Steeped in history, culture, and tradition, the beautiful and bustling coastal city of Newport, RI, offers something for everyone.
By Jessica Gordon Ryan
Jan 23 2017
The Inn at Castle Hill, as seen from the bay.Photo Credit : Jessica Gordon Ryan
Beautiful Newport, RI, with her harbor glistening from bright white sails and her historic streets lined with Gilded Age splendor, gives today’s tourist a glimpse into the privileged past of the tycoons that helped to shape our country. Steeped in history, culture, and tradition, the city offers something for everyone — a perfect, quick getaway — whether it be for a day or for a week.
First, there are the Newport mansions: The Breakers, built in 1895, is probably the most visited and most opulent, but just as magnificent are Marble House, Rosecliff, andThe Elms, where Downton Abbey fans might enjoy the Servant Life tour. For those visiting The Breakers, a drive to the stables is an absolute must. There you’ll see original carriages beautifully restored to their old splendor, as well as a working replica of the train lines imagined and built by Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose work helped to shape our country.
LEARN MORE:Newport Mansions | Experiencing the Gilded Age
Children will adore theGreen Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, a short drive away. Wander through the whimsical gardens that are home to over 80 wonderfully designed topiary, whose subjects range from the living, like animals, to the inanimate, like ornamental designs and shapes. The garden’s topiary are sculpted from several different types of ornamental shrubbery, like yew, California privet, and English boxwood.
If possible, I strongly urge visitors to explore some of the lesser-known mansions, such as Hunter Houseand my two personal favorites, Chepstow and Rough Point. Chepstow is an Italianate-style villa, built in 1860 by George Champlin Mason, an architect native to Newport. It was bought in 1911 by the wealthy Morris family, and in 1986, the estate and its collections were passed on to The Preservation Society of Newport County, which cares for it to this day. Inside the home, you’ll find 19th-century décor and artwork, which show off the class and style of one of America’s wealthiest families.
The Morris family’s dear friend, Doris Duke, owned the nearby mansion of Rough Point, which might be my all-time favorite. Located at the end of the island, this impressive oceanfront estate is one of the final stops on the famous Newport Cliff Walk, and has been left largely untouched, with all of its original European and Oriental furnishings still intact.
Rough Point’s landscaping will also be of great interest to visitors. The world-famous architect, Frederick Law Olmsted, was commissioned by Frederick Vanderbilt to design Rough Point’s gardens, and even today, the mansion’s landscaping blends flawlessly with the nearby shoreline. The Newport Restoration Foundation currently manages the estate, ensuring that it is used for education and public enjoyment.
Tennis also plays an important role in the city’s history. The first U.S. National Men’s Singles Championship was held at the Newport Casinosocial club on August 31, 1881, but by 1914, the event had grown too large for Newport and was relocated to New York City, where it later became the U.S. Open.
Now considered a National Historic Landmark, the Casino first opened on July 26, 1880, as a social club for Newport’s wealthy (it is not, nor was it ever, a gambling casino). The Casino’s grounds included indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a bowling alley, and a theater. Today, its outdoor courts are open to residents and visitors, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame boasts an exciting and interactive museum that’s sure to please all tennis enthusiasts.
LEARN MORE:International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum | A Rare Find
Two other Newport museums worth noting are the Newport Art Museum and the National Museum of Illustration.
The Newport Art Museum regularly exhibits high-quality art — from both past and present — with a focus on the Newport region.
The National Museum of American Illustration (NMAI) features artwork from the “Golden Age of American Illustration” and is housed inside one of the most decadent Newport cottages, Vernon Court. The mansion was built in 1898 and exemplifies the architectural style of 17th-century France. One hundred years after its construction, the residence became home to the NMAI, where you’ll find original works of art, many of which were first seen in newspapers or books.
Book and library lovers will want to stop by the Redwood Library & Athenaeum, which is considered to be the oldest continuously running lending library in the country, founded in 1747. The library’s architecture is so impressive that Thomas Jefferson himself is said to have used it as a model for public buildings elsewhere in the young country.
Moving on from the cultural to the fun, Newport boasts a great many activities for active people of all ages. I’d be remiss to write about activities in Newport without addressing the Cliff Walk, which is a 3.5-mile walking trail that extends down Newport’s coastline, offering stunning views of Gilded Age mansions on one side and the crashing waves of the Atlantic on the other.
Walkers, runners, and bikers will also enjoy walking along Bellevue Avenue and the Ocean Drive, a route better known as the Ten Mile Drive. Click this link for information on scooter and bike rentals.
Fort Adams State Park, on the Ocean Drive, is also a must-see. The park offers a slew of seasonal activities, but is perhaps best known for its annual summer concerts, like the Newport Jazz Festival and Newport Folk Festival. Guided tours of the fort are also available.
TheSwiss Village Foundation, located along the Ocean Drive, works closely with Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Education to save rare and endangered livestock. Although the village itself is only open to the public one day a year, as you pass by, you’ll notice all sorts of wonderful animals grazing on their lawns, as well as those of the the nearby Hammersmith Farm.
Nature and bird enthusiasts visiting Newport, RI will delight in the Norman Bird Sanctuary, which is open daily to the public.
If you’re strolling around in town on a Wednesday afternoon, the Newport Farmer’s Market is simply wonderful. Offering a variety of farm-fresh produce, from flowers and cheeses to artisanal baked goods and jams, as well as prepared foods, beverages, and live entertainment, this is a great place to relax in the shade on the cool grass and take in the local sights and sounds.
The City by the Sea offers a tremendous variety of coastal activities. Charter a former America’s Cup Sailboat through America’s Cup Charters, or, if you prefer, you could opt for a beautiful, classic Antique Yacht, or perhaps enjoy an Amazing Grace Harbor Tour, or a fishing charter.
Feeling in the mood to relax in the sand? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to unwind at the beach. First Beach (Easton’s Beach)is a great destination. Located at the bottom of Memorial Boulevard, the beach boasts some great activities for kids: a working carousel on the upper level is always a fun time, as are the playground — located right on the sand — and the selection of evening activities for kids of all ages. The snack bar is impressive and I might suggest the lobster roll, which is delicious and reasonably priced.
Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquariumis a marine science center that’s home to dozens of species native to Narraganset Bay. In addition to the many rare specimens on display, the aquarium also boasts touch tanks that let you meet a variety of marine life — like sea stars, urchins, and dogfish — up close.
Second Beach (Sachuest Beach) offers a long stretch of Rhode Island’s most beautiful shoreline and soft, powder-like sands. Right when you come down the hill, you’ll find yourself at Surfer’s End. This part of the beach has some impressive surf. Pull over and park your car to watch some great surfers in action. Calmer waters and long stretches of beach are just down the road, where there’s plenty of parking available, so pack a cooler with beverages, food, and snacks — and plan to stay a while.
Do be sure to have some cash on hand should you see Del’s Lemonade Truck. A Rhode Island institution, this semi-frozen treat is perfectly refreshing on the hottest of summer days. Try the original lemon, or new flavors such as watermelon, cherry, lemon-lime, and grapefruit. (There’s a truck at First Beach as well.)
LEARN MORE:Del’s Lemonade | Up Close
Gooseberry Beach, on the famed Ocean Drive, is a semi-private, gated beach that is open to the public (for a fee). With calmer waters, it’s a great choice for those with small children or those who prefer a quieter setting.
The Newport-Jamestown Ferryis a great and affordable way to see Newport without the hassle of summer traffic and parking. This is especially nice on a really hot day. Pick up the ferry at Perrotti Park in the downtown area and enjoy the sights of Narragansett Bay as you make your way over to Fort Adams, Rose Island, or Jamestown. Children will particularly enjoy this ride. Hop off at Jamestown, grab an ice cream cone, and catch the next ferry back. There’s a wonderful lighthouse on Rose Island worth checking out as well.
At the end of the day, you’ll be tired, hungry, and thirsty! Newport, RI boasts some of the best restaurants in New England and has become a top destination for food lovers.
In the fall, the Newport Preservation Society hosts the Newport Food & Wine Festival, which has attracted noted chefs and celebrities, like Jacques Pepin and Martha Stewart. Can’t wait until then? You might want to visit Newport Vineyards, New England’s largest grower of grapes, and take a tour of their winemaking process and facilities. After that, enjoy a glass of wine on the outdoor patio or visit the restaurant.
LEARN MORE:Newport Vineyards | A Family-Owned Labor of Love in Middletown, Rhode Island
Newport, RI has an almost uncountable number of restaurants. Below is a list of favorites that range from family-friendly to upscale.
For comprehensive listings of where to stay in and around Newport, as well as up-to-date information on the goings-on in every season, visit Discover Newport.
Have you ever visited Newport, RI?
We would like to extend an enormous thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport County, the Newport Restoration Foundation, and Discover Newport for their help and for allowing us to come in and photograph some of their properties.
This post was first published in 2016 and has been updated.