It was 1846 and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was walking around Portland, Maine, his boyhood home, when he stopped and, as he wrote, “listened to the lashing, lulling sound of the sea just at my feet. It was a beautiful afternoon, and the harbor was full of white sails, coming and departing.”
Nearly two centuries later, visitors still stop to admire the sails that dot the Portland harbor — in between shopping, gallery hopping and eating, of course. Known for its award-winning food, Maine’s most populous city expanded its outdoor dining policies during the pandemic, transforming streets, parking lots, sidewalks and squares into culinary hot spots. In the Old Port, brick buildings and stone lanes add a touch of romance to al fresco meals. And a wave of new art shows and open-air concerts in historical settings makes Longfellow’s hometown feel like a city not only for the ages, but for the moment.
With the Delta variant of the coronavirus now dominant in the United States, Maine is following the updated C.D.C. recommendations for face coverings, which urge everyone to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status “in indoor, public settings in areas with ‘substantial’ or ‘high’ levels of community transmission” and outdoors if you’re unable to socially distance. In certain places, masks are required, like at the Portland Observatory and the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine (for visitors 5 and older). Capacity and hours may also be limited. Additionally, some venues, such as the State Theatre Summer Concert Series at Thompson’s Point, have safety initiatives, like proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test. Check websites for the latest policies.
So pack your sunscreen and your mask. While it’s impossible to experience (let alone list) everything that’s happening right now, here are a few of the season’s fleeting pleasures.
Downtown and environs
Among the acclaimed restaurants that have taken to the streets this summer is Central Provisions where you’ll find small plates and a new patio from which to savor, say, a caramelized bocadillo sandwich with sheep’s milk cheese, saba (Italian grape must syrup) and membrillo paste ($12) as you gaze toward a distant pier (414 Fore Street). This part of town is saturated with James Beard award nominees, and at Standard Baking Co. (a semifinalist more than once) early birds get the best selection of irresistible breads and pastries, like hand-rolled prosciutto and asiago croissants ($5.20), pain au chocolat ($3.40) and marinated olive bread ($6.25); online orders accepted (75 Commercial Street). Stroll over to Fort Allen Park to immerse yourself in a little American history while polishing off that flaky croissant.
A short walk from Standard Baking Co. is a buzzy stretch of Middle Street that these days looks like an open-air food festival. Crowds line up for outdoor tables and innovative seafood at Eventide Oyster Co. (86 Middle Street) and noodles and Asian-inspired appetizers at the Honey Paw (78 Middle Street), as well as paninis and addictive Belgian frites fried in duck fat ($6 to $9.50) at the aptly named Duckfat, where seating is beneath a new pavilion (43 Middle Street). Prepare to wait for a table if you didn’t score one of the few available reservations. Alternatively, order online for pickup at Eventide (a 2017 James Beard award winner) and the Honey Paw (a semifinalist), or hop on Duckfat’s outdoor takeout line and then go for a quick drive to the Western Promenade where you can picnic on a bench overlooking the water (there’s also the Duckfat Frites Shack walk-up window at 43 Washington Avenue).
When it’s time to feed your soul, head to the Portland Museum of Art. Spend a few hours with Renoir and Winslow Homer, and explore “Icons of Nature and History,” a survey of the art of David Driskell whose mediums included watercolor, gouache and collage (through Sept. 12). Born in Eatonton, Ga., he was also a curator, art historian, collector and professor who, as The Times wrote after his death from complications of the coronavirus last year, was “pivotal in bringing recognition to African-American art and its importance in the broader story of art in the United States and beyond.” Admission: $18; discounts available for seniors as well as students 22 and older; free for members, those ages 21 and younger, and everyone on Fridays (7 Congress Square).
Drifting to and from the harbor, people-watching, licking an ice cream cone — these are a visitor’s pleasures on a sunny afternoon. To browse items by Maine artisans, pop into Lisa-Marie’s Made in Maine (35 Exchange Street) where the shelves are lined with handmade soaps, decorative wooden lobster buoys, jewelry crafted from crushed lobster shells and, naturally, maple syrup. At Liberty Graphics (10 Moulton Street), which has been making T-shirts in Maine since the 1970s, you’ll find artful water-based ink prints with nature themes such as plants, fungi, frogs, birds and stars, while at Cool as a Moose (388 Fore Street) you can snap up trinkets like magnets and stickers and, if you’re so inclined, a tie dye T-shirt with a moose on it.
Grab a lawn chair and head to Thompson’s Point, the revitalized industrial riverfront area where, on a grassy peninsula, the nights are filled with live music at the open-air State Theatre Summer Concert Series (10 Thompson’s Point). See the State Theatre website for show tickets (from $40 in advance), including upcoming performances by St. Vincent (Sept. 3) and the Trey Anastasio Band (Sept. 17). Attendees must be fully vaccinated or receive a negative test within 48 hours of an event, and mask wearing is encouraged. More information about the requirements is on the website.
Local and regional bands, lawn games, craft brews and food trucks like Falafel Mafia (for your fix of falafel pita pockets and bowls) and Cheese Louise (purveyor of grilled cheese sandwiches with names like the Baconator; the company also has a nascent restaurant in Old Port) are on tap at the Summer Sunsets Live! series. Thursdays and Fridays from 4 p.m. to sunset (9 p.m.), through Sept. 10. Check the website for an updated schedule (Thompson’s Point Road).
Not far away, a 100-year-old former railcar repair building has been reinvented as the popular Bissell Brothers Brewing. Nowadays, in addition to pours, you can order comfort food — fried chicken sandwiches ($15), wings ($14), charcuterie ($26) with local meats and cheeses — from the new Bissell Brothers Kitchen (38 Resurgam Place).
Libbytown is hardly just for grown-ups. The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine has relocated to a new multimillion dollar home it built here. Inside are some 30,000 square feet of exhibits, like “From the Mountains to the Sea” where touch tanks filled with sea creatures such as horseshoe crabs, chain catsharks and anemones aim to give visitors a glimpse into marine life. Outside are play areas for children to climb and dig, as well as a “teaching garden” where they can learn about food systems and biology. Reserved ticketing is required. Theater tickets: $10; free for members. Museum tickets: $15; free for members and for babies 17 months and younger; see the website for discounts (250 Thompson’s Point Road).
East Bayside and East End
Cove Street Arts, an exhibition, event, workshop and studio space, is one of the many places transforming East Bayside, where coffee shops and breweries have sprung up in warehouses and industrial buildings. The show “Here & There” celebrates the enduring tie between Maine and the New York art world with the work of more than a dozen artists who, like those who came before them — including Modernists such as Marsden Hartley and Max Weber — find inspiration in Maine. Through Sept. 11 (71 Cove Street).