A Visit to Portsmouth

By Roberta Wells, GSA The Hotel Concord Class of 2019

This past week, Brian and I had the opportunity to enjoy a two night visit to Portsmouth. We had been to Portsmouth many times before, but usually just for shopping or lunch in Market Square or a visit to the USS Albacore. We had never before explored the city as a whole and were surprised at just how much this compact little Seacoast Gem has to offer. 

We started our visit with a walking tour sponsored by the Portsmouth Historical Society. Their approx 90-minute walking tour gives you a great orientation and overview of the history, architecture, and preservation efforts throughout the city. You also get to realize just how compact the city really is as you have walked the entire core of the city within a 1 mile loop. Included with your walking tour ticket is also admission to the John Paul Jones house. Though John Paul Jones did not own this house, he was a boarder there while he was waiting for his ship The America to be completed. Find out what happened to this ship and where JPJ is buried in the exhibits within the home. 

After the tour, we set out on our own to explore more of the city by returning for a closer look at some of the highlighted sites on the tour and places beyond. One very poignant stop is the African Burying Ground Memorial. In 2003 city workers discovered 13 coffins under Chestnut Street. After some study, they discovered as many as 200 people may have been buried in this small city area.  Portsmouth has since embraced its Black Heritage, creating not only this memorial but indeed a Black Heritage Trail in order to tell the history of African Americans in New Hampshire.

Our walk eventually lead us to Strawbery Banke, and with a big Thank You to the Perks extended to GSA’s, we explored the many buildings of this Puddle Dock area as it was once known. Most of these houses are original to this area of Portsmouth, and only a few were moved to the site.  

They have mostly been restored to various time periods to show how this area evolved from its original settlement up through the 1950’s. It should also be noted that many of these buildings are even today used as private residences in all or a portion of the building making this living museum rather unique – it is still a vital part of the city.  

In addition to the historic houses, there are also a myriad of gardens of all styles from ornamental to practical. One of our favorite exhibits was the Old Corner Store. This brought back memories of our own childhood with the items for sale on the shelves. Indeed, may of the products then do not look all that different from what you can find on the shelves of Market Basket today. The lively costumed interpreter who sits outside this particular building added to the enjoyment of the experience. At the end of the day we chose to enjoy a meal at the Puddle Dock restaurant which is also housed in one of the historic buildings. This restaurant opened under the difficult circumstances of the Pandemic but seemed to be thriving. Their menu is a bit unique in that they serve modernized and updated colonial fare such as Cottage Pie or Pork & Beans with Brown Bread. 

Day 2 of our adventure gave us time to enjoy a scenic drive along the coast line and a chance to visit at least a couple of the noteworthy homes in the area. We stopped by Little Harbor to see the Wentworth Coolidge Mansion. This was the home and working farm of our Colonial Governor Benning Wentworth. Though closed at this time, it is still an impressive site to see with a beautiful view. Circling back to the general area of Puddle Dock, we also viewed the Wentworth Gardner Mansion. This was the home of Thomas Wentworth and is an example of high-style Georgian architecture. It has an interesting history of renovation and preservation due in part to an historic antiquarian by the name of Wallace Nutting who purchased it in 1916 and restored it. Much of the history and information about the house has been preserved through the photographs of Mr. Nutting.  There are many more historic homes to be visited throughout Portsmouth; however, at the current time many have limited hours. So be sure to check websites for days and hours of operation before you plan your visit. 

For lunch we found a local hot spot just a few steps away from the Wentworth Gardner Mansion. Geno’s is a local, seasonal mom & pop eatery specializing in chowders and lobster rolls. Their chowders are made from scratch and they offer you a taste before ordering if you desire. Lobsters are caught daily from boats moored just off their deck. It is a friendly and relaxed local dining experience.  

After lunch we returned to Strawbery Bank to visit more of the homes and gardens that we had not yet toured. Your ticket to Strawbery Banke allows you two days admission so you do not have to try to see it all in one day.  You can stroll through at your leisure. You may encounter different costumed interpreters or crafts people on any given day. Flags outside each home alert you to which houses are open to tour on that day. Before returning to our hotel for the day, we continued on with a scenic drive crossing the Memorial Bridge into our neighbor state of Maine and driving along its coastal road with views back towards Portsmouth. 

For dinner on our second evening, we chose the Library Restaurant, a well-known steak house which is located in the historic Rockingham Building on State Street. The building was first opened to the public as a hotel in 1833 and later purchased and enlarged by Mr Frank Jones in 1870. The original hotel was burned in a disastrous fire in 1884. Mr Jones rebuilt the hotel in 1889 and spared no expense. The elegance and grandeur of it has been well-preserved and is very much evident in the restaurant dining room. The ceiling was constructed by Pullman car woodworkers, and the paneling is hand-carved Spanish Mahogany. This is a truly elegant but not imposing dining experience.  

Day 3 it was time to head home, but not without enjoying some more coastal scenery heading south along our seacoast. Again, thanks to a GSA perk we stopped to visit Odiorne Point and the Seacoast Science Center. This is a very manageable-sized museum for children and adults alike. There are numerous hands-on exhibits making the experience more personal and impactful. In addition to the museum experience itself, you have all of Odiorne State Park to enjoy the numerous walking trails with views of the ocean and the salt marsh flats. Learn a little about the history of the site itself from the settlement days to summer cottages to WWII era defensive position. As you continue southwards, there are numerous parks and parking areas to pull over and enjoy a view of the ocean. And there are a number of choices for enjoying a taste of the sea between Petey’s, Ray’s or the Rye Lobster Pound among a myriad of others if you continue all the way down to Hampton Beach. This time we choose Ray’s which was a first time for us. For a view of the ocean, be sure to sit upstairs. And bring your appetite, the portions were huge!