Downtown Portsmouth boasts fun shops, cafes, music venues, and 1880s architecture
By Max Hartshorne
Portsmouth, New Hampshire is one of the most dynamic and exciting little cities I’ve had the pleasure of visiting in years.
It’s exploding with artists, creative people, film, cafés, breweries, and the requisite high rents that come when a city becomes cool. Portsmouth is definitely here.
A visit to the city of 22,000 was well timed: The New Hampshire Film Festival was happening over the weekend we were there.
Movies Made by New Hampshireites
This 20-year-old fest brings 100 New Hampshire films and people who love movies to six venues, including the 900-seat, elegantly renovated two-level Music Hall and the Music Hall Lounge, across and down Congress Street, which offers 116 seats and a convenient bar.
Both venues have stocked rosters of film, music, theater, and spoken word for months to come. You can tell, with a calendar this full, that people will fill the venues, and they do.
Monte Bonahan, the Music Hall’s director of communications, told us that the place dates back to 1878 and was built as a Baptist meetinghouse. At one time, up until around 1900, there were four big theaters in Portsmouth.
In 2007 this beautiful space with large colorful cushions and a dramatic bar was hewn out of granite. The bathrooms are most elegant, with curving rock inlays. They must be seen to be believed!
Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club: Portsmouth’s Classic Music Joint
Right next door to the Music Hall Lounge is the marvelously retro Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club, a beautifully restored three-level music emporium and events venue with a circular stage and elegant balcony seating, a full menu, and jazz luminaries like legendary bassist Ron Carter playing nightly.
They also have rooms where you can take a comfy seat and watch the music on the screen, or get a table upstairs in the balcony for a bird’s eye view of the jazz.
It’s a big swing to build a new fancy club around jazz, as the audience for this type of music is aging. Then again, young and old listeners joined us at the show we saw on a Thursday evening.
It was avant-garde bebop and freestyling on baritone sax, piano, xylophone, and drums, called Joel Ross and Good Vibes. Good feeling in there.
You can tell they are in the business for the long game, and that makes the best music clubs – the owners aren’t cutting corners, and are letting the music rule.
Living History at Strawbery Banke
“History” is defined by being able to walk inside houses from the 1800s and meet reenactors who can replicate what people were like in the old days.
At Strawbery Banke, we did just that. Our guide Katie took us through many period homes, including one that had two side-by-side doors: one opened into a 1955 house and the other one from the 1800s.
They also have replica general stores from both the 1700s and 1943, with period-costumed actors to give it all a little more verisimilitude. Really fun and interesting place to stroll around and see stuff.
Dining in Portsmouth
We had plenty of interesting choices in Portsmouth’s compact downtown. Everything was very easy to get to from our hotel on Vaughn Street, the AC Portsmouth Downtown Waterfront, which was built three years ago and offers water views and a cool four-floor bar and restaurant.
The hotel is a frequent venue for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other events, and the staff works hard to make everyone happy. We would give it high marks for a standard hotel – not luxe, but who’s looking for that?
The Rooftop restaurant at the AC, the Rooftop at the Envio, is a happening joint with lots of shareable plates, handcrafted cocktails, and an interesting wine list. There are tables both inside and out.
Our restaurant choice was French: La Maison Navarre, on Congress Street. On the street level, it’s a coffee place that also sells interesting and decidedly French food ingredients, like Moutarde de Meaux and tins of French sardines.
The espresso bar is hopping by day, but up the stairs, there is a French restaurant called MN Wine Bar. Dinner was escargots, drenched in pesto garlic butter, complete with the requisite set of tools to pry them from their shells and consume them with a tiny fork… in one bite.
My partner’s chicken almondine was well-seasoned, breaded and perfectly tender. With lots of veggies on both plates, we were quite happy. A French-inspired wine list made it even more authentic, which we loved.
Popular Popovers in Portsmouth
Breakfast found us at the popular Popovers on the Square, where both outdoor tables and window seats provide a great view of the passing parade on Congress Street.
Another fun local spot for a seafood nosh is just over the other side of the Piscataqua River in Kittery, Maine. The Buoy Shack is a stellar spot with views of the busy river, with passing lobster boats, tugs, and all manner of crafts making their way to the ocean past Kittery.
Try the jumbo lobster roll. Some lobster lovers in Connecticut put on mayonnaise, but not us – we preferred the classic New England/Maine style, with butter.
Lobsters and Workers
The owner of a lobster boat that docks here told me that the lobster business has really rebounded from the shortages and price problems of a few years ago.
Now the supply is going to most domestic and local markets instead of China, he said, and that has kept the prices reasonable, and the supply is great.
I guess all of the lobsters haven’t yet fled our shores for colder Nova Scotia, as some marine biologists warned a few years ago. The tough news in lobster land is the recent decree by The Marine Stewardship Council and Seafood Watch which claimed that the seafood poses too much of a risk to rare whales and should be avoided.
The only problem our lobsterman and the owners of Buoy Shack reported was not being able to find enough help. The restaurant would be open seven days, they said, if they had the staff. And nobody young wants to go out on a lobster boat anymore, so he fishes for six days all by himself.
The housing prices here are high, with some one-bedrooms in town around $2,200 per month. You can live farther away in southern Maine or New Hampshire for less, but living downtown is going to cost you.
A Canine City
Portsmouth is a canine city. You come across every breed of dog being walked on the streets or frolicking in the dog parks, South Mill and Pierce Island, where the hounds can run leash-free.
It’s clearly a popular topic of conversation, inquiring about breeds and pedigrees – just like the many scooters, either stand-up style or Vespa-looking, that are seen parked on the sidewalks. (No tickets, no meter fees.) These also start a great many conversations on Congress Street.
Both dog parks and scooters bring the artists and incomes that make the town prosperous, hence the high rents, but great schools.
We met a couple of 40-somethings who moved to Portsmouth from Sacramento, California four years ago. They told us they absolutely love it here. With two kids in local schools, mom stays home and dad works in nearby Greenland.
We met them on a date night at the Buoy Shack, while we enjoyed lobster rolls, beer and wine on an outdoor table overlooking the river.
They said they don’t miss the homelessness and crime that is hard to avoid in many West Coast cities. Here it feels almost crime-free, and everyone is taken care of.
Portsmouth’s New Food Hall & Art Walks
There is an exciting project under construction in Portsmouth – the West End Yards food hall, one of those popular large open spaces where dozens of different food purveyors staff food stalls, and people gather on large tables to share the foods and the booze served in the surrounding kitchens.
Boston has several of these, Atlanta has five, and they are popping up everywhere. Anthony Bourdain was planning on opening his own food hall in Manhattan before he passed away in 2018.
In many ways, Portsmouth has exactly what everyone under 40 wants these days… a car-free, casual life where a dog can go everywhere, you can walk most places, and there is a lot of nightlife and a good art scene.
Friday’s art walk answers that question, as many galleries open their doors and the public enjoys the stroll. In December at Strawbery Banke, there is an annual series of weekend candlelight strolls through the city’s historic homes, with hundreds of lighted candle lanterns with costumed role-players popping out with seasonal greetings.
Plan a Portsmouth Visit
Portsmouth is a dynamic gem of a city any time of year, and hordes of visitors can attest to its charm. I advise you to plan a visit soon to experience it for yourself.
Hipsters and others can take Amtrak from New York City to Durham, New Hampshire, and it’s only 20 minutes away by car to Portsmouth, a quick Uber.
Driving is also easy: just head north on 95, and take the exit before the big bridge. We were quite pleased with the hotel we chose, located right on the water and right downtown.
The AC Portsmouth Downtown Waterfront is a wonderful hotel….close to everything, with friendly and helpful staff with a great restaurant with a water view on the fourth floor.
299 Vaughn St. Portsmouth NH 603-427-0152 website
Rooftop at the Envio restaurant and bar atop the AC Hotel.
Portsmouth Info and Events
Jimmy’s Jazz and Blues Club
Buoy Shack (Kittery, Maine)
The Author’s trip was sponsored by the AC Hotel but the opinions are the author’s own.