More Portland Neighborhoods
About Downtown Arts District
Photo courtesy of Portland Chamber of Commerce
Often overlooked by the more flashier Old Port shopping district, Portland's Downtown Arts District has much to offer for those who are fans of arts and culture. Located roughly at the intersections of Congress, High, Oak and Park Streets, this neighborhood contains a surprisingly rich array of established, mainstream arts and cultural museums, bohemian art galleries, and performance spaces. Mixed in between are funky, organic eateries, high end restaurants, and second hand clothing shops. This district is well worth touring for locals and visitors alike.
See & Do
In many ways, the Portland Museum of Art (7 Congress Square, 207-775-6148, www.portlandmuseum.org) located near the intersection of Congress and High streets, is the anchor for this district's artistic and cultural vibe. This world-class institution contains more than three hundred years of global art with special emphasis on Maine's unique place in history as an arts colony. The celebrated works of most European and American masters can be seen and enjoyed here. The nearby Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine (142 Free Street, 207-828-1234, www.childrensmuseumofme.org) is one of the prime locations for families anywhere in Maine. This museum hosts many hands-on exhibits to delight and educate youngsters for hours including children’s play areas featuring a bank, market, and car repair shop. And, because this is Maine, there is also a lobster boat, shipyard, pirate boat, and a special L.L. Bean-sponsored outdoor exhibit that will thrill and excite the little ones. Exhibits focusing on science, dress-up theater, and the sea can also be found here. Fans of the unusual will find the International Cryptozoology Museum (11 Avon Street, 207-518-9496, www.cryptozoologymuseum.org) especially fascinating. In addition to an extensive collection of preserved (as in taxidermist-prepared) species, this museum explores the pursuit of so-called legendary beasts such as the Yeti (Abominable Snowman) and Big Foot. It’s an out of the ordinary museum experience that is sure to raise quite a few eyebrows among visitors, The Maine Historical Society (489 Congress Street, 207-774-1822, www.mainehistory.org) packs quite a bit of Maine history within it’s relatively small, three room location. It succinctly traces the 300 plus years of European settlement in the Pine Tree State, as well as presenting exhibits that chronicle Native American societies prior to Columbus. There are a few surprises on view including a review of French Canadian snowshoe clubs in Lewiston, a look at the once-flourishing Maine health resort industry for those struggling with lung conditions, and personal rememberances of workers in the timber, sailing and railroad industries. Also of interest at the museum is the adjoining Wadsworth-Longfellow House, a perfectly restored 1800s mansion that was the birthplace of famous American scribe and philosopher Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (open to the public on a seasonal basis).
The Downtown Arts District features eateries that, although not as glamorous or gourmet as those found in Old Port, have carved out a much loved niche among diners. Most of these establishments are great for the budget sensitive who still want tasty and delicious menu items. Both the Local Sprouts Café (849 Congress Street, 207-699-3529, www.localsproutscooperative.com) and the Lobby Café (400 Congress Street, 207-671-5776) serve up appetizing sandwiches, bagels, muffins and even organic entrees. More upscale eateries (many of them bordering the Old Port District) include the fine Greek cuisine of Emilista (547 Congress Street, 207-221-0245, www.emilista.com) and the high-end, award winning restaurant lounge Five Fifty Five (555 Congress Street, 207-761-0555, www.fivefifty-five.com).
The Port City Music Hall (504 Congress Street, 207-899-4990, www.portcitymusichall.com) is Portland’s premier location for enjoying indie type music – everything from thrash metal to jazz swing bands perform at this intimate theater. Nearby, the Space Gallery often plays host to musical artists with smaller, grassroots followings. Empire Dine and Dance (575 Congress Street, 207-879-8988, www.portlandempire.com) frequently presents more eclectic fare including stand-up comedy troupes, bluegrass and blues artists, jazz, soul and funk bands. Empire’s spacious bar/restaurant is also a favorite meeting spot among Portland locals. Yet another big draw on the Portland night scene is Geno’s (625 Congress Street, 207-221-2382, www.facebook.com/pages/Genos-Rock-Club/106415422773796) is a popular showcase for classic rock and roll cover bands on weekends while, thoughout the week, it is place where locals gather. Fans of live theater can view original works at the American Revival Theater Company (518 Congress Street, 207-409-5384, www.americanrevivaltheater.org), many of them written by local Maine playwrights. This theater company also does fine productions of more well-known playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller and others.
Small, intimate art galleries are a huge cottage industry in the Downtown Arts District. These galleries feature the deeply personal visions of their artist owners with displays of their one-of-a-kind works. Here you will find truly unique sculptures (both indoor and outdoor installations), jewelry ranging from the always popular sea glass to high art gemstones, paintings and home furnishings. Prices for these pieces range from the very affordable to investment grade expenses. Many of the artists represented have been at their craft full-time for decades. Others, such as Gary Perlmutter, who is featured at the Bridge Gallery on Congress Street (568 Congress Street, 207-712-9499, www.bridgegalleryportland.com) have day jobs – Gary is a physician who also creates everything from still lifes to landscapes on canvas. The Flat Iron Gallery (594 Congress Street, 207-838-7591, www.flatirongallerymaine.com) is located in a structure that resembles Manhattan’s famed Flat Iron Building. Here it is possible to view their vast collection of art and home furnishings that exemplify the new Yankee visions of their artist creators. Meanwhile, the Fore River Gallery (613 Congress Street, 207-791-2723, www.forerivergallery.com) features the works of Maine College of Art graduates Mike and Elizabeth Marks who specialize in fine silver jewelry, ceramics and paintings. Not to be missed among the galleries is the Space Gallery (538 Congress Street, 207-828-5600, www.space538.org) which has become a showcase for many of Portland’s and Maine’s finest, most adventurous avant garde artists. Here you’ll find everything from psychedelic folk music performances to abstract sculptural representations commenting on the technical takeover of society. One note of caution, Space Gallery is often reserved for private events – check ahead to be sure it is open for public viewing.