Holiday traditions tend to look to the past, evoking images of candles flickering in the windows of snow-dusted Colonial farmhouses, gas-lit Victorian streets reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, or the peaceful slumber of a New England seaport town buttoned up for winter. In Newport, each of these holiday fantasies comes to life in a month-long celebration that’s been lighting up the town for nearly half a century. From tree lightings to hot cocoa fueled ice skating and tours of historic mansions with halls decked in holly and much more, here’s how to capture the holiday spirit in the City by the Sea:
Get your holiday visit to Newport off to a fun and tasty start, Gary’s Handy Lunch is a 50s-style diner that, name to the contrary, also serves one of Newport’s best breakfasts (the chourico and cheese omelet is a local favorite at this no-frills Thames Street restaurant). Then set off for a day of sightseeing, starting with Newport’s famous mansions.
Built as summer “cottages” for Victorian-era millionaires, the mansions historically were closed for the winter. But the present caretakers, the Preservation Society of Newport County, dresses several of the mansions up in their holiday best each season and opens the doors and grounds of The Breakers, The Elms, and Marble House to visitors.
The grand dining rooms at these properties are just for show, but you can eat in a real Bellevue Avenue mansion at the Chanler at Cliff Walk hotel, which serves an elegant Mediterranean lunch in its Cafe. Jo’s American Bistro is a more casual option near the mansions that’s open for lunch on weekends.
If you’re not traveling with kids, make it a couples’ night out and get tickets to Holiday Evenings at the Newport Mansions, which includes live holiday music and refreshments along with tours of the decorated mansions. Or, join the Newport Historical Society for a Holiday Lantern Tour on Friday and Saturday evenings which include stops at some of the city’s decorated historic homes and details on how past residents of this Colonial port city celebrated Christmas.
It may not be suntan season, but Newport’s beaches are beautiful in the winter, too. The Atlantic Grille is mere steps from the sands of Easton’s Beach and serves generous breakfast platters named for some of Newport’s famous strands, along with an indulgent lobster eggs Benedict.
Walk off breakfast with a brisk walk on the beach, then join local environmental group Save the Bay for a two-hour winter boat tour visiting both scenic lighthouses and local hangouts for Narragansett Bay’s resident population of harbor seals. If the weather isn’t cooperating, change course and check out Newport’s diverse collection of museums, which display everything from fine art to automotive masterpieces.
The eclectic Newport Art Museum stages exhibitions by such diverse artists as pop-art pioneer Andy Warhol and landscape artist Winslow Homer, and also houses the world’s largest collection of works by American impressionist Howard Gardiner Cushing. Newport visitors also have the rare opportunity to tour two world-class automotive museums. The Newport Car Museum in Portsmouth celebrates “cars as works of art,” while the Audrain Automobile Museum has a collection ranging from the Vanderbilt Cup winning 1906 Locomobile racer to ultramodern “supercars.”
The Audrain is neighbors with another of Newport’s great museums, the International Tennis Hall of Fame, which has exhibits documenting the history of tennis from its origins in 12th century French monasteries to the Open era. For lunch before or after, the La Forge Casino Restaurant has award-winning burgers and excellent fish and chips.
As dusk approaches, make your way to Newport’s Easton’s Point, an old Quaker neighborhood with street after street of Colonial-era homes decorated with simple white lights replicating the window candles of holidays past. Then cross the bridge to the Gurney’s Resort on Goat Island, where you can spend an hour or two circling the outdoor skating rink and sipping winter-themed cocktails and hot toddies at the rinkside bar.
It wouldn’t be the holiday season without some gift-giving, and where better to start your Newport shopping stroll than at A Christmas to Remember on Thames Street, which sells ornaments, lights, collectibles, and other holiday-themed merchandise year-round but really hits its stride in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Thames Street is lined with small boutique shops like the fashionable Island Pursuit, with more specialty stores located on Spring Street and Washington Square.
On Bowen’s Wharf, you can stuff stockings with Molton Brown toiletries and Nest fragrances from Soap & Water, and one-of-a-kind carved whalebone treasures from Newport Scrimshanders. The Black Dog on neighboring Bannister’s Wharf has fine nautical clothing along with dog treats for under the Christmas tree; make a pitstop at the Coffee Grinder for a caffeine recharge or a steaming cup of hot cocoa for the kids.
Broadway has more eclectic options for holiday shopping, and if you’re here around lunch hour be sure to grab a bite at The Fifth Element, a restaurant that always goes all-out with holiday decor. The shops on Bellevue Avenue, on the other hand, reflect their tony address, with Charlotte Kellogg, Harper & Tucker, and J. McLaughlin among the clothing boutiques sharing the street with Newport’s mansions.
Where to Eat
Keep the historic Newport vibe going with dinner at the White Horse Tavern, which has been serving hot food and warming rum drinks to winter visitors since 1673. For Italian comfort food, seek out Sardella’s on Memorial Boulevard. The casual and friendly Brick Alley Pub is Newport’s top choice for family dining, although the kids also will love the nachos and mini quesadillas at Diego’s and the burger-and-dog offerings at Mission. Couples can enhance the holiday romance with fine French dining at Restaurant Bouchard.
Where to Stay
With its ice rink and merrily lit lighthouse, Gurney’s is at the heart of the holiday scene in Newport and offers a “Stay and Skate” package that includes a monogrammed hat and scarf. The Hotel Viking on Bellevue Avenue always dresses its noble brick facade nicely for the holidays, and its Spa Fjor is a welcoming retreat from the winter chill.
Housed in a stately Newport mansion, the Vanderbilt hotel, part of the Auberge resorts collection, is another elegant option for a holiday getaway, with special mixology classes focused on Christmas cocktail-making. The Chanler has an unmatched Cliff Walk location overlooking Easton’s Beach and a fine dining restaurant, Cara, that takes full advantage of the views. The Wyndham Newport in Middletown is a family-friendly hotel with an indoor pool and a free shuttle to downtown Newport.
For Night Owls
No holiday visit to Newport would be complete without an evening visit to the city’s official Christmas tree in Washington Square, and you also can visit the lavishly decorated tree on nearby Bowen’s Wharf. The Jane Pickens Theater screens holiday movies during the weeks leading up to Christmas, and the Island Moving Company stages the Newport Nutcracker ballet at the Rosecliff mansions during the holiday season. The Top of Pelham has dueling pianos on Friday and Saturday nights, and live music and dancing make One Pelham East downstairs one of the hottest spots in Newport. The Newport Blues Cafe also offers live entertainment year-round.