The Best Things to Do in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, From Black Heritage Landmarks to a Turkish Cafe

A blend coastal New England scenery and modern dining destinations, without the crowds.
Image may contain Outdoors Garden Arbour Plant Vase Pottery Potted Plant and Jar
Bethany Allen/Strawbery Banke Museum

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a prime destination for year-round outdoor and cultural exploration. Though it’s long stood in the shadow of Portland, Maine—its northern harbor sister—Portsmouth, too, comes alive with activity and unique cultural offerings, especially in the summer and fall months.

At just 16.8 square miles and 21,000 people, Portsmouth isn’t large. But its compact borders contain an alchemical blend of scenic landscapes, beautifully preserved historic architecture, and modern destinations for dining, shopping, and culture. This makes for an easy New England getaway, without the wall-to-wall crowds of a larger city like Boston.

Getting to and around Portsmouth

Fly into either Boston Logan Airport (55 miles away) or Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (48 miles away). Rent a car and drive to Portsmouth, but plan to ditch it once you’re there. (See this guide for the best paid and free parking options.) Most of the attractions are accessible on foot, or by rented road bike or electric bikes.

While Amtrak’s Downeaster route offers affordable train service from Boston’s North Station, the closest stations are Exeter or Dover, both about 18 miles away; you’ll need a ride-share or the COAST Bus to get into Portsmouth. The C&J Bus Lines from Boston or a Greyhound from Manchester will drop you off at Portsmouth’s transportation station, where you can hail an Uber to take you downtown.

Taylor Amaio Fletcher outside of her Portsmouth store, Avelon Home

Meagan Explores

Vintage-inspired wares sold at Avelon Home 

Meagan Explores

What to do in Portsmouth

Begin by exploring Portsmouth’s historic port, which has been in continuous operation for nearly 400 years on the Piscataqua River. Around the port and downtown, a number of PortCity Bike Tours and guided walking tours are available. Check out the Black Heritage Trail, an educational tour that chronicles the long and often untold history of Black and African Americans in New Hampshire.

On the eastern side of Memorial Bridge—which is colorfully lit at night—Prescott Park has pretty gardens, plus an outdoor stage for live music, theater, and movies during the Prescott Park Arts Festival. Nearby Strawbery Banke is a 10-acre museum that preserves entire colonial neighborhoods, from mansions to shops and gardens. Don’t miss the exhibit on the lives of the Abenaki, the Indigenous people who first lived on and called the land N’dakinna, at the Carter Collections Center.

Get out on the water via kayak or paddle board rental from Esther’s Marina, or join a guided tour with Seven Rivers Paddling. Hop on the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company ferry tour to the nine small islands that cluster along the maritime border between New Hampshire and Maine: The tour includes a stop on picturesque Star Island, where you’ll have about 45 minutes to explore its grassy bluffs and wildflower-strewn trails (so skip the 20-minute narration when you disembark).

Back on land, visit one of Portsmouth’s many galleries featuring local art, or the Museum of New Art for thought-provoking contemporary sculpture, paintings, and mixed media. Blow off steam at Vent, where you can (safely) smash objects with bats, hammers, and crowbars, or splatter paint with abandon in their surprisingly satisfying “expression rooms.”

Portsmouth’s Market Square and surrounding streets are a shopper’s delight, especially for clothing. Three of the best: Wear House, which sells gently used mass-market and designer items; Bliss for minimalist-chic brands like Agolde and CP Shades; and The Drift Collective for creatively upcycled clothes.

Other great stops include cozy-cool Portsmouth Book & Bar for cocktails or coffee, and Nahcotta for art supplies and home goods. While several Portsmouth shops sell food products, the exquisite house-made chocolates and truffles of La Cascade du Chocolat are hard to beat.

Be sure to comb the edges of the downtown for more great finds. On Deer Street, shop vintage-style decor at Avelon Home, and Jardiniere Flowers for gifts, wine, and fresh blooms. On the West End, little gem Caffe Kilim is a combination espresso bar, Turkish market, and boutique for woven textiles in the cafe's namesake pattern.

Namesakes pastries at Popovers on the Square

Meagan Explores

Ethel's Lobster Roll at Row 34

Emily Hagen

What to eat and drink

Popovers on the Square crafts breakfast sandwiches and dozens of pastries, including the signature popover; get one with maple butter, or stuffed with scrambled eggs. Lively and kitschy since the 90s, The Friendly Toast is another popular breakfast spot: The mimosa flight will set you back $18, but it’s a fun way to sample four flavors of the brunch favorite.

Like most New England coastal cities, Portsmouth specializes in seafood. The Portsmouth location of Boston-beloved Row 34 features a top-notch raw bar, excellent clam chowder, and a short but creative list of cocktails. On Bow Street, Surf boasts some of the best views of the harbor, and eclectic menu picks. Order the decadent lobster fries—crispy potatoes topped with garlic butter, chunks of fresh lobster, queso fresco, and even lobster bisque.

Vegetarian-friendly restaurants include Nikki’s Bánh Mi, which serves mouthwatering Vietnamese sandwiches, and Café Mediterráneo, which serves Italian antipasti and pasta. Green Elephant is a must for plant-based foodies. It’s hard to choose among the Asian-inspired curries, noodles, entrees, and desserts so silky, you’ll swear they’re dairy-based.

Hungry for a midday snack? Hit Izzy’s Frozen Yogurt & Ice Cream for a milkshake or sundae with dairy or vegan flavors. Or indulge in cookies, pies, cakes, and ice cream floats at Fezziwig’s Food & Fountain, a vintage-style brasserie that feels like something you might find outside an English garden.

The Hotel Portsmouth, a restored 1881 mansion

Hotel Portsmouth

Where to stay

The AC Hotel Portsmouth Downtown/Waterfront by Marriott is the city’s newest. It features a contemporary urban ambience, including at its sleek rooftop bar. 

For something cozier, the 10-room Ale House Inn, a Lark Hotel, is a more affordable option: A stay here includes a comfortably appointed room and a 24-hour coffee bar that serves cold-brew keg java and snacks. Sister Lark property The Hotel Portsmouth, located in a gracious 1881 mansion, features architectural details from Portsmouth’s mercantile heyday and 32 rooms, including a garden suite with patio.

Easygoing yet luxurious, The Sailmaker’s House is a boutique hotel that blends historic charm with modern amenities like Matouk linens, wide-screen HDTVs, Malin + Goetz bath products, and a round-the-clock snack bar. Its backyard perennial gardens are a sweet spot for a glass of wine at the end of a long day of exploration in this historic New England port.