President Washington dined here in 1789. Abraham Lincoln visited in 1860, months before he was elected president. One of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence was discovered in a local home, and the city, founded in 1638, was once the Revolutionary War capital of New Hampshire. This preppy, small town (it’s also home to prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy) is rightfully proud of its history. Today, the historic center is filled with families, dogs, and savvy visitors browsing local artisan shops and boutiques, strolling the banks of the Squamscott River, checking out historic sites, and dining at waterfront and street-side cafes. It’s about an hour’s drive from Boston, or ride the Amtrak Downeaster; from the Exeter train station it’s an easy walk to downtown.
The 1809 Federal-style Inn by the Bandstand (6 Front St., 603-772-6352, www.innbythebandstand.com, standard rooms $149-$209, family suites $239) has nine guest rooms with period woodworking and plush furnishings; seven have working fireplaces. Rooms are individually decorated, with antiques and cushy linens. All have private baths. The Lakeheath Lodge third-floor room has a fun, sportsman-cottage feel, with ceiling beams, wide plank floors, and tree trunk and twig furniture. The cozy back courtyard and the elegant living room, with antiques, 18th- and 19th-century artwork, and a fireplace, are great places to hang out. The Exeter Inn (90 Front St., 603-772-5901, www.theexeterinn.com, rooms from around $139), within walking distance to the town center, is a longtime favorite. The refined Georgian-style brick building houses 46 recently-renovated rooms, with classic furnishings and updated baths (think vessel sinks and glass-enclosed showers). Modern bells and whistles, like Wi-Fi throughout and flat-screen TVs, have also been added.
The classy Epoch restaurant (2 Pine St., 603-778-3762, www.epochrestaurant.com, entrees $20-$35) has brick walls, fine woodworking, and leather banquettes, and features traditional dishes with updated twists. Start with an appetizer like the tuna tartare cucumber rolls, followed by sea scallops served with pork belly and sweet potato hash or the prosciutto-wrapped pork loin served with a maple and balsamic glaze. Start your day at The Green Bean (33 Water St., 603-778-7585, www.nhgreenbean.com, $5.50-$6.50), locally loved for its baked egg frittata sandwiches; try the Monte Cristo with grilled ham, pepper jack cheese, baked egg frittata, and caramelized onions served between two slices of French toast. It’s also a great place for lunch, serving soups and artisan bread sandwiches. The award-winning Blue Moon Evolution (8 Clifford St., 603-778-6850, www.bluemoonevolution.com, lunch $8.25-$10, dinner $18-$27) has been serving organic, farm-to-table cuisine since 1995. Expect ultra fresh sandwiches and salads, including several vegan and gluten-free options, at lunch. For dinner, try entrees like the lemon herbed haddock, butternut squash lasagna, or grass-fed London broil with a house-churned mushroom butter.
DURING THE DAY
Stop by the Exeter Historical Society (47 Front St., 603-778-2335, www.exeterhistory.org) to pick up a self-guided tour map of 40 significant sites, including the Simeon Folsom House, where Robert Lincoln, son of President Lincoln, lived while attending Phillips Exeter Academy; the 1735 Gilman House, one of the town’s oldest remaining houses, and the Phillips Exeter Academy Library, designed by architect Louis Kahn. The American Independence Museum (1 Governor’s Lane, 603-772-2622, www.independencemuseum.org, open June-October, Thu-Sat 10 a.m.-4 p.m., adults $6, ages 6-18 $3) tells the stories of ordinary people behind the American Revolution. Also visit the 1721 Ladd-Gilman House and the 1775 Folsom Tavern, the hub of political activity during the Revolution, and where President Washington once visited. Take some time to browse the shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques. Cornucopia Wine & Cheese (4 Front St., 603-772-4447, www.cwinecheese.com ) and La Cave a Vin (103 Water St., 603-777-9990, www.lacaveavin.net) both have fine selections of wines, artisan cheeses, and gift items. Pick up unique children’s clothing at Puddlejumpers (31 Water St., 603-778-9333, www.puddlejumpersnh.com) and books and local art at the independently-owned Water Street Bookstore (125 Water St., 603-778-9731, www.waterstreetbooks.com). The Serendipity Boutique (24 Water St., 603-778-1665, www.serendipityofexeter.com ) offers locally handmade goods and organic, eco-friendly clothing. Treat yourself to an impossibly creamy, rich scoop of ice cream in a warm, just-baked waffle cone at Sugar & Ice 2 (85A Water St., 603-658-5588, www.sugaricecreamery.com). Take it with you on a stroll down the Swasey Parkway, flanked by the Squamscott and lined with trees and park benches.
Grab a seat in the tavern at 11 Water Street (11 Water St., 603-773-5930, www.11waterstreet.com) overlooking the river and falls, where you’ll find a friendly atmosphere, a decent selection of micro brews, generous cocktails, and better than average pub food, like Asian chicken chili bites, house-made mac and cheese, meatloaf, and grilled steak tips. The smallish bar at the Tavern at River’s Edge (163 Water St., 603-772-7393, www.tavernatriversedge.com), tucked in the basement of a riverfront building, is a place to have a pint, and share a grilled flatbread pizza, plate of nachos, or a basket of spicy wings.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com.