Summer Travel: A Philadelphian’s Guide to Vacationing in Portland, Maine

Farm-to-table gems, craft beer, lobster rolls aplenty — this Portland is much closer to home.

portland maine lobster

Steamed lobster dinner at Luke’s Lobster on Portland Pier / Photograph courtesy of Luke’s Lobster

If your first thought when you hear “Portland” is the West Coast version, you’re missing out on one much closer to home. The coastal city about a six-hour drive from Philly is home to a surprisingly vibrant food-and-drink scene. Thanks to thriving local farms and seafood purveyors, an influx of chef talent from cities like Boston and D.C., and a supportive, hungry year-round community, the city proves that Maine cuisine is more than blueberry pie and lobster rolls (though you can get those, too!).

In the morning, queue up at Tandem Coffee and Bakery for a latte and house-baked cinnamon bun. For a proper sit-down breakfast, hit up Hot Suppa for Southern-infused dishes like shrimp and grits and fried chicken with buttermilk waffles. At the Holy Donut, pick up a few treats made with potato,­ which adds a pleasingly dense texture to flavors like honey lavender and sweet potato­ ginger glazed.

In the afternoon, get to work sampling the seafood, starting at Luke’s Lobster for lobsters, steamed or stuffed into rolls, outdoors on Portland Pier. For local oysters alfresco, head to Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room or Eventide Oyster Co. Nearby, the Shop by Island Creek Oyster sells wholesale to restaurants, but there’s also a curated menu of local oysters along with tinned fish, caviar and small plates (scallop crudo with spicy seaweed) to snack on at tables outside (with a chilled bottle of white).

The tasting room at Oxbow Blending & Bottling / Photograph by Bret LaBelle

On the city’s Eastern Promenade — a 78-acre park with sweeping views of Casco Bay — you’ll find a playground, a community garden, a boat launch, and food trucks that span everything from the Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck, slinging artisanal black bean burgers with vegan smoked gouda, to Maine Maple Creemee Co., a New England delicacy that’s essentially soft-serve infused with maple syrup. Gather a lunch and feast at one of the park’s many picnic tables overlooking the water.

For dinner, make a reservation at Fore Street, where the city’s culinary renaissance got its start 25 years ago. Nowadays, the restaurant is as popular as ever, locally sourcing ingredients for wood-fire-grilled squid and steak, fresh bread and craft cocktails. Izakaya Minato serves classic Japanese dishes as well as bites like bacon-wrapped mochi and broiled motoyaki oysters with miso custard and ponzu. Or pair a bottle of sake with the $40 omakase. At Scales, it’s tough to save room for dessert with the robust menu of fish and shellfish, but do your best for treats like baked Alaska, butterscotch sundae with maple whip, and homemade ice cream. Look out for Twelve, the much-anticipated waterfront restaurant coming from chef Colin Wyatt and Daniel Gorlas, of New York’s Eleven Madison and Per Se, respectively.

For a slightly more casual meal, head to Baharat, a food-truck-turned-brick-and-mortar specializing in Middle Eastern dishes like mezze and plates of lamb kofta. Duckfat is an all-day cafe with salads, small plates, and poutine smothered in duck fat gravy.

Portland is awash in top-notch breweries, too, so make time to visit a few, including Bissell Brothers Brewing, to drink the flagship The Substance IPA in a century-old railway building; Oxbow Blending & Bottling, for barrel-aged and spontaneously fermented sours; and, just outside town, Allagash Brewing Company, for a taste of the original Maine craft beers.

 And While You’re There… Explore the Great Outdoors

 You can’t go to Maine without bathing in nature.

Glamping resort Under Canvas Acadia in Maine / Photograph courtesy of Under Canvas Acadia

The great state of Maine has nearly 3,500 miles of coastline (more than California!), so it’s easy to find your own slice of heaven. Off the coast three hours north of Portland, Mount Desert Island is home to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Also on the island is Northeast Harbor, a town that once had so many Philly summer visitors, it was called “Philadelphia on the Rocks.”

Set up camp on the mainland at Under Canvas Acadia (rates from $459), a 100-acre waterfront oasis where private safari-inspired tents are kitted out with en-suite bathrooms and West Elm furnishings, while fun includes morning yoga, live music and nightly s’mores. Fuel up with coffee, Belgian waffles, and homemade biscuits and gravy at Sylvia’s Cafe.

Acadia pro tip: Buy a $30 entrance pass online before you arrive, and display it on your dashboard; it’s good for seven days and covers everyone in your car. Once inside, take the 27-mile Park Loop Road to explore the east side of the island. Sand Beach is a rare sandy cove (most Maine beaches are rocky) perfect for a brisk swim. Also on the loop, Maine landmark Thunder Hole shows off with each wave, all spray and foam and roar.

Break for lunch before setting out on some of Acadia’s 150 miles of trails. Reserve a waterfront table at the historic Jordan Pond House, where hikers can order homemade popovers with butter and local strawberry jam along with salads and sandwiches.

In the afternoon, visit Bass Harbor Head Light Station, atop a rocky cliff at the western side of Acadia. (It’s also a popular spot to watch the sunset, but there’s not much parking, so arrive early.)

Spend the early evening strolling around Bar Harbor; the quaint coastal community is home to restaurants, cafes and shops. Havana specializes in local seafood with a Latin flair and has an award-winning wine list. At Fogtown Brewing Company, find wood-fired pizza and craft beers. A second location in Ellsworth, near Under Canvas, has an outdoor beer garden. Also nearby, Blueberry Hill Dairy Bar serves up swirls of wild Maine blueberry soft-serve.

Make time to get out on the water. Under Canvas offers adventures that include a private Oyster Aquaculture Boat Tour highlighting the fastest-growing marine industry in Maine, along with freshly shucked oysters. Or bring binoculars on an excursion with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., for a chance to see whales, dolphins and other marine life in the open ocean.

>> Click here for more summer vacations from Philadelphia.

Published as “If You Missed Exploring Another City’s Food and Drink Scene…” in the June 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.