New England is filled with historic places, from Boston to Portland. But one historic city that too often gets overlooked is the waterfront Portsmouth. Once an epicenter for the rail and sea industries, this beautiful city dates back to 1623, making it one of the oldest cities in the entirety of the United States.
With so many years behind it, there are tons of historical landmarks to explore here, from houses that have been home to some of the nation’s greatest heroes to submarines that paved the way for today’s fleets. There are museums galore, but there are also many beautiful outdoor spaces to spend time immersing yourself in nature.
Planning a trip to the Seacoast and wondering what to do in Portsmouth, New Hampshire? We’ve compiled a list of the best things to do in Portsmouth, from living history museums to a one-of-a-kind festival of magic. Check out these fun Portsmouth activities and attractions, and you’re bound to have an amazing time in this riverside city!
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1. Visit the Portsmouth Historical Society
The Portsmouth Historical Society is dedicated to preserving the past, present, and future of Portsmouth, starting with taking care of the historical buildings they call home. The historical society is based inside two Federal-style buildings created around 1810. The first was the private home of a grocery store owner, while the second was a private school.
Today, the buildings have been renovated while still maintaining their historic integrity to allow for the historical society to use their halls for exhibitions of Portsmouth artifacts. These exhibitions change throughout the year and showcase many different sides of Portsmouth’s history, diving into specific decades, neighborhoods, and people.
The Portsmouth Historical Society also offers walking tours around the city from May through October, which is a great way to do some Portsmouth sightseeing. They also host many events throughout the year, some historical and some not, including their knitting circle and murder mystery parties.
The historical society also preserves a separate museum, the John Paul Jones House Museum. The house was actually built for a sea captain and merchant named Gregory Purcell in 1758, but it’s believed that the celebrated naval hero John Paul Jones rented a room here from Purcell’s widow when the house was turned into a boarding house.
2. See a Show at The Music Hall
The Music Hall is more than another performance venue. It’s a gathering place for the people of Portsmouth. And it’s been one of the best things to do in Portsmouth since its opening in 1878, making it the oldest operating theater in New Hampshire.
Originally a vaudeville theater, The Music Hall today hosts performers and showcases of all kinds, including film festivals, Broadway-caliber musicals, thought-provoking plays, both legendary and up-and-coming singers, dance troops, comedians, and readings from world-renowned writers. Some artists who have graced the stage include Tony Bennett, Margaret Atwood, and Lily Tomlin.
But the venue strives to be a place to connect the community, which is why there are other offerings here that invite their neighbors to come together, like their bi-monthly book club. This community hub is considered the beating heart of Portsmouth, so it deserves a top spot on your Portsmouth bucket list!
3. Explore the Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden
Stepping inside the Moffatt-Ladd House is one of the coolest things to do in Portsmouth if you want to immerse yourself in Revolutionary history. Originally built between 1760 and 1763, Samuel Moffatt, the son of one of the wealthiest men in New Hampshire, and his new bride, Sarah Catherine, were the first residents.
There began a legacy of almost 150 years of the same family housed within its walls, living in grandeur overlooking the Piscataqua River. But the most famous resident was likely William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
But many would say that Prince Whipple, his enslaved servant, is just as or perhaps should be just as famous as he was a signer of the 1779 Petition of Freedom, which appealed for enslaved people’s liberation. One of the things this museum does particularly well is not skirting around its history. You’ll hear stories of not only the Moffatt-Whipple-Ladd family but also of those who were forced to tend to them.
Inside the house, you’ll find collections of antique furnishings that show you how the family lived throughout the generations. Outside, you’ll find the garden, which dates back to the late 19th century. You’ll also find the chestnut tree that, as the story says, was planted by William Whipple after signing the Declaration of Independence.
4. Wander Around the Strawbery Banke Museum
The Strawbery Banke Museum is perhaps a misnomer. It’s so much more than just one museum. It covers nearly 10 acres and over 300 years of history on the Seacoast. Step inside the restored buildings and see a collection of more than 30,000 artifacts from throughout Portsmouth’s history.
There are 32 buildings this museum has preserved, many of which are still on their original foundation. The earliest dates back to 1695. But here you won’t just learn about the European colonists who settled here. You’ll also see structures showcasing the lives of the Indigenous people who have lived here far longer, the Abenaki people.
In addition to the houses and other structures, you’ll also find a unique set of gardens here. These gardens signify different historical eras and showcase the different plants and planting techniques that were used throughout time. This museum is one of the few places in the world that have such gardens.
But what makes it such a great stop if you’re visiting with little ones is the fact that it’s a living history museum. As such, it’s more interactive than many other museums, with costumed role-players portraying the people of the Puddle Dock neighborhood and a number of craftspeople to help kids and adults alike make things that the people of Puddle Dock would have used.
5. Learn Naval History at the USS Albacore Museum
The USS Albacore was a research submarine. Though it’s been decommissioned, it remains an important piece of maritime history, as its design set a new standard for American submarines. Today, it’s a museum that offers one of the most unique things to do in Portsmouth.
When you visit this museum, you can go inside the submarine and explore the control room, engineering spaces, and bunkrooms. You can look through the periscope just as the naval heroes in this vessel once did. Throughout the ship, a series of audio stations will walk you through its unique features, and recordings from former crew members will set the stage for you about what it was like living inside this groundbreaking piece of history.
Outside, you’ll find more artifacts, as well as a dolphin statue, a symbol of the US Navy Submarine Service. You’ll also find the Memorial Garden, where monuments commemorate the loss of US submarines during World War II and the Cold War and those who gave their lives on the Albacore.
6. Step Back in Time at the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion
With its stunning river view, the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion is truly a marvel to behold and is definitely one of the must-do things in Portsmouth. Originally built as the home, offices, and working farm of Governor Benning Wentworth, New Hampshire’s first royal governor, this mansion is a true reflection of aristocratic life in Portsmouth in the 1700s.
From the intricately carved mantelpiece to the purple lilacs that dot the grounds around the mansion, descendants of the flowers that were originally imported by Wentworth himself, there’s a beauty here that few have ever experienced. It’s a look inside a royal life.
The grounds are open to the public year-round, while tours of the mansion are given from mid-May to Labor Day from Wednesday to Sunday and on weekends only from September to mid-October. When you visit, consider extending your stay by taking the Little Harbor Loop Trail, a waterside path that connects the mansion to the Creek Farm.
7. Explore the History of the Warner House
Formerly known as the MacPheadris-Warner House, the Warner House is the oldest urban brick building in northern New England and one of the best examples of early Georgian brick houses in the region. Dating back to 1716, this house is one of the top Portsmouth attractions for those on a mission to take in all the history Portsmouth has to offer.
Built for one of the most influential Portsmouth families of the 18th century, this house is home to 300 years of history from the six generations of the MacPheadris-Warner family who lived within its walls. On Thursdays through Sundays from the end of May through mid-October, the Warner House is open for guided tours, where a knowledgeable guide will take you through the rooms, which depict different periods of occupancy.
The museum also hosts different events and talks that dive into the history of specific time periods, cultures, and people, with expert speakers shedding light on little-discussed topics. While the museum itself has a limited number of hours of operation, guests are welcome to visit the gardens outside the house, even on days when the museum isn’t open.
8. Take a Steamboat to the Isles of Shoals
The Isles of Shoals have a long history, with their first known name being Smyth’s Isles, a name given to them by English colonist Captain John Smith. Over time the isles became a commercial fishing port and were called the Isles of Shoals as a nod to how fish shoal. As time went on, they became known as a popular vacation destination, with Star Island in particular being where to go when you needed those cool ocean breezes.
Though the Isles of Shoals is no longer the vacation destination it once was, it remains a stunning place to spend some time on your Portsmouth vacation. And the best way to get there is by hopping aboard the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company’s cruises.
Though they have several tour options, their Star Island Walking Tour & Portsmouth Harbor Tour is one of the most unique Portsmouth activities. Aboard your steamship, you’ll hear all about the history of the harbor as you cruise your way to Star Island. There, your tour guide will take you through 400 years of history as you see the past and present of the Isles of Shoals.
9. See a Show at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre
The Seacoast Repertory Theatre believes deeply in the power of live theater. This nonprofit is dedicated to telling stories by and about people of all kinds, letting the audience spend an evening in someone else’s shoes.
Throughout the year, the theater puts on musicals and plays of all different varieties, from experimental and little-known plays to musicals fresh from Broadway to parodies of your favorite stories. No matter when you find yourself in Portsmouth, there’s always something to see at this theater.
In line with their desire to tell stories of all different origins, they have several unique series dedicated to different people and topics. Their Red Light Series is about all things alternative, while their Sol Series focuses on amplifying voices from people of color.
The Senior Repertory Theatre is where seniors can explore theater, making and telling stories with their peers. Meanwhile, children and young adults can tell their own stories with the help of the Portsmouth Academy of Performing Arts.
10. Take a Portsmouth Fairy House Tour
Whether you believe in magic yourself or are traveling with little ones who want to go on a magical adventure, the Portsmouth Fairy House Tour is one of the most unique and fun things to do in Portsmouth. Returning every fall, this one-of-a-kind tour is a family-friendly event that celebrates all things fairy!
Along the waterfront and at the Strawbery Banke Museum, Governor John Langdon House, and Prescott Park, you’ll find hundreds of fairy houses made by professionals, community members, and students alike. Visitors to these enchanted places are encouraged to dress up and be part of the fun. And there’s much more to do than see the fairy houses and explore the beautiful grounds of these adorable Portsmouth attractions.
Throughout the weekend, you’ll find tons of games and crafts for more family fun. You’ll also see fairy-inspired programs put on by the Southern New Hampshire Dance Theater and the New Hampshire Theatre Project.
11. Take a Dip on Peirce Island
Seeing Peirce Island, accessible from Portsmouth via the Peirce Island Bridge, is one of the best Portsmouth activities, especially when the weather is warm. With 27 acres of riverfront property, Peirce Island is filled with beautiful views and fun things to do.
It also has its own unique history. It’s home to Fort Washington, which played a vital role in the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In the mid-1800s, ships were built on the island, and it also served as a recreation center for the coastal artillery troops.
Over time, it became a spot for the public to explore as well. In 1937, an outdoor swimming pool was added, which is still in operation today and available for public use. Trails were also added, which offer stunning views of Portsmouth and the water.
12. Celebrate with the Prescott Park Arts Festival
For 10 weeks throughout the summer, Prescott Park becomes even more beautiful and offers some of the best things to do in Portsmouth. Throughout the summer, the Prescott Park Arts Festival puts on all sorts of family-friendly entertainment, with the goal of being able to provide the people of Portsmouth with accessible, high-quality art that the whole family can enjoy.
Events include the River House Restaurant Concert Series, where both local and world-famous performers grace the Wilcox Main Stage; the Movie Night Series, which has both classics and new releases projected for the family to enjoy; the Mainstage Musical Theatre Production, which sees a signature musical take over the main stage each summer; and the Community Showcase, which takes places before the musical and has local talent showing off their skills.
If you have a little one interested in theater, you might want to consider signing them up for Camp Encore, which has kids ages 7 to 17 exploring the art of theater and putting on their own unique shows.
13. Stroll through the Urban Forestry Center
Established in 1976 from a gift by John Elwyn Stone, a descendant of John Langdon, the first governor of New Hampshire, the Urban Forestry Center is one of the best sights in Portsmouth and a lovely place to spend an afternoon. Covering 182 acres, this beautiful land contains fields, forests, and salt marshes, as well as several historic buildings.
Throughout the land, you’ll find gardens of all kinds, from herb and vegetable gardens to gardens designed to support the local wildlife. If you have a green thumb, you’ll love spending time here and taking away ideas for your own backyard.
The Urban Forestry Center has several trails for you to explore. When the weather’s warm, you can take some simple strolls, but you can also come back after the snow to do some skiing and snowshoeing. The forestry center also hosts seminars and hands-on demonstrations throughout the year so you can learn more about taking care of the land and honing your growing skills.
14. Take a Ride on a Gundalow
The gundalow, a cargo barge that was once common in the Gulf of Maine, has been a part of Portsmouth’s culture since 1650. Though the gundalow was originally developed to carry goods from the harbor, these interesting vessels are used to carry people on the Piscataqua River today.
The Gundalow Company honors the city’s maritime heritage with their Piscataqua gundalow. The boat is US Coast Guard-certified, making it the first time that the public is allowed to sail on a regionally significant historic vessel.
During the day, you can hop on board their Portsmouth Harbor Sail, where you’ll spend an hour and a half cruising along the harbor, taking in forts, lighthouses, and other important Portsmouth attractions while Onboard Educators tell you all about the city’s history. At night, you can take a two-hour Sunset Sail, where you’ll get a similar experience, with the addition of the beauty of the sunset and being allowed to help the crew raise the sail and steer the ship.
On Thursdays and Sundays, the evening sail transforms with a one-of-a-kind concert series. Listen and dance to local musicians as you take in the majesty of the sunset. On Tuesday evenings, you’ll be joined by an expert speaker who can dive into all different types of topics, from naval history to Portsmouth’s ecology.
15. Make a Splash at Water Country
Just recently celebrating 40 years with a new slide and revamped experiences, Water Country is the best way to cool off during a hot summer day. This family-friendly water park is one of the most fun things to do in Portsmouth, though it’s best to visit if you’re traveling with children.
The water park boasts 18 attractions, offering a range of activities for all ages. Chill out and relax in New England’s largest wave pool, or grab a cozy spot in one of their luxury cabanas. Little ones will giggle with glee when they’re soaked by the giant tipping bucket of Tahiti Tree House or slide down the pirate ship at Pirate’s Pool & Lagoon.
Meanwhile, teens and tweens will love all the twists and turns of Thunder Falls & Wild Canyon or racing down the brand-new, dual-action Hyperlight. And the biggest thrill-seekers will find their happy place free-falling on Screamer or catapulting through the mist of Dragon’s Den. If you’re visiting during their operating season in the summer, Water Country definitely belongs on your Portsmouth bucket list!
There you have it! The 15 best things to do in Portsmouth, NH. What’s your favorite thing to do in Portsmouth? Let us know in the comments!
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Jacqueline is a writer and editor pursuing the freelance life to explore the world. Born and raised in New Jersey, she spent her college years in Boston before settling down with her partner and puppy in Monterey, California.
When she’s not writing, you can often find her planning her next trip. Road trips are her favorite, whether it’s driving across the country or simply exploring a new city in her own backyard. She loves uncovering the history of every new place she goes.
Jacqueline has a restless passion for learning and makes it a goal to pick up a new skill every year. She’s picked up embroidery, crocheting, knitting, and cross-stitching, but she’s hoping to master more languages to help her in her travels. She’s also a published author, with short stories and poetry appearing in several anthologies.
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As a seasoned traveler and enthusiast deeply familiar with the rich history and attractions of New England, particularly Portsmouth, I bring a wealth of firsthand knowledge and expertise to guide you through the captivating experiences outlined in the provided article.
Portsmouth Historical Society: The Portsmouth Historical Society, housed in Federal-style buildings dating back to 1810, is a treasure trove of artifacts and exhibitions showcasing various aspects of Portsmouth's history. From immersive walking tours to engaging events like knitting circles and murder mystery parties, the society offers a dynamic exploration of the city's past.
The Music Hall: Established in 1878, The Music Hall stands as the oldest operating theater in New Hampshire. Beyond being a venue for performances, it serves as a community hub with diverse offerings, including a bi-monthly book club. Hosting renowned artists like Tony Bennett and Margaret Atwood, The Music Hall is integral to Portsmouth's cultural fabric.
Moffatt-Ladd House & Garden: The Moffatt-Ladd House, built between 1760 and 1763, provides a fascinating glimpse into Revolutionary history. Home to significant figures like William Whipple, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the mansion's interiors exhibit antique furnishings. The accompanying garden, featuring a chestnut tree planted by Whipple, enhances the immersive experience.
Strawbery Banke Museum: Covering nearly 10 acres, the Strawbery Banke Museum encapsulates over 300 years of Seacoast history. Preserving 32 buildings, including structures representing Indigenous peoples, it offers a living history experience. The museum's gardens, reflecting different historical eras, and interactive exhibits make it an ideal family-friendly destination.
USS Albacore Museum: The USS Albacore Museum, housed in a decommissioned research submarine, provides a unique exploration of naval history. Visitors can step inside the submarine, explore its control room, and learn about its groundbreaking design. The museum's outdoor area features artifacts and monuments commemorating submarine-related history.
Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion: Built as the home of Governor Benning Wentworth in the 1700s, the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion offers a glimpse into aristocratic life. With guided tours available, visitors can appreciate the mansion's architecture, including an intricately carved mantelpiece, and explore the surrounding grounds.
Warner House: Formerly the MacPheadris-Warner House, this historic brick building, dating back to 1716, stands as the oldest in northern New England. Open for guided tours, the Warner House narrates 300 years of Portsmouth's history through the lens of the MacPheadris-Warner family. The museum hosts events and talks, providing in-depth insights into various historical topics.
Isles of Shoals Steamship Company: Offering cruises to the Isles of Shoals, the steamship company's tours, such as the Star Island Walking Tour & Portsmouth Harbor Tour, blend scenic harbor views with a rich historical narrative. The experience includes guided tours, allowing visitors to delve into the 400 years of history associated with the Isles of Shoals.
Seacoast Repertory Theatre: Dedicated to the power of live theater, the Seacoast Repertory Theatre presents a diverse range of performances throughout the year. With a focus on inclusivity, the theater features unique series like the Red Light Series and Sol Series, catering to varied audience interests and backgrounds.
Portsmouth Fairy House Tour: The annual Portsmouth Fairy House Tour transforms the city into a magical realm with enchanting fairy houses displayed along the waterfront and at prominent locations. Beyond admiring the fairy houses, visitors can engage in family-friendly activities, games, and programs inspired by fairy folklore.
Peirce Island: Accessible via the Peirce Island Bridge, Peirce Island offers 27 acres of riverfront property with a rich history, including its role in the American Revolution. The island features Fort Washington and an outdoor swimming pool, making it an ideal destination for historical exploration and recreational activities.
Prescott Park Arts Festival: For 10 weeks during the summer, Prescott Park becomes a hub for family-friendly entertainment. The festival includes concerts, movie nights, musical theatre productions, and community showcases. It aims to provide accessible, high-quality art for the community, making it a vibrant part of Portsmouth's summer scene.
Urban Forestry Center: Established in 1976, the Urban Forestry Center covers 182 acres of fields, forests, and salt marshes. With gardens showcasing diverse plant life and educational trails, the center offers a tranquil retreat. Seminars and demonstrations enhance the experience, making it a valuable resource for nature enthusiasts.
Gundalow Company: The Gundalow Company preserves Portsmouth's maritime heritage with its Piscataqua gundalow. Offering harbor sails, sunset sails, and unique concert series, the company provides an immersive experience. The gundalow, once a cargo barge, now carries passengers along the Piscataqua River, offering a blend of history and scenic beauty.
Water Country: Celebrating 40 years, Water Country is a family-friendly water park featuring 18 attractions. From the largest wave pool in New England to thrilling water slides like Hyperlight and Screamer, the park offers a refreshing escape during the summer months.
In conclusion, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, stands as a vibrant city with a rich historical tapestry and a diverse range of attractions. Whether exploring museums, theaters, historic houses, or enjoying outdoor activities, the city offers a multifaceted experience for visitors of all ages.