View of Portland Head Light lighthouse in South Portland as taken by my iPhone
As the most populous city in Maine, Portland’s food scene does the state proud with great food, especially seafood. While Maine lobsters are legendary, I was surprised to find out that the state is also home to amazing blueberries. Whether it was blueberry ice cream or blueberry pie, I enjoyed a lot more blueberries than I anticipated I would before I visited Portland. I have also visited Portland, Oregon. It must be something in the name because both cities have amazing food. However, the similarities stop there. While Portland, Oregon is hip and modern city in the Pacific Northwest; Portland, Maine is a rustic, classic New England city. The Portland peninsula is where most of the things to do and food to eat are located. Moreover, it is part of the beautiful Casco Bay where you can take ferries to some of islands. Maine is also known for its rugged coastline and lighthouses. You can see both if you take a trip to South Portland and Cape Elizabeth, directly south of the city. Portland is a great New England weekend or 2-3 day trip. It is also a stop on New England/ Canada cruises.
- Things to Do
1. Lighthouse Tour
Again, Maine’s coastline is known for its rugged cliffs and lighthouses. There are 6 lighthouses close to and directly south of Portland in South Portland and Cape Elizabeth. They are within a thirty minute drive of each other. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth it to spend half a day to walk around the parks of each lighthouse and admire the beauty of the Maine coastline. Although I did not go to find and see all six, I saw the four biggest lighthouses.
- Portland Breakwater Lighthouse (Bug Light) (S Portland Greenbelt Pathway, South Portland, ME 04106)
The Portland Breakwater Lighthouse (Bug Light) is located at the north end of Bug Light Park. It is the closest lighthouse to Portland at the northeast tip of South Portland. The lighthouse is small, white and black structure. The park has great views of the city and Casco Bay. However, the view of the city might be blocked by cruise ships that dwarfs the modest skyline during cruise ship season.
158 Pickett Street Café
If you are looking for some breakfast or lunch near Bug Light, 158 Pickett Street Café is a decent spot. It is surrounded by Southern Maine Community College. As such, the nearby parking lots are for the school and the students and faculty will take up a lot of street parking. Fortunately, there are two spots designated for the café in front of it. It is known for its bagels. The popular seaweed bagel was sold out when I went there around 10 AM. Accordingly, I ordered a sesame one. It was decent. I prefer bagels softer so they are easier to chew. I also got lox and the smoked salmon was solid. It also included cucumbers and capers. I was not blown away but it was a good, quick breakfast.
- Portland Head Light (12 Captain Strout Cir, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107)
The lighthouse is inside Fort Williams Park. It is the most beautiful and iconic lighthouse by Portland. In addition, the cliffs it sits on are absolutely gorgeous. It is definitely worth the time to walk on the Cliff Walk. I spent an hour leisurely walking around the park and made it down to the ruins of the fort. The ruins are modest and there is not much to see. As such, certainly walk the cliff but the ruins of the fort are not a must. You can see them on the drive in or out of the park. If you are hungry for lunch, the Bite of Maine food truck is parked there and it has one of the highest rated lobster rolls in Portland.
- Two Lights (Two Lights Rd, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107)
There is a lookout point at the end of Two Lights Road. However, there is limited parking so you may have to wait for a spot. You will see Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse towards the north and Two Lights Lighthouse West Tower to the west behind it. The Lobster Shack at Two Lights (225 Two Lights Rd, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107) is right next to the lookout point and a popular lobster roll spot. You can drive closer to the lighthouses if you drive on to 2 Lights Terrace. The road runs right up to Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse. The West Tower is on Beacon Lane. Nevertheless, the roads are private so be respectful of the homeowners and be quick if you decide to drive up closer to the towers.
I initially thought Two Lights State Park (7 Tower Dr, Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107) is where the lighthouses are. I could not see either lighthouse from the park. Nevertheless, it is a fun park to wander around for an hour. It is fun to walk on the cliffs as you feel the cool and soothing sea breeze grace your skin. Of course, do not get too close to the waves of the oceans. They are very strong and it is dangerous if they drag you in. Moreover, it is easy to slip on wet cliffs so watch your step or just stay on the parts of the cliffs that are dry and away from the water.
- Eastern Promenade
As the name implies, it is the promenade on the eastern end of the Portland peninsula. There are three paths to walk in the park. The first is the sidewalk that runs parallel to the Eastern Promenade road at the top of the hill. The second is the Eastern Promenade Midslope Trail that runs through the middle of the hill. The final one is the Eastern Promenade Trail that is at sea level and 2.1 miles long. The trails are a great spot to walk, run, or bike. They also provide great views of the Casco Bay. If you are at the south section of the park, you need to walk on the bottom path or the trees will block your views. The north end of the promenade houses a sewage treatment plant and it suddenly smells terrible without any warning. If you keep on going north, you can connect to the Back Cove Trail for a much longer walk, run, or bike.
Since the Promenade has views of the bay and the sun rises in the east, it is in optimal position for sunrise. Even if it is partly cloudy, you will see a pretty sunrise as long as there are pockets in the clouds. I had to wait an hour but the sun eventually creaked through the open patches of cloud and above Peaks Island.
- Peaks Island
There is public ferry service to many of the bigger islands in Casco Bay. The most popular one to go to is Peaks Island. It is also the cheapest fare at $7.70 for a round trip per passenger. The crew will take your ticket for the boat ride to the island. The trip back is free (i.e. included). You can also drive your vehicle on to the ferry to drive around the island but the price depends on peak or off season and much more than for a single passenger. The boat ride is a short 15 minutes. On a warm day, the sea breeze is very comfortable and relaxing. The ferry and the island provide great views of the Bay. Once you are on the island, it is worth it to walk a bit on Island Avenue to the left and New Island Avenue on the right. When you go to the left on Island Avenue, make sure you get to City Point Road where you will get awesome views of the two islands north of Peaks Island, Little Diamond and Great Diamond. When you walk on New Island Avenue, head over to Whitehead St. where you get beach and scenic ocean views. I walked quickly and spent an hour on the island before catching the ferry back. However, you can definitely spend half a day renting a golf course or bike to explore the island. Seashore Drive that runs on the south and east side of the island would be a good road to bike.
There are longer boat/ cruise rides around the bay but the public ferry to Peaks Island is the most economical. In addition, they have sunrise and sunset rides.
- Back Cove Trail
The trail is a 3.5 mile loop around the Back Cove. It is a pretty trail that has great views of downtown from the backside. The homes in the surrounding neighborhoods are also a part of the pleasant backdrops provided by the trail. In my opinion, the Back Cove is a better spot for sunset than the Eastern Promenade. Since the sun sets in the west, you will see the sun set under the Back Cove rather than not seeing the sun and just the afterglow at the Promenade. The Back Cove Trail is also a great spot for a run or walk and connects to the north end of the Eastern Promenade.
- Old Port
Of course, you will be walking through Old Port at some point during a trip to Portland. The buildings have a rustic, classic feel to them of [for a lack of a better word] an old port. There is a charm to the buildings and roads in the middle of Old Port. In terms of the waterfront, your views of the water view are generally blocked by restaurants and other buildings. If most of the amazing food in Portland was not in Old Port, I do not know if I would go out of my way to visit it. Nevertheless, the best food is there so it is why you will be walking through Old Port anyway.
- Lunch/ Dinner
1. Street & Co. (33 Wharf St, Portland, ME 04101)
As one of my friends confirmed, the Lobster Diavolo is a must in Portland if you are a lobster fan. It is a dish for 2 [can probably serve 4] that has a lobster on top and a medley of mussels and clams in pasta imported from Italy. However, I am not a lobster fan so I will speak for the other items on the menu. For the appetizer, I ordered the clams with chorizo. Of course, the clams were fresh. The sauce was very good and added a lot of flavor. The chorizo was kind of bland when I ate them but it was probably because the flavor was already soaked out of then by the dish already. For my entrée, I ordered the whole fish special for the night: bronzino, Italian sea bass. It is a difficult fish to eat because it is filled with bones. On the other hand, the flavor is always wonderful. In some of the high end Italian restaurants I have been to, they are experts at deboning the fish so that you are only eating the meat. Since it was only a daily special for Street & Co., I did not expect the server to know how to properly debone it. Accordingly, it was served as a whole fish. The size of the fish was very generous. The dish included fingerling potatoes, hazelnuts, mushrooms, and prosciutto. The only side I did not love was the potatoes. They were just potatoes and did not soak up the flavor from the rest of the dish. The hazelnuts were great. They added a delicious crunch to the dish. I could not get enough of it. Moreover, the mushrooms were delicious. Street & Co. is only open for dinner and it is a great spot for it.
The restaurant is on Wharf Street. The street is a back street off of Dana St., parallel to and in back of Fore Street. It feels like a back alley but a welcoming and pretty back alley.
- Eventide (86 Middle St, Portland, ME 04101)
This restaurant features awesome seafood served in a very unique style. Specifically, the presentation of the dishes are top notch. I highly recommend the clam bake which includes a dozen mussels, a dozen steamer clams [although it seemed like double the count], a lobster tail, pork, a baked egg, and potatoes. Naturally, the seafood was ridiculously fresh. The steamer clams were interesting. They have long necks so you need to yank out the necks and rip off the blackened skin on the sides before you can eat the residual meat. The server will ask you if you know how to eat them and explain how to if necessary. I also do not like lobster but ate the tail in this dish because it came with it. I did not hate it. I like the tender meat. The texture of lobsters usually drive my taste buds nuts. The chewiest part of the tail was not my tastes but I finished it. The pork was very good and did well to contrast all the seafood in the dish. The mussels, baked egg, and potatoes were also good. The clam bake is $34, which is a great deal. Not surprisingly, Eventide is also known for its unique take on the lobster roll so it is a dish that should be on the radar of lobster aficionados visiting Portland.
- Central Provisions (414 Fore St, Portland, ME 04101)
I have enjoyed tapas [small plates] spots but had never been blown away by one until I ate at Central Provisions. My friend told me everything was good here and I can confirm that assessment. I ordered the Redonda Iglesias Serrano Jamon as my appetizer. It was very similar to the Spanish tapas, iberico ham. A more known item it was like is prosciutto. The Jamon was thinly sliced and not too salty. I ate it with bread and the Peru Peru (chili peppers). The peppers complemented the Jamon perfectly. By themselves, I did not really care for them. For my entrée, I ate a fish sandwich. The meat was hake fish, which is in the same family as cod and haddock. It was ridiculously tender and the pieces of fish fell apart easily like flakes. The aioli sauce in the sandwich was also delicious. I highly recommend the Jamon and the fish sandwich.
- Fishermen’s Grill (650 Main St, Westbrook, ME 04092)
This hole in the wall type spot is a lesser known restaurant outside of the city limits of Portland in the nearby town of Westbrook. It is also a ten minute drive from the airport which is convenient if you are looking for a place to eat or grab something to go before or after a flight. I was on my way to the airport after a trip to Acadia National Park. I did not want to go back into the city limits of Portland to get a lobster roll to bring home to my family so Fishermen’s Grill was a perfect spot to go to. I ordered the Jumbo Lobstah roll, which is just two lobster rolls. I also added a cup of New England Clam Chowder and ate it on the spot. It was made to order and one of the best I have ever eaten. The clams were obviously fresh. The chowder was sizzling hot and a perfect balance between liquid and solid. Since it was a to go order, the lobster was kept separate from the roll so it would not make the bread soggy over time. It took me over four hours to get home. Nevertheless, the lobster was still fresh when I got home. It was very tender and had the perfect amount of mayonnaise on it. My family noted it was as great as they imagined a Maine lobster roll would be. The bread of the roll was excellent as well. We could taste why Fishermen’s Grill is ranked as having one of the best lobster rolls in the Portland area.
- Duckfat (43 Middle St, Portland, ME 04101)
It is a spot for awesome paninis. For an appetizer, I highly recommend the poutine with duck fat. It might have been the best poutine I have eaten. The fries were very crisp and the duck fat adds a lot of taste. The cheese curds are also key to poutine and they were excellent. For my panini, I ordered the Italian pork belly panino. The pork belly was more like a thick slice of ham instead of the fatty pork belly I am used to eating. The bread of the panini really makes the dish. It tasted like ciabatta bread and was toasted to be very crunchy.
- Breakfast/ Baked Goods
1. Standard Baking Co. (75 Commercial St, Portland, ME 04101)
It is a phenomenal, popular bakery in Portland. It is especially awesome for breakfast. The Morning bun was totally amazing. I got the one with walnuts. The inside of the bun was flaky like a croissant. The paste was good. I loved the sweet glaze on top. Another popular breakfast pastry is the prosciutto asiago croissant. There was a thin piece of prosciutto inside to give a salty flavor. The croissant was excellent. Personally, I prefer the Morning bun more because I have a sweet tooth. I also tried their cookies and ordered a pecan sea salt chocolate chip. The chocolate was so good. Sea salt is an ingredient used to accentuate the sweetness. In my opinion, the balance was slightly off because the cookie was a bit more salty than I would have liked. Standard Baking Co. also has its own parking lot so there is no need to scour for street parking if you just want to pick up pastries quickly.
- The Holy Donut (7 Exchange St, Portland, ME 04101)
There is a sign at the front of The Holy Donut that showcases its ranking as one of the top 10 doughnut shops in the U.S. I have tried a lot of top doughnut shops throughout the country and buy that assessment. Its doughnuts reminds me of an awesome Polish doughnut shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn called Peter Pan, which looks like a doughnut shop out of time and features great classic doughnuts. The Holy Donut adds an artisanal touch to old school doughnuts. They utilize Maine potatoes in the batter. The potatoes made it soft but I did not taste a strong potato taste. I tried the sea salt dark chocolate flavor. It was excellent. I could really taste the sea salt and it made the doughnut even sweeter. I also had the seasonal flavor, Maine Apple, which utilized apple cider. I love apple cider so I really enjoyed the doughnut.
- Two Fat Cats (47 India St # D, Portland, ME 04101)
Two Fat Cats sells incredible pies. Its most popular item is whoopie pie. It was absolutely glorious. The chocolate cake was very soft and the filling was very good. In terms of traditional pies, they sell only one flavor by the slice each week. Fortunately for me, I wanted to try a slice of blueberry and that was the flavor of the week when I visited. Maine has ridiculously delicious blueberries. The blueberry filling in the pie was amazing. The crust was good but nothing extraordinary. The bakery was also giving out free samples of different cakes when I was there. I had a small piece of German Dutch cake. It was so moist and delicious. Definitely stop by Two Fat Cats for some pie when you are in Portland.
- Ice Cream
1. Beals (12 Moulton St. Old Port/ 18 Veranda St.)
Beals has multiple locations throughout the Portland area. I went to the location in Old Port and the one north of the Back Cove Trail on Veranda St. The Old Port location has indoor seating. The Veranda St. one is an ice cream shack with outdoor seating. Each location has slightly different flavors. Regardless of which one you go to, I highly recommend the Blueberry flavors. I had the regular blueberry flavor in Old Port and it was phenomenal. At the Veranda St. location, the Blueberry cobbler was sold out so I ordered the Blueberry cheesecake yogurt. It had great flavor and I could not get enough of the crust crumbs throughout the ice cream. I also recommend getting a waffle cone if you are getting more than one scoop. They are massive scoops. When I ordered two scoops during my first visit, I remarked “Is that really two scoops? They are a lot bigger than I thought. Good thing I didn’t get three.” I had to rush to eat it before it fell off the small sugar cone and on to the floor. I would have enjoyed it more in a waffle cone where it could not nearly fall out as easily.
- Mount Desert Island Ice Cream (51 Exchange St, Portland, ME 04101)
If you want artisanal ice cream, Mount Desert is a spot for you. Definitely try a few flavors before picking the ones you want. One of the popular flavors is The Dude. It has a kick to it because it is made with some White Russian. Another popular flavor is the Bay of Figs. It was good but I actually prefer the taste of a real, fresh fig. Neither of those two flavors were my taste. Of course, I went with blueberry as one of my flavors. It was phenomenal. I also went with the pralines and cream which was great.
Overall, I was a very disappointed with coffee in Portland. For your caffeine fix, below are my thoughts on the ones I tried.
- Tandem Coffee Roasters (122 Anderson St, Portland, ME 04101)
Tandem has two coffee shop locations in Portland. The roaster is on Anderson Street in the northeast part of East End. The bakery is on Congress Street in West End. I went to the Anderson location since the roaster location for a coffee shop usually has the better baristas. It delivered. It had the best latte I drank in Portland. The drink was smooth throughout. The microfoam and the latte art was great. The shop has its own parking lot in the back. However, it is small and I accidentally drove into the bigger parking lot of another coffee shop, Coffee by Design. The Anderson Street location also closes a lot earlier than the Congress Street one: 2 PM on the weekdays, noon on Saturday, and closed on Sundays.
2. Bard Coffee (185 Middle St, Portland, ME 04101)
It is a good specialty coffee shop. I had a solid latte here. I found a lot of lattes in Portland too watery. Bard was fine. However, I would have liked the texture slightly more thick and smooth. Nevertheless, it was a solid latte and Bard was one of the better coffee shops in the city.
- Arabica Coffee (2 Free St, Portland, ME 04101)
The latte I had here was not perfect but Arabica was a very good specialty coffee shop overall. The drink was smooth on top. However, there were certain points throughout the drink that were too watery. The balance between the water and milk was off. There was no bitterness anywhere in the drink which means the beans were extracted correctly.
- Speckled Ax (567 Congress St, Portland, ME 04101)
I had a pretty good, but not great latte at the Speckled Ax. There was a slight bitterness so the beans were almost extracted perfectly. In addition, it was a little more watery than I would like. The water to milk ratio was definitely off. In my opinion, it was mainly caused by the cups being too big for the size I ordered. It might have been better if I asked for a larger size that has more milk.
- Hilltop Coffee (100 Congress St, Portland, ME 04101)
I had one of my most disappointing coffee experiences in a while at Hilltop Coffee. It was way too watery and bitter. The balance of the drink was completely off. I would describe the latte as water with a hint of coffee. I drank a quarter of the drink before I had to stop and leave it in the dirty dishes bin. I went at a fringe hour in the afternoon so maybe there are better baristas at the peak hours.
Hotels are very expensive in the city. However, Portland is a great city to utilize AirBnB. I stayed in East End at an apartment about a 10 minute walk from Old Port. It was a perfect location for seeing the city. Uber and walking is fine for the Portland peninsula. You also do not necessarily need to have a car in Portland unless you want to drive south to the lighthouses. Even then, you can take an Uber or taxi out there. Of course, there are tour groups too. I spent two full days in Portland and did not even use my rental car at all during one of the days.
If you are also visiting Acadia National Park and looking for recommendations, please see http://rookerville.com/2017/10/27/hitchhikers-guide-acadia-national-park/