Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is located on the northernmost coast of Maine’s neighboring state. A three-hour drive down I-95 will take you over the Piscataqua River bridge and across the border into New Hampshire. From there, all you need to do is take the first exit, left at the light, and you’ll find yourself in the heart of downtown.
Driving in town is a maze of confused pedestrians coupled with an unnecessary amount of one-ways and do-not-enter street signs. Keep an eye and ear out, for often, the town will vibrate with car horns as a visitor finds themselves driving in the direction of traffic. Don’t worry, though, there hasn’t been a fatality yet.
Driving is the hardest part, but once you’re parked, it only takes 10 to 15 minutes to get across town.
Similar to driving, parking can be difficult. The parallel maneuver will be your friend or your enemy, depending on if you get stuck behind an all-too-confident new driver trying to slide into a sliver of a spot. Watch out because if you find your car too far from the curb, the town may ticket you for obstructing the roadway.
If you are looking for a more cost-effective (free) parking option and you don’t mind a short five-minute walk into town, check out the Municipal Parking Lot located next to Citizens Bank. If
there are no open spots in that lot; just beyond it are more free parking spots lining the street to the Portsmouth Library.
Walking into town from the Municipal Parking Lot, you’ll find yourself passing the Clipper Tavern and, across from that, a metal fence containing the rubble of the famous State Street Saloon. It burned down in April 2017, along with three neighboring buildings. It was a true loss for the culture of Portsmouth nightlife, which had surrounded the well-known “Statey” for over 35 years.
Take a moment to appreciate the vegetation now growing within the confinement of the fence and keep moving towards town.
Depending on what you want to see, learn, eat or buy, there are many options for you within the small Market Square of Portsmouth. Directly across from the remains of the State Street Saloon, you will find the Portsmouth Book & Bar. During the day, you can purchase coffee, lunch or baked goods from this establishment. As you wait for your order, check out their rather large and notably affordable collection of new and used books. If you are inclined, you can find a seat and read while you munch or sip.
Come nighttime, the Book and Bar turns into a dark and mysterious bar. Often hosting local musicians and writers, this establishment will serve you cocktails as you sit and listen, surrounded by the ambiance of candles and books.
Portsmouth’s music scene has increased over the past few years. On any summer night, you can see anywhere between one to five live concerts. Although it slows down come winter, the Portsmouth music scene never dies. Check out venues like The Press Room, WSCA Button Factory, Book & Bar, The Drift Art Collective, The GOAT and the Gaslight to see what music options are available when you visit.
A must-go spot in downtown is the Portsmouth City Music Hall. Hosting a variety of concerts, films and theatrical performances, the Music Hall is a great place to experience the authenticity and creativity of Portsmouth’s art scene. Even if you can’t secure yourself tickets to a show, just walk in, ask the front desk a few questions and check out the beautiful and highly intricate bathroom designs.
If you are getting hungry, there are various food options in downtown Portsmouth, ranging from seafood and tacos to Thai food and smoothie bowls. Some notable restaurants are the Friendly Toast, The Ferry Landing and Barrio.
The Friendly Toast is located right in the heart of town. With bright green walls and questionably funky decorations, the Friendly Toast will give you something to look at while you munch on an underwhelmingly small meal.
The Ferry Landing does not do much better regarding food quality, but it is a scenic spot. Located right on the Piscataqua River, overlooking TugBoat Alley, you can eat as much fried and non-fried seafood as you want. Barrio is a little way out of town but worth the walk. Their unique menu style may take a couple of explanations, but the tacos and margarita won’t disappoint.
Beyond food, Portsmouth has a variety of other places to spend your money at. There is a consignment clothing store for women called the Warehouse, a joke toy store called Marco Polo, a record shop called Modern Records, two book stores (Sheaffe Street and Riverrun Books), an upcycled garment store called Drift and much more.
If you are looking to escape the streets and want to see some green, there are a variety of parks to check out, including Prescott Park and the Governor John Langdon House. The John Langdon House is also one of the many museums and galleries available to peruse.
Portsmouth offers visitors a vibrant experience with its many small businesses, historic architecture and a thriving nightlife. While parking and driving are tricky, the compact downtown makes it walkable with plenty to do, see and eat once you’ve found a spot. Truly, the only way to understand the beauty of the brick-lined streets of Portsmouth is to visit it yourself.
While you’re in town, don’t forget to look over the Piscataqua River and take in the sight of Maine from across the stateline.
To learn more about Portsmouth, NH and to watch the town’s silly little propaganda videos, go check out the visitors page on their website: https://www.cityofportsmouth.com/city/visitors.
Jess Cleary-Reuning is a marine science and journalism student