downtown Farmington Maine

11 BEST Downtowns in Maine to Explore

As the story goes, a man asked a park ranger in Yosemite what he would do if he could only visit the park for one day. The ranger said, “I’d go sit on that rock and cry.” Trying to whittle down the best downtowns in Maine is a similar conundrum.

The soul of Maine might be in the rocky shorelines, atop the mountains, and through the mystique of the North Maine Woods. However, the pulse radiates through the downtown areas. Sometimes, it’s a quick pace with action all around, and other times, it’s a lazy downtown lake sunset with loons laying a soundtrack.

So, what makes a good downtown great? We’ll explore the key factors of embracing history, modern appeal, walkability, a sense of community, and resilience despite all odds. And, a downtown must have enough to do that you can spend at least half a day exploring.

Farmington
Farmington | photo via melakesmtns

Farmington

The seat of Franklin County gets a seat on our list of best downtowns in Maine for several reasons.

First, the red brick buildings span different genres of architecture with some eclectic styles mixed in — like the octagon-shaped Hirman Ramsdell House built in 1858. Mr. Ramsdell believed the shape helped circulate air and create an open space for gatherings.

Second, downtown Farmington is a vibrant mix of historic buildings and eclectic, charming shops. The University of Maine at Farmington is also downtown and keeps the city hip. The downtown is as walkable as it is driveable because of the rare wide streets designed in the early 1800s.

Finally, the community is and always has been about education, community, and collaboration. The first day of winter is Chester Greenwood Day. Greenwood invented earmuffs, and the city could have easily marketed it as the “Earmuff Festival” to draw more attention. Instead, they celebrate the Farmington man who made a world of difference for cold ears in winter. Plus, the annual Fiddlehead Festival is held in town.

Farmington is downtown without a niche, and that makes everyone feel welcome. In addition, there’s a well-known (but little believed) prophecy that says Farmington will be the next heaven on Earth.

Historic Brick Pepperell Center - Former Mill Building - Biddeford, Maine
Biddeford, Maine

Biddeford

If you know a little bit about the history of Biddeford but haven’t checked in for a while, you’ll be surprised to see that it’s not your grandparents’ Biddeford anymore.

Just a decade ago, putting Biddeford in a list of best downtowns in Maine would have been unlikely. Now, it’s not only one of the best in the state but the youngest (average age is 29) and among the most lively.

Biddeford’s historic past as a textile powerhouse is evident in its impressive brick mill buildings. But instead of leaving the belly-up businesses to go stagnant another minute on the river, a renaissance — no, “Biddesance” — happened.

Yet, this walkable and explorable downtown didn’t lose sense of its past. Trending restaurants and modern art galleries mix with mill tours and an updated river walk with Saco just across the way.

WHERE TO NEXT? Keep an eye on Sanford Maine and South Berwick. Both cities are trying to do a resurgence like Biddeford.

Brunswick

One of the reasons downtown Brunswick ranks as one of the best in the state is simply that it feels like coming home.

Founded in 1628, its streets teem with stories, evident in posh landmarks like the 1810 Federal House, once home to sea captain Daniel Stone. After an exquisitely planned renovation, the inn blends Maine heritage with modern amenities in a chic setting. Today, these stories intertwine with vibrant cafes, art galleries, and independent shops housed in meticulously restored brick buildings.

Beyond aesthetics, Brunswick offers a truly walkable experience. Its Maine Street is designated a Great American Main Street by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and boasts over 200 businesses — a curated mix of local gems and national brands. Yet, the park along Park Row takes you back in time.

Bowdoin College’s elite status doesn’t intimidate but rather enhances the experience. Especially when walking in the footsteps of Nathanial Hawthorne or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, it’s hard not to be poetic about Brunswick.

Bath
Bath | photo via me_and_a_map

Bath

One might think a town rooted in shipbuilding history might be gritty. But, Bath Maine washes away all the possible preconceived notions at first glance without trying to be something it’s not.

Two key factors that put Bath on the list of best downtowns in Maine are the walkability and the waterfront. You feel transported back to another era with the lantern lights along the cobblestones, and you understand the eras better when visiting the Maritime Museum and Maine’s first ship built in 1607 on the waterfront.

Also, the community can take what’s old and make it new again — as is evident at the Chocolate Church, where the religion is a celebration of art. Annual events throughout the year give even more reasons to visit this maritime majesty.

Bath’s authenticity shines through in its restaurants and shops too. You don’t feel like you’re in a tourist town, and you suddenly get this urge to buy a boat…

Rockland

The MidCoast Maine treasure of Rockland has “curve” appeal since its downtown wraps around Rockland Harbor. Not only is the downtown walkable, but the curve around the water makes it feel endless.

Adding to that, one of the most “Maine” things you can do is walk the mile-long breakwater to Rockland Harbor Lighthouse. Who would’ve thought a feature meant to protect the valuable port from nor’easters would become such an iconic downtown feature? Even the museum to celebrate Maine’s lighthouses is in Rockland.

The city is rooted as much in shipping, logging, and fishing as it is in lime and ice (pre-refrigeration). At the same time, the Farnsworth Art Museum has been repeatedly voted one of the best in Maine and celebrates Maine artists from the islands to The Highlands.

The Maine Lobster Festival is held in Rockland annually in late July, now going more than 75 years strong and bringing in 30,000 people. Only one of the best downtowns in Maine could handle that kind of crowd.

Augusta-Maine
Augusta | photo via serguei_north_dakota

Augusta

For a small city, Augusta packs plenty of cultural offerings downtown — like the Maine State Museum, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, the Lithgow Public Library, and the Colonial Theater, which has been hosting performances since 1913.

The city has many well-preserved, 19th-century buildings and homes in its downtown, giving it a charming historic ambiance. Buildings like the Colonial Theater, the Blaine House, and various churches and government buildings showcase beautiful architectural styles.

Downtown Augusta is quite compact and walkable with shops, restaurants, parks, and government buildings clustered together. This makes it easy to explore on foot.

The Kennebec River runs right along the edge of downtown Augusta, providing scenic river views and a nice riverfront park and trail system. The downtown area has a Museum in the Streets Program too, and a quick walk across the bridge takes you to Fort Western to learn about the battles on the Kennebec River.

DOWNTOWN TRIFECTA: Pair a visit to Augusta’s downtown with a 6-mile drive through Hallowell and Gardiner. Each has its own spectacular downtown corridor on the Kennebec River.

Bangor Maine
Bangor, Maine

Bangor

The historical tenacity of Bangor has guaranteed its spot on the list. The downtown area burned four times in history — the final was the Great Fire of 1911. Within days, theater performances started, school was back in session, and hundreds of business owners started over again. Within the year, a new high school and public library opened.

That resilient nature and dedication to community still reigns in Bangor’s downtown, which is an oddly shaped landscape of streets and curves. History blends haphazardly through the iterations of rebuilding downtown post-fires.

Downtown Bangor has a good concentration of local restaurants, brewpubs and breweries, cafes, and lively bars and nightlife, making it a dining and entertainment destination. The Penobscot River provides scenic river views and access to the lovely Bangor Waterfront Park and walking trail.

Of course, Bangor is also known as being the inspiration for the town of Derry, which Stephen King used in many of his books. His famed former residence is less than 1 mile from downtown.

Houlton
Houlton | photo via davidlmclaughlin

Houlton

This Aroostook County town is getting more attention than ever thanks to its position in the path of the 2024 Solar Eclipse. Houlton sits at the northern terminus of I-95 and would’ve been a star on this list of best downtowns in Maine even without the eclipse.

One unique aspect of Houlton is the downtown design. Instead of being several blocks of streets parallelling each other, there’s a town square.

Following in the footsteps of cities like Biddeford, Houlton is reaching a new audience and drawing in artists and entrepreneurs. Buildings that sat empty several years ago are filling up with creators, making the town more than a stop on the way to or from Canada. While you’re here, walk across the Meduxnekeag River on the Gateway Crossing.

SIDE NOTE: We give props to the Houlton community for seizing the eclipse opportunity by planning years in advance. That’s a downtown planning to be on lists like this for years to come.

Agamont Park-Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor | photo via theiphonepic

Bar Harbor

While a low-hanging fruit, you can’t beat the charm of Mount Desert Island’s Bar Harbor. More people are discovering this downtown at the main entrance to Acadia National Park as park visitors have increased by 72% in the past decade.

If anything, Bar Harbor is becoming a victim of its own success as the crowds to the island and the ones pouring off cruise ships create long lines and tight spaces. (That’s easy enough for one of our readers to plan around with the wealth of resources we have.)

On the other hand, Bar Harbor was once a playground for the elite. It was the fire of 1947 that took down Millionaire’s Row and started the transition to the everyday traveler destination.

In addition to the pristine downtown area beckoning from decades gone by, you can be walking on the shoreline or standing on the “bar” island that lends its name to Bar Harbor just 1 mile away.

Eastport
Eastport | photo via elyssacohenphotog

Eastport

Way Downeast sits Eastport on its own island facing Canada and one of the largest natural whirlpools in the world.

We love Eastport’s downtown because it’s a mix of not trying too hard yet still a classic coastal working waterfront. It’s also one of the main stops on the popular Quoddy Loop tour.

Poking around the waterfront, you’ll find an NSFW mermaid statue, the famous Fisherman Statue, and the Easternmost City buoy. Boat and kayak tours leave from the downtown harbor, and if you bring your passport, a ferry to Cummings Cove is right there.

As a final suggestion, once you’ve eaten a big seafood meal, walk it off in the mile or so it takes to get to the other side of the island at Shackford Head State Park.

But What About…

We know that Kennebunkport has the amazing Dock Square, while Downtown Portland is a force to be reckoned with as well. We wanted this list to highlight some of the lesser-known towns in Maine.

In addition to Bangor, every downtown area on our list suffered at least one devastating fire in history and still rose from the ashes.

Whittling down the list to a handful is as hard as picking your favorite lobster roll or seaside spot. However, we’re Mainers, so we’re tough. Tell us what we missed, and share your favorite downtown areas with other readers.

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