PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Sylvia Baker is leading a walking tour along Portsmouth's brick streets and offers a bit of advice to visitors when they take off on their own: "If you think you are getting lost in Portsmouth, look for the spire. It'll get you back to Market Square."
The white spire belongs to the North Church and its bells chime on the hour. Market Square is the social hub of this city with a small-town feel, where java junkies can choose their blend, take a seat at a table or bench, and get lost in thought watching the world go by.
Portsmouth is New Hampshire's coastal city along the state's sliver of seacoast. It is a place in the tax-free Granite State where you can stroll by an old-fashioned barber shop or an upscale shop offering things to swing on. Pop down narrow Commercial Alley for a bookstore or a wine and cheese shop. Working tugboats are a testament to the city's rich maritime heritage and still lead the way into the harbor under two working drawbridges.
The city was founded in 1623, and its history is seen along its streets and historic homes, including the brick Warner House on Daniel Street with staircase murals and the John Paul Jones House, a five-minute walk from Market Square. Chapel Street is the appropriate place for St. John's Church, which houses the country's oldest known working organ.
Once the capital of the pre-Revolutionary War "Live Free or Die" state, the city was a New England trade center, with warehouses lining the waterfront and even a red light district. Look up at some of the downtown homes and see the fire breaks that were put up to prevent sparks from jumping across buildings after three fires in the early 1800s.
Across the Piscataqua (pis-CAT-a-kwah) River is the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, founded in 1800 and now on the federal closure list. It is the oldest naval shipyard continuously operated by the US government. The US Supreme Court ruled the shipyard was in Maine after the two states were at odds over its location. In 1905, the Treaty of Portsmouth was signed in the shipyard to end the Russo-Japanese Tour.
History buffs can take the walking tour of the city's Harbour Trail (self-guided is also available) or hop on a trolley for an hourlong narrated tour. A handful of harbor cruises by the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company, Portsmouth Harbor Cruises, and Tug Alley Too navigate the waters by lighthouses and the rocky Isles of Shoals.
Strawbery Banke, the city's original name, is a living museum along the waterfront. Walk by historic homes from the 1600s to the 1950s and hear residents, some costumed, talk about early Portsmouth life. The potter spins his wheel and the cooper whittles branches for the barrels he makes. Author Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a Mark Twain influence, lived here and the garden at his home has flowers that are mentioned in his 19th-century poems. A grocery store has items from World War II when soup was three cans for a quarter, and amateur sleuths can try their hand at matching artifacts in the Jones House.
Every city needs a park and Portsmouth has a gem in Prescott Park, next to Strawbery Banke. Fountains, herb and flower gardens, short piers, bridge views, shade trees, and open spaces make the park great for relaxing or noshing. The Prescott Park Arts Festival is marking its 30th anniversary with Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday night at 7 for a $5 donation.
Portsmouth has about 80 restaurants, elegant to quick. Have children? Take them to learn about lobstering or the presidential primaries at The Children's Museum of Portsmouth on Marcy Street, or bring the bathing suits for Water Country. Or, what the heck, do both.
Marty Basch is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.