Newport, Rhode Island, winked into life in 1639 as a working town. It was crucial to shipping and seafaring before and well after the Revolutionary War, and it’s still home to the United States Naval War College. It didn’t remain the sole province of sailors, however. Around the mid-19th century, the well-heeled began fleeing the high-summer swelter of the cities to bask in the sea breezes and sapphire skies of Newport. The Gilded Age transformed the “cottage” into an ironic moniker applied to absurdly lavish million-dollar mansions that were occupied only 10 weeks a year.
The arrival of the income tax and air-conditioning ended Newport’s reign as the seasonal home of America’s wealthiest and most powerful, but it has never completely fallen from favor. Hosting the country’s earliest tennis tournaments, the first U.S. Open golf tournament and the America’s Cup race for the better part of the 20th century helped maintain its reputation. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy looked to Newport as the destination for their summer White House, and Kennedy married Jacqueline Bouvier at St. Mary’s Church in the city in 1953. Gilded Age glamour remains a draw, but so too do forms of music that probably would have scandalized the high society of old — the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival draw crowds every summer.
The day begins at the Hideaway Report-recommended Castle Hill Inn, situated on its own peninsula near the end of Ocean Drive. Built in 1874 by marine scientist Alexander Agassiz as a summer home, the 33-room property serves breakfast in the Agassiz Mansion. Maine lobster hash, smoked salmon toast and omelettes made with spinach, tomatoes and goat cheese provide the kickoff to a fully packed day.
Starting on Bellevue Avenue makes strategic sense. It’s the street along which many Newport mansions appear like jewels on a silken cord. Buses stop near Marble House, the Elms, Rosecliff, the Breakers and other Gilded Age architectural marvels that are now maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County (PSNC). Rosecliff and the Breakers admit visitors at 9 a.m. in season (late June to mid-October); the remaining eight open an hour later. After years of controversy and court battles, the PSNC unveiled a $5.5 million, 3,750-square-foot Welcome Center on the grounds of the Breakers in 2018, freeing more than 400,000 annual visitors from relying on portable toilets.
Bellevue Avenue is also a good departure point if you want to spend the day at Green Animals Topiary Garden, a PSNC property that’s up the road in Portsmouth, about 20 minutes north. It’s the oldest and most northerly topiary garden in America, sporting more than 80 birds, beasts and other whimsical visions sculpted from bushes and trees.
Bellevue Avenue’s bounty of attractions includes the National Museum of American Illustration (492 Bellevue Ave.), which occupies Vernon Court, a mansion built in 1898 in 18th-century French château style. Judy Goffman Cutler, a pioneering dealer in American illustration art whose clients include George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Walmart heiress Alice Walton, co-founded the museum in 1998. The museum holds the largest collection of works by Maxfield Parrish and the largest collection of Norman Rockwell pieces outside of the Norman Rockwell Museum. Other artists represented include Jessie Willcox Smith, N.C. Wyeth, Charles Dana Gibson and Howard Pyle.
The Newport outpost of the New York Yacht Club, which won so many America’s Cup races, is private, but it does offer a late-morning public tour once a month. The NYYC’s website lists the tour dates for its mothership and for Harbour Court in Newport.
Those seeking something indulgent and impeccably local for lunch can head to the Bellevue Avenue location of Newport Creamery and savor the regional diner chain’s culinary contribution: The Awful Awful, a drink that combines ice milk, syrup and ice cream. According to legend, this Rhode Island favorite earned its name for being “awful big and awful good.” Pair it with any number of comfort food favorites, from fish and chips to chicken tenders to a range of salads, sandwiches, wraps and burgers.
Two stellar attractions are within sight of your lunch spot: The International Tennis Hall of Fame (198 Bellevue Ave.) and the Audrain Automobile Museum (222 Bellevue Ave.). The former is busiest in mid-July, when it hosts the Hall of Fame Open pro tennis event, but its museum receives visitors year-round.
The Audrain opened in 2014, two doors down from the tennis mecca. Past exhibits showcased muscle cars, grand touring cars and pre-war automobiles. It’s also readying to debut Audrain’s Newport Concours Motor Week, a four-day automotive festival, in late September and October. (Read more about the car show here.)
Dedicated during Hanukkah in 1763, the Touro Synagogue (52 Spring St.) is the oldest synagogue building in the United States, and it’s a potent symbol of religious freedom and tolerance. President George Washington visited Newport in 1790 and met a local Jewish leader who voiced a wish that the new nation would respect everyone, regardless of their faith. Washington responded with a 340-word letter that eased the Newporter’s mind. He stated that the fledgling government would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Touro Synagogue has an active congregation, but it is open for tours during the summer between late morning and mid-afternoon. The Washington letter has pride of place in the Loeb Visitors Center nearby.
Most Newport attractions close at 5 or 6 p.m. in the full glow of summer. Heading back to Castle Hill Inn Dining Room for dinner is a fine idea — the 800-strong wine list and the à la carte caviar service, featuring Calvisius caviars, is enough to justify the choice — but it might mean the end of the day. It’d take a supreme act of willpower to overcome the lure of watching the sun set over one of the resort’s beaches. The minibar in your room presents extra temptations, including local favorites such as Del’s Lemonade and Cape Cod Chips. Those determined to stay out after sunset should cement the plan with dinner reservations.
The White Horse Tavern (26 Marlborough St.) can’t guarantee you the upstairs table where Newport native Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy liked to dine (that spot is strictly first-come, first-served), but it accepts general bookings. Established in 1673, it’s recognized as the oldest tavern in America and the oldest operating restaurant in the United States. While the tavern possesses an impressively long history, its menu isn’t stuck in the past. Diners can enjoy an appetizer of a duck Scotch egg with house-made sriracha and honey Bourbon sauce followed by stout-braised short rib with local mushrooms. The French-inflected menu at Bouchard Inn & Restaurant (505 Thames St.) merits consideration, too. If you want escargot, foie gras, endive salad, sautéed duck breast and crème brûlée, linger here.
Downtown Newport stays active well into the evening with boutiques, bars and snack shacks dotting its wharfs. The Newport Mansions Store (424 Bellevue Ave.) might be the only place on the planet where you can buy a model ship, a bottle of coffee syrup and a reproduction teapot emblazoned with the phrase “Votes for Women.” (Alva Vanderbilt commissioned the original for a 1909 pro-suffragette rally at Marble House.) Kilwins (262 Thames St.) stays open as late as midnight during the summer. Its confections range from saltwater taffy and marshmallows to ice cream, single-origin chocolates and jawbreakers that are big enough to live up to their name. Those who’d prefer chocolate martinis instead can wander over to Thames Street to sample cocktails at Thames Street Kitchen (509 Thames St.) or Bar and Board Bistro (282 Thames St.).
This article was originally published in August 2019. It has been updated.