No Sleepy Coastal Town
Visiting Portsmouth in winter
Settled in 1623, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is among the oldest cities in the United States. Historic buildings line the downtown streets, drawing visitors from near and far. Yet, increasingly, the reason to visit this coastal city, especially in the dead of winter, is its thriving contemporary arts and cultural amenities. “Definitely summers are out biggest tourist time,” says city native Madeleine Nossiff, marketing associate for the performance venue The Music Hall. “But we are not a beach town: we don’t turn into this sleepy little place in the winter.”
Home to more than 22,000 residents, the city offers a disproportionately high number of arts venues and events for all ages—from plays, musicals, and live music to fine art exhibitions. Along with that, “Portsmouth is such a wonderful place to get cozy in cafés and restaurants,” Nossiff says. From the Portsmouth Book and Bar and gems like Sheafe Street Books and the modish Elephantine Café—to eccentric shops like Pickwick’s Mercantile, she says, “the city has this sort of playful, magical” atmosphere.
That’s clearly on display at The Music Hall. The fancifully restored former vaudeville theater (opened in 1878) has become a premier arts hub with two venues: the 895-seat theater for plays, concerts, comedians, literary readings, and talks and the more intimate cabaret-nightclub space, The Music Hall Lounge, which was renovated and reopened in 2022. “As a center for arts and culture,” says Nossiff, “we are bringing in really high-level art and musicians.” This season’s events include a discussion with actor and activist John Cusack (January 12) and evenings with folk-pop artist Jill Sobule (January 31), Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance (February 9), and Trombone Shorty (Troy Andrews) and Orleans Avenue (February 22).
Don’t miss the diverse talent streaming through the newer downtown standout, Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club. Housed in a beautifully restored and renovated former YMCA, the club’s open brick-and-beam interior has soaring ceilings, original stained-glass panels, and huge bay windows—all anchored by a graceful stage. The main space seats about 600, but there are small lounging areas and a bar, along with a restaurant with a classic dinner menu (e.g., beef fillet with foie gras) and a robust Sunday jazz brunch buffet. Performers this season include The Fabulous Thunderbirds (January 27); Joshua Redman ’91 (February 3); Mandy Barnett sings Patsy Cline (February 16); and Boston’s funk-indie-R&B sensation The Q-Tip Bandits (February 29).
Also downtown, The Press Room is a lively spot for drinks and quality pub food (from standard sliders and nachos to the stellar pickle-brined fried-chicken-and-drizzled honey sandwich). And it hosts a range of national and New England performers. Catch the indie-pop sounds of Michigan band Early Eyes (January 27) and pointed satires from the comedic Wolves of Glendale (February 16) or dance to classics of the ’70s and ’80s by master DJ spinners The Glitter Boys (February 17). Show up on any Tuesday night for The Larry Garland Jazz Jam. “Backed by a core group of seasoned players, artists old and new are welcome to take the stage to sing, blow a horn, hop on the piano, bang a drum, or tap dance. You never know who might sit in!” says general manager Tristan Law. “After the jam, the Soggy Po Boys fill the downstairs pub with the sounds of New Orleans jazz and soul.”
For more acoustic tones and solo acts, along with readings and open mic nights, go to the Portsmouth Book and Bar. Inside the 150-year-old historic customs house, this place quadruples as a serious bookstore, full-service bar and restaurant (deviled eggs, Caesar salad, and flatbread pizzas), and live entertainment venue. That multi-use setup is common in Portsmouth, notes Nossiff, who also recommends Cup of Joe Café and Bar as “an awesome gathering space with a warm, inviting interior.” The homey brick-and-wood décor, sofas, and soft lights easily allow the place to morph from serving daytime coffee, pastries, and sandwiches to shaking martinis amid live music at night (mostly on the weekends). Its mission? To be a “fully inclusive social environment,” says the website: “What we like to call a ‘gap filler,’ a place that no one feels out of place.”
Portsmouth is justifiably known for its historic preservation successes, cobblestone streets, and buildings. The outdoor museum Strawbery Banke is closed during the winter, but the historic Portsmouth Athenaeum, in an 1805 Federal-style building on Market Square, is open year-round. A combination membership library (with 40,000 volumes), museum, and gallery, the Athenaeum’s collection focuses on New Hampshire archival materials, from which the new exhibition, First in the Nation: New Hampshire Presidential Primaries—1920-2020, was sourced. The timely election-year show, opening February 16, conveys the trajectory of the primary through news photographs, timelines, and memorabilia (election posters, buttons, mugs) illustrating a century of up-close politicking, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, A.B. 1904, LL.D. ’29, through Mitt Romney, J.D.-M.B.A. ’74, and Barack Obama, J.D. ’91.
“New Hampshire takes the primary seriously,” says curator Mary-Jo Monusky. “We are not a very diverse state, but people show up and talk politics and ask questions. Here, you have that one-on-one contact with candidates.” Featured quotes and stories from political operatives round out the significance of primary dynamics, as a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee J. Howard McGrath put it in 1948: “The seeds of political success are sown far in advance of the election day….It is the sum total of the little things that happen, which lead to eventual victory at the polls.”
Elsewhere around the city, wintertime—with its dearth of the usual warm-weather throngs that pack downtown—reveals a core artistic vibrancy. “Portsmouth continues to highlight history and its quaintness,” says Nossiff, “but there is also a deep desire and need to be on the pulse of creative art, theater, and music—a need to bring in more diversity, more experimental theater, and figuring out how we grow that way as a community as well.”
Hence the creation of 3S Artspace. The nonprofit center opened in 2015 beyond downtown in the more recently developed Northern Tier. The flexible performance space allows for anything from intimate storytelling to large concerts, notes executive director Beth Falconer. Portsmouth has “a lot of historic venues, but we [3S Artspace] are unique in that you can have multidisciplinary experience that focuses on the arts of today.” There are also two free-admission galleries and a retail shop featuring artisans. Through January 28, the center hosts Be Beast, works by Massachusetts artist Sammy Chong, whose “surrealist drawings depict endangered animals as the dominant species in a hierarchical fictional reality, calling awareness to human habits, choices, and impact on the world and its creatures.” The multimedia exhibit Don’t Panic (also through January 28) offers pieces by the late artist and community builder Cait Giunta paired with those by regional artists she fostered, all centering around the question: “What if we measured our lives in love, relationships, and connectedness?” After seeing the gallery, stop into the attached casual Mexican restaurant. Barrio Portsmouth sports taco-fillers like Coca-Cola-marinated steak and Thai chili tofu and fun sauces. Back downtown, in the same building as Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club, check out The Museum of New Art (MONA), a noncollecting, nonprofit organization (check the website for upcoming exhibitions). For solo artists and group shows downtown, duck into Kennedy Gallery and the Nahcotta Gallery (where works by Bekah Worley and Melissa Lakey are on display in early February and the popular Enormous Tiny Art Show opens February 6).
Portsmouth’s theaters take on a range of topics this season, from global politics to parenting. In The Garden of Z, produced by the New Hampshire Theatre Project (NHTP), January 19-February 4, is co-written by Sean and Jelizaveta Robinson (she’s a Latvian immigrant). It follows a Russian teenager amid the unfolding war in Ukraine, and reveals the personal effects of conflict and propaganda. “It’s a unique story and shockingly very funny,” says NHTP executive team member and company artist liaison Amy Desrosiers, “but you will also leave the theater knowing a lot more about living in a Russia-controlled state.”
Elsewhere, Players’ Ring Theatre hosts The Poor Rich, an “hour-long examination of power, absurdly invented with the spirit of pure imagination,” by performing artist Gemma Soldati (January 19-21), and Seacoast Repertory Theatre stages the Stephen Schwartz musical Children of Eden, the age-old story of intergenerational conflicts based on the biblical Book of Genesis (January 26-February 25).
To get outside and explore, head to the abutting town of Rye and the 135-acre Odiorne Point State Park—comprising the state’s longest section of undeveloped shoreline. Learn about those habitats along with marine life and plants—starfish, sea anemones, periwinkles, lobsters, and forms of seaweed and algae—at the park’s Seacoast Science Center. Geared for families, the touch tanks and interactive exhibits focus on environmental stewardship and fostering connections to the natural world. A new exhibit, Science of Seabirds, explores how changing ocean conditions affect local fish populations and the tern population.
For marshes and woodlands, slip into Portsmouth’s Urban Forestry Center, a refuge for walking and cross-country skiing trails. For coastal paths amid dramatic ocean views and iconic rocky shoreline, simply cross the Piscataqua River Bridge into Kittery, Maine, and on to Fort Foster Park.
Portsmouth itself is a walkable city—if one is bundled against winter winds. Break up the time with visits to shops, cafés, and restaurants. There are more than a hundred places to eat, so here is a short list of recommendations. Ceres Bakery serves breakfast and lunch (try the daily quiche special, raspberry scone, and roast turkey sandwich with cranberry sauce) in a homey atmosphere amid local art. The Elephantine Bakery, owned by Nadine Farag, S.M. ’10, and her husband, Sherif, is an elegant café. Dressed in rosy and copper tones, with abundant flowers and glowing lights, the place testifies to attention to detail—as does the food. Choose among daily breads, like challah and Greek olive ficelle, and pastries—ricotta lemon Danish and Egyptian bread pudding (flavored with coconut, raisins, and pistachios)—or savory breakfast and lunch items, notably poached eggs on garlic labneh with peppery butter and parsley gremolata, and a jam and egg sandwich with spinach, feta, and beet-pistachio spread on soft Turkish seeded bread.
For the best fine-dining bistro dinner, head to the Black Trumpet. Entrées like pumpkin and sunchoke terrine, dry-aged tuna toro, and beef short rib stroganoff are served in a dark-wood tavern-style décor perfect for wintry outings. For a more modern milieu—shiny metal and glass and polished bar—try Row 34 (sister to the Cambridge location). The seafood-oriented menu includes smoked and cured items, like Maine uni, along with shrimp Rangoon, and entrées from grilled swordfish and Maine crab to a house-made spaghetti with clams and broccoli rabe. Martingale Wharf offers water views and New England-inspired dishes: fried seafood platters, salmon BLTs, chopped salads, and local oysters. More casual and funky is The Kitchen, focused on top-notch comfort food like brisket grilled cheese sandwiches, Indian-spice lamb burger with feta cheese and jalapeño-mango chutney, and “spudsters”—like savory munchkins made of fried mashed potatoes.