The mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, once served as summer “cottages” for the wealthy. Families came to escape life in the big city for six weeks of the year in Newport. They carried last names such as Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Astor. In the late 1800s, sometimes called the Gilded Age, they poured their money into lovely homes on rolling green hills next to the ocean. Today, you can marvel at the opulence, imagine the extravagant parties that were hosted here, and dream about days filled with sailing on yachts and playing tennis.
Tours of the mansions cover many aspects of life and appeal to a wide range of interests. You’ll learn about decorative arts, architecture, gardens and landscapes, family history, and what daily life was like for the servants. Events and lectures will enrich your visit, too.
The prime time to tour the Newport mansions is between May and October. Some are open year-round, and some are open only on weekends. Check the websites for the different mansions to plan your visit. The Preservation Society of Newport County, which oversees all of the homes, allows you to buy tickets in advance and learn more about the different options.
When you arrive in Newport, stop in at the visitor center at The Breakers to pick up more information or tickets. You can grab a bite to eat there, too. Buses leave for the other mansions every 20 minutes. Allow at least an hour to an hour and a half to tour each mansion.
Some mansions are so large you wonder how the family kept from getting lost inside. Others are included in the group of “mansions,” but they are actually more modest historic homes. Try to include both larger and smaller homes in your tour plans.
Read on to find out more about the amazing mansions of Newport.
1. The Breakers
The Breakers is the grandest and best known of the mansions. If you have a limited amount of time to spend in Newport, this one should top your list. Built on 13 acres of a bluff above the Atlantic Ocean, this 70-room home was named for the waves that crash on the rocks below.
The Breakers is a prime picture of the extravagance of the Gilded Age. No expense was spared as the Vanderbilt family spent money earned from the thriving New York Central Railroad. The Italian Renaissance decor is luxurious, with rare marble and alabaster, along with gilded woods, throughout. The mansion includes a Great Hall with a 45-foot-high ceiling and a Morning Room with platinum leaf wall panels. The latest technology went into the modern plumbing and the elevator.
A fun part of your visit will be hearing the voices of The Breakers with the audio tour. Family members and staff “talk” to you as you move through the home. And you can enjoy finding fanciful touches such as the dolphin hiding under the grand staircase and the dining room dragons.
The basement is also open to the public. Here you'll learn about the wonders of the heating and cooling system and other cutting-edge inventions of the time.
Hungry? The Garden Cafe is open for lunch or a snack.
2. The Elms
This summer retreat of coal magnate Edward Berwind was modeled on a French-style chateau. A large art collection decorates the walls and includes Venetian paintings, tapestries, and Chinese lacquer panels. The Elms boasted the latest technology when it was finished in 1901. It was one of the first houses in Newport to use electricity.
The Elms “below stairs” is the focus of the Servant Life Tour. More than 40 men and women worked hard to provide the upstairs residents their lavish lifestyle. On the tour, you’ll learn about the lives of the butler, cooks, and maids.
The option to go upstairs from the main floor takes you to the servant living quarters and a rooftop view of Newport. Be prepared to climb stairs for both the downstairs and upstairs tours.
A sunken garden features flower beds with pink begonias, clipped hedges, trees, fountains, and marble pavilions.
3. Marble House
This mansion was inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles. Commissioned by the Vanderbilts in 1892, the house contains 500,000 cubic feet of American, Italian, and African marble. William Vanderbilt gave the deed to the house to his wife, Alva, as a 39th birthday present.
The notable history of the Marble House includes Alva’s “Votes for Women” rallies that she hosted on the back lawn. The audio tour lets you hear the words of Alva, her daughter Consuelo, and many others as they championed this cause.
A colorful Chinese tea house overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on the grounds of the Marble House. Relax here with a snack or lunch and take in the sweeping views.
The romance of the Gilded Age lives on at Rosecliff, a lovely baroque-style mansion overlooking the Atlantic and surrounded by 20 acres of lawn and gardens. Movies filmed here include The Great Gatsby, True Lies, Amistad, and 27 Dresses. Rosecliff also hosts the popular Newport Flower Show every spring.
The audio tour includes the stories of those who lived here and partied in the gardens. From the time Rosecliff opened in 1902 to the present, it’s been a choice location for everything from business events to wedding receptions.
Notable features of the house are the immense ballroom where Arnold Schwarzenegger tangoed with Tia Carrere in True Lies and the beautiful limestone sweetheart’s staircase.
5. Hunter House
Enter the Hunter House and step back into colonial times. Built before the American Revolution, this was the home of a wealthy merchant and ship owner, and it served as the Revolutionary War headquarters of the French Navy.
Furnished with colonial furniture, the house is smaller than the more imposing mansions and will give you a glimpse into everyday life in Newport. You’ll see paintings by artists such as Gilbert Stuart, and there’s a notable collection of Newport pewter.
This is the house that prompted the formation of the Preservation Society of Newport County. In 1945, concerned local residents feared that the Hunter House would be sold or dismantled by someone who didn’t appreciate its history. So the society was formed and immediately set to work collecting colonial-era art and artifacts as the house was restored. The society continues to expand and preserve more mansions.
6. Isaac Bell House
The Isaac Bell House, built in 1883 for a wealthy cotton broker, is fascinating for its architecture. Using a mix of English, continental European, colonial American, and Japanese styles, the builders experimented with design. The result is an intriguing, many-shingled house with bamboo-style columns and an open floor plan.
Check the website for seasonal opening hours.
With original rooms from 1841, Kingscote shows off rare furniture, silver collections, and Chinese decorative arts. Built in 1839 for a Georgia planter, this Gothic Revival house was abandoned during the Civil War and later occupied by the King family. The dining room added in 1881 includes the earliest known Tiffany glass decor.
Check the website for seasonal opening hours.
What To Know Before You Go
All of these mansions are run by the Preservation Society of Newport County. Hours and days for touring vary and may change with the seasons. Check the information for each house you want to visit before you map out your itinerary.
A package that includes a tour of The Breakers, Marble House, and The Elms will save you some money.
The Breakers and Rosecliff offer full wheelchair access. Marble House and The Elms provide partial wheelchair access.
The mansions of Newport welcome you to explore and step back in time as you immerse yourself in the architecture and the treasures of each home. Listen for echoes of those who once glided down the majestic staircases. Delve into the everyday lives of the servants. Amble on the lawns overlooking the ocean. Walk through the formal gardens. Whether you have time for one or several of the homes, you’re sure to come away impressed.
For more to see and do in Newport, see this page.