Newport is first and foremost about impressive monuments of the Gilded Age – the mansions of the rich and famous that were built in XIX-early XX centuries.
Breakers ♥♥♥ is the most luxurious and opulent one. If you only go and see one mansion, you probably have to pick it over any others. The audioguide system is shared across all mansions managed by the local Preservation Society, and at Breakers, the structure of the guide is excellent and enlightening.
Elms ♥♥♥ is less opulent but still impressive. It has the best grounds of all mansions, even though it is not on the shore and does not have a sea view. Consider paying extra for the Servant Life tour, which is worth the fee and the need to reserve in advance: you get to see simpler things on this tour and you gain a different perspective on the workings of the mansion; plus, they take you to the roof for a sweeping view.
Marble House ♥♥ vies with the Breakers for being the most ostentatious, but is mostly luxurious on the first floor, not so much upstairs. The audioguide commentary expends a lot of time on Alva Vanderbilt, both illuminating and somewhat drawn-out. The Chinese Tea House, set by the shore on the mansion’s grounds, is a glorified snack bar, not to be confused with a place to get proper lunch.
Rosecliff ♥ is not as impressive as others and not as well furnished, but it has several bright expansive rooms. Since it can be rented for a special occasion, you can sort of try it on for size during your visit. The audioguide narration gets a bit confusing at this mansion and provides way too much random trivia only loosely connected to the house.
Chateau-sur-Mer ♥♥ gets less tourist traffic because it is a Victorian mansion (slightly pre-dating the Gilded Age sensibilities), darker and not as regal on the inside. It is full of impressive period furniture and clatter, appearing somewhat most lived-in of all the major mansions. The exterior look is that of a gorgeous proper chateau. There is no audioguide; the guided tour feels a bit rushed at times.
Visiting many houses one after another makes them blend with each other eventually, so you would be well served to find a constrained measure of exploring these attractions. We skipped Kingscote, for instance. The Preservation Society has a bunch of lesser houses (open only during the summer season) which could be visited by the most insatiable. There are also a couple of mansions that do not belong to the Society but can also be visited.
Ocean Drive, despite often being considered the top attraction in Newport is actually somewhat underwhelming. It is a nice few miles drive along the coast, but it does not have that many good stops to observe coastal scenery and provides very little in terms of glimpses of the great houses. Nonetheless, a diversion for those so inclined.
Cliff Walk ♥♥, conversely, is a great path along the cliffs’ edge behind the mansions, with views of great properties on side one side and the sea down below on the other.
Other attractions in Newport include a couple of minor museums, as well as Fort Adams. There is also the International Tennis Hall of Fame Museum. You can diversify from mansion visits at the lively commercial area that stretches from the Brick Marketplace through the wharves and onto Thames Street. It is full of fun shops and galleries.
In a popular tourist location such as this, there are many good dining options. Worthy of specific recommendations are: The Mooring (by the marina in the central wharf area), one of the most popular seafood eateries; Zelda’s Newport (on Thames St a block away from the wharves), which can be quite loud in peak times, but serves fantastic American menu; or Black Pearl (on Bannister’s Wharf), another super-popular place that serves possibly the best clam chowder anywhere, along with other hearty choices.