Portsmouth is a civilized little seaside city of bridges, brick, and seagulls, and quite a gem. Filled with elegant architecture that’s more intimate than intimidating, this bonsai-size city projects a strong, proud sense of its heritage without being overly precious. Part of the city’s appeal is its variety: Upscale coffee shops and art galleries stand alongside old-fashioned barbershops and tattoo parlors. Despite a steady influx of money in recent years, the town retains an earthiness that serves as a tangy vinegar for more saccharine coastal spots. Portsmouth’s humble waterfront must actually be sought out; when found, it’s rather understated.
This city’s history runs deep, a fact that is evident on even a quick walk through town. For the past 3 centuries, Portsmouth has been the hub of the coastal Maine/New Hampshire region’s maritime trade. In the 1600s, Strawbery Banke (it wasn’t called Portsmouth until 1653) was a major center for the export of wood and dried fish to Europe. Later, in the 19th century, it prospered as a center of regional trade. Just across the Piscataqua River in Maine (so important a connection that there are four bridges from Portsmouth to that state), the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard—founded way back in 1800—evolved into a prominent base for the building, outfitting, and repairing of U.S. Navy submarines. Today, Portsmouth’s maritime tradition continues with a lively trade in bulk goods; look for the scrap metal and minerals stockpiled along the shores of the river on Market Street. The city’s de facto symbol is the tugboat, one or two of which are almost always tied up in or near the waterfront’s picturesque “tugboat alley.”
Visitors to Portsmouth will discover a surprising number of experiences in such a small space, including good shopping in the boutiques that now occupy much of the historic district; good eating at many small restaurants and bakeries; and plenty of history to explore among the historic homes and museums set on almost every block of Portsmouth.