Best Things to Do in Portland

Exploring Portland: Natural and cultural wonders offer exciting choices

Portland and the southern Maine coast feature much in the way of artistic and natural attractions. The city’s seaside location is a perfect setting for outdoor activities, both on land and sea. At the same time, Portland’s strong reputation as a magnet for artists and intellectuals means that cultural opportunities can be found throughout the city. Combine this reality with the year-round festivals that abound in the southern Maine region and it can be challenging to decide on exactly what to do during your Portland stay. If you are drawn to the out of doors, such destinations as the Eastern Promenade, the Kennebunk Bridle Path, and the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve will likely appeal to your passion for nature. Beach and amusement park lovers will certainly find what they are seeking along York Beach or Old Orchard Beach which offer inviting beaches and plenty of arcade fun. Culture fans will enjoy many hours of artistic viewings at the Portland Museum of Art and, nearby on the southern coast, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art. Water sports enthusiasts will find much to like about kayaking on Casco Bay with its scenic pleasures including abandoned 19th century forts and uninhabited islands ripe for exploration. And for families, there is the imaginative play to be found at the Children's Museum and Theatre of Maine. No matter what you set your sights on, however, you’re sure to enjoy much that Portland has to offer for families and individuals alike. Below are some of my favorite attractions and destinations that you may want to consider during your stay in the Portland area:


Eastern Promenade
Photo courtesy of Portland Trails

The Eastern Promenade is a favorite with locals and visitors alike who are seeking a relaxing, scenic walk along the Portland shoreline. The 2.1 mile paved, generally level trail follows an old train line. Walking, biking or jogging along this trail, you'll enjoy expansive views of Casco Bay with its boats, birds and even seals that occupy its waters. Benches and picnic tables enable visitors to spend time lingering over the wonderful scenery. The trail connects to East End Beach for swimming (changing rooms are available and public toilets, as well). There is also a public boat launch which affords easy access to the bay for boaters, canoeists and kayakers.

Local Expert tip: Keep this wonderful destination in mind for romantic walks.

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Casco Bay Kayaking
Photo courtesy of Maine Island Kayaking

For those interested in exploring the Portland's coastal environment, there is perhaps no better way than kayaking. The intimate nature of this water sport (it's you and the kayak � that's all) allows paddlers to closely examine landmarks and water views. Casco Bay is an excellent location for such recreational enjoyment. A typical kayak journey begins by gliding past five-story tall ocean tankers, racing kayaks and pleasure boats that occupy Portland Harbor. Once out into less crowded waters, there is a wealth of sights and sounds to enjoy. It is possible to paddle past long abandoned military forts that once guarded Portland's shoreline, as well as viewing seafaring birds and even seals at feeding or play. Perhaps the best attraction, however, are the plentiful uninhabited, state-owned islands located throughout the bay. Kayakers frequently come ashore these islands to indulge in the singular sensation of enjoying lunch with spectacular ocean views. You may also wish to explore these islands which feature their own unique forested landscapes and rock formations. For those who choose to kayak, keep in mind that Casco Bay typically features ocean tides and currents which can be challenging. If you are new to this sport, keeping close to shore is always recommended.

Local Expert tip: Summer is the best time to enjoy this outdoor gem.

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Kennebunk Bridle Path
Photo courtesy of Mark Pechenik

While the Kennebunk Bridle Path doesn't necessarily afford a long trek, it has special features well worth experiencing for outdoor enthusiasts. In particular, a section of this 5.6 mile path crosses into the Rachel Carson Wildlife Preserve. Here, it is possible to experience expansive views of the coastal wetlands that naturalist Rachel Carson fought so hard to safeguard from development. Because the trail courses through a narrow section of uplands, the fragile ecology is not disturbed by cyclists, walkers, runners and others who take this path. At the same time, it is possible to pause and appreciate the marsh grasses waving in the ocean breeze, seafaring birds resting along natural canals, and the meandering travels of wetlands waterways. The path, which begins near the Sea Road School in Kennebunk (71 Kennebunk Beach Road), borders private homes at times but there are also sections that are enclosed within thick forest, giving travelers a soothing deep woods feeling. When school is in session, the path can be accessed near the Mousam River Bridge on Route 9 in Kennebunk. Be sure to bring your camera � you don't want miss the opportunity to have a visual record of the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you.

Local Expert tip: Fall is a great time of year to travel this path with native trees ablaze with color.

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Ogunquit Museum of American Art
Photo courtesy of Ogunquit Museum of American Art

Open from early May until early November, the Ogunquit Museum of American Art offers two impressive highlights for visitors: a first-rate collection of holdings and one of the most scenic locations on the southern Maine coast. This is immediately apparent when visitors first enter the museum. The rear glass wall affords a stunning view of Perkins Cove that is classic coastline Maine with pounding waves and a dramatic, rocky shore that is compelling and attractive. The 7,500 square foot museum itself encompasses over 1.600 works of art from the 19th to 21st centuries. Of special note is its collection featuring artists who were active participants in Maine's summer art colonies including Rockwell Kent, Henry Strater, and Edward Hopper. Outside of the museum, there is a sculpture garden that invites visitors to enjoy art in nature. It is also possible to make your way down to the cove itself to get up close and personal views of the inspiring shoreline.

Local Expert tip: The museum also features a small but diverse gift shop featuring beautiful, locally handmade jewelry and crafts.

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Museums of Old York
Photo courtesy of Museums of Old York

The Museums of Old York represent one of the most comprehensive and intriguing collections of homes which detail the origins of York's rich three century history. The museums consist of nine historic buildings, beautiful gardens, and a contemporary art gallery, all in the vicinity of York's town common on Route 1A. Perhaps the most interesting of these structures is the Old Gaol, which served as York's original town jail into the early 1800s. This structure features a fascinating exhibit that explores America's early prison system. Visitors tour the jailer's family quarters, as well as cells with bars and leg irons. It is also possible to enjoy museum tours of early homes which were built by seafaring captains and merchants. Many of these households contain 18th and 19th century dinner ware, sculptures, and clothing that were the mainstay of York's once thriving overseas trade with China. This attraction is especially popular on rainy days, when tourists stay away from the nearby seashore, or just as a family outing.

Local Expert tip: The museums have occasional special events such as their Christmas tea – be sure to check out their website for a full calendar listing.

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Old Orchard Beach
Photo courtesy of Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce

If seaside vacations mean giddy, thrilling amusement rides then the Old Orchard Beach Boardwalk should be included among your top destinations in the Portland area. This location features several classic fun parks that cater superbly to the cotton candy and fast moving attractions fans. Among the best of these establishments is Palace Playland with its legendary roller coaster overlooking the surf, ferris wheel, and giant arcade with games for young and older alike. Close by, in Saco, Maine, you'll come upon Funtown/Splashtown U.S.A. where water rides satisfy with zips, turns and splashes for plenty of wet and wild fun, along with Maine's only wooden roller coaster. Oh, and don't forget the seven-mile long, wide sandy beach for those who love the simple pleasures of surf and sand.

Local Expert tip: Review the website for fun special summer events.

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York Beach
Photo courtesy of York Beach Chamber of Commerce

Seeking that old fashioned summer vacation experience? Then be sure to pay a visit to York's central district. Here you can find mom and pop shops that sell cotton candy, soft serve ice cream, and even penny candy. Along with sweets and treats, you'll also find amusement arcades featuring classic pinball, skeet ball, rides, video games and photo booths. This destination's dominant attraction, however, are Long and Short Sands beaches. Unlike the more familiar stretches of Maine's rocky coastline, these beaches feature a smooth, level shoreline with gentle surf that is frequented often by families with younger children. Not far from these beaches is Nubble Lighthouse, arguably one of the most photographed lighthouses in Maine. Here, families and couples enjoy the view of this classic lighthouse while scrambling over shoreline rocks and boulders as they enjoy ice cream treats.

Local Expert tip: Check out the website for special seaside events, especially during the summer.

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Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve
Photo courtesy of Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve

This destination has become a favorite with visitors intrigued by the natural beauty of Maine's southern coast. Seeking to preserve the much loved Laudholm Farm in Wells from residential development, open space advocates proposed a research center dedicated to the study of Maine's coastal environment. Their efforts succeeded in establishing the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. Upon first entering the preserve, visitors enter a welcome center which feature engaging exhibits that offer insight into this research facility's efforts to better understand and protect Maine's coastal habitat. Afterwards, it is possible to travel the reserve's extensive trail network which meanders through picturesque forest and marshes. An lengthy boardwalk allows for up close and personal viewing of wetlands habitat without damage to the environment. Be sure to check out the trail that leads to the shore for spectacular ocean views.

Local Expert tip: Be sure to bring along a camera for taking great shoreline photos.

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Children's Museum Of Maine
Photo courtesy of Children's Museum of Maine

Looking to spend a few fun filled hours with your children during your stay in Portland? Then the Children's Museum and Theatre of Maine should be near the top of your "things to do" list. This expansive facility features a wealth of exhibits that can easily make for hours of imaginative play and fun. Youngsters can pretend in attractions devoted to fire fighting, an operating diner, a post office, a car repair shop and a market. Several special sections of the museum highlight Maine culture and lifestyle including the L.L. Bean-sponsored Discovery Woods exhibit as well as the shipyard, lobster boat and sea pirate areas. The museum also runs special exhibitions � a recent presentation focused on the life of whales. This destination does a great job of answering youngsters' timeless question: "What do we do now?"

Local Expert tip: Check out the website for special holiday hours, as well as changing exhibits.

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Portland Museum Of Art
Photo courtesy of Portland Museum of Art

The Portland Museum of Art has rightfully earned its place as one of the nation's premier art museums. This museum's wide, spacious and well lit interior invites visitors to explore and linger over its vast collections of distinguished works. More than 17,000 pieces including paintings, sculptures, glass ware, and photographs are contained within the museum's walls. With such legends as Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso represented here, visitors can enjoy just about every global art style throughout history. Of special note is the museum's collection of artistic greats who worked and lived in the famous Maine summer art colonies including Ogunquit and Bar Harbor. Be prepared to spend several hours touring this Portland gem.

Local Expert tip: Be sure to call ahead for special exhibitions and special family friendly activities.

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