Exploring the Seacoast: Essential Things to Do in Portsmouth, NH

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Portsmouth, NH, located about an hour north of Boston, is one of New England’s most popular port towns. With plenty of interesting shops, wonderful places to eat, and history to explore, it’s no wonder that it is such a tourist destination for those in the know. Whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway from the city or want to experience the charm of New England coastal cities for the first time, there are so many exciting things to do in Portsmouth NH and it should definitely be on your list.

The first time I visited Portsmouth, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d heard that it was a lot of fun but I didn’t know a lot about its history or the best things to do. Luckily, I went with someone who had been there before and acted as my tour guide.

Today, I want to be that for you so you can take full advantage of your trip! Without further ado, here are my
recommendations for a perfect Portsmouth day, Portsmouth weekend getaway, or itinerary for however long you’re visiting. 

This is a guest post from Tori of Live. Travel. Adventure. Bless.

Get a delicious breakfast

La Maison Navarre

To start your day off right, I recommend a visit to La Maison Navarre, which is a charming French Patisserie, Bistro, and Wine Bar located on Congress Street in downtown Portsmouth. Stepping inside, it feels like a traditional French bistro with antique posters hung on the walls and a long counter with bar seating where you can sit and watch the busy staff prepare your crepes.

If you’re with a group, there is booth seating along the opposite wall with tables and chairs. Up the stairs at the back is the wine bar area, which overlooks the rest of the space. In the patisserie/creperie section you order at the counter and then take your number to your table or in the wine bar area on Saturdays and Sundays from 10:30am to 3PM they
also serve a full table service brunch menu.

They offer a wide selection of delicious sweet and savory crepes (My favorite is the nutella with banana and strawberries!). If you just want to grab something quick and light, they also offer a selection of beautifully crafted pastries including croissants, pain au chocolat, brioche and traditional French baguette which is served sliced with a side of French butter and jam. They also have an impressive selection of specialty desserts, which look almost too beautiful to eat, as well as a wide variety of housemade macarons (including some made with ice cream!).

The Friendly Toast

If you prefer American diner food to European fare, right next door is another wonderful establishment called The Friendly Toast. It is part of a very popular local franchise with 5 locations: 3 in Massachusetts, 1 in New Hampshire, and 1 in Vermont. The Portsmouth location in particular seems to always be very busy. Unfortunately they don’t take reservations but they are partnered with Yelp and the NoWait app, which allow you to put your name on the waitlist ahead of time so you can arrive right when you’re ready to be seated.

The space is pretty large and covered in colorful, eclectic décor featuring a number of retro signs, board games, quirky artwork and a giant seahorse. They have an extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu including vegetarian and vegan options, with all items available at any time of day. When I go, I tend to go for their basic breakfast with two of their perfectly poached eggs!

Explore the History

After getting breakfast, you can learn more about the history of Portsmouth by heading over to the Strawbery Banke Museum, which is about a 10-minute walk away from Downtown. Strawbery Banke is a 10-acre outdoor history museum detailing the story of how the settlement was founded and what life was like for those who lived there.

When visiting, you enter through the Visitor Center where you are shown a short intro video before being led out by a tour guide into the historic neighborhood. You are then given the option of remaining with the group or going exploring on your own. Even if you choose to split off, there are signs posted throughout which detail much of the history. Also, I encourage you to talk to the staff posted in different locations who are often dressed in historic garb. They are very knowledgeable about the history, and can give you a really good snapshot of daily life during the period they’re portraying.  

There are 39 historic buildings to explore. One of the most impressive is the Goodwin Mansion, which, as the name implies, was home to one of the wealthier families in Strawbery Banke. The grounds of that home also feature a greenhouse and one of the Banke’s several historic gardens. While it is beautiful to visit during the summer, particularly if you want to view the gardens in full bloom, if you happen to be there during the winter months they also have the Labrie Family Skating Rink, which is popular with locals and visitors, open from December to February.

Here is a lovely video tour via the Strawbery Banke website which can give you a sense of what it’s like:

Eat Some Truly Sensational Pizza

After visiting Strawbery Banke, you can make your way back into town and back up Congress Street to Flatbread Company, one of my all-time favorite pizza places. They are part of another small franchise with 16 locations, mostly in the New England area. The Portsmouth one is located in a cool industrial space with a tin ceiling and exposed ductwork with rustic wood tables and booths. They specialize in wood-fired, clay oven pizza using locally sourced, natural ingredients.

My favorite is the Portsmouth Community Flatbread, which is a red sauce pizza topped with organic caramelized onions, organic mushrooms, whole milk mozzarella, parmesan cheese and their special herb blend. They also make a carne and a veggie special that changes daily, both of which are always very creative and extremely delicious! They had a veggie special once which was made with a sweet potato puree, goat cheese, and a honey drizzle that I still dream about sometimes.

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Take Advantage of the Great Portsmouth NH Shopping 

One of my favorite Portsmouth NH activities is to explore the lively downtown area which is packed with wonderful and unique small businesses. Shopping here is also tax-free as New Hampshire doesn’t have a sales tax! There are far too many great shops to list them all here so I’ll just highlight some of my favorites.

Inside Out

The only way I can describe Inside Out is that it feels like New Hampshire. The interior is all cozy brick and rustic wood with worn leather seating and their merchandise consists of comfortable yet fashionable women’s and men’s clothing as well as gifts, craft cocktail tools and accessories, homeware, and kids toys and books. In particular, if you’re visiting and want to pick up a unique souvenir, they have a wonderful selection of Portsmouth-themed merchandise like jewelry and bottle openers with Portsmouth’s coordinates or map on them.

LIT Boutique

Every time I walk into LIT, I want everything. This super trendy boutique has three locations: 2 in Boston and 1 in Portsmouth. The Portsmouth location is very fun to explore as they always have a great selection. The jewelry, in particular, is always really beautiful and unique while being affordably priced. I never walk out without buying something! If you don’t live nearby but want to check them out, they also have a great online store.

Sault

I always love finding a great menswear store and Sault, which was founded by owner Philip Saul in 2011 with hopes of creating a place that helps men achieve comfortable, effortless fashion certainly delivers. It isn’t very big but their carefully curated selection (which is a mixture of current trends, vintage items, and classic New England fashion) is always fun to check out. I particularly like to visit when looking for gifts as I never know what to buy when shopping for a guy, but Sault makes it easy. Alongside the clothing, they also carry accessories, vintage goods, a gentleman’s apothecary and other gift items.

Gus & Ruby Letterpress

Named after co-owners Samantha Finigan and Whitney Swaffield’s two dogs, Gus & Ruby Letterpress is a custom letterpress and paper goods store located right in the center of downtown across from North Church. The owners met while working at a small advertising agency and discovered their shared dream of creating a design studio and store focused on
paper goods. Now they specialize in creating wedding invitations, but for the casual visitor, their store is full of beautiful art prints, wrapping paper, cards, and other stationery goods. The perfect place to get a gift for the design enthusiast in your life or pick up something cute for yourself!

Serendipity

Located on Pleasant Street in downtown Portsmouth, NH, Serendipity is a boutique which specializes in boho-chic women’s clothing, accessories, and home goods. The space itself is beautiful with light wood floors, white paneled walls, and fairy lights and the selection is always full of gorgeous and unique pieces to help you step up your fashion game. The prices range from affordable to a bit more steep but if you’re anything like me, you’ll always find something you need to take home with you.

Pickwick’s Mercantile

Pickwick’s Mercantile is unlike any shop I’ve ever been to before and can only be described as pure magic. Stepping inside is like being transported back in time to an idealized version of the Victorian era with costumed shopkeepers and a cozy interior made of warm wood decorated with fairy lights. It is overflowing with their eclectic array of merchandise, both
imported and locally-made, including greeting cards, candy, stationery, books, toys, perfume, candles, jewelry, clothing, and accessories. Fantastical and full of whimsy, shopping at Pickwick’s is definitely an experience. In addition to their flagship store, they also have a few other locations including Deadwick’s Etheral Emporium, Lady Pickwick’s, and Pickwick’s at the Banke (Strawbery Banke’s museum store). They also own a cafe called Fezziwig’s Food & Fountain (more on that later).

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Portsmouth Book & Bar

Located in Portsmouth’s old Custom House and Post Office, Portsmouth Book & Bar is a must-visit for any bibliophile. As the same suggests, it is a bookstore/bar and they serve alcohol, but I personally go for the coffee. There is something wonderful about sipping a cappuccino while being surrounded by shelves of used books that are carefully curated by
owners John Petrovato, Jon Strymish and David Lovelace who are all longtime booksellers. They also do events such as live music, book readings, signings, and film screenings.

Have A Nice Dinner

Wondering where to eat in Portsmouth next? There are some great affordable options for dinner around Portsmouth, a few of which I’ve listed in this post, but if you’re willing to splurge a bit I highly recommend visiting Cure. Owner and executive chef Julie Cutting has created a delectable menu of gourmet American comfort food with something for everyone. The name Cure comes from their method for preparing meats, many of which are brined and slow cooked to bring out the flavor. All of
their dishes are prepared daily from scratch using fresh ingredients and everything I’ve tried has been absolutely fabulous.  This is definitely one of the best places to eat in Portsmouth.

If you go, I highly recommend their Lobster Mac & Cheese entree which is rich and full of complex flavor as well as the Red Wine Braised Short Rib which is served with housemade mashed potatoes and a beurre rouge sauce. Also, the cornbread side is amazing!

Treat Yourself to Dessert

Fezziwig’s Food & Fountain

Fezziwig’s Food & Fountain, which is owned by the same people as Pickwick’s Mercantile, shares that nostalgia for a bygone Dickensian era. It has a slightly brighter interior than Pickwick’s, with a brick wall with booth seating on one side and the other featuring white painted shelves displaying fanciful tea sets as well as teas, candies, and other goodies that are available for purchase. The costumed employees and ivy wrapped chandeliers make you feel like you’ve stepped right into the pages of Alice in Wonderland. This quaint little soda fountain and cafe is well known for their spectacular sundaes and milkshakes and is a wonderful place to stop in for a treat, a coffee/tea, or a sandwich.

Ceo’s Gelato Bistro

Another favorite of mine is Ceo’s Gelato Bistro. It has a clean, modern interior and they serve all the classic flavors like vanilla and chocolate alongside more unusual ones like peanut butter curry or lavender blueberry that rotate daily for those more adventurous souls. My favorite thing to get is an affogato sundae, which is vanilla ice cream with a shot of
espresso poured over it. So good!

Get a Drink

New England and craft beer go hand-in-hand. The Portsmouth Brewery has become a staple of downtown since they opened in 1991. If you’re looking to try a pint of housemade New Hampshire beer this is the perfect place to go. They have a busy bar area as well as an outdoor courtyard in warmer months and a wide selection of beers to try. You can also get an amazing Instagram post with the mosaic on their front stoop!

See a Show

The Music Hall, a historic venue that claims to be the oldest operating theater in New Hampshire, started out as a Vaudeville theatre. It has now become a big cultural and artistic hub for Portsmouth hosting all kinds of entertainment including musicals, live concerts, and movie screenings. The building itself is beautiful, decorated which much of the opulence typical of Vaudeville-era theatres and their eclectic array of programming means there’s always something interesting happening. They also have another location called the Music Loft, which is a small, contemporary black box theater where they host more intimate events like Songwriters in the Round.

Seasonal Things To Do

Here are some Portsmouth, NH attractions that might interest you depending on the weather and season. 

Prescott Park

Prescott Park is a ten-acre waterfront park on the banks of the Piscataqua River. Only a short walk from the center of downtown, it has a stunning garden that is a lovely place to wander through in warmer weather. They also have the Prescott Park Arts Festival in the summer months, which is free to attend (with a suggested donation). Pack a picnic and
bring your own blanket and chairs for live concerts, movie nights, and musicals.

Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse

Outside of Portsmouth’s downtown area, another fun activity is taking a trip out to the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse. While it can always be viewed from afar, if you actually want to go inside they offer open houses every Sunday from late May (Memorial Day weekend) through mid-October (Columbus Day weekend) from 1:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m and tours are available on a first come, first serve basis with no reservations necessary. There is a suggested donation to climb the lighthouse is $4 for adults and $2 for children 12 and under. Remember not to wear sandals if you want to climb the ladder to the lantern room and see the spectacular view!

Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth

downtown portsmouth nh in the snow - Portsmouth NH things to do

In 2017 Travel + Leisure Magazine called Portsmouth ‘the Christmas Capital of North America,’ and it certainly lives up to the title. Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth is a month-long holiday celebration that kicks off on December 1st with the Portsmouth Christmas Tree Lighting and Illuminated Holiday Parade and continues throughout the month of December.

They have a free Vintage Christmas Trolley that makes a 15-minute loop of downtown Portsmouth, stopping at public parking lots, garages, hotels, The Music Hall and Strawbery Banke Museum. A big part of the celebration is Strawbery Banke’s Candlelight Stroll which is held on weekends in the evening. The Museum grounds are lit with the soft glow of
hundreds of candle lanterns as well as a bonfire, and the historic homes are decorated with live greens and dried flowers and herbs collected from the Bank’s several historic gardens. As mentioned before, December also marks the opening of the Labrie Family Skating Rink which adds more to the list of fun things to do in Portsmouth in the winter.

Portsmouth is an amazing place to visit any time of the year and every time I go I always find something new and exciting I hadn’t known about before. If you’re looking for a great time for all ages, put this picturesque New England town on your list.

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Portsmouth, New Hampshire, USA town cityscape on the River at twilight.

 

Where to Stay in Portsmouth, NH

Your visit to Portsmouth is complete with the perfect Portsmouth, NH lodging. While author Tori hasn’t stayed at any of these particular Portsmouth NH inns, they are all very highly reviewed. 

Ale House Inn

Ale House Inn is located in the historic Portsmouth Brewing Co. building (c. 1880) very near Prescott Park. It is decorated with a modern loft feel and the rate ranges from $129-$339 per night. Some important things to note are that they have 12 exterior steps you must climb to enter the historic building, they offer free parking for one vehicle (but it is not guaranteed due to the central location, available only on a first come first serve basis) and they don’t serve breakfast. The front desk is staffed daily from 8AM to 8 PM and they offer some unique amenities which include the use of their fleet of Trek cruiser bicycles, discounted golf rates at nearby Sagamore-Hampton Golf Club and a discount off a sail with the Gundalow Company
 
 
The Hotel Portsmouth is located less than a 10-minute walk from Market Square. It is a beautifully renovated 138-year-old mansion that is a classic example of Queen Anne Victorian architecture with a perfect blend of historic charm and modern amenities. It has a total of 32 rooms (one of which is pet-friendly!) and offers 24-hour front desk service. Amenities include a curated small plates breakfast and afternoon treats, complimentary parking for all guests, and gathering spaces for corporate and private events. Rates range from $129-$469 per night.
 
 
Looking for a cozy bed and breakfast in Portsmouth, NH? The Sailmaker’s House which is an intimate boutique 10-room inn located right down the road from Strawberry Banke. Due to this historic nature of the home it features many quirks typical of New England architecture at that time such as narrow stairs, slanted pine floors, and original windows which add to the charm but unfortunately mean that it is not handicapped accessible and may not be suitable for children under 12 years of age as there are many small, fragile items scatted about. They don’t currently offer any food services but do offer other amenities such as coffee, tea, water, and snacks which are available in the lobby, access to the beautiful perennial gardens, keyless access, and on-site parking (which is also available on a first come, first served basis). If you’re visiting with a large group it is also possible to book the whole house for your stay. They also own the beautiful Water Street Inn in nearby Kittery, ME which is another nice place to stay. 
 
There are also several nice looking AirBnB’s which are very centrally located: 
 
Want $40 off your first stay with AirBnb? Use our link below to save!

 
 

For more hotels near Portsmouth NH check out the options at HotelsCombined.


About the Author: Tori Trogani is a blogger and content creator based in Boston, MA. Her blog, Live. Travel. Adventure. Bless. which is co-written with her mother Julia Trogani, focuses on adventures big and small and highlights the best things to do, places to eat, and locations to explore in the New England area. Check out the blog here to find more content like this and follow @ltabblog on Instagram! She also works as a content creator, graphic designer, and photographer for small businesses and you can find examples of her work at www.victoriatrogani.com.


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