WHY GO: Perhaps more than in any other New England seacoast town, it’s easy to imagine what life was like in this country when it was new and growing thanks to Portsmouth’s living history museum, Strawbery Banke, which isn’t a “museum” so much as a collection of 32 homes and establishments, most in their original locations and manned by costumed guides who interpret the lives and duties of the actual families who lived and worked in them. As a Colonial seaport and Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth was open to immigrants from foreign lands who lived and socialized together in an enclave picturesquely called “Puddle Dock.” The town bustled with shops and eateries, barges plied the rivers delivering goods – it was lively and friendly – and still is. Known for unique boutiques and shops, zero sales tax on purchases, and for a burgeoning culinary scene, Portsmouth NH meshes history with pleasure in the best of ways.
Things to Do in Portsmouth NH
TOUR: Strawbery Banke. When English merchants first sailed up the Piscataqua River in 1630 and noticed wild berry bushes along its shores, they called what is now Portsmouth “Strawbery Banke.” The living history museum of that name depicts 400 years of life in Portsmouth with costumed re-enactors, hands-on-archaeology digs and other innovative programs. Plan on at least two hours to wander ten acres in some of the 32 authentic homes and shops that are in various stages of repair. You’ll engage with costumed role-players who interpret the people who actually lived or worked in each home or shop, such as “Mrs. Shapiro” – a Russian immigrant who arrived here in 1909, innkeepers at the Pitt Tavern – the origination point for the first Portsmouth to Boston stage coach, where wayfarers could find three meals a day served family style, and the “owner” of the Little Corner Store – that served as a community center where locals traded ration stamps for canned goods and gossip about the neighborhood during WWII.
Begin with a 7-minute video that fills you in on the history of this settlement. In the 1700’s, Portsmouth rivaled Boston and Philadelphia in overseas commerce, and the streets bustled with trade. The 1800’s Industrial Revolution brought immigrants to town: Italians, Russians, French, Germans – over 30% of the town’s citizens were foreign born.
Though all buildings hold interest, my favorites were the home of Ukrainian Jewish immigrant, Sheva Shapiro (built in 1775, she and her family were the 13th family to live there when they immigrated from Russia in 1909), and the Abbot’s Corner Store. Enter the Shapiro’s home, and it’s 1919. Sheva, dressed in period clothing, might show you how Russians drink tea through a sugar cube. She’ll talk about her home-apothecary garden, her daughter Molly’s tenth-year birthday gift – a pogo stick – sitting in the corner (if you ask, she may allow you to use it), and about the innovative way she expanded Molly’s sweaters as her daughter grew. After the “War to End All Wars” (WWI), Sheva explains, it was her “patriotic duty” to rent a room to Mr. Russell, who worked in the Naval shipyard across the bridge. You’re invited to visit Molly’s room and the rest of the house –and to see pictures on the walls of the family that “Mrs. Shapiro” brings to life.
At Mrs. Abbott’s Little Corner Store, the “War Effort” is on full display. This was a Naval town – most residents worked in the shipyard where dozens of submarines were built during WWII. Patrons used ration stamps to purchase cans of food (on display), most grew “Victory Gardens,” and managed to stretch their food in ways that are just coming back into style today.
New to the Banke is a shop like no other. Pickwick’s @ The Banke is a theatrical, sensory experience incorporating a costumed shopkeeper and artfully displayed Maritime Heritage gifts. Named after the Charles Dickens character, the shop is meant to evoke the curiosity store of Victorian times.
Two consecutive day pass to Strawbery Banke is $17.50 adults, $10 youth, May 1- Oct. 31 daily 10-5. Weekends other times of year (check website).
DO: Sail on Piscataqua. Experience a Portsmouth harbor tour on a gundalow, a flat-bottom sailing barge considered “the semi-tractor-trailer truck of its day.” This replica, which took wooden boat craftsmen six months to build in 2011 at Strawbery Banke, represents the vessel so prevalent on New England rivers and bays from 1600’s until early 1900’s, when it was more efficient to ship lumber, bricks, cotton, farm goods, oysters and other products by boat than by land.
You can join the crew and “heave-ho” the sail, while passing sights like the crumbling but still grand decommissioned Naval prison (referenced in the movie “The Last Detail”) and Fort Constitution at the mouth of the river. The Fort is considered the site of the first Revolutionary War act – when, in Dec. 1774, Patriots stole munitions from the British stronghold.
The Piscataqua River, a 12-mile long tidal estuary that empties out into the Atlantic Ocean, is rife with fish and tankers, and, if you’re lucky, a Naval submarine coming in for repairs. As the gundalow is an open boat, you’ll want to bring rain gear if raining and plenty of sunscreen if not. For lunchtime sails, pick up a boxed lunch at The White Apron Café at Strawbery Banke across the street. Check website for schedule of a variety of afternoon and sunset cruises. Tickets $20 – $40 adults, $10-$20 youth.
SEE: The Music Hall. Even if you don’t see a show at this 900-seat theater (built in 1878, renovated in 2008), pop in to see the otherworldly blue-lit lounge, jack-hammered out of a wall of rock, and the Harry Potterish bathrooms with circular sink and elaborate mosaic floor.
Showmen and women have been hoofing on these floorboards since this Beaux-Arts Theater opened, and during renovations, workers found decades old candy wrappers that had fallen beneath the floorboards and are now on exhibit. See musicians, top authors, comedians and indie movies throughout the year. Or just stop in to say hi and check out the bathrooms.
TOUR: The Albacore. Nicknamed the “Sub in a ditch,” the Albacore is far from the waterfront and situated, literally, in a hole in the ground. This diesel and electric powered submarine was built in Portsmouth in 1952 as a prototype test vessel in the newest design and modern technology of the day, and was returned to Portsmouth in 1985 without having been to war. The first sub ever built with this fish-like streamlined shape, it was fabricated to be hydroponically correct – at its best underwater – and could reach speeds in excess of 45 knots (faster than nuclear subs). Now, you can take a very hands-on self-guided tour to learn how 55 men could work and live in a 205’ by 27’ space. Sit in seats and initiate dive sequence, drive the sub and wedge into bunks: It’s all highly interactive and great for kids and kids at heart. Open daily Memorial Day to Columbus Day 9:30-5:30, closed Tues/Wed other times of year. $5 adults, $3 kids 7-17.
DO: Portsmouth Kayak www.portsmouthkayak.com. Modern day paddlers can view Strawberry Banke living history museum while kayaking around gentrified Portsmouth. Or circumnavigate New Castle and the beautifully restored Wentworth By the Sea. Or choose from a variety of kayaking tours. A spectacular way to get out on the water. Tours $45-$75 per person.
DO: Cool Off at Water Country. Go if it’s really hot and you need to cool off among a crowd. As this is a bit more commercialized than your average GM attraction, I’ll let one of my favorite bloggers, “A-Beautiful-Bite” Melanie, explain the ways to get the most out of a trip to this popular water Park.
WANDER/SHOP: Market Square and its offshoots. The center of Portsmouth, Market Square, is also the center of boutique shopping and for many visitors, the town’s number one lure. Running off of the Square, wander up Bow Street (curved like a bow), rebuilt in brick after a devastating fire in 1806 completely consumed the original wooden structures.
At the back of Bow St. you’ll find a selection of waterfront restaurants: Ferry Landing for fried Shrimp Basket, Harpoon Willy’s, the River House for chowder and the relatively upscale Martingale Wharf featuring a fire pit and baskets of blankets. Fun shops include Puttin’ On the Glitz for the perfect hat, Concetta’s Closet for vintage finds, and Hazel for unique clothing. Foodies may find The Salt Cellar – offering exotic salts from around the world – particularly tasty.
Best Places to Eat in Portsmouth NH
EAT: Salt Kitchen and Bar. While not officially in Portsmouth, this F2T (shorthand for the ubiquitous “farm to table”) at the venerable Wentworth By the Sea Hotel in New Castle – is worth the few minutes drive from town. The formerly fusty Wentworth dining room is now contemporary and bright, yet retains its original hand-painted domed mural.
Dine on raved-about small plates like Handmade rustic Wood Oven Roasted Meatballs ($9 – bring me another plate of these, please), light and ethereal Hand Rolled Gnocchi ($10); Prosciutto Wrapped Maine Scallops ($10) and lip-smacking Aragosta Flatbread with Caramelized Shallots, Lobster Cream, Lobster chunks and a tinge of honey – like Lobster Bisque pizza.
Staying at the Wentworth? Celebrate the spectacular view of the marina and harbor from the fire pit near the pool at the Sky Bar. For guests only.
EAT: White Apron Café. No need to leave Strawbery Banke now to eat. Grab a salad, sandwich, homemade soups and sweets at this casual, from scratch spot. Arrange a gourmet picnic to go, as well. Perfect for an al fresco lunch overlooking the waterfront, for an event at Prescott Park or for the lunchtime sailing on the gundalow Piscataqua.
EAT: There are “as many restaurant seats as citizens” in Portsmouth, so it will be virtually impossible to nail down the very best in this guide. But the following were mentioned again and again. Popovers on the Square for, well, the signature dish – a breakfast favorite for locals. Black Trumpet Wine Bar for Southern inspired farm to table cuisine, modern-American Tapas at Moxy, Cava for small plates and great tasting menu, Jumpin’ Jays Fish Cafe for exceptional fish, and the just-opened BRGR Bar for very popular “Adult Milkshakes,” like the Orange Creamsicle ($10) or Bacon Marmalade ($10).
Best Places to Stay in Portsmouth NH
STAY: Martin Hill Inn. There are plenty of full service hotels in Portsmouth, but Getaway Mavens readers generally seek a more intimate, singular, personalized, gourmet breakfast type of experience, and you won’t find one better in Portsmouth than the Martin Hill Inn. Hosts Meg and Russ took over this 7-room 2-building B&B – just a ten-minute walk to Market Square – in 2013 and are keen on the little details that make a B&B stay so special: soft drinks available round the clock, complimentary sherry in the afternoon and evenings, baked goods at check in and a full-gourmet breakfast (not to mention free wi-fi and parking). Rooms, named after clipper ships, are dressed in colonial-era finery.
The Ranger Room on the first floor features two beds (a double and single – perfect for friends traveling together), a corner hutch, other Federalist furniture and a picture of George Washington to evoke the proper era. There’s a gorgeous garden out back, perfect for an afternoon glass of wine (or summer’s eve sherry), and baked treats to welcome you back from a day of exploring. Breakfasts consist of locally grown and sourced ingredients- quiches, frittatas, stuffed French Toast and the like – and cooked to your preference. Rates are reasonable, even in high season, topping out at $210 per night. $135-$210 includes sherry, afternoon refreshments, gourmet breakfast, parking and wi-fi.
STAY: Wentworth By the Sea. One of New Hampshire’s last grand hotels, the 1874 Wentworth- a landmark in Victorian-era travel with as imposing a history as the presence it commands on Portsmouth Harbor – was rebuilt as a flagship Marriott Hotel. President Teddy Roosevelt earned the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize by negotiating, in abstentia, the end of the Russo-Japanese war here (The Treaty of Portsmouth), and treaty delegates stayed at Wentworth (30 days at no charge) while conducting formal negotiations at the Shipyard. Though much of the hotel was renovated in 2003, the central portion, including the main entrance and lobby fireplace, remained intact. As a full-service resort, rooms are luxe and come with a number of amenities and activities. Room rates start at $179 off season, $379 in season up to $1500 per night for 2 bedroom villa.