May 26, 2024
6 Top-Rated Newport Mansion Tours + Tips from a Local

6 Top-Rated Newport Mansion Tours + Tips from a Local

More than a century ago, America’s wealthiest families commissioned their “summer cottages” to be built in the coastal enclave of Newport, Rhode Island, along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The era’s most renowned architects outdid one another in size and scale as well as opulence and grandeur. Today, Newport is synonymous with its exquisite Gilded Age mansions, and experiencing them in person is an absolute must.

The majority of the Gilded Age mansions in Newport – but not all – are owned and operated by the Preservation Society of Newport County, and many of the most popular are open to the public year-round. Get ready to explore the Bellevue Avenue Historic District as you tour Newport’s best mansions.

The Breakers

Interior of a room in The Breakers that features a piano, chandeliers, intricate curtains and more.

Courtesy of Andrea McHugh

Price: Adults from $29; kids from $10

Standout perk: The Breakers offers an audio Family Tour that engages young visitors with stories about the lives of the children who summered there, the staff who ran the home and interesting things to see in the mansion, such as the playful dolphin sculpture beneath the grand staircase.

Considered the grande dame of all the Newport mansions, The Breakers was no doubt built to impress. The summertime escape of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and his family was designed by the Gilded Age’s preeminent architect, Richard Morris Hunt, and boasts a classic Italian palazzo design with panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean.

Visitors can explore the mansion at their own pace via the self-guided audio tour available in nearly a dozen languages (some are transcripts only) on the Newport Mansions free app, which will come in especially handy if you plan to explore more than one mansion. Take some time to explore the beauty of the 13-acre grounds as well, and be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes.

Those with a curiosity of how a mansion of this magnitude worked – after all, The Breakers was considered a modern marvel when completed in 1895 – will enjoy the Beneath The Breakers Tour. This guide-led tour takes you through the boiler room, tunnel and basement. Guests will learn how the home was outfitted with electricity, still considered a novelty during the Gilded Age. This tour requires a separate ticket from The Breakers’ audio tour and is best suited for visitors 13 years and older. Advance reservations are recommended.

Local tip: As The Breakers is the most visited mansion in Newport, a good time to visit is either when it opens or toward the end of the day, especially in the busiest summer months. The early evening light can be ideal for photos, but plan accordingly as the house and grounds close one hour after the last tour admission. Before you visit, save time by downloading the free Newport Mansions tour app.

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Marble House

Interior of a bedroom in Marble House that features a large rug, detailed wallpaper and more.

Courtesy of Andrea McHugh

Price: Adults from $25; kids from $10

Standout perk: While it’s hard to rival the splendor of Marble House, the Chinese Tea House on the end of the mansion’s lawn parallel to Cliff Walk is an unexpected visual delight. For an additional fee, Marble House visitors can enjoy sandwiches and refreshments at the cafe at the Chinese Tea House or make a reservation for brunch and afternoon tea service, offered on weekends May through December. The service is operated by Stoneacre Restaurants, which owns two popular restaurants in downtown Newport.

From the moment visitors walk under the four towering Corinthian columns fronting this mansion, they know they are in for a treat. Like other Newport Mansions audio tours, Marble House has a self-guided tour available via the organization’s free app, allowing visitors to peruse the property at their own pace.

Inspired by the Petit Trianon at Versailles, Marble House is an architectural masterpiece. Made from 500,000 cubic feet of marble, the mansion was a 39th birthday present from businessman and philanthropist William K. Vanderbilt to his wife Alva. He spared no expense for their summer escape. Later in life, Alva Vanderbilt Belmont became a suffragist and hosted events at Marble House in support of women’s right to vote. Viewers of the popular HBO series “The Gilded Age” may recognize rooms in the mansion as it was used for filming and also inspired sets.

Local tip: Don’t miss the ballroom on the first floor – while it’s not the largest in Newport, it’s widely considered the most ornate, with gilt details from floor to ceiling.

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The Elms

Interior of a room in The Elms that features chairs and tables, high ceilings, statues and more.

Gavin Ashworth|Courtesy of Newport Mansions

Price: Adults from $25; kids from $10

Standout perk: While The Elms is spectacular, its formal gardens – 10 acres’ worth – are extraordinary, complete with nearly 40 species of trees plus terraces, gazebos, fountains and colorful blooms, depending on the time of year.

Fashioned after an 18th-century French chateau, The Elms is a must-visit mansion, from the sun-soaked conservatory and the drawing room to the handsome library and the breakfast room bearing Chinese-style lacquered wall panels. A self-guided audio tour is available in nearly a dozen languages, but any fan of “Downton Abbey” or those curious about life behind the scenes of Newport’s mansions will appreciate the Servant Life Tour at The Elms.

On this newly updated, guide-led tour, visitors start in the basement, where you’ll see the operations of the house such as the kitchen and butler’s pantry, all the way up to the domestic staff’s living quarters on the third floor. Along the way, travelers will learn more about the personal lives of staff, and see rare photographs of servants at work and in their free time. You’ll even get to learn about topics like immigration and labor disputes on this tour.

Local tip: The Servant Life Tour is not only fascinating, but you’ll get the rare opportunity to go on The Elms’ rooftop and be rewarded with an amazing and unexpected view of Newport Harbor.

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Rough Point

Interior of a room in Rough Point that features large, arched windows with stunning views.

Courtesy of Andrea McHugh

Price: Adults from $20; free for children 12 and younger

Standout perk: Rough Point sits at the southern end of Bellevue Avenue, so getting here allows you to enjoy views of both private mansions and those open to the public along the way. The mansion’s oceanfront perch offers an uninterrupted view of the beautiful Cliff Walk Bridge, a stone arch bridge across the rocky inlet where Doris Duke would swim regularly.

Though a Gilded Age mansion through and through, Rough Point is perhaps best loved not for its grandeur but for its most famous resident: Doris Duke. The late heiress, collector and philanthropist – dubbed the “richest little girl in the world” when she was born – spent considerable time at Rough Point until her death in 1993. A self-guided audio tour leads visitors here through the art-filled home room by room, highlighting eclectic sculpture, family portraits, centuries-old tapestries, renowned furnishings and many pieces Duke collected as an avid world traveler.

While the formal rooms such as the Yellow Room and jaw-dropping Music Room are a sight, the ocean-facing Solarium affords the best views. Whether before or after your tour, visit the house tour on the website for photos and talks of Doris Duke at the home. Note that Rough Point is typically open seasonally from spring through mid-November.

Local tip: On Rough Point’s grounds, you’ll find a pair of life-size topiary camels inspired by Doris’ pet Bactrian camels, Princess and Baby. Both enjoyed the summer months with the tobacco heiress at Rough Point and have become the unofficial mascots of the mansion. The Newport Restoration Foundation encourages taking a #camelgram photo with the Princess and Baby topiary to share on social media.

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Rosecliff

Illuminated exterior of Rosecliff in the evening.

Dave Hansen|Courtesy of Newport Mansions

Price: Adults from $25; kids from $10

Standout perk: Rosecliff’s signature feature – despite being home to Newport’s largest ballroom, which hosted lavish society events throughout the Gilded Age – is its celebrated heart-shaped grand staircase.

Following a multimillion-dollar renovation, Rosecliff resumed tours in September 2023, much to the delight of Newport’s visitors. Architect Stanford White, who was the mastermind behind Newport’s historic Casino Theatre and myriad other important buildings, modeled the mansion after the Grand Trianon at Versailles for silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs. Its European influence is felt throughout.

Explore the mansion at your own pace via the self-guided audio tour on the free Newport Mansions app. Don’t forget to look up in the ballroom, where the trompe l’oeil ceiling creates an air of whimsy and romance, making it the ideal setting for the filming parts of “The Great Gatsby” with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, as well as the more recent “27 Dresses.”

Local tip: Rosecliff hosts many amazing events, including the annual Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival held in September, which features dinners, events and seminars with wines and other libations from around the world.

Note: Rosecliff will have free admission in July and August 2024 as the second floor will be closed to the public during this time.

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Chateau-sur-Mer

Interior of the dining room in Chateau-sur-Mer featuring a painting ceiling.

Gavin Ashworth|Courtesy of Newport Mansions

Price: Adults from $25; kids from $10

Standout perk: An audio tour is your guide to this National Historic Landmark, considered Newport’s first true mansion. Learn about the lives of the Wetmore family members who lived there for more than a century.

Until the arrival of the Vanderbilt houses in Newport in the 1890s, Chateau-sur-Mer was considered the seaside city’s most palatial residence. Today, visitors can explore the home, an Italianate-style villa built for wealthy China trade merchant William Shepard Wetmore, who did quite a bit of entertaining at this summer cottage.

Local tip: While Chateau-sur-Mer is essentially a Victorian Era time capsule, the mansion’s grounds are home to amazing tree specimens, shrubs and more, including a striking weeping beech tree. If you explore deeper into the grounds, you’ll find a cool circular maze made from mounds of grass; this earthwork by artist Richard Fleischner is known as the “Sod Maze” and makes for a relaxing place to meditate.

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What to do nearby

In addition to the historic mansions, Newport offers a variety of historic attractions, walking trails and museums. To help you fully explore the area, here are some recommendations for things to see and where to eat.

Things to do:

  • Wander along the Cliff Walk
  • Visit the International Tennis Hall of Fame
  • Explore the historic Fort Adams
  • Discover automotive history at Audrain Automobile Museum
  • Explore The Sailing Museum
  • Visit the Redwood Library and Athenæum
  • Discover the oldest synagogue in the U.S.
  • Browse the private collection at the Newport Car Museum

Nearby restaurant recommendations: 

  • Breakfast: Annie’s or Corner Cafe
  • Lunch: Cru Cafe, Belle’s Café or The Mooring Seafood Kitchen & Bar
  • Dinner: White Horse Tavern, Clarke Cooke House or Castle Hill Inn
  • Drinks: Midtown Oyster Bar, The Roofdeck at the Vanderbilt or The Living Room at The Chanler

Frequently Asked Questions

You will need to pay for entry to many of the Newport Mansions. However, driving or walking by is free.

Yes. Driving is one way to get from one mansion to another. You can also choose to take a self-drive tour to see the different mansions and learn about area history.

Why Trust U.S. News Travel 

Andrea McHugh is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Newport, Rhode Island, where the famed mansions of the Gilded Age are common sights along her daily run in the City by the Sea. Though she regularly visits the mansions as they play host to local business and social events, such as the Newport Mansions Wine & Food Festival, Newport Classical Music Festival and Newport Film, she spent a recent “staycation” touring these turn-of-the-century behemoths to write this article.

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