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What to Do in Portsmouth, NH: Restaurants, Hotels, Day Trips, and More!

An ideal short weekend getaway near Boston.

As my quest to explore the best weekend getaways in New England re-launches, I’m thrilled to report that I’ve finally checked out the town which so many people have recommended — the spot that sits on the New Hampshire seacoast just one hour north of Boston: Portsmouth, NH!

Portsmouth New Hampshire
Portsmouth, NH glistens on the New Hampshire seacoast.

Different from Portsmouth, RI or Portland, ME

First, a warning: As someone who has accidentally planned trips to the wrong city due to names that sound similar (hello, Falmouth, MA vs. Falmouth, Maine!) we need to clarify something. Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is very different from Portsmouth, Rhode Island. The RI version is south of Boston, right near Newport, RI, and is on a peninsula-island with water all around.

Portsmouth, NH is full of cute shops and restaurants.
Portsmouth, NH is full of cute shops and restaurants.

Further, you may be tempted to scramble “Portsmouth, NH” with “Portland, Maine,” the wonderful foodie town just 55 minutes north of Portsmouth. I highly recommend a visit to Portland, ME — a larger city with more top restaurants than a snake has scales — but it ain’t the same as Portsmouth. Clear? Ok, let’s continue.

The harbor of Portsmouth, NH
The tug boats and harbor of Portsmouth, NH.

Portsmouth, NH Was Not What I Expected

I’m going to be very honest about my first impressions of Portsmouth so you don’t have the same cognitive confusion when arriving: the town was not what I expected. Rather than being a quaint seaside New England village, Portsmouth, NH is a bustling town with an active, industrial port. As my friend and travel buddy put it, “It’s more like Harvard Square in Cambridge, MA than cute little Rockport, MA, Mystic, CT, or Provincetown, Cape Cod!” True story.

Lovely small shops like this grace Portsmouth, NH.
Lovely small shops like this grace Portsmouth, NH.

Here’s the good news about Portsmouth, NH being an actual town instead of a vacation bubble: it’s FULL of things to do, see, and eat — not just tourists and fudge shops. There’s also a wide variety of hotels to choose from, and excellent day trips less than 30 minutes away if you’re craving that tranquil seaside village fix.

Love that arch and Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH.
Love that arch and Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH.

What to Do in Portsmouth, NH

The name of the game in Portsmouth, NH is eating and shopping. Though it’s a port town and there are eateries along the water, the majority of the attractions are a few blocks inland from the water in the brick-lined downtown area — especially Market Square, which is scenically anchored by a classic New England white-spired church.

The church in Market Square, Portsmouth, NH!
The church in Market Square, Portsmouth, NH.

Market Square in Downtown Portsmouth, NH

In downtown Portsmouth, there are boutiques for clothes, book and puzzle stores for kids, a popover shop, art galleries, epic cheese collections, and plenty of outdoor seating. Portsmouth, NH is a superb “stroll and shop” destination (whether you’re window-shopping or credit card shopping). For history and architecture-lovers, plaques adorn numerous walls, explaining the famous and storied buildings from hundreds of years ago that still stand today around town. There is also a fascinating Black Heritage Trail.

Market Square in Portsmouth, NH.
One side of Downtown Portsmouth, NH’s Market Square.

Now, there are plenty of other things to do in Portsmouth, NH other than stroll and shop (ex: Strawberry Banke Museum or the USS Albacore submarine which sits by the side of a highway), but this here article is an honest account of what it’s like to wander Portsmouth and its environs, following whatever whims captivated me and my travel buddy. Methinks I’m not the only one who’s into taking in the vibe of a place and walking towards what moves us at any moment, versus frenetically sightseeing and checking off every box!

The windows of Flower Kiosk reflect the yellow Portsmouth Gas Light Co. facade.
The windows of Flower Kiosk reflect the yellow Portsmouth Gas Light Co. facade.

Portsmouth, NH Restaurants and Food

Rapidly, our Portsmouth, NH trip turned into an itinerary of leaping from meal to delicious meal. Not a bad way to spend a few days! We had some truly excellent food in town, and know there were numerous other highly-recommended spots which we’ll have to come back to catch. Here are ones not to miss.

Eating a croissant from Elephantine at the Portsmouth, NH harbor.
Eating a croissant from Elephantine at the Portsmouth, NH harbor.

Elephantine Bakery is in the adorable Commercial Alley which we will reference again. I had an out-of this-world ham and cheese croissant from there (the kind with the filling baked in!), which I took to eat one morning at the waterfront, as pictured above. Though the harbor is bustling by mid-day, at 8am I was the only one there, able to sit at one of the many public tables and serenely take in this expanse of marine blue:

The Portsmouth, NH harbor was quiet in the morning.
The Portsmouth, NH harbor was quiet in the morning.

Commercial Alley also boasts Corks and Curds wine and cheese shop where we purchased some spectacular cheese to take home. We didn’t have a chance to try nearby Cup of Joe, but the interior (with its chandeliers) looked gorgeous. The hands-down best meal of the trip was the tasting menu at Cava, which is now featured in its own article, “Cava, Portsmouth, NH.”

The Green Room in Portsmouth, NH.
The Green Room in Portsmouth, NH.

Other scrumptious places we ate were Kilwin’s (my chocolate peanut butter ice cream was A+++, and I’m VERY snobby about my chocolate), the Green Room for healthy food (I had an acai bowl and added bee pollen and spirulina, which made the purple turn a hilarious blue), the Juicery (all sorts of kale juice and smoothie fun), and River House for a solid meal and friendly service right on the water. Yes, I’ll get back to my Beachbody reviews and hearty exercise soon… but for now, food happiness beckons!

Our Portsmouth, NH hotel: the Sheraton Harborside.
Our hotel: the Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth, NH.

Portsmouth, NH Hotels

There was a wide array of hotels to choose from in Portsmouth, NH, and I decided on the Sheraton Harborside because it has a central location, water view, fridge in room, and was covered by my much-appreciated credit card points. (No, this was NOT a sponsored stay! All funds and views are my own, here.)

A view of the Portsmouth, NH harbor -- and cranes.
A view of the Portsmouth, NH harbor — and cranes.

Sheraton Harborside Portsmouth, NH Review:

Overall we were pleased with the Sheraton Harborside, but do bear in mind again that Portsmouth, NH is a working harbor, meaning that your waterfront view is likely going to have a crane or two in the picture, as illustrated by the photo I took above, right outside our room. Happily, there was no noise as we’d feared, and both my friend and I remarked that if our kids were along for the trip, they would have adored watching the machinery.

Take Memorial Bridge Portsmouth, NH to Kittery, ME.
Take Memorial Bridge Portsmouth, NH to Kittery, ME.

Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth, NH… Walk to Maine!

One of the most splendid surprises we found in Portsmouth, NH is that you can WALK to Kittery, Maine over the beautiful WWI Memorial Bridge! I did this walk four times during our three days there, it was so fun. As you cross dramatic Memorial Bridge, the beams and chains of the bridge form different gorgeous angles, and the views of both Portsmouth and the buoy-covered house on the other side entrance.

View from Memorial Bridge on the way to Kittery: house covered with buoys.
The view from Memorial Bridge on the way to Kittery.

This bridge walk is a perfect activity for hours, as there are diversions every step of the way. Not only is there the colorful buoy-covered fishing shack pictured above, but there are also two different lobster shops, a waterside BBQ restaurant that people recommend, and an extremely dramatic sign about getting bopped on the head by the drawbridge gate arm:

A very dramatic sign on Memorial Bridge.
A very intense sign on Memorial Bridge.

My mind races to a similarly dramatic sign found in the Newport, RI Cliff Walk (click to see it) which depicts a stick figure hurtling off the edge of a cliff! Needless to say, my friend and I stayed on dry land and did not get bopped on the head by any drawbridge gates. Now that this article has left the borders of Portsmouth, NH, however, it’s the perfect time to discuss day trips from this ideal home base for the region.

Portsmouth, NH in back, lobster traps in front!
Portsmouth, NH in back, lobster traps in front!

Day Trips from Portsmouth, NH

One of the best things to do in Portsmouth, NH is actually to leave it! I mean that with love — Portsmouth is a great town, and staying put there your whole trip yields great fruits… but that said, Portsmouth is also an ideal launching pad for day trips to the fabulous small villages along the coast and inland. My friend and I visited NINE towns during our 3 days based in Portsmouth, and here’s the run-down of what we recommend.

1. Kittery, Maine:

Known for its shopping, Kittery is less than a 2-mile walk from Portsmouth, so you can either drive or go on foot. The huge surprise about this town is that it has the BEST CRULLERS IN THE WORLD at Lil’s (hey, nice name!), which you absolutely, 100% MUST try, even if you’d never heard of a cruller before in your life. My inaugural and ecstatic cruller experience is documented below. Notice the amount of air within, meaning you can cast any guilt aside about eating the whole eggy, moist, crunchy piece of heaven.

Lil's crullers in Kittery, ME are the best in the world!
Lil’s crullers in Kittery, ME are the best in the world!

2. Ogunquit, Maine:

Hopping in the car, Ogunquit, ME is 24-minute drive north along the Maine coast from Portsmouth, NH. It’s a bustling and spread-out New England vacation town, with lots to offer. We opted for a glorious walk along Marginal Way, the seaside path that stretches over a mile along the coast. Make sure to pack sun protection, and beware of wind trying to blow off any hats! Mine almost ended up across the sea in the Cliffs of Moher.

The Marginal Way oceanside path in Ogunquit, Maine!
The Marginal Way oceanside path in Ogunquit, Maine.

3. Kennebunkport, Maine:

Another 20 minutes north of Ogunquit (which we made longer by taking the highly recommended coastal road for the views), sits famed Kennebunkport, Maine: home to the sweetest vacation tourist town around. I was reminded of Woodstock, VT in the level of charm in the shops. My friend and I were actually so overstimulated by the bustling center of town that we took our lobster rolls to the secluded beach just south of Kennebunkport and ate in tranquility there. Now, if you continue further up the Maine coast, you’ll hit Cape Elizabeth (and the romantic Inn by the Sea, Maine) and then Portland, ME, but we stopped at Kennebunkport and turned back.

Eating lobster rolls outside in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Eating lobster rolls outside in Kennebunkport, Maine.

4. Hampton Beach, NH:

Shifting direction from driving north of Portsmouth, NH to day trips to the south, my friend and I had a wonderful walk along bustling Hampton Beach, NH, which sits about 20 minutes south of Portsmouth on the ocean. Hampton Beach is a blast from the past, with old time fried dough shops (we counted more than 5), roving packs of partying teens, and kids on bikes flying down the waterfront path.

The wide paved sidewalk next to the ocean is very wheelchair and stroller accessible, and leads right into a scenic park. We went to see the sunset and ended up catching a phenomenal rainbow (pictured below) — along with ogling the cool yellow machines that sift trash from the sand! My guess is that things get pretty wild in this town after sundown, so plan accordingly — either bringing your party gear if that’s your scene, or heading out early enough if it’s not.

A real rainbow at Hampton Beach, NH!
A real rainbow at Hampton Beach, NH!

5. Dover, Durham, Newmarket, and Exeter, NH:

Changing direction again to drive west, there are a bunch of sweet little towns further inland: Dover (small and quiet), Durham (home of UNH), Newmarket, which we LOVED — ate some Johnny Boston’s healthy grain bowls by the fantastic scenic river, and Exeter (bustling with shops, and lair of one of the prestigious, sprawling Philips Exeter private school). The vibe of the whole area was chilled-out, natural, and relaxed. What a cool region!

Things to do in Portsmouth, NH
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Which Things to Do in Portsmouth, NH Do YOU Love?

So what about you? If you’ve visited Portsmouth, NH, which attractions do YOU recommend? Which sights, restaurants, activities, hotels, and day trips? If you haven’t visited yet, does it seem like a town you’d be interested in for weekend getaways in New England? Do share!

Thank you, Portsmouth, NH!
Thank you, Portsmouth, NH!

Want more ideas for fun regions near Boston to explore? Check out my guide to what to do in the Berkshires, including Bash Bish Falls and Mount Greylock.

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