New Hampshire town has a small town feel with big city amenities

By Celina Colby

It’s hard to get more quintessential New England than Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The charming town is lined with cobblestone and brick streets, local boutiques, and buildings dating back as far as the 1600s. Restaurants offer up mayo-dressed lobster rolls and clam chowder and the residents have swapped pilgrim collars for Patriots caps.

Located directly on the water, this is an ideal spring and summer getaway when the brilliant yellow forsythia buds are beginning to bloom. Portsmouth is just an hour by bus or car from Bah-stun and most of the same slang applies. Called “one of the most culturally rich destinations” by Dozen Distinctive Destinations, Portsmouth’s history comes alive while seamlessly blending in the modern. A historic working seaport, Portsmouth features art galleries, jazz clubs, chef-owned restaurants, breweries and beautiful red brick buildings. Portsmouth takes pride in the fact that almost all of the shops downtown are independently owned. Did we mention that downtown’s shops are tax free?

For historical background, the Strawberry Banke Museum is a must. Though it’s dubbed a museum, it’s really a 10-acre campus illustrating what life was like for the original native inhabitants and early settlers of Portsmouth. You can tour historic homes and gardens, chat with costumed performers, and engage in hands-on crafting.

But in the spring particularly the Wentworth-Coolidge mansion is an unparalleled way to experience historic Portsmouth. The 18th-century house sits right on the banks of the Portsmouth Harbor on a sprawling property that bursts with vibrant blooming flowers in May and June. You can tour the mansion and learn about upper-crust life in the 1700s, but it’s also a beautiful spot to picnic at and enjoy the waterfront views.

Portsmouth offers a variety of lodging. Hotel Thaxter, newly opened on Middle Street in a former church from the 1860s, provides both the comforts of a modern boutique hotel and a strong connection to Portsmouth’s rich history. The property is named for Celia Thaxter, a writer, painter, and recreational botanist who established one of the first artist colonies in Portsmouth. Plants were one of Thaxter’s passions and her green thumb is evidenced all over the hotel: in the floral printed chairs of the library, the faux flowers outside each room that indicate a guest’s cleaning preference, and the copies of Thaxter’s books that live in each room like a botanical bible.

Local hospitality guru Amanda McSharry, who created the property with her husband, Jay, felt a kinship with Thaxter who was a pioneering creative in her time and the passion for this project is evident in every detail.

In addition to creature comforts, Hotel Thaxter is home to an innovative Japanese restaurant, Nichinan. Here you can sip craft cocktails and sample wagyu beef in a chic, art decoinspired space. The new Sailmaker’s House, Wentworth By The Sea, The Hotel Portsmouth, Water Street Inn, the Ale House and the historic 360-year-old Three Chimneys Inn in nearly Durham, each offer their own charm that will make any visit special. In addition, there are plenty of national hotel chains available.

Though charm and history run heavy in Portsmouth, the contemporary flourishes too. 3S Artspace is a dynamic nonprofit performance and visual art space near the water. The robust events calendar includes film screenings, live music, performance art, hands-on creative workshops like ink painting, and much more. The space has also become a meeting group for other community events like clothing swaps.

Modern innovation has reached the hospitality industry here as well. The Inn Downtown is part of a group of apart-hotels pioneered by local entrepreneur Doug Palardy. These accommodations are like studio apartments, with efficiency (and sometimes full) kitchens, sitting and sleeping areas, and spacious well-appointed bathrooms. This makes them convenient for both short- and long-term stays.

The Inn is also completely self-managed. Guests are given a code at check-in for their rooms and check in and out independently. The rooms and common areas are cleaned but there’s no central lobby or desk staff. This worked well as a safety precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic but that kind of mobility and independence has remained popular with young travelers.

This property is located directly in the heart of downtown Portsmouth for easy walking access to just about everything, but sister property Great Island Inn down the road in New Castle provides more of a beach experience.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, strikes a special balance between urban hotel amenities and cuisine and coastal small-town history and charm. It has many of the conveniences and luxuries you might find in Boston and all of that quaintness you’ll find in Bar Harbor.

When you visit take advantage of all there is to do, but don’t forget to take a page out of Celia Thaxter’s book and stop to smell the flowers.

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