The best towns and small cities in the US: Portland, Maine


At the junction of Danforth and Pleasant Street, a place once known as Gorham’s Corner, a stone monument commemorates ordinary folk who used to live in the neighbourhood. There’s the shopkeeper, after whom the corner was named, and the local priest “who was often called by the police to halt street fights”. As if to prove the point, the next name listed is that of a man who died in a brawl with local toughs, the Connelly Brothers: “His death sparked a riot.”

Some older locals can recall the days when Portland was still a rough-and-ready port town, with alcohol-fuelled punch-ups downtown and areas you didn’t walk in after dark. A transformation over the past two decades means it’s now often described as one of the best US towns to live in. From the Old Port to a lively arts district and up-and-coming bayside areas, this town of 66,000 has incubated a creative and foodie scene that can hold its own against anywhere.
Its secret is a deep-rooted community spirit: it’s not enough just to “buy local”, residents want to know the person who’s cooking their food, brewing their beer, making their clothes. Once a key destination on the freedom trail that helped African Americans escape slavery in the South – boarding ships to Canada and England, or working on the wharves – the town has welcomed immigrants and refugees from Somalia, Kenya, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Maine has long been a summer destination for vacationing Americans, thanks to its coastline, campsites and range of outdoor activities but you’ll find Portlanders out every weekend in the winter, too. Mostly, that’s on their way to eat, as the restaurant scene is so good. Fishing retains a strong presence and many locals still take their constitutional along the eastern promenade to the salty odour of the morning catch. See Portland at its best by taking a stool at Becky’s diner, where laptop workers and lobstermen drink dollar-coffee side by side.

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