Waterville Maine offers a cultural, educational, and historic powerhouse in the Kennebec Valley all wrapped up in a charming small city. Situated along the Kennebec River, this vibrant city is known for its rich arts and cultural amenities as much as its outdoor adventures along the gamed river.
The city of 16,000 hosts a robust higher education scene, but this isn’t your typical college town. Colby College and Thomas College contribute to the lively atmosphere and provide a range of activities and experiences for visitors of all ages.
This tenacious city is in the midst of a transformation with financial infusions to revitalize downtown, preserve older buildings, and attract more people to its tree-lined streets and famous river views. We know where Waterville has been and are excited to see where it’s going.
About Waterville Maine
Waterville has undergone many changes over the years, including a handful of name changes.
Indigenous People & European Settlers
The Wabanaki people first inhabited the area. French and English explorers arrived in the area in the 1600s, but it wasn’t until 1771 when a group of settlers led by Joseph Weston arrived in the area and established a sawmill on the banks of the Kennebec River.
Waterville changed names along with purpose, as it went from a mill town to a ship-building center to a railroad hub.
A Higher Learning City
Along the way, Colby College and Thomas College were founded in 1813 and 1894, respectively. Colby College is a liberal arts institution with a broad-based curriculum, while Thomas College is more specialized, emphasizing professional and business education.
Waterville saw industries fade throughout the 20th Century, and education became a focal point. Even today, Waterville is still a city in transition. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t change names again.
Unique Features of Waterville
One of the icons in Waterville is the Two Cent Bridge. This historic pedestrian bridge spans the Kennebec River, connecting the downtown area with the city of Winslow (home of Big G’s Deli).
The bridge earned its name from the toll that pedestrians had to pay to cross it during the 19th century, which was two cents. The bridge is open to pedestrians to this day without having to pay two cents (or any amount), but fair warning — it does sway a little.
The fence of Two Cent Bridge dons many padlocks from people who wanted to “lock in” their love while visiting. Feel free to bring a padlock of your own.
Also, you’ll enjoy Ticonic Falls from several locations around downtown. This location was among the many challenges Benedict Arnold and his expedition team faced in 1775 on the way to Quebec.
Waterville’s Role on Big & Small Screens
Fans of the hit show “M*A*S*H” will love this nugget — the “real” Hawkeye Pierce used the pen name Richard Hooker and wrote the stories that would turn into a television hit. In real life, he was Dr. Hiester Richard Hornberger Jr. — an Army Medical Corps surgeon with the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in Korea who would later set up his private practice in Waterville Maine until his retirement in 1988.
Additionally, the city is the birthplace of famed television producer David E. Kelly whose popular shows include “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” “Picket Fences,” “Chicago Hope,” “The Practice,” “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal,” “Boston Public,” “Goliath,” “Big Little Lies,” and “Big Sky.”
Meanwhile, millennials might remember the “Wet Hot American Summer” movie from 2001. It was based in Waterville too.
Seasons & Weather in Waterville
Waterville Maine gets a great dose of all four seasons. But it’s Maine, so you know that winter will be extra. Winters are cold, with average high temperatures ranging from 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit and low temperatures dropping to single digits. Snowfall is significant, with an average of over 60 inches annually, creating a picturesque winter landscape.
Spring brings milder temperatures ranging from 40 to 60 degrees and occasional rainfall. Summers are pleasant, with highs averaging in the 70s to 80s, providing comfortable outdoor conditions. Fall showcases vibrant foliage as temperatures cool from 40 to 60 degrees.
Outdoor Things to Do in Waterville Maine
Like most cities in Maine, Waterville has four seasons of outdoor fun. Because of that, you have the opportunity to experience a plethora of outdoor activities.
Don’t let the name fool you — this isn’t just a series of trails. Quarry Road Trails is a recreation destination with four seasons of fun. In fact, it’s almost more like a ski resort because snow-making machines fill gaps in nature’s winter cycles.
Winter offers skiing from downhill to Nordic style, as well as snowshoeing, fat biking, and cross-country trails. Summer opens up possibilities for hiking, running, mountain biking, and paddling on Messalonskee Stream.
Check the schedule at Head of Falls during your visit because this public space on the Kennec River is a prime gathering spot. The area features walking trails, concerts, festivals, and scenic viewpoints right near the heart of downtown.
NOTE: Mixed-use development will bring even more amenities to this special spot on the river.
On the Colby College Campus, the trail network through the arboretum reaches dense forests. As much as the college uses it for research and the ski team, it’s an outdoor recreation area that’s open to the public. Cross-country skiing and birding are the two most popular activities.
Fort Halifax offers a fascinating history journey and is the country’s oldest blockhouse. The fort played a crucial role as a key military outpost during the colonial era, serving as a defense against Native American and French incursions. Visitors can immerse themselves in the 18th-century replica fort and admire the picturesque Kennebec River.
TRAVEL TIP: If you like Fort Halifax, you’ll LOVE Fort Western in Augusta. That’s just 20 miles from Waterville Maine.
Get a look at Waterville from above when you take a ride with Vacationland Skydiving. With options for beginners to experts, you can even choose to have a video recorded of your jump. They’ll even work with you to make a special event all the more special, like birthdays and gender reveals in the sky.
Indoor Things to Do in Waterville Maine
Waterville is a kaleidoscope of artistic and historical activities, with year-round access and plenty of entertainment for everyone. That’s why it’s also a great spot to find indoor things to do.
The Colby College Museum of Art is a must-see for any visitor to Waterville Maine. New renovations make this collection of over 8,000 works of art, spanning centuries and cultures, even more immersive.
In addition to its permanent collection, the museum hosts a variety of special exhibitions throughout the year. These exhibitions often feature the work of internationally renowned artists. Better yet, the museum is free and open year-round.
You’ll want to schedule a tour of the Waterville Historical Society’s Redington Museum in advance to see more than 200 years of history. The grounds include the museum, which is an 1814 home built by settler Asa Redington, and a garden filled with native plants and flowers.
In addition, you can walk through the LaVerdiere Apothecary (what we call a pharmacy now) and step back in time to see how health issues were treated as far back as 1888 when Waterville Maine was founded.
You might be reading this article because you’re attending Waterville’s annual Maine International Film Festival. The city is home to the Maine Film Center among its artistic accolades. Even just walking into the lobby of the center is a cinematic experience.
Also, you can look at the first-run and popular independent films that stand on their own in a world of blockbusters. Educational classes and group discussions are held throughout the year for budding filmmakers or those who love cinema as well.
The Waterville Opera House is a majestic landmark dating back to 1902. The opera house is the crowned jewel of Waterville Maine, built in the Classic Revival style. It’s still a performing arts venue and community gathering spot for events, offering a mix of familiar titles and new stage ventures.
One of the things that makes the Waterville Opera House special is its commitment to providing an inclusive and accessible space for the community. The venue offers affordable ticket options and regularly hosts events for young audiences and families.
The Children’s Discovery Museum is great for kids of all ages, and it’s yet another recently renovated indoor destination. As of late 2023, new exhibits were being installed, and specific details weren’t available, but you can check the Facebook page for updates to this epic space.
NOTE: The Children’s Discovery Museum is a passion project for the whole community.
Waterville Maine Restaurants for Every Meal
From big breakfasts to late-night delights, you’ll be surprised at the food scene in Waterville. Apologies to my editor in advance for smashing through the word count on this section — this might be the best small foodie town in Kennebec Valley!
Erica’s is the place to be when you want the latest town gossip with a heaping dose of breakfast food. Whether you like Benedicts, burritos, or big stacks of pancakes, this expansive breakfast menu covers all the major morning food groups cooked a dozen different ways.
If you follow the adage, “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere,” don’t miss trying the mimosa flight. And, the lunch menu includes a wide range of selections — from kale salad to jambalaya.
With a tagline of “Brine Your Mine While You Dine on Swine,” how can you resist going hog wild over this Waterville dining institution? The menu runs the gamut from appetizers (including the Acadian-class Poutine) to 14-inch pizzas to burgers with names so creative that you’ll giggle while ordering (looking at you, Big Chubs).
Plus, get more Maine-made beer options than you can sample in one night.
Every line from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” will run through your head as you cherish this slice of Greece in Waterville. The menu is a sophisticated mix of Greek and Mediterranean food, offering large, small, and main plates.
Yep, there’s lamb on the menu, but you can also choose the fresh-caught fish of the day, chicken skewers, or a spectacular steak. And, save room for dessert. We recommend trying the Portokalopita.
The upscale atmosphere at Front & Main makes every meal feel like a special occasion. While the menu isn’t robust, it evolves to follow what’s seasonally available in Maine. All three meals are served here in a place where you don’t have to dress fancy to feel fancy.
As one of the most dog-friendly locations in the state, Front and Main has a Pawtio for dogs with a menu that includes a dog beer. (OK, it’s pork broth, but don’t tell your dog.)
You can drive an hour to the Oyster Capital of the World in Damariscotta or feast on clams at 18 Below. The raw bar brings the heat, too, with seafood, meat, and vegetarian options prepared by a full staff of culinary degree holders.
What stands out here is how much the owner and staff want to provide an excellent meal but also insist on providing a feast for the eyes and an enjoyable dining experience.
This is the spot for Mexican food in Waterville Maine. It’s a community favorite, but you’ll wait in line like the others — no reservations are allowed. The wait is worth it (as are the margaritas), as you’ll get a made-from-scratch meal no matter your choice.
NOTE: The location is outside of downtown but well worth the short drive to River Road.
Places to Stay in Waterville Maine
One thing to remember when looking for a place to stay in Waterville is that the busiest period is spring through fall. Also, as home to two colleges, extra crowds can be expected at the start of each semester or during graduation season. With that in mind, book early.
This is one of the newest hotels in Waterville and makes a statement before you even walk inside. It’s chic but welcoming, and like the Front and Main restaurant noted above, it’s dog-friendly.
It was used for Colby College student housing for the first two years that it was open. As of late 2022, though, guests are welcome to enjoy this 53-room hospitality haven.
You won’t find a more comfortable setting for a budget hotel than at The Elmwood. All rooms are newly renovated, and the hotel is located outside the main downtown corridor, giving you a quieter place to sleep at night.
You’ll be just 1 mile from Colby College, even if it’s just for a morning run through the tree-lined campus. And in the spirit of the dog-friendly Waterville nature, dogs up to 50 pounds are welcome.
As cozy as the name sounds, this bed and breakfast brings you close to Waterville’s amenities with a touch of historic charm. Short and long-term room reservations are available, with a continental breakfast each morning. Guests can use the full kitchen if they want to cook lunch or dinner too.
When you want to get away from the college crowd or enjoy the stunning nature of Maine, this house is just 15 minutes from town but a world away from it all.
Outside, there’s a fenced-in yard for dogs, and China Lake is just a few steps away. Once inside, you’ll enjoy the comforts of a two-bedroom home with a large living room and an old-fashioned fireplace and jukebox.
TIP: One tip for booking a rental home or apartment in Waterville Maine is that many locations rent by the month or semester, and a few have shared bathrooms. If you’re looking for a stay of more than two weeks or a few months, though, you’ll find plenty of options. Be sure to read the fine print as some locations look great but might not suit your needs.
FAQs About Waterville Maine
How far is Waterville Maine from Portland?
Is Waterville Maine worth visiting?
You might have read outdated information about how Waterville Maine is a lackluster town. As noted several times in this article, the town has undergone extensive renovations and revitalization that will be a work in progress for years to come.
With the support of residents, universities, and business owners, the new iteration of Waterville is a wonderful getaway.
Do you need to take the Maine Turnpike to get to Waterville Maine?
The fastest way to get from Portland to Waterville Maine is to use the Maine Turnpike, formally known as I-95. However, the turnpike ends in Augusta, leaving the last 20 miles as a toll-free road. If you’re flying into Bangor, you won’t have to pay a toll to get to Waterville.
Waterville Maine Experiences for All
It’s exciting to see the progress that Waterville Maine is making in its restaurants, shopping, and community spaces. Plus, you get the energy of the college crowd, a thriving arts scene, and long-time Mainers who give you their special brand of hospitality.
The Kennebec River holds many stories, and it’s hard to imagine a place this charming was once a rugged spot on Benedict Arnold’s expedition. While many Maine towns are known for one or two things, Waterville is known for many things and seems to weave them flawlessly into the Kennebec Valley lifestyle.