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Portland, Maine has become a popular tourist destination in recent years, with everything from small-town charms and coastal delights to an exceptional food scene and outstanding breweries. If you plan to visit, these are among the very best things to do while you’re there.
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While Portland itself doesn’t have a lighthouse, there are several within just minutes of the city, including South Portland, which hosts both Bug Light and Spring Point Ledge Light. One of the oldest landmarks of its kind in the country, the Portland Head Light, located in Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth just eight miles away, was constructed over 200 years ago and lit by whale-oil lamps for the first time in 1791. Set upon beautifully landscaped grounds, the 92-foot-tall white conical tower is often considered as a symbol of Maine’s striking beauty. You can gaze up at it while picnicking in the park, open year round, or climb the tower on Open Lighthouse Day, held annually in September – if you’re lucky enough to get a ticket, as fewer than 300 are given out.
Taking a scenic lobster boat cruise is another quintessential Maine experience, and Lucky Catch Cruises offers excursions right from Portland. One of the most highly acclaimed outfitters, Captain Tom takes passengers through the daily routines of Maine lobstermen, all while enjoying close-up views of marine life like seals, historic lighthouses and civil war forts. This is the chance to get a firsthand look at how lobster gets from the bottom of the Atlantic to your plate. You’ll hear about conservation efforts and lobster habits as well as the meaning of keepers, culls, shedders, shorts and more. Anything caught during the cruise is available for purchase afterward, but the experience is only available during the summer – from November through April the boat is an active commercial fishing vessel.
Portland has a long history of micro-brewing as well as being home to outstanding local institutions like Shipyard and Allagash, which was named one of the best brewery tours in America by TripAdvisor. For beer lovers, it’s truly not to be missed. While it began as New England’s original Belgian-style brewery back in 1995, it’s become one of the industries most well-respected brands. What really makes it a special place to visit is its barrel room, where visitors can sample Allagash’s core beers. During the tasting session, you can wander through the rows of barrels, from huge oak vessels to tiny casks, with a detour leading to a side room where you can stand in awe at the volume of barrel-aged beers.
If you like whales and other marine life, be sure to head out into the deep blue Pacific to look for whales, dolphins, sharks, seals and more on a whale watching tour. From mid-April through late September, hungry whales arrive to feast in local waters rich in sand eels, copepods, plankton, and fish. Familiar sights include humpback whales, pilot whales, minke whales, and the massive finback whale, that can grow as long as 80 feet. Sei whales, sperm whales, orcas and right whales occasionally visit the area too. Odyssey Whale Watching offers tours on a comfortable, fully-equipped ocean-going vessel which features decks for breathtaking viewing. The boat is captained and crewed by a professional and knowledgeable team, including a naturalist who shares interesting facts about the ocean environment and the wildlife seen on the tour.
As Portland is right on the water, it also offers numerous ways to get out and explore it on your own, including on a paddleboard or in a kayak. Portland Paddle offers rentals for paddling around the calm waters of Casco Bay if you don’t have one with you. Guided tours are a great option for those without a lot of experience, with most departing from the East End Beach, taking paddlers into the picturesque islands of Casco Bay or along the waterfront of Portland harbor. Surfing is an option here too, with Maine Surfers Union offering lessons and rentals.
If you’d like to see Maine’s wildlife up close, the Maine Wildlife Park is just a 30-minute drive north, located in the town of Gray. It offers a guaranteed opportunity to view the local wildlife, with more than 30 species here, including moose, black bears, mountain lions, deer, bald eagles, coyotes, hawks, owls, porcupines, turtles, trout and more. The wildlife that are housed here are all orphans, injured or too dependent on humans to be released back into the wild, so they serve as educational ambassadors to visitors that want to learn more.
In the last decade or so, many artistic types have moved to Portland, and the city reflects the many talents locals’ have to offer. Some of its highlights include the Portland Museum of Art, a must-visit for art enthusiasts, and the Maine College of Art. But you’ll find an abundance of art galleries, performing arts events and more too. On the first Friday of every month, members throughout the community, visitors and local artists gather for First Friday Art Walk, a popular gallery-hop in Old Port, when the city shuts down the street to cars. Hundreds of independent galleries, museums and shops display local works, while vendors fill the sidewalks, giving it a block-party feel.
In recent years, Portland has undergone a major transformation, becoming a sophisticated city with plenty of sophisticated cuisine, offering lots more than just England clam chowder and fresh lobster rolls. Not only will you find numerous farmers markets and CSAs with locally raised lamb, homegrown potatoes and honey, but one of the best restaurants in the northeast, Sam Hayward’s Fore Street which kicked off the city’s food revolution some two decades ago with a daily changing menu of locally sourced items prepared in a wood-burning oven. Five Fifty-Five’s executive chef and co-proprietor Steve Corry, has spent the past nine years perfecting dishes emphasizing local ingredients, including Bangs Island mussels.