New England is where it all started, America-wise. And while history buffs will jump at the chance to follow in the footsteps of the founding fathers, there’s a lot more to the Northeast than overtaxed tea parties and tri-corner hats. Whether you’re looking to explore the cobblestone streets of the nation’s oldest cities or drive winding mountain roads through fiery Autumn foliage, New England’s offers a beautiful backdrop for a wide range of adventures. Here are ten spots you shouldn’t miss.
Portland is a bohemian foodie heaven dressed up like a quaint working harbor town. Just a quick day-trip from Boston (hop on the Downeaster out of North Station for a pleasant two-hour ride complete with a bar car), spend the day traipsing around the Old Port, where the old wharfs and warehouses have been converted into galleries, restaurants, and shops. If you do nothing else while you’re in town, get a brown-butter lobster roll at Eventide, and stop for cocktails at the Portland Hunt and Alpine club. If you’re looking for an elegant dining experience featuring ingredients from Maine farms and waters, make a reservation at Fore Street. For something more casual, grab the kids and head to Flatbread for good pizza, great beer, and an open fire overlooking the ferry terminal. Finish the night at Lincoln (if you can find the secret entrance), where every drink in the house is just $5.
Roughly the midpoint between Portland and Boston, Portsmouth is a well-preserved historical city on the Piscataqua River where you’ll want to watch your toes on the cobblestones while you’re trying to photograph the picturesque brick buildings. Get a funky, fun breakfast at the Friendly Toast, then check out the Strawberry Banke Museum, a living history preservation where actors in costume reenact life in New Hampshire’s oldest neighborhood. For a secret side-trip, duck across the river to Kittery, Maine, for ramen at Anju Noodle Bar, then head through the back door to find some of the best cocktails anywhere at the Wallingford Dram (you’ll want to appoint a designated driver). Once you’re back in town, eat dinner at Moxy, where small plates and cocktails tell the town’s story with all-local ingredients.
Bar Harbor, ME
Adjacent to Acadia National Park, Bar Harbor is an artsy little enclave perched on Maine’s rocky coast that’s worth the long drive to get to. The town is quirky and adorable, full of funky shops, divey bars, and a ton of great restaurants, and it makes the perfect jumping-off point for all your coastal Maine adventures. Rent bikes in town and cruise over miles of gravel-paved carriage roads and stone bridges that wind around Acadia’s lakes and ponds—make sure you stop for popovers at Jordan Pond House. Get coffee and pancakes at Cafe This Way, buy a t-shirt at Cool-as-a-Moose, then take a drive around Northeast Harbor too gawk at the dramatic cliffside mansions built by the oil barons of old. Back in town, grab a mojito and some South-American influenced cuisine at Havana, and try some local beer from Bar Harbor Brewing Co. at the Thirsty Whale. On the drive home, stop for dinner at Primo in Rockland, where you can tour the farm with a cocktail while you wait for your table, then an award-winning chef will prepare your meal with veggies and livestock grown right on the property.
Old Orchard Beach, ME
Whether you’re just passing through or planning a week sunning in the sand, Old Orchard Beach (OOB) has everything the whole family needs to have a blast by the sea. The dunes are lined with charming old hotels, though renting a house might be the way to go if you’re visiting with a group. Plant your umbrella on the beach and walk to the Pier for pizza and french fries, or find some thrills at Palace Playland, a beachside amusement park that’s been operating for over a century (don’t worry, the roller coaster isn’t quite that old). Play a round of themed mini golf at Pirate’s Cove, then head north to Ocean Park for a break from the crowds. It’s a smaller community that hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, with charming bungalows, quiet streets, and an old soda fountain that’s been serving homemade ice cream to barefoot kids for decades.
New England’s largest city, Boston needs no introduction. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to discover beyond the hallowed walls of Fenway. Just down the street from the ballpark is the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, an art museum that looks like an Italian palace and conceals a secret garden—it’s the perfect place to escape the tumult of the city for a quiet afternoon. The Boston Harbor Islands are another hidden gem for explorers and expert picnickers, accessible by a gorgeous ferry ride through the harbor (plus there’s a bar on the boat). There are world-class dining and drinking options all over Boston; for some of the best sushi in the nation, find your way to O Ya in the Leather District (near South Station), and cocktail nerds should try Back Bar in Somerville, just a short cab ride from downtown, where you never know which local bar star will be slinging drinks. Look for the red door in the alley.
Newport is known for its Gilded Age mansions and yacht club extravagance, and a tour of Bellevue Avenue is a must for first-time visitors. For a do-it-yourself version, try a morning jog down the Cliff Walk trail, with mansions on one side and the ocean on the other. But there’s more to do here than watching rich people have fun. If you’re feeling your sea legs, take in the sunset at sea on the Adirondack II, a schooner offering sailing tours out of Bowen’s Wharf. And when you’re finished shopping and people-watching on Thames Street, make a reservation at Tallulah on Thames for an intimate meal, or check out the local beer scene at Pour Judgment.
Martha’s Vineyard, MA
The Vineyard is an island just south of Cape Cod, a short boat ride from Woods Hole or a quick plane from Boston if you’re in a hurry (but why miss the views on the water?). It’s large enough that you can avoid the tourist traps if you know where to go, and visiting in the shoulder seasons will guarantee that the island is your playground. Breakfast at Lucky Hank’s in Edgartown, a cozy renovated house serving hearty local fare, then take a stroll through the cottages in Wesleyan Grove in Oak Bluffs, where you’ll find art shows and performances during the season. Either a casual dinner at the Red Cat Kitchen or fancier fare at Alchemy will fill you up, then you can dance it off at Park Corner Bistro.
Nestled in the serene dunes and beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore, Provincetown buzzes like a neon sign. A vibrant, creative town full of drag queens and vacationing families, P-town is the Cape’s fun-loving soul. Work up an appetite by renting a bike to tour the town, making sure to stop in at the numerous art galleries along the way, then pack a picnic for Race Point Beach, where you can spot seals and the occasional Great White. Lunch like a local at The Canteen, serving Cape-style comfort, then park your bike and take a walk down colorful Commercial Street, where the drag queens will do their best to lure you into a show. Drink local beer at the Squealing Pig, then hit The Underground for ping pong, air hockey, and probably more beer.
Rhode Island’s capital is a quintessential New England city, where history and innovation dovetail in a picturesque setting with some really great food and drink. Visit the RISD Museum for your daily dose of culture, or try the Governor Henry Lippitt House Museum for a reflective afternoon among gorgeous stained glass. After you’ve satisfied your highbrow appetites, get a taste of how the other half lives at Ogie’s Trailer Park, a themed restaurant and bar with a year-round outdoor patio and tiki bar and fried chicken and burgers from the window. Oberlin is a can’t-miss dinner in town, and don’t forget to try the late-night industry spot North instead for upscale, creative comfort food.
Overlooking Lake Champlain in northern Vermont, Burlington proves that getting away from it all doesn’t mean you can’t have it all. A year-round destination for outdoor adventures like boating and skiing, the town offers world-class dining options, first-class shopping, and some of the best beer money can buy. Stay at the Hotel Vermont, an upscale boutique with locally-made flannel blankets (for sale) on the beds and a great bar downstairs serving Vermont cheeses and beers from internationally-acclaimed local breweries like The Alchemist, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, and Hill Farmstead. If you’re in town during foliage season, grab a beer and a blanket inside then head to the patio to cozy up by the fire pit. Dine next door at Hen of the Woods (get the mushroom toast), and wrap up the evening at ArtsRiot, where you’ll find big-flavor bar food executed with high-octane culinary technique.
Ryan Polhemus is a freelance writer based in Boston. When he's not scribbling about (or sampling) the local food and drink scene, he can likely be found on a cheap flight to a strange destination, where he will scribble about and sample somebody else's local food and drink scene.