The Top 9 Things to Do in Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Portsmouth NH Things to Do
These three hard-working tugboats that guide ships into Portsmouth Harbor are a symbol of this historic New Hampshire city. Philip Case Cohen / Getty Images

Portsmouth is New Hampshire's happening little coastal city with more than 350 years of history. With a slogan like "A Tiny Bit Huge," you can be sure there are more things to do than you'd expect for a city with only about 21,000 residents. Here's a list of the best attractions and enticements that lure visitors to Portsmouth.

01 of 09

Step Back in Time

Strawbery Banke in Portsmouth NH

Kim Knox Beckius

Settled in 1630, Portsmouth has retained its yesteryear vibe even as it has attracted an energetic generation of creators and doers. If you only visit one historic site during your stay, make it Strawbery Banke: the 10-acre living history attraction that preserves and interprets the city's oldest neighborhood. The attraction's 42 buildings date from as early as 1695, and wandering in and out of these enduring structures is particularly enchanting during the holiday season's Candlelight Stroll evenings. Ice skating on Puddle Dock Pond is a back-in-time treat, too. Learn more about the city's history at the Discover Portsmouth welcome center, which is also the point of departure for the Portsmouth Historical Society's walking tours.

02 of 09

Get Out on the Water

Isles of Shoals tour boat, Portsmouth Harbor
Richard Cummins / Getty Images

You won't fully appreciate this historic port on the shores of the Piscataqua River until you're out on the water. For some folks, a seat on a riverside restaurant deck is enough. But you really should book a voyage with the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, which offers a variety of day and evening cruises. Some simply sail around Portsmouth Harbor for photo ops of lighthouses and old forts. Others take passengers to Star Island, one of the storied Isles of Shoals. The M/V Thomas Laighton becomes a party ship on select evenings, when you can enjoy drinks and a live rock or country band on board. Prefer to explore under your own power? Portsmouth Kayak Adventures offers both rentals and guided paddling tours.

03 of 09

Go Art Gallery Hopping

Portsmouth NH Art Galleries

Kim Knox Beckius

Downtown's cluster of eclectic, independently owned retail establishments makes Portsmouth one of New England's best shopping destinations. The city is particularly known for its strong contingent of art galleries, representing locally and internationally acclaimed artists. Plus, you can actually acquire art you admire and help sustain the creative energy that sets this Seacoast city apart. Art 'Round Town gallery walks, held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. the first Friday of each month, are your chance to view the latest exhibitions at more than a dozen Portsmouth galleries.

04 of 09

Have Breakfast Any Time

Popovers with maple butter

Kim Knox Beckius

Portsmouth is such a foodie town, you'll struggle to decide where to spend your dining dollars meal after meal. Breakfast presents each day's first dilemma, and it's one that can last long past noon. Several of the city's beloved breakfast destinations serve their a.m. specialties all day. You'll love the quirky breakfast inventions at The Friendly Toast, where conversation-sparking advertising memorabilia clutters the walls. Any time is a good time for Pulverizer Pumpkin Cakes or the Doughnut Stop Believin' breakfast sandwich: scrambled eggs, cheddar and sausage (chicken and vegetarian also available) on a pair of French-toasted doughnuts. Save room for breakfast number two at Popovers on the Square, where the enormous and airy signature popovers with homemade maple butter are the must-order item on the all-day breakfast menu. Diner favorites made with local ingredients are on the all-day breakfast menu at The Roundabout Diner, where Sunday's breakfast buffet is all-you-can-eat.

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05 of 09

See a Show at the Music Hall

The Music Hall 

Spend an evening with a legend, catch a touring musical theater production, watch thought-provoking films, participate in inspiring discussions with celebrated New England writers: Portsmouth's historic Music Hall has been a destination for diverse entertainment since 1878. September's Telluride by the Sea weekend showcasing works fresh from Colorado’s Telluride Film Festival is an annual highlight. Historic tours of the theater focus on the renovation and preservation of this architectural treasure.   

06 of 09

Walk the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail

Portsmouth African Burying Ground Memorial

Kim Knox Beckius

A self-guided tour of the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail—part of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire—will take you to moving and intriguing sites including the city's African Burial Ground Memorial, which marks the only known African burial site in New England. The souls who rest here are now forever honored by the memorial, unveiled in 2015. There are 25 additional sites of interest in Portsmouth including the Moffatt-Ladd House, which was home not only to a signer of the Declaration of Independence but to Prince: one of 20 slaves who eloquently petitioned the New Hampshire State Legislature for their freedom in 1779.

07 of 09

Climb Aboard a Historic Submarine

Bettmann / Contributor/Getty Images

Built at the still-working Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which is actually across the state line in Kittery, Maine, the USS Albacore was a ground-breaking submarine prototype. On a self-guided tour, you can venture inside this record-breaking vessel, which was the fastest submarine in the world in 1966. Decommissioned in 1985 and moved to Albacore Park, the sub remains a testament to Yankee ingenuity.

08 of 09

Tour Portsmouth-Area Breweries

Portsmouth Brewery
Philip Case Cohen / Getty Images

The beer game has been strong in Portsmouth since long before many of New England's craft breweries got their start. The safe, fun, easy way to immerse yourself in the Seacoast city's beer culture is to hop aboard the Granite State Growler Tours bus. With eight different multi-stop excursions to choose from, all departing from Portsmouth, you can concentrate on the region's newest breweries or travel north or south of New Hampshire's borders to taste and compare the latest beers from both enduring and upstart breweries. Plus, Redhook Brewery, Portsmouth Brewery and Earth Eagle Brewings all have dining on-site.

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09 of 09

Make a Splash at Water Country

Water Country
Water Country 

When summer days heat up in Portsmouth, treat your munchkins to a splashtastic day at Water Country: New England's largest waterpark. An enormous 700,000-gallon wave pool is just the start. Whether you prefer the lazy pleasure of floating along Adventure River or the adrenaline rush of slides and rides like Thunder Falls & Wild Canyon, the cool fun is unlimited with your all-day ticket.