Newport, Rhode Island, is a pristine tourist location with beaches, fresh seafood, and monuments to the opulent lifestyles of some of New England’s wealthiest families. It’s fun to visit any time, but Newport really shines twice a year: during the Christmas season — with grandiose door-decorating competitions and old-timey charm — and in the middle of the summer when multi-million dollar yachts come to dock and enjoy the cool ocean breeze. If you’re looking to beat the heat this summer, why not do it like a Kennedy and partake in some of Newport’s finest pastimes.
If you’ve never been to Newport we highly recommend doing a tour of some sort, whether you prefer to drive yourself or take to the waters of the Narragansett Bay. By cruising what the locals call “The Drive,” you can enjoy ten miles of stunning coastline views that conveniently take you past many of the area’s points of interest, like Fort Adams State Park, Hammersmith Farm (where Jacqueline Kennedy grew up and where her wedding reception was held in 1953), Brenton Point State Park, and Gooseberry Beach. Start from downtown Newport at the intersection of Thames Street and Wellington Avenue, or if you’re closer to the mansions, start at the end of Bellevue Avenue.
Newport was the summer playground of the rich and famous during the Gilded Age, including families like the Vanderbilts, Astors, and Morgans. The homes they built are ornate on a scale that is seldom seen these days, and they’re well-preserved thanks to the Preservation Society of Newport. Each mansion boasts its own style and spectacles, so it’s worth visiting more than one. The Breakers, which is probably the most famous and the grandest of the mansions, was built in 1895 by the Vanderbilts. It has over 70 rooms, including a music room that was constructed in France then disassembled and shipped to the United States for reassembly inside the house. They used Baccarat crystal for the chandeliers in the dining room and platinum leaf in the morning room. The Breakers is open daily year-round, with audio tours and helpful employees.
Rosecliff Mansion was built for Nevada silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, and was modeled after the Grand Trianon in France. The Elms has an outstanding collection of paintings, statuary, and tapestries, and gardens that shouldn’t be missed. While you’re here, be sure to also tour the Green Animals Topiary Garden. To plan your museum itinerary, be sure to check out the Preservation Society’s website for special tours, lectures, and package deals.
If you’re up for a seven-mile walk, (3.5 miles out and back) the Cliff Walk is a gorgeous way to explore the Newport shoreline and see the mansions from a different perspective. The walk starts at the western end of Easton’s or First Beach at Memorial Boulevard and runs south with exits at most major intersections with avenues into town. In addition to the mansions, you’ll get a great look at parts of Salve Regina’s campus, which boasts equally impressive architectural feats.
Narragansett Bay By Boat
Newport is considered to be one of the sailing capitals of the world. It is home to the largest fleet of America’s Cup 12 Meters in the world, most of which are available for charter. If sailing isn’t your jam, harbor tours and cruises with boats of all sizes are also available. There are too many options for us to list here, but we highly recommend chartering a sailboat from a small local company. You’ll get a personal touch and all the insider information from the crew. Most tours only take a few hours, and offer food and beverages for sale.
The state parks in Newport are popular spots to picnic, fish, and generally just enjoy the coastline. Kite flying is almost always an option, with the prevalent winds coming off the water, and you’ll usually see people with easels set up to capture the natural beauty as well.
Brenton Point State Park
Located off of Ocean Drive, Brenton Point State Park offers gorgeous views of where Narragansett Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. Home to the Portuguese Discovery Monument, a tribute to maritime navigators, the park is great for birding, fishing, picnicking, and the trails for walking are pet-friendly.
**Advice from a former local: Beaches in Newport tend to be pretty exclusive: you either have to pay through the nose to park, arrive before breakfast to get a spot, or your access is limited by private land. If you park here at Brenton Point (which is free), you can cross the street and take one of the paths down to the rocks. It won’t be a sandy beach — which doesn’t really exist in Rhode Island — but there are some good flat rocks that you can lay a towel down on and enjoy some peace and quiet.
Fort Adams State Park
Fort Adams is probably best known as the home of the legendary Newport Folk and Jazz festivals. The Jazz Festival is August 4-6 this year, and will feature well-known names like Herbie Hancock and Diana Krall. The rest of the year, the fort is a great place to do the Bay Walk; a 2.5 mile loop with views of the Castle Hill Lighthouse, Rose Island Lighthouse, and Beavertail Light. You can also see the Ida Lewis Yacht Club and Goat Island along the east side of the park.
If you’re willing to take a tour, the 75-minute guided walk of the fort itself is fascinating, taking you from the top of the walls to the underground tunnels.
Audubon Society of RI Nature Center and Aquarium
This adorable little nature center is situated on 28 acres of wildlife refuge land, with beautiful walking trails that start at the Palmieri Pollinator Garden and wind through meadows to fresh and saltwater marshes. The aquarium is tiny but packed with local sea life, enthusiastic volunteers, and hands-on opportunities. It’s a bit off the tourist-trails, but well worth a visit if you’re an amateur naturalist.
Just a little reminder: Rhode Island is not Florida. The beaches here are beautiful but rocky and rugged. Whatever sand they have has probably been shipped in, and the water is cold 11 months out of the year. That said, it is quite refreshing to take a dip on a hot summer day, and sometimes just the ocean breeze is a welcome respite. Also, if you see a Del’s Lemonade truck, be sure to stand in line, because their frozen lemonade is perfect to enjoy at the beach.
The places that do have sand get crowded pretty quickly, so we advise that if you’re looking for a beach day and don’t have access to a private beach with your accommodations, make sure you get an early start. A few favorite beaches include First Beach (at the beginning of the Cliff Walk) and Gooseberry Beach, favored because it’s a cove with calm waters.
If you’re not too exhausted from all the touring, walking, and sailing, the downtown area of Newport is filled to the gills with delicious restaurants and boutiques. Thames Street is the center of it all, with bars and shops squeezed in between historic homes. We highly recommend walking Thames Street as the traffic can come to a total stand-still during the summer season, and it’s only 1.5 miles from one end to the other.
The restaurants are mostly casual, but the seafood is as fresh as it gets. Oysters, lobster rolls, and clams are local delicacies, and you can’t go wrong with the catch of the day. There are a plethora of shopping opportunities with well-known high-end chain stores, but be sure to also make time for the multitude of smaller, locally-owned Newport shops.
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