On a small peninsula jutting into Casco Bay, sits Portland - Maine's largest city. Its scenic setting, succulent seafood, picturesque lighthouses, flourishing performing and visual arts scene and exhilarating outdoor adventures are only a few of the reasons to visit this seaside locale.

The downtown area holds all the cultural diversity, attractions, and nightlife of a major metropolitan area with the charm of a small town and the scent of salt air.

You can stroll past Victorian architecture on tree-lined cobblestone streets, dine or browse galleries and boutiques in Old Port's restored former warehouses, enjoy a toasted lobster roll with a local brew on the working waterfront while you watch fishermen unloading their catch. There are plenty of museums and historic homes, if that's what your after.

You could hit the water to try deep sea fishing, see if you could spot a whale, or pick up some gourmet foods in the Public Market for an island excursion.

Whatever your fancy, Portland has something to offer to keep you busy and charmed with your visit to the city.

A little history

Portland's protected harbor and easy access to the Atlantic made the area an ideal 17th century British fishing and trading settlement. The Pine Tree State's vast supply of inland timber for ship building provided the raw material for what became a flourishing industry. The prosperity from shipping and trade created a wealthy class and grand homes, some of which are open for tours.

Portland's city seal, a phoenix rising from the ashes, and motto Resurgam, meaning "I will rise again," represent its survival after devastating fires, disasters and economic reversals.

In 1675, townspeople fled to Massachusetts when what was then known as Falmouth was destroyed by Indian raids in King Philip's War. A century later, during the Revolutionary War, the city was again destroyed when citizens refused to surrender to the British.

The economy was devastated when the Embargo Act of 1807 banned trade with England. It did not recover until worldwide trade resumed in 1820.

When Maine became a state that same year, Portland was named its first capital. In 1823, the first steamships began passenger service from Boston, and three decades later, Commercial Street was opened, which expanded the waterfront and connected rail and water transportation.

The Great Fire of July 4, 1866, the worst in the country's history up until the Great Chicago Fire five years later, began on Commercial Street during the Independence Day celebration, which was the first after the end of the Civil War. Much of the Victorian charm of today's city is a result of the rebuilding with red brick after the fire.

A preservation movement began in the 1960s, and by the 1970s, artists' galleries and studios began popping up in the section of the city known as Old Port. In 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Portland one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations.

Arts and architecture

From classical to cutting-edge, Portland's professional performing arts organizations present an exciting array of dance, theater and musical events. A top-notch symphony, opera, and two theaters create a vibrant cultural hub, and in the summer, the eclectic local music scene moves outdoors.

A self-guided First Friday Art Walk through the Arts District is offered August through December. The hub of the Arts District is the Portland Museum of Art, Maine's largest public art institution.

For a $12 admission fee, visitors to the museum can view three centuries of fine and decorative art in three architecturally unique buildings built between 1800 and 1983. The post-Modern Charles Shipman Payson Wing (1979-83) was designed by Henry N. Cobb of I.M. Pei and named for the donor of the Winslow Homer paintings and watercolors. The Beaux-Arts Sweat Memorial Galleries (1911) were named for the family who gave the McLellan House, its third structure, to the museum.

The McLellan House was built in 1801 during the booming economy following the Revolutionary War for Portland's most prominent citizen, Major Hugh McLellan. He was the founder of Maine's first bank and insurance company and owner of Maine's largest fleet.

This luxurious Federal era mansion with palladian windows and a flying staircase was built for the grand sum of $20,000 in the fashionable neoclassical style inspired by excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It was sold in 1817 during the economic downturn to the Clapp family for $4,050, and again in 1880 to its final residents, U.S. Congressman and Colonel Lorenzo de Medici Sweat and his wife, writer and preservationist Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat, who donated the property to what is now the Portland Museum of Art.

Portland was the childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who called it his "Jewel by the Sea." He lived on Congress Street in the city's first all brick home, built by his grandfather in in 1785. The Wadsworth-Longfellow House, with its three generations of family furnishings, was willed to the Maine Historical Society by Henry's younger sister and is the oldest remaining residence in the city.

The Morse-Libby House, an Italianate villa later named Victoria Mansion, was built as a stylish summer home for Ruggles Sylvester Morse, who amassed a fortune in New Orleans before the Civil War in the luxury hotel business. The home is one of the finest examples of both Victorian and Italian Villa design in America.

The brownstone's magnificent interior is the earliest known Gustave Herter commission and the only one still intact. Morse incorporated amenities usually found only in fine hotels, including a master bedroom with adjoining bathroom and a Turkish smoking room. It was subsequently sold to Joseph Libby, owner of a prominent Portland department store.

Also of architectural interest are Portland City Hall (1909-1912), built in a Second Renaissance Revival design, and the granite U.S. Customs House (1868-1871), with painted and gilded ceilings, finely crafted woodwork, and marble floors.

The Eastern Promenade, the last work of Frederick Law Olmstead, runs through Munjoy Hill, site of the Portland Observatory, the last remaining maritime signal tower in the United States. Grand Victorian homes were built for the view - 175 feet above sea level - from the Western Promenade neighborhood.

Casco Bay

A visit to this city by the sea is not complete without getting out into Casco Bay and the Calendar Islands - so named because it is said there is one for every day of the year.

Casco Bay Lines, one of the world's oldest ferry systems, offers a variety of unique scenic tours around the bay. A century and a half ago they ran summer visitors on wooden steamers with coal-fired engines to island cottages and hotels, including Peaks Island, which became known as the Coney Island of Maine with its theaters and amusement parks. Summer theater included productions by George M. Cohan and performers like the Barrymores, who still maintain a family home in Casco Bay. Jean Stapleton and Martin Landau both made their stage debuts here.

Casco Bay Lines now operates a year-round commuter and delivery service. Pack a picnic or bring along a bicycle for exploring an island.

Get up early for the 5:45 a.m. sunrise on the bay departure to see it come alive with sea birds, seals, lobstermen and fishing boats setting out for the day. Join other passengers on the morning or afternoon 3-hour Mailboat Run, the longest operating service of its kind, or sit back and enjoy the views on the 5:45 p.m. Sunset Run. A variety of seasonal cruises are also offered.

For the most comprehensive Portland tour, Portland Discovery, a locally owned and operated company, offers entertaining and informative narrated bay cruises and city trolley tours. The Land & Sea Tour includes the inner harbor Lighthouse Lover's Cruise past Maine's oldest and best-known lighthouses and other landmarks combined with a trolley tour of Portland's history and architecture.

Their Eagle Island Cruise takes the back channel past quaint fishing villages for a stop at the island where Arctic explorer Admiral Robert E. Peary's former summer estate of may be toured. You can also opt for a dusk departure with the Sunset Lighthouse Cruise. Tours depart from the Maine State Pier, easily identified by the 450-foot long Whale Wall by Robert Wyland.

Dining and nightlife

Portland's restaurant options range from pub grub to haute cuisine. It was named the "Foodiest Small Town in America" by Bon Appetit in 2009.

Here are a few favorites:

You can start your day with a hearty breakfast with fishermen at the family-run Becky's on Hobson's Wharf, which presents diner comfort food at its best.

The city's 2010 winner for Best Lobster Roll is Portland Lobster Company on Commercial Street. Large chunks of lobster glistening with melted butter are served on a grilled and buttered roll with fries and cole slaw for $14.99. Patrons can dine inside or outdoors overlooking the waterfront.

If your taste runs more to elegant dining, head to The Grill Room for some crab bisque with rouille, an arugula and goat cheese salad, and grilled hangar steak with Andouille sausage-cheddar grits and onion rings. Chef Harding Lee Smith owns all the Rooms restaurants - serving wood-fired meats at The Grill Room, new American comfort food at the Front Room, and Italian-inspired affordable and casual dining at the lively Corner Room, which opened in 2009 and was voted a Best of Portland 2010. Favorites there are the Cioppino, an Italian seafood stew with crab, mussels, clams, and shrimp and strawberry sorbetto.

You can savor the best at Maine's premier food experience - Harvest on the Harbor from October 21-23, 2010. Creative celebrity chefs offer savory samplings of the flavors of Maine, using fresh local ingredients from area farmers and fishermen. The event also features live music, a Grand Tasting on the Harbor, cooking demonstrations, food artisans, and Maine-made products. Attendees must be 21 or over. Ticket prices vary by event and tend to sell out early.

If you're the type who likes to stay up late, or who wants to grab an after-dinner drink, Portland offers a bustling nightlife scene in the Old Port section. Pubs, bars and nightclubs of every kind stay open until 1 a.m.

Portland has all the scents, sounds, sights and savories of a major seaport city found in a charming area within a few blocks of the waterfront, and beyond.

Explore the bay and islands on a tour boat or ferry to see fishing villages and reel in a little history along the way. Back on land, enjoy a scenic stroll along this pedestrian-friendly city's Eastern or Western Promenades.

Whether its eclectic art or old-world charm you're looking for, you're sure to find it within Portland's city limits.

Seekonk resident Linda Fasteson writes monthly for Living Well. She can be reached for travel tips or comments at rolidakr@comcast.net.

If you go

Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland; 207-772-5800; visitportland.com. Visit the website for discount coupons and more information on Portland's attractions, festivals and special events.

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