Settled in 1639, Newport began as a settlement that welcomed religious diversity, bringing in a wide range of communities. This helped set Newport on the path to becoming one of the United States’ leading seaport towns. Over time, Newport would become home to the navy and the yachting capital of the country.
Newport’s sweeping ocean views then caught the eye of New York’s elite, who began decorating the coast with embellished mansions in the second half of the 19th century. Fast forward to now and travelers can enjoy a wide variety of things to do in Newport, from exploring mansions once home to the richest members of society to experiencing the city’s maritime life.
With ample access to public lands in Rhode Island, you’ll also have no shortage of parks and coastal areas which have their own stories to tell.
Built in 1852, the Chateau-sur-Mer is a conglomerate of architectural styles. While many of the newer summer cottages have stayed the same, this mansion has been renovated multiple times. This had led to numerous designs, making the Chateau one of the most interesting buildings in town.
Much of this prismatic mix stemmed from the son of the home’s original owner, William S. Wetmore. The son had completed many overseas adventures, bringing in a range of inspiration, some that you can still see today. As you explore the home, you can enter the dining room harboring the touches of an Italian decorator, while Turkish influence is seen all over the upstairs congregation room.
16. Easton’s Beach
On the northern end of the Cliff Walk, Easton Beach is one of the top places to catch some sun. With just shy of a mile worth of waterfront, there’s room to spread out and enjoy the Atlantic Ocean rolling in.
The welcoming surf offers some fun boogie boarding and body surfing when you want to cool off. Easton’s Beach is manned by lifeguards throughout the summer. Beachgoers will also have access to a range of amenities, including beach wheelchairs, for greater access. Additionally, the beach is home to a bathhouse, snack bar and even a carousel.
When you want to stretch your legs, wander along the boardwalk, or connect to the Cliff Walk.
15. Trinity Church
With a soaring white bell tower, Trinity Church has an arresting presence in Queen Anne Square. Before the Revolution, the church was a part of the Church of England. One of the highlights of seeing the historic structure is the reminders of that era, including the organ affixed with a crown, Union Jack paneling and what’s believed to be the first bell ever rung in New England.
But the story of the church, which was built in 1726, doesn’t end there. Newport was a part of the notorious triangle trade, which went from Europe to Rhode Island via Africa. Trinity Church has a gallery beside the organ loft where slaves could worship.
14. Brenton Point State Park
On the grounds of the former Reef Estate is the Brenton Point State Park. The sprawling estate was a point of envy among local elites for decades as it’s located on the island’s southern tip with views of the Atlantic and Narragansett Bay.
Today, the spectacular peninsular has become state land. Befitting of Newport, the state park offers outdoor recreation and history in equal measure. Travelers can hike, cycle and fish, while couples and families can picnic with a view.
Brenton Point State Park also features the Portuguese Discovery Monument, which celebrates Portuguese pioneers along with the Reef Estate Tower Bells.
13. National Museum of American Illustration
America’s Golden Age of Illustration started in the 1870s before ending eight decades later. The National Museum of American Illustration celebrates this memorable period with several immense collections.
The museum is inside the beautiful Vernon Court Mansion within the city’s historic district. Within the mansion are notable public art pieces, including ornate sculptures along with period furnishings.
Of course, the highlight is the illustrative art. This includes a repository of Maxfield Parrish pieces, the largest of its kind on earth. You’ll also find items used by Parrish along with Norman Rockwell. Other notable artists include Howard Pyle and Violet Oakley.
12. Touro Synagogue
Newport has no shortage of exceptional architecture. But while the mansions may take your eye first, the exquisite Touro Synagogue is the second oldest building in town. The historic structure is the nation’s oldest standing synagogue and the only one from colonial times.
The Touro Synagogue was built in 1763 by local Peter Harrison. Now a National Historic Site, it’s an incredible piece of Newport history. Those that visit can gaze upon a letter written by President Washington to the town’s Jewish community, among other fascinating exhibits. Lovers of architecture will also appreciate the building’s 12 columns representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
11. Bowen’s Wharf
With its protected location along the eastern coast, Newport has a long connection to the sea. The historic Bowen’s Wharf, once home to merchants and ocean-crossing traders, is now the center of the city’s waterfront district.
The old red brick paths guide you from along the water, where old buildings have been transformed into some of the most lively restaurants and bars in town. When the sun’s out you can sit on the water’s edge enjoying some of the town’s patented seafood delicacies.
After trying the many delicious local eats, you won’t be surprised that the wharf hosts annual oyster and chowder festivals.
10. International Tennis Hall of Fame
When it comes to sports, it doesn’t just begin and end with sailing in Newport. The coastal town is also home to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Other events may steal the headlines in the modern era, but it was here in 1881 that Newport hosted the first U.S. National Championship.
The event was held on the grounds of Newport’s renowned casino, which was built the year prior. Tennis was played annually until 1914, becoming one of the biggest attractions in town. 40 years later, a hall of fame was added to the casino. Today, you can explore a brilliant array of memorabilia and multimedia exhibits that showcase the history of tennis.
9. Rough Point
Last owned by tobacco heiress Doris Duke, the Rough Point mansion is one of the more recent homes to become available to the public. Rough Point can be found on Bellevue Avenue and remains much the same as when Doris passed in 1993.
The home was originally built in 1887 for another member of the Vanderbilt family, Frederick. Upon opening, it was the largest of Newport’s collection of summer cottages. The design was inspired by the manors of England.
Tour will take you through the house, showcasing Duke’s exceptional taste in decor, her private art collection including captivating Flemish tapestries.
8. Marble House
In 1892, William K. Vanderbilt, the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, built and gifted the Marble House to his wife Alva for her birthday. As you do. The sightly mansion was designed by Richard Hunt, the same architect who would create the Breakers a short time later.
The home was at the forefront of Newport’s speedy change from charming farm town to the summer colony of America’s elite. William and Alva wanted the home to be American’s ‘temple to the arts’. The home certainly lived up to its lofty goal. It was inspired by the Petit Trianon in Versailles. The home cost 11 million to build in 1892 dollars, most of which was spent of 500,000 cubic feet of, you guessed it, marble.
7. Thames Street
Newport’s main drag, Thames Street, is the place to go to shop, eat, drink and be entertained. Although relatively short, the street is only 1.5 miles long, it’s teeming with some of the best restaurants in town. Alongside them are elegant boutiques, chic cafes, and museums. Oh, and it wouldn’t be Newport without a few historic buildings thrown into the mix.
Thames Street Begins at Carroll Avenue and runs north until it intersects with Farewell Street. It’s essentially a waterfront boulevard and with several award-winning bed and breakfasts, it’s the perfect place to base yourself.
Walking the street is a pleasant experience, not just to shop and dine but to enjoy some people watching.
If the Breakers is the crown jewel and the Elms is stately and refined, then the Rosecliff mansion is flamboyant, much like her original owner Tessie Oelrichs. Theresa Alice Fair grew up as the daughter of a blue-collar coal miner only to become a famed socialite and the wife of Hermann Oelrichs, a steamship magnate.
Tessie was renowned for her parties and the family mansion reflected that both in character and practicality. Rosecliff was designed by Stanford White, who was the go-to choice for many one percenters. The home was built in French Baroque Revival style and inspired by Versailles’ Grand Trianon, which ironically was used by King Louis XIV’s to get away from the regularities of life.
The Rosecliff is striking from the moment you see it and features Newport’s largest ballroom where Houdini once performed.
5. Fort Adams State Park
On the fabulous Ocean Drive, Fort Adams State Park features the second largest fort in the United States. The fort was originally designed to protect a rapidly growing U.S. navy who chose to base themselves near Newport. The first fort was constructed in 1799 and the Fort Adams you see today, was built in 1824.
141 years later, in 1965, the historic Fort Adams and a large swath of surrounding land became a state park. A few years after, the area was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Today, it’s a place of history and recreation. The park is a popular stop along the scenic Ocean Drive, offering beautiful swimming and picnic areas. Fort Adams State Park also hosts the annual Newport Jazz Festival.
4. The Elms
With all the money to play with, the Gilded Age mansions of Newport provide a fascinating glimpse into the personalities of the country’s richest families. Where the Breakers is embellished to the nth degree, the Elms is more stately piece of architecture.
The home was built for Edward Berwind, a coal magnate from Philadelphia, along with his family. The design has clear-cut lines with a straight, symmetric facade. Its elegance and beauty is somewhat restrained mixing the styles of both Neoclassical and Greek Revival architecture.
A tour of the Elms will provide visitors with a glimpse into the “modern luxuries” of the late 1800s. You can also explore the mesmerizing gardens that have been returned to their former glory.
3. Ocean Drive
One winding coastal road, 10 miles of landmarks, Ocean Drive, is an iconic part of Newport. The journey begins on the famed Bellevue Avenue, taking you away from regular society on a tranquil experience along the southern edge of Rhode Island.
Like the Cliff Walk below, Ocean Drive puts on a cinematic display of Newport’s spellbinding nature where the deep blue ocean meets her rocky demise. Once farmland, the area around the road was transformed in a hurry towards the end of the 19th century.
Ocean Drive features a strong concentration of historic landmarks that is hard to believe. Drive by a collection of Gilded Age “summer cottages”, the famous Hammersmith Farm and Fort Adams, but don’t sleep on the many parks and beaches you’ll also discover along the way.
2. Cliff Walk
Taking you along the precipice of the Atlantic Ocean, the 3.5-mile Cliff Walk showcases the natural grandeur of Newport. One a calm sunny morning, the water lays still at the base of the rugged cliff. Coastal grass runs between the edge and up to the walls that envelope rows of arresting mansions.
The experience is best with your favorite morning beverage as you take in the sights, with the cool ocean breeze pulling the pines back and forth. Take your time enjoying the long-range view of the horizon while appreciating the architectural splendor on the other side.
If you start from the southern end of the Cliff Walk, stick close to the path, as there are several sharp drops that are hidden from plain sight.
1. The Breakers
As a beloved vacation destination for U.S. elite in the 1800s, Newport is laden with opulent mansions that put a whole new meaning to the term, generational wealth. One of those startlingly rich magnates was Cornelius Vanderbilt II, whose grandfather made his money through the development of the country’s railroads.
As a member of one of the richest families in the history of the United States, he set about developing the crown jewel of Newport’s slew of eye-catching mansions. Today, it stands as grand as ever, with its striking details best seen in person. The Gilded Age mansion includes 70 rooms atop a cliff with stunning views.
You can tour the Breakers to get an idea of the sheer detail used, from the gilded woodwork to ornamented gardens that will give you some understanding of the Vanderbilt’s position in American life.