Clam Huts, Vintage Shops & More: A Weekend Adventure in Portsmouth

by  Christine Wei | May 5, 2014
Portsmouth, NH
Portsmouth, NH / Sean Pavone/iStock

Before the summer crowds descend, May is prime time for weekend trips, like the memorable two-day jaunt we recently made to Portsmouth, NH. The quintessential New England harbor town is centered around a downtown dotted with grand Victorian architecture and a host of former industrial spaces – a nod to the city's shipbuilding and Revolutionary past. But in recent years, cozy new restaurants and indie shops have also popped up to lend the city a lively but communal feel. For the perfect mix between enjoyable and relaxed, here's what to include on your itinerary:

Getting There

Just about an hour’s drive in regular traffic, Portsmouth is an easy straight shot up the I-95 from Boston. A short ride on the Greyhound takes you there, but if you’re traveling in a small group, renting a car is worth two great detours along the way:

The USS Albacore has called Portsmouth home since the mid ‘80s, largely thanks to the efforts of City Councilman Bill Keefe, who can still be spotted manning the visitor’s center today. For a ship only 205 feet in length (that’s two-thirds of the typical WWII fleet ship), the self-paced audio tour is surprisingly impressive, with recorded explanations that include interviews of various crew members. Many aspects of this former testing ship is interactive; feel free to lie down on the compact bunkers, unhook the fold-up sinks, and look through the periscope.

For lunch, make a 10-minute detour up to Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine, just across Piscataqua River. Their specialty is everything seafood, fried, be it calamari or clams or shrimp or haddock. But so long as you’re in the mood, they do it extremely well; the batter is crisp and not at all greasy. Orders are taken at the front of the restaurant and announced via speaker throughout its three indoor and outdoor seating areas once they're ready. Tip: take a look at the prices before ordering. Anything that’s closer to $20 is a meal for two or even three.

What to Do

Our favorite shop in all of Portsmouth, unsurprisingly, is the travel-themed Wanderlust Decor. Curating an eclectic, delightful collection of regional and global goods, the family-run shop has everything from vintage maps of Portsmouth to imported Italian paper to a lazy Susan coffee table made with a whiskey barrel top (by one of the owners himself). All the way round the back, two giant maps proudly hold pins where the store's visitors have traveled – go ahead and add your own. Also noteworthy for the design lover is Gus & Ruby Letterpress, where cool posters, gorgeous cookbooks, and tasteful home goods are on offer beyond the expected (very gorgeous) greeting cards.

Whether or not you actually fancy a bite or a drink, Book & Bar next to the North Church in Market Square is worth a stop. The owners have maintained the stately facade of an 1860 post office, outfitted the interiors with shelves and shelves of books, and restored the elegant columns and moldings to create a bookworm's haven. Likewise, The Press Room is loved for its almost-nightly live music, mostly focused on jazz. Especially popular is Beat Night, where eight spoken word poets take the stage every third Thursday of the month.

For the history buff, Strawbery Banke Museum is no typical living history museum. It's a 10-acre neighborhood in itself, encompassing 37 historic structures, eight "period gardens" with heirloom plants, and an impressive collection of photographs, manuscripts, and artifacts. As a whole, the property tells the stories of famed figures in Portsmouth history like George Washington and Daniel Webster as well as the average merchants and seamen whose work helped the town prosper. Here, get interactive with craft demonstrations, candlelight walks, and other special annual celebrations.

Note: The waterfront Prescott Park is currently undergoing renovations. In typical years, it's home to ten acres of colorful blooms, manicured lawns, boardwalk piers, and even an island for picnics and grills. Summers here are filled with community events like food fests, Broadway adaptations, live music performances, and more. 

Where to Eat

Need a little afternoon pick-me-up or a small break for your roving feet? We have lots of love for Annabelle’s, a cozy kosher creamery of more than 30 years. You'll find locals and area residents stopping by for classics like chocolate chip Kahlua and New Hampshire maple walnut as well as seasonals like Caribbean Coconut, with pieces of fresh fruit. Or get your caffeine fix at Breaking New Grounds, a roomy coffee shop just off Market Square that roasts its beans on-site. Even better than the latte’s $3 price tag here? The people-watching.

If you’ve got some room in your budget, let your splurge be dinner at Cava, a five-year-old tapas restaurant that's already become a local staple. Reservations may be difficult to come by, but call the day of for bar seats and your taste buds will thank you. With a Spanish-Lebanese-Mediterranean bent – it’s a very diverse staff here – the menu might feature the likes of morel mushrooms with sweet peas and fiddleheads; flatiron steak with chermoula yogurt and fava beans; and dark chocolate bacadillo with sea salt and pistachio. You’ll end up spending close to $40 per person, but dishes of this flavor and caliber could easily go for double in large cities. Don't forget to ask the talented bartender Dan, who grew up in the area, for additional travel recommendations.

The next day, don’t be fooled by the simplistic look and deli-style ordering counter at Popover on the Square, perfect for a foodie lunch without the fuss of a gourmet restaurant. The sandwiches here are rich and substantial, salads fresh and flavorful, and popovers, of course, buttery and oh-so-soft. Some of entrees come with a small popover, but you’ll want the oversized stuffed ones for a true experience. To get your brunch on, Colby’s puts a delicious twist on everything you know and love. On some days blueberry pancakes get a tropical upgrade with coconut, on others scrambled eggs go coastal with lobster and avocado. (Various specials rotate on the menu, but breakfast items for for $4-$10.)

Or for a classic harborside meal, many locals consider Surf to be the best in the string of restaurants along Bow Street. Here, the seafood is as fresh as the river views – all dishes feature daily catch that the restaurant's seafood buyers handpick at the piers each morning. Choose from always-good fish tacos and lobster rolls to creative inventions like haddock Florentine crepe and swordfish vindaloo. Most appetizers start from $10 and entrees $14.

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