With its top-notch restaurants, boutique shopping, and loads of historic charm, downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire is a coastal gem. A few years ago, on a late-fall Saturday (Halloween, in fact), I made my way to the seacoast for a day of strolling, shopping, and sampling.
It’s hard to choose a favorite thing about Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but near the top of my list would most certainly be its walkability. Everything you could ever need for a day or weekend of fun (Food! History! Shopping! Water views!) can be reached on foot, either from one of the city’s many public parking lots or numerous hotels.
We’ve written about Portsmouth a couple of times in the last few years, and it’s a testament to just how much action this small city has to offer that no two “Go, See, Do” lists are the same.
With this is mind, I won’t give you a definitive “Best” list, but my personal picks for some great things to do in Portsmouth. Hopefully you’ll add any of your favorites that I missed to the comments.
History and architecture buffs visiting Portsmouth make a beeline for the Strawbery Banke Museum, a indoor-outdoor living history museum depicting life as it was in Portsmouth from the late 1600s until the 1950s. The museum runs special events throughout the year, so it’s always a perfect time to visit.
READ MORE: Visit the Strawbery Banke Museum | Portsmouth, NH
ThePortsmouth Black Heritage Trailis another important historic story being told in Portsmouth. Tours (guided in the summer or self-guided anytime) highlight the events and people that helped shape the city’s character (from its trans-Atlantic slavetraders and slaveholders to the captured Africans and Black abolitionists). Especially moving is the memorial park marking the site formerly known as the old “Negro Burying Ground,” now a place to pause and reflect.
Prescott Park is another Portsmouth, New Hampshire favorite — especially in the summer when the formal gardens are in full bloom (complete with fountains) and the annual Prescott Park Arts Festival brings in a roster of concerts, theater, and special movie nights. Even on a quiet day, though, it’s the perfect place to seat yourself on a bench and admire the views of the water and Portsmouth’s vertical-lift Memorial Bridge.
If you like taking in a show, The Music Hall is tucked just off Congress Street (its smaller site, the Music Hall Loft, is just a block away), and hosts a full roster of concerts, plays, and musicals, plus ongoing series like “Writers on a New England Stage” throughout the year.
The stately Portsmouth Athenaeum, located smack dab in the middle of Market Square, is another of the town’s gems — an independent, membership library with an additional research library, art gallery, and museum for the public to enjoy.
I also recommend heading over to Bow and Ceres Streets for a look at the city’s working harbor, complete with tugs.
Hungry? Portsmouth has just about everything to satisfy whatever you’re craving, from local beers, lattes, and popovers to retro diner breakfasts, fresh seafood, and innovative gourmet dinners. There are over 250 restaurants in town, so nobody has an excuse for leaving hungry. The hardest part is actually choosing which amazing place to visit on each trip.
Some of my favorite morning spots downtown are Breaking New Grounds for a caffeine boost (sadly, the shop closed at the end of 2018) and Ceres Street Bakery for homemade breads, cookies, and cakes. If you wind up near the bakery in the afternoon, you might also want to sample one of their daily soup, sandwich, or pizza specials.
If you’ve got a large and/or rowdy group,Popovers on the Squareis a good spot to find something for everyone, but if you’re craving a more French-inspired cafe experience, La Maison Navarre has you covered. Macarons? Baguette sandwiches? Crepes? Oui oui!
The Friendly Toast is one of the city’s most famous dining establishments for every meal (so popular it now has five additional locations in Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire), and with good reason. The kitschy 50s decor, plates of comfort food on steroids, and colorful, tattooed staff have made it a favorite stop for filling up.
For dinner, fans of classic New England dishes and flavors will enjoy the warm and lofted Moxy, a top pick by Senior Food Editor Amy Traverso in her recent guide “Where to Eat in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.” Owner/Chef Matt Louis has put together a terrific, creative menu of American tapas like hasty pudding frites served with molasses BBQ and buttermilk dips, and cornmeal “johnnycake” pancakes served with brown sugared pork shoulder, house sauces, crispy onion, and pickled cucumbers. Don’t miss the New England dessert sampler, which has both whoopie pie sliders and his spin on the ultimate old-school New England dessert, Indian Pudding. Sweetened with maple sugar and topped with whipped cream, it’s my kind of historic dessert heaven.
For special occasions, the excellent Black Trumpet has inspired, seasonal plates from Chef Evan Mallet in a candlelit, brick-walled dining room. I recently enjoyed a dinner there with family, and the “Local Landing” (the daily fish fillet) served with buckwheat groats and black lentil pilaf, wine poached carrots, and Swedish yogurt sauce was outstanding, as was (according to everyone else) the Archer Angus Culotte Steak served with Brussels potato cake, roasted sprouts, and green gravy. Clean plates all around.
Like to shop? Portsmouth is home to dozens of independently-owned shops, offering everything from upscale consignment clothing and jewelry to quirky gifts, kitchen essentials, and the latest hardcovers.
I especially love perusing the gorgeous and thoughtfully curated selection of papers, cards, and gifts at Gus & Ruby Letterpress (is anything better than getting a piece of handwritten mail on thick, creamy paper?), and Off Piste next door is also a fun spot for funky gifts like novelty tote bags, socks, mugs, and can koozies.
Home cooks and bakers will love navigating the cramped and colorful aisles at Le Roux Kitchen, where the Le Creuset shares shelf space with local brands like Fat Toad Farm caramel sauces and White Heron tea. I also loved admiring the many seasoned salts for sale at Salt Cellar, not to mention their creative line of gifts, which includes pink Himalayan crystal salt cutting boards and tequila shot glasses. They have salty, scrubby bath offerings, too.
Readers shouldn’t miss a stop at RiverRun Bookstore. Inside, both new and used books are for sale, along with a selection of restored typewriters. And if you just can’t resist stopping to smell the flowers, pop into the Flower Kiosk for a few deep breaths of green air.
There are also lovely, handmade gifts to be found at Nahcotta, including Mud Australia porcelain, Simon Pearce pottery, and Pigeon Toe ceramics.
Those looking for an extended stay in town (a great idea since the beauty of coastal Maine is just minutes away, making for fun side trips!) have several well-appointed big-name chain hotels to choose from, but I can’t resist the charm of a smaller inn or B&B. My favorite Portsmouth, NH, hotel is the Hotel Portsmouth, a renovated 1881 Queen Anne Victorian with several comfortable rooms and suites, plus a bright and cheerful breakfast room, cozy parlor, and nautical-themed study.
Whew! All this browsing, eating, and shopping has really tired me out. Good thing there are so many benches handy…
Have you ever visited the charming, historic, and delicious coastal city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in fall? What are your favorite things to do, see, and eat while you’re there? Let us know!
This post was first published in 2015 and has been updated.