I will be completely honest and say that visiting Portland (Maine) was a completely whimsical and last-minute decision. First, I found an amazing flight deal on Skyscanner with Frontier Airlines about a week prior. Second, it’s been in upper 90s and humid in Central Florida, and I was eyeing the mid-60s temperatures in Maine. Third, Maine was one of the then US states I hadn’t visited yet, so I’d be killing many birds with one stone. I was also excited that my best friend would be able to meet up with me for three days, and that I wouldn’t need an accessible taxi (there are none) to get around. The result? I’m utterly and completely in love with Portland, from its lighthouses and stunning rocky coast to its art, architecture, and history to its mouth-watering lobster and blueberries. If you’ve never considered Portland (Maine) as an accessible vacation destination, that’s about to change! Here are over a dozen awesome wheelchair accessible things to do during your visit.
1. Casco Bay Lines Mail Run. This is the locals’ favorite way to experience Casco Bay! This true working boat carries passengers, mail, and freight to Little Diamond, Great Diamond, Long, Cliff and Chebeague Islands. For only $16.50, you can take this fully wheelchair accessible ferry for a beautiful 2.5-3.5 hour tour of Casco Bay while watching the crew deliver and pick up mail and packages. I can’t overstate how stunning the scenery is on this route! Gorgeous New England homes, rocky cliffs, and birds galore. The ferry even has an elevator between decks and an accessible bathroom on board! Casco Bay Lines runs this route twice a day, every day, and offers discounted tickets for wheelchair users. No reservations necessary; just show up at the Casco Bay Lines terminal in the Old Port area about 30 minutes prior to the ferry’s departure time to buy your tickets. They will let wheelchair users board first, and will help you get up and down the gangway if it’s steep due to the tide.
2. South Portland Greenbelt. This is one of the coolest ways to really get into Portland’s neighborhoods and enjoy some spectacular scenery across the water from the Old Port. The Greenbelt Walkway is an off-road pathway enjoyed by thousands of residents and visitors each year. From west to east, the trail spans 5.6 miles, from the Wainwright Athletic complex near the Scarborough town line to the historic Bug Light Park, where Liberty Ships were built during World War II. The trail treats walkers, runners, cyclists, and wheelchair users to easy strolls and three distinct vistas of the Portland waterfront. Wildlife-watching along the trail is also popular at many of the fields, wetlands, marshes, and woods passed along the route. I would recommend taking the bus from central Portland to the Mill Creek Park stop to reach the Greenbelt’s central access point. Mill Creek Park is at the intersection of Broadway and Ocean Street in South Portland just east of the Casco Bay Bridge. From there, I would suggest rolling about 1.5 miles northeast for great views enroute to Bug Light Park (see below) at the end of the trail.
3. Bug Light Park. Bug Light Park, the eastern terminus of the Greenbelt Walkway, offers expansive views of Portland Harbor and the skyline of Maine’s largest city. The 8.78 acre park was the site of major shipbuilding activity during WWII. An estimated 30,000 people were employed here from 1941-1945 building liberty ships for the New England Shipbuilding Corp. and the South Portland Shipbuilding Corp. Portland Breakwater Lighthouse was built in 1875 and is one of Maine’s most elegant lighthouses. Though modeled on an ancient Greek monument, it was built with plates of cast iron. It was dubbed “Bug Light” due to its small size. Although far less bustling today, Bug Light Park is a popular destination for picnicking, boating, kite flying and salt water fishing. A busy boat launching area and a liberty ship memorial are at opposite ends of the park. In between is a paved walkway along the shore and out to Bug Light itself. You can’t reach the lighthouse because the stone blocks are uneven with large gaps in between, but you can still get really great views and photos.
4. Cushing’s Point Museum. After your visit to Bug Light Park, you can roll a very short distance to this small, but very interesting, historical museum inside a typical New England-style house. The South Portland Historical Society operates the Cushing’s Point Museum, a history museum at Bug Light Park, adjacent to the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse, which relates the history of shipbuilding (including WWII Liberty ships), lighthouses, sardine canning factories, local Civil War history, an exhibit covering how the automobile has changed the American neighborhood, and more. Museum gift shop features souvenir and gift items which are Made in Maine, with a special focus on lighthouse-related gift items. We had the museum all to ourselves during our visit, so the gentleman working that day gave us a lovely tour and explained many of the photographs and memorabilia. There is a ramp to enter the building on the left side of the main entrance.
5. Portland Museum of Art. With an extensive collection and nationally renowned exhibitions, the Portland Museum of Art is the cultural heart of Portland, Maine. The PMA boasts significant holdings of American, European, and contemporary art, as well as iconic works from Maine—highlighting the rich artistic tradition of the state and its artists. Andy Warhol, Claude Monet and Winslow Homer are among the icons showcased within the Portland Museum of Art. Paintings abound, but you’ll also find photographs, sketches, pottery, furniture, ornate silverware, sculptures and so much more. The attached historic McLellan House and L. D. M. Sweat Memorial Galleries have an emphasis on 19th-century American art. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday. From November through late May, the museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Admission costs $15 for adults; there are discounts available for students and seniors, and children 14 and younger get in for free. The museum is completely accessible, including the McLellan house, via elevators or electric lifts. Accessible restrooms are available.
6. Portland Head Light (Fort Williams). You can’t visit Portland without making a stop at this iconic state park and historic lighthouse. Portland Head has long protected Portland and the adjacent area. Cape Elizabeth residents were deeply committed to American independence from British rule. In 1776, the new Town of Cape Elizabeth posted a guard of eight soldiers at Portland Head to warn citizens of coming British attacks. In 1787, the General Court of Massachusetts (the Massachusetts legislature) provided $750 to begin construction of a lighthouse. In 1790, when the United States Government took over the responsibility of all lighthouses, Congress appropriated $1,500 for its completion. The original tower measured 72′ from base to lantern deck and was lit with 16 whale oil lamps. It was first lit on January 10, 1791. Once the site of Fort Williams, the surrounding park went into service in 1898 and was in use until 1962. The fort grounds provide numerous walking paths, a cliff walk offering spectacular views and a newly planted Arboretum. The Museum at Portland Head Light is contained within the former Keepers’ Quarters. The award winning Museum contains a number of lighthouse lenses and interpretative displays, and there is a ramp to enter to the left of the main entrance. Also on the site is a seasonal shop featuring fine lighthouse and Maine related gifts. For Museum visiting hours, click here. The sidewalks throughout Fort Williams are steep in some spots, but very smooth with great curb drops. The easiest way to reach it is by car, but you can also take the bus from central Portland to the park’s main entrance. Have a full battery or someone to help you push a manual chair the mile or so to the lighthouse.
7. Victoria Mansion. Victoria Mansion is a much-loved Portland landmark but its significance extends far beyond Maine. Distinguished for its architecture and its extraordinary original interiors, it is among the most important historic homes of the nineteenth century anywhere in the nation. Also known as the Morse-Libby House, Victoria Mansion was built between 1858 and 1860 as a summer home for two people, Ruggles Sylvester Morse and his wife Olive. They were both from Maine originally, but Morse made his fortune in New Orleans where he operated luxury hotels. This spectacular summer home was designed by the architect Henry Austin of New Haven, CT and is widely considered one of the finest examples of the Italian Villa style in America. Strategically located near the city’s earliest gas and sewer lines, the house was a model of elegance and convenience with hot and cold running water, flush toilets, central heating, gas lights, a servant call-bell system, wall to wall carpeting, and a 25 foot long stained glass skylight. Only the first floor of the mansion is wheelchair accessible (via electric lift and ramp), but there’s plenty to see. You can also view the second-floor rooms and history via a slide presentation on an iPad. Tickets are $16, and include a guided tour; please check their calendar for hours and schedules. Wheelchair users can enter the gift shop up the driveway to purchase tickets, then are escorted to the back of the house to enter using the lift and ramp.
8. Western Promenade. Portland’s officials began buying land for the Eastern and Western Promenades in 1828. The Eastern Promenade provided views of the Casco Bay islands, while the Western Promenade, overlooking the Fore River, had views of the surrounding countryside and the White Mountains. In 1905 Mayor James Phinney Baxter hired Olmsted Brothers to design improvements and connections between the Western Promenade and Deering Oaks. The 25-acre Promenade was designed for peaceful strolling and socializing by horse-and-carriage, without structured recreational areas. The firm, led by John Charles Olmsted with Henry Hubbard, proposed curvilinear paths, a formal plaza with a shelter, and a drive crossing a steep slope to connect with Deering Oaks via tree-lined streets. Although this plan was not implemented, today’s strolling paths, lawns, and allées resemble the Olmsted Brothers intent. The now heavily-wooded slope has been cleared in selected places to reinstate historic views of the Fore River and White Mountains. This is a beautiful place from which to explore the stunning historic mansions across the street, and can be reached rolling/walking from the Deering Street bus stop in ten minutes.
9. Deering Oaks Park. Designed in 1879, just before Thomas Edison’s invention of the incandescent light bulb, Deering Oaks was apparently not lit at night for almost a century. This is in keeping with designer City Engineer William Goodwin’s intent that Deering Oaks be enjoyed as a natural place, a “public breathing space”, not a formal park. In fact, Goodwin stated in his 1881 Report, “The place can probably never become a park with expensive park-like structures and accessories, but will always be “the Oaks” whatever may be done in or about it.” But become a park it did, as the City grew and changed – and Deering Oaks changed in response. A bandstand was built in 1883. The Victorian duck house was built in 1887 and a fountain was also installed. The Castle was built in 1894 as a warming hut for skaters. A small playground was created in 1902. The public’s use of the Oaks grew steadily and civic improvements continued. It’s a beautiful accessible park to relax, have a picnic, or roll through on your way to a baseball game next door at Hadlock Field.
10. Hadlock Field (Portland Sea Dogs). Hadlock Field is the local Minor League baseball stadium and primarily home to the Portland Sea Dogs of the Eastern League, but also the Portland High School Bulldogs and Deering High School Rams baseball teams. The stadium is named for Edson B. Hadlock, Jr., a long-time Portland High School baseball coach and physics teacher and member of the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame. In April 2018, Hadlock was named one of the 10 best minor league baseball stadiums, and it’s easy to see why! There is an entire row of wheelchair accessible seating from end to end of the stadium on the lower mezzanine level, which is reached by an electric lift. There are also accessible bathrooms in the stadium. Tickets are only $12 and accessible seats for wheelchair users and their companions can be purchased online.
11. Maine Historical Society Museum and Wadsworth-Longfellow House. The MHS Museum features changing exhibitions and programs spanning more 12 centuries of Maine life. Drawing from the extensive collections of the Maine Historical Society, original exhibits feature art, artifacts, stories, and documents that vividly bring Maine history to life. Within the walls of the neighboring Wadsworth-Longfellow house lived three generations of one remarkable family that made significant contributions to the political, literary, and cultural life of New England and the United States. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882), grew up in the house and went on to become one of the most famous men of his time. General Peleg Wadsworth, built the house in 1785–1786, and the last person to live there was Anne Longfellow Pierce, Henry’s younger sister. Mrs. Pierce, widowed at an early age, lived in the house until her death in 1901. At that time, in accordance with a deed she executed in 1895, the house passed to the Maine Historical Society to be preserved as a memorial to her famous brother and their family. Virtually all of the household items and artifacts are original to the Wadsworth and Longfellow families. The MHS museum is fully accessible, and you can see the entire first floor of the Wadsworth-Longfellow house. Admission to the MHS museum is $8, and $15 for the Wadsworth-Longfellow house (including a guided tour).
12. Portland Fire Museum. The city of Portland has a rich fire history with over 20 conflagrations dating back to the Revolutionary War era. The current museum was built in 1837 and is listed on the Nation Historic Registry. It was originally a fire house, school house, and voting room for Ward 6. Many of the items have been saved by members of the Portland Veteran Fireman’s Association dating back to 1891. This museum features one of the best collections of antique firefighting equipment – from trucks to axes – on display in New England as well as a vast collection of photographs, documents, and paintings. Each of these artifacts conveys the story of firefighting from the firefighter’s point of view with explanations of tools, techniques and on-scene protocols clearly explained to visitors. The tricky part of visiting this small, but fascinating, museum is being in town when it’s open. Currently, you can explore this hidden Portland gem only on Wednesdays from 11AM – 2PM, with a suggested donation of $5 per person.
13. Customs House Parking Garage. This brief stop/visit in Portland is mostly for you shutterbugs out there. Located near Portland’s waterfront, the U.S. Custom House is a testament to the city’s maritime history. It was built to accommodate the city’s growing customs business, which, by 1866, was collecting $900,000 annually in duties – making Portland one of the most significant seaports in the country. Completed under the direction of Supervising Architect of the Treasury, Alfred B. Mullett, the building was constructed between 1867 and 1872, and combined elements of the Second Empire and Renaissance Revival styles. If you’re looking for an amazing view of this historic building, as well as the entire Old Port area and Casco Bay, roll one block north of the Customs House to the parking garage. Find the elevator and pedestrian entrance on the west side of the garage and head up to the 8th (top) floor for an amazing view!
14. Exploring Portland’s Historic Neighborhoods. One of the best things to do in Portland is just to roll around aimlessly and soak in the city’s incredible architecture and carefully manicured gardens. Though English colonists settled the area by the 1630s, much of the city’s historic architecture is from the Victorian era. That’s because in 1866, while the city was celebrating the first July 4th after the Civil War, a raging fire broke out and destroyed most of Portland’s commercial buildings, many of its churches and countless homes. With its leafy streets and grand homes, the West End — also called Western Promenade for the main boulevard that defines the neighborhood’s western edge — reads like a beautifully illustrated textbook on American Victorian architecture. From dramatic High Victorian Gothic to the eclectic, asymmetrical Queen Anne style; from the nostalgia-fueled Stick Style characterized by simple shingles and shakes to the cubical Italianate villas topped with a central cupola — the houses of the West End are wonderfully preserved architectural examples. Make sure you’ve visited the website of the nonprofit organization Greater Portland Landmarks (portlandlandmarks.org). The agency offers downloadable maps and guides for four self-guided tours of Portland’s architectural landmarks, worth collecting before you hit the sidewalks in search of historic buildings. Portland’s sidewalks are mostly flat brick pavers, and they undulate in many places because of the weather. However, they are well-maintained, and the curb drops are in good shape with only a few exceptions. The West End is mostly flat, and I found it very easy and safe to explore in my power chair.
Getting around Portland is really easy using their fantastic bus service. All of the city’s buses kneel and have electric fold-out ramps at the front set of doors. Route 5 goes to and from the airport, so even though there are no accessible taxis in Portland, you don’t need one. The city is also relatively small, and while there are some hilly sections on the East End and in the Old Port, the sidewalks are in good shape with great curb cuts.