Portland, Maine's largest city and its cultural and commercial center, is the hub of Cumberland County, the state's most populous region. Including its suburbs - which range from Scarborough in the south to Freeport in the north, and North Windham in the northwest, Portland is the largest metropolitan area north of Boston, expanding outward every year. But Cumberland County still has nearly as many rural residents as it does city dwellers.
Founded in 1632, Portland has several historic neighborhoods and a number of buildings of architectural interest. Many of these are congregated in the city's West End, in the neighborhoods near Maine Medical Center, the state's largest hospital. Congress Street anchors the city's downtown, running from one end of the L-shaped peninsula in Casco Bay to the other. It begins on Munjoy Hill in a residential area near the Eastern Promenade, where there is a park and beautiful views of the bay, and descends to become a commercial and retail district downtown. Congress Street has enjoyed a bit of a boost lately thanks to some new stores, new restaurants, and the continued prosperity of many arts establishments located here. Portland City Hall, home of Merrill Auditorium and the Portland Symphony Orchestra, sits at one end of the city's official Arts District, and the Portland Museum of Art anchors the other. Only a few blocks separate the downtown from the Old Port, a historic waterfront quarter with boutiques and specialty shops, restaurants, and nightclubs, which is popular with tourists and Mainers alike. Ferries leaving Portland's waterfront provide access to the Calendar Islands in Casco Bay, which have a number of summer homes and many year-round residents, and a huge ocean-going vessel departs regularly from Portland for Nova Scotia.
The cities that border Portland - South Portland and Westbrook are Cumberland County's second and third-largest urban areas, the former known for its ever-growing shopping mall (the largest north of Boston), its bustling commercial port, and its family-friendly neighborhoods, the latter for its imposing paper mill and comfortable new subdivisions. Beyond them are Gorham, a commuter town and home of a campus of the University of Southern Maine, and Scarborough, which claims the state's largest saltwater marsh, a wildlife sanctuary beloved by birders, and has some of Greater Portland's nicest stretches of beach. Beyond South Portland is craggy Cape Elizabeth, which, like Falmouth Foreside to the north, is full of beautiful homes on the water and is where many of the city's top-level executives opt to live.
Unlike larger cities, Portland offers easy access to green countryside and open space. Within a twenty-minute drive of the city, Cumberland, Pownal, and North Yarmouth have few businesses and large rural tracts, though they have seen building booms in the past decade. Gray, with its neat downtown, and New Gloucester, with its historic Shaker colony at Sabbathday Lake, have agricultural traditions that continue to this day.
North of Portland, Yarmouth is a pleasant waterfront community with a pretty downtown and frontage on the Royal River. Better known is the shopping mecca of Freeport, home of L.L. Bean and the blocks of factory outlet stores that surround it. Brunswick, where Route 1 and Interstate 95 diverge, bills itself as the gateway to Maine's midcoast. Many shopping centers have sprung up here during the past decades, catering to the families of the aviators at Brunswick Naval Air Station, among others, but thanks to Bowdoin College and its 1,700 students, Brunswick's downtown remains vibrant. A highly regarded liberal arts school, Bowdoin adds youthful vitality to the community and offers many amenities to local residents, from health-club memberships to lectures and concerts.
The towns of North Windham, Raymond, Bridgton, Naples, and Casco make up the Sebago Lakes region, a much-visited recreational area with a large summer population on the northwestern edge of Greater Portland. Small towns in the off-season, these villages bustle during summer when scores of cottagers return to the lakes. The hills begin to roll here, making the area seem far from Portland's cobbled streets.