I’m not one to gravitate towards the “ultimate tourist destinations,” but Newport is worth it. It’s Gilded Age architecture, rich history, beaches, hiking trails and sailing heritage give you plenty of things to do in Newport, RI.
It was my 28th birthday, so I thought I’d use my birthday as an excuse to take a trip nearby. Newport, Rhode Island, aka the “Sailing Capital of the World” was just a 2 hour drive from Greenwich, Connecticut. The perfect weekend getaway! Newport has hosted the America’s Cup sailing regatta for over 50 years. And with Pat and I taking sailing classes over the summer, we were more interested in sailing than ever before. Now with 2 days at my disposal, I aimed to see some of the most famous sights in Newport as well as get to know the outskirts of Newport, specifically the Farm Coast. In just 24 hours, Pat and I managed to see a lot of Newport. Here’s my definitive list of the 10 best things to do in Newport, RI in May.
Quick Navigation: 10 Things to Do in Newport, RI
- The Point Neighborhood
- Bowen’s Wharf & Bannister’s Wharf
- Lunch: The Lobster Bar or Other
- Bellevue Historic District & Its Newport Mansions
- Tour The Breakers: Newport Mansion
- Stroll Along Cliff Walk
- Bike or Drive Down Ocean Drive
- Grab a Drink at The Pavillion at Forty One North
- Optional: Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge
- Dinner at Boathouse Tiverton Outside Newport
1. The Point Neighborhood
The Point neighborhood is located right next to the parking lot. It’s also the first part of Newport you will see before getting to the more touristy side and more lavish side. It’s a small neighborhood were a lot of the locals live. It was formally called Easton’s Point after one of the founders of Newport, Nicholas Easton. Today, it is most commonly referred to as The Point. This quaint neighborhood is home to the largest concentration of colonial homes in the U.S. Unlike the mansions on Bellevue Ave and millionaire summer homes, these homes are small and quaint, making them less overwhelming due to their more subtle size and stature. They were formerly built by sea captains, fishermen, merchants, tradespeople, and shipbuilders. The neighborhood spans from Washington Street to Farewell Street and from Gladys Carr to Sycamore St. Here you can walk through pre-Revolutionary streets and admire the colonial New England architecture. It’s easy to imagine the bustling colonial Newport scene that once was with the sea on one side and its concentration of distinguished homes on the other.
Pineapples have been Newport’s symbol of hospitality since the 1650s. Sea captains returning from their voyages from the South Seas would put them outside their homes to let people know they were back and invite them inside to visit. The pineapple literally means “welcome.” You will see them everywhere in Newport, especially now that I told you!
2. Bowen’s Wharf & Bannister’s Wharf
Bowen’s Wharf has more colonial houses and public buildings than any other city in America. If that’s not reason enough to visit it, then keep reading the article for a few more. The history of Bowen’s Wharf is due to the dissidents that founded it. They allowed for those seeking religious freedom from Europe to escape and find sanctuary in Newport. This led to the formation of a large and prosperous settlement that ultimately became one of the New World’s busiest ports. The colonial houses and buildings you see today are a testament to the prosperity that once was (and still is today, but in a different form).
Like all things, there is good and there is bad. Unfortunately, many of the old waterfront bars are gone. The cobblestones were replaced with newly paved brick and lined with trendy shops and upscale restaurants. The old grimy and weathered lobster boats? No longer in the harbor. They were replaced by large freshly painted tour boats. The smell of fish and seaweed? Diminished by an overactive dedication to cleanliness (and COVID didn’t help with that). Newport just did what it had to in order to survive economically. It had to turn itself into a tourist destination. So while Bowen’s Wharf now feels constructed, not local, and a bit like Disney land in a way, there is still some good in what remains. The old waterfront buildings that once were decaying and were at risk of eradiccation have all been revitalized, similar to what happened to Park City. They now have been turned into small, quaint shops filled with lovely cliché New England things…think little ceramic lighthouses, potholders shaped like lobster claws, door knockers in the shape of shells, etc.
We walked by the infamous Sky Bar, where all the Sailors used to go, and Boom Boom Room were everyone goes to dance. We walked past the red umbrellas of the Black Pearl’s outside terrace and past the shingled building at the end of the wharf. Adjacent to Bowen’s Wharf is Bannister’s Wharf, which is the entry point to Newport for the thousands that come and visit it by sea. From here you can see enormous yachts and sailboats lined for miles tied to the dock.
3. Lunch: The Lobster Bar or Other
I turned over to look at Pat and could tell he was getting hungry. We began to stop to look at menus posted in restaurant entrances. I let Pat choose, The Lobster Bar it was. The inside of the restaurant was flanked with huge floor to ceiling windows that made you feel like you were outside. Ship lanterns, rope, and other decorative items gave it that nautical Newport feel. The waitress took us to a table out back on the water.
Pat ordered a lobster roll and I ordered a lobster salad (to counteract the butter…ha). For those who may not be from the US or not familiar with the New England culture, the icon or symbol that best represents New England is seafood, particularly lobster and clam chowder (or chowda as we say). Lobster is a must-have meal you need to eat in New England. It’s the equivalent of eating pasta or gelato in Italy or croissants and crepes in France. The New England waters from Maine to New Jersey have the largest abundance of lobster in the world. Maine itself makes up 80% of all lobster catch in New England!
We sipped on our rum punch, a typical Sailors beverage with a story of it’s own…in short, British sailors brought the idea of punch back from India. Punch was a beverage mixed with 5 ingredients: sugar, water, citrus, spirits and a spice like nutmeg. When the Brits brought it back to London, it became a phenomenon. Once they acquired land in the Caribbean, they began using the Rum made from their Caribbean islands into the punch. Hence, the birth of the drink rum punch, a typical Sailors and colonial beverage.
Patrick took a bite, tasted the cripsy, toasted, buttered roll outside, the briny sea and rich earth of lobsters inside. He looked over at me, to nod his appreciation, but I was too enraptured in my meal to acknowledge. If your not a seafood lover or have a seafood intolerance or allergy…then you’re out of luck. Just kidding!! A lot of restaurants, including Lobster Bar, offer some non-seafood delights, but you’ll have to look a bit harder for those.
If The Lobster Bar is booked, alternatives include The Black Pearl, The Landing on Bowens Wharf, Midtown Surf Club, 12 Meter Cafe or Belle’s Cafe (known as one of Newport’s hidden gems).
4. Bellevue Historic District & It’s Newport Mansions
As mentioned earlier, while The Point neighborhood is the smaller, more local, more intimate area of Newport, Bellevue Ave is known as millionaire row. It’s where all the wealthy New Yorkers would escape for the weekend and build there million dollar houses. They were attracted to the beautiful woods and dramatic coastline of Rhode Island. So many wealthy entrepreneurs and merchants followed, that by the early 1800s Bellevue Ave and Ocean Drive had the highest concentration of summer ‘cottages’ – aka mansions in the US. Today, 11 remain built by notable names such as Vanderbilt, Astor, and Belmont. The best way to see them is by bike. Bike down the Avenue, whiz in and out of the streets, and stare in awe at the mansion-like houses lining the streets. You can tour each of these homes throughout the week…and I highly recommend you do.
Visit Tiverton & Little Compton, Farm Coast of Rhode Island in May
5. Tour The Breakers: Newport Mansion
Explore Newport Mansions (AKA “Summer Cottages”) in Rhode Island
Of the 11 mansions or “summer cottages” available to tour, Patrick I toured the most famous, The Breakers, owned by the Vanderbilt. For those not familiar with American history, the Vanderbilt family was one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the United States. They rose to prominence during the Gilded Age thanks to their shipping and railroad empire. The mansion is built in an Italian renaissance palazzo style inspired by 16th century palaces of Genova and Torino. More than Italy, the place reminded me of France. Stepping into the dining room area with glass chandeliers hanging from the ceiling reminded me of Versailles.
Continue reading: Explore Newport Mansions in Rhode Island >>
6. Stroll Along Cliff Walk
Visit Cliff Walk Newport, Rhode Island and 40 Steps
What’s great about the Newport Mansions or “summer cottages,” is that they are directly located on Cliff Walk, a 3.5 mile trail that winds along the edge of the sea wall. On one side flanks the Atlantic Ocean, on the other large mansions and summer cottages that look like castles on a cliff. If your not in the mood to walk all 3.5 miles, there is one stop that is visited by all along the coast that you have to try and see: Forty Steps.
Continue Reading: Visit Cliff Walk Newport, Rhode Island and 40 Steps >>
7. Bike or Drive Down Ocean Drive
It was my birthday so I felt like riding our new bikes down Ocean Drive’s 10-mile loop. It was warm out for May, which made the weather perfect for biking. The sun shined brightly, lighting our way. The bike path alternated between widening and narrowing. We passed by Gooseberry Beach, a beach set in a quiet and calm cove with minimal waves. The beach is open to the public, but the beach club is private. I became visibly absorbed in my surroundings. I took note of the castle-like turrets, the meticulously manicured lawns, and the elaborately arched stone entranceways that one had to drive under to then be able to fully see the half-hidden massive mansions. The homes lining Ocean Drive weren’t too shabby either. Less Old World than the Newport Mansions, but still lavish.
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We passed by several stunning estates until the residential area thinned out giving way to just roads and trees. We could hear the comforting sound of the sea. We were enjoying the warmth, the wind, the salty aroma and the sound of the waves. I spotted The Lawn at Castle Hill Inn along the way. I could see the Adirondack chairs dotting the seaside lawn overlooking the bay. We stopped in the hopes we could grab a drink, but it was sunset and we hadn’t made reservations. We continued along Ocean Drive until we made it back to Newport for our cocktail.
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8. Grab a Drink at The Pavillion at Forty One North
We pulled up our bikes and locked them at The Pavillion at Forty One North located right on Newport Harbor. We sat at the bar and ordered a couple of well deserved Coronas after biking for hours. We wandered around the dock for a while, watching the sunset, then made our way back to the high top open-aired bar for some conversation.
It was hard to focus on our conversation given all the ruckus happening behind us, but this is part of what Patrick and I love about traveling–eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. A young group behind us, who must’ve been in college and you could tell visited Newport often with their parents, were drinking like there was no tomorrow…we listened to their shenanigan’s for a few a while before getting tired of them and paying for our check and leaving. Pat and I love eavesdropping on other people’s conversations and then discussing it when we leave. It’s a bad habit, but it makes for interesting conversation! These people were just too over the top though, it felt like something straight out of Gossip Girl, but worst and more cliché. Felt like they were fighting for who was better, richer, on top…etc. Get’s boring quickly.
9. Optional: Second Beach and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge
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While Pat and I didn’t get the chance to see everything we wanted to, if you do get the chance, make sure to add Second Beach and Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge to your list. Second Beach is the longest stretch of sand in Rhode Island. This 1.5 mile long beach is where you’ll find the locals. And if you still have enough energy to keep going, take a walk in the 2.5 miles of nature trails at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge right next door. At the end of the Point is Surfer’s End, a popular spot for surfers, kayakers, and kite flying.
10. Dinner at Boathouse Tiverton Outside Newport
We concluded our night with dinner at The Boat House Waterfront Dining in Tiverton. We were going to spend our second day in Rhode Island exploring the lesser known Farm Coast, so I wanted to eat outside of Newport. Exploring a bit more of the local side of the State. The temperature dropped significantly at night so we ate indoors, but try and eat outdoors if you can and get there before sunset. If you don’t believe me, The Boat House Waterfront Dining was named among the most scenic restaurants in the country by OpenTable. So that says a lot. See below for what I mean. You get to dine outdoors by the Sakonnet River to the sound of Ocean Breeze and nautical charm, while doing an oyster tasting alongside a well-deserved glass of wine. So New England…so Rhode Island.
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>> Next: Enjoy the Sea Breeze: A Block Island Bed & Breakfast
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