Portsmouth is one of those places that clearly has time on its side. In this nearly 400-year-old port city on the mouth of the Piscataqua River, contemporary galleries and craft breweries commingle effortlessly with preserved cemeteries and restored colonial houses with roots extending back well before the American Revolution.
The cultural center of New Hampshire’s Seacoast region, “Portsmouth is a gorgeous destination, filled with a rich arts scene, historic museums, and a myriad of quality restaurants – all in a relaxed atmosphere,” says Kathy Burns Lamphier, a Virtuoso travel advisor based in the neighboring town of Greenland. Given that the city is just an hour’s drive north of Boston and south of Portland, Maine, she adds, “it’s also an ideal day trip on a northern New England itinerary.”
Hear, hear! I say. As a New Hampshire native who’s lived in Seattle for two decades, I still feel Portsmouth’s tidal pull, which brings me back every year to reacquaint myself with its lobster rolls, beloved tugboats, and brick-paved lanes that always seem to reveal some fresh find. Best of all, the main attractions in this compact, pedestrian-friendly city of fewer than 22,000 residents are all within walking distance of the main hub of Market Square. Here are a few locally favored stops that will make your day in Portsmouth a perfect one.
Follow most locals along Islington Street in the early-morning hours, and your path is likely to lead to Caffe Kilim. Lucky you. Kilim’s Turkish coffee and signature Dancing Goats blend are addiction-worthy, and its cozy, denlike setting – with handwoven rugs on the walls and kilim pillows piled on benches – encourages lots of “I’m on vacation” lingering. Also of note: Kaffee Vonsolln, serving inventive lattes and fresh-baked German pastries, and Profile Coffee Bar, home to scores of vintage jazz vinyls.
Breakfast lines at the eclectically designed, retro-inspired Friendly Toast are long for good reason. For those who brave the wait, rewards include “friendly wake-ups” such as Kentucky Coffee (starring Maker’s Mark and Baileys), and unexpected eats – think breakfast sandwiches on French-toasted doughnuts (yes, doughnuts). Also of note: For a quicker bite and better views of Market Square’s steeple-topped North Church, head up Congress Street to The Works, an organically minded, order-at-the-counter bakery café.
Fried-clam cravings call for lunch at the Old Ferry Landing, where pale ales and cool breezes from the Piscataqua provide the ideal antidote to muggy (New England for humid) summer days. Also of note: Family-owned Geno’s Chowder & Sandwich Shop on the river’s back channel serves homemade “chowdas” and generously sized lobster rolls.
For dinner, Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Cafe offers revolving catch-of-the-day dishes and has a raw bar of New Hampshire-harvested shellfish. Notable international plates around Market Square can be found at Cava Tapas & Wine Bar (check out the wine cave), 5 Thai Bistro (trust me: “spicy” here means really spicy), and Durbar Square Restaurant (highly suggested if you’ve never tried Himalayan food).
Past is especially present in Portsmouth. For an encompassing look into its history, start with a visit to the city’s oldest neighborhood, Strawbery Banke, now a living museum highlighted by heritage gardens and preserved buildings dating to 1695. The museum also puts on seasonal events such as a family-friendly Halloween festival and sets up a skating rink in winter. Also of note: The John Paul Jones House (the American Revolution hero of “I have not yet begun to fight!” fame bedded down here in 1777 and 1781), and African Burying Ground Memorial Park, built to honor African slaves who died in Portsmouth and were interred at the site.
To a Fine Art
Expect to see plenty of painters setting up easels along downtown streets, along with a bevy of browse-worthy galleries. Where to begin? Piscataqua Fine Arts showcases Seacoast-inspired woodcuts from local artist Don Gorvett, who’s likely to be on-site (and barefoot), ready to talk shop and show you around his etching press. Also of note: Catch a show at The Music Hall, a performing arts center with two downtown venues. Upcoming acts include Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis (October 5); Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the Musical (November 29 through December 17); and singer José González (February 8, 2018).
Time for a Pint (or Two)
Craft beer is big here, with a growing number of brewpubs where you can bend your elbow. Two favorites: Earth Eagle Brewings has an ever-expanding, rotating list of handcrafted beers that ranges from smoky Scottish ales to sour gruits seasoned with ingredients such as juniper berries and Japanese knotweed. Overlooking North Mill Pond, an inlet of the Piscataqua, Great Rhythm Brewing Company specializes in IPAs; guests can sip a flight while watching great blue herons wade. Also of note: Longtime residents are apt to point out that The Portsmouth Brewery (opened in 1991) is the founding father of Portsmouth brewpubs.
Parks & Rec
Just across from Strawbery Banke, with expansive views of the Piscataqua and the Memorial Bridge leading to Maine, Prescott Park is the spot for picnics, vibrant flower gardens, and blazing foliage in the fall. Throughout the summer, it hosts an arts festival featuring live theater and music. The adjacent Point of Graves burial ground houses artfully crafted colonial era gravestones, the earliest from 1682. Also of note: From the cemetery, a short stroll takes you across the Peirce Island Bridge to Four Tree Island, where you can explore salt marshes and tidal pools, watch fishing boats slip past, and – should the New England weather gods be propitious – see a sublime sunset.
Find a Virtuoso travel advisor to plan your New England vacation, including visits to Portsmouth and stays at Virtuoso hotels in nearby Boston; Holderness, New Hampshire; and Kennebunkport and Portland, Maine.
“Beyond the downtown attractions, don’t miss the USS Albacore Museum, where you can climb inside the decommissioned submarine for a glimpse into Portsmouth’s rich naval history. Weather permitting, I also recommend a boat ride to the Isles of Shoals. Spot seals, whales, and birdlife en route.”
– Kathy Burns Lamphier, Virtuoso travel advisor, Greenland, New Hampshire