While in New England, you can't miss a quick visit to Portsmouth, the jewel of New Hampshire'a Seacoast region.
Read on for all the best tips for a day trip to remember!
Located a quick hour’s drive from Boston, Portsmouth, New Hampshire is an absolutely lovely place for a day trip, and easily one of the most popular day trips in the region. It is super quaint and eminently walkable, and located right on the border with Kittery, Maine– perfect for a weekend extension to your day trip if you have time!
What is today Portsmouth was originally a small fishing settlement called Piscataqua, later renamed Strawbery Banke, in 1623. Yes– that is spelled correctly, only 1 “r” in this Strawbery!
In 1653, the area was incorporated into the colony of New Hampshire and renamed Portsmouth. It served as the seat of colonial government until the advent of the American Revolution, but remained relevant as a shipping hub for many years after that.
Today, Portsmouth is a bustling shopping area (pro tip: New Hampshire doesn’t have sales tax!) with dreamy historic architecture, delightful walks around the Market Square area, and refreshing water views.
For those wondering when to visit, you can visit Portsmouth year round. Similarly to Boston, its coastal location makes it more temperate in winter than other locations in New England, and the Portsmouth Christmas Market is rumored to be one of the best in the country. However, a decent amount of the best things to do in Portsmouth are outdoors, so keep that in mind as you plan your visit.
We’ve visited Portsmouth in winter, spring, and summertime– just missing a fall visit to truly experience it all! Tegan visited most recently, with her mom and her sister, Nicole, in summer 2020. The weather was absolutely gorgeous, and everything was in full bloom– truly one of the best ways to spend a day in the region.
Portsmouth Top 5:
1. Water views and maritime history
Start your day in Portsmouth at waterfront Prescott Park. There is ample street parking at very reasonable prices nearby ($2/hour metered, accepts credit cards), and the 11-acre park has beautiful water views of the Piscataqua River, as well as lots of green space and benches for relaxing and picnicking (both pictures above!)
As you meander along the waterfront, check out the USS Albacore Museum if you’re interested in maritime history, and specifically submarines. The USS Albacore was an American-engineered submarine designed for speed, originally designed in 1952. At the time it was built, it was the fastest submarine in the world, and is considered the basis for submarine design still used today. You can actually walk through the submarine, which is a really neat experience.
2. Historic homes and buildings galore:
Visit the nearby Strawbery Banke Museum, which boasts an impressive 40 period buildings from the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, spanning the history of the area from 1695 to 1954. Most of the houses remain on their original foundations, and 10 of them are open to the public and have been renovated with period furniture.
Staff members dress in period attire as well, and give presentations about each one. Notably, they take a wide view of the term “historic,” as some of the buildings actually date back to more recent history– with one in particular decorated in a classic 1950s style, complete with appliances!
I am guilty of assigning “historic” to mean “1600s and 1700s” (especially in New England, part of the original 13 Colonies), but it was such a neat surprise to see the newer history as well, showing us how the area looked over the course of its >300 year history. There is a short video and presentation when you first enter, which is really informative, too!
Relatedly, the nearby Moffatt-Ladd House is a National Historic Landmark, built in 1763. It has also been preserved and renovated extensively, with impressive gardens and a collection of letters and items belonging to the house’s old inhabitants, which include several signers of the Declaration of Independence and other American Revolution luminaries.
The Warner House, dating back to 1716, is the only surviving colonial home on Daniels Street. It is best-known, however, for also being home to the oldest surviving mural that is still in its original location in the U.S.– in this case, above the main stairwell!
Lastly, the Governor John Langdon House (once belonging to… yes, Governor John Langdon, American Revolution hero and 3-term governor of New Hampshire) is another historic home to explore, which has also been turned into a museum and renovated with period furniture and decor. The woodworking is really ornate, and we particularly liked the Georgian style of architecture this one was built in. Legend has it George Washington, a repeat visitor to the Langdons, did, too!
3. Book lovers unite at the Portsmouth Athenæum and Portsmouth Book & Bar:
The Portsmouth Athenæum is any book aficionado’s dream, with wall-to-ceiling bookshelves, warm light pouring in through the windows, and lots of nooks for studying and personal edification. Built in 1817 and home to over 40,000 volumes, athanæums such as this one were very common in the 18th and 19th centuries, very few remain today– by the Portsmouth Athanæum’s estimate, less than 20. Fun fact: Boston also has a beautiful Athanæum, including a book made out of human skin! Check out our “Boston Off-the-Beaten-Path post to learn more!)
In a similar vein, a visit to Portsmouth Book and Bar is the perfect follow-up to spending some time in the Athenæum. The building was built in 1860, and served in the past first as Portsmouth’s Custom House and later as its Post Office. Today, it’s a neat bar-bookstore combo, serving coffee and tea, bar fare, and some adult beverages (beer, wine, and seasonal cocktails.) They source their teas from nearby local businesses, which is a neat opportunity to try a new flavor, and host a lot of events as well, like open mic nights, live music, and slam poetry.
4. Window shopping (or actual shopping) downtown:
Market Square and Portsmouth’s North Church form the heart and the center of Portsmouth today. Spend some time meandering around the cute shops and architecture here, perhaps stopping in for an ice cream cone someplace (Kilwin’s, though a national chain, is one favorite.)
There is a great range of window shopping opportunities here, on Market Street: from boutiques to art galleries and more. Many of the stores are locally owned and operated, and there are a lot of opportunities to support small businesses.
5. Round out your evening at the Portsmouth Music Hall or Seacoast Repertory Theatre:
If you are still in town in the evening, there are two great options for live entertainment in Portsmouth, featuring a variety of shows, music, and plays. The Music Hall, which opened as a vaudeville theatre in 1878, is one of the oldest continuously-operating music venues in the U.S., and the Seacoast Repertory Theatre also has a storied history. Be sure to check out their schedules to see what’s playing when you visit!
Have you been to Portsmouth? Let us know what your favorite spot is in the comments!
If you have longer than a day, Portsmouth is just over the bridge from Kittery, Maine, and only a little over an hour’s drive from Portland, which we really recommend! Be sure to check out our guide to Portland here, as well as our guides to Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park (our favorite!) Also nearby is Freeport, Maine (home to lots of shopping and LL Bean’s headquarters) and many beautiful beaches, like Ogunquit.
If you’re interested in a more formal tour, the town of Portsmouth has several, including boat tours, walking tours, food and beer tours, and more. See here.
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