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WHY GO: This is not the Concord of the “Shot Heard Round the World.” That Concord – site of the first armed rebellion in the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Concord and Lexington – is in Massachusetts. But you could say that New Hampshire’s Concord generates the “Shouts Heard Round the World,” as every four years presidential candidates converge on this New England town to start stumping for the nation’s first Primary. On that note, there are more State Representatives in New Hampshire – a state with a total population of 1.3 million – than in any other state in the country, including New York and Texas. Why is that?
The Mavens explore this puzzling fact on a foray to the center of government in the Granite State – a New England State where the motto remains “Live Free or Die.” Never a “tourist town,” Concord is outfitted with the goods to be one. You’ll find an indie-movie house that doubles as a wine and beer bar, a pub where Irish musicians jam every Tuesday night, a privately owned bookstore that grew so successfully, it forced out the chains, mom and pop shops, and a surprising boutique hotel – all in a civic-minded “pedestrian-friendly” downtown.
Things to Do in Concord NH
TOUR: The New Hampshire State House. This is not a Capitol on a Hill. New Hampshire’s State House stands right in the center of a thriving downtown. The 144 ft. tall structure was built in 1819 with grey granite cut by NH prisoners from a quarry just out of town (this IS the Granite State, after all), but New Hampshire’s Capitol building, the oldest state house in the nation in which the legislature meets in its original chambers, isn’t grand or elaborate. There’s a nice gold dome, and a beautiful courtyard, featuring a statue of Secretary of State, Daniel Webster (who served for 10 years as a NH State Rep), but the interior is modest by government standards. One could say that the State of New Hampshire is frugal with its public funds.
Even if you do not plan to tour the NH Capitol, there is one startling and poignant reason to stop in here: to see the actual tattered, faded, bloodstained Regiment Flags carried by New Hampshire soldiers in Antietam, Gettysburg, Bull Run and other Civil War battles. You might just get goose bumps staring at the 107 relics that have been preserved in glass cases in the State House lobby, hanging on their original poles for 150 years.
Start your tour in the Statehouse Visitor’s Center, which served as the Civil War enlistment office in 1861. If she’s available, ask for the Visitor Center’s Director, Virginia Drew, whose passion about New Hampshire history and politics is infectious. The Center contains a mini-museum of dioramas depicting what’s considered the first non-lethal act of the Revolutionary War on Dec. 14, 1774, when patriots raided what is now Fort Constitution, along with portrayals of The Battle of Bunker Hill led by New Hampshire men on June 17, 1775, and The Battle of Bennington on Aug 16, 1777 (fought in part by John Stark, whose words “Live Free or Die” became the NH State motto). There are portraits of famous New Hampshire natives in the lobby including astronaut Alan Shepard, who was born and raised in Derry, and Civil War nursing heroine, Harriet Dame, a contemporary of Clara Barton, who served with the 2nd NH Regiment.
The most fascinating part of the tour takes you into the inner sanctum of the largest House of Representatives in the USA. With 400 State Reps and 24 Senators acting as public servants in this low-population state, locals joke that if you haven’t run for a House seat, you eventually will. Unlike in other State Houses, Democrats and Republicans from all walks of life sit together, allowing for discussion and negotiation. These politicians, currently 18-98 years old, earn $200 total for a two-year term, and most balance full-time farming, industrial or professional jobs with public service. Serving in New Hampshire’s State House is effectively a volunteer job with no fame or fortune payoff. The sense of civic duty runs deep in this state.
Enter the State Senate chamber — “The House of the People” — to see a desk dating back to 1819. For the “First In Nation” Presidential Primary, every single presidential candidate has traditionally signed in at this desk before embarking on his or her individual campaigns. Here, Virginia explains, the 24 senators conduct sessions the old fashioned way: requesting the floor not just by raising their hands, but adding a hand gesture that evokes the Chicken Dance. It’s these little details that make a tour here so engaging. Visitor’s Center open Mon-Fri 8am-4:30pm, Free.
VISIT: New Hampshire Historical Society in the Tuck Building. Before entering, note the pediment carved by Daniel Chester French (who sculpted The Lincoln Memorial in DC) over the entrance to the Beaux-Arts Tuck Building, giving you an idea of the value and praiseworthiness of this stunning structure.
It’s worth a quick few minutes to pop inside if only to see the gorgeous skylight-dome rotunda, brass work banisters, arched walls, French marble floors, and ceiling clad in magnificent rust-red Sienna Marble. The building houses more than 33,000 artifacts – “the saved history of New Hampshire”- including antique ad signs, furniture, and libraries open to all. The Tuck Library, named for the founder of Dartmouth College Business School, has the largest collection of historical information available in northern New England. Open Tues – Sat. 9:30-5, Free.
VISIT: State Library Building. If you are researching your family ties to New Hampshire you’ll want to get down to work in the well-stocked and spacious Genealogy Room. The State Library Building was erected in 1894 as home to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, however money was apparently spent on its grand Italian Renaissance exterior (grey Conway and Concord granite, natch), but inside, not so much, at least lately. Think library stacks lit by fluorescent bulbs standing on linoleum floors. Upstairs, sense how spectacular this place must have been when first built, with an arched arcade-style glass ceiling that runs the length of the top floor. Open Mon-Fri 8am-4:30pm, Free.
SEE: Red River Theater. Custom built in 2007 to be 100% Digital, this non-profit, aesthetically appealing, membership-based Indie Theater goes beyond the usual art movie into Sing-Alongs, “Quote-A-Longs,” Film Discussions and other specialty programming in three comfortable cinema rooms. A full selection of beer and wine sweetens the experience. Red River is incredibly popular with the Concord community, and visitors too, once they discover its small-town, sophisticated charms.
SEE: Capitol Center for the Arts. This 1927 Vaudeville House was rescued by members of the community after going down the tubes in 1989. Reopened in 1995, it now hosts the likes of Elvis Costello and Jackson Browne along with live feeds from the Bolshoi Ballet, the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theater. First built just after the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb, the latest renovation brought the theater’s original colorful Egyptian motif back to life.
VISIT: McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. Named for hometown astronaut heroes Alan Shepard and Concord teacher Christa McAuliffe (who died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986), this newly renovated planetarium offers daily shows and Friday Night events. The Center also has hands on science exhibits. Open Friday and Saturdays 10:30-4. Extended hours during summer months. $10 adults, $7 kids.
VISIT/SHOP: Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden. A couple of miles outside of town, you’ve got to keep a keen eye out for the sign on Hopkinton Rd. Though billed as a gallery, Mill Brook seems like a residential home, set beautifully on fields and a small pond – the perfect venue for showcasing funky outdoor sculpture to greatest effect. A small indoor gallery highlights local jewelry and paintings as well. Prices are reasonable compared to most city galleries. Open April 1-Dec 24th Tues-Sun. 11am-5pm.
VISIT/SHOP: Gibson’s Bookstore/True Brew. When an independently owed bookstore forces out a Barnes and Nobel or Borders, they are doing something right. Gibson’s, which hosts author readings and other programming, and has taken over a full city block, is doing just that.
SHOP: League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. Two outposts in Concord (on the same street!) exhibit regional mixed media and hand made crafts. The first, adjacent to the Concord Visitors Center, is more like a museum than a store – literally shedding light on the work of the best quilters, ceramicists, painters, photographers, woodworkers and others in New Hampshire (and in Vermont, MA and Maine within ten miles of the NH border). The store downtown offers a bigger and better selection of one-of-a-kind gifts. It’s the perfect New Hampshire souvenir shop for those loath to discover that a “local craft” has been stamped with “Made in China.” Here, you’ll find the certified real deal.
Best Restaurants in Concord NH
EAT: The Barley House Tavern. Right on Main St. across from the State House, this Irish Pub is known for its “killer” burgers. But the Brick Pressed Crispy Maple Chicken ($18) is nothing to scoff at either. On Tuesday nights, the Barley House turns into a rollicking fiddle-fest, when Irish Musicians pick up fiddles, accordions, dulcimers, banjos, flutes and other instruments to delight surrounding diners. It’s so grass-roots and authentic, you might assume that you’ve stumbled into an Ole Irish Pub in Killarney. And what of those burgers? The McBarley with Russian dressing, pickles and roasted red onions ($12), and Korean BBQ with Soy Ginger Sauce and pickled cukes ($13) are just a few favorites.
EAT: Live Juice. Get fresh juice squeezed and blended from fruit picturesquely adorning the counter, custom-made chopped salads, and other raw dishes and this new Concord Main Street hot-spot. When you tire of burgers and fries and yearn for higher-order rabbit food, brand new Live Juice is more than just peachy. It’s the whole produce section.
EAT: Other local restaurant of note recommended by those who live here: contemporary and sophisticated Granite at the Centennial Inn, O’s – an old fashioned chop house, Sunny’s Table for “New Asian,” and Angelina’s – small, quaint, great Italian.
Where to stay in Concord NH and Environs
STAY: The Centennial. What was, in the 1870’s, a nursing home for the indigent elderly is now a sleek, contemporary luxury boutique hotel a ten-minute stroll from downtown. It’s strange to carry your bags up the cement steps of this turreted brick building into what you’re imagining will be a drab institutional corridor to find – surprise, surprise – a bright 21st Century lobby. “Not what you expected, huh?” a perky receptionist says and most likely repeats each and every time a guest checks in. Suites are large, comfy and modern in an unfussy way that doesn’t assault the senses, with large flat-screen TV’s and plump white duvets topped by crisp pinstriped pillows. Updated bathrooms feature stone tile floors, modern fixtures and wonderful glass and mosaic-tile showers. And you don’t have to go far to dine in one of the best restaurants in town: Granite is just off the lobby. Rooms and Suites $135 – $240 per night.
STAY: Colby Hill Inn, Henniker (20 minute drive from Concord). Traditional American four-poster beds, fluffy brocade bedding, and small fireplaces – it’s as if George Washington had just stepped out to tend to his troops and horses here at the Colby Hill Inn. Though Washington never slept in this 1797 tavern, Ted Turner and Gina Davis have and they – like all guests – were treated to chocolate truffles on the nightstand, a wine list that caught the eye of Wine Spectator Magazine, an in-ground pool and floor to ceiling windows in the dining room through which you watch an ever-changing display of feasting birds. Each room is imbued with traditional American antiques – leaning this way and that on original wide-planked floors – along with contemporary amenities. Room rates ($144 – $285) include made-to-order breakfasts, use of outdoor pool, and hot-from-the-oven cookies with soft drinks in the afternoon.