11 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 are open to visit. You can find many of these attractions by following the Portsmouth Harbor Trail along the waterfront and through Market Square into streets of well-preserved old homes. Along with the historic homes listed here, others to consider visiting are the 1758 John Paul Jones House, where Captain John Paul Jones lived while in Portsmouth, and the 1664 Richard Jackson House, the oldest standing building in New Hampshire. Unique shops, a lively cultural calendar, and a number of options for cruises and boat tours add even more to the list of things to do in Portsmouth.
1 Strawbery Banke
The ten-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
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. Above the waterfront end of Market Street's shopping district is the Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, with a dining room overlooking the harbor.
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
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
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, is 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, which was the site of the first armed conflict of the American Revolution, in 1774.
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
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.
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 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
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