Rhode Island

A History Buff’s Guide to Newport

Smaller crowds at favorite attractions — plus fall events and lodging deals — means there’s no time like the present to steep yourself in the past.

By Yankee Editors

Sep 11 2019

Discover Newport Redwood Library in Fall

Redwood Library & Athenaeum

Photo Credit : Discover Newport
Sponsored by Discover Newport, Rhode Island
The Newport Pell Bridge, still turning heads at 50.
Photo Credit : Discover Newport
In the years since Newport, Rhode Island, was founded in 1639, people have arrived at this enclave on the doorstep of the Atlantic in all kinds of ways — in carriages and trains, aboard schooners and steamers — and from all points of the compass. But 50 years ago, ambitious civil engineering gave Newport one of the most dramatic approaches imaginable: 2.1 miles of highway soaring above Narragansett Bay on the longest suspension bridge in New England, the Newport Pell Bridge. A graceful colossus immortalized on the Rhode Island state quarter (and in a slew of Instagram posts), the bridge is as symbolic a gateway to Newport as it is a scenic one. So much history has left its mark on this seaside town that to wander the streets of Newport is to be suspended between past and present. For visitors, every new experience offers a bridge to another time: In a day, you can help hoist the sails of a 1958 America’s Cup yacht, be dazzled by wall-to-wall 22-karat gold in a ballroom where Industrial Age tycoons kicked up their heels, and dine beside a tavern hearth that was keeping patrons warm 100 years before the Revolutionary War. When local lore is everywhere you look, right down to the wharfside cobblestones underfoot, even the most hard-core history buffs may find planning an itinerary daunting. Not to worry: We’ve got the key ingredients of a great Newport getaway for you, as well as some compelling reasons to go right now, when the summer crowds are gone but the town is still bustling with things to do.
Smaller crowds and off-season deals make fall a terrific time to visit historic Newport.
Photo Credit : Discover Newport

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1. GET THE LAY OF THE LAND: Scenic surveys by foot and by car

There may be no better introduction to Newport than cruising Ocean Drive (also called 10-Mile Drive). Striking out from Thames Street and the waterfront, it follows the southwestern tip of Aquidneck Island before heading back into town via Bellevue Avenue and its processional of Gilded Age mansions. Driving the route takes about 35 minutes if you don’t stop, but we’re betting you will. Aside from the dramatic sight of the crashing Atlantic on one side and Victorian palaces on the other, there are historical highlights such as King Park, where the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of all French forces during the Revolutionary War, first set foot on American soil; Fort Adams, once a military stronghold known as “The Rock on Which the Storm Shall Beat” and now the anchor of a state park with unmatched views of Newport Harbor and the bridge; and, down a side road, the magnificent c. 1875 Castle Hill Inn, where you can channel the ease of such celebrity guests as Grace Kelly with a very genteel lunch on the lawn.
Preserving early fishermen’s access to the water had a scenic side benefit: the Cliff Walk, a stunning ocean path that today runs alongside some of the town’s grandest homes.
Photo Credit : Discover Newport
Another route where manmade beauty vies with nature’s best is the Cliff Walk, a 3.5-mile public path whose popularity dates back to the 1880s. Traversing the eastern side of the island, it squeezes between the ocean and the back yards of baronial estates such as Rough Point, the 49-room English manor where heiress Doris Duke’s pet camels roamed amid gardens designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. Guided walking tours don’t get any better than those offered in the heart of town by the Newport Historical Society, where group sizes are small but topics are wide-ranging: religious diversity, slavery and the rum trade, the dawn of the Gilded Age. Special guests lead fascinating one-offs, too, such as “The Uncommon Women of the Common Burying Ground” (Oct. 19). Reservations are a must.

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2. MAKE A HOUSE CALL: Newport’s awe-inspiring abodes

A birthday present from a Vanderbilt heir to his wife, Marble House features a ballroom where 22-karat gold leaf shimmers on every wall — and even the ceiling.
Photo Credit : John W. Corbett
Attracting more than a million visitors from around the world each year, Newport Mansions is the undisputed grand dame of the local architectural scene. Run by the Preservation Society of Newport County, this collection features such legendary turn-of-the-century “summer cottages” of wealthy industrialists as The Breakers, a sprawling 1895 mansion where the Vanderbilts entertained their company (think: 10-course dinners for 100 guests, with a footman behind each chair) and the 1892 Marble House, another Vanderbilt-family extravagance, inspired by Marie Antoinette’s private palace at Versailles.
Two centuries of architectural styles come together in the painstakingly restored 1695 Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House.
Photo Credit : Newport Historical Society
Though a handful of the best-known Newport Mansions properties welcome guests through fall and winter, mid-October marks the season’s end for the others — Hunter House, for instance, which has been called one of the 10 finest Colonial residences in the nation. The 1754 Georgian was nearly gutted for its exquisite floor-to-ceiling paneling in 1945; the successful rescue effort in turn laid the groundwork for the Preservation Society. Hunter House is a gem of the Newport neighborhood best known as The Point. History buffs should set aside time to stroll these streets, which are filled with the largest and best-preserved collection of Colonial homes in existence. On nearby Broadway, you’ll find the oldest surviving house in Newport, the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House, a model of Jacobean simplicity built c. 1697. Restored to showcase many styles and periods throughout its interior, the house is overseen by the Newport Historical Society, which offers tours on a limited basis.

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3. GO TREASURE HUNTING: Museums for every aficionado

The graceful Redwood Library & Athenaeum was designed by the same master architect, Peter Harrison, responsible for Newport’s Touro Synagogue and Boston’s King’s Chapel.
Photo Credit : Discover Newport
If you’re pressed for time, make a beeline for the Museum of Newport History on Washington Square, the traditional civic heart of Newport. Sited in the restored 1762 Brick Market, it tidily recaps nearly 400 years of local history through well-curated relics and special exhibits (including one on the Newport Tower, a quirky 28-foot stone structure whose origins are the subject of much debate). Bonus for foodies: The museum sits just a few blocks from the White Horse Tavern, which not only lays claim to being the oldest tavern in the nation but serves tasty upscale farm-to-table cuisine, too.
A dozen mesmerizing GM concept cars take center stage at Audrain Automobile Museum’s “Styling the Future” exhibit.
Photo Credit : Audrain Auto Museum
Another general-interest stop is the c. 1750 Redwood Library & Athenaeum, designed by famed local architect Peter Harrison. Yes, there are plenty of books here — it’s the oldest lending library in U.S., after all — but it also has a collection of notable Colonial paintings and sculptures, and hosts rotating exhibitions in its two galleries. From there, let your passion be your guide. Love heritage crafts? The c. 1811 Whitehorne House Museum showcases 18th-century furniture, clocks, silverware, and other pieces by Newport’s finest craftsmen. Audrain Automobile Museum gets vintage-car enthusiasts revved up with curated collections of historic autos for special exhibits like “Styling the Future,” now on display, starring 12 eye-popping GM concept cars. Another current exhibit worth catching is the Naval War College Museum’s “W.A.V.E.S. of Combat Intelligence,” a salute to the women volunteers who helped decipher encrypted messages to locate and destroy German U-boats (**Note: This museum is part of a secure military facility; scroll to the end of this post for details on visiting). And tennis fans won’t want to miss the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, brimming with more than 1,900 artifacts of tennis history, including René Lacoste’s original “crocodile” blazer.

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4. FEEL THE SPIRIT: A wondrous diversity of sacred spaces

Consecrated in December 1763, Newport’s Touro Synagogue is the only synagogue built in Colonial America that is still standing today.
Photo Credit : Michael Melford
Given that the search for religious freedom underpins Newport’s existence (it was founded by settlers driven out of Boston by the Puritan leaders there), it’s fitting that the town is especially rich in historical houses of worship that still welcome visitors today. The most venerable of these is the Great Friends Meeting House, the oldest surviving house of worship in Rhode Island, which was built in 1699. Less than 30 years later, Trinity Church was erected, and it’s been in continuous use ever since: George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, and Desmond Tutu have all prayed here. Speaking of famous congregants, you’re invited to attend a multimedia celebration of the 1953 wedding of JFK and Jackie at St. Mary’s Church; called “Return to Camelot,” the ticketed program runs at 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Oct. 22. And by no means should you miss Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in America and one of most beautiful Colonial houses of worship in existence. While the temple is home to priceless old scrolls, other treasures can be found at the neighboring Loeb Visitors Center, including a framed letter to the congregation from George Washington, written after he visited in 1790 and promising that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

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5. ADD A DASH OF SALT: The quintessential waterfront

Named for the sea captain who built it in 1780, the Clarke Cooke House is today a popular restaurant on Bannister’s Wharf with five dining areas and great harbor views.
Photo Credit : Discover Newport
The harbor has long been the soul of Newport, and even as a modern shopping and dining scene has grown up along Thames Street and its landmark wharves — Bowen’s and Bannister’s — the area has held on to its atmospheric cobblestones, granite-walled quay, and mix of 18th- and 19th-century buildings. No trip to Newport is complete without a visit to the waterfront, where you can browse classic maritime folk art at Scrimshanders and pick up a Gilded Age–inspired souvenir at the Newport Mansions Store; enjoy a cocktail on the patio of The Black Pearl, housed in a 1920s sail loft, or pull up a chair in the 18th-century dining rooms of the Clarke Cooke House; or perhaps best of all, book one of the last harbor tours of the season on a vintage racing yacht or a reproduction schooner.

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6. PLAN AHEAD! Weekend events and midweek hotel deals

Late September into October is prime time for a Newport visit: The sun is bright, the air is crisp, and the biggest crowds are gone. And keeping weekends lively are a number of special events that might be right up your alley…
With outdoor tents and café-style seating, the Bowen’s Wharf Seafood Festival offers a memorable (and tasty) autumn alfresco experience.
Photo Credit : Discover Newport
  • Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival, Sept. 19–22: Rosecliff, Marble House, and the Elms are the backdrop for an epic wine tasting, celebrity chef appearances, a Sunday jazz brunch, and more.
  • Harbor Lights Newport, Sept. 20–21: Boats, yacht clubs, docks, and businesses along the waterfront get all gussied up in colorful lights at this first-ever fall kickoff celebration.
  • Audrain’s Newport Concours and Motor Week, Oct. 3–6: Noted car enthusiast Jay Leno leads the way for this inaugural Audrain Auto Museum showcase of a billion dollars’ worth of vintage and luxury cars.
  • Rogue Island Comedy Festival, Oct. 10–14: Four nights of standout standup by performers from Comedy Central, Inside Amy Schumer, Last Comic Standing, and more.
  • Bowen’s Wharf Seafood Festival, Oct. 19–20: Savor the bounty of the sea as area restaurants and fishermen’s associations serve up lobster, chowder, stuffed quahogs, clams, etc., while local bands keep your toe tapping.
But history buffs will find that a midweek visit has its benefits, too: Small-group activities such as the Newport History Tours and ticketed harbor sails are more likely to have open slots, and many of Newport’s historic inns and hotels offer lower rates and special deals. A sampling:
Located across the street from the Hunter House museum, the Sarah Kendall House offers visitors a home base in the Point.
Photo Credit : Sarah Kendall House
  • 10 percent off Sunday–Thursday now through October at The Francis Malbone House, a 1760 Georgian mansion built for a wealthy shipping magnate and now a luxury inn.
  • $175 per night midweek for select rooms now through October — plus stay 2 nights and get 1 free — at the c. 1871 Sarah Kendall House, an Empire Victorian in the Point neighborhood offering dramatic panoramas of the waterfront.
  • 20 percent off Monday–Thursday now through Dec. 15 (must call and mention seeing this article on NewEngland.com) at HillTop Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in a 1905 Craftsman-style residence with a mini gym in the carriage house.
  • “Fall in New England” driving-tour package (discounted parking, $50 gas card, and catered picnic for two) at Hotel Viking, a Jazz Age gem that has hosted the likes of President John F. Kennedy and Ella Fitzgerald. Though it’s not exclusive to midweek stays, the package wraps up when fall does — so don’t delay!
The boat-filled harbor unfurls behind Hotel Viking, a grand 1926 structure situated atop Newport’s Historic Hill.
Photo Credit : Hotel Viking
**Planning a visit to the Naval War College Museum? Visitors without prior base access (active/retired/dependent military ID or CAC) must make arrangements several business days before visiting. U.S. citizens over the age of 16 who wish to visit the museum must submit information for a background check several working days before arrival. (Any visitor who is escorted by personnel with U.S. military identification does not need advance reservations). Please contact the NWC Museum at 401-841-4052 as early as possible before your arrival.