Portland is a place that I think many people overlook or never consider visiting, and this is a shame. Since its early days as a New England port city full of impressive beards, It has become a fairly hip and cultured little city... full of impressive beards. Those in the know are aware of the fantastic and fascinating culinary scene in Portland; many chefs considering it one of the country's best small food cities. It's also packed with craft breweries and brewpubs, some well known, others pouring libations tough to find outside of a 10 mile radius. Portland is a creative place, a college town, where a youthful yet calm exuberance seems to wash over the cobblestones and old New England architecture to create a refreshing balance of tradition and progress.
I recently had the pleasure of visiting Portland and thought I'd share some tips for having an enjoyable stay with limited time and a minimal budget. I'm not one for tourist traps and cutesy holidays, so don't expect lobster magnets and lighthouses in this article.
Let me start with a couple general considerations about Portland and Maine as a whole. First of all, I visited in December. It was cold as Hell. Maine gets really fucking cold and dark for quite a decent share of the year. With this in mind, you should choose your visit time wisely if you can, knowing that the winter season is torturously frigid and certain summer months are obnoxiously tourist saturated. Second, though I will recommend an itinerary of sorts to follow, when in doubt, ask the locals. Mainers are know to be very friendly (though sarcastic and blunt) and proud of their state. They'll be more than happy to tell you where to go.
Warm up and fuel up. I don't trust people who don't drink caffeine (okay, if you have a medical condition I'll give you a pass). So for those of you who appreciate a little help waking up, I'd recommend a morning stop at Arabica Coffee. This centrally located micro-roaster and cafe serves some damn good coffee and has a chill, just unpretentious enough vibe. If you're like me, get two cups of black drip, though I won't hold it against you if you're into the milky stuff.
Once you've had your morning caffeine injections, I'd recommend Marcy's diner for some simple but carefully prepared breakfast. On my visit, I chose some classic diner fare; eggs over-medium, bacon, hash browns and french toast with REAL maple syrup (oh please get the real maple syrup, you're in Maine). I also appreciated the fact that when I requested hot sauce I was presented with a little bucket of various spice options. A nice touch.
I should take this opportunity to note a few things about Marcy's so you are prepared. They only accept cash, it is a Portland staple so you will likely have to wait for a table, they don't take shit (so I hear), so I'd recommend NOT behaving like an abusive, entitled prick or you WILL get yelled at or kicked out.
Time for some beer! Portland (and the state of Maine in general) has a pretty amazing craft beer industry. It seems like almost every town in the state has at least one brewery producing delicious, flavorful adult beverages. With that said it's no surprise that Portland, as the largest city in Maine, is home to a ton of world-class brews, all within a stone's throw of each other. I started my Maine beer adventure at Allagash brewing. This place is a fairly well established independent brewery (i.e. Not owned by inbev) located a little out from Portland's downtown. Offering a FREE sample flight to visitors, you can potentially get in and out of here without spending a dime, and perhaps even with a buzz if the strong stuff is on tap that day.
I'd recommend Allagash if you only have the time or energy for one brewery stop in Portland, mostly due to the whole free beer thing. However, if you'd like to go on a bit of a cross city brewery tour, try some of these guys:
Note: make sure to check brewery hours, not all of these places are open on the same days.
If you're anything like me and the majority of the human race you will eventually get hungry again. As I mentioned earlier, Portland is well recognized for containing a fantastic culinary scene, so you will have myriad tasty options to choose from. My recommendation for you is Flatbread Company right on the water in the heart of Portland's old port. Serving unique, clay oven baked pizzas created with sustainable, mostly organic ingredients, Flatbread Co. should satisfy your palette, your hunger and your bleeding heart, save the planet outlook all at once. Full disclosure; Flatbread Company, is a small chain with locations throughout New England, so if you Want something a little more solely Portland, consider Gilbert's Chowder House a few doors down.
Check out the Old Port. After lunch head up to exchange street. This area of Portland is incredibly attractive, cobblestones and shops lining the fairly busy street, and when the weather allows, you can usually find street performers and artists loitering on the sidewalks and in the park at the northern end. Make a stop at Bullmoose Music while you're in the area to browse their vinyl and various other accoutrements.
As the sun starts to set over Portland harbor (at about 5pm during to colder months) head over to wharf street and grab another craft brew or three at Gritty's, another ubiquitous Portland watering hole. The locals tell me the food is good too, though on this occasion I only had the beer.
One more beer? Yes. As your day in Portland, Maine comes to an end, I will send you to one more location for a nightcap and late night snack. The Thirsty Pig, located on Exchange Street specializes in house-made sausages of various delicious varieties. Grab a draught beer (many of which you may have visited earlier) and pair it with a sausage or two. In my opinion there aren't too many better ways to end a night.
Portland is a fantastic city. Small, but with a density and culture that makes it feel much larger and quite active. If you ever have the chance to go to Portland, Maine, take some of my recommendations and of course ask the locals. Try the beer, try the food, and keep warm!