw with horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. When it doubt, follow the localsâ€™ lead: angle for an outdoor table (if weather permits), order a perfect martini or draft beer, and get your fill of sweet bivalvesâ€”preferably within earshot of a Red Sox game.
Â Thereâ€™s comfort food, and then thereâ€™s Duckfat. When owner-chef Rob Evans opened this friendly all-day cafÃ© just down the street from his more sophisticated restaurant, Hugoâ€™s, in 2006, locals could not believe their taste budsâ€”nor Evansâ€™s near-obscene use of its namesake ingredient. He twice-cooks his star menu itemâ€”Belgian friesâ€”in duck fat and serves them up, in paper cones, with dipping sauces like truffled ketchup or Thai chile mayo. One of its signature dishes, poutine, is a sinful soupy take on the traditional Quebecois dish, layering fries, duck fat gravy, and Maine cheese curds. Thereâ€™s a good selection of from-scratch soups, salads, and hot pressed panini too. But not all the treats are savory; chocolate-dipped beignets, orange-scented churros, and real malted milkshakes made with local Smiling Hills Farm ice cream are all sugary, swoon-worthy punctuations to a rich and memorable meal.
5 Riding the Mailboat with Casco Bay Lines Terminal
Fare: $13 adults, $6.50 kids
In Maine, where many islands have year-round residents, thereâ€™s a good chance the mailman drives a boat. Some services have even made a nifty business of taking tourists along for the often scenic ride around rocky coves, and past charming island homes. The cluster of six islands off of the Portland Peninsula in Casco Bay has the longest-operating freight service of its kind in the country; Casco Bay Lines sells tickets for its three-hour roundtrip mail-run, which makes stops at Peakâ€™s, Great Diamond, Little Diamond, Long, Chebeague, and Cliff islands. And donâ€™t worry: Passengers will be expected to concentrate on the scenery, not help with heavy packages.