If you travel to Maine, Augusta is unlikely to be on your destination list. Other than being a state capital, this dusty little town has little to offer a casual visitor. But whether you are on political business for a few days, like I did in early April, or you just pass through on the way to someplace else in the Pine Tree State, there are a few things to do in Augusta, Maine.
Things to do in Augusta, Maine: Stay and dine at the Senator Inn
When I was deciding on a place to stay in Augusta, a local contact recommended the Hampton Inn [check the current prices] and the Senator Inn & Spa. Weary of chain hotels and hungry for a distinct local experience, I knew where to go when she said, “The Senator is…a good ol’ authentic place” that well represents Maine as “the old West of New England.”
Right off I-95, the Senator Inn & Spa is a sprawling motel popular with out-of-town state legislators who stay there during the legislative session. When I visited in April, I literally rubbed elbows with State Representatives, recognizable by name badges, in the dining room during the complimentary buffet breakfast and at the hotel bar after hours.
Because I was staying longer than their average length-of-stay (and perhaps also because I was from so far away), I got upgraded from my original small queen room in the Legislative Wing to a large king room with a desk in the Presidential Wing. While I didn’t indulge in the Spa, top-rated as it is among its competitors in Maine, the Cloud 9 Restaurant is perhaps the best place to eat in Augusta. I’ll always remember it as the place where I ate lobster for the first time, in the best ravioli I’ve ever had.
The “good ol’ authentic” part about The Senator is the decor. One way to put it would be that it’s dated, but I enjoyed stepping back in time into a 1980’s small-town charm. I mean, a place that features Psychic Dinner Series and a Murder Mystery Dinner is nothing but good ol’.
Things to do in Augusta, Maine: Tour the State House
Augusta being the capital of Maine, most people travel there to deal with state government. But even if you aren’t a legislator or going to a hearing, like I did, you can visit the State House and take a tour.
Free guided tours of the Maine State House, are arranged through the Maine State Museum, located to the south on the capitol campus. Leaving on the hour between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. every weekday, tours include the House and Senate chambers. Aside from the history of the magnificent building, you will learn how laws are enacted in Maine (you can visit during a legislative session, too).
The 1832 building, fashioned on the Massachusetts State House forms, the centerpiece of Augusta. Wander the hallways for that movie-like feel of old official buildings, and come back in thirty years to see the recently renovated copper dome oxidize from brown to green.
The Maine State Museum itself is a worthwhile diversion. Exhibits on Maine’s nature and history supply depth to the Maine experience. The closeted vexillographer in me thrilled in the small display of Civil War flags. And with snow still heaped in piles on road sides and even spitting sideways one day, I really wished I had the 175-year-old capote blanket coat at the center of a dedicated temporary exhibit.
Things to do in Augusta, Maine: Walk or run on the Kennebec River Rail Trail
I’d rank the Kennebec River Rail Trail as a top attraction in Augusta.
Part of the East Coast Greenway and Kennebec-Chaudiere International (Heritage) Corridor, the River Rail Trail starts under the Memorial Bridge in downtown Augusta and extends 6.5 miles south to Gardiner, running parallel to an old train track and the Kennebec River.
I ran four miles out on a crisp, clear afternoon. Banks of melting snow, scenic views of the Kennebec River, and the town of Hallowell, with its small-town New England charm and old cemetery, made for one of the prettier runs I’ve ever done.
Things to do in just outside of Augusta, Maine: Go out in Hallowell
The first word that came to mind when I ventured to downtown Augusta, a half mile to the north of the State House, was “dead.” My impression was confirmed when I the helpful wait staff at the Senator Inn restaurant informed me that all the places to have fun on a week night are in Hallowell, two miles south of Augusta.
According to the locals, Water Avenue, the charming New England town’s main drag lined with historic brick buildings, brick sidewalks, and antique shops, becomes a parking lot in the summer as vacationers pass through.
But you aren’t here to shop.
Head to The Maine House for “craft cocktails.” A martini fan, I tried The Dirty Pickle, a cloudy concoction featuring mustard pickle juice, and the out-of-this-world German Bison made with Zubrowka, the Polish bison-grass vodka, shaken with Lillet and served straight up with a lemon twist in a martini glass sprayed with German chamomile.
Next door, The Liberal Cup Public House & Brewery is a charming English pub with a stout food menu—The meatloaf! The meatloaf!—a welcoming, cozy ambiance, and made-here, quaffable ales (which tend to be on the flat side, like in England). If you’re up for a dash of color, go to Slates, an American bistro where vibrant hues of the decor complement a varied menu.
With 30 brews on tap (including, to my surprise, one from Oregon) and live music on select nights, The Quarry Tap Room is a craft-beer lover’s haven. The Quarry’s slogan, “Hallowell’s deepest watering hole” is not an exaggeration.
Enough said, but if you want a less raucous late-night experience, The Wharf should be your riverside destination.
Things to do in just outside of Augusta, Maine: Eat a whoopie pie
Locals told me that, aside from lobster and blueberries, Maine is known for whoopie pies.
As you head back to Portland, south on Highway 201, stop in Farmingdale at Wicked Whoopies for a treat, which will provide you with enough sugar for a week and, if you are constantly bewildered by how sweet American snacks can be, a lifetime’s worth of chuckles that such a thing even exists.
Have you been to Augusta, Maine? What other things to do would you recommend?