From rocky beaches and iconic lighthouses to lobster rolls and Whoopie pies, the state of Maine is a huge draw for tourists each year. But the place to be this summer is Portland, Maine. And while most people know the larger tourist attractions, there are tons of lesser-known things to do in this wonderful city. Things that even Portland locals rave about.
According to the Maine Office of Tourism, 15.3 million visitors visited Maine in 2022, with even more expected in 2023. Most tourists are drawn to the renovated Old Port Exchange in Portland along the waterfront with endless rows of shops and restaurants.
It bears us mentioning that Portland, Maine, is often confused with the city of the same name in Oregon! But these two cities are vastly different.
History Of Portland, Maine
Settled in 1633, this southern Maine city’s history includes Indian raids and a major fire, all before Maine became a state in 1820. It suffered a second major fire in 1831 that destroyed most of the city and was completely rebuilt for a second time—a true testament to the hearty nature of most Mainers. All in all, Portland has burned down four times. Each time, the rubble gets pushed into the water to create more landfill for this ever-expanding southern coastal Maine city.
Local Tips for Visiting Portland, Maine
Today, the city of Portland, Maine, is a busy hub due to both shipyard port activity and tourism. It’s one of the more easily accessible cities in New England and is surrounded by small, more picturesque towns such as Kennebunkport, Ogunquit, Boothbay Harbor (which I highly recommend), and the boardwalk at Old Orchard Beach (this is where you’ll find a sandy beach instead of rocks and cliffs). Even small towns further north, such as Brunswick, Biddeford, Rockport, Rockland, Falmouth, and Camden, are worth the drive.
While you’re visiting Portland, don’t forget that there are 220 islands off the Maine coast in Casco Bay alone, several of which are just a short boat ride from the Portland harbors. Peaks Island is a well-loved stop, even for locals, and comes highly recommended.
And, of course, for those who don’t mind the 3-hour drive, Acadia National Park at Bar Harbor is a state treasure that attracts tourists by the thousands each summer, even just for a day trip.
Things To Do In Portland, Maine
Plenty of more well-known places get hit hard by tourists each summer, particularly in coastal Maine. Places such as the Portland Museum of Art, the cobblestone-laid Wharf Street full of craft breweries, pubs, and shops, and even surrounding towns are all popular with summer tourists enjoying their vacations. A big bonus is that the Portland airport is only a 15-minute drive from downtown Portland, so getting around this area is fairly easy.
But what are some things you can do off the beaten path that some tourists may never even know about? This local Mainer walks you through the lesser-known jewels of things to do in Portland, Maine.
Your Morning Cup Of Joe
There are two places you’ll want to try for some unforgettable coffee. Coveside Coffee at 28 Vannah Ave. has a delicious latte and possibly the best croissants in Maine. They have a versatile menu with several selections to fit everyone’s tastes.
If you love a latte or coffee that isn’t acidic, try Burundi Star Cafe, and make sure you go there hungry because you’ll also want to try their avocado toast too. Burundi Star Coffee is located at 261 St John St. They have fabulous lattes that taste very low in acid, and their avocado toast is unforgettable. The bread is sliced thick, and the avocado is thick, chunky, and well-seasoned. It’s hard not to go back for seconds.
If food tours sound appealing, there are several to choose from, but the one that stands out is Maine Day Ventures. They have a big selection of foodie tours you can take, and they all take you to some pretty amazing spots in Portland and beyond. I highly recommend their most popular tour, The Old Port Tour, which will give you a true taste of Maine.
You will sample fresh haddock tacos, clam chowder, and a lobster roll at the previously mentioned Rigby Yard. The tour is currently $139.99 and is worth every penny. Ask for Timothy as your tour guide. This guy is beyond knowledgeable about all things Maine.
Do you believe in Big Foot? Curious about mermaids? The International Cryptozoology Museum at 4 Thompson’s Point #106 should be your first stop. You can spend hours perusing skeletons and footprints of bigfoot and other oddities for those who believe in the unexplainable.
It’s a family-friendly museum, so you don’t have to worry about the kids getting scared. But there is enough to keep kids of all ages engaged and entertained. It’s not a huge museum, but there are many things to see and read.
For View Seekers
While the Portland Head Light is a must-see, the Portland Observatory at 138 Congress Street is also highly recommended. Once used to guide ships into the harbor, this building has been converted into a maritime museum. It’s the last building of its kind in the entire US, and the views from the top are breathtaking. Just bring some good shoes for the hike up their 104 steps to the top, and don’t forget your camera.
For A Low Key Day
If the buzz of Portland is getting to you, step away to Bug Light Park. This short little lighthouse is surrounded by open, grassy areas where you can fly kites, have a picnic, see a WWII vessel, and just relax in a park setting for the day. You can go biking or simply lay down a blanket and read a book.
One calmer activity that actually gets you a little exercise as well is Portland’s only waterfall, Fore River Sanctuary. Located at 157-169 Rowe Avenue, it’s a tranquil park, and the waterfall is incredibly soothing. Standing beside it is truly a relaxing experience. Just remember your bug spray. The mosquitos can get pretty hungry out there.
And, of course, for a true Maine experience, don’t skip the Portland Head Light at 1000 Shore Road in Cape Elizabeth. It is the most photographed lighthouse in the world, and for good reason. The views are breathtaking, and a large park surrounds the lighthouse, so you can pack a lunch and make an afternoon of it. Just don’t forget your camera!
If you want to stay in Portland proper, an enjoyable free activity is simply to take a stroll along the pier and dock areas that are aplenty. The coast of Maine is incredibly picturesque, no matter what part you choose to enjoy. Simply taking a walk is a great way to spend an afternoon.
For Stephen King Fans
While Bangor is almost a 2-hour drive from the Portland coastline, Stephen King fans won’t mind the drive to see his mansion in Maine’s second-largest city, Bangor (Pronounced “Banger” by Mainers). While the author no longer lives there, he still owns the house and rents it out to aspiring writers.
It’s a great day trip from Portland, and you can stop in Augusta along the way for shops and a great seafood stew at The Red Barn. You can also try a little bit of Maine at home by making The Red Barn recipe for seafood stew here.
Restaurants Portland Locals Love
Everyone seems to flock to DeMillo’s, the boat restaurant in the harbor. And while they have great food and it’s a stop you’ll want to make, other lesser-known spots that even locals love are The Honey Paw, Macuccis, Empire, and Taco Escobarr, for when you get tired of Maine lobster rolls and clam chowder.
The Honey Paw
The Honey Paw, located at 78 Middle St, has wonderful pan-Asian food. It’s a casual place to eat thanks to its simple interior and easy menu. The food is light and flavorful, and the ramen is a must-try.
For sweet treats, you’ll want to stop by Micucci Grocery at 45 India St. While it tends to be a bit pricier, you cannot beat their delicious cannoli. They also have fabulous pizza, which is great to pick up and take back to your hotel room.
Empire Chinese Kitchen
In the mood for Chinese? Don’t miss a trip to Empire Chinese Kitchen at 575 Congress Street. They have phenomenal food and are a popular favorite among the locals. You really can’t make a bad choice with their menu. It’s all pretty amazing.
If Mexican food is your thing, Taco Escobarr is close to the state theater at 548 Congress St and is great for late-night food with a closing time of 1 am. Their crispy chicken tacos are about as delicious as a chicken taco will ever be, and their funky vibe makes this a top pick for locals and tourists alike.
Andy’s Old Port Pub
If you are looking for the best chowder in the south of Maine, DeMillo’s is a great choice. But if you want to do as the locals do, head to Andy’s Old Port Pub at 94 Commercial Street instead. This old hangout is a well-known spot for local fishermen, and the fresh fish comes from the fish market just a couple hundred feet away. And to eat your chowder like Mainers do, don’t forget a dash of Tabasco on your clam chowder.
The High Roller Lobster and Rigby Yard
The one item everyone comes to Maine for is, of course, the lobster roll. With its eye-opening price of $30-$40 for a small, hot dog-sized lobster roll, you want to be sure you are getting a good one.
Two places that knock them out of the park are The High Roller Lobster at 104 Exchange Street and Rigby Yard at 50 Wharf Street. You’ll want to park some distance away and walk to the High Roller. Parking on Exchange Street is next to impossible.
Rigby Yard is more popular with tourists simply for its easy location, and its lobster roll is tough to compete with. If a restaurant doesn’t butter and toast the roll, send it back and ask for your money back. A lobster roll isn’t a lobster roll without a buttered and toasted bun. Rigby Yard truly delivers in that department.
Make sure to pay $3 Dewey’s a visit. This restaurant has a sorted history, having once been a brothel. The name came from how the brothel services were offered. $1 Lookies, $2 Touchies… Thankfully, they are a much more respectable institution these days, and their lobster mac and cheese is to die for.
Lastly, don’t skip DeMillo’s. The food is outstanding, and you must take advantage of the experience of having lunch or dinner on a boat overlooking the harbor. Want to impress on a first date? Take them to DeMillo’s. The boat is permanently docked, and there is a large parking lot in front of the restaurant. But come early because that parking lot fills up fast.
Lesser Known Things to Do in Portland, Maine
It’s easy to find things to do in Portland, Maine, and the surrounding areas. It’s a bustling, down-east city that moves non-stop. But the sheer number of things to do can get overwhelming fast, so it’s great to scout out things you want to do ahead of time. Hopefully, this list helps you get a true taste of this beautiful state and helps you more easily visit Maine.
This article originally appeared on Savoteur.
Tiffany McCauley is an award-winning cookbook author and food blogger. She has been featured on MSN, Huffington Post, Country Living Magazine, HealthLine, Redbook, and many more. She has helped thousands of people learn to cook simple, clean, and healthy foods in their own home kitchens. She lives in Maine and loves Elvis, sunflowers, and a good seafood chowder, as well as travel writing.