A city with old charm and a young heart

The view down Congress Street includes North Church, built in 1854. The view down Congress Street includes North Church, built in 1854. (Christine Murphy/Globe Staff)
By Christine Murphy
Globe Staff / May 26, 2010

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Nearly 400 years of history have left an indelible mark here, but this small city at the mouth of the Piscataqua River is far from feeling old and decrepit. Settled in the 17th century, the city honors its heritage with guided walking tours, a living-history museum, period gardens, and meticulously preserved mansions. Yet it also maintains a youthful, progressive energy in Market Square, the vibrant heart of downtown. Out-of-towners and residents alike gather here at coffee shops, bookstores, art galleries, shops, and restaurants. The city is perfect for walking — small enough to get around comfortably on foot but large enough to offer a variety of interesting things to see and do.

Portsmouth has a profusion of small historic inns and romantic B&Bs. With children in tow, you’re better off staying at one of the bigger chain hotels that are within walking distance of downtown. Both the Hilton Garden Inn (100 High St., 603-431-1499,, $229-$289) and Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside (250 Market St., 603-431-2300,, $219-$259) have spacious rooms, pools, breakfast specials, and valet parking. For a more urban alternative, try the minimalist, loft-like Ale House Inn (121 Bow St., 603-431-7760,, $119-$299), situated in a 130-year-old brewery warehouse. There’s free parking, and rooms have Keurig coffee makers and iPod docking stations.

For upscale Mexican try Agave Mexican Bistro Dos (111 State St., 603-427-5300,, entrees $13.75-$24). There’s something for everyone: a metropolitan atmosphere, killer margaritas, and salty tortilla chips that come warm to the table. On a weekend night, the line can be out the door with regulars happy to wait at Jumpin’ Jays Fish Cafe (150 Congress St., 603-766-3474,, entrees $19-$24), where specialties include haddock piccata and a bouillabaisse studded with Prince Edward Island mussels. Eat where the locals go at Colby’s Breakfast & Lunch (105 Daniel St., 603-436-3033, breakfast $3-$9, sandwiches $7-$8), a tiny, funky space with generous helpings. Try the eggs Benedict, hash, smoked salmon scramble, and wonderfully spicy bloody Marys. Have a brunch of Guinness beef stew or shepherd’s pie in a bank vault at Ri Ra (22-26 Market Square, 603-319-1680,, entrees $6.95-$13.95), in the former New Hampshire Bank building built in 1803. Feel the pulse of Market Square at Breaking New Grounds (14 Market Square, 603-436-9555, $2-$6), a good place to stop for midafternoon coffee, pastry, and people watching.

During the day
Tour a research submarine whose design was the prototype for today’s modern fleet at Albacore Park (600 Market St., 603-436-3680,, $5 adults, $3 children). The self-guided tour of the now-landlocked USS Albacore is hands-on: Look through the periscope, sit in the pilots’ chairs and fiddle with the controls, or lie down in the claustrophobia-inducing bunks and try to imagine what life was like for the crew. See history in action by strolling through the mostly outdoor grounds of Strawbery Banke (14 Hancock St., 603-433-1100,, $15 adults, $10 children), where costumed actors keep in character to tell the stories of those who lived in Portsmouth starting with the first English settlement in 1630. Daily events include tours of restored historic homes and gardens and demonstrations such as hearth cooking and pottery making. Get a wide-angle view of the city with the Portsmouth Harbour Trail ($7 adults, $4 children, 603-610-5510, Tickets are available at the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, 500 Market St., or at the Market Square information kiosk). A guide will take you on an hourlong walking tour from Market Square, along the working waterfront, through pretty Prescott Park, and around downtown. Stops include the John Paul Jones House, where the Revolutionary War naval hero lived briefly.

After dark
If you’re tuckered out from walking around all day, take a seat and catch a show. Built in 1878, The Music Hall (28 Chestnut St., 603-436-2400, is a 900-seat performing arts center that claims to be the oldest operating theater in New Hampshire. The venue’s events include music, theater, readings, children’s performers, and movie showings. Watch a play at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre (125 Bow St., 603-433-4793,, which calls itself a “community gathering place’’ and whose upcoming shows include “Rent’’ starting June 18 and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch’’ starting July 18. For live music from local singers and songwriters, try the Press Room (77 Daniel St., 603-431-5186, Most shows start at 9 p.m. with a $5-$10 cover). The pub offers music nightly with an emphasis on folk, jazz, and blues. If you want to make an earlier night of it, a house band performs Celtic music and sea shanties from 4:30-9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and various performers play jazz from 6-9 p.m. on Sundays.

Christine Murphy can be reached at