During our visit to Boston, we were able to take a day trip to Portland, ME via Amtrak. It was my first time to visit Maine. Despite the cold, the snow, and the early sunset, we had a great trip (thanks in part to solid recommendations from a Boston friend).
Here’s a few observations from the trip.
Downtown Portland Is Lovely (and Brick-heavy!)
I did not expect Portland to have so much brick. It’s obviously a historically working city. Lots of old warehouses, factories, canneries, etc from an era when New England was very industrial. The brick makes the city center feel really robust and interesting.
Portland’s Port Is Beautiful
The city is on a bluff overlooking a natural harbor. It’s really scenic – even in the winter when snow is hiding a lot of walkways and piers. There is something about cities on a major body of water, such as Chicago, New York, and Boston.
Portland Is Still Car-Centric…
Even though the city is old and historically walkable, the city has been hit hard by car-focused planners over the past half century. To be an old New England city, I was surprised by all the parking lots, parking decks, and the street space given over to people in cars rather than people on foot or bike. It was sad to see and made getting around on foot a bit more challenging than I’d hoped.
Portland’s Food Is Incredible
The city’s food scene has been endlessly hyped by both travel media and my Boston friends. I was skeptical that the city could actually live up to the hype. It does. We had lunch, coffee, and early dinner – all were absolutely incredible.
I’d never had oysters that fresh and lobster rolls that well balanced. A++
Portland’s Architecture Is Fascinating
There’s a lot of brick throughout the city, but it also has its share of quirky New England architecture. Maine has never had the wealth of Massachusetts, but Portland apparently had some fishing and whaling money back in the day that paid for some fascinating buildings.
Portland Is a Great Size for a City
Portland’s metro area is right around 550,000 people. It’s comparable to Augusta, GA; Chattanooga, TN; Scranton, PA; Spokane, WA; and Fayetteville, AR.
That made it much, much smaller than I’d expected. I think that’s because it’s Maine’s largest city…except that Maine is a fairly small state.
Either way, it’s size is right there in the sweet spot of enough people for some urban amenities without a lot of the congestion of 1,000,000+ metro areas. It’s good to see a city of that size doing well. It’s cozy, accessible, and nice. It seems very livable.
Portland Is Only Sort-of(?) Accessible by Train
Not only was I surprised at massive car infrastructure in Portland, but I was taken aback by the active bias against their train infrastructure.
It was so lovely to be able to walk to Boston’s North Station and ride a train to another city on a schedule that didn’t take, you know, 5x longer than a car (I’m looking at you, Atlanta to Birmingham).
I’d hoped that New England, of all places, would still have a bit of passenger train convenience. Not…so much.
The train was nice, but the station was 2 miles from downtown with zero walkable streets connecting to downtown.
The Amtrak station was surrounded by a massive parking lot and a multi-lane loop road beside a 20+ acre highway interchange.
The shortest walk went right past the Maine State Prison – barbed wire and all, and along an industrial area with busted sidewalks.
Now, I expected the subtle push to their Uber / taxi / hotel shuttle industry from the Las Vegas strip, but I’d hoped for better from Portland. I mean, they have railroad tracks that stop in front of their downtown historic district. It’s worse than Atlanta’s Amtrak station. Alas.
So car-rants aside, Portland is such a lovely city. I hope to go back on our way to Acadia National Park or when I visit Boston again. I hope it continues to do well and doing their thing.