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Why Downtown Bath, Maine is one of New England's Best Small City Destinations

Downtown Bath MaineDowntown Bath, Maine. Photo credit: VisitBath.com

by Eric Hurwitz. Page updated on 11/11/16

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The feeling of walking down Front and Centre Streets, in downtown Bath, Maine, serves as a joyful reminder of what downtowns used to look like before they closed down and became downtrodden, or, in the name of progress, transformed into generic, cookie-cutter destinations with chain stores and restaurants.

Bath, on the other hand, looks like a coastal "It's a Wonderful Life"- type community with incredibly strong-looking, well-preserved, 19th century brick buildings, as well as period street lighting, and brick sidewalks to stroll the peaceful friendly small-city center.  Bath, a truly underrated Maine travel destination, really seems more like a charming small-town than a city, which is validated by its just-over 9,000 population. Additionally, with its presence on the Kennebec River, Bath offers travelers and residents pleasant scenery -- the type of water views that helps make Mid-Coast Maine so special.

In Bath -- known as the "City of Ships" for its maritime culture -- you'll find shops and restaurants that belong to only Bath, yet have a familiar ring from another era -- perhaps this is what it was like strolling a downtown in the 1930s or 1940s. For starters, there's Reny's Department Store  (86 Front St.) that sells just about everything at discount prices, the independently-owned Wilson's Drug Store (114 Front St.), the Bath Book Shop (96 Front St.) carrying over 15,000 books, Cafe Creme (56 Front St.) for that small town coffee shop vibe, Island Treasure Toys (82 Front St.) offering a wonderful locally owned and operated toy shop experience, Dot's Ice Cream Shop (160 Front. St.), and many antique shops, boutiques and galleries. The list of one-of-a-kind stores goes on and on, reflective of the way Bath has thrived through the years by refusing to give in to economic adversity, or big money taking away its personality. Perhaps this is why Bath has been named "one of the best small cities" and the National Trust for Historic Preservation honored Bath in 2005 as one of as a "Dozen Distinctive Destinations." Most recently, downtown Bath finished 29th in the Best Choice Reviews 50 Best Small Downtowns in America article.  Bath is truly one great walking town with many interesting stops along the way.

Bath also offers several fine restaurants in its downtown district. The pleasant employee at Reny's had recommended as a first-stop J.R. Maxwell's (122 Front St.), just a few doors down. A perfectly restored 1840 former hotel, Maxwell's, with its high ceilings and handsome brick and wood look, serves a wide variety of seafood, steak and chicken dishes at very reasonable prices.  I had a crab melt with swiss cheese that was out-of-this-world, along with a mixed greens salad with a great vinaigrette dressing. The most impressive thing about Maxwell's, however, goes well beyond its excellent food: you get a sense of history and community pride eating in the presence of a historical building. If it were another city, Maxwell's might have been "sent out to sea" in the form of an empty storefront, or seedy bar.  Here, in Bath, Maxwell's resonates with a vibrancy as strong as its community.

While Bath is more a "real town" than a popular touristy vacation destination, the small city does offer several lodging opportunities -- many of great historic charm -- including the  Galen C. Moses House (1009 Washington St.), Benjamin F Packard House (45 Pearl St.) and the Kismet Inn (44 Summer St.).

Like most vibrant communities, Bath also has its share of year-round events with the most prominent being the Bath Heritage Days, which is held July 2-5 each year. The event features fireworks, Maine's largest parade, outdoor concerts, an art show and much more. Additionally, cultural and entertainment venues are on the rise, as evidenced, for starters, by the Chocolate Church Arts Center (804 Washington St.) with its plays and concerts, and Front Street Public House (102 Front St.) frequently offering live music.

The foundation for Bath's community success is simple: hold onto a proud past, celebrate a continuous renaissance, and look forward to a bright future. Bath Iron Works, founded in 1884 as a shipbuilding complex, sails on proudly today as part of General Dynamics with a mission to design, build and support complex surface combatants for the U.S. Navy. The Maine Maritime Museum (243 Washington St., Tel. 207-443-1316), located on the Kennebec River, celebrates Maine's maritime heritage and culture and is generally regarded as one of the best maritime museums in the world. Then, there are the spectacular coastal homes on tree-lined streets that remind us that Bath is strong and should remain that way for years to come. After all, neighborhoods, a thriving downtown, and a powerful industrial base have been the catalysts to keeping our eastern seaboard communities alive since the Industrial Revolution.

For more information on Bath, log onto VisitBath.

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