Best Museums in Portland

Museums display Portland's rich heritage

Portland is an area so rich in history and culture, it is difficult to pinpoint the top ten museums which best interpret this city's character and contributions to the American experience.  However, several museums stand out in this regard.  Some are very familiar to locals and visitors alike. For instance, the Portland Museum of Art has long been celebrated for its impressive holdings of both American and international works by masters from throughout the world. Others, like the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, are regarded as hidden gems which, nonetheless, are well worth visiting. Several of the best museums examine lesser known, but still compelling, aspects of Portland and Maine culture. Consider, for instance, a recent display at the Maine Historical Society highlighting the many snowshoe clubs throughout Maine that were established by French Canadian immigrants. Meanwhile, at the Owls Head Transportation Museum, gear heads will enjoy an impressive collection of pioneer automobiles, airplanes, and engines that are in mint condition. Also worth visiting is the Museums of Old York which offers glimpses into the early colonial settlements of Maine, as well as the Pine Tree State's efforts to establish a just penal system. No matter what your tastes or preferences, Portland's museums are well worth exploring for young and old alike.


Maine Maritime Museum
Photo courtesy of Maine Maritime Museum

The Maine Maritime Museum, which also now includes the Portland Harbor Museum, provides visitors with a comprehensive and compelling chronicle of Maine's rich ship building legacy. It's fitting that this museum is located in Bath, home of the Bath Iron Works which is famous for producing mighty destroyer vessels for the U.S. Navy. One feature of the museum actually allows visitors to take a one-hour behind the scenes trolley tour of the iconic Bath ship building manufacturer. Other museum highlights allow visitors to explore an historic shipyard that has five of the original 19th century buildings intact; a shipyard owners' mansion from the 1800s; exhibits depicting Maine's overseas trade and lobstering; and the opportunity to watch master craftsman build wooden ships. Children will enjoy the museum's Pirate Play Ship and a play tugboat bridge complete with a horn and whistle. The museum's expansiveness will easily fill a complete afternoon of fascinating exploration for both children and adults.

Local Expert tip: This museum's trolley tour of Bath Iron Works is well worth experiencing.

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The Saco Museum
Photo courtesy of The Saco Museum

This museum does an admirable job of telling the story of south coastal Maine's growth and prominence through entertaining exhibits and artifacts. The floor plan of this historical museum is well designed. As visitors enter, for instance, they are greeted by an exhibit detailing the region's pre-colonial, Native American societies. Each successive exhibition then traces Maine's history into the present day era. The museum features several paintings of the state's early industrialists who, taking advantage of the Saco River and other local waterways which led to the Atlantic Ocean, specialized in ship building. Also on view are furniture, clothing and household furnishings that belonged to these entrepreneurs. Youngsters will especially enjoy the museum's second floor collection. Here, it is possible to tour the recreation of a bedroom which served as a dormitory for female mill workers. Another room features toys typically played with by 19th and early 20th century children. For those seeking to enjoy a fun journey through Maine's past and present, be sure to put the Saco Museum on your list of must-see places.

Local Expert tip: The Saco Museum gift shop offers a nice selection of local handmade crafts.

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The Museum at Portland Head Light
Photo courtesy of The Museum at Portland Headlight

The Museum at Portland Head Light is situated on one of the most scenic sections of the Portland shoreline. Located in Cape Elizabeth, less than a half hour drive south of Portland, this museum is contained within the former keeper's quarters of the Portland Head Light, one of the most distinctive and iconic lighthouses along the southern Maine coast. The museum contains artifacts depicting the lives of lighthouse keepers in the days before these legendary structures became automated. Also contained within the museum are a number of lighthouse lenses and interpretative displays. The lighthouse itself is situated in Fort Williams Park. Although now closed, Fort Williams was one of the most important harbor defensive fortifications during World War II and played a major role in defending Portland and surrounding communities. Admission to the museum is nominal and well worth a sightseeing tour for families and adults alike.

Local Expert tip: Be sure to explore the surrounding Fort Williams Park which makes for a great family outing.

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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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Tate House Museum
Photo courtesy of Tate House Museum

As one of Portland's few pre-Revolutionary War homes open to the public, the Tate House Museums offers a fascinating glimpse into colonial Maine life and society. This well preserved Georgian-style home was built in 1755 for Captain George Tate, a senior mast agent for the British Royal Navy. The home features an indented gambrel roof, one of the few still in existence among colonial-era houses, and expansive array of historical period furnishings. During the warmer months, visitors can enjoy casual strolls around the expertly tended grounds which includes a vast herb garden. Visitors to Portland will enjoy this journey back to 18th century Maine.

Local Expert tip: This museum offers one of the best insights into early Portland life.

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Owls Head Transportation Museum
Photo courtesy of Owls Head Transportation Museum

Fans of early automobiles and aircraft will find much to like about the Owls Head Transportation Museum. This museum features several rare examples of pioneer age cars and airplanes preserved in mint condition. Visitors who explore the museum's vast, well maintained interior will be rewarded with up close and personal viewing of more than can 100 classic planes, automobiles, carriages, bicycles and engines. Among the top finds are a 1903 Wright Flyer, one of the earliest aircraft produced by the inventors of heavier than air craft, the Wright Brothers; a 1917 Fokker Dr I Triplane from World War I; a refurbished 1908 Stanley K Semi-Racer automobile (interesting note: the Stanley automobile company, which was famous for manufacturing steam-powered cars, was headquartered in nearby Kingfield, Maine and a museum is located in that western Maine town dedicated to the Stanley company); and an early model 1955 Ford Thunderbird car.

Local Expert tip: Check this museum's website for special exhibitions.

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Maine Historical Society
Photo courtesy of Maine Historical Society

The Maine Historical Society Museum in Portland offers a fascinating, comprehensive retrospective of more than four hundred years of Maine history. Its collections feature over 15,000 artifacts that extensively depict every aspect of life in the Pine Tree State. These include prints, paintings, clothing, textiles, political memorabilia, and even an impressive array of Native American historic materials. Many of their exhibits shed light on lesser known aspects of Maine history. Two recent exhibits, for instance, highlighted the highly popular snowshoe clubs that were organized by French Canadian immigrants in the early 1900s, as well as the therapeutic mountain retreats that served tuberculosis patients from throughout the United States. A fairly recent addition to the museum's holdings is the Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the childhood home of legendary poet Henry Wadsworth-Longfellow. This residence has been faithfully restored to depict the life and times of one of the America's most prolific scribes. For an always intriguing journey into history, be sure to add the Maine Historical Society Museum to your list when visiting Portland.

Local Expert tip: Be sure to visit the gift shop for a diverse offering of Maine history books and specialty items.

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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: This museum's gift shop has a fine selection of Maine-made jewelry items for purchase.

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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: Be sure to check out holiday vacation programs that are great for kids.

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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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