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Portsmouth, New Hampshire

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Did You Know … ?

  • Portsmouth was first named Strawbery Banke for the wild strawberries on the riverbank.
  • Paul Revere rode to Portsmouth to warn of British intentions there, months before his famous 1775 ride.
  • The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is in Maine.
  • New Hampshire was the first colony to declare its independence from England (1775).
  • John Paul Jones was born John Paul — adding Jones after running from possible murder charges.

A place of distinction

Portsmouth, N.H., is a New England harbor town with a rich history dating to the earliest colonial times. Homes that predate the American Revolution and other sites of historic interest are one component in Portsmouth’s appeal as a tourist destination.

In the 21st century, the visual charms of a historic seaport are complemented by other attractions, such as the sea itself. New Hampshire’s Atlantic coast is only 18 miles long, and Portsmouth sits at one end of it, at the Piscataqua River, on the border with Maine. Portsmouth’s site gives access to the river and the Atlantic Ocean for water sports, boating and sightseeing cruises.

Even with a population of little more than 20,000, the small town also offers the pleasures of art galleries, jazz clubs, sidewalk cafes, theater, unique boutiques and a summer arts festival.

Calling it “one of the most culturally rich destinations in the country,” the National Trust for Historic Preservation added Portsmouth to its list of Distinctive Destinations in 2008. The trust also recognized the town’s “longstanding commitment to historic preservation” and highlighted the Strawbery Banke Museum, which uses the town’s original name. The museum’s 10-acre waterfront site was rescued from 1950s urban renewal plans and protects 35 original buildings.

Portsmouth was founded in 1623, making it America’s third-oldest settlement. It grew as a shipbuilding center and became New Hampshire’s colonial capital.

Local history tells of a 1774 Paul Revere ride to Portsmouth, before the one that made him famous, to warn of British intentions to reinforce the nearby Fort William and Mary and secure its ammunition. This led to what some call the revolution’s first act of aggression — locals grabbed the ammunition first. No one was killed.

Naval officer John Paul Jones came to town in 1781 to oversee construction of a ship for the revolutionary cause. Today, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (founded in 1800) occupies all of Seavey Island in the Piscataqua River. Even the shipyard has a historic district, but, for security reasons, requests for group tours of the shipyard are handled on a case-by-case basis. Mostly, visitors see this slice of the Portsmouth environs from a distance.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Go scuba diving. Or if you prefer to stay above the water, more or less, make that kayaking.
  • Cruise Portsmouth’s harbor aboard a working tugboat. Learn about forts, lighthouses and the tugboats themselves.
  • In late summer, eat your fill at New England’s largest seafood festival in nearby Hampton Beach. Apply to compete in the lobster roll eating contest. Or when fall foliage is in full color, attend the brew fest in Portsmouth.
  • Get out on the ocean for deep-sea fishing and whale watching — or both on the same excursion.
  • Take boating lessons from Portsmouth’s American Maritime Academy.
  • Order a hearty meal and samples of local suds in a Portsmouth brewpub. Also, try the products of a brewery called Smuttynose — who can resist that name?

Things to do for Centrics

  • New Hampshire boasts more than a dozen official scenic byways. Drive the one on Route 1A, which hugs the rocky Atlantic coast.
  • Use the trails at the Urban Forestry Center for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, depending on your preference.
  • Take a Portsmouth harbor cruise or a cruise along an inland river, as a way to learn something of the area’s history with visual aides. Dinner cruises are another way to go.
  • Plan an itinerary that will take you to a selection of the town’s several historic homes. One was used by John Paul Jones during the American Revolution; another (Moffatt-Ladd House) was home to William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Pick apples at the Applecrest Farm Orchards at Hampton Falls, then turn those apples into fresh-pressed cider.
  • Take the family on a two-night adventure, operated by the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island in the Isles of Shoals. Planned activities include seal watching, studying the stars and other educational elements.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Observe costumed reenactors demonstrating traditional crafts, and dwell on the area’s four centuries of history at Portsmouth’s Strawbery Banke Museum. Time your visit for the fall country fair or a ghostly house tour, too.
  • Enjoy the art on display and for sale during one of the city’s Art ‘Round Town, an open gallery walk held on the first Friday of each month.
  • Join a guided walk along the Portsmouth Harbor Trail, which encompasses historic homes, the working waterfront, Market Square and Prescott Park. Another tourist trail is the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.
  • Photograph the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.
  • Dine in a restaurant overlooking the Portsmouth harbor and sample a wine produced at a vineyard in New Hampshire’s tiny seacoast area.
  • Settle in for an evening’s entertainment at one of Portsmouth’s theaters. It’s a bonus if your event is staged at the town’s restored 1878 Music Hall.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development at www.visitnh.gov