13 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Portsmouth, NH
Growing from a tiny settlement in the 1600s, where mast trees were shipped to supply the King's Navy, Portsmouth, New Hampshire quickly became one of the most important ports of the Colonial Era. Continuing to thrive as a shipbuilding center into the late 20th century, the city has a history of caring for its past, which makes it one of the most fascinating for tourists interested in American history. Few, if any, cities can claim so many Colonial and Federal homes in original condition that are open to the public.
An entire neighborhood of homes and businesses has been preserved in Strawbery Banke Museum, and almost a dozen more distinguished homes filled with original furnishings make fascinating places to visit. Portsmouth's location makes it a good base for exploring the seacoast, and it is close enough to visit on a day trip from Boston.
For a good introduction to the city and all its historic tourist attractions, stop at Discover Portsmouth, a welcome center and cultural gateway with a film on the city's colonial origins, a museum, and exhibitions of local arts.
Portsmouth has a lively arts and culture scene, much of it centering on music and live theater at The Music Hall. Built in 1878, it is one of the oldest continuously operating concert halls in the United States and has hosted vaudeville acts and greats, from Mark Twain to Wynton Marsalis. The Seacoast Repertory Theatre and the annual Prescott Park Arts Festival add to the cultural mix.
Dozens of restaurants, many owned by award-winning chefs and representing both New England classics and an array of world cuisines, have made Portsmouth a destination for foodies. Unique shops, the lively cultural calendar, and several options for cruises and boat tours add even more to this list of tourist attractions and things to do in Portsmouth.
1. Strawbery Banke
The 10-acre Strawbery Banke Museum is named for the first settlement here on the bank of the Piscataqua River, at the mouth of Great Bay. From this 1623 foundation, Portsmouth grew into a major port, and the houses gathered here represent its four centuries of history.
Adding to the historical variety, Strawbery Banke varies the interpretation and focus: some houses are furnished and decorated according to their era; some concentrate on the families that lived there; others are preserved to show how they were constructed, with cutaway displays and exhibits of tools, materials, and decorative details. One is a duplex restored to two different centuries. Costumed interpreters and artisans demonstrate cooking, household skills, period crafts, and boat-building techniques.
Because Strawbery Banke represents the continuing story of the Puddle Dock neighborhood, some of the buildings and displays represent the mid-20th century, including a fully stocked neighborhood store and a 1950s home. Several houses have period gardens that, like the household furnishings, represent the social and economic status of the former owners.
Address: 454 Court Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Official site: www.strawberybanke.org
2. Market Square
Just as Puddle Dock was the focus of 17th-century life in Portsmouth, Market Square is the center today. This broad open space is framed by the impressive North Church and distinguished brick buildings that include the venerable Portsmouth Athenaeum. More well-preserved mercantile blocks continue down Market Street toward Portsmouth's active waterfront with its row of tugboats.
Market Street is a favorite for shopping. Boutiques, specialty shops, and galleries of fine arts and decorative works by local craftspeople fill the buildings, several of which have cast-iron storefronts that were added to "modernize" them in the 19th century.
3. Prescott Park
Along the banks of the Piscataqua River next to Strawbery Banke, Prescott Park includes beautiful gardens of perennial and annual flowers, a demonstration garden, performance space, and public docks, as well as a place to sit on a bench and enjoy the flowers and harbor views.
The park is known especially for its dazzling tulip displays in the spring, and in summer for its beds of brilliant annuals. The Prescott Park Arts Festival brings music and theater performances each summer.
At the far end of the park next to the flower gardens, you'll find Point of Graves Burial Grounds, a small cemetery dating from 1671. Many of the oldest stones lie askew, having been knocked over by cows that grazed here in the cemetery's early years.
Stones mark generations of prominent and not-so-prominent Portsmouth families, including the Wentworths and Lears, whose homes are now historic museum properties. The stones, the earliest of which dates from 1684, are fine examples of early grave markers carved with traditional early folk motifs, including skulls and cherubim.
Address: Marcy Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
4. Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden
Built in 1763 by a wealthy shipowner and merchant, the Moffatt-Ladd House still contains original furniture and retains many of its early interior detail and decorative features. It is counted as one of America's finest Georgian mansions; two signers of the Declaration of Independence lived here.
Tours of its well-preserved interior begin in the Great Hall, with French scenic wallpaper dating from about 1820 and fine woodcarving. Because the original records of the house's construction still survive, a great deal is known about its history and the local artists responsible for its exceptional decorative details. Original family furnishings include outstanding examples of Portsmouth-made and English furniture, and one of the family portraits is by Gilbert Stuart.
The garden behind the mansion dates from the late 1800s, laid out around a path bordered by formal flower beds and leading up grass-covered steps to a series of terraces. Like the house, the garden looks much as it did originally, thanks to meticulously detailed records kept by generations of the family.
Address: 154 Market Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Official site: www.moffattladd.org
5. Warner House
Built in 1716 and the only surviving of the mansions that lined Daniel Street in colonial days, the Warner House is best known to art historians for the oldest painted murals in America that are still in their original place. The murals line the hall stairway, and throughout the house are exceptional examples of carved moldings and wood paneling.
Adding to its importance, the house also contains the first example of Queen Anne furniture known to have been made in America, a Sherburne high chest dating from 1733. This is part of an outstanding collection of early Portsmouth furniture and portraits. For 200 years, the Georgian brick house was the home of generations of the same family of merchants, ship captains, and one Royal Governor.
Address: 150 Daniel Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Official site: http://www.warnerhouse.org
6. Cruises from Portsmouth Harbor
The best views of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse and historic Fort Constitution, which has guarded the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor since colonial times, are from the water. Harbor cruises begin at Portsmouth's downtown docks near Market Street, where you can also board cruises to the Isles of Shoals, a small group of islands that are divided between New Hampshire and Maine.
While the islands are all privately owned, some cruises do allow landing on Star Island. Cruises to visit Celia Thaxter's Island Garden on Appledore leave from New Castle, near Fort Constitution. On any of these, you'll learn the fascinating history of the fort.
Harbor and river tours in a replica of the shallow drafted cargo sailing ships, called gundalows, which were used for local transport throughout the Colonial Era, depart from the Gundalow Docks at Prescott Park, on Marcy Street.
7. USS Albacore
Once the world's fastest submarine, the USS Albacore never went to war, but its shape, design, and equipment were the prototype for the modern submarines in use today. Now on dry land, the USS Albacore is a museum ship, and self-guided tours show how the submarine operated and what life was like for the crew.
Audio and recordings by former crew members bring the Albacore and its research mission to life. A memorial garden in Albacore Park remembers the seamen who lost their lives while serving on American submarines.
Address: 600 Market Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Official site: www.ussalbacore.org
8. Black Heritage Trail
Slavery in Colonial America was not confined to the south, and Portsmouth was a landing point for slaves who became part of the household and merchant life of the port. Although they never had the importance here that they did in the southern plantations, a 1775 census shows 656 African slaves in New Hampshire.
Most were in Portsmouth, and the Black Heritage Trail highlights Black culture of the Colonial and Federal periods. It follows a route through the city's historic center, from the wharves to the People's Baptist Church on Pearl Street, with signs identifying sites and telling the stories of people and places.
A self-guided walking tour brochure features more of the personal stories that make the history real and relevant today. The trail begins on Long Wharf, where ships arrived and slaves were auctioned. It includes the stories of household servants, slaves who were skilled artisans and leaders for abolition, and freed slaves. The trail traces Black history through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Official site: http://pbhtrail.org
9. Rundlet-May House
Built by a Portsmouth merchant in 1807, Rundlet-May House includes connected outbuildings, a carriage barn, and impressive gardens. It was a thoroughly modern home for its day, with central heating, an indoor well, and the latest in kitchen improvements that included a Rumford range and roaster. The furniture is the work of local cabinetmakers and craftsmen.
Although the house has retained original features, such as its 1807 wall coverings and many pieces of furniture, it also reflects the lives of later generations into the 20th century. The gardens are still in their original design.
Address: 364 Middle Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
10. John Paul Jones House
Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones lived in Portsmouth twice, the first time in 1777 while his warship The Ranger was being built. It is believed that he lived in a rented room here during that stay, when the 1758 sea captain's home was a boarding house.
Apart from its connection with Jones, the house is a fine example of Georgian architecture, both for its symmetrical exterior and its original paneling, moldings, and carved woodwork. Examples of later Federal-style décor show the changing tastes of the late-18th and early-19th century.
The house is furnished with the Portsmouth Historical Society's collections of furniture made by the prominent seacoast craftsmen and with locally made decorative arts. Along with these important examples, the house displays the society's extensive collection of portraits, glass, and ceramics that include China trade pieces and a textile collection. Along with outstanding examples of needlework, this includes examples of dress in Portsmouth from the 18th through the early-20th century.
Address: 43 Middle Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
11. Governor John Langdon House
Frequently listed as one of the finest Georgian homes in America, the 1785 Governor John Langdon House features ornate woodwork and period decoration and furnishings that reflect the position and prosperity of a prominent Portsmouth merchant. When he built this house, John Langdon was President of the New Hampshire Senate, later becoming a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a U.S. Senator, and three-term governor of New Hampshire.
Among the visitors the Langdons welcomed to their Portsmouth home was President George Washington on his visit to the state in 1789. The original English-built harpsichord in the parlor is likely the one the Langdons' daughter played for the president. Behind the home stretches a lawn surrounded by hedges and a border of period perennials.
Address: 143 Pleasant Street, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
12. Wentworth Coolidge Mansion
Royal Governor from 1741 to 1767, Benning Wentworth moved his center of government to this 40-room mansion overlooking Little Harbor, some distance from downtown Portsmouth, and this became the center of social and political life in the New Hampshire colony.
Today, it is the United States' only surviving residence of a Royal Governor and one of the premier homes from the Colonial Era, with fine examples of period craftsmanship, especially in the hand-carved mantelpiece. The lilacs surrounding the mansion are from the original stock that Wentworth imported and are the first lilacs to be grown in America.
Little Harbor Loop Trail follows the shoreline for 1.5 miles between the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, Creek Farm, and Portsmouth Conservation Land.
Address: 375 Little Harbor Road, Portsmouth, New Hampshire
Official site: www.nhstateparks.org
13. Fort Constitution and Portsmouth Harbor Light
If you take a cruise of the harbor or to the Isles of Shoals, you'll have sailed past Fort Constitution, in New Castle at the mouth of the Piscataqua River. And you'll have heard a bit of its fascinating history as the site of the first armed conflict of the American Revolution, in 1774.
The site was first defended in 1631, and named Fort William and Mary, after the king and queen of England. In December 1774, Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth from Boston to warn the colonists that the British were planning to reinforce the fort to protect the gunpowder stored there from possible capture by the Sons of Liberty.
Forewarned, colonists stormed the fort and seized 97 barrels of gun powder and light cannon, the first overt act of the Revolution, four months before Lexington. The gunpowder and cannon were taken by gundalow to Durham, where they were stored and later, it is thought, used in the Battle of Bunker Hill.
In 1791, it was renamed Fort Constitution and enlarged with new brick buildings and walls double the height of the original fort. The ruins of this fort, completed in 1808, are what you see here today.
Portsmouth Harbor Light, a classic white lighthouse, was constructed in 1877 and in the summer is occasionally open for tours.
Address: 25 Wentworth Road, New Castle, New Hampshire
Where to Stay in Portsmouth for Sightseeing
Portsmouth is a relatively compact port city, with most of its tourist attractions quite close together in the historic center. Many of the hotels below are also in the center, within walking distance of the main things to do. But because of the inexpensive downtown parking garage located just off popular Market Street, even those hotels outside the center and in neighboring New Castle are handy for sightseeing. We recommend these convenient hotels in Portsmouth, handy to the top historic houses and tourist attractions:
- Luxury Hotels: One of the last of New England's seaside grand hotels, Wentworth by the Sea sits majestically overlooking the water in New Castle, less than two miles from downtown Portsmouth. Beautifully renovated and modernized without losing its historic elegance, the hotel has a full-service spa, a pool, and tennis courts, as well as rooms with private balconies.
In a historic neighborhood within a 15-minute walk of shopping and historic houses, Martin Hill Inn occupies two gracious homes from the early 1800s. Set in a garden with free off-street parking, the inn is known for its beautifully decorated rooms and for its outstanding breakfasts, which are included in the rate.
Residence Inn Portsmouth Downtown/Waterfront is Portsmouth's only LEED-Certified Hotel, centrally located near shops and restaurants. The all-suite property has an indoor pool and fitness center and serves complimentary hot breakfast.
Above the waterfront end of Market Street's shopping district is the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, with large guest rooms and a dining room overlooking the harbor.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In a beautifully restored 1881 Victorian mansion, The Hotel Portsmouth is within a few steps of the John Paul Jones and Rundlet-May houses. The boutique property has 32 guest rooms and suites, with in-room iPads; parking is free.
Their contemporary style gives rooms at the downtown boutique Ale House Inn the feel of smart urban lofts. Although it's only a few steps to restaurants and historic attractions, you can use the hotel's free cruiser bikes to explore Portsmouth.
The Sailmaker's House, next to Langdon House, has family rooms in the center of historic attractions and less than five minutes from top restaurants.
- Budget Hotels: The Port Inn, located just off I- 95 and the Portsmouth Traffic Circle, offers free hot breakfast and parking, along with a heated outdoor pool and barbecue area. Rooms have microwaves, refrigerators, and coffee makers.
In the same neighborhood, Best Western Plus Portsmouth Hotel & Suites also has in-room refrigerators, microwaves, and coffee makers, and suites have full kitchens. There's a heated indoor pool and a seasonal outdoor pool, as well as a diner on the property. Kids stay free in the family-sized rooms.
Also near the Portsmouth Circle, Howard Johnson by Wyndham Portsmouth is a family-friendly hotel with free breakfasts and parking.
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Places to Visit near Portsmouth: While you're in the corner of New Hampshire that's so close to neighboring states, you may want to visit some of the tourist attractions of Massachusetts or explore the many things to do in Maine, such as Portland or the state's outstanding beaches. Portsmouth is only an hour from Boston's attractions, including the famous Freedom Trail.
Other Places to Visit in New Hampshire: Among New Hampshire's attractions are the hiking trails of the beautiful White Mountains and the state's charming lakeside and mountain resorts. If you're visiting in the summer or fall, you may be interested in enjoying the outdoors at one of New Hampshire's campgrounds or at its lake and ocean beaches; in winter, take advantage of the snow at one of the state's excellent ski resorts.