Originally settled in 1623, Portsmouth is a Picturesque New England Town located along the western bank of the Piscataqua River that divides New Hampshire and Maine. When you walk down the brick sidewalks of Portsmouth, passing historic Colonial, Federal and Georgian houses that edge its narrow streets, you will understand why Forbes Traveler magazine listed Portsmouth as one of “America’s Prettiest Towns”.
If you are thinking about visiting Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the future, I thought you might be interested in what my husband and I like to call our “A Tour” when we have out of town guests staying with us that want to see Portsmouth for the first time.
I suggest starting the day at Market Square. Typical of many of New England’s town squares, the beautiful historic North Church is the focal point of the square with its tall white steeple which can be seen from most of the historic part of the city.
Breaking New Grounds, across the street from the North Church, beckons you to start your day with a hot cup of coffee. Step inside the corner store and you are immediately welcomed with the aroma of freshly roasted coffee beans. While you are waiting in line, try to decide on which one of the wonderful coffees you want to sample. You will also be tempted by the display cases that are filled with delicious pastries. Oh go ahead, a piece of pastry will give you energy before you start your exploration of the town. If it is a nice day, I suggest you take your purchases and head for one of the tables outside. You can admire the architecture of the buildings from the 1800’s and watch the world as it passes by your table.
While sitting outside on a pretty day, you can’t help but notice the large groups of bicycles, scooters and motorcycles that are always parked along the street and sidewalk. The square is where all the action is…you will see a mixed group of locals, tourists and usually a number of students from the nearby University of New Hampshire that all like to hang out here. You almost feel like you could be in one of the old neighborhoods of nearby Boston but without all the crowds.
You are at the energetic heart of the quaint downtown. Head out from the square towards Bow, Ceres, Market, Pleasant, Daniel, Congress, or Penhallow streets and you will find stately brick Federalist stores and townhouses that have been converted into a mixture of upscale boutiques, quirky gift shops, art and craft galleries that feature works by local artists. You will also find brew pubs, sidewalk cafes, and restaurants with water views. After exploring this area, head towards the waterfront.
Portsmouth, in the prospering 18th and 19th centuries, was known as one of the nation’s busiest ports and shipbuilding centers in our country. Timber framed warehouses once lined its shoreline to accommodate cargo ships anchored in the harbor. Today, only two of the historic warehouses remain. One is the Sheafe warehouse, which was built in 1705. It was designed so that the shallow draft gundalows could easily transfer cargo between the warehouses and the ships anchored in the harbor.
You can sail on the Piscataqua, a reproduction gundalow, like the ones that were very prevalent on the river years ago. You will find it up tied up against the dock on the river, located behind Prescott Park.
Look out across the river from here and you will see the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard which specializes in the retrofitting of the U.S. submarine fleet. Over the years, both the states of New Hampshire and Maine have claimed that the shipyard was in their state but it took the U.S. Supreme Court to decide that the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard belonged to the state of Maine.
In the same area of the waterfront, you will now find the city’s pretty 10 acre waterfront Prescott Park where the warehouses and other derelict buildings once stood.
Depending on the time of year you visit the park, you might be able to attend one of the very popular food or beer festivals, plays or concerts that might be scheduled. The park is filled with interesting sculptures and colorful flowerbeds that change with the seasons. You will find benches throughout the park so that you can relax and enjoy the views of the river. I believe you will enjoy watching as tugboats, tankers, barges, yachts and other watercraft make their way in the swiftly moving waters of the Piscataqua River.
Walk across the street from the park and you will discover Strawbery Banke. The area is considered the oldest neighborhood in New Hampshire, settled by European colonists in 1630. It is also the earliest remaining neighborhood in the city of Portsmouth. The area got its name from wild strawberries that were part of the surrounding landscape.
This part of Portsmouth is now known as the Strawbery Banke Museum, a 10 acre outdoor history museum that has a collection of 40 restored buildings built between the 17th and 19th centuries in either Colonial, Georgian, or Federal style architecture. Ten of the houses that you can visit are furnished with historic interiors. You will get a chance to see how homes evolved and were used for everyday life from the 1600’s to 1954. This area of Portsmouth was saved from imminent destruction when it was considered for urban renewal.
You can spend several hours in Strawbery Banke on your own self guided tour of the buildings and period gardens. Seasonal events, tours and demonstrations are also held around major holidays.
I believe the Christmas season is a particularly pretty time to visit. The grounds are lit with candle lanterns and the houses are filled with live greens and handmade decorations. You are greeted by costumed docents who explain the traditions from simpler times. If you get cold, you can warm up by an outdoor bonfire and listen to carolers singing holiday songs. You can also warm up with a cup of hot apple cider from the Cider Shed.
Once you have learned about the tools and skills needed to build these historic homes, leave the museum and walk through neighborhood streets that date back to the 17th century. You will see evidence of the town’s previous wealth as you admire the fine architecture details of its beautiful homes.
By now, your feet are probably tired and you are thinking about food. If you want a snack, try Annabelle’s Ice Cream on Ceres Street next to the waterfront. They have lots of flavors to choose from, including their famous New Hampshire pure maple walnut. My favorite is ginger or as New Englanders say, “ginga”. You can walk a short distance down the street and enjoy your ice cream at the newly built picnic area and admire the tugboats that help ships and barges navigate the swift waters of the Portsmouth harbor.
If it is lunchtime, you might want to try Five Thai Bistro. It is located around the corner from the North Church on Pleasant Street. The restaurant is open every day for both lunch and dinner. It is a simply decorated restaurant with friendly service and very good food. They always have a few specials listed on the blackboard over the bar along with their regular menu. You might want to do what my husband and I do and order a special along with items from the regular menu such as Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Deluxe Pad Thai and Seafood Pad Sha and share all the deliciousness.
If you want to know my recommendation for dinner, it is the Black Trumpet.
I am sometimes hesitant to mention one of my favorite places to eat knowing that once everyone finds out about it, it will be hard to get a reservation. The Black Trumpet is already one of the most talked about restaurants in Portsmouth so all of us need to make reservations well in advance. If you are a foodie, you will enjoy the inventive food of Chef Evan Mallett. He was a James Beard semifinalist for the Best Chef of the Northeast.
The chef owned bistro and wine bar is located in a 200 year old building that was once a ship’s chandlery on Ceres Street. The main dining room, with a front window that looks out at the river, is small with low ceilings, hand hewn beams, with brick and stone walls. If dining before dark, you might want to ask for a table upstairs in the small wine bar that has a nice view of the harbor. Chef Mallett changes his menu frequently. The simple but delicious Mediterranean inspired dishes feature fresh seasonal ingredients sourced from the local waters and farms in the area. Everything we have ever ordered has been delicious.
Even though the restaurant is known as a casual bistro, the restaurant is where we go when we want to entertain guests or to celebrate a special occasion as we know the meals will be memorable. Dining at the Black Trumpet would be a nice way to end your day of exploring historic Portsmouth.
Portsmouth is a compact and very walkable town that buzzes with energy. Whether you enjoy live music venues, the theater, good brew pubs or great restaurants, Portsmouth has a lot to offer residents of New Hampshire as well as visitors from around the world. What more could anyone want from a picturesque New England town. I hope you get a chance to visit someday and that my suggestions will be helpful.