On my recent trip to the Women in Travel Summit, I knew I wanted to explore Portland, Maine in as many ways as I could.
Since Maine is known for their lighthouses, I bought a ticket for the Portland Explorer City and Lighthouse Tour through Viator.
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Why You Should Explore Portland by Van
Portland, Maine is a fairly small city. Most of the tours in town are walking tours because everything is so close.
However, the lighthouses are a bit further away and spread apart.
Unless you have a car or have lots of time to walk or bike around Portland, the easiest way to see them is on a Maine lighthouse tour.
I love that this Portland Explorer City and Lighthouse Tour uses a private van. It’s not a giant tour bus, so the experience is very comfortable and it keeps the tour group small.
The van is also air-conditioned and you can leave your bags in the van when you pop out to take photos of the lighthouses.
Portland Explorer City and Lighthouse Tour
Because I visited Portland in early May (which is the start of their tourist season) I actually was the only person on Portland Explorer City and Lighhouse tour.
This is pretty unusual and they have the option of canceling tours that don’t have a minimum number of people. I feel so lucky that my tour guide Eric was on board to give me a private tour of Portland!
The first place we saw was Commercial Street. This is on one of North America’s last working waterfronts.
Eric talked about the wharf and what it’s like to be a lobsterman. He had been out on the boat earlier in the day and had a few stories to tell.
One of the reasons I LOVE doing tours when I travel is to talk with locals about their own personal experiences in the city.
We drove through the rest of Old Port, where we saw cute boutiques, lots of restaurants, and a few pubs!
FORT ALLEN PARK
This was our first stop, although I’m not sure every Portland Explorer City and Lighthouse tour stops here.
I had told Eric that I’m a family travel blogger and I always like to know where to go with kids so I can report back to my readers.
Since he has little kids (the same age as mine!) he showed me Fort Allen Park. He used to come here as a kid and now he brings his own kids to run around and fly kites.
Fort Allen Park sits on a grassy hill overlooking Casco Bay. There are some large cannons and flags, but it’s mostly just grass.
The park has a direct view of Fort Gorges and some of the islands.
I also saw Fort Allen Park on the Portland Fire Engine Co. tour, but we didn’t get out.
Next up, we drove down Congress Street to see the arts district and some of Portland’s most famous landmarks.
Some of my favorites included City Hall, the Wadsworth-Longfellow house, and Monument Square.
That was the end of the “city” part of the tour, which was great!
I think downtown Portland is best explored on foot, so I liked that this tour gave me a good overview so I was able to walk around Old Port on my own after the tour.
So, it was time to finally see some of the famous Portland, Maine lighthouses!
PORTLAND HEAD LIGHT
The first lighthouse we went to was Portland Head Light, one of the world’s most photographed lighthouses.
It’s located at Fort Williams State Park in Cape Elizabeth. That’s home to a lot of local events, including a marathon founded by U.S. women’s marathon runner (and Cape Elizabeth local) Joan Benoit Samuelson.
There are lots of paths around the lighthouse so you can get different photography angles.
Usually, guests will have about 45 minutes to explore and take photos.
Since I was the only one on the tour at this time, I opted to just spend about 15 minutes so I’d have more time at the other lighthouses.
But that was ample time to take photos and videos!
You can also see Portland Head Light from the Lucky Catch Cruise, although it’s further away.
SCRATCH BAKING CO.
So, this isn’t technically on the tour. But, if the group is small enough, you can sweet talk your guide into stopping.
My guide Eric raved about Scratch Baking Co. and said it’s one of his favorite bakeries in Maine. Now, I haven’t met a bakery I didn’t like, so I jumped at the chance to try it out.
OMG is it delicious! I grabbed an English muffin, sea salt shortbread, and a blondie brownie to go and ate them later at my hotel.
Apparently they are also known for their sourdough bagels! Unfortunately, they were sold out by the time I got there.
If you want to check out Portland’s extensive food scene, sign up for a Maine Foodie Tour!
SPRING POINT LEDGE LIGHTHOUSE
Next, we drove to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, which was my favorite of all the lighthouses we saw in Maine.
What makes it unique is that Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse is the only caisson-style light station in the United States that visitors can walk to.
Usually, these “sparkplug lighthouses” are located in the water.
This was probably my favorite lighthouse, though, because in order to get there, you need to hop across giant rocks.
I made it about halfway out before turning around. It was quite an experience!
Insider tip: Be very careful walking out to the lighthouse. The rocks are uneven and can get really slippery. It’s definitely not for little kids.
Right next to Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse is Fort Preble, a military fort built in 1808. From there, you can see Portland Head Light in the distance.
If you are looking for a kid-size lighthouse, Bug Light is a must-do attraction in Maine.
If you go with kids, be sure to bring a kite, as it’s a popular kite-flying park!
And that was the end of our tour. Eric brought me back to our starting point and shared a few of his favorite restaurants.
He recommended Otto’s for their mashed potato pizza. I was obviously intrigued and it was SO good that I went back twice for it! Yummy!
Also, I accidentally left my portable battery charger in the van and he was so nice to drop it off at my hotel the next day. Total lifesaver and impressive customer service!
8 Things You Need to Know to Explore Portland, Maine’s Lighthouses Like a Pro
1. BUY YOUR TICKETS THROUGH VIATOR
The Explore Portland City and Lighthouse Tour is $29 per person for a 1 hour and 45 minute tour.
Purchase your Explore Portland City and Lighthouse Tour.
2. DRESS IN LAYERS
When I went in May, it was 42 degrees in the afternoon. I was freezing!
The wind coming off the water can be icy cold, so definitely wear a few layers. I’d also suggest a windbreaker or rain jacket to help combat the wind.
3. WEAR STURDY SHOES
You’ll have time to explore the Portland coast a bit, so wear shoes that are comfortable walking on large rocks, beaches, and dirt paths.
I wore flat, lace up shoes and was fine. But, I’m glad I didn’t wear sandals.
4. CAR SEATS ARE AVAILABLE
Chances are, if you are doing this tour, you don’t have a car. So, you might not have car seats for your children.
Infant car seats are available by request.
5. THE VAN IS AIR CONDITIONED
With a full tour, it’s always good to get some air circulating, especially in the summer.
I also want to point out that it’s heated, as well. With the biting cold winds the rest of the year, it’s nice to relax and warm up in between stops.
Your tour guide will have some umbrellas available in the van in case of rain.
If the weather is super rainy, the tour will be canceled. You’ll be able to reschedule at no charge or get a full refund.
8. TAKE A FAMILY PHOTO
If you follow my blog, you’ll know I’m deeply passionate about taking family photos while traveling.
Since Maine is known for their iconic lighthouses, I urge you to take a family photo in front of one of them.
Portland Head Light is one of the most photographed lighthouses in America, so that’d be my pick. Either set up a tripod or ask someone on your tour to snap a family photo. You won’t regret it!
If you go:
WHERE TO STAY
For a Portland boutique hotel and spa, The Francis is a quaint 15 room inn.
They have family rooms and suites available, free parking and they have a restaurant and bar on property.
For Portland’s only AAA rated 4 diamond hotel in Old Port, check out the Portland Harbor Hotel.
They have 24 hour room service, valet, spa, restaurant and an Instagram-worthy lobby!
If you are looking for a Portland, Maine vacation rental, this one is right in the heart of Old Port.
It can sleep up to 6 people and is great for families with little kids. Easy walk to restaurants, attractions, and activities.
WHAT TO BRING
I actually brought this yellow jacket to shield me from the wind, but also for that pop of color in my photos.
If you are visiting Maine with friends or family, you’ll definitely want to do a group shot in front of one (if not all) of the Portland lighthouses.
That’s why I suggest bringing a lightweight tripod with you.
Depending on how crowded the parks are, you should be able to use your timer and get some epic shots in front of Maine’s most iconic landmarks.
If you are traveling by yourself, you’ll want to get some shots of you in front of a lighthouse.
Sometimes it’s tricky to do a timed shot with a tripod if you are going in the busy season, but anyone can use a selfie stick!
WHAT ELSE TO DO
Have you ever wanted to learn how to catch lobsters? Hop aboard this fun, hands-on boat ride into Casco Bay where you’ll learn the ins and outs of lobster fishing.
Plus, you’ll get to wear a real apron and gloves. And they have little lobster pants for kids!
Reserve your Lucky Catch ticket here.
You can’t come to Portland, Maine and not try the food! And it’s so much more than lobster rolls!
Maine Foodie Tours offers several different walking tours featuring some of the many incredible restaurants all over Portland. Bring your appetite!
Reserve your Maine Foodie Tour ticket here.
Is there a cooler way to do a city tour than on a vintage fire truck? I don’t think so!
See the top sights in Portland, Maine in the comfort of an open-air, covered fire truck. They even have authentic fire jackets and hats you can wear!
Reserve your Portland Fire Tour tickets here.