Day or night, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a city meant for walking, dining or simply enjoying the fresh air. When a breeze blows off the chill waters of the Gulf of Maine or a fog rolls in, the streets and sidewalks of Portsmouth become suffused with salt from the sea, intensifying food aromas that waft from the city’s many eateries the way a sprinkle of salt enhances the taste of a salad.
According to experts on the human senses, odors send a memo directly to the place in our brains that stores memories. Garlic and basil, fresh brewed coffee and cinnamon, Portsmouth’s bountiful gardens and flower boxes – all have a way of flavoring and preserving a visitor’s recollections of this ancient port-turned-restaurant capital.
Foodies with a taste for Americana will rejoice in the fact that Portsmouth is old as they come. Founded in 1623 as “Strawbery Banke,” it is actually the third oldest European settlement in North America. Today, Portsmouth is a trove of architectural treasures with splendid examples from the Colonial, Federalist, and Victorian eras. Many of these buildings have been preserved, not only by the efforts of organizations and government, but because generations of families lived and worked in them and still do.
The Strawbery Banke name was revived in 1958 when a 10-acre section of Portsmouth called Puddle Dock was spared from demolition to become a historical museum. Strawbery Banke Museum is not set in one period but uses re-enactors to trace neighborhood life over more than 300 years. Ten furnished homes and period gardens represent successive periods of history, while eight other buildings exhibit tools, antique boats, building methods, and wartime life. A reproduction of a 70-foot, traditional sailing cargo barge, called a gundalow, is on display at the museum dock.
Portsmouth Harbor Trail is a self-guided walking tour of historic downtown that includes many of the historic homes and buildings, such as the John Paul Jones house and the splendid North Church on Market Square. (For more info, contact the Greater Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce at 603-436-3988.)
The media loves Portsmouth and so the city is often included on magazine “best of” lists. In February, MSN.com named Portsmouth one of the eight “most romantic cities” in North America, in company with Savannah and Quebec City. In December, National Geographic Traveler rated Portsmouth No. 26 in the World and No. 6 in the U.S. on its list of the Globe’s Historic Destinations. In 2008, Continental Airlines named Portsmouth as one of its top “Unique Places to Shop, Shop, Shop” alongside of Milan, Rio, Tokyo, Paris, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Portsmouth was also named one of the “50 Most Enlightened Communities in the United States” by Utne Reader. Fodor’s travel guides named Portsmouth one of its “Top 10 Overlooked and Underrated Destinations.” And Money Magazine rated Portsmouth in its “Top 10 Best Places to Live” three consecutive years.