Portland, Maine: Beat the crowds and explore the city in the off-season

Winter may be the best time to visit Maine if you want to avoid the crowds.

Portland can be heaven in the summer — lobster rolls, cold craft beer, the smell of the sea while strolling down quaint, brick streets. Oh, and thousands of tourists cramming the sidewalks, restaurants and craft stores throughout the Old Port area.

Want the city to yourself? Go in winter. The restaurants, breweries, shops and bars are all open (although some may close earlier), winter activities are at your doorstep and there are practically no tourists.


Start your morning out right with a Maine take on the traditional coffee and doughnut at The Holy Donut (7 Exchange St.). In warmer months, lines stretch down the street and the store routinely sells out of its delicious Maine mashed potato-based doughnuts. At 11 a.m. on a recent Saturday, their top-selling dark chocolate-sea salt and bacon-cheddar doughnuts were still plentiful. As was the iced coffee (the “ice” is actually frozen coffee!).


After filling up, it’s time to get outside. Of course, Maine winters are cold and snowy, but if you’re visiting from anywhere within a 5-hour drive (NYC!), it’s not much more than you’re used to.

While the ski resorts of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine favorites like Sunday River are all within a few hours’ drive of downtown Portland, the city is a perfect spot for cross-country skiers. Join Portland Parks staff for a cross-country ski tour of the Evergreen Cemetery Woods at 1 p.m., Feb. 10 (portlandprf.com for more info), or go at your own pace on some of the 70 miles of trails in the nearby Baxter Woods Park (trails.org).

City parks are also a great spot for snowshoeing, as are most of the area’s disc golf courses (discgolfscene.com for more info). Many are open during the winter, weather permitting. Gear up with snowshoes and a warm coat and make the most of the weather with a quick 18 holes.

. . . OR DON’T

No trip to Portland would be complete without visiting some of the country’s top craft breweries and distilleries. In the Old Port area, old standbys Sebago Brewing (211 Fore St.), Shipyard Brewing (86 Newbury St.), Gritty McDuff’s (396 Fore St.) and relative newcomer Liquid Riot (250 Commercial St.) are all within a few blocks of each other.

A 10-15 minute walk, or quick Uber ride, away in East Bayside are Oxbow Blending & Bottling (49 Washington Ave.), Maine Mead Works (51 Washington Ave.) and Maine Craft Distilling (123 Washington Ave.). Not far away are Rising Tide (103 Fox St.), Lone Pine Brewing and Goodfire Brewing (both 219 Anderson St.) and Urban Farm Fermentory and Gruit Brewing (200 Anderson St.).

A short trip down Forest Avenue to the Riverton area brings you to the breweries of Industrial Way. Within the small industrial park are Portland heavyweight Allagash Brewing Company, local favorite Foundation Brewing Company, Austin Street Brewing, Battery Steele Brewing and Definitive Brewing Company (slated to open this spring).


Portland is best known for its seafood, and lobster is available nearly anywhere (a state rest stop on I-95S sells live lobsters!). But if oysters are more your speed, you’re in luck. Eventide Oyster Co. (86 Middle St.) in the Old Port is a classy option where the kitchen/oyster bar serves late. Back up in East Bayside, The Shop (123 Washington Ave.) is a new spot from Island Creek Oysters offering options from throughout New England (the Nonesuch were delicious!), caviar from California and tinned fish from Spain.

Hate seafood? Terlingua (52 Washington Ave.) offers tasty takes on Southwestern fare, and Salvage BBQ (919 Congress St.) has St. Louis-style ribs, North Carolina-style chopped pork, a full bar and live music on weekends.

If it’s a speakeasy/cocktail-focused spot you’re in the mood for, an only-in-Portland spot not to be missed is Bubba’s Sulky Lounge (92 Portland St.). You’d think a multiroom bar stuffed with antiques, an old post office, cheap beers and lit dance floors straight out of “Saturday Night Fever” couldn’t work. And you’d be dead wrong. Friday is ‘80s Night, so pile on the hair spray and don some parachute pants or leg warmers and get in for free!


The Inn at St. John (939 Congress St.) offers several room styles in a pet-friendly 1897 Victorian era building. It’s about a 20-minute walk from the Old Port, but near a handful of cool bars and restaurants. In the heart of the Old Port is the Hilton Garden Inn (65 Commercial St.) with some rooms offering water views, a swimming pool and gym and reasonable rates for the season.

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