PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- A plucky sidewalk harpist plays on and on, ignoring the boisterous political demonstration across the street. By late afternoon, musician and demonstrators have been replaced by a street band and two artists sketching the picturesque North Church.
Meanwhile, local residents go about their business, courteous and quick to decipher a map for a bewildered tourist. The independent spirit of "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire is obvious here in downtown Portsmouth's historic Market Square.
A city of about 21,000 residents, Portsmouth was settled in 1623, making it the nation's third-oldest city, after St. Augustine, Fla., (1565) and Jamestown, Va., (1607). Halfway between cosmopolitan Boston and funky Portland, Maine, it enjoys some of the best features of each.
Originally named Strawbery Banke because of the wild strawberries that grew along the Piscataqua (pis-CAT-a-kwa) River, the city was renamed Portsmouth in 1653. As a deep-water port, it was an important commercial site beginning in the 17th century and an important shipbuilding center well into the 1900s.
Strawbery Banke is now a living museum. By the turn of the 17th century, the once-desolate area had become a bustling neighborhood. Wealthy merchants, sailors, shopkeepers, and laborers lived along the narrow streets. Many of their 18th-century homes survive as part of the museum. Two, the Sherburne House and the Marden-Abbott House, are about 300 years old.
In the 1950s, concerned citizens saved the 10-acre neighborhood known as Puddle Dock from urban renewal. (Puddle Dock got its name from a tidal inlet on the south side of the site, which was filled in early in the last century.)
Because the homes were inhabited throughout several eras, the museum has restored them to reflect various time periods. Sometimes, as in the case of the Drisco House, the juxtaposition is a bit jarring at first. Half the house illustrates life in the 1790s, while another section is furnished with metal tray tables, Depression glass, and smoking stands from the 1950s. It actually works as an innovative way to show the evolution of homes over time.
History and literature buffs will want to take in the 1766 William Pitt Tavern visited by George Washington and the French general Marquis de Lafayette, and the Thomas Bailey Aldrich house, where the man some call the father of the American novel spent part of his childhood living with his grandparents.
No trip to the New Hampshire coast would be complete without some time at sea. About 10 miles off Portsmouth lie nine small islands, the Isles of Shoals. Five of them -- Appledore, Cedar, Duck, Malaga, and Smuttynose -- are in Maine; the others -- Lunging, Seavey, Star, and White -- are in New Hampshire.
Cedar and Lunging (the name may be a corruption of "London") are privately owned. Appledore, the largest at 95 acres, is the site of the Shoals Marine Lab, a joint research facility of the University of New Hampshire and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Appledore was once the home of poet and gardener Celia Thaxter. Her gardens, which inspired painters such as Childe Hassam, who spent summers on the island, are still maintained by volunteers. Access to Appledore is limited to those participating in Shoals Marine Lab activities or Celia Thaxter Garden Tours. (Call 607-255-3717.)
A breakwater connects tiny Malaga to Smuttynose, whose name is thought to come from the seaweed that accumulates on the nose-shaped southeast corner. An 1873 murder here inspired the novel "The Weight of Water" by Anita Shreve.
As with many islands off the coast of New England, colorful tales abound. Bars of silver are said to have been found in the distant past on Malaga, and the pirate Blackbeard is thought to have honeymooned on Smuttynose with one of his many brides. According to legend, he abandoned her here, and on certain nights, she still can be seen walking its shores.
White Island, location of the Shoals' only lighthouse, and Seavey Island are connected at low tide and are protected nesting areas for terns.
Only Star Island, named for its shape, is regularly accessible to the public. The Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. runs a variety of trips around the islands, some with stops at Star Island (800-441-4620; www.islesofshoals.com).
Back on the mainland, the Portsmouth Children's Museum has exhibits of dinosaurs, lobsters, world cultures, and space exploration. The University of New Hampshire campus, minutes away in Durham, may intrigue teenagers beginning the college hunt.
Karen Hammond is a freelance writer in Maine.