Exploring Newport, Rhode Island’s Famed Mansions

A recent visit to Newport, Rhode Island, allowed ample time to tour the city’s famed Gilded Age mansions, palatial summer “cottages” once owned by robber barons and business titans with names like Astor and Vanderbilt.

I couldn’t get enough of the historic homes – perhaps the product of one too many childhood Saturday mornings spent watching “America’s Castles” and dreaming of what it would be like to live there.

That said, the homes were both a joy and a disappointment to visit. Although grand and beautiful from the outside, the stories of decay and disrepair after these homes stopped being used as primary summer residences was quite sad to see. A number of the homes, like The Elms and Rosecliff, were abandoned entirely, the contents either sold at auction or left to decay. It was only after the Preservation Society acquired these homes that many were restored to their original splendor. Only The Breakers truly remains a testament to the past, featuring most of the original furnishings and very few signs of disrepair. That said, even non-museum lovers will enjoy marveling at the sheer wealth and splendor as they imagine the homes as they must have been during the Gilded Age of Newport in the 1920s and 1930s.

Planning a visit? Here are my top tips:How to Purchase Tickets:
The quaint New England town makes touring these famed homes exceptionally simple, offering a variety of visitor’s pass options both online and at any of the mansions themselves. Passes are not timed, good for a year from date of purchase, and include access to a mansion of your choosing for around $13, two mansions (usually The Breakers and one other) for $20 and five of your choosing for $30 per person.

Entry is simple – walk in, scan your pass, grab an audio headset (available at select properties) and start walking. A well-narrated audio tour offers a half-hour tromp through some of the more famous homes – The Breakers, The Elms, Rosecliff and Marble House – and special “exhibits” on the audio tour add additional insight about life in the Gilded Age, the architects and interior designers behind the homes’ developments, or about the artifacts themselves, some of which are native to the homes and others of which have been brought in, museum-style, as rotating exhibits or indicators of traditional period pieces.

Extras Worth Enjoying:
Try the special “Servant’s Life” tour at The Elms, which gives you an insider’s glimpse into life “below stairs” or take kids to The Breakers, the only mansion to offer a special kids tour.

Money Saving Tip:
If you really want to see the mansions but skip paying fees, you can stroll the famed Cliff Walk and get a glimpse into the grounds – you can walk into each of the lawns and around the gardens without paying admission.

Know Before You Go:

  • Strollers and carriages are not allowed.
  • Wheelchair access is limited to select properties.
  • As with any museum or exhibit, visit early on in the day or on weekdays to avoid a crowd.
  • Photography is not permitted inside any of the homes, but you can photograph the gardens and grounds all you’d like.
  • There are stairs inside each home, so bring comfortable shoes and be prepared for a lot of walking.
  • Parking is free, but it is possible to walk between many of the properties if you choose.
  • The homes are all open during the summer, but only select properties are available in the off-season.
  • Not all homes are available for viewing in the multi-pass packs.