Planning a stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire? Here’s where to eat, drink, and stay, and what to see and do.
When my friend proposed the idea spending a few days in Portsmouth, NH as one of the stops on a recent road trip, I had no idea what to expect. I knew very little about Portsmouth except that the seaside city was known for its quaint New England vibe and for serving wieners and lobster rolls in New England stlye top-split hot-dog buns. However, after spending a few days there, I learned that Portsmouth is about so much more than seafood sandwiches served in unique bread shapes.
Settled in the early 1600s, Portsmouth is one of the United States’ oldest communities. Located an hour’s drive from Boston, the small port city is known for its picturesque setting and architecture dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries. While you’ll find plenty of cobblestone streets and historical monuments at every turn, Portsmouth is young and vibrant. Home to a thriving local food scene and a host of craft breweries, it’s easy to fall in love with Portsmouth’s low-key sophistication. Also, did I mention there’s an ice cream buffet within driving distance?
If you have a few days in Portsmouth, NH and plan on seeing, doing, and eating as many amazing things as possible, here are a few not-to-be-missed places to check out.
Where to Eat and Drink
Trying the local seafood in Portsmouth is a must. If you’re near historic Market Square, Jumpin’ Jay’s is just two blocks away and serves refined seafood dishes in a modern setting. The menu includes gourmet takes on classics like crab cakes and New England clam chowder alongside dishes like Yellowtail Tuna served with Hakurei Turnip and Fennel in a Sweet Miso Garlic Cashew Broth.
This over-the-top kitschy diner serves some of the best brunch in town—just ask the locals. Signature dishes include things like Doughnut Stop Believin’ (a French toasted doughnut sandwich filled with scrambled eggs, sausage, and cheddar cheese) and Kiss my Grits (a homemade biscuit topped with southern fried chicken thighs, two over easy eggs, and cheddar grits, finished with a Sriracha honey glaze). We kept it simple, ordering the Avocado Toast with Feta & Garlic Aioli and it was delicious. Make sure to try one of their bacon-infused Bloody Marys or Mimosa flights while you’re at it.
Nearly everyone we met in Portsmouth asked us the same question: “Have you been to Popovers?” It’s easy to see why. This cozy bakery and cafe serves soups, sandwiches, salads, and of course, fresh baked popovers—a light, hollow, muffin-shaped roll made from an egg batter that’s similar in taste and texture to Yorkshire pudding.
My only regret while visiting Portsmouth is that we didn’t get a chance to check out this hip oyster bar and seafood restaurant, especially after multiple people told us we should. If you’re the kind of person who could happily eat oysters and drink beer for every meal, Row 34 is the place for you. They offer an extensive raw bar and heartier options (think: Pan Seared Bluefish with Herbed Spätzle, Caramelized Fennel, and Bacon) with plenty of local brews on tap.
Looking for a cozy and casual spot to grab a beer and some nosh? Look no further than The Thirsty Moose Taphouse, a large rustic pub located in the heart of downtown Portsmouth. Sample brews from their expansive craft beer list and try the “Not Your Mama’s Meatloaf” which is wrapped in bacon and finished with a sweet and spicy red chili glaze.
What to See and Do
You can see most of historical Portsmouth by foot. Explore the cobblestone streets solo, follow the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail, or book a guided walking tour like the Portsmouth Women Tour, which features the untold stories of navigators, preachers, tavern keepers, artists, and authors who defied stereotypes and shaped Portsmouth. Worked up an appetite? From fine dining to handmade sweets, a Portsmouth Eats tasting tour is a great way to get a crash course on the local food scene.
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With its pink exterior and adorable retro signage, it’s impossible to miss The Music Hall and Loft. Originally built in 1878, this historical venue is now home to two performance spaces which have hosted everyone from local theater groups to Tony Bennett and Trevor Noah. It’s a great spot to catch a show while you’re in town (and let’s be real, take the perfect photo for Instagram against its candy hued exterior).
If you’ve got kiddos in tow, make sure you visit the Seacoast Science Center. It’s the perfect place to explore and get connected to nature—the salty kind. From snails to whales, expect to find plenty of experiential exhibits on local marine wildlife. When you’re finished playing armchair marine biologist, explore miles of sea views and scenic trails at Odiorne State Park.
Drive an hour outside of Portsmouth to explore New Hampshire’s Lake District. Here you’ll find a plethora of delicious local businesses. Start with Hermit Woods Winery which uses traditional wine-making techniques to “build grapes” with locally sourced honey and fruits such as apple, crabapple, blueberry, kiwi, peach, pear, blackberry, and elderberry. Don’t be surprised if you end up purchasing a bottle of the 2018 Petite Blue Reserve, a dry red which includes a pound of blueberries in each bottle.
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, stop at Kellerhaus. This local confectionery has been making chocolate and ice cream since 1906 and is home to an ice cream smorgasbord (yes, you read that right). It’s like a build-your-own-sundae bar on steroids, complete with gourmet toppings and homemade scoops. Don’t eat beforehand—you’ll need the extra room.
Where to Shop
You can’t go to Portsmouth without making the short trek across the river to visit this weird and wonderful store in nearby Kittery, Maine. Expect to find everything from outdoors equipment and hunting gear to locally made fudge, salt water taffy, and lobster shaped lollipops—even actual live lobsters. The abundance of taxidermy is not for the faint of heart (there’s a large stuffed moose, among other critters, right in the center of the store).
Since 1991, Stonewall Kitchen has been producing an ever-expanding line of handmade jams, jellies, sauces, condiments, mustards, baking mixes, and more. You can get it all in one place at their company store located in downtown Portsmouth. Inside you’ll find delectable products like Maple Bacon Onion Jam, Roasted Apple Grille Sauce, and Blue Cheese Herb Mustard. Better pack an extra bag.
Hot Pepper Cranberry Jelly, $7.95 at Stonewall Kitchen
Luckily, you can also order a taste of New England online!
Where to Stay
If there was a photo in the dictionary under “quaint New England bed and breakfast” it would probably look like the Sailmaker’s House. Originally built in 1822 as the private home of John Holbrook, a local sailmaker, the inn was gutted and renovated in 2017. The result is a historical space with an elegant, modern feel. FYI, the lobby is equipped with a Keurig and complimentary snacks in case you need a boost before or after a long day of exploring.
This chic boutique property offers the amenities of a large hotel with the irrepressible charm of a bed and breakfast. Also, it’s just cute. The decor is the perfect mix of modern furnishings with quirky retro touches. Rooms are equipped with adorable bright yellow rotary phones and there’s a swoon-worthy nautical-themed gallery wall that welcomes you in the lobby. Like the Sailmaker’s House, this property is also located downtown within walking distance of almost everything.
Love beer? Love stylish yet rustic boutique hotels? If you’ve answered “yes” to either, the Ale House Inn is where you need to stay. Located in the historic Portsmouth Brewing Co. building (built in 1880), Ale House Inn is literally soaked in history. Centrally located in the Market Square district, this urban boutique inn is close to shops, restaurants, and most importantly, Portsmouth breweries.
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What’s your favorite place in Portsmouth? Let us know in the comments!
Header image courtesy of Philip Case Cohen / Moment / Getty Images