10 Reasons to Drive to Newport, Rhode Island

From Gatsby-esque mansions to sandy beaches and stellar clam shacks.

Founded in the 1600s as a ramshackle seaside colony, Newport has gone on to become the crown jewel of Rhode Island’s tourism industry—yet, it’s still surprisingly underrated when it comes to vacation destinations across the northeastern USA. It’s understandable though, considering how it’s sandwiched between two of the greatest cities to ever exist (NYC and Boston—don’t @ me.)

With ample opportunity for outdoor recreation, a booming nightlife scene, and enough calamari to humble a grown man, it’s easy to see how this charming refuge became a playground for the ultra-rich during the Gilded Age. And even if your bank account doesn’t exactly rival the Vanderbilts of yore, you can still have a blast exploring Rhode Island’s historic gem—here’s how.

Gawk at spectacular architecture

Long before the days of launching cosmetics lines or launching themselves into space, America’s most exorbitantly wealthy families spent their time in a somewhat different manner—namely, building earth-shatteringly beautiful (and expensive) mansions along Newport’s dramatic seaside cliffs.

From the Versailles-inspired Rosecliff to the opulent structures scattered across Salve Regina University’s campus, Newport is positively bursting with stunning displays. The real crown jewel, however, is undoubtedly the Breakers. Built in the 1890s at the behest of Cornelius Vanderbilt, this 70-room palace is home to massive crystal chandeliers, painstakingly crafted life-sized portraits, and a staggering collection of sculptures and other art installations. Book a self-guided tour and see for yourself—real estate envy is all but guaranteed.

Gorge yourself on on succulent seafood

As Jay-Z and Beyoncé once said in their smash hit single ‘03 Bonnie & Clyde, “All I need in this life of sin is clam chowder and calamari in downtown Newport.” Okay, maybe that’s not the exact quote, but we like to imagine they’d back us up on this one.

It’s a well-known fact that clam chowder runs through the veins of New Englanders the region over, and Newport is chock-full of this savory ambrosia. For creamy New England-style chowder, The Black Pearl, Jo’s American Bistro, The Mooring, and The Red Parrot are top destinations, while those in search of the lesser-known Rhode Island-style clam chowder (clear broth rather than cream-based) should make the short trip east to Flo’s Clam Shack, a beloved pub that’s been serving high-quality seafood since the 1930s.

Of course, no trip to Rhode Island is complete without experiencing the Ocean State’s take on calamari. Delightfully crispy and loaded with tart, spicy banana peppers, this dish was officially designated the State Appetizer in 2014, and can be found in abundance across Newport. To get your squid on, head to the eclectic Brick Alley Pub & Restaurant, or check out Benjamin’s, primed and ready to make all your cephalopod-filled dreams come true.

Get your steps in on the Newport Cliff Walk

In the mood to exercise but don’t feel like confining yourself to the hotel gym? Let the crisp sea air and stunning natural beauty of the Cliff Walk sweeten the deal. With 3.5 miles of sweeping ocean views, this seaside trail is Newport’s top spot for breaking a sweat in style.

If you’re in the mood for a challenge, the craggy and unpaved stretch of trail from Reject’s Beach to Belmont Beach is your best bet, while the paved northern portion provides a gentler experience for the less adventurous set. Even if you’re not in the mood to get physical, be sure to make a quick stop at the Ruggles Avenue entrance, where you’ll immediately be met with a dazzling panorama of the Breakers mansion.

Immerse yourself in local history

Renowned for its high concentration of Colonial-era landmarks, you can’t throw a stone in the Newport Historic District without hitting a storied antique (side note: we highly discourage throwing stones anywhere downtown).

Among the treasures, several structures across the city stand as a testament to the city’s lengthy history of religious freedom. The Great Friends Meeting House was built in 1699 as a hub for the local Quaker community, while the 1760s-era Touro Synagogue is recognized as the oldest synagogue in the nation. Of course, no visit to Newport is complete without a drink at White Horse Tavern. Said to be the oldest bar in the United States, this polished watering hole has been serving up ales, wines, and whiskeys to thirsty customers since the mid-1600s.

Live it up in a luxury accomodation

From dazzling seaside manors to trendy boutique inns, Newport has you covered when it comes to Gatsby-quality stays. If you’re yearning for the Gilded Age treatment, consider The Cliffside Inn—a 16-room boutique hotel operating out of a Victorian-era mansion—or splurge on a few nights at the supremely opulent Castle Hill Inn, a Relais & Chateaux palace perched on 40 verdant acres along Newport’s westernmost coast.

For a decidedly modern feel, Forty 1° North encompasses cozy cottages and polished penthouses just a few steps from Bowen’s Wharf, and also serves as the first LEED-certified hotel in the Ocean State. Just north of downtown Newport, the picturesque Wayfinder Hotel seamlessly blends vintage New England charm with a contemporary aesthetic, offering a wealth of prime relaxation opportunities after a long day of exploring the city. Be sure to take full advantage of the poolside cocktail service, and once dinner time rolls around, onsite restaurant Nomi Park is your one-stop-shop for coastal cuisine paired with complex boozy creations.

Search for native creatures along the shore

While downtown Newport is a prime location for people watching, some of the city’s top ecotourism attractions can be found just a few minutes drive from Bowen’s Wharf. For marine life enthusiasts, local company Save the Bay offers a one-hour seal tour down the sandy Aquidneck coast during the winter months, but the surrounding area has far more to offer than just playful pinnipeds… 

With over 300 acres to explore, Norman Bird Sanctuary is a veritable treasure trove of avian species. Mallards, egrets, and a wealth of other waterfowl and wading birds are a common sight along Red Maple Pond, while those who opt for a stroll down Woodland Trail can feast their eyes on downy woodpeckers, catbirds, and even the elusive sharp-shinned hawk.

Refine your palate at the state’s top winery

While Rhode Island’s wine industry isn’t quite as booming as California’s or Washington State’s, one of the Ocean State’s most lauded forays into the world of wine can be found just a few minutes northeast of the Historic District. Launched back in 1977, Newport Vineyards is tailor made for sampling crisp riesling, pinot noir rosé, and rochambeau while overlooking fifty idyllic acres of fertile farmland. Not a huge fan of vino? No worries—Newport Vineyards’ onsite Taproot Brewing Company is stocked with a wide array of IPAs perfectly suited for visiting hopheads.

Take a leisurely cruise down Ocean Drive

A far cry from its Miami Beach counterpart, Newport’s answer to Ocean Drive is home to ten straight miles of classic New England seascape without a single palm tree in sight.

Start your journey off at the southern terminus of Bellevue Avenue, where the picturesque avenue awaits. As you head west, you’ll be met with a wealth of stunning beaches and craggy cliffs alongside some of the most impressive residences found in Newport. Once you’ve reached the westernmost fringes of Aquidneck Island, be sure to stretch your legs at verdant Brenton Point State Park, then head up north to snap a photo of the iconic 1890s-era Castle Hill Lighthouse. For any visiting history buffs, a trip up to Fort Adams State Park is an absolute necessity. Established in 1965, this coastal preserve is dedicated to—you guessed it—Fort Adams, a military outpost that’s been a fixture of coastal Newport since 1799.

Get your vitamin D fix at the beach

The summer sun is at full shine, and there’s no better way to celebrate Hot Vax Summer than a day spent lazing along Newport’s sandy shore.

While Easton’s Beach is particularly popular thanks to its surfworthy waves and close proximity to downtown Newport, Gooseberry Beach is the perfect escape for peace and quiet perched right on Ocean Drive. It can be a little pricey to hang out around here—parking passes generally run $30 a pop—but anyone arriving via bike, scooter, or foot can bypass the automobile charge for a free day of relaxing by the shore.

Channel your inner Serena at the International Tennis Hall of Fame

If you’re a big fan of activities where balls fly at your nose (any Clueless fans in here?), Newport is perfectly equipped to help you channel your inner Williams, Osaka, or Federer with a trip to the historic Newport Casino.

Don’t let the name fool you—there are no slot machines or craps tables to be found around here, only a sizable collection of vintage rackets and informative exhibits housed within the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum. Officially established in 1954, this world-class exhibition celebrates the rich legacy of the US Open, which was first played on the Newport Casino’s courts back in 1881. Though this esteemed championship has since moved to the eastern reaches of NYC, any avid tennis players are welcome to sign up and play a match on the grass-laden courts where it all began.

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Jared Ranahan is a contributor for Thrillist.
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