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Christmas Comes to Portsmouth

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has many different identities. There’s Market Square, of course, and buzz of shops and restaurants that rivals Boston’s Newbury Street, minus the parking nightmares. Its compact size and sheer number locally owned stores, however, gives it a small town feel. It’s a working waterfront city, too, with tugboats and bigger ships on the Piscataqua River serving as a fitting backdrop. Woven through all of this is the city’s history, from its downtown architecture to the charms of Strawbery Banke.

For all the beauty Portsmouth offers during the summer, the holiday season just may be its finest time of year. The Christmas spirit you find here isn’t garish or overblown. It’s tasteful and subtle, more vintage than big-box store. So, two weeks ago, with much of our Christmas shopping still not done, my family and I spent two nights in Portsmouth, walking, shopping, eating, and walking some more.

A Portsmouth visit begins at Market Square

For lodging we camped out at the Ale House Inn, a modern downtown hotel right on the water.

Among the amenities offered at the Ale House are free iPads in every room and wonderful, sunlight reading room with free snacks.

The perfect spot to plan your day.

A simple stroll around Portsmouth offers up some impressive water views.

One of the charms of Portsmouth is its real working waterfront.

While closed to cars, walkers can still take advantage of Memorial Bridge, which crosses over into Maine.

We discovered this wonderful view while strolling through a neighborhood of 18th century homes.

Portsmouth features a wide array of shops. In one quarter-block stretch we counted a high-end paper store, a jeweler, salon, an Irish and Celtic craft shop, toy store, and custom frame shop.

One of our favorite stops was Tree House Toys, where my one-year-old son fell in love with the marionettes.

Interested window shoppers take many forms in Portsmouth.

When it was time to get a bite to eat, we pulled up a seat at Popovers, a popular lunch spot smack-dab in the heart of Market Square.

Seconds on the clam chowder? Yes, please.

My wife opted for the beautiful pear and gorgonzola salad. In a popover, of course.

We also found time for some good tea and muffins at Breaking New Grounds, Porstmouth’s most popular coffee shop, located in the heart of Market Square.

Coffee, tea, and free Wi-Fi are good incentives to spend an hour, maybe longer at Breaking New Grounds coffee shop.

Portsmouth is an eminently accessible small city. Parking is a breeze, and in fact during the last three weeks of December is free throughout the downtown. During our visit we spent a good portion of one afternoon strolling through the city’s historic neighborhoods, discovering a host of favorite homes to gawk at along the way.

The historic Governor John Langdon House is a 1784 Georgian mansion that sits just outside downtown Portsmouth.

Of course, any visit to Portsmouth, especially during the holiday season, must include a stop at Strawbery Bank, a recreated historic village that covers some 400 years. During weekend nights in December the village is open to visitors to walk the grounds for its Candlelight Stroll.

Our visit to Strawbery Bank began at the visitor’s center a few minutes with the museum’s elaborate gingerbread village.

The horse drawn wagon was also a popular sight.

So was the small harpsichord concert at the Chase House.

On our last night in Porstmouth we took a late-hour walk around the city, strolling across the Memorial Bridge so we could say we’d walked to Maine and just taking in the downtown’s holiday feel.

A view of Market Square and the North Church at night.

Please Note: This article was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Ian Aldrich

Author:

Ian Aldrich

Biography:

Senior editor of Yankee Magazine: Ian, a native New Englander who has worked and freelanced for Yankee for the past decade, writes feature stories, home pieces, and helps manage the magazine's up-front section, First Light. His stories have ranged from exploring the community impact from a church poisoning in a small town in northern Maine to dissecting the difficulties facing Nantucket around its problems with erosion. In addition to his connection to Yankee, Ian worked as a senior editor of Cincinnati Magazine for several years.
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6 Responses to Christmas Comes to Portsmouth

  1. Jenn Marcelais December 23, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    You hit some great spots! Missed a couple too. But there are too many great places to visit here in Portsmouth to get too in just a couple days. The Candlelight Stroll at Strawbery Banke is one of my favorite things to do every year.

  2. Caitlin Evvard December 23, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    These are some great photo’s of downtown Portsmouth! Our office, Calypso, is in one of them so I love that picture (to the left of the Ale House Inn). Great work:)

  3. Mark Mullin December 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

    That’s my newf looking in the window @ Corks and Curds – I’d love to put that shot up on his facebook page – I put the page url in the website field

  4. Stephanie S November 18, 2014 at 9:28 am #

    An update on Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth for 2014 — the gingerbread contest and display is now at the Portsmouth Historical Society’s Discover Portsmouth Center. The theme for this year’s 35th Annual Candlelight Stroll on Dec 6-7, 13-14 and 20-21) at Strawbery Banke is “The Winter Visitor” and there will be tavern-style food service in Pitt Tavern and ice skating on Puddle Dock Pond at Strawbery Banke, our new outdoor ice rink (www.puddledockpond.org). And at The Music Hall, the Ogunquit Playhouse production of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh’s “Mary Poppins” Dec 10-14. Free holiday trolley provided by COAST and the City of Portsmouth lets you leave your car and cover the sights and sounds of Vintage Christmas at your ease. Plus the free family event, Wentworth Illumination at the historic Wentworth By the Sea takes place on Dec 2, 5-7 pm. Bring a new unwrapped toy for the New Castle Fire Department holiday toy drive. Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth is now in its 10th year. All the details at http://www.vintagechristmasnh.org

  5. Natalie Hassold November 18, 2014 at 9:51 am #

    Beautiful article about our beautiful hometown! Candlelight Stroll is a favorite and this year there will be ice skating at Strawbery Banke as well. ShopPortsmouth.org is a great place to view info about all of our wonderful downtown retail businesses. Only one incorrect statement…..Memorial bridge is in fact open to automobiles as well as pedestrians and bikes.

  6. Linda M. November 18, 2014 at 8:01 pm #

    The photo labelled the “Governor John Langdon House” is actually the house of Thomas Thompson next door to Langdon House. Thompson was a merchant and shipbuilder who built the first warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy, the Raleigh.

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