Welcome to Newport, a coastal retreat home to Gilded Age mansions, miles of windswept coastline, and some of New England’s best culinary experiences.
Located at the mouth of Narragansett Bay, the city’s historic and maritime heritage is on full display at every turn. Newport boasts the largest collection of colonial-era homes in the country and an assortment of mansions built by the wealthiest industrialists of the late 1800s. Today, many of these mansions (or “summer cottages,” as their owners called them) have been converted into museums, where you can take in the ornate splendor, walk around the grounds, and look out over dramatic cliffs into a sea of fishing boats, sailboats, and yachts.
Beyond Newport’s historical intrigue, there’s also a contemporary flair that draws a younger and more varied crowd. Chic bars, seafood restaurants, and boutiques are sprawled around Bowen’s Wharf and Thames Street, one of the best alfresco dining scenes in New England. There’s always something buzzing around in Newport, so it’s no wonder the destination has been a popular vacation getaway for generations.
Ready to see this coastal city for yourself? Here’s my guide to spending a weekend in Newport, Rhode Island!
Disclosure: My weekend visit to Newport was in partnership with Discover Newport and The Wayfinder Hotel, who hosted me and covered my experiences in the destination. As always, all opinions are my own.
Note: Due to COVID-19, there are travel restrictions in Newport that are highlighted at the end of this article. Before booking any travels, be sure to follow relevant government guidance and safety protocols. And of course, be sure to practice social distancing!
Hike the Cliff Walk
Take a seaside stroll along the Cliff Walk, a 3-mile walkway that connects Newport’s mansions with the scenic waterfront area. It’s one of the best hikes in New England, and a great place to exercise and take in the stunning views of the mansions and coastline.
Some parts of the Cliff Walk are paved, while others are rocky and uneven, so you’ll want to throw on good footwear. Bring plenty of sunscreen too!
If you’re an early bird, you won’t have any trouble finding parking in front of Easton’s Beach or on the side streets near the Salve Regina campus and The Breakers mansion. Sunrise is the best time to visit because the Cliff Walk hugs the eastern side of Aquidneck Island.
Tour Newport’s extravagant mansions
Walk down Bellevue Avenue and you’ll instantly fall in love with some of America’s most impressive mansions.
Most of these homes date back to the Gilded Age during the late 1800s and early 1900s. This was when America’s wealthiest and most powerful families, including the Vanderbilts, Morgans, and Astors, sought Newport as their summer residences. Decked out with elaborate tapestries, artwork, and other décor, their homes were built to rival the royal estates of Europe. In many cases, they most certainly did.
During normal times, there are 11 Gilded Age mansions that are open to the public. However, due to COVID-19, only two mansions were open during the time of my visit: The Breakers and The Elms. Be sure to check out the Newport Preservation Society website for an updated operating schedule.
Here are a few of my favorite mansions along with a brief description of each:
The Breakers: The most famous and iconic home in Newport. It was built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II in the Italian Renaissance style and contains 70 rooms.
Marble House: A mansion built from 500,000 cubic feet of marble. It was a birthday present for William K. Vanderbilt’s wife. Not bad!
Rosecliff: An ornate mansion that was filmed in the 1974 film The Great Gatsby.
Whether you’re an architecture lover or simply looking for a rainy day activity, the Newport mansions will not disappoint! These homes provide a unique glimpse of how the ultra-rich used to live during the turn of the twentieth century.
Lunch at the White Horse Tavern
Grab a hearty meal at the White Horse Tavern, the oldest restaurant in the US. It was established in 1673, more than 100 years before the American Revolution.
The White Horse Tavern is located near Thames Street, and serves a variety of local American dishes. The fresh seafood comes from Narragansett Bay, while much of the produce is sourced from nearby farms. I loved the oysters, lobster mac and cheese, and steak frites. The Rhode Island clam chowder wasn’t as creamy as what I’m used to in Boston, but it’s a local delicacy and worth trying, nevertheless.
Once you step foot inside, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to colonial times. The White Horse Tavern has been serving locals for 350 years, and though the setting is old and historic, the dining experience is more contemporary and upscale.
Stay overnight to truly experience Newport’s charm
In the past, I’ve done Newport as a day trip. However, to experience all that Newport has to offer, you’ll want to spend at least a couple of nights here to properly enter vacation mode.
I stayed at The Wayfinder, a boutique hotel that just opened in Newport last month. Unlike the traditional hotels in Newport, The Wayfinder offers a contemporary hotel experience with a relaxed, free-spirited vibe. It was created by a group of local chefs, bartenders, artists, designers, and entrepreneurs who all love Newport. The passion seemed contagious, as I saw with the super friendly front-desk and restaurant staff.
Wall art with boats and lighthouses aren’t a thing here. Instead, The Wayfinder features fresh and modern designs, all created by local artists. The pool mural is very unique, as are the shapes and designs throughout the lobby, restaurant, and hotel room.
Another highlight of my stay at The Wayfinder was the restaurant, Nomi Park. It’s run by Newport’s Mission Group, a local family-run restaurant group that owns other eateries in town. Breakfast was my favorite, as there’s no better way to start the day than with a mimosa and eggs benedict. The nitro cold brew on tap was also on point.
The hotel room was huge, yet it had a cozy vibe to it. The perfect place to relax and unwind after a long day of running around Newport.
Take a tour of the city
Sure, you can do Newport on your own, but a tour is a helpful way to get your bearings and learn a bit about the city. In these times, it’s also a great way to give back to the local community. Tour guides have been hit especially hard by stifled tourism caused by the pandemic, so by taking a tour with a local guide, you’re really supporting the community.
I took a Viking Trolley Tour, a scenic and narrated tour aboard an old-fashioned trolley. Our guide, Ray, provided a great overview of Newport and the many sights sprawled around the city. It was interesting to learn about Newport’s colonial, maritime heritage, as well as the Gilded Age for which the city is best known for. With Newport’s history being so vast, I appreciated this high level overview and it helped me figure out what I wanted to see later on.
Typically, when I explore new cities, I prefer to do the “free” walking tours (where you’re expected to tip the guide at the end), but given that Newport is fairly spread out, a trolley tour was a nice way to get around.
Eat, drink, and shop around Bowen’s Wharf
Enjoy a summer evening around Bowen’s Wharf, a pedestrian-friendly zone with beautiful views of the waterfront. Together with Bannister’s Wharf, this is the heart and pulse of Newport’s marina.
Bowen’s Wharf is home to a mix of bars, restaurants, and boutiques, as well as a fun and lively alfresco scene with plenty of opportunities for people-watching and sailboat-gazing. If you’re visiting Newport over a weekend, be sure to make a reservation at one of the restaurants in advance. 22 Bowen’s, The Mooring, and Black Pearl are among the most popular restaurants near the waterfront, but there are many others in the vicinity.
Bowen’s Wharf is also within walking distance of Thames Street and America’s Cup Avenue, where you’ll find other shops, restaurants, and attractions. It’s easy to get caught up in all the incredible food and eat your way through these neighborhoods.
Parking here can be tricky, so plan to either pay extra for a designated parking lot nearby or do street parking further away. Some restaurants will validate for two-hour parking.
Sunset boat cruise
A sunset boat cruise is a must when you’re in Newport. It was the highlight of my visit, and I’m sure it will be yours too.
On a clear summer night, set sail on one of Newport’s harbor cruises. Amazing Grace is among the most popular, where you’ll glide past superyachts, lighthouses, and mansions, all illuminated by golden hues. The sweeping views paired with the fresh sea breeze is an amazing experience.
Amazing Grace is owned by Oldport Marine, which provides other harbor shuttle services and charters. They are a great option if you’re planning to visit Newport in a group for a company outing, wedding or bachelorette party.
As you sail through the harbor, you’ll be surprised by the sheer number of big boats out there, many of which belong to individuals. Though the Gilded Age is long gone, Newport is still a summer haven for the rich and famous.
Tour the International Tennis Hall of Fame
If you’re a tennis fan or player, definitely check out the International Tennis Hall of Fame. It’s located at the site of the first U.S. Open Championship in 1881, and includes a museum, grass tennis courts, and an indoor and outdoor tennis facility.
The grounds and architecture are beautiful, while the museum houses interesting exhibits about the history and evolution of the sport. I was surprised to learn that the earliest versions of tennis trace back to medieval times, before evolving into modern tennis in the late 1800s.
The International Tennis Hall of Fame is the perfect rainy day activity during a weekend in Newport.
Into cars? The Audrain Auto Museum will blow your mind
Just next door to the International Tennis Hall of Fame is another unique museum, the Audrain Auto Museum. It showcases some of the world’s rarest cars from 1899 to the present day.
While the museum has access to more than 200 vehicles, you’ll see about 15-20 cars on display at a given point in time. The exhibits in the museum change every three months, so you’re bound to see a whole new collection of cars every time you return.
When I was there, the theme was headlights, so you could see and learn about their remarkable evolution over the decades. It was fascinating to see that kerosene torches were used as headlights in the olden days, and for practical reasons, people rarely drove at night.
In Newport, it’s not uncommon to see fancy cars on the road, so it’s a fitting location for this museum. I’m not fully versed in this area, so it was nice to visit the Audrain Auto Museum to broaden my knowledge about high-end cars, especially in a historical context.
Drive along the Ocean Drive Historic District
While we’re on the topic of cars, let’s go for a drive along the Ocean Drive Historic District.
This is a 10-mile scenic drive along the coast where you’ll pass by private beaches, classic New England boats, and mansions towering over dramatic cliffs. There are plenty of places to pull and take photos. It’s also very bike and pedestrian friendly.
One place you won’t want to miss is Brenton Point State Park, an 89-acre park located where the Atlantic Ocean meets Narragansett Bay. It’s a terrific sunset and picnic spot, where you can relax, unwind, and watch the waves batter against the rocky shores. It can be a bit windy here, so it’s the perfect place to fly a kite.
Not far away is Fort Adams State Park, a historic area that’s home to Fort Adams. Here, you can take a tour around the grounds, and catch the sunset with panoramic views of Newport Harbor.
Rejuvenate at the beach
Need a break from the museums and mansions? Head to one of Newport’s beaches to soak up the summer sun and cool off in the water.
Rhode Island’s Classic Coast is home to hundreds of miles of beautiful sandy beaches. Here are some public ones around Newport that deserve a visit:
Easton’s Beach: Also known as First Beach, it’s located at the beginning of the Cliff Walk and is a popular sunrise spot.
Second Beach: Located just down the road from First Beach in neighboring Middletown, RI.
Gooseberry Beach: A small beach set in a quiet cove along Ocean Drive.
Fort Adams State Beach: A small beach in Fort Adams State Park that overlooks Newport Harbor.
Soak in the summer sun at Newport Vineyards
During a weekend in Newport, enjoy a glass or two of wine at Newport Vineyards. It’s the largest grower of grapes in New England, and offers a variety of tours, tastings, live music, and other special events.
There’s a solid variety of red and white wines here, so I recommend getting a flight of four to try. Be sure to make a reservation in advance for the outdoor patio, which has a beautiful view of the vineyard and a gentle breeze to go with it.
In addition to the winery, there’s also a craft beer brewhouse called Taproot Brewing Co. This, along with the restaurant and winery, makes for the perfect afternoon outing. The winery’s relaxed and charming atmosphere reminds me a bit of Napa Valley in California.
Take a ferry to Block Island
Planning to spend at least a weekend in Newport? Consider doing a day trip to Block Island. It’s a serene place to visit during all times of year, especially during the fall foliage season in New England.
This idyllic island is home to dramatic clay cliffs, windswept beaches, and historic lighthouses and Victorian-era homes. It has the classic New England vibes of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, without the crowds.
Take a hi-speed ferry to Block Island, one of America’s best hidden vacation spots, where you’ll find no stoplights or big international chains. Here’s the ferry schedule from Newport (planning to open later in the season due to COVID-19):
Dinner and drinks at the Castle Hill Inn
Enjoy a summer sunset from the Adirondack chairs at the Castle Hill Inn. This late 19th-century estate hosts an inn and restaurant, where you can eat dinner and have drinks with a view of the waterfront.
I didn’t get to go here unfortunately, but I’ve heard from friends that it’s a must when you’re in Newport. I drove by and the location is perfect with stunning views of the lighthouse.
Stroll The Point neighborhood
Though Newport is best known for its Gilded Age history, the city’s colonial heritage is also front and center. One of the best-preserved historic neighborhoods is The Point, home to the largest collection of colonial-era homes in the United States. This is a part of the Newport Historic District, which covers 250 acres of property in the center of Newport.
As I walked through The Point district, I was surprised to see how well-preserved and intact these homes truly were. There are about 50 of them in all built between the early and mid 1700s, each having a placard in front showing when they were built and for whom.
In The Point, you’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to the days before the American Revolution.
Visit the Rose Island Lighthouse
Airbnb tree houses are cool and all, but have you ever thought about spending a night in a lighthouse? Rose Island has you covered.
Just off the coast of Newport, Rose Island is a pristine and secluded island with a classic New England lighthouse. It’s a unique experience where you can spend a night or even up to a week in the lighthouse, which dates back to 1870.
Wake up every morning to a picture-perfect sunrise and cap off the evenings stargazing with unobstructed views of the midnight sky. Here’s the website to make a reservation.
Even if a secluded island getaway isn’t in the cards, consider a lighthouse and harbor tour instead. Rose Island is one of Newport’s best hidden gems.
Visiting Newport, Rhode Island during COVID-19
Lastly, I wanted to paint a picture of my experiences in Newport as it relates to COVID-19. Here were some of my observations:
Public safety measures throughout Newport
Overall, I was impressed with Newport’s handling of the COVID-19 situation.
It was great to see the whole community doing their part to promote best practices for social distancing and sanitation measures, including at restaurants, museums, and other attractions. Masks were required in all indoor establishments, and out in public between noon and 10pm. There was signage all over Newport (in public parks, walkways, and other spaces) encouraging visitors to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart. There were even sanitation stations in heavily-trafficked places, including Bowen’s Wharf.
Most people I saw out in public were heeding the warnings. Of course, just like anywhere else, I did see some pockets of people who weren’t, but few and far between. Whenever I passed by people not wearing masks, it was still feasible to practice social distancing (hotels aren’t operating at full capacity, so there wasn’t an overwhelming number of visitors in town).
Each restaurant required masks upon entering, and whenever getting up to leave the table (i.e. to use the restrooms). Some restaurants used QR codes so customers could scan the menu on their phones, while others provided disposable paper menus. There was also contact tracing performed at all restaurants and other indoor establishments, where I’d be asked for my name and phone number upon arrival. That way, if someone contracted the virus later on, I would be notified (so far, so good).
Safety measures at my hotel
I stayed 2 nights at The Wayfinder Hotel, where I also felt comfortable about the controls in place for managing the risk of COVID-19. Some services were limited as a result, including cleaning services and amenities such as an ironing board, which could be reserved from the front desk. Guests wishing to use the pool would need to make a reservation in advance. I think some travelers could find these things to be an inconvenience, but I think the measures were reasonable given the circumstances.
If you’re thinking about visiting Newport in the near future, be sure to refer to the Rhode Island Department of Health website to see if your state has any travel restrictions.
As this website shows, Rhode Island requires visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days if you’re coming from a state with a COVID-19 positivity rate greater than 5% (unless you have proof of a negative test within 72 hours of arrival).
At the time of my visit, Massachusetts (my home state) had a COVID-19 positivity rate of around 2% and ~200-230 new daily cases, which is well below Rhode Island’s threshold to self-quarantine. With low case numbers, widespread access to testing, and reasonable controls in place to slow the spread, the northeast U.S. is handling COVID-19 pretty well. As such, I felt comfortable visiting Newport, and didn’t feel like it exposed me to any more risks than I would assume by visiting my local grocery store, restaurant, or park.
A weekend in Newport, Rhode Island
Whether you’re into history or chilling on the beach, Newport is a must-see on any east coast road trip itinerary. It’s the perfect day trip or weekend getaway from Boston, and you can even spend much longer!
Are you planning to visit Newport for a weekend anytime soon? Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. Hope you have a fun and safe trip! -Jon
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