Unlike other seaside cities, Newport, Rhode Island, blooms with grand mansions built by the nation’s super-rich during the “Gilded Age”. Ocean breezes drew the wealthy, who constructed the “cottages” as summer residences to escape the heat of New York, Philadelphia, and other urban areas.
Newport has become synonymous with sea, sailing, and society. Tour the mansions, walk sea-splashed coasts, learn about the dynamics of sailing at the sport’s new museum, and take in splendid sea views.
Along with sumptuous seafood, Newport features historic places of worship, wildlife sanctuaries, and classic ocean views.
Here are some of the best things to do in Newport.
Experience The Breakers
At 138,000 square feet, The Breakers, completed in 1895, remains the grande dame of Newport mansions.
Built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, a railroad magnate, and his wife Alice, the 70-room “summer cottage” includes 48 bedrooms for family and staff. It unfolds as a series of opulent spaces with carvings, moldings, gildings, frescoes, and flourishes meant to impress.
The Great Hall towers 50 feet high. Baccarat crystal chandeliers hang in the dining room, and detailed mosaics of marble and alabaster adorn the Billiards Room’s walls, floor, and ceiling.
Notice the floor’s figure of an acorn. A motif that appears throughout the house, acorns represent the Vanderbilts’ wealth—a small start that grew into a mighty fortune.
A helpful audio tour guides you through the house. Don’t leave without strolling the lawn’s Serpentine Path that winds through the property. Snacks and sandwiches are available at the Welcome Center Café.
Admire Art at The Elms
Seeing The Elms is one of the best things to do in Newport. Sarah and Edward Berwind, a coal magnate and his wife from Philadelphia and New York, commissioned The Elms.
Modeled after a 1750s French chateau, the mansion was completed in 1901. The Elms, although neither the biggest nor most opulent of Newport’s “summer cottages”, is a favorite of visitors for its art and gardens.
Particularly noteworthy are ten 18th-century Venetian paintings in the first floor gallery and dining room that are among the most extensive series of its kind in America.
Also, note the canvas of spaniels sleeping beneath a tea table. It’s an early work (dated 1770) of acclaimed portrait painter Gilbert Stuart.
Statues play a prominent role too. Posiedon and Venus adorn the roof, and Aphrodite and Hercules appear in fountains. Look for them on a stroll of the 11-acre grounds graced by terraces with huge oaks and weeping beech trees.
Gaze at Marble House
Marble House, a 50-room mansion, marks a milestone change in homes of Newport’s wealthy from wooden houses to palatial stone structures.
Completed in 1892, Marble House, true to its name, contains 500,000 cubic feet of marble. William K.Vanderbilt commissioned the house as a gift for his wife Alva’s 39th birthday.
Elements of Versailles inspired the vision. Carved and gilded wood adorns the opulent ballroom’s walls and a French painting modeled after the queen’s bedroom in Versailles embellishes the ceiling.
But wealth doesn’t buy happiness; William and Alva divorced in 1895, although she kept the house. When she married Oliver Belmont, Alva moved down the street to Belcourt, another grand “cottage”.
After Belmont’s death, Alva reopened Marble House and built a Chinese-style tea house with spectacular seaside views. It was here that Alva led women’s suffrage meetings over tea and biscuits.
Discover the Sailing Museum
At the 8,500-square foot Sailing Museum, which debuted in May 2022, learn how sailing harnesses wind and water, which engineering elements are crucial, and what it takes to be a sailor.
Through interactive exhibits, you can design and steer a boat with a tiller and wheel and “sail” it.
Displays also detail the stamina and teamwork required by competitive sailing and showcase how America’s Cup spurred design innovation.
Pay homage to the sport’s greats at the museum’s two halls of fame, the National Sailing Hall of Fame, and America’s Cup Hall of Fame. For more than 50 years, Newport served as the home of America’s Cup race.
Stroll Newport’s Cliff Walk
Enjoy the best views of Newport’s mansions along the Cliff Walk. From the three-and-a-half-mile National Recreation Trail that edges the sea, you view the oceanside of such Newport mansions as The Breakers, Marble House, The Elms, and Rough Point.
Strolling along the Cliff Walk, one of the best things to do in Newport, is an invigorating wind-in-your-hair experience of crashing waves on one side and, on the other, manicured green lawns that once hosted elegant garden parties.
The path stretches from Memorial Boulevard to Bellevue Avenue. Walk the entire trail or stop along the way to visit one of the Newport mansions.
Get Your Sporting Fix at the International Tennis Hall of Fame
Visiting the International Tennis Hall of Fame is one of the best things for tennis buffs to do in Newport. You can even play on the famous grass courts. Just call ahead to book a court for an hour—or more—for two or four people.
Afterward, tour the museum. Posters, artifacts, and explanations detail the birth of tennis, the developments of the popular game, and the era of the Tennis Open.
Through interactive exhibits, view great moments in Grand Slam matches, referee a tennis match point, challenge each other in trivia matches, and get up close and personal with Roger Federer (a hologram version) as he tells you why he loves tennis.
Understand Jewish History at Touro Synagogue
Founded on principles of religious tolerance, Rhode Island served as a sanctuary for persecuted Jews fleeing Europe.
Completed in 1763, Touro Synagogue, the oldest synagogue building in the United States, is important for its notable Colonial-era architecture and because the synagogue symbolizes America’s commitment to religious freedom for all.
In 1790, President George Washington visited Touro Synagogue and the Jewish Community. In a letter to the congregation after his visit, Washington reassured the community of the new nation’s commitment to religious freedom for all.
Begin at the Loeb Visitors Center. Learn about Jews in the colonies, life as a Jew in early Newport, and the significance of George Washington’s letter. You can tour inside the synagogue, too.
The adjacent Patriot’s Park, constructed in the 1970s, continues the history lesson of Jews who played significant roles in early American history and the Revolutionary War.
Take a Spin Along Ocean Drive
Ocean Drive, also known as Ten Mile Drive, hugs the curvy coast of Newport for ten miles. Roll down the windows to feel and smell the sea breezes and hear the waves crashing against the shore, and you’ll begin to understand the sense of place and privilege felt by the founding rich who summered in Newport.
You can only catch glimpses of The Breakers, The Elms, and other “cottages” since tall gates, trees, and thick foliage hide many homes. You’ll drive by Hammersmith Farm, the childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, and the place where the future first lady and president celebrated their wedding.
You’ll pass Gooseberry Beach and Bailey’s Beach, both private beaches. Consider pausing at Brenton Point State Park for a stroll or picnic and to savor the commanding ocean views and visiting Fort Adams State Park, home to one of the best hikes in New England.
Swim, Sail, & Tour Fort Adams State Park
Guarding the mouth of Newport Harbor, Fort Adams State Park, formerly a U.S. Army and U.S. Navy installation, was deeded to the state of Rhode Island in 1965.
You can swim, fish, and boat at the park, and savor the spectacular sea views that make Newport one of the most romantic getaways on the East Coast.
Interested in sailing? Get a hands-on lesson at Sail Newport, Rhode Island’s Public Sailing Center, located at the park. If you can already captain a sailboat, then consider renting one from Sail Newport.
Allow time to explore the military and nautical side of the fort. On a guided tour you see the officers and staff quarters, learn about military architecture and engineering, and explore the fort’s underground tunnels. On a self-guided tour, you can walk the parade field and access an overlook for another splendid sea view.
Hike a Bird Sanctuary
Head off the beaten path at the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown, less than five miles from Newport. The sanctuary began in 1949 after heiress Mabel Norman Cerio bequeathed land to protect, study, and enjoy birds.
Seven miles of trails wind you through the 325-acre oasis of forests, fields, wetlands, salt marshes, and sandy New England beaches, where you can tune in to birdsong.
Even if you can’t tell a robin from a bobolink, you’re likely to relish the birds and the woods, the wide-open fields, and the wild beaches.
At the Nelson and Red Maple Ponds, look for swans, mallards, great egrets, and green herons. You might spot sharp-shinned hawks, downy woodpeckers, and gray catbirds along the Woodland and Woodcock trails.
The bird feeders in the fields attract tree swallows, eastern bluebirds, and American goldfinches. Designed for wheelchairs and strollers, the wide Universal Trail, which has an even surface, leads to the Red Maple Pond.
Explore Rough Point Museum
One of the best places to visit in New England, Rough Point Museum is about Doris Duke, her art, and her collections. Although completed in 1891 for a Vanderbilt heir, Rough Point, a 115-room English manor-style mansion, was Doris Duke’s home. Her father, tobacco mogul James B. Duke purchased the property in 1922.
The Dukes held Doris’ coming-out party at Rough Point in 1929. After she gifted her New York mansion to New York University in the late 1950s, Doris relocated the stately home’s art to Rough Point.
A collector with an eye for art and fashion, the heiress, who lived at Rough Point until her death in 1993, added to the items she inherited.
Along with 18th-century British portraits and 16th-century Flemish tapestries, you see what Duke, among the richest women in the U.S., had in her closets, including a red silk and velvet Balenciaga jacket, a psychedelic colored and patterned Emilio Pucci pantsuit, and a Christian Dior wicker hat.
It’s easy to imagine her in her sunny yellow bedroom with bright purple curtains and dressers finished in mother-of-pearl. Be sure to check out the rotating exhibitions in the two galleries.
Visit St. Mary’s Church
Established in April 1828, St. Mary’s Parish is the oldest parish in the diocese of Providence. The current church was consecrated in June 1849. Architectural highlights include the 42 Austrian Tyrolean Art Glass Company’s stained glass windows, added in the late 1800s.
St. Mary’s was where Jacqueline Bouvier married then-Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy on September 12, 1953. When the Kennedys spent weekends in Newport, they attended mass at St. Mary’s.
Admire Historic Trinity Church
Historic Trinity Church’s roots reach back to 1698 when Anglicans, joined by Huguenots and Quakers, established the first Church of England in Rhode Island. The current building dates to 1726.
Box pews, in the era before heating, helped keep worshippers warm. Note the triple-decked, center aisle, freestanding pulpit; it’s the only remaining one in the U.S.
Wardens used the gold-tipped staffs above their pews to awaken sleeping congregants. Engraved on silver plaques on a box pew on the south side of the aisle are the names of George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and other famous people who have sat in the pew.
Feast on Seafood
Sampling fresh seafood is one of the best things to do in Newport. Try clams, clam cakes, lobster rolls, and seafood chowder for lunch. Anthony’s Seafood, in nearby Middletown, stacks its lobster rolls with six ounces of fresh meat.
At Benjamin’s Raw Bar, Thames Street, try hot or cold lobster rolls (or both), as well as seafood mac & cheese, and chowder fries—tasty fries topped with New England clam chowder and bacon.
Lunch at the Lobster Bar, Bowen’s Wharf, comes with panoramic harbor views. Good bets include the clam chowder, filet of fish sandwich, and Bonnie’s Lobster Roll, a pound-and-a quarter of meat on a brioche.
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