Kaitlin here. It’s been a while since we’ve released a travel guide hasn’t it? But we once again find ourselves on a Woks of Life family vacation. This time we’re coming to you from Newport!
Last summer, while we were putting the finishing touches on the first complete draft of our cookbook manuscript, the Jersey shore was my refuge of choice—just far enough that I felt like I was getting away on a vacation, but close enough to the family homestead to be around and available for cookbook photoshoots (and to not spend my entire summer in shore traffic).
This summer I felt the same pull of the beach. Without a regimented photoshoot schedule or obsessive and struggle-filled recipe-testing experiments, we planned a trip a bit further afield, a four-hour drive to Newport, RI!
While the Jersey shore is nice enough, it can’t hold a candle to New England, where perfectly preppy beach aesthetics reign, the seafood is simply better, and you can nerd out over antiques and grand interiors.
Newport conjures visions of Gilded Age glamour (any fellow fans of the new Julian Fellowes show out there?), titans of industry, and lots of boats—I don’t think I’ve ever seen more large yachts docked in one place.
For this visit, we aimed for a balanced blend of mansions, beach, and relaxing over the course of a 4-day weekend.
That said, the activities here are a mix of things: what we’ve done on past trips to Newport, what we did this time, and what we already have earmarked for our next trip!
Where to stay in Newport
We stayed at Hotel Viking on Bellevue Avenue. We booked accommodations late, so other choices were limited, and a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee inflated prices during our stay (my aunt saw Chuck Schumer in the lobby and said “hey, Chuck!”), but it was a great location and is dog friendly!
Airbnbs are tough to find, so book early if that’s more your speed.
Of course, Newport is also a big bed and breakfast town, and in the past, we’ve stayed at small B&Bs. We don’t have specific recommendations, but if you’d like to be surrounded by frilly floral grandma splendor, that’s the way to go.
If you’re looking for something REALLY (and I mean really) fancy, The Chanler at Cliff Walk is one of the ritziest Newport hotels. It’s a five-star spot for super special occasions that’s butted up right on the beach at the start of the Cliff Walk. (Note: while the hotel is beautiful, Sarah and Justin went to their restaurant, Cara, for an anniversary dinner and found it lacking. Save your coins for an extra platter of clam strips at Flo’s! Keep reading…)
Finding parking and getting around Newport
Newport is a very walkable city. There are some hilly parts when coming from the wharf and quite a few cobblestones around, however, so take that into account.
Bikes are also a breezy and enjoyable option, with many hotels offering complementary bikes for guests, as long as you can handle one occasional small hill or two.
For scooter fans, sadly we didn’t spot any rentable scooters, but there were these little cartoon cars for rent.
Parking outside of Valet parking isn’t impossible but it is a little tricky, as there are 2-hour limits and resident-only parking areas, but if you’ll be out and about during the day, there is street parking available—you’ll just need to move your car by 10AM and make sure you’re in the right zones. Be aware—one parking violation was clocked during our trip, and it cost about the same as valet parking in the hotel for one night!
Public lots aren’t too badly priced, and private lots aren’t either, so while there was a density of cars, we never felt like we were endlessly circling.
Free summertime trolley service
Newport has a free “hop-on-hop-off” trolley service during the summer months through October 31 for tourists and residents. My parents got “stranded” at the top of the Cliff Walk and were too tired to head back, so they just hopped on the trolley!
During the rest of the year, the trolley requires a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority Ticket ($2 per ride; children 4 and under ride free).
According to US News, “Departing daily from the Newport Visitor Information Center, the No. 67 Bellevue/Mansions trolley route stops at several points near the Cliff Walk, including Salve Regina University – two blocks north of The Breakers – and the Marble House. An additional stop at the corner of Bellevue Avenue and Ledge Road is offered during the summer months.”
THINGS TO DO IN NEWPORT
1. Have a seafood lunch at Flo’s Clam Shack
Flo’s Clam Shack may just have the best clam strips on the eastern seaboard. Of course, I haven’t tried EVERY clam strip out there…not even close, but some of you may remember from our Maine post and a stop at Kennebunkport’s Clam Shack that I have an ardent love of fried strips of clam.
While those were delicious, Flo’s Clam Shack was everything a clam strip SHOULD BE. Light, crispy, flavorful, not at all rubbery. On the menu they call them their famous “tendersweet” clam strips, and they really are.
In that Maine post, one reader strongly advised that I try the full-bellied fried clams next time. With those words ringing in my ears, I heeded the advice, and also tried the whole fried clams (in case you wondered, I ate there 2x in 4 days…).
They were truly delicious. Briney and clammy without any hint of sand or fishiness and with the same light and crispy batter. Though it has to be said, that the clam strips were crunchier, likely because there’s not quite the same risk of overcooking as with a whole clam.
Their lobster roll was also tops with a perfectly toasty bun, though they only do mayo on the side. (Fun fact: we do have a lobster roll recipe—with a Cantonese twist! You can also make our festive stuffed baked lobster with shrimp and buttery breadcrumbs for some vacation vibes at home!)
Be sure to go early in the day, or cross your fingers, as they had run out of clam strips by 3pm on one of the days we went!
Kaitlin v. Sarah: Flo’s Clam Shack or Easton Beach Snack Bar?
Sarah interjecting here—my sister may be the connoisseur of clam strips, but on a recent anniversary trip (1 year married!) Justin and I visited Newport (which actually inspired this trip taken by my parents, sister, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Justin and I stayed home to mind the farm!).
We thought that the clam strips at Easton Beach snack bar were pretty great. We’ll have to try Flo’s next time. If you find yourself in Newport, try both and report back!
2. Walk the mansions of Bellevue Avenue (i.e., imagine your life as a Gilded Age steel / railroad heiress)
The best and most accessible time to visit the mansions is during the spring and summer. The largest and most famous ones are The Breakers (Vanderbilts), Marble House (Vanderbilts), The Elms (some coal baron), Rosecliff (a silver heiress and her husband), and Rough Point (Doris Duke), and Kingscote (traders in ‘oriental goods’).
The weather is ideal for walking the grounds, and it’s the high season for Newport, which means most mansions will be open.
That said, some mansions (like Kingscote) open for a very narrow window of the year only.
Check the Newport Mansions website for the operating schedule.
And if you’re not able to travel, the Newport Mansions Preservation Society has a virtual tour of some of the houses: The Breakers, Chateau-sur-Mer, Chepstow, The Elms, Marble House, and Kingscote that you can click through!
Some of the historical buildings and homes in Newport are administered by other organizations. Doris Duke’s Rough Point (along with a couple other museum properties in the area) are run by the Newport Restoration Society, so you’ll need a separate ticket.
How to prioritize which houses to see.
Here are some of the houses that we think are most worthwhile, depending on your priorities:
- The Breakers: The most famous and well known Newport mansion by far! It’s one of the most opulent and beautiful homes, with virtually 100% of the original interior furnishings, donated by the Vanderbilt family, making it a must-see.
- Marble House: Insanely grandiose, with a ‘gothic room’ that transports you to medieval Europe. It’s a spectacle of shocking decadence and European trend-following that we found entertaining and enjoyable. Plus there is a very cool Chinese tea house pagoda. While it might be tacky by today’s standards, there is a lot to take in! Plus, isn’t tacky making a comeback?
- Rough Point: Doris Duke’s Newport home has her signature flair for interiors. For the elegant and well-traveled fan of interior design, it’s a wonderful stop.
- The Elms: A slightly more “modest” home when compared to the Breakers and Marble House. That said, they have a Servants Tour where you can see how the “downstairs” staff got everything done for a grand house. The kitchen is featured prominently in The Gilded Age on HBO Max!
- Rosecliff : The house is beautiful, with an incredible ballroom that was featured in the movie True Lies! The interiors are a bit more limited relative to the aforementioned homes, as this is the house that seems most focused on serving as a private event space. But the “backyard” view of the ocean and cliff walk is pretty spectacular. It feels like you’re floating above the sea!
- Kingscote: Stylistically more unique and less flashy than the others, this house is an enjoyable visit with the most original furnishings of any of the Preservation Society’s mansions.
TIP: newport mansion Audio tours
Each house has a guided audio tour via a smartphone app, but be sure to download the app and the tours in advance with good service. Once you’re shut into these “cottages” of marble, brick, steel, and cement, surrounded by many other tourists trying to get a signal, it can take a while to load!
If you’re planning on seeing multiple Newport Preservation Society mansions, you can purchase a membership, which gets you free entry for 1 year for an individual, two adults, or household (includes children 6-17), and some discounts on specialty tours and shops.
Keep in mind that specialty tours are additive on top of the cost to see the mansions. We did the Elms Servants Tour, which was a unique and interesting look behind the scenes a la Downton Abbey!
If you’re a resident of the city, admission is free!
Newport during christmastime
We’ve been to Newport before for “The Woks of Life 2015 corporate retreat” during Christmastime. The downside? Cold and rainy weather and most shops and restaurants were closed for the off season. The upside? The mansions during Christmastime!
The mansions really deck the halls during the holidays. When we went in 2015, there were Christmas trees, marble mantles strung with garlands, old world nutcrackers, and glittery Christmas ornaments. There was even a Newport gingerbread contest with all of the Bellevue mansions rendered in cookie!
It was truly enjoyable, and we even still managed to do some outdoor activities like the Cliff Walk, in spite of the cold. This year the “Holidays at Newport Mansions” opens November 19, 2022 at The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House.
3. Spend the day at Easton’s Beach (or Second Beach or Third Beach)
Easton’s Beach is the most convenient beach option if you’re visiting Newport. There’s a $25 parking fee, but other than that entry is free. Parking is for the day, so you can come and go as you please, and parking is plentiful.
With Jersey Shore experience, we can confidently say that this was a really great family friendly spot that had the perfect hum of activity you want at the beach, but not too much excess noise/music, etc. The sand was really soft and the water was warm!
Second Beach and Third Beach are a little ways down the road and are slightly smaller.
Something to be aware of: when we were there in July, there seemed to be some kind of red algae bloom in the water—nothing alarming, but we walked to the edges of the beach where we found a large algae-free patch to swim in.
On another day when the weather was cloudier and the water was slightly more choppy, that red algae looked tough to escape, so seize the day and head to the beach when the sun is shining and winds are low!
You can read more about the problematic red algae here. Based on some reading, it seems that Third Beach may not be as susceptible to the red algae.
4. Walk the beach in search of marine sightings
With the small local aquarium seemingly under construction, we fended for our own marine sightings. Seagulls snacked on clams right on the shore (for the first time ever, I actually discovered some whole clams that hadn’t yet been eaten—tossed back to the ocean to live another day), and the rocks on the edges of the each were covered in tiny mussels, snails, and barnacles.
There was a blue crab sighting (sadly, undocumented) and the little tide pools housed teeny tiny shrimps that would drift over to my finger and then dart away.
5. Do the Cliff Walk
So I’ve dropped this “Cliff Walk” terminology a few times. Basically, it is a 3.5 mile stretch along the rocky cliffs of Easton’s Bay. It winds along the rear of the Bellevue Avenue mansions, and offers great views of the ocean and beach, particularly if you’re lucky enough to catch it on a non-cloudy day near sunrise or sunset (the more directionally-abled tell me that sunrise is better, as you can catch an easterly view).
It’s easy enough for stretches but also turns into a rougher, rockier path towards the end, (it may also be slippery).
The first sightseeing point is the 40 steps down to the rocks by the water (note that swimming is not allowed for safety reasons in spite of the couple of folks in the picture). This is also a point where you could walk 15 minutes to the Breakers as well. You’ll pass the Salve Regina University campus on the way.
Come prepared and be mindful of exit points, so if you want to bail, you can catch a ride on the free trolley back to your hotel or B&B.
6. Ocean drive
The 10-mile scenic stretch of Ocean Drive is a great daytime activity for those who enjoy the outdoors. My parents opted out of the mansion tours this time, and instead enjoyed the viewing points and Brenton Point State Park, which is a great fishing and kite-flying destination (a lost art)!
Kites of all kinds were for sale, and it’s a great place to watch or take one for a spin!
7. Stroll Bowen’s Wharf
Bowen’s Wharf is the heart of the tourist route, with plenty of restaurants and shops. This is also where you can find sailboat tours or catch a view of the boats and yachts that dock here.
8. Charter a sailboat tour
We didn’t actually end up doing this, but while walking along Bowen’s Wharf, we did see ads for sailboat tours at $50 per person for a 90-minute voyage.
It’s a fun activity for the boating enthusiast or for those looking for more adventure.
9. Walk Thames Street
Thames Street is filled with restaurants, ice cream spots, boutiques, and plenty of places to grab a souvenir hat or sweatshirt. There’s shopping all along the street—before and after Bowen’s Wharf.
Shopping destinations in newport
Chalk it up to my high school years, which is a story for another time, but I find during the summertime that I succumb to the easygoing trappings of the preppy aesthetic.
When in New England, shopping is extra fun, because so many of the stores cater to it. For my fellow shopping enthusiasts, here’s a rundown of some key spots:
- Bowen’s Wharf:
- This is where you’ll find a small handful of upscale fashion boutiques tucked away in the winding alleys, like Royal Male ($$$-$$$$) for WASP-y English fashions, Mandarine Boutique ($$$$) for bohemian bougie fashions, and Kiel James Patrick ($$-$$$) for all of your extreme preppy outfitting needs.
- The Newport Mansions Store is also here, and during Christmastime, it’s a fun place to pick up fancy Christmas Ornaments (or better yet, after Christmastime, when they go on sale)! Back in 2015, I was just starting to live on my own, and went a little nuts starting my personal Christmas ornament collection.
- In case you forget to pack something on your trip, right next door to Bowen’s Wharf is a small shopping mall with mainstream stores like Banana Republic, Athleta, and J.Crew.
- Thames Street:
- I have to say that the Thames Street Shirt Company was my favorite stop for Newport-emblazoned souvenirs in terms of selection and pricing (and believe me I stepped into a bunch of shops to scope out souvenir apparel). Prices were reasonable and quality was good, with a big range of sizes, and the owner was patient and helpful while I tried on just about every size and asked about all the colors.
- A stretch of Bellevue Ave near the intersection of Memorial Drive also some very nice women’s clothing boutiques and a couple of antique shops.
- For antiques, you’ll have to hunt for specific spots, but some popular places are Aardvark Antiques (we hear it’s $$$ but we did drive by and see lots of really unique garden statues), Cottage & Garden, and Oceanside Antiques and Collectibles. For bargain hunters like us, we got the sense that Newport was pretty pricey on this front, so we did more window shopping than anything else.
10. Check out some history at a museum
We didn’t have a chance to check out all of these spots, but they’re worth noting!
- Newport Art Museum: A small but eclectic collection of art with special exhibitions; a good rainy day activity!
- International Tennis Hall of Fame: A gilded age social club and historical site (the Newport Casino). There’s a tennis court (free and open to the public!) and a museum (tickets required).
- The Sailing Museum at the former Armory: A relatively new addition to the Newport historical circuit with interactive exhibits for all ages.
- National Museum of American Illustration: They’re closed for renovations indefinitely, but this is a Barnes-like collection (for you Philly folk out there) of all different styles of illustration housed in Vernon Court, one of the mansions lining Bellevue Avenue. Think: Norman Rockwell and so much more. We’re earmarking this one for the future!
- The Automobile Museum: My aunt and uncle walked through this quick stop, and said that there were some very cool vintage cars on display!
11. Visit Portsmouth
While we haven’t yet been to Portsmouth, the Green Animals Topiary Garden (another Newport Preservation Society attraction) is here, as well as a number of shops and restaurants. It’s a historic town settled in the 1600s, and is very close to Newport proper.
12. Go to a polo match at the Newport Polo club
Newport Polo was the first polo club in America. While it’s technically located in Portsmouth, it’s only about a 15 minute drive from Newport.
During the summer, you can get tickets to a match, which range from $20-$80. In February, the box office opens to the general public and Feb 1 – Sep 24, you can buy admission tickets, tailgate parking reservations, and special event tickets.
As a bonafide horse girl, Sarah is definitely adding this one to her to-do list for our next visit!
13. Grab a bike and take an early morning ride through town
Early morning is the stuff beach town dreams are made of. It’s before the tourists have risen and the cars clog the little streets of Newport.
By the tail-end of our trip, I think my body was subconsciously looking for some activity after all the ambling around and beach bumming, so I took an early morning ride on one of the hotel beach cruisers through Thames Street, down to Bowen’s Wharf, through some residential backstreets, along Bellevue Avenue, and hit a few little squares and parks along the way.
From our hotel, the beach was only 7 minutes away. While I didn’t have a chance to go all the way there, and it can get a little hilly, the ride was a good way to make a dent in the liberal amounts of French fries I was eating with my clam strips!
Places to eat in Newport
Newport is a reservation town, thanks to the influx of tourists. We found that few places with hot ticket reservations set aside tables for walk-ins. If you’re traveling with more than 5 or 6 people, the list of places you can eat with convenience dwindles considerably.
Some restaurants will accommodate split reservations (e.g., our arrangement of two sets of parents and two sets of kids), but for others, it is against their policy.
Some restaurants close on Mondays, and during the off season, it feels like there’s next to nowhere to eat, so plan accordingly.
China Star III: As with almost any family outing, my mother inevitably sent us off in search of brown rice and vegetables.
This neighborhood Chinese takeout joint off of Bellevue Avenue was surprisingly good! Though we did notice that the hot and sour soup was strangely sweet. Chalk it up to the local RI Chinese American food palate!
Corner Café: A hearty and delicious breakfast spot with a Portuguese and Irish(?) twist. Delightful selections like an Irish fry-up and Portuguese ovos acores.
CRU Café – Breakfast, coffee runs, and lunch—easy, fast, well-made, healthy, and satisfying. The parking lot is a little tight, but worth it.
Del’s Lemonade Stand: You’ll see them dotted all around town in trucks and little stands. The frozen lemonade is refreshing and has little chunks of lemon! Perfect for when the heat is really getting to you.
Flo’s Clam Shack: Worth the stroll or drive from Easton’s beach if you’re parked in the sand. Easton’s Beach Snack Bar was good too, and more wallet-friendly. Lean into the lobster roll if you opt to go to the latter (they have twin lobster rolls for $26!).
Humming Bird: We didn’t have a chance to visit this spot, but Jamaican food in a sea of American sit-down restaurants definitely caught our eye! As I write this post and look at photos of their gleaming oxtail stew, I am kicking myself for not making it more of a priority.
KnotNorms: A bit of an oddball option, but again, we were limited by some seating constraints. We had an enjoyable casual dinner there. Take our advice and make the roll into a bowl. The lobster bisque was also delicious (with the price tag to prove it). Portions are on the smaller side.
Midtown Oyster Bar: While not everything on the menu was a slam dunk, the oysters were the best we had in town. A decent selection and all incredibly fresh! The calamari was what good fried calamari should be, and the charcoal-grilled octopus and salmon BLT were tasty standouts.
Pasta Beach: Solid pastas (they also have pizza, though we can’t speak to it), and they do takeout! They have a small space, so book ahead.
White Horse Tavern: The oldest tavern in the country, with a beautiful back garden area. The food is pleasant—ideal for a special occasion dinner. Similar options include 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar & Grille and The Mooring.)
We hope you enjoyed these Newport travel tips and photos! Share your own Newport/New England travel tips and stories with us in the comments. :)