A guitar duo plays flamenco music in a gallery that shares a storefront with a cobbler's shop. Diners dawdle over Moroccan crab cakes in a restaurant that was once a bank. Strollers amble into the shadow of monstrous brick mill buildings in search of the next stop on an artist studio tour.
Nashua, New Hampshire?
Some people come to the Granite State's second-largest city just to take advantage of bargain-basement prices at the state liquor stores or tax-free trinkets at the mega-malls on its border with Massachusetts. But the renaissance of the city's downtown has made Nashua a destination for those who love restaurants, boutiques, and galleries in a historical setting.
The city of nearly 90,000 residents has worked hard to revitalize its downtown since the business bust of the 1980s. There are street fairs, holiday strolls, and even a trick-or-treat night where merchants hand out the candy.
"We have a vibrant downtown with scores of small shops and boutiques, a fantastic park system, and some of the best eating establishments in the state," said Mayor Bernie Streeter.
The city boasts a historical society and public library that are among the finest in the state. Holman Stadium is a bandbox-sized ballpark where Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella played minor league ball in the late 1940s. Today, manager Butch Hobson, a former Red Sox third baseman, and the Nashua Pride of the Can-Am League call Holman home.
"People are discovering Nashua. There's beginning to be some appreciation for what's available here," said Adelle Leiblein, an artist and poet with a studio in a former mill.
One of the best ways to experience Nashua is by taking a half-mile stroll up Main Street from the neoclassical City Hall, topped with a giant gilded eagle, to the ornate Civil War monument atop Library Hill at the other end of the business district.
"It's an eminently walkable city. The quintessential downtown experience," says booster Sarah DiSano, executive director of Great American Downtown, Nashua's downtown revitalization organization.
Don't miss the mural of the Yankee Flyer Diner by James Aponovich, the highly regarded portrait artist, on the wall of Coronis Cleaners, the building with the bold, red Art Deco sign just past City Hall .
The first restaurant you encounter is Surf, a gourmet seafood eatery ablaze in pastel neon. It's one of the trendier restaurants in town, so you might wait 45 minutes for a table on a Saturday night.
Across the street is Michael Timothy's, an upscale restaurant with an admirable wine list and strong lineup of local jazz groups.
If you have a sweet tooth, stop at Patisserie Bleu for a cappuccino and a slice of tiramisu. If you crave falafel, kibbee , or baba ghanouj, Mezza, a new Lebanese restaurant, is only a block away on Elm Street.
After Aubuchon Hardware and Alec's Shoes, two relics of the city's working-class past, take a left onto West Pearl , where more restaurants, boutiques, and galleries await. Del Vaudo's, a white-linen Italian bistro with a funky lounge and WiFi access, is on your left. The City Room CafÃ© across the street offers soups and sandwiches.
Back on Main Street is Villa Banca, an Italian eatery in a former bank building on the corner of East Pearl Street. Nibble on portabella bruschetta and watch the world go by.
"Main Street is a great place for people watching," said Leiblein. "Downtown is filled with all kinds of surprises."
Turn right down East Pearl Street to Crosby's Bakery, a local institution where they have used the original family recipes to make hermits, chocolate chip cookies, and Parker House rolls for more than 50 years. Just down the street is a more recent addition, Amethyst Wyldfyre, a new age shop that sells incense and crystals and celebrates the spiritual and healing arts.
Back on Main Street, a life-size wooden Indian stands in front of Castro's Back Room, a cigar shop where you can sit in a vintage barber shop chair, light up a Cohiba and watch the Patriots game while your significant other shops for a sequined clutch at the Handbag Boutique next door or some "shabby chic" decorations at Scontsas Fine Jewelry and Home Decor.
Nearby is Martha's Exchange, which, like Scontsas, epitomizes the way Nashua's second- and third-generation-owned businesses have kept up with the times.
Since before World War II, Thursday was Downtown Night in Nashua, when the shops didn't close until 8 and friends gathered for chocolate malts at their favorite candy counter. For many, that spot was Martha's Sweet Shoppe. The Fokas brothers, who transformed the building adjoining the candy counter to a brew pub and restaurant, still honor the roots of the family business by keeping a candy counter in one corner of Martha's Exchange.
On a hill above Main Street is the Court Street Theater, the former fire department headquarters, where the Peacock Players present children's shows throughout the year. After a production, it's fun to takes the kids to Swan's Chocolates for the best hot cocoa in town.
Cross the Main Street Bridge for a great view of the Nashua River, where the old brick mills and a clock tower loom. Old timers say that during the peak of the Industrial Revolution, the river ran different colors, depending on the textiles that were dyed that day.
It's been decades since the last blanket was produced at the mills, but they now house small businesses, luxury apartments, and Gallery One, the largest in the city and the home of the Nashua Area Artists' Association.
Back on Main is the Peddlar's Daughter, an Irish pub on the river . They serve their fish and chips wrapped in newspaper and have a regular lineup of Irish bands.
Cross Canal Street and head up to Railroad Square, where the 1881 Laton House, the last vestige of the city's grand railroad hotels, still stands. Now it's a rooming house that is constantly under threat of gentrification.
Next door, the newly opened Riverwalk Cakery and Coffeehouse is evidence of the city's effort to revitalize downtown and keep its historical flavor.
Back on Main is the Hunt Memorial Building . The former library, which opened in 1903, was designed in the Gothic romantic style by Ralph Adams Cram, who designed chapels at Phillips Exeter Academy and West Point.
You could stop your tour here at the Civil War memorial, but there's more to Nashua than just a business district.
Bear left, and you find the city's two small museums -- the 1808 Abbot-Spalding House and the attached Florence Speare Museum -- both at the Nashua Historical Society. The Speare boasts one of the largest historical textile collections in the country.
If you're feeling fit, head up Concord Street until you get to Greeley Park. The 126-acre, Victorian-style green space has gardens, playgrounds, ball fields, horseshoe pits, an amphitheater, sculptures, and fountains. Residents treat it like a living room. On a recent afternoon, salsa music blared from a boom box and an Elmo piÃ±ata hung from a maple awaiting a birthday boy's whack.
"I think with the price of gas people are rediscovering their own backyard," said Leiblein, "There are a lot of hidden things you can find here. Just get a cup of coffee and poke around."
Contact Tom Long, a freelance writer in Hudson, N.H., at email@example.com.