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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.”
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!