When February and March come around in New England, winter starts to get a little old, at least for me. I’m always tempted to cash in my chips and head somewhere warm and tropical, but this year, we opted for a little getaway within driving distance of home. Portsmouth, New Hampshire has long been known as a summer destination, with its proximity to the ocean, gorgeous public parks, and bustling downtown.
We were excited to find that Portsmouth’s draws don’t just disappear when the winter winds blow down Market Street. In fact, the town is as bright and bustling as ever. Sure, you have to bundle up, but there are numerous benefits to visiting this historic seaport in off season. My husband and I spent three days exploring Portsmouth and the surrounding communities in the middle of February. As is often the case, we tried our best to remain outside, first venturing around the historic town proper, and then wandering through the surrounding communities. Here’s why we loved our winter vacation in Portsmouth, NH, as well as some tips for enjoying your own winter getaway.
Disclaimer: We were generously hosted by the Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth so that we could research and write this post. As always, our opinions are entirely our own.
There’s a lot to Love about Portsmouth in the Winter
Portsmouth is conveniently located just off of Interstate 95 near the border of New Hampshire and Maine. It is an easy drive from Boston and New York City, which makes it a lovely getaway for travelers. Tourists flock to Portsmouth in the summer, but the town is a bit more relaxed in the off season. Unlike many coastal towns that totally shut down in the winter, Portsmouth is always open for business.
Visiting in the winter months will allow you to explore Portsmouth at a slower pace. You can meander along the shore of the Piscataqua River where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, take a self-guided history tour, and pop into more than 100 local restaurants. Fair warning — you may never want to leave.
Winter Activities in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and the Surrounding Communities
Ready to embark on an off-season getaway to one of New England’s most charming cities? Here are some of our favorite winter activities in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Take a Self-Guided Walking Tour of the Historic Downtown
Did you know that Portsmouth is one of the oldest cities in the United States? It was settled in 1623, and served as the capital of New Hampshire from 1679 until the middle of the Revolutionary War. Beautiful historic buildings, homes, and churches are scattered throughout the downtown area, and include New Hampshire’s oldest house (built in 1664), the stately North Church that towers over downtown (built in 1855), and a collection of 39 historic homes at Strawbery Banke Museum. Pick up guide and map at the Portsmouth Chamber Visitor Center, and immerse yourself in Portsmouth’s rich cultural heritage as you meander around town.
Dine Your Way Across the City
You’re sure to have worked up an appetite after your tour of downtown. It’s the perfect excuse to indulge at one of the more than 100 restaurants in the downtown area alone. Whatever it is you’re craving, you’re sure to find it in Portsmouth, from the freshest coffee and baked goods, to right-off-the-boat seafood selections and eclectic farm-to-table meals. We had so many delightful meals in Portsmouth, so we created a separate posts about the best places to eat, sleep, and drink in the Seacoast area.
Go Ice Skating at Strawbery Banke Museum
Weather permitting, you can warm up any winter day with a few twirls around the ice-skating rink at Labrie Family Skate on Puddle Dock Pond, which is run in collaboration with Strawbery Banke Museum. The rink generally operates from November to March, but the exact schedule is obviously based on our crazy New England weather. Be sure to stop in for hot chocolate, soup, and baked goods at the Figtree Kitchen Cafe in the TYCO visitors center at Strawbery Banke Museum. For more on operating hours and buying tickets, check out the Strawbery Banke website.
Learn About Local Marine LIfe at the Seacoast Science Center
Located within the boundary of Odiorne State Park in Rye, New Hampshire, the Seacoast Science Center features interactive exhibits, touch tanks, and live ocean critters. It’s a great place to delve into ocean ecology and marine life. To make a visit even more enticing, the center sits right on the shores of the ocean, with incredible views of the crashing waves.
The Seacoast Science Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and is open Saturday through Monday in the winter, and daily in the summer. Educational programs are offered for kids and adults throughout the year, and a beautiful new exhibit space will allow for a rotating cast of cool educational displays. We loved stroking the skates in the touch tank, watching the seahorses flit around in their acquarium, and learning about Tofu, the humpback whale who was hit by a ship, and whose skeleton was donated to the center. For more about their special events and exhibits, visit the Seacoast Science Center website.
Hike the Trails at Odiorne Point State Park
You can’t visit Odiorne State Park without exploring some of the beautiful trails that crisscross the 135-acres of natural landscape. While the park is not big, it encompasses 7 distinct ecosystems, including New Hampshire’s largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline. The first European settlers in New Hampshire landed at Odiorne Point, and there is a memorial dedicated to those settlers off the trail along the coast. The park is opened year-round for outdoor adventures, but pets are not permitted. For trail maps and fee information, please visit the New Hampshire State Parks website.
Meander Around New Hampshire’s Smallest Town
That would be New Castle, which is also New Hampshire’s easternmost community, and the only town in the state that is located entirely on islands. Take route 1B (Wentworth Road) around the island, and take time to explore the rich history and natural landscapes along the coast. Highlights include Wentworth by the Sea, a grand historic hotel that was built in 1847, Fort Constitution and Fort Stark State Historic Sites, the Portsmouth Harbour Lighthouse, and a lovely little park called the New Castle Common. We could have spent the whole day in New Castle, there was so much to see and do. Next time!
Catch a Show at the Music Hall
The Music Hall was originally built as a vaudeville theater in 1878. It was one of four theaters within a two-bock radius in downtown Portsmouth, and while the other theaters have either burned or been torn down, The Music Hall is thriving. Since its debut, it has been an opera house, a movie theater, and an abandoned space for roosting pigeons. A capital campaign started in the 1980s, and The Musical Hall was restored bit by bit. Today it hosts world-class musical acts, comedians, theater productions, and films. It is run as a community-supported nonprofit with a mission to promote a diverse array of performances. For a complete calendar, please visit The Music Hall’s website, and be sure to check out the restrooms when you go. They’re incredible.
There are easily enough winter activities to keep you enjoying Portsmouth and the surrounding towns for a week or more.Be sure to pack for winter weather, and bring your appetite and sense of adventure. You won’t be able to resist the winter charms of New England’s most lovely coastal community.
Resources for Exploring Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the Winter
Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth – Want to know more about what to do, and where to shop, eat, and stay? The Chamber Collaborative of Greater Portsmouth has a wealth of great information on their Go Portsmouth NH website, as well as a comprehensive calendar of events.
Portsmouth Historical Society – Explore the rich history of Portsmouth, and find walking tours, special events, and cool facts on the Discover Portsmouth website.
Want to know more about visiting Portsmouth, NH? Check out Where to Eat, Sleep, and Drink in Portsmouth, NH
Have you ever been to Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the winter? Did I miss any of the good stuff?