Greetings Internet Stranger and welcome to the best things to do in Portsmouth NH. Back in the 1790s, Portsmouth, New Hampshire was one of the biggest cities in the United States. Nowadays it has a population of about 20,000, so it’s not even the biggest city in New Hampshire.
But Portsmouth is still a Must Visit Destination of you are touring New England. Stop in the famous Strawbery Banke Museum if you want to see what Portsmouth looked like in its heyday. (Yes, Strawbery Banke is spelled with only one r.) It’s definitely one of the best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
But Portsmouth has other attractions aside from one major museum. You can ramble around the streets of Portsmouth and learn its history. Then you can dive into the thriving food scene in Portsmouth. Or pull out your credit cards and get your antiquing on! I promise today we’ll see most of the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH. Let’s get started!
Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
Where to Stay?
Like many tourist destinations in New England, Portsmouth has quite pricey hotels. So I was pleased to get a great deal at Port Inn and Suites, Portsmouth. It’s a little far from some of the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH to walk there, but fortunately Uber is everywhere in Portsmouth, so it was easy for me to get around.
Port Inn and Suites has clean and comfortable rooms and a satisfying free breakfast every morning. Plus it wasn’t so expensive that I had to subsist on gruel for my entire time in Portsmouth. What more could I want?
Best Things to Do in Portsmouth NH
What to Pack
You’ll need comfy shoes for all the walking we’re going to do. If it’s summertime, I love my special pink Birkenstocks. These aren’t your grandpappy’s Birkenstocks anymore. They come in every shade, and I always get compliments on my electric magenta shoes.
If the weather is rainy or snowy, which happens quite often in New England, I recommend the Asgard Rain Boots. They are comfy/cozy and keep my feet dry all day. Plus they’re cute enough that I can wear them out without feeling like some gauche tourist with gross feet.
Finally, since we’re going to be out all day, you’ll want a battery for your cell phone. I always use the Anker charger. It’s light enough to fit in even a small purse. Plus the Anker lasts for several full charges of a phone, so I’ll never run out of juice!
Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
Morning: Historic Downtown Tour
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Portsmouth is one of the cutest towns I have ever seen. One of the most fun things to do in Portsmouth is just wander around and take in all the cute brick buildings, the adorable wooden buildings, and the sweet little windows. So why not make your wandering a little more informative by taking a history tour?
Fortunately for us, the Portsmouth Historical Society offers walking tours of Portsmouth every day during the summer season (May through late October). These walking tours last about an hour and a half and will take you to many of the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH. (It’s not a big city.)
Start at the Portsmouth Historical Society headquarters where you can watch a short film on the history of Portsmouth. Then when your guide is ready, you can head out and learn…
three facts: Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
1) what’s the coolest building in portsmouth?
YMMV but I think The Rockingham “Hotel” is the coolest building in the city. I put the word hotel in air quotes because it’s not a hotel anymore, it’s condominiums. But I think it would be fun to show up here with some suitcases, claim to have a hotel reservation, and see what would transpire.
This version of the Rockingham Hotel was built by a local entrepreneur named Frank Jones. He was both Mayor of Portsmouth and a renowned brewer, so he was definitely living his best life. However, there had been another building housing the Rockingham Hotel, though they were not quite so fancy. Legend has it that Jones dreamed of owning this hotel when he was growing up poor in New Hampshire.
It’s nice to know that a poor New Hampshire boy can live his dream of making a fortune selling beer, buying the most expensive hotel in town, and slapping a couple of mean faced lions outside. If he can do it, what excuse do you have for not living your dreams?
Many presidents stayed here when it was a hotel. The most recent was Kennedy, but perhaps the most famous presidential stay was Teddy Roosevelt. TR was important in Portsmouth because he negotiated a treaty here between Russia and Japan that would lead to TR getting the Nobel Peace Prize. (That story sounds made up, but it’s very real.) I am going to bet that no presidents are currently living in this condo, though.
2) what is the saddest place in the city?
Again, debatable, but I think it’s the African Burying Ground Memorial. People sometimes think slavery was confined to the South, but the economy of Portsmouth ran on the backs of enslaved people. Slave ships used to dock in Portsmouth when it was a thriving port city, and wealthy families in Portsmouth used the labor of enslaved people.
Slavery wasn’t ended in New Hampshire until 1857. However, there were some enslaved people who escaped to freedom in New Hampshire. The most famous was Oney Judge, who had been enslaved by Martha Washington. George Washington tried to recapture her, but the head of customs in Portsmouth refused to send her back, so Oney Judge remained in Portsmouth, where she married and had several children.
The enslaved people in Portsmouth were buried in a segregated cemetery. Eventually the cemetery fell into disuse, as there were fewer and fewer enslaved people in the city. The graves were paved over and forgotten by many until they were re-discovered during a construction project in the early 2000s.
Now a memorial stands on the site of the burial ground, so the people who did so much to build Portsmouth won’t be forgotten. If you’re interested in learning more about Black history in Portsmouth, I recommend the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.
3) what are some ways portsmouth has changed?
Even though Portsmouth looks like it’s stuck in the 1850s in some ways, it has actually done quite a bit of changing. One obvious way is that Portsmouth used to be the capital of New Hampshire!
The capital got moved further away from the coast during the American Revolution, so it would be protected from the might of the British Navy. (Do you know the capital of New Hampshire without Google? Are you sure?) Now this plaque above is all that remains to prove that Portsmouth once ruled over all the land.
Another way Portsmouth has changed is the material used for constructing the buildings. Most of the buildings in Portsmouth used to be made out of wood. However, there’s an obvious problem with this, namely that it is so easy to kill a wooden building with fire. So a law was actually passed in Portsmouth that buildings needed to be made from brick. If you see a real wooden building in Portsmouth, you know it’s Crazy Olde.
Can you tell which building in my photo above is older? PS. It’s not a trick question. I’m trying to boost your confidence, Internet Stranger!
Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
Afternoon: Strawbery Banke Museum
The Strawbery Banke Museum is definitely one of the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH. It’s a huge open-air museum with homes and other buildings from many periods of Portsmouth’s history. It’s basically the Colonial Williamsburg of New Hampshire. But what makes Strawbery Banke special is that almost all of the buildings are actually on their original foundation. So it’s more like a preserved historic neighborhood than a bunch of old houses that have been moved here from various locales.
Like many other things in Portsmouth, Strawbery Banke is only open during warm weather months. (Please only visit Portsmouth in the summer, unless you love to be bored.) Check the Strawbery Banke website for further details about opening times.
There’s over 30 buildings in the Strawbery Banke Museum, so you won’t have time to visit them all. So I’m just going to point you towards…
approximately top 5: strawbery banke
1) green elephant
I would not send you into the belly of Strawbery Banke without feeding you first, Internet Stranger! And Green Elephant is one of the best reviewed lunch places in Portsmouth. Green Elephant is a pan-Asian vegetarian restaurant, but I promise the flavors are interesting enough to even satisfy carnivores like me.
I recommend the vegan General Tso’s Chicken. I love the flavor of the General Tso’s sauce, but the deep fried chicken in the dish is so heavy. At Green Elephant, the vegan chicken was much lighter, so I could enjoy the spicy dish without feeling overfed and cranky at the end of the meal. Adding lots of spice is the easiest way to make eating healthy more fun!
2) dinsmore shop
One of the coolest things about Strawbery Banke is the chance to see people practicing traditional crafts. We all know Cooper is a name yuppies like to give their sons. But did you know that it also means barrel-maker? At Strawbery Banke, you can watch a real cooper make barrels from scratch.
The Dinsmore Shop building is one of the few that is not original. It was moved from Dundee, NH. But Ron Raiselis, the master cooper who works in the building, is very real and will gladly answer all your coopering questions. I was amazed to see how much work goes into making a barrel. It’s sure convenient that nowadays we can just order barrels on Amazon, even if the quality of craftsmanship isn’t nearly as high.
3) shapley drisco house
The Shapley Drisco House has one of the more interesting displays I’ve ever seen in a historic home. One room in the house is furnished as it would have been in 1795, when the Shapley family ran a store here. This was when Portsmouth was one of the top 20 cities in THE ENTIRE UNITED STATES and you can see how large a family could have lived here at the time in my photo above. And the Shapleys were middle-class, not even one of the wealthiest families in Portsmouth.
But when we step into the next room, it has been furnished as it would have been when the Pridham family lived here in 1955. Portsmouth had fallen on harder times at this point. Now this house and neighborhood were much more blue collar. Most of the men here would have worked in the nearby Navy Yard. I was amazed to see how the exact same house could look so different depending on how it was furnished. They should show this house as inspiration on HGTV.
4) shapiro house
Do you love being entertained? Do you want to laugh your cares away? Then stop by the Shapiro House, which is home to the funniest docent in Strawbery Banke. If you’ve ever wanted to hear a man complain about having to put his tuchus in a blue tub, now is your one and maybe only chance. (I guess I can’t guarantee he’ll be there when you visit, but if he isn’t, get angry and demand your money back.)
The actor I admired so much played the role of Abraham Shapiro, a real Jewish immigrant who lived in the house with his wife Sarah in the early part of the 20th century. At that time, many immigrants from all over the world lived in this neighborhood. But the Shapiros were from Russia. (A recurring joke in the presentation is how much Abraham Shapiro hates the Czar, which is a highly reasonable position for any Russian Jew.)
Their last name was not originally Shapiro, but they took the name in honor of a family that helped them escape the Russian Empire and get to the United States. How sweet! And now that good deed has been rewarded because the family name has been preserved in a hilarious presentation at Strawbery Banke!
5) thomas bailey aldrich house
Internet Stranger, are you a nerd? I certainly hope so, as I try to wave my nerd flag high in all things I do. Any nerd will be excited to visit our next destination, as it was the home of a formerly famous writer who has now somewhat fallen into obscurity. So after you visit this home, you’ll be able to drop his name in conversation and look smarter than everyone else.
Thomas Bailey Aldrich was most famous for his book The Story of a Bad Boy. I thought this might be the 19th century precursor to Fifty Shades of Grey, but it seems The Story of a Bad Boy is just about Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s childhood, so hopefully it doesn’t have whips or blindfolds. At the Thomas Bailey Aldrich house, they claim this was the first realistic account of a boy’s life in American literature.
And it is sure that The Story of a Bad Boy influenced Mark Twain when he was writing Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. In fact Twain came to visit the Aldrich house when it was turned into the first historic house museum in Portsmouth. It’s a shame that people don’t read Aldrich anymore. I intend to rectify that, so I’m going to rename this blog Aldrich the World in 24 Hours. Or maybe Around the World in 24 Aldrichs…
6) goodwin mansion
The Goodwin Mansion is another building that was relocated from elsewhere in New Hampshire to Strawbery Banke. But it’s the most fabulous house in Strawbery Banke, and it’s historically important, so visit it anyway. The Goodwins were very into modern technology, so you’ll get to see the last word in indoor plumbing and gas lighting back in the 1870s.
The Goodwin Mansion was the home of Ichabod and Sarah Goodwin during the 1800s. Mr. Goodwin was an important figure in New Hampshire history because he was governor of New Hampshire during the Civil War. Goodwin was a passionate supporter of the Union Cause, and he actually funded the First New Hampshire Regiment out of his own pocket. You guys, I’m getting verklempt here! We need more politicians like that today!
Sarah Goodwin played an important role in the restoration from this mansion…from beyond the grave! She started writing her memoirs at the age of 70, and she left so much detail about the house that Strawbery Banke was able to use them as a guide. Between Ichabod funding the Union Army and Sarah Goodwin becoming a writer late in life, I think these people are so cool, I’d like them to be my Ghost Grandparents.
Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
Evening: Dinner at Black Trumpet Bistro
Portsmouth has become home to many exciting restaurants that use the best local seafood and produce. It’s not necessarily a destination for fine dining, but if you’re looking for a warm and fuzzy bistro, Portsmouth is tops. I recommend getting dinner at the Black Trumpet Bistro. The head chef has been nominated for many James Beard awards, and his food is deceptively simple so the ingredients can shine.
Because Black Trumpet Bistro uses local ingredients, I can’t guarantee that what I ate will still be on the menu. But at least it will give you a good idea of what you can expect.
As we’ve discussed earlier, you will definitely be visiting Portsmouth in the summer. And what is more summery than a tomato? I was excited about this dish because I eat tomatoes all kinds of ways, but I’m not used to eating them baked. They were sweet like candy and made even sweeter by being served with balsamic onion jam. And then another dash of summer was added with a basil corn fritter. It was basically like eating August on a plate.
24 hour treat: sustainable fish
I was so excited to see that Black Trumpet Bistro participates in a program to encourage people to eat fish that are “underfished”. This is good for the environment, and it’s also good for your brain and palate to try new foods. The sustainable fish on the menu that night was skate. Don’t worry! I promise it’s a fish, not a roller skate.
I don’t remember ever eating skate before, but I enjoyed the mild flavor, and the firm texture satisfied me. I’m very glad that, like ABBA, I took a chance on this fish.
We spent the afternoon at Strawbery Banke, so it’s very appropriate that we’re ending our 24 hours in Portsmouth by eating strawberries. This strawberry rhubarb trifle was made with goat cheese custard, so it wasn’t too sweet. That light green on top doesn’t come from pistachios, it comes from candied fennel seed. Fennel is a vegetable, so the fennel seed makes this dish a health food, right? That’s just science. And it was the perfect way to end our day of the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH
That’s the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH!
What do you think are the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH? Do you think the Goodwins will be my Ghost Grandparents? And what color tub is best to put your tuchus in? Please leave your thoughts below!
Note: If you want to know how I put my travel itineraries together, just click here. Keep in mind that while each article is about how to spend 24 hours in a place, that doesn’t mean you should ONLY spend 24 hours with the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH. If you have time and want to see some more of the Best Things to do in Portsmouth NH, try this itinerary!