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Portsmouth, New Hampshire Travel Guide

Weekend Getaway

The Best of Both Worlds
New Hampshire's Hip and Historic Seacoast City
by Kim Knox Beckius

Tugboats in harbor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Portsmouth Tugboats

The duality of Portsmouth — the striking ease with which it embraces old and new — is what imbues the lone city on New Hampshire's diminutive shore with distinct appeal. Factor in proximity to Boston and Portland, Maine, each an hour's drive away, and to diverse, year-round adventures in three states, and few locations rival this seacoast city for vacation value.

Within just about ten square blocks, this harbor town offers over 70 restaurants, dozens of historical sites, boutiques, gift shops, art galleries and small performance spaces, making it a great town for exploring on foot. Clothing and gift boutiques with funky names like Somnia, Cool Jewels and Odd Showroom occupy the antique brick warehouses that flank Market Square. Breaking New Grounds coffee house, located here, is a favorite spot for people watching. Colonial edifices where George Washington and John Paul Jones hung their hats are a stone's throw from restaurants where the catch of the day is prepared in anything but traditional ways. The redesigned lobby of one of America's oldest theaters, with its plush crimson sofas and gilded columns bathed in luminous blue, is as striking a space as you'll find in any big city nightclub.

Stay at the ideally situated Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth, and you'll be within strolling distance of Market Square's eclectic shops and acclaimed restaurants. This well-appointed and comfortable hotel overlooking the working waterfront offers accommodations ranging from traditional guest rooms to spacious, penthouse-level Port of Call Suites equipped with kitchens, gas fireplaces and waterview balconies. The Ale House Inn, Portsmouth's nod to chic boutique lodging, iPads included, is located above the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in a renovated 19th-century brick beer warehouse, allowing guests to come and go like locals. Families will find moderately priced lodging at the Hilton Garden Inn Portsmouth Downtown or on the city's outskirts at affordable chain properties including the Comfort Inn and the Fairfield Inn Portsmouth Seacoast. For a truly memorable stay, immerse yourself in 19th-century elegance at the gloriously restored Wentworth by the Sea Hotel and Spa, located on the island of New Castle, which is anchored to Portsmouth via bridges. This grand hotel, once named one of the "most endangered historic places" by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, was rescued from near-certain destruction and reopened in 2003.


Request an early wake-up call, and head to Ceres Bakery, where pastries, fresh-roasted coffee and a bit of talk about local politics will fuel you for a day of exploring Portsmouth's history by land and sea. This popular gathering spot for resident coffee connoisseurs and out-of-towners alike has café-style outdoor tables that overlook the hubbub of Market Square, the city's commercial center since the mid-1700s.

The gleaming white spire of North Church, built in 1855 to replace the original 1712 meetinghouse in Market Square, is visible citywide and serves as a navigational aid for visitors who meander the brick-sidewalk-lined streets where sea captains and patriots once trod. You'll find window shopping irresistible as you proceed up Congress Street to Middle Street, where the Discover Portsmouth Center, open daily June through October, provides an excellent introduction to the seacoast city's history with a free film and exhibits. You'll want to pick up a downtown map and consult with the Center's helpful staff before setting out to explore this walkable city's sights.

The John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
John Paul Jones House

There are a dozen places of historic interest within a 15-minute walking radius of the Discover Portsmouth Center, from the John Paul Jones House across the street, where the Revolutionary War hero and father of the American Navy once roomed, to the Governor John Langdon House, where the local shipbuilder, U.S. Constitution signer and three-term state governor served tea to the young nation's first president in 1789. For a truly immersive experience of Portsmouth history, however, you'll want to spend most of your morning at Strawbery Banke, a living history museum on the site of Portsmouth's oldest neighborhood. The complex's 42 buildings date to as early as 1695, and they tell the story of citizens' lives and the city's changing fortunes through four centuries. Self-guided tours are available daily May through October; guided tours are offered weekends in November; and holiday season tours and Candlelight Strolls are scheduled daily each December.

Look for the spire and return to Congress Street for a quick but satisfying lunch at Popovers on the Square. Indoor and outdoor tables are available at this counter-service restaurant, which specializes in seasonal soups, signature sandwiches, and decadent desserts. Most diners can't resist the fresh-baked popovers. These enormous hollow puffs, which double as soup and salad bowls, are also delicious on their own, slathered with sweet maple butter.

Wentworth by the Sea in Portsmouth, New Hampshire first opened its doors to guests in 1874
Wentworth by the Sea

Now that you've familiarized yourself with the origins of America's third oldest city, it's time to see Portsmouth from the sea side. Although daytime cruise reservations are not required, it's a good idea to call the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company in advance to check departure times and book passage aboard the M/V Thomas Laighton, a smooth-sailing, 300-passenger vessel that ferries tourists down the energetic Piscataqua River, past lighthouses and old forts, and out among the storied Isles of Shoals. The boat departs from the company's Market Street dock, situated across the street from the Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth, for a 90-minute, narrated adventure most afternoons from June through October. You may have never heard of the nine tiny islands known collectively as the Isles of Shoals, but these offshore outposts, explored in 1614 by Captain John Smith and sprinkled on either side of the border between New Hampshire and Maine, are rich with lore. Smuttynose, for example, was purportedly a honeymoon haven for the pirate Blackbeard, who abandoned his fifteenth and final bride here while fleeing pursuers in 1720. Her ghost still guards hidden treasure, some claim. Seavey Island is home to America's oldest active naval yard and "The Castle," a deserted naval and Marine prison nicknamed the Alcatraz of the East, from which no inmate ever escaped.

Artfully prepared tuna from Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Jumpin' Jay's Tuna

Your return to terra firma won't require a struggle, but scoring a table at Jumpin' Jay's Fish Café may, so hopefully you've made dinner reservations, as your craving for seafood is bound to be piqued after an active day in the salt-tinged air. Start at the raw bar with oysters from as close as Great Bay, or let your server guide you through the menu's ever-changing line-up of finfish and shellfish, plucked from the waters of New England and beyond. Jay's array of sauces can be paired with the day's fresh catch to suit your tastes, so indulge in the richness of pan-seared scallops bathed in Lobster Velouté, or enjoy the spicy tang of seared Gloucester-caught yellow fin tuna glazed in Mandarin Sesame sauce with Wasabi Aioli. If your preference is for classic New England sea fare of the lobster roll, baked stuffed haddock and fried clams in a basket variety, dine instead at The Old Ferry Landing, one restaurant in a cluster of waterside bars and restaurants locals call "The Decks." Open April through September, this waterfront eatery's open-air deck is the place to spy Portsmouth's trademark trio of tugboats and the shimmer of harbor lights as night falls. Be sure to ask for the fruity Jimmy Juice to sip while you watch the boats come in.

If there's any wind left in your sails, check out Portsmouth's music scene before tucking in for the night. You're likely to find live entertainment at The Press Room, Spring Hill Tavern at The Dolphin Striker or Daniel Street Tavern.


Portsmouth tugboats

* John Paul Jones House image from the Portsmouth Historical Society
* All other images by Kim Knox Beckius

(Updated: 09/09/11 NW)

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