Designer boutiques, multiple concert venues, and one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the US. Sound like paradise? Actually, it’s right here on the North Shore. Portsmouth, New Hampshire is packed with culture, the arts, and a vibrant nightlife. Those who live and work here know the city is about enjoying life’s pleasures, be it great wine, perfectly cooked burgers, abstract art, or a full-flavored cigar. And we haven’t even mentioned the beer. Portsmouth is home to not one, but three craft breweries, with a variety of summer seasonal brews just waiting to be enjoyed. What better place to spend a weekend away this summer? Here’s the insider’s guide you’ve been waiting for to experience the ins and outs of this unique, happening city.
Find summer makeup tips at Making Faces, Portsmouth’s trendy cosmetics boutique. Here you’ll see high-end makeup brands thought only to exist on the pages of fashion magazines. In fact, Making Faces covers its walls with pages from your favorite magazines, matching celebrities with sleek cosmetic lines. Perfect your summer look with the shop’s beauty consultants or visit their on-site makeup artists for skin treatments like the Oxygen Fast Blast to keep you looking your best.
Walk through The Three Graces Gallery to get a taste of the flourishing art scene in town. Owner Kim Ferreira fills the space with an impressive range of work, featuring paintings, sculptures, jewelry, handbags, and more. “I really try to have an eclectic but fun mix,” says Ferreira. “There’s a lot of humor and whimsy.” See it firsthand through the solo shows debuting this summer. Boston-based artist Kaetlyn Wilcox kicks off the season with her fantastic solo show through June. Come July, Newbury artist Robin Luciano Beaty, recently nominated for the Outstanding Abstract Artist Spotlight Award, will showcase her mixed-media abstract landscapes. Each show commences on the first Friday of the month.
Macro Polo has become an icon in downtown Portsmouth and is a must-stop shop for anyone who visits. Complete with snarky greeting cards, practical joke gear, and action figures like William Shakespeare and the Crazy Cat Lady, the shop is bound to give you a laugh. Keep in mind, though, that the likelihood of being offended is also pretty high, but then again, where else can you pick up that bacon wallet you’ve always wanted?
Hidden on a narrow side street, you’ll find the cigar palace of this coastal city. The extensive selection of specialty cigars lines the walls of the Federal Cigar. Featuring a variety of flavorful choices, the shop is bound to have your stogie of choice.
Fashionistas flock to Bliss, a designer boutique with some of the hottest names in the industry. You’ll find labels like Susana Monaco and Chulo Pony, designer denim (like 7 For All Mankind and Paige Premium Denim), and more. This ready-to-wear selection has gotten Bliss’s sister shop in Portland noticed in fashion mags like Marie Claire and Lucky, while Serendipity-just a few blocks away-sports a more bohemian vibe. Trendy pieces from Free People, Language, Green Dragon, and Pink Lotus fill the store with light fabrics, flattering shapes, and splashes of color-all perfect ingredients to spice up your summer wardrobe.
To finish off the look, design your own handbag at Anna Street Studio. Watch out “Project Runway”-this shop makes designing the bag of your dreams pretty easy. Anna Street Studio lets you a choose a template bag style, then select the fabric (creative prints, Kate Spade-like stripes, and fun textures) to complete your custom bag. Once you’ve made your choices, they’ll take care of the rest; no sewing required. Don’t feel guilty about treating yourself to a new bag-nearly all of the styles are reversible, so at the end of the season, you can flip from your summer brights to a darker fall print and get twice the wear.
Ready to jazz up your kitchen? Attrezzi‘s got the right blend of cookware, gourmet spreads, and fine wines to prepare you for summer entertaining. Plan your visit on a weekend afternoon and head upstairs to the kitchen/wine shop for frequent wine tastings. The second floor is also home to the shop’s cooking classes, where you can perfect your culinary techniques this summer under the care of local Chef James Haller of the acclaimed restaurant The Black Trumpet.
Whether you need a light beach read or something with a bit more substance, you’ll find it at RiverRun Books. You’ll be greeted by the 20/20 table when you walk in the door, where each month the staff offers 20 of their favorite titles at 20 percent off. Why? “Because we really want you to read them,” says the sign overhead. New York Times best-selling author Brunonia Barry reads from her new novel, The Map of True Places, on June 3 at RiverRun Books, while on June 4, Karl Marlantes reads from his warmly received debut novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War.
Consider yourself a chowder connoisseur? Head to The 26th Annual WOKQ Chowder Festival on June 5 at Prescott Park, where local chefs will be serving 500 gallons of the creamy stuff. Try each recipe and cast your vote while enjoying live music and summer sun. Known to draw over 4,000 people, the Chowder Festival is the kick-off event to the Prescott Park Arts Festival summer season of live concerts, musical productions, and dance performances.
Featuring a mix of musical artists, award-winning films, and theatrical performances every night of the week, The Music Hall operates as the city’s cultural epicenter. Upon entering the Victorian theatre, you’d never guess it was built in 1878. Ongoing renovations are responsible for the swanky Founders Lobby Lounge beneath the theatre, where you can comfortably sip a cocktail before the show. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock is set to play in the historic venue June 16 and on June 30, The Music Hall presents the Afro-Cuban All Stars.
Continue to soak up the arts with the summer productions at The Seacoast Repertory Theatre. While the theatre has been thriving for 25 years, in the last seven months, it has more than doubled its subscriber base, and the company now holds auditions for each show in New York City, in addition to the casting calls here at home. This year’s summer lineup includes the hit musical Rent, playing from June 18Â– July 18, and All Shook Up, from July 30Â–August 29. Seating just 234, The Seacoast Rep provides a rare opportunity to see rich live theatre in an intimate venue where you feel like you’re part of the show.
For those looking to be one with nature, we recommend Portsmouth Kayak Adventures. Head out to Little Harbor on the evening of July 3 for stunning views of the Portsmouth fireworks from your kayak below, or paddle to a tranquil beach respite for a revitalizing yoga class, led by local instructors. These are just some of the tours available from Portsmouth Kayak Adventures for beginner, intermediate, and advanced kayakers, allowing you to explore the coastal city from its many waterways.
When it’s time for some much-needed pampering, make your way to The Du Da Spa. From massages to skincare packages and more, this French-Moroccan salon and day spa is a great summer escape. They’ve recently added a UV skin scanner to help choose the most effective facial treatment for your skin. The scanner gives you a look beneath the surface of your skin (we admit it’s a little creepy), exposing sun damage, oil quality, collagen production, and areas in need of exfoliation. And once you’ve recovered from the shock, you’ll happily trade your sun-worshiping habits for Du Da’s all-natural spray tan. The aestheticians can customize the tone to match the pigment of your skin, giving you a safe, damage-free glow lasting for days. Of course, the spa also offers massage, hair, and nail services, so you might as well treat yourself to everything.
Start your day at The Friendly Toast, Portsmouth’s very own king of breakfast, where the outrageous menu items compete with the outlandish decor. The menu offers up standard breakfast staples alongside jazzed-up versions like Almond Joy Cakes (pancakes with coconut, almonds, and chocolate chips) and the Caribbean Waffle, made with pecans and topped with caramelized bananas. Don’t leave without trying the toast; as the name suggests, this quirky diner offers delicious homemade breads served in slices the size of your head!
A few blocks away, it’s standing room only at The Juicery, where freshly squeezed juices and smoothies are the drinks of choice. Open from April through November, The Juicery serves up fresh, organic vegan concoctions with no preservatives whatsoever. Smoothies are made with whole frozen fruit (no purees or store-bought syrups), and all the fruits and veggies are pressed in-house. Raw foodists and health nuts alike rave over the signature Prana smoothie, made with frozen strawberries and bananas, date paste, and raw almond butter.
In the center of town, you’ll find Popovers on the Square, the perfect place to grab a bite and recharge. This cafe/bakery serves tasty lunch items, delicious sweets, and more, but don’t be fooled by the casual vibe. Just try the Lobster Salad in a Popover, and you’ll taste the love they put into the food. Tempting pastries and cakes are on display in the glass counters, and they even serve seasonal cocktails, like sangria and a fresh fruit smoothie mixed with light rum. From breakfast to cocktails to dessert, Popovers on the Square has it all.
Summertime is really about grilling, and nothing hits the spot like a perfectly cooked burger. Lucky for you, Lexie’s Joint opened its doors early this year, and their flavorful fare has already won over the locals. “It’s just a simple menu of good food,” says co-owner and chef Dave Coffe. Having worked together off and on for the past seven years, Coffe and co-owner KC Gargill make use of their fine-dining backgrounds to pack big flavor into their four-ounce burgers. This summer, you can expect to see more seafood items popping up on the menu, including the lobster roll they have perfected, but for the most part, Lexie’s Joint is sticking to its popular tagline, “peace, love, and burgers.”
No visit to Portsmouth is complete without a trip to The Portsmouth Brewery. Beer lovers come from all over to sample the fresh, delicious craft beers exclusively brewed and served here. “We sort of stay away from big strong beers during the summer, just because, you know, they’re not very thirst-quenching,” says head brewer Tod Mott. What can you expect? Wheat beers in all their glory. Portsmouth brews Weizenheimer (an American-style wheat beer) and Hefeweizen (German-style), plus an off-shoot of the two dubbed the Thaizenheimer, made with kafir lime leaves, lemongrass, and ginger. Mott’s pick, though, is the Belgian Wit. “You’ve got both bitter and sweet orange peel, and then coriander and a little bit of pepper,” says Mott.Â “And it makes for such a really great thirst-quenching beer.”
Across town you’ll find sister company Smuttynose Brewery (Peter Egelston owns each). From the outside, it’s not much to look at, but once you step inside the warehouse, where the rock music is cranked up and there’s a molasses-like aroma thick in the air, you know these guys are up to something good. Smuttynose’s summer seasonal brew is the Summer Weizen, another warm-weather-friendly wheat ale. “We spice it with a little chamomile and actually use a Belgian yeast, which gives it some fruity and spicy kind of characters,” says Executive Brewer David Yarrington. Look out for the Farmhouse Ale, brewed as part of Smuttynose’s “Big Beer Series,” which is also known to surface this time of year. This Belgian/French saison style beer was historically brewed by seasonal farm workers to drink through the summer months.
To complete your well-rounded Portsmouth beer experience, head to the Redhook Brewery. More than just a brewery, Redhook is a full-day affair. You can tour the facility, grab some grub at their very own brewpub, the Cataqua Public House, stick around for some live entertainment, and of course, sample the beer. The Rope Swing Pilsner, Redhook’s brand-new summer seasonal, should be at the top of your must-taste list. Specially brewed for warm-weather sipping, the pilsner’s dose of hops evens out the malt flavor, leaving behind a light, crisp finish. Plan your trip accordingly, and you could see Blues Traveler when they headline the 14th Annual RedhookFest on July 24.
Heading into its third year in downtown Portsmouth, The Wellington Room is somewhat hidden in its upstairs Bow Street location, but a glimpse at the rave reviews posted online proves the secret is out. With seating for up to 38 people, The Wellington Room offers an intimate dining experience with beautiful window-side water views (a rare find in the city) of the Piscataqua River. But what’s truly unique is the laid-back vibe paired with upscale fare. Owners Karen and Matthew Sharlot keep the small menu as close to farm-to-table as possible, which means frequent changes in order to feature what’s fresh and local. The Thai Cod, served with poached red bell peppers and baby bok choy is a popular pick, along with the Wellington Room Punch. This Caribbean-inspired drink came back with Karen Sharlot from her island visit. Made with five types of rum, “It’ll kick your butt,” she says with a smile.
Speaking of the Caribbean, if you can’t make a trip to the islands, The Blue Mermaid is the next best thing. Serving fresh creative combinations, like Plantain Encrusted Cod or Seafood Tagine (sauteed salmon, cod, and mahi mahi with curried tomatoes in a rich coconut fish stew), this restaurant is bound to make you try something new. Order the White Peach Sangria or the Typhoon Margarita, made with Cuervo Gold, Cointreau, sour mix, orange juice, and a splash of Grand Marnier-each a refreshing complement to your island dish of choice.
Turn down Commercial Alley to Cava’s outdoor patio, and enjoy the Afternoon Tapas, served daily from 3:30 to 5:30 pm. For dinner, head to the sleek bar downstairs, where the cave-like stone wall gives the room the feel of an underground hotspot. This chic tapas and wine bar serves a decadent array of rich, small bites, so you can sample a little bit of everything they’ve cooked up.
End your night with The Red Door‘s top-notch martinis and late-night music scene. Once you’ve found this hidden spot, get ready for Portsmouth’s most creative martini bar. Try the Zen Martini, made with Yazi Ginger Vodka and chai tea. Tristan Law recently took over the Monday night music series, Hush Hush Sweet Harlot, and has a hot lineup of talented artists from New England and beyond, who play at the club as they tour the East Coast.
Where to find it
Anna Street Studio, 113 Market Street, anna street.com; Attrezzi, 78 Market Street, attrezzinh.com; Bliss, 85 Market Street, blissboutiques.com; City and Country, 50 Daniel Street; Federal Cigar, 22 Ladd Street, federalcigar.com; Macro Polo, 89 and 93 Market Street; Making Faces, 65 Bow Street; RiverRun Books, 20 Congress Street, riverrunbookstore.com; Serendipity, 41 Pleasant Street, serendipitynh.com; The Three Graces Gallery, 105 Market Street, thethreegraces.com.
The Du Da Spa, 53 Green Street, thedudaspa.com; The Music Hall, 28 Chestnut Street, themusic hall.org; Portsmouth Kayak Adventures, 185 Wentworth Road, ports mouthkayak.com; Prescott Park, prescottpark.org; Seacoast Repertory Theater, 125 Bow Street, seacoastrep.org.
The Blue Mermaid, 409 The Hill, bluemermaid.com; Cava, 10 Commercial Alley #1, cavatapasand winebar.com; The Friendly Toast, 121 Congress Street, thefriendlytoast.net; The Juicery, 51 Hanover St, portsmouthjuicery.com; Lexie’s Joint, 212 Islington Street, lexiesjoint.com; Popovers on the Square, Portsmouth, popoversonthesquare.com;Â Portsmouth Brewery, 56 Market Street, portsmouthbrewery.com; The Red Door, 107 State St., reddoorportsmouth.com. Redhook Brewery, 35 Corporate Drive, redhook.com; Smuttynose Brewery, 225 Heritage Ave., smutty nose.com; The Wellington Room, 67 Bow Street, thewellingtonroom.com.