The area known today as Augusta has been home to generations of people for thousands of years. Long before Europeans landed on the shores of the Kennebec River, the Wabanaki, an Algonquian-speaking tribe, had settled in the area. Europeans arrived in the early 17th century, but it was a few more decades before they settled in the area on a more permanent basis. The river proved to be a good port for a trading post.
Over the years, it was called many things including Harrington, but the name Augusta was adopted June 9, 1797, and two years later it became the shiretown for Kennebec County. In 1827, Augusta became Maine’s second state capital (Portland was first).
Augusta didn’t become a city until 1849, and though it still remains one, it is a small city by population standards. According to the 2010 Census (the census is done every 10 years — so this is a Census year), it was home to 19,138 people. Census estimates indicate the population has likely dropped by about 2.4 percent since then.
Home to the Augusta Civic Center, the Maine State Capital and more, and located centrally between Portland and Bangor, you might just find yourself in this city on a river. And when you do, here’s what you should do.
Located near the Maine State House, the Maine State Museum (230 State St.) is a window into the history of the area that became the 23rd state. It’s one of the oldest state-funded museums in the nation and features displays marking the area’s history dating back 12,000 years from native history to industrialization to the modern day. Plan to spend at least several hours here, exploring the massive array of exhibits.
On your way out of the museum, do pause and check out the Maine Labor History Mural in the lobby. The 11-panel mural that once was displayed at the Department of Labor (its removal was a big controversy, but it eventually was installed at the museum) depicts scenes from the history of labor in Maine.
Interactive exhibits and activities await at the Children’s Discovery Museum (171 Capital St. #2), a fun-filled place of learning, perfect for families with younger kids.
While only open seasonally, you can peek at Old Fort Western from the outside of the fence in the off-season, taking note of the centuries-old architecture. And while you are there, take a look at the nearby Museum in the Streets stops including the Cushnoc Trading Post, Gunshots Reverberate on the Kennebec and Sousa the Nonpareil. There’s also one for Old Fort Western. Additional stops around the city reveal the history and heritage of Augusta.
Interested in outdoor activities while you are in Augusta this winter? Head to Viles Arboretum (153 Hospital St.) for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing on groomed trails. No snow? Then head out for a hike on the many trails traversing the property. Be sure to bundle up though — this is a Maine winter, after all.
Another option for outdoor recreation is the 6.1-mile Kennebec River Rail Trail, which links Augusta with surrounding towns. It’s plowed of snow in the winter but isn’t sanded, so be sure that you are prepared for winter conditions. Motorized vehicles are prohibited.
Eat & drink
Start your day with a hearty breakfast. Located in a former shoe store, the Downtown Diner (204 Water St.) is a friendly place serving breakfast and lunch. I like to sit in the window with a steaming cup of coffee, a made-to-order breakfast (try the French toast made with the Downtown Diner’s housemade Texas toast) and a good book. But the menu includes a variety of diner classics from pancakes and omelets to biscuits and gravy. With both counter service and tables, this inexpensive dining spot is worth a stop.
Feeling like something a little simpler (or grab and go)? Then head over to Bagel Mainea (190 Western Ave.) for some sublime New York-style bagels. They serve a variety of cream cheeses, breakfast sandwiches and, yes, they have lox on the menu too. Bagel Mainea also serves sandwiches and soups at lunchtime. And while you’re at it, why not bring some bagels home too?
If you are just looking for coffee, try Huiskamer Coffee House (216 Water St.). This Dutch-inspired coffee house specializes in espresso and coffee drinks, and has snacks and pastries available. They also host open mic nights and have art shows, too.
For lunch or dinner, the industrial-chic Cushnoc Brewery (243 Water St.) is a good option in downtown Augusta. This brewery and wood fired pizza pub has a menu that features an array of creative salads, snacks and pizzas.
Perhaps my favorite find in this small capital is one I nearly didn’t even find. Red Curry (179 Mt. Vernon Ave.) is an Asian restaurant located in a strip mall — but do not let that deter you. They serve Thai, Korean and Japanese cuisine. I was happy to find a delightful bi bim bap bowl in a hot stone pot on the menu (and even more delighted to enjoy it so much). Other diners went for the curries and the pho on the menu. It seems there is something for everyone (even sushi). Try it. It’s pretty darn good.
There are many more options in Augusta, too. Downtown is also home to Otto’s on the River (pasta, seafood), Riverfront Barbecue & Grill (barbecue) and Lisa’s Legit Burritos, among others. You’ll also find a variety of chain restaurants in Augusta including IHOP, Olive Garden and Panera Bread, all in or nearby the Marketplace at Augusta.
Many national stores — Pier One, Barnes & Noble, Eddie Bauer, The Paper Store and ULTA Beauty, to name just a few, have outposts at the Marketplace at Augusta (197 Civic Center Drive). If you have just a little bit of time for shopping and eating, this can be a good one-stop shop.
But there’s much more to Augusta shopping than that. For game enthusiasts, Game On (198 Western Ave. #6) carries an array of tabletop games and supplies. Merkaba Soul (153 Water St.) is a must-stop for metaphysics enthusiasts. Plus there are antique stores like Jellison Traders (359 Riverside Drive), full of antiques, collectables and vintage goods.
Spending the night? For a luxury option, ideal for one or two people looking for an elegant experience with a chance of pampering, the Senator Inn and Spa (284 Western Ave.) is the place to go. The hotel features a full-service spa, fitness facilities and more.
For family-friendly lodging, there are many, many options conveniently located near the highway, Augusta Civic Center and other locations including the Hampton Inn (388 Western Ave.), Homewood Suites by Hilton Augusta (377 Western Ave.) and Quality Inn & Suites Evergreen (65 Whitten Road).
The food. Augusta’s array of locally owned restaurants and eateries is worth exploring. Red Curry is my top pick, but my little New Yorker heart also adores Bagel Mainea.
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s January/February 2020 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.