From quirky founding fathers of fishing villages to dazzling urban ports, which of these seaside cities will you choose for a New England cruise? Portland, ME or Providence, RI?
How It All Began
The peninsula that juts out into Casco Bay along the Fore River was settled in 1623 by British Captain Christopher Levett. He erected a stone house, left 10 men behind, and then skipped back to England to pen a book about his adventures. He never returned, but the Massachusetts Bay Colony took over the fishing village, which grew into the essential early American port of Portland.
Roger Williams was a Puritan minister who wanted to split from the Church of England and criticized colonists for snagging land away from Native Americans. For these “dangerous” thoughts, he was convicted of heresy, so in 1636 he gathered his flock and settled at the head of Narragansett Bay. Thus, began Providence’s tradition of liberal thought that condemned slavery and fought for women’s rights.
Industries that Shaped the City
Located on Maine’s southern Atlantic coast, Portland cut its economic teeth in the fishing and commercial shipping industry. By the mid-1800s, railroads added to its maritime trade, forging a transportation hub and attracting companies that made engines for trains and boats and other transportation equipment. Many of today’s 66,000 residents are employed in the service and financial industries.
What started as a fishing village evolved into an industrial center by the 19th century, making products from steam engines and tools to jewelry and textiles. It grew into one of America’s richest cities, but with the decline of manufacturing, many of its nearly 180,000 citizens shifted to jobs in education and health care. Eight hospitals and seven higher ed institutions call Providence their home.
Hip neighborhoods include the Arts District (galleries, theater, museums) and Old Port District (19th century warehouses converted to trendy restaurants). Portland is easily walkable to sites such as the Observatory, Victoria Mansion, Farmers Market (since 1768), Children’s Museum. Outdoor escapes include Eastern Promenade, Cape Elizabeth, lighthouses, beaches, historic parks and cruises to Casco Bay islands.
Universities energize the town, and areas such as Federal Hill and the revitalized waterfront attract visitors of all ages. Cultural perks include RISD Museum, galleries and music venues. Roger Williams Park Zoo, walking tours of historical sites, and festivals present outdoor fun. The highlight event is WaterFire, a citywide arts extravaganza of bonfires flickering on the river and cultural activities celebrating the flames.
Craft Brews & Incredible Cuisine
Prohibition began in Maine in 1851 when alcohol was outlawed in the state. Portland’s mayor, Neal Dow (aka the Napoleon of Temperance) incurred his citizens’ wrath during a raucous protest called the Portland Rum Riot, which lead to the law’s repeal in 1856. That spirit lives on today in 20 craft breweries (highest rate per capita of any U.S. city) and many distilleries, accompanied by a stellar food scene with innovative chefs.
Providence’s manufacturing prowess was fueled by immigrants from countries with robust culinary traditions such as Italy, Ireland, Portugal and Brazil. Combine dishes handed down in ethnic neighborhoods with creative cooks and you get a vibrant food city. From diners and food trucks to high-end eateries, especially in the Downtown District, regional cuisine is diverse and unique.