Ten things we still like in Portsmouth

Nearly all traffic to Maine passes through Portsmouth, a smaller but more affluent city to our south – and much of the traffic stops off for a meal or shopping break. It’s a picturesque place bordering the ocean, which makes it both a vacation destination on its own or chic place to retire. For years, it was the heart of New Hampshire’s seacoast region, although that’s shifting more and more to Dover as Portsmouth loses its blue-collar base and state university students at nearby Durham are priced out of its rental market.

Still, we heart it. Here are some reasons:

  1. The Music Hall. Within its unpretentious exterior, this restored 1878 auditorium is jewel of 895 seats and a horseshoe shaped balcony that’s become the principal venue for live music, classic and art films, lectures, and more in the seacoast region of New Hampshire. Simply stepped into the hall feels like stepping back in history.
  2. A vibrant theater scene. Despite its modest population, the Port City is home to an unexpected number of live stage companies. Our favorite is the Pontine Theater, founded by a duo in 1977. They do just about everything from writing the scripts to designing and building the sets and costumes to performing most of the shows each season.
  3. The harbor. Situated at the mouth of the Piscataqua River (with its treacherous currents), Portsmouth and Newington just upstream form the principal port of New Hampshire. The historic downtown wraps around Portsmouth Harbor, and overlooks its clutch of tugboats, commercial fishermen, ocean-going freighters, sailboats, motorboats, even yachts, plus cruises down the river and out to the Isles of Shoals or upstream to Dover (the latter limited to September and October). It’s a gorgeous view from many angles.
  4. Historic houses and neighborhoods. Like many other New England ports, Portsmouth was home to wealthy merchants and traders, and they built homes to match. A living history museum, Strawbery Banke, offers tours and programs featuring a selection of homes and small businesses from the mid-1600s to the beginning of the 1900s. The site, once scheduled for urban renewal demolition, is itself a miracle. It’s not alone, though. Spread throughout town are other historic houses open for public inspection, including the 1664 Jackson House, governor’s mansions, signers of the Declaration of Independence, the John Paul Jones House, and others. Strolling some of the side streets can feel just as impressive.
  5. Prescott Park. Set along the river adjacent to Strawbery Banke, this park is scene to a summer music and theater series, an All-America selection floral display, a lush public garden, sculpture, and dramatic views of vessels as well as the U.S. Navy shipyard and its nuclear submarines on the opposite shore. Next to the park is a small Colonial-era burial ground well worth examining.
  6. Tons of restaurants and nightlife. Downtown probably has as many eateries per capita as Manhattan, many of them veering toward upscale. It’s a constantly changing list.
  7. The new Memorial Bridge and new Sarah Long Bridge. The two drawbridges between New Hampshire and Maine have been recently rebuilt to handle more vehicular traffic and to better accommodate the oceanic freighters and barges. The new structures are pretty impressive.
  8. Third of July fireworks. With its annual pyrotechnics show the night before Independence Day, this city offers a great example of an artistic, well-planned visual production. Maybe it helps to have a central site like the park along the South Mill Pond, but this crew knows how to use the entire sky as a canvas.
  9. The Water Monkey. About the last surviving funky retail outlet downtown, which was once filled with hippie action. Lots of fun in a small space.
  10. The Brattle Organ. Said to be the oldest playable set of pipes in the country, this circa 1665 instrument was imported before 1708 for King’s Chapel in Boston. It now sits in a corner of the balcony at St. John Episcopal on a knoll downtown and is played on rare occasions. It’s a small instrument, fewer than 200 pipes. It must have been thought quite exotic at one time.


Think of a place near your home that you like to visit. Tell us one of things you find appealing.


Just to be contrarian, here’s a view of the Cocheco River just above the dam and falls in downtown Dover. The river flows right through the arch in the mill, where the tide rises and falls about eight feet every six hours. Portsmouth has nothing like this. (Photo taken from Thompson’s deck.)


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