WHY GO: 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 wise-crackers 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.
Things to Do in Manchester NH
TOUR: Anheuser Busch Merrimack Brewery, Merrimack
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” ($10). You’ll learn about the history of Anheuser-Busch, about 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. Tours Wed-Sun 11-4.
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 is 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 website for solstice rituals and candlelight snowshoe tours. Open 9-5 daily, $13.
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. Wed-Mon 11-5, open 10am Sat, Free tours with admission 1pm.
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 Zimmerman’s 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 Zimmerman’s. So they visited the great architect in Wisconsin and it was there that Wright sketched out plans for the house.
Frank Lloyd Wright 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 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. April – Dec. Thurs-Mon 11:30am and 2PM $20 includes van transport and museum admission.
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 1800’s 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 Mfg. Co. 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 moral 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 Mills 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 1990’s, 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. Open Tues-Sun 10-4, $9 adults, $5 kids.
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 sits 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 1900’s. The museum offers an intriguing look at the triumph of membership-based banking over profit motive.
In the early 1900’s, 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. Open Mon, Wed, Fri 10-4. Donation accepted.
SEE: See Science Center, Manchester
Even if you’re not into Lego’s, 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. $9, Mon-Fri 10-4, Sat and Sun 10-5.
VISIT: Amoskeag Fishways, Manchester
Follow the painted fish on the walkways from the parking lot (near LaQuinta Inn), all the way down the hill past a sloping series of concrete tanks.
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.
Other times of year, stop in to the small but fun Visitor’s Center, with exhibits focused on the Merrimack River right outside. Unfortunately, after a change of ownership in 2019, you’ll have to check the website to see if/when the Visitor’s Center is open.
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. Bonbons $3.50 each, bars start at $10.
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 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. Open 11am-9pm, tastings $8 for 5 wines, $13 for 10.
Restaurants In Manchester NH
EAT/BREAKFAST: Dancing Lion Chocolate
Scarf down one of the most popular street foods in San Juan – 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 wine making 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.
EAT/DINNER: Cotton, Manchester
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: Milly’s Brewery/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, Manchester NH
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.
Locals love this ethnic mish-mash of a place where Steak Frittes, Spanish Meatballs, and Falafel plates share the menu. According to one amiable bartender, Republic, bar-none, makes the best Dark & Stormy’s.
DRINK: 815 Cocktails and Provisions
Find the daily password on the website. Then speak it (easy) into a phone in a phone booth to gain entry into this dimly lit cocktail haven.
Hotels In Manchester NH
STAY: Ash St. 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 1900’s luster, the place retains its Victorian charm. It’s located just two short blocks from the Currier Museum. Margit, a cell biologist PhD 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 hard wood 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.
Room rates from $159-$229 per night. Includes gourmet made to order breakfast, snacks and soft-drinks during the day.