Located along the scenic Merrimack River, Manchester stands as New Hampshire’s largest city and a vibrant mix of history, culture, and contemporary life. Far removed from its industrial roots, the city today is a bustling hub. Whether you’re an art lover, a gastronome, or an avid fan of the great outdoors, there’s no shortage of things to do in Manchester NH.
Why is it that Manchester NH, a former textile mill city, was the hometown of two cool comedians – Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman? What is it about this up-by-its-own bootstraps city that creates wisecrackers and attracts entrepreneurs and innovators?
Manchester, New Hampshire’s Queen City, is a town built on self-sufficiency and community spirit. In fact, its first canal built in 1802, was funded through lottery tickets.
When textile mills failed, local banks and businessmen stepped in to purchase and repurpose them. The American Credit Union was founded here, and small business owners are still following dreams and making it big. But Manchester as a tourist destination?
Yes, and here’s why: exciting museums (one with the best Lego assemblage in the world), one-of-a-kind chocolates, wineries and breweries, two Frank Lloyd Wright homes (one open for tours), fantastic restaurants, and a great B&B. Read on to discover how you can make the most of your trip to this captivating locale.
Where is Manchester NH?
Manchester is located in southern New Hampshire, approximately 20 miles from the border with Massachusetts. It sits on the banks of the Merrimack River and serves as the most populous city in the state.
As the economic and cultural hub of New Hampshire, Manchester is well-connected by highways, making it easily accessible from major cities like Boston, which is just about an hour’s drive away, and under two hours from Portland, Maine. The city also has its own regional airport, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, providing further convenience for travelers.
The distance between Manchester and the White Mountains varies depending on which part of the mountain range you’re aiming for. Generally speaking, it’s about a 2- to 2.5-hour drive via Interstate 93. The distance can range from approximately 90 to 130 miles, depending on your specific destination within the White Mountains. This makes it a feasible day trip if you’re based in Manchester and want to explore some of New Hampshire’s most stunning natural landscapes.
Things to Do in Manchester NH
Budweiser beer is still brewed the same way it was back in 1876 when two German immigrants created a unique, American-style beer. This is one of A-B’s smaller breweries, generating 3.1 million barrels/year for New England consumption vs. 15.8 million barrels/year at its main plant in St. Louis MO.
But New Hampshire is home to the largest number of those behemoth Clydesdale horses. See them, in stalls and while training on several tracks, whether or not you take a tour of the brewery.
Take the “Brewery Fresh Tour.” You’ll learn about the history of Anheuser-Busch, the beer-making process, and the fact that Bud Light, America’s most popular brew, actually contains more alcohol than regular Budweiser. Best of all, you’ll end up in the pub to taste some.
TOUR: America’s Stonehenge – Salem NH
What makes this 110-acre grouping of boulders and rock wall ruins “America’s Stonehenge?” It’s not so much that it looks like its namesake in the UK, but that, like its British counterpart, larger stones dating back 4,000 years were apparently used to observe solar and lunar alignments.
Purchased in 1955 by the appropriately named Robert E. Stone, this mysterious property in Salem NH is now run by the family’s third generation. It is listed as a State Historic Site.
Admittedly, the entrance and some of the signage are a bit kitschy. But there is no denying that these criss-crossing walls and structures made of rocks hewed by prehistoric inhabitants are somewhat puzzling.
Archeologists from the most elite universities continue to study this place. Wear sturdy shoes – there are lots of roots and stones on well-marked paths. Plan at least an hour to walk from the Visitor’s Center about a mile out, around, and back from the ruins. Check the website for solstice rituals and candlelight snowshoe tours.
VISIT: Currier Museum of Art – Manchester NH
Built in 1929, this eclectic museum holds a wealth of art and artifacts – with a concentration on New Hampshire furniture makers. The first classical building is flanked by contemporary additions. The latest, named the Winter Garden, encloses the original front entrance and incorporates a lovely café.
You’ll find a bevy of New England artists – Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley, Augustus St. Gaudens, Grandma Moses. Modern art’s usual suspects – Rothko, Calder, Hopper, Wyeth – show up as well.
Don’t miss conversation pieces like Jon Brooks blue tinted curly maple bench and “The Family” – a sculpture by Marisol Escobar that was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1970.
TOUR: Zimmerman House – Manchester NH
The only Frank Lloyd Wright house in New England open to the public, the Zimmerman House is a prime example of his Usonian-style design. Lloyd Wright conceived this small, single-story precursor to the “Ranch” as a home meant for the middle class.
Built in 1950 for Dr. Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman, they were the only owners of the home for 36 years and lived, died, and are buried here – rendering this property one of the most intact, originally conceived FLW designs in the country.
The Zimmermans discovered Wright while researching architects for a home in the park-like section of Manchester’s North End, stumbling on a book about him in the local library.
Though forward-thinking for the time, Wright’s philosophy about integrating living space with nature intrigued the Zimmermans. So they visited the great architect in Wisconsin and it was there that Wright sketched out plans for the house.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Vision
Wright never set foot in Manchester, but he did dispatch his construction supervisor, John Geiger, who oversaw the building of this 1,700-square-foot home that sits diagonally on a one-acre lot. Its fortress-like exterior opens onto rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking gardens in the back.
While everything inside was designed by Wright– including built-in seating that runs the length of the living room, galley kitchen, small bedrooms, a carport – this home is more elegant than most.
White area carpets soften the living room, rust and yellow upholstery shimmer with metallic thread (funky fabric chosen by Wright’s daughter in NYC). The grand piano and a quartet stand showcase Dr. Zimmerman’s musical proclivities.
Shelves stocked with African Art are exactly as the family left them. 1 ½ hour tours begin at the Currier Museum of Art and sell out far in advance, so it’s imperative that you make reservations early.
VISIT: Millyard Museum
Manchester has been an innovative city from its inception. Levi Strauss first made denim here, which he shipped to San Francisco to supply hopefuls during the Gold Rush. In 1958, Velcro Industries moved to Manchester and is still headquartered here.
Nothing tells the story of Manchester better than the Millyard Museum, housed in the very complex that put The Queen City on the map.
During the pre-colonial period, Native Americans camped on this river for its abundance of fish, tired out from their swim upstream, at the base of the Amoskeag (“Place of Many Fish”) Falls.
In 1802, a canal, funded by money raised from the sale of lottery tickets, was built to harness the power of the falls. By the mid-1800s the raging water powered hundreds of looms in textile mills that ran a mile along the river, like a red-brick fortress.
For decades, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company was a benevolent employer, providing mill workers with homes and parks. But in 1922, the company cut wages and increased the workweek, leading to low morale and strikes.
Down But Not Out
Then came the double-whammy of Christmas Eve, 1935, when the company went bankrupt – putting 17,000 people out of work on the worst possible day. And then, a devastating flood three months later damaged the buildings seemingly beyond repair.
However, when an outside interest offered to purchase the vast property for $5 million, the local community gathered together for a “Save Amoskeag Drive.” Amazingly, they raised $500,000 in ten days to take the real estate off the auction block.
When a NY firm then offered $7 million, locals turned down the quick profit in order to retain ownership of the mills. They consequently sold buildings piecemeal to diversified industries.
One was a tannery. And here’s a strange factoid. In 1957, Amoskeag Millyard suffered the only outbreak of inhalation anthrax in the USA. The poison was believed to have traveled to the US in goat hides from Greece. Several people died. The whole building was demolished.
A Brand New Life
By the 1990s, the area had deteriorated once again. Enter Dean Kamen, developer of the Segway, and FIRST Robotics Competition, who felt strongly about the legacy of the mills. So, he purchased them and refurbished many.
Still on the cutting edge of innovation, Kamen’s company creates prosthetics and robotic wheelchairs for the military. The firm is working, like many businesses and University outposts in the Millyard, on the next best thing. The Millyard Museum is currently tough to find, with no signage. Enter 200 Bedford St. and you’ll find it on the second floor.
VISIT: John Stark’s Gravesite in Stark Park
Revolutionary hero, General John Stark (1752-1822), coined the phrase that lives on as the New Hampshire motto: “Live Free or Die.” Written as a dinner toast, the phrase continued – “Death is not the worst of evils.” The beautiful gravesite and statue sit in renovated Stark Park, about a mile from the Millyard.
Manchester NH is known as The Birthplace of America’s Credit Union.” Smirk if you will, but this museum, an homage to the USA’s First Credit Union, opened as St. Mary’s Bank in Manchester NH in the early 1900s. The museum offers an intriguing look at the triumph of membership-based banking over profit motive.
In the early 1900s, over 30,000 French Canadians came to Manchester to work in the mills. Most attended nearby St. Mary’s Church. Local banks, owned by shareholders, did not cater to laborers, especially those who spoke only French.
This type of membership-owned banking was so rock steady. Not one Credit Union failed during the Great Depression. Though the museum is stocked with papers, posters and other memorabilia relating to Credit Unions, my favorite object is a black iron safe with cash drawer and file cabinet inside – found in a barn.
Amazingly, both St. Mary’s Church and St. Mary’s Bank continue to thrive nearby.
SEE: See Science Center – Manchester
Even if you’re not into Legos, you must come to the See to see the “World’s largest permanent installation of mini-figure sized Legos in the world.”
It took two Master Lego Builders and hundreds of volunteers, using three million pieces, over three years (ten thousand “build hours”) to complete the Millyard, City Hall and Manchester’s parks, circa 1905.
Water runs through canals and pipes. A trolley toddles down its track. And there are plenty of vignettes to keep eagle eyes busy for hours. The 2,100 sq ft installation is so unique, the President of Lego flew over from Denmark for the opening.
The See has 80 interactive exhibits, incorporating pulley chairs, optics, bubbles, robotic arms, a simulated “moon walk” and plenty more. It’s hands-on “Do” science.
This is also one of the Getaway Mavens’ recommendations for a quirky romantic place to pop the question in New Hampshire.
VISIT: Amoskeag Falls and Amoskeag Fishways
Amoskeag Falls, a captivating natural feature on the Merrimack River, has long been a cornerstone of Manchester’s history and landscape. Once the powerhouse behind the city’s early industrial growth, the falls now offer a serene backdrop for residents and visitors.
The Amoskeag Fishways Learning and Visitors Center nearby offers educational programs, providing a fascinating look at the river’s ecology and the famous fish ladder that helps migrating fish navigate the falls. Whether you’re an avid photographer or simply looking to appreciate some natural beauty, Amoskeag Falls is an essential stop when exploring Manchester.
These are fish ladders. And if you want to see trout, bass, carp, salmon and other fish frantically attempting to “swim upstream,” come in May and June when the ladder comes alive with splashing, jumping fish.
SHOP: Dancing Lion Chocolate
When is a chocolate shop more than a chocolate shop? When it doubles as a chocolate art gallery.
Dancing Lion defies classification. To say that it specializes in the world’s best and esoteric cacao and offers architectural and textural tiles and bars of chocolate the likes you’ve never seen before does not do it justice. There is just no other place like it.
Though you may not want to eat the bronzed reliefs or Monet-painted bars, “we do expect people to eat it,” says owner Richard Tango-Lowy, a physicist in his former life, until the chocolate bug bit him.
Now, Tango-Lowy and his genius crew make limited edition runs (20-200 pieces) of exquisite bites and bars, incorporating fruits, spices and even color into the creations. Tango-Lowy runs an intense 4-day professional chocolate prep course, and other daylong classes for the curious.
TOUR/TASTE: LaBelle Winery – Amherst
This woman-owned winery/bistro/shop/crucible of ideas proves that hard work, intelligence, guts, and a strong leap of faith can result in a stunning culinary destination. I’d go so far as to say that LaBelle is the most compelling destination winery in New England.
Amy LaBelle was a practicing lawyer when she took a long drive across the country and, in a California winery “had an epiphany”- a powerful feeling that “this is what I should be doing.”
Having never made wine before, LaBelle became “wine obsessed.” By 2001, LaBelle concocted the first gallon in her kitchen and started to expand.
As a testament to LaBelle’s ingenuity, LaBelle turned an overabundance of hot peppers in her garden into a new line of culinary products called Winemakers Kitchen.
LaBelle fermented the extra peppers, creating Jalapeño Cooking Wine – introducing a no-sodium alternative to those currently on the market. The Cooking Wines line shelves filled with other condiments and spices – all with the Winemaker’s Kitchen label.
Amy and her husband, Cesar Arboleda, now preside over the largest winery in New England (by volume), turning 80,000 gallons/year into 31 different wines.
They purchased 11 acres with a popular sledding hill and went to pains to leave the popular slope as is – offering hot chocolate to sledders in wintertime. Other acreage is devoted to seven grape varieties and a vegetable garden.
You can join a Yoga class, hear Health and Art Series lectures, and dine on wonderful garden-to-plate cuisine in a space that overlooks the wine production room (see where to eat below).
The Dry Apple and Heirloom Apple Wines go perfectly with Grafton Cheddar Cheese. But my favorite is the Seyval Blanc, not well known but imminently drinkable.
Manchester NH Restaurants
EAT/BREAKFAST: Dancing Lion Chocolate
Scarf down one of the most popular street foods in San Juan, Puerto Rico – the Mallorca – a sugar-dusted sweet roll stuffed with ham, local cheese, and a “splash of maple syrup.”
Wash it down with pure hot drinking chocolate from a soup bowl (no handle). Now, that’s a breakfast that will be inscribed in memory.
EAT/LUNCH/DINNER: La Belle Winery
Dine overlooking 23 ft. 3,300-gallon steel tanks and the business of winemaking in this contemporary winery, store, and bistro. Food is from the ground fresh, made in a “scratch kitchen” and is worth the 20-minute drive from downtown Manchester.
EAT/DINNER: Copper Door
A few miles from downtown, the nondescript exterior put the fear of “chain restaurant” in me. And then, I pushed open that gorgeous copper front door and entered a stylish room with soaring beamed cathedral ceiling and vibrant modern landscape oil paintings.
Cuisine is “innovative” American Pub. Or what they call “Approachable New American.” Find BBQ “Porky” Tots, Duke Bourbon Bacon Beef Tips,, Buttermilk Fried Chicken, and other amazingly good coronary disruptors. Start with Savory Monkey Bread – a pre-dinner take on the sweet version.
Part of the riverfront mill-repurposing project, Cotton, its name a nod to its previous life as a cotton warehouse, is busy all through the week.
Offerings are good and of the trendy sort. Choose Asian Pot Stickers, Blueberry Kale Salad, Almond-Crusted Turkey Schnitzel, and a Tomato, Corn, and Arugula Salad lightly dressed and fresh as a summer’s eve.
EAT/DRINK: Stark Brewing Co.
Peter Telge opened New Hampshire’s second brewery downstairs in the 1881 Stark Building – a former picking mill. He doesn’t advertise, but thousands of folks seem to find this rather hidden place anyway.
Known for its Oatmeal Stout and Pumpkin ales, Milly’s offers 19 “cask-condition” beers on tap and pretty typical pub food. Fried Chicken Tenders, however, are wonderfully and uncommonly tender.
EAT: Red Arrow Diner
This so-classic-its-retro diner is considered the “epicenter of the political world.” Every four years, nearly every politician on the campaign trail ends up here. And they’ve been doing so for decades. Come for a cup of coffee and gaze at all the pictures on the walls.
Hotels In Manchester NH
STAY: Ash Street Inn
Manchester has plenty of chain hotels. But there’s only one bed and breakfast. Fortunately, the Ash Street Inn has much to recommend it.
Rob and Margit Wezwick own this lovely 5-bedroom inn. Renovated to its early 1900s luster, the place retains its Victorian charm. It’s located just two short blocks from the Currier Museum. Margit, a cell biologist Ph.D. who grew up in a family-run Guest House in Germany, and Rob, a high-tech guy with a degree in Culinary Arts, provide a delicious, anticipatory, and appealing guest experience.
Rooms at Ash Street Inn
Original stained glass graces most windows. And décor in each room varies, though all are absolutely lovely. Room 206 upstairs sports forest green walls, an Oriental rug covering a polished hardwood floor, both a Queen and Day Bed, ample lighting and a sense of elegance.
And the best part – especially for business travelers who prefer a “home-like” stay – there are many electrical outlets. Two are right on the bedside table – very unusual for a B&B. Other rooms feature fireplaces and four poster beds.
Adorable bathrooms are stocked with everything you’ll ever need, thanks to guest-house savvy Margit. You’ll find thirsty Turkish towels, toothpaste, Advil, Tylenol, makeup remover pads, and even an iron, laundry bags, and a lint roller.
Breakfast at Ash Street Inn
Rob and Margit imbue the place with warmth and proficiency – a tough combination to pull off in this biz. You can watch Rob, through a windowed wall between the dining room and kitchen. In his chef’s whites, he whips up great omelets, French Toast, or whatever you’d like, for breakfast. Each afternoon, you’ll find him baking treats for guests returning to the inn.