Portland feels like a much bigger city that’s somehow been condensed. With fewer than 70,000 residents, it’s eclipsed by Topeka and dwarfed by Fargo, yet in many ways the little city on the water can go toe-to-toe with Boston for the title of New England’s cultural capital. The preponderance of knockout restaurants has been widely reported, and the thriving art and design scene is starting to garner ink as well. Local music offerings have earned Portland favorable comparisons to Austin, despite (or perhaps because of) the geographic isolation that curtails visits from national touring acts. Portland’s cultural boom was probably sparked in some part by its perceived segregation from the rest of the East Coast, and this gives the city’s happenings a winning, homegrown feel.
The historic shipping and commercial fishing industries play second fiddle to Portland’s service economy today, but the town stays true to its maritime roots. Lobstermen still troll out of the wharf during the small hours, and Casco Bay is filled with the comings and goings of deep-sea fishing vessels. You can smell the salt air from both of Portland’s two main commercial districts, Congress Street and the Old Port, where restaurants and shops occupy Victorian brick storefronts. In Portland the water takes prominence, ringed by parks and promenades that make this one of the country’s best cities for green space.
Neighbor towns to the north and south include Freeport, an outlet mecca and home to L.L. Bean, and Cape Elizabeth, an affluent bedroom community known for postcard-perfect lighthouses. You can’t call these places suburbs, exactly, since many predate Portland. In fact, the whole metro kind of lacks the haphazard feel of urban sprawl, and maybe this is part of what makes Portland so charming—the tidy feeling of a compact city where everything is in its place.