The Best Things To Do In Portsmouth, NH According to Locals
The list of fun things to do in the historic seafaring city of Portsmouth, NH, seems to get longer every day. Its brick sidewalks are lined with wonderful restaurants, quirky cafes, theaters, live music venues, historic sites, galleries, and unique boutiques – all within easy walking distance of each other. The city’s calendar also stays packed with special events and festivals. An added benefit is that shopping is tax free!
With so much going on in Portsmouth, choosing from among all the options can be challenging — whether you are visiting for a week or just a day. To help you, we compiled our top picks of things to do in Portsmouth during a recent New Hampshire Film Festival team meeting.
Fun Annual Events in Portsmouth, NH
We could easily go to an event almost every day of the year in Portsmouth. The demands of our jobs and families, however, mean we have to be selective about how we spend our limited time. Here are a few of our favorites:
- The Portsmouth Fairy House Tour turns Portsmouth into a magical land full of children and some adults flitting about dressed as fairies. They are here to see the over 250 fairy houses built by creative professionals, community members, and students that are on display on the grounds of Strawbery Banke Museum, the historic Governor John Langdon House, and Prescott Park. Proceeds benefit the organizations, schools, and community groups that participate in the event.
- The Portsmouth Halloween Parade is a grassroots, all-inclusive annual celebration of community, creativity, and free expression that exuberantly wends its way through downtown Portsmouth each year on Oct. 31 at 7 pm. All are welcome to dress up and join the parade, which seems to get more spectacular each year. The costume creativity is limitless, the floats are unique, and the flash mob that flawlessly executes a synchronized dance never disappoints.
- Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth is a month-long celebration of the season. Enjoy a spectacular gingerbread house exhibit, a candlelight stroll through the Strawbery Banke Museum grounds, season appropriate shows, feeling like you are ice skating in a Norman Rockwell painting, as well as special dining experiences. If you’re lucky, the ground may be dusted with snow.
- The annual Chili Cook-Off serves up generous samplings of the finest and fieriest chili from some of the Seacoast’s best restaurants on the grounds of Strawbery Banke. Cast your vote for the People’s Choice Award and see how it compares to the food critics’ Judge’s Choice award!
Can’t Miss Festivals in Portsmouth, NH
If you enjoy food, beer, wine, music, or culture, there is a festival for you in Portsmouth. Some of our faves include:
- The lively New Hampshire Brew Fest, which is held on the grounds of Cisco Brewers Portsmouth, raises money for the Prescott Park Arts Festival. Admission includes entry to the event, a 5 oz. souvenir sampler cup, samples of wonderful beer, and fun music and entertainment.
- The New Hampshire Film Festival isn’t just our favorite festival. Thousands of cinephiles and filmmakers gather in Portsmouth every October to enjoy watching carefully curated independent films as well as filmmaker panels, filmmaking workshops, parties, and other activities that are held at various locations throughout the city, including the majestic 140-year-old The Music Hall. Don’t be surprised if you bump into a celebrity while strolling from one fantastic film screening venue to another.
- The Vintage & Vine Wine Festival features wonderful wines, culinary delights created by local chefs, and live jazz and blues music. As the main annual fund-raiser for Strawbery Banke Museum, an outdoor living history museum of 32 houses and 10 gardens, it’s naturally held on the museum’s sweeping grounds.
- Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival is one of the longest running jazz festivals in New Hampshire. It features national, regional, and local jazz musicians who take the stage in Prescott Park. Soak in the music while relaxing on the cool grass or book a table ahead of time.
Must See Concerts & Productions Abound In Portsmouth, NH
It’s possible to enjoy a wonderful musical, theatrical, literary, or other performance most nights in Portsmouth. Whenever we want to do something special, we go online and look at what’s happening at our preferred venues including:
- The Music Hall first opened its doors in 1878 as a Vaudeville theater and was named an American Treasure in 2003 by The Department of the Interior. Performers such as Mark Twain, Harry Houdini, John Philip Sousa, and Buffalo Bill Cody have all made appearances on its stage, along with Shakespearean dramas, vaudeville shows, and eventually “talking pictures.” Today, The Music Hall hosts musical, comedy, and theatrical performances as well as movie screenings and author talks.
- Prescott Park Arts Festival serves up dozens of performances by acclaimed musicians and theater groups as well as outdoor movie screenings in a gorgeous waterside park setting for a suggested $8–$10 donation. Each year a classic musical is featured such as “Annie” and “Beauty and the Beast”.
- 3S Artspace is a flexible, modern performance venue that features an art gallery as well as a large performance space that hosts intimate concerts, poetry slams, dances, and more. In the summer, catch one of its suggested donation concerts that are held on the building’s loading dock, which is fronted by a wonderful enclosed grassy area.
- The Seacoast Repertory Theatre is led by visionaries who believe that good theater makes good people in the audience and on the stage, and that when people experience theater together, they leave better than when they came in. The selection of shows varies from well-known plays and musicals to drag extravaganzas.
- The Players’ Ring promotes local artists’ creations through the production of original works, while providing an affordable theater space to local production companies. It is a very intimate setting that makes you feel as though you are almost part of the production. Coffee, tea, and treats are available in the lobby at intermission for whatever donation amount patrons wish to leave.
Celebrate Oktoberfest Year-Round at These Portsmouth, NH, Breweries
Can’t make it to Germany for Oktoberfest? No worries. Enjoy a beer garden vibe at one of Portsmouth’s breweries. We chose to share the ones that are reachable on-foot if you are staying in Portsmouth.
- Great Rhythm Brewing Company’s founders Kristen and Scott Thornton set out to create a brewery that fosters the idea of living life to the fullest with great friends, great music, and great craft beer. During warmer months, the sides of the contemporary building open up to showcase views of the North Mill Pond.
- Earth Eagle Brewings is a funky, no-frills craft brewery, brewpub, and homebrew supply shop close to downtown’s bustling center. It is a champion of gruits, the name given to beers that eschew hops for other less common, often foraged ingredients.
- Liar’s Bench is housed in an old plumbing supply warehouse. Like Great Rhythm Brewing Company, it is located in Portsmouth’s hip West End.
- Loaded Question’s beer changes with the season. It’s brewer’s passion for beer continually drives them to try new things.
- Portsmouth Brewery is a lively tavern that serves up pub fare and house-brewed beer.
Foodies Swoon Over Portsmouth, NH’s Restaurants
The selection of wonderful restaurants for such a small city is tremendous. In fact, Portsmouth has one the highest per-capita ratios of restaurants to residents of any city in the country with approximately one eatery for every 162 residents. Because of this, we regularly exercise and do juice cleanses periodically throughout the year. Narrowing down our top choices was tough. Here they are:
- Barrio is a funky neighborhood taco shop with a lot of personality.
- BRGR Bar is known for its burgers and adult (read alcohol containing) shakes.
- Cava Tapas & Wine Bar serves delicious tapas.
- Cure specializes in American comfort food.
- The District serves farm fresh American fare.
- Martingale Wharf is known for its seafood and view of the Piscataqua River.
- The Kitchen offers elevated comfort fare like Indian lamb burgers and rocket salad amid a cool vibe.
- Row 34 is known for its oysters and seafood.
- Thirsty Moose Taphouse offers a variety of craft beers and pub food.
- The Wilder is a modern New England gastropub.
- The Green Elephant unites flavors from Thailand, Malaysia, China, and India into an enticing meat-free menu.
Java Junkies Flock to Portsmouth, NH’s Cafes & Bakeries
If you love coffee and baked treats, you’ll love the variety of cafes and bakeries Portsmouth offers. We hit most of them regularly for a coffee fix, particularly when the New Hampshire Film Festival is in full swing and we’re out enjoying all the great parties, events, and film screenings.
- Kaffee Vonsolln was started in 2010 by aGerman baker whose goal was to bring German pastries and freshly roasted coffee to Portsmouth. Thankfully for us, he succeeded!
- N. Bakery (a.k.a. La Maison Navarre) is a French café founded by French natives who wish to enable patrons to experience the “French Art of Life.”
- Popovers on the Square is known for its airy popovers served warm with maple butter.
- The Works Bakery Cafe makes its own bagels as well as yummy sandwiches, smoothies, and salads.
- Elephantine Bakery serves fine breads and pastries inspired by the Mediterranean region. It’s named after Elephantine Island in the Nile River, where an ancient Egyptian bakery was excavated.
- Cup of Joe offers happy hours for both coffee and alcohol as well as live acoustic music.
- Caffe Kilim is a Turkish-inspired hangout filled with colorful and distinctive kilims (Turkish rugs).
Discover Portsmouth, NH’s Waterfront
Portsmouth has a rich fishing and shipping past and features a lively working port. Situated on the 12-mile-long Piscataqua River, which forms part of the boundary between New Hampshire and Maine, its lively waterfront offers lots to do. There are many ways to experience it on foot or via boat.
- You’ll see tankers, freighters, and cable ships loading and unloading while enjoying a Portsmouth Harbour Cruise. The cruise line also often offers special one-hour sunset wine tasting cruises during which you’ll savor five unique wines while nibbling on cheese and crackers.
- Enjoy a leisurely sail past wonderful vistas of Portsmouth and nearby Kittery Point, Maine, aboard a traditional reproduction flat-bottom gundalow barge with The Gundalow Company. During the sail, you’ll learn about the fascinating history of gundalows. Public sails are not listed far in advance, so check the dates and times a few weeks before your visit.
- We bet you’ll find it hard to tear yourself away from Prescott Park, a 10-plus-acre park in downtown Portsmouth that features majestic trees, gorgeous flower beds, fountains, and sweeping views of the Piscataqua The land was donated to the city of Portsmouth by two sisters, Josie and Sarah Prescott, in 1940.
Shopaholics Love Portsmouth, NH’s Shopping Scene
There are plenty of unique and trendsetting boutiques in Portsmouth. When we’re looking for something special, we go to:
- Pretty Poppy simply bursts with wonderful costume jewelry and other fun accessories. It’s hard to leave without purchasing some bling.
- Pretty Little Things specializes in the latest fashions, shoes, and accessories.
- Jane Gee is devoted to helping you attain beautiful skin and hair, naturally. Just walking into the store feels like a relaxing aromatherapy treatment.
- Muse offers handcrafted furniture, home decor, Free People apparel, accessories and unique gifts.
- Drift makes unique bathing suits and re-creates secondhand clothing, bringing new value to unwanted basics and forgotten vintage pieces. Its selection is one of a kind.
- DiversionsPuzzles & Games provides both new and classic games and high-quality puzzles. Shoppers are welcome to sit down and learn how to play the games.
- Off Piste is a funky gift store that features what most people consider hilarious gifts, that some might view as mildly inappropriate.
- Lizology is a clothing store for women who enjoy being feminine.
- Federal Cigar features aromatic cigars and cigar accessories from around the world as well as a hip, high-end cigar bar downstairs.
Nature Lovers Enjoy Exploring Portsmouth, NH’s Outdoor Activities
Portsmouth offers many opportunities to escape from downtown’s activity and appreciate the natural beauty that surrounds it. When we need a breather, in addition to Prescott Park, we head to one of the following tranquil spots:
- The 182-acre Urban Forestry Center offers a series of self-guided trails. The first is the Tree Identification Trail, which takes you through the Center’s Mixed Deciduous Forest, Northern Hardwood Forest, Saltmarsh Wetland, Red Pine Plantation, and Blue Spruce Plantation. The second is the Goodwin Trail, which is a two-mile (round-trip) trail that takes you through a scenic woodland setting, where you’ll spot native wildflowers, birds, and animals.
- Enjoy views of Portsmouth and the ocean from the Little Harbor Trail, a lovely 1.5-mile waterside tree-lined path that connects the grounds of the historic Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion and Creek Farm with Portsmouth Conservation Land. Free parking and trail access are available at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion, an 18th century house and farm that is open to the public.
Find Your Home Away from Home at One of Portsmouth, NH’s Hotels or Inns
After a full day of experiencing the fun Portsmouth offers, you’ll probably be looking forward to relaxing at a serene hotel or inn. Our top choices include:
- The Sailmaker’s House was the headquarters of John Holbrook’s sailmaking business in the 1800s. Today it’s a boutique inn that evokes Portsmouth’s historic and maritime influences.
- The Ale House Inn’s location in the historic Portsmouth Brewing Co. building (c. 1880) in the Market Square district makes it particularly appealing to beer aficionados and historians.
- The Hotel Portsmouth is ideal for those seeking the amenities of a large hotel with all the charm of a bed and breakfast.
We’re confident you’ll understand why Portsmouth is consistently featured on lists of the “best places to live.” It was named one of the “Top 100 Walking Cities” in America by Prevention magazine, listed as one of “America’s Prettiest Towns” in Forbes magazine, and named to CNN’s Top 10 Most Romantic Cities list. If you attend the New Hampshire Film Festival, which will allow you to enjoy Portsmouth in its full autumnal glory, please introduce yourself to us. We’ll be happy to fill you in on the newest restaurants, cafes, happenings, and more.