We traveled here to see the annual Newport Jazz festival during a long weekend one summer, to see the sites, eat lobster rolls and relax. We got several tips from a colleague at work as to what to see in Newport and somehow managed to see all of it in three days. So, you might think that doesn’t sound too relaxing, but the seaside atmosphere of Newport overtook us, at once bustling and yet infused with a sense of ease that has spanned generations. We were able to unwind, learn and smile big from the first minute to the last.
Newport Jazz Festival
Since 1954 Newport has hosted a jazz festival every year, becoming an essential festival stop for jazz fans. Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald are only a few of the jazz greats who have played here in the past. The festival is held in the afternoon for three days in Fort Adams State Park. You can drive there, but as we hadn’t rented a car, we chose to take the ferry. You can take the Newport Harbor Shuttle from 39 America Cup Avenue and it takes you there for $12 in about 30 minutes. Tickets can be bought at the shuttle pier.
It was a hot sunny day when we went, and you will be outdoors for much of the time, so remember to dress casual and put on sunscreen! Regulars to the festival that were on the shuttle with us had packed food and were lugging their own lawn chairs. Each music venue is set up in a tent and there is some seating but it is mostly first come, first served. It was a large crowd that Friday for the opening and many people just sat on their own chairs they had brought or they simply stood around. Food trucks line the perimeter of the grounds, but the options are limited to what you might find on a beach board walk, hotdogs and fries, that sort of thing. We had eaten lunch before we had left for the festival, so we headed towards the back where there was a beer tent and a roped off area where we could enjoy a local beer with a view of the Pell Bridge in the distance (beer is not allowed outside the roped off area).
Then it was time for the music! There were some great acts all around, and we were very fortunate to catch Leslie Odom Jr. mesmerizing the audience. This was in 2017, and today he is a household name in jazz. You can find each year’s festival line up here: www.newportjazz.org/lineup and buy tickets here as well.
Bowen and Bannister Wharf
The wharfs were the center of activity in Newport from the 17th century on, where trade and commerce took place, and they later became major boating hubs. Bowens wharf was centrally located in Newport and was an important and successful seaport. With its cobblestone streets and 18th and 19th century brick buildings, a walk here lets you imagine what it might have been like when trade from all over the world poured through. We shopped a little and towards the evening stopped at Fluke ([41 Bower’s Wharf, (401) 849-7778] for a glass of wine. The upstairs has a sophisticated creamy décor and a window that lets you look out over the bay. We sat at the bar and chatted with the bartender, who was knowledgeable about the different wines they had in their selection. I chose a very smooth white wine from the Veneto, Italy, a Pinot Grigio by Angelino (2016). A good place for dinner is The Landing [30 Bowen’s Wharf (401) 847-4514], which has good seafood and views of the bay as well.
Bannister’s Wharf is a little busier and is a draw for visitors. From 1930 – 1983 it was the location for the America’s Cup competition. There are lots of shops and places to eat. We came here for lunch one day at The Black Pearl [1 Bannisters Wharf, (401) 846-5264]. The Black Pearl is supposed to have the best clam chowder in Newport. On another day we had lunch at the Clarke Cooke House Restaurant [26 Bannister’s Wharf, (401) 849-2980]. I had one of the best lobster rolls ever at Clarke Cooke House – it’s hard to describe what made it so great…just lots of juicy pieces of freshly steamed and still warm lobster in a buttery roll with just a little mayo and lemon….it was just done right. In the morning you can’t miss going to the The Coffee Grinder [33 Bannister’s Wharf, (401) 847-9307] for coffee and a pastry. They have Adirondack chairs set up on a little porch adjacent to the coffee shop, where anyone can sit down and enjoy their breakfast with a view (if you can snag an empty chair that is!)
A walk along Thames street will introduce you to numerous souvenir shops, places to buy fudge and other wharfs to explore. We had a fantastic upscale lunch at The Mooring [1 Sayer’s Wharf, (401) 846-2260]. I started with a plate of seasonal oysters, and had an entrée of roasted cod, with an icy cold glass of Chardonnay. If you are in the mood to splurge this is the place to go. It is packed all day and evening, so reservations are highly recommended.
A more budget-friendly and fun place for dinner might be the popular Red Parrot restaurant, [348 Thames Street, (401) 847-3800], complete with oversized drinks, bar food and a louder atmosphere. I had a great martini here and we walked off our dinner afterwards with an evening stroll down Thames Street, where we got some ice cream at the Ben and Jerry’s and caught an impromptu summer fireworks display.
Taking a ride on a schooner
One of the best activities on the wharfs is to take a ride on a schooner! Numerous boating and yachting tour booths line the wharfs. We bought tickets for a one hour sailing cruise in the afternoon, for around $35 per person. We enjoyed lovely harbor views and saw a little more of the Newport coastline, including the location where Jacqueline Kennedy had her summer residence. I don’t know how to swim, so as the schooner swayed from side to side and dipped until the floor of the boat was at the level of the water, my heart would race. There were two young women in charge of hoisting the sails, and it took both of them jumping up onto the ropes, grabbing them and pulling them down with their body weight about ten times over in order to hoist the sail!
I am pretty amazed I was able to complete the Cliff Walk on our second morning. I mean, I am in ok shape but be forewarned that a good first third of the walk is over rocky coastal terrain. We took the RIPTA trolley, which is the local transportation, from our bed and breakfast to Bellevue Avenue where the Cliff Walk starts. It’s a 3.5 mile walk along the coast and takes about 2 1/2 hours for a normal person to complete the entire thing. However, that morning was cloudy and after an hour it even began to drizzle. We were climbing up and down rocky boulders, jumping from one boulder to another in some cases, and even though I had sneakers on I felt like it was a little hazardous….we were very careful and thankfully no one slipped and fell. Once you near the point where the summer mansions begin, the path becomes paved and is much easier to walk along. It ends at Memorial Boulevard, and offers many chances to take beautiful pictures of the rugged coastal beauty alongside the architectural splendor of the Newport Mansions.
Before our trip to Newport, I read the novel “The Great Gatsby” by Scott Fitzgerald. We also watched the movie version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Both help bring the time of Newport’s gilded age to life, a time when the wealthy of New England would come to Newport for the summer. They built massively expensive coastal mansions that were lived in only during the brief summer months, and threw lavish dinner parties.
It is quite a walk between mansions, so plan your trip to allow for travel between each. RIPTA public transportation does have stops along the stretch where the mansions reside. The major mansions to see are : Rosecliff, The Elms, The Breakers, and Marble House. Each has its own history, elaborately decorated rooms, dramatic staircases and terraces with sweeping views of the ocean. Interesting as well are the glimpses into the kitchens and servants’ quarters, and the window they provide into what life was like back then. Tickets for entry can be purchased at each mansion’s entry, and audio tours are available for a modest fee at each one as well. You can read about each mansion’s history, get visitor’s info and more at the Newport Mansions Preservation Society, which bought and restored these mansions after they were abandoned and fell into neglect.
Newport is rich in colonial history, and you could spend an entire trip here just viewing the historical sites. A good place to start such a trip might be a visit to the Museum of Newport History. Of the many sites there are to see, we touched upon the following three:
St. Mary’s Church: This is where Jacqueline Bouvier and John F. Kennedy were married. It is now a National Historic Landmark. Normally closed, we couldn’t go inside, but good to know that on Tuesdays it is open and offers a tour of the experience of the Kennedy’s wedding, named “Return to Camelot”, for a modest entrance fee of $15 per person. A link to buy tickets and more information can be found on http://returntocamelot.org/
International Tennis Hall of Fame – 194 Bellevue Avenue, www.tennisfame.com
We took a quick stop at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. You can watch videos about your favorite tennis players on the 2nd floor. There are also rooms that go through the history of tennis and how it developed in the U.S., including the beginnings and development of the U.S. Open Championship. A must for fans of tennis.
Touro Synagogue – 85 Touro street www.tourosynagogue.org
Built in 1703, it is America’s oldest synagogue and believed to be the place where George Washington came to read his letter declaring religious freedom in America. We joined the morning guided tour, which was a short lecture given within the synagogue. A history of the synagogue is a history of Newport, and of the strength of its people in committing to diversity and freedom.
A historic tour of Newport isn’t complete without dinner at one the nation’s most historic restaurants, The White Horse Tavern, [26 Marlborough Street, (401) 849-3600]. It was established in 1673 and is America’s oldest tavern. The dining room with its dark wooden floors, pine green painted walls and an enormous central fireplace evokes the spirit of the past. I could imagine soldiers and tradesmen of all kinds stopping by to eat at the communal table that once stood at the center of the room, with roasts rotating on a spit over the fire in the fireplace. Now you find fine dining here, such as seared Georges Bank scallops with baby fennel, cherry tomatoes and beet citrus puree, which is what I ordered for dinner. A jacket is not required, but they ask that guests dress nicely, and reservations are a must.
A great way to end the trip was to get a drink at sunset at the Hotel Viking Rooftop Bar, [1 Bellevue Avenue, (401) 847-3300]. It makes sense to get there about an hour before sunset to grab your seat, before the crowds pull in. Soon we were sipping our cocktails with panoramic views of the sun setting into the Narragansett Bay.
Tips for accommodations
For an outstanding selection of places to stay, check out Discover Newport. We preferred to stay at a historic bed and breakfast located centrally in Newport and walking distance to everything we wanted to see and do, the Yankee Peddler Inn [113 Touro Street, (401) 846-1313]. Our room was a sunny provincial yellow, charmingly decorated with antique furniture and quilts. Our bathroom was tiny, but the room was clean, peaceful and a homemade breakfast in the common area was included each day of our stay.
Top 10 things to do in Newport
- Newport Jazz Festival
- Bowen and Bannister Wharf
- Sailing Cruise
- Cliff Walk
- Newport Mansions
- Viking Hotel Rooftop
- White Horse Tavern
- St. Mary’s Church
- Touro Synagogue
- International Tennis Hall of Fame
Date of trip: August 2017