12 Can’t Miss Things to Do in Maine

With its rugged coastline, charming New England fishing villages, and pristine forests, it’s no wonder Maine has long been America’s summer playground—though the state’s charm extend to all four seasons of the year. Here are our picks of top sights.

Maine, USA
Although the biggest chunk of this national treasure sprawls over about half of Mount Desert Island, there’s also a hefty backcountry chunk on remote Isle au Haut, an easy-to-access mainland section at the tip of the Schoodic Peninsula, and bits and pieces on various other islands nearby. Of course you’ll drive, or better yet pedal, the Park Loop Road, which hits the highlights of Mount Desert Island; join the crowds catching sunrise or sunset from Cadillac Summit; ride a bike or horse-drawn carriage on the carriage roads; and hike, perhaps on a trail with steps built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There’s a lot to see and do, but among the musts are watching the surf crash on Schoodic Point’s pink-granite slabs, a boating excursion to Baker Island, and a day hike on Isle au Haut.
Dock Square
If there’s a hub of the hubbub in Kennebunkport, it’s Dock Square, a colorful jumble of onetime fishing shacks that now house galleries, stores, and restaurants. Prowl through the shops to find unusual clothing, distinctive souvenirs, fine art, crafts, taffy and fudge, pottery, canvas bags, specialty foods, presents for pets, and, of course, the usual trinkets and T-shirts. Most of these spots are built on wharves over the tidal Kennebunk River, and it’s worth climbing to second-floor ones, such as Good Earth, for the water—or mudflat—views. The bridge connecting Dock Square to Kennebunk’s Lower Village offers another good vantage point, and the Clam Shack is one of the area’s best places to indulge in fried clams or a lobster roll.
10 Main Street
The stars shine every night at the Ogunquit Playhouse, a theater with a rich history and an enviable reputation. Broadway professionals bring this 750-seat summer-stock theater to life from mid-May through October. Born in 1933 out of the Little Theater Movement, the current space dates from 1937 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Don’t miss attending one of the five musicals, ranging from Broadway hits to world premieres, staged each season. Insider tip: Plan ahead to book a 90-minute Behind the Scenes Tour or a 45-minute Stage Door Tour to view the greenroom, wig and sound rooms, and original dressing rooms used by luminaries including Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, and Steve McQueen.
56 Commercial St, Portland, ME 04101, USA
There certainly are other ways to while away a summer day in Greater Portland, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better experience than island-hopping aboard a Casco Bay Lines ferry. Sure, you can simply ride out to an island for a look-about and return, or enjoy a sunrise, sunset, or moonlight cruise. But for a real immersion, consider the Mailboat Run. You’ll be among islanders, visitors, pets, and freight to-ing and fro-ing between Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Cliff, and Chebeague islands. The 2½-to-3½-hour working cruise is offered twice daily year-round; bring your own picnic lunch on the morning run or snacks for the afternoon one.
132 Botanical Gardens Dr, Boothbay, ME 04537, USA
Since opening in 2007 with 128 acres and 3,600 feet of tidal shorefront, the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens has grown to a whopping 295 acres. Equal parts masterful and magical, the gardens comprise formal plantings and themed gardens, woodland and shoreline walks, waterfalls, and oceanfront, with artwork and delightful surprises throughout. The children’s garden immerses visitors in Maine-related children’s literature, such as Barbara Cooney’s Miss Rumphius and Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal. There’s even an accessible tree house, and fairy villages await in the woodlands; at the dock it’s possible to rent kayaks or join a boat tour. During the winter holidays, Gardens Aglow is a visual treat here thanks to some 360,000 LEDs.
Monhegan Island, Monhegan, ME 04852, USA
Rugged Monhegan, aka the Artists’ Island, lies about a dozen miles out to sea, and is reachable only by passenger ferries. About 60 hardy souls live here year-round, most making a living from the sea. If you get a sense of déjà vu when visiting Monhegan, it’s likely because so many of the island’s icons and vistas have been painted by American masters, including Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, Jamie Wyeth, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, James Fitzgerald, Andrew Wyeth, Alice Kent Stoddard, Reuben Tam, and William Kienbusch. Artists and art lovers come in summer; bird-watchers flock here in spring and fall. Hiking trails access remote rocky beaches and craggy headlands. Go for the experience, the art, and the hiking, and don’t miss the museum at the lighthouse.
740 Ft Knox Rd, Prospect, ME 04981, USA
On crisp, clear days, the eagle’s-eye views from the trilevel, glass-curtained Penobscot Narrows Observatory range from Mount Desert Island, home to Acadia National Park, to Mount Katahdin, Maine’s tallest peak. The observatory caps a 447-foot-tall bridge tower rising out of Fort Knox, a state historic site named for George Washington’s first Secretary of War. Construction on the sprawling granite fort, built to protect the upper Penobscot River from attack, began in 1844. Although it was neither finished nor utilized in battle, it’s a beauty. Among its prizes are two complete Rodman cannons and eye-candy vistas over Bucksport’s waterfront and Verona Island. Bring a flashlight and waterproof footwear to explore the underground passageways.
459 NB-774, Welshpool, NB E5E 1A4, Canada
While Campobello Island is located in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, the only access to it by car is by crossing the International Bridge from Lubec, Maine. The 2,800-acre park honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt covers most of the island’s southern end. The Visitor’s Centre and the Roosevelt Cottage are about a mile from the bridge. Begin there, and register for Tea with Eleanor, an engaging one-hour program during which park interpreters share stories about the former First Lady’s visits to the island over tea and cookies. After touring the 34-room, memento-filled, red-shingled cottage and the exhibits at the Visitor Centre, pick up park maps and explore the carriage roads, picnic areas, beaches, woodlands, lighthouse, hiking trails, and scenic viewpoints.
The Forks, ME, USA
When the logging era ended on the Kennebec River in 1976, Wayne Hockmeyer saw opportunity and launched Northern Outdoors, Maine’s first white-water rafting company. In the decades since, Northern has grown, and other companies have joined it. The Kennebec is a 12-mile run in rafts with licensed Maine Guides barking commands as you paddle. The river drops from the Harris Station hydro dam down to the Forks, where it merges with the Dead River. It flows through the Kennebec Gorge; the Alleyway, a white-water roller coaster; over Magic Falls, a Class IV drop; and calms down enough in the latter half to more like the pace of a float trip, ideal for swimming and intra-boat water fights. Day journeys include lunch, usually a riverside barbecue. Note there are age and weight minimums at some outfitters.
Maine 4
Even if you’re not an angler, paddler, or nature enthusiast, the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum is a keeper. The museum brings to life the Rangeley Lakes region’s rich history, especially its sporting luminaries: Fly-Rod Crosby, a pioneering female guide who earned the first Maine Guide license; nationally renowned flytier Carrie Stevens, credited with creating more than 150 patterns; taxidermist, angler, flytier, and artist Herb Welch, who has a sculpture in the Louvre; sporting-camp owner and storyteller Ed Grant; and We Took to the Woods author Louise Dickinson Rich. Entry is through a reconstructed 1890s log cabin, which sets the tone for engaging and well-executed displays, which include boats and trophies. Don’t miss the record-breaking 11-pound-two-ounce brookie, caught in 1897.
When Flagstaff Lake was created by the damming of the Dead River in 1949, two villages were submerged. Gone but not forgotten, their history lives on in the houses and cemetery relocated to high ground, through artifacts and photos in the Dead River Historical Society and the Slaid Cleaves song “Below,” and especially via Flagstaff Lake Scenic Boat Tours. Master Maine Guide Jeff Hinman points out old foundations, shares stories, and brings the villages to life. It’s not unusual to see moose or eagles along the lake’s mostly undeveloped shorelines, which edge the Bigelow Mountain Preserve. The 2½-hour historic tour is an excellent intro, but for a real immersion, opt for the 4½-hour luncheon cruise to Maine Huts and Trails’ Flagstaff Hut.
Fire Road 23A
The paper mills have closed, the towboats are gone, and the river drivers who used to ride and guide logs down Maine’s white-water rivers to lakes and on to mills are only a memory, but the Ambajejus Boom House survives. Constructed in 1906 at the mouth of the West Branch of the Penobscot, this, like other boom houses, was a rest stop for the river drivers. Former river driver Chuck Harris meticulously restored this once-derelict building, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and filled it with artifacts. Access is by canoe from Spencer Cove (hug the shoreline to avoid wind gusts and choppy water); via guided trips with the Big Moose Inn or New England Outdoor Center; or by snowmobile in winter.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
Journeys: Africa + Middle East
National Parks