Ah, Newport. The very word conjures feelings of well-being—“new,” as in rebirth, and “port,” awakening thoughts of adventure. In the words of Jacques Yves Cousteau, “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” Once a major 18th-century port city and now a wonderland of adventure, Newport, R.I. is a playful accomplice to the sea. Together, they’ve reeled in visitors for centuries.
An easy day’s drive from the Mid-Atlantic, the seaside paradise is the perfect spot to disconnect from the stress of daily life, enjoy myriad attractions and explore layers of American history. If it’s your first time to Newport, a stop at the Visitor Center on America’s Cup Avenue will help you plan an itinerary to make the most of your stay. The Viking Trolleys, which depart from the Visitor Center, offer a good way to get the lay of the land. The 90-minute tour covers much of the town’s 12 square miles, and you can take note of the sights you’ll want to see up close later. Keep in mind that many boutiques, galleries and cozy eateries dot the adjacent wharves.
The unique draw of Newport are the dazzling “cottages” found nowhere else. They were populated by the Vanderbilts, the Astors and other members of the nation’s wealthiest families during the summer social season of the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner in their 1873 novel, A Gilded Age: A Tale of Today. Downton Abbey fans will want to put the Newport mansions along Bellevue Avenue at the top of their site-seeing lists. Packaged into manageable units of one to five properties, audio and guided tours take you into the kitchens, through the basements, across the ballrooms, up the stairs to the bedrooms, and into the gardens of the fabulously rich and infamous of the late 1860s to 1890s.
Flowing between the mansions and the stunning Atlantic Ocean, Cliff Walk begins at the Chanler hotel on Memorial Boulevard and ends three and a half miles later at the Forty Steps on Narragansett Avenue. Walk along, breathe in the bracing air under dazzling blue skies, and pretend you’re on the deck of a cruise ship, watching the white caps break in a hypnotic rhythm as they reach the shore.
Newport Casino was commissioned in 1880 as a social and recreational facility by flamboyant and eccentric New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett Jr. It soon became the town’s social center, offering stores, a restaurant, a ballroom, a theater and tennis courts. The casino marked a crucial shift from the more formal “old Newport” to a freer, more inclusive place. It was also the first important design by architects McKim, Mead & White and the beginning of the American Shingle style that quickly spread throughout New England.
In 1881, Newport hosted the first international lawn tennis tournament held in America. Inside the International Tennis Hall of Fame, visitors can peruse 25,000 artifacts, including the patent for the game of tennis signed by Queen Victoria in 1874. The interactive museum boasts the only hologram in an American sports museum.
Audrain Automobile Museum is just a few doors down, housing rare and remarkable vehicles from the late 19th century to the modern day. Even if you’re not a tennis fan or a car person, you should enjoy your time at both spots.
Newport’s oldest neighborhood is the Old Quarter. Here, you can walk along charming, narrow cobblestone streets dotted with the country’s largest collection of lovingly preserved Colonial houses. The circa-1763 Touro Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in America. It houses a letter written to the congregation by George Washington affirming religious liberty and separation of church and state. Newport Art Museum (circa 1864) presents changing exhibitions of contemporary and historical art from Newport and New England. Built in 1747, the Redwood Library and Athenaeum is the oldest lending library in America. It’s also the oldest library building in continuous use in the country.
By car, you can take in the spectacular scenery along Newport’s 10-mile Ocean Drive. Stop at Fort Adams State Park, the site of the Newport Jazz Festival (since 1954) and the Newport Folk Festival (since 1959). The latter is where Bob Dylan was famously booed for “going electric” in 1965. You can also see the exteriors of the Eisenhower House, which served as the former president’s summer White House from 1958 to 1960, and Hammersmith Farm, Jacqueline Bouvier’s family estate and the site of Jack and Jackie’s wedding reception in 1953.
For a more nautical perspective, take a tour on one of the three-masted schooners that sail throughout the day and at sunset. Guides point out historic spots and juicy current news—like the location of Judge Judy’s new home. Shuttles loop around the Newport Harbor and stop at Fort Adams and Goat Island.
The Newport-Jamestown Ferry takes you to bucolic Jamestown, incorporated in 1678. Once there, you can explore historic farms, stunning parks, award-winning restaurants, and locally owned shops and art galleries.
You’ll also want to visit one of the public beaches, with their wide swaths of sand and gentle waves. Past the beaches are the Norman Bird Sanctuary, a 325-acre natural preserve with seven miles of trails, and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge, where the trails total three miles.
Back near the Visitors Center, you can take a moment to travel back in time as you wistfully ponder the early days of baseball at Cardines Field. It’s one of the first ballparks in the United States and home to the oldest continuous amateur baseball league in the country.
Newport restaurants pride themselves on their unique, exquisitely prepared cuisine and extensive wine lists. Delight in a variety of New England seafood at White Horse Tavern—America’s oldest, established in 1673. Sample Asian delights at the award-winning Thai Cuisine. Slip into a French vibe at Restaurant Bouchard. Or throw back some tequila with your locally inspired Mexican cuisine at Perro Saldado. For true elegance and ocean views, dine at Cara (formerly Spiced Pear) in the Chanler at Cliff Walk.
At Newport Vineyards, New England’s largest grower of wine grapes, you can wander among the rows of vines. Newport Craft Distilling Co. affords a glimpse of how they made the hard stuff during colonial times, when the town was the Rum Capital of the World. Or you can plan a trip around Newport’s Wine & Food Festival (Sept. 19-22), Seafood Festival (Oct. 19-20) or Restaurant Week (Nov. 1-10).
For overnight stays, quaint options include the Hydrangea House, Hilltop Inn and Francis Malbone House (circa 1760. For something quirkier, try the Jailhouse Inn (1772). If you’re after quintessential luxury, go with the Chanler at Cliff Walk, the 90-year-old Viking Hotel in the heart of Newport, or the boutique Grace Vanderbilt, which has a lovely rooftop bar with a view of the harbor.
Given its traditions and history, you might think there’s nothing new under Newport’s sun. Think again. Fall sees the debut of Audrain’s Newport Concours & Motor Week (Oct. 3-6). This celebration of luxury and sporting automobiles is likely to enjoy the same long-term success of the town’s former America’s Cup. Classic car historian and TV personality Donald Osborne will be on hand for the week of programs. Osborne visited Newport last year for the first time in 25 years and felt a “spirit” he didn’t recall earlier. He observed that the city is “waiting to be rediscovered by tens of thousands of people” from across the world.
Newport may start out as just another vacation destination—but by the end of your visit, a relationship will form. Don’t be surprised if you’re reeled back to its shores, again and again.