PORTLAND, Maine - History reigns in Maine's largest city.
Often, Portland is just the launching pad for travel adventures along the state's rugged coast or to its beautiful wooded lakes - a stop along the way to tony destinations such as Bar Harbor or eco-wonders such as Acadia National Park.
Even cruise ships that dock at the historic port bundle their passengers directly to the L.L. Bean mega-outlet in nearby Freeport.
But in a state where tourism is a leading industry (Maine is also the No. 1 exporter of blueberries), Portland might just be its best-kept secret, fully worth a visit all its own and fully worth exploring past the curio shops and tourist-oriented restaurants that line the city's waterfront edge along Commercial Street.
Situated on a peninsula that juts into Casco Bay along Maine's southern coast, Portland boasts a historic urban core rich with fascinating architecture.
Though English colonists settled the area by the 1630s, much of the city's historic architecture is from the Victorian era. That's because in 1866, while the city was celebrating the second Fourth of July after the Civil War, a raging fire destroyed most of Portland's commercial buildings, many of its churches, and countless homes. Remarkably, only two people died during the blaze that left thousands homeless.
One building that did survive the fire was the Portland Observatory. Built in 1807 on Munjoy Hill, east of the city center, by Capt. Lemuel Moody, the octagonal seven-story tower, 86 feet high, served as a communication station for the bustling harbor during the heyday of commercial sailing.
With its bird's-eye views of Casco Bay to the east and the White Mountains and Mount Washington to the west, the observatory has been a tourist destination since it opened. Today, it makes a great first stop for a historic crawl through Portland. Catching views as you climb the steep wooden tower floor by floor, you'll get a sense of the city's unusual coastal topography.
After getting the lay of the land, head 11/2 miles across town to Portland's West End for a self-guided walking tour of one of the best-preserved Victorian neighborhoods in the country.
But first, make sure you've visited the website of the nonprofit organization Greater Portland Landmarks (www.portlandlandmarks.org). The agency offers downloadable maps and guides for four self-guided tours of architectural landmarks, worth collecting before you hit the sidewalks in search of historic buildings. (The group also operates the Portland Observatory.)
With its leafy streets and grand homes, the West End - also called Western Promenade for the main boulevard that defines the neighborhood's western edge - reads like a beautifully illustrated textbook on American Victorian architecture.
After the 1866 fire, Portland's prosperous citizens - whose fortunes were typically fueled by the shipping industry - began rapidly building homes in the then-underdeveloped section of the city. Almost overnight, some of America's best residential architects designed West End homes.
Today, most are private residences (a few bed-and-breakfasts dot the neighborhood) and are not open for tours. But with 37 homes marked on the Portland Landmarks tour map, it's worth taking a leisurely summertime stroll through the reasonably compact neighborhood to see the architectural styles.
From dramatic High Victorian Gothic to the eclectic, asymmetrical Queen Anne style; from the nostalgia-fueled Stick Style characterized by simple shingles and shakes to the cubical Italianate villas topped with a central cupola, the houses of the West End are wonderfully preserved examples.
Still can't get enough Victorian architecture? In Portland, you can sleep in it.
The Inn at St. John, built in 1897 as accommodations for train passengers passing through Union Station (it was demolished in 1964), boasts of being the city's oldest continuously operating Victorian hotel.
Steep, narrow staircases - no elevator - demonstrate the lack of modern convenience and erase any fantasies of true Victorian-era living. But the comfortable rooms with period architectural detail are an affordable option in a tourist-oriented city where hotels can get pricey.
Yes, it's fun to fantasize about life in Victorian times - especially with the modern comforts of air-conditioning and wireless Internet access.
138 Congress St. The nation's only known remaining historic maritime signal tower. By guided tour only. Tours last about 45 minutes and start about every 30 minutes. 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, through Columbus Day. $5-$8. www.portlandlandmarks.org.
Historic walking tours. The Greater Portland Landmarks preservation organization offers seasonal guided walking tours of historic architectural sites and neighborhoods and also offers materials for several interesting self-guided tours, including one of the Victorian homes of the West End neighborhood. Maps and guides can be downloaded at www.portlandlandmarks.org.
Inn at St. John
939 Congress St.
This historic Victorian inn offers 39 distinctive guest rooms, some with private bath, some with shared bath. Free breakfast, WiFi and parking, and a quirky sense of history add to its attractiveness as a reasonably priced option. Rates: $55-$199.
Good, funky eats
43 Middle St.
This itty bitty sandwichery with a vibe that's hip yet friendly might just have the best fries in the world. That's because they fix them Belgian style - fried in duck fat and served in a cone.
You can order a panini or get the duck confit salad with a side of fries. But why not celebrate saturated fat at its finest and order the poutine, the French Canadian guilty pleasure: a bowl of fries smothered in duck gravy.
Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland