Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a small coastal city with lots of history. It was settled in 1623 making it one of the country’s oldest cities. In the past few years the city has earned buzz for its restaurants, bars, and boutiques. It’s become one of the cool New England cities where young people want to live.
I grew up in Kennebunk, Maine, just about a 40-minute drive north of Portsmouth, but yet I hadn’t spent much time there. I kept hearing that the city had grown and was popular with the twenty and thirty something crowd, so I decided to spent a couple of days there last time I went home to see my family.
Getting to Portsmouth
Portsmouth borders Maine; the two states are divided by the Piscataqua River and once you cross the bridge you are in Maine. It takes just about an hour to reach Portsmouth from both Boston and Portland.
If you are planning to fly, it is likely most cost effective to fly into Boston. It’s the largest airport in the area and it is easy to rent a car there. Or, if you don’t want to rent a car, a local bus service (C&J Trailways) has bus service from Boston to Portsmouth. Once in Portsmouth you could rely on uber or lift to get around. Amtrak does not stop in Portsmouth.
Where to Stay
A 32 room property with charm and a location that puts you right downtown and within walking distance from shops and restaurants.
It’s a Lark Hotel property and I love the boutique feel of Lark hotels. Their hotels are known for having beautiful common areas and for serving a small plate breakfast in the morning.
My deluxe king room had lots of room and a fireplace. It was a cozy home away from home.
When to Visit Portsmouth
Many of the historic sites and activities in Portsmouth are seasonal. We went during the winter and most shops and restaurants were open, but there is definitely more to do in the summer. The peak season in New England is from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
What to do in Portsmouth
Strawberry Banke is more than a historical site, it’s 37 preserved historic buildings that make up an entire neighborhood. It’s like stepping back in time. Strawberry Banke is located on a tidal inlet of the Piscataqua River and the area became a desirable place to live.
The buildings span a time period from 1695 to the 1800s. Some homes, like the Goodwin Mansion, tell the story of those who lived there and are decorated in the same fashion they would have been historically. Other homes have become educational centers while others are taverns, workshops where demonstrations take place, or shops. Many of the buildings have beautiful gardens and orchards.
Strawberry Banke hosts a variety of activities and they have an ice rink in the winter. During the offseason the buildings are not open, but it is free to walk around. Events on the calendar include hearth cooking classes, fireside chats, and opportunities to meet baby farm animals.
This waterside park is a hub of activity during warmer months. Events include a beer festival, movie nights, a concert series, and local productions of popular musicals.
This 895-seat venue in downtown Portsmouth hosts concerts, book talks, and film screenings.
A state park on the coast that has walking trails and areas for canoeing, fishing, biking, and cross country skiing. The Seacoast Science Center is located within the park and is home to exhibits about natural and human history in the seacoast area.
The walking trails are a nice way to surround yourself with nature.
Open seasonally from late May until early September, this lighthouse is located on a US Coast Guard base in New Castle, NH. When open to visitors, it is possible to climb to the lantern room at the top of the lighthouse. During the off season the best place to view the lighthouse is the Great Island Common in New Castle.
It is located near Fort Constitution a military fortress with views of both the Piscataqua River and the Atlantic Ocean. Fort Constitution was originally called Fort William and Mary and was a British fort used during the Revolutionary War. Later the fort was rebuild and renamed.
Shopping in Portsmouth
I was impressed by the locally owned shops in Portsmouth. While most of the shops in my hometown are pretty touristy, the shops in Portsmouth had a nice variety of clothing, antiques, books, children’s toys, kitchenware, and home goods. Most of the shops can be found along Market Street or Congress Street.
Pickwick’s is an ode to the Victorian age. When you enter this shop you step back in time. It feels like it has been around for centuries, yet it opened in 2012. Inside you will find a large selection of small batch perfumes, books, and gifts. Staff clad in Victorian era costumes is on hand to assist shoppers.
Pickwick’s also has a location within Strawberry Banke that is open seasonally.
My favorite of the shops I visited in Portsmouth, Sault sells specializes in men’s and women’s clothing and many items have an East Coast theme. There are tees with New Hampshire’s motto: Live Free or Die and apparel that says East Coast.
Part bookshop and part cafe/bar, this spot has become a community meeting place. At night they host open mics, trivia nights, and music performances. It’s the perfect place to settle in and get some work done or to socialize at night.
A shop that sells flavored salts, salt lamps, and salt beauty products. I loved their vast selection of seasoned salts and I bought some lemon salt and roasted garlic salt. Yes, true to its name, it is in a cellar tucked away along a small pedestrian alley called Commercial Alley. It’s right across from Elephantine Bakery.
A shop specializing in games that hosts games nights on Tuesdays.
A shop with unique homewares and gifts. Some of the items for sale are a bit naughty (tote bags with four letter words are an example) and in the past the police have been called over goods displayed in the window – yet the shop owners were not charged with a crime or made to change their window displays. It’s a fun place to browse around.
Located just off the highway in Portsmouth, this massive liquor store is known for its low prices. The Portsmouth location is just one of 75 locations.
The Kittery Outlets
Just across the bridge in Maine, you will find the Kittery Outlets. I will warn you that these outlets shops are divided between a series of strip malls making them somewhat annoying to navigate since you are constantly driving from place to place. Yet, it is a popular place to get some deals and a good activity for a rainy day.
Where to Eat in Portsmouth
The Portsmouth Brewery
Located on Market Street this brewery and restaurant is a popular spot for lunch. The beer menu features a mix of beers brewed in house and other local beers.
The food menu features hearty pub fare. My parents loved the massive pastrami sandwich and I had chicken fingers and munched on their fries (I was still struggling with morning sickness during the trip).
An Italian restaurant on Congress Street, Cafe Mediterraneo has a large menu of pastas, fish, and meat dishes. The owners got their start working at restaurants in Boston’s North End and their goal is to bring the North End dining experience to Portsmouth. The portions can be large. I had the lasagna and the serving size was enough to feed a small family.
My favorite hometown sandwich shop has opened up new location in Portsmouth. The best news is that the Portsmouth shop is open year-round. They are famous for their cheesesteak sub but I also love the turkey sandwich and the BLT.
A bakery that specializes in breads and pastries is tucked away in a narrow pedestrian corridor. It’s the perfect place to stop for a light breakfast.
This highly recommend Italian restaurant was closed the week that I visited Portsmouth, but they are known for being one of the most romantic restaurants in New Hampshire. The menu features some modern twists on classic Italian food. You can find dishes like gnocchi with lobster, grilled artichokes, rutabaga, and miso butter plus classic Sunday gravy.
The upstairs space, called Upstair’s at Massimo’s, is a wine bar serving more casual fare.
Also a popular recommendation yet we didn’t have time, Cava is a wine bar serving tapas. It’s located on Commercial Alley beside Elephantine Bakery. In the summer months guests can dine outside under a vertical garden. The food menu has classic tapas like dates with manchego and serrano ham, patatas braves, char-grilled octopus, and Spanish chorizo.
This waterfront restaurant overlooks the ferry landing where you can see the tugboats, ferries, and container ships docking. The restaurant is a casual seafood shack were you can dine on lobster rolls, fried clams, and shrimp. It is open seasonally and in the summer months you can dine outside.
What was once a lunch cart that parked downtown everyday has grown and found a permanent home. They are known for serving up burgers, hot dogs, fries, and baked beans.
This place is an institution; my father has been going here for decades. They are open from 11am until late night, staying open until 2am on some days. They have a small area with about 10 seats if you want to eat in, or you can get take out.
Where to Go Next
These cities and towns are great additions to your itinerary and also located along the coast.
Have you been to Portsmouth? What are your favorite things to do?