Forget those cheesy Christmas romance movies that have been playing since November (you know, the ones that are set in a small town with fake snow and feature a romance between two reunited high school ‘frenemies’). If you want to fall in love with a small town where the snow is as real as the welcome and the holiday charm is equally genuine, head to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. After experiencing its Vintage Christmas celebrations, you just may discover that this place is one of the best Christmas towns in the U.S.
Portsmouth’s Picture-Perfect Location
If your idyllic image of a Christmas town features historic homes decked out with garlands and wreaths and blanketed with snow, New England is the place you want to go. And there’s no place more central on the East Coast than Portsmouth, located on the southeastern tip of New Hampshire tucked between Maine and Massachusetts.
Here you’ll find plenty of historic homes – and plenty of history to go along with them.
History Abounds in Portsmouth
Portsmouth is one of the oldest cities in the United States and played an important role in the economic development of the country, thanks to its strategic position as a sea and rail hub. In fact, the oldest bank building in the country (built in 1803) is located right downtown in Market Square (today it operates as the Irish Pub Rí Rá – more on that later!)
Opposite the bank building is the North Church, whose congregation first began meeting in Portsmouth in a log cabin in the mid 1600s, and eventually moved to the site where the present church stands, a pretty brick building with a white steeple that looks like it belongs in a snow globe.
Nothing screams post-card perfect Christmas more than an historic downtown like the one in Portsmouth, and of course, it must have an enormous, real Christmas Tree.
What’s Christmas Without Gingerbread?
If you prefer your architecture in miniature (and edible!), head over to the Discover Portsmouth Centre at the corner of Islington and Middle Streets. The Historical Society of Portsmouth has been holding a Gingerbread House competition for 29 years now, and it’s here where visitors can view the entries.
Kids and adults can enter the competition, as well as professional bakers, and visitors are able to vote on their favourites in categories that range from the most whimsical to the one with the most creative use of materials.
If you’re lucky and time your visit just right, you might even win one of the houses that are raffled off in a draw – and wouldn’t that make an impressive hostess gift!
Holiday Shopping? Make it Tax-Free!
If you have holiday gifts to buy, downtown Portsmouth is a great place for shopping, especially Congress Street which is jam-packed with small boutiques and stores that offer items that are not your typical mall store stuff.
Portsmouth’s main street reminds me a lot of Niagara-on-the-Lake in Ontario, with stores selling Irish and Scottish imports, unique clothing and gifts that range from one-of-a-kind local art to cheeky paper goods.
Don’t miss the ‘hidden’ pockets in downtown Portsmouth, like Commercial Alley, a tiny cobblestoned laneway that has interesting boutiques, a wine bar (hello, wine!) and a bakery where you can embrace the season by cuddling up outside with a blanket, a hot beverage and a pastry.
TIP: Another thing that makes Portsmouth one of the best Christmas towns in the U.S. is that there is no sales tax in New Hampshire! So you can make your holiday budget go further when you ‘shop local’.
Holiday Tree Lighting and Parade
If you happen to visit Portsmouth in the beginning of December, you’ll be in time for the official kick-off to the holiday season with the town’s Tree Lighting and Holiday Parade. This is the real deal, a holiday tradition that brings half the town out to count down to the tree lighting and then line the streets to watch the annual Christmas Parade.
TIP: The streets get closed down for the parade about mid-afternoon, meaning parking and driving downtown should be avoided on parade-day. Take a taxi, Uber or Lyft instead.
The Music Hall: An Historic Theatre With Its Own Holiday Tradition
The Music Hall in Portsmouth is believed to be the oldest operating theatre in New Hampshire, and every year this historic theatre hosts a holiday production performed by members of the Ogunquit Playhouse.
This year’s production was the musical Annie and having seen it myself, I can honestly say the actors were excellent, the sets were beautiful and the whole performance was a wonderful way to spend a December evening.
If going to the theatre is part of your own holiday tradition, check out what’s playing at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, as theatre is definitely part of this town’s holiday tradition, too.
TIP: Check out the washrooms in The Music Hall too: the women’s bathroom was one of the most unusual ones I’ve seen in a theatre…
THE Must-Do Holiday Event in Portsmouth: Candlelight Stroll at Strawbery Banke Museum
Nowhere is the 396-year history of Portsmouth more evident than at Strawbery Banke Museum, a ‘living history’ outdoor museum that covers almost 10 acres in a neighbourhood that was originally known as Puddle Dock because it was built around a tidal inlet.
Today the property features more than 30 historic homes that have been preserved as an experiential museum where visitors can walk through the neighbourhood, tour the homes, and learn about the history of the town through demonstrations and re-creations of daily life.
During the holiday season, there is no more magical way to do Vintage Christmas in Portsmouth than with the Candlelight Stroll, a Strawbery Banke tradition that is celebrating its 40th year in 2019.
Vintage Christmas Magic
For me, the Candlelight Stroll is the signature event that makes Portsmouth one of the best Christmas towns in the U.S.
The entire neighbourhood of Strawbery Banke comes alive with thousands of twinkling lights and candles glowing in the windows of its historic houses.
Visitors are transported back in time through an experiential celebration of the holidays that includes live music, carollers, carriage rides, bonfires, an outdoor skating rink and costumed, role-playing actors who wander through the property, bringing Portsmouth’s history and people to life.
Visitors walking through the snow-covered streets and laneways encounter costumed actors like Frank Jones, the 19th century brewer-turned-mayor, or well-known ‘entrepreneur’ Mary Baker, the madam who ran the red light district in town. There are also other ‘ordinary’ residents from every era who welcome visitors into the historic homes and businesses that are open as part of a self-guided tour.
There’s a general store dating from the 1940s that is filled with vintage products and is staffed by an enthusiastic ‘owner’ who will explain how many ration stamps you need for sugar or meat.
Or drop by the Shapley-Drisco House where this former duplex has been restored as a side-by-side snapshot spanning two centuries of history: on one side of the house, there is a 1795 storefront where you can meet two shopkeepers in 18th century dress; on the other side of the house there is a 1955 kitchen where a woman helps out with holiday preparations, while in the front room teenagers listen to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas.
Governor Goodwin’s mansion is not to be missed, either, where Sarah, the Governor’s wife will welcome you into her beautifully-decorated home, and happily answer any question you might have including what she serves for Christmas dinner (turkey, of course). And like all the other actors, she stays in character the entire time.
All of the homes in Strawbery Banke are beautifully decorated with holiday garlands and dried flower arrangements that are all grown, preserved and prepared onsite using flowers and greenery from the property’s extensive gardens. There’s even an heirloom seed bank in the horticulture building that offers visitors free seeds from the plants that are grown here.
Currier and Ives Performances on the Pond at Strawbery Banke
The legacy of Puddle Dock as a waterside community is preserved in Puddle Dock Pond which becomes a public skating rink during the holidays and is open to everyone. But during the Candlelight Stroll evenings, the vintage vibe is augmented with the ‘Currier and Ives’ skaters, local skaters dressed in historical outfits who perform on the ice several times a night, accompanied by classic holiday music.
If this doesn’t make you start humming ‘picture print by Currier & Ives’ from the classic holiday song, ‘Sleigh Ride’, nothing will.
TIP: Strawbery Banke Museum hosts their Candlelight Stroll for 3 weekends in December leading up to Christmas. Onsite parking is limited to handicapped-only, so consider parking in one of the downtown lots and taking the complimentary Vintage Christmas Trolley shuttle to the museum grounds.
Is Portsmouth the Best Christmas Town in the U.S?
Even though I’m a self-professed Christmas fanatic, I’m pretty choosy when it comes to holiday experiences: they need to feel authentic, they need to embody magic, and being Canadian myself, there should be snow! While I can’t promise you that Portsmouth, New Hampshire will always have the blanket of fresh snow that I saw during my visit, one thing I can promise is that visitors to this town will find a genuinely warm welcome from its people.
Which may be the most important thing that the ‘best Christmas town in the U.S.’ could offer, and something this little New England town definitely delivered.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION WHEN VISITING PORTSMOUTH, NH
Dine Around…and Around and Around! Where to Eat in Portsmouth, N.H.
I was surprised to learn that there are actually more restaurant seats in Portsmouth, New Hampshire than there are residents! Which is a testament to just how popular this town is when it comes to dining. I only scratched the surface of the culinary scene while I was there, but here are some recommendations for where to eat in Portsmouth.
Popovers on the Square: An All-Day Cafe
If you’re looking for a cafe anytime of the day for sweet treats, sandwiches, soups and salads, pop on over to Popovers on the Square in downtown Portsmouth. They are known for their signature puffed pastry known as popovers, but you can also have breakfast all day here, and if you need to warm up, their hot chocolate comes highly recommended. For a more grownup option, Popovers is also licensed, so you can warm up with a morning mimosa or cocktail, too!
Brunch at Raleigh Wine Bar
Up-and-comer restaurateur Nimi Idnani deserves credit for venturing into the restaurant business from a completely unrelated career. But based on my experience at brunch, she’s obviously doing something very right with Raleigh Wine Bar and her locally-focused menu. Her Raleigh Benedict on a buttermilk biscuit was delicious and the baked goods I sampled did her pastry chef proud.
Lunch at Rí Rá Irish Pub
Housed in the the oldest bank building in the U.S. (as mentioned above), Rí Rá is about as authentic a local Irish Pub as you can get on this side of the Atlantic. All of the interior fittings, from the bar, to the wall panelling to the music posters have been salvaged, restored, or built by Irish craftsmen and were shipped over from Ireland to be installed in this historic building.
Enjoy the ambiance under the spectacular domed ceiling, dine in the former bank vault room, or enjoy a soccer match at the bar (it’s not a true Local without a soccer match on) while filling up on pub favourites.
A Different Dinner Option Every Night
Why not start with French-inspired cuisine combined with fabulous cocktails in an industrial-chic renovated warehouse? That’s Botanica Restaurant and Gin Bar.
The menu at Botanica shows its French roots, with imaginative mains that include duck, rabbit and steak, but don’t overlook the savoury nibbles on their cocktail menu, either. I actually had a sampling of these as an appetizer which were delicious (who doesn’t love a devilled egg during the holidays!) But park the notion that the portions at Botanica are ‘Parisian-sized’: their pork cutlet with fingerling potatoes and pickled celery was actually too big to finish! (maybe I overdid it with the pâté beforehand!)
If seafood, and specifically oysters, is on your must-do East Coast menu, head to Row 34, which is known for both. However, even for non-oyster lovers like myself, there are plenty of options. I went for the salmon pâté first (what can I say, I like pâté) followed by Gordon-Ramsay-worthy scallops that had the ‘perfect sear’. Even the woman beside me who had ordered the same had to comment to me how amazing our scallops were.
Where to Stay in Portsmouth, N.H.
The Hampton Inn Portsmouth Central may be part of the Hilton chain of properties, but there’s nothing chain-like about the welcome you will receive here. The staff here are friendly and personable and go out of their way with personal touches to make you feel at home while the hotel itself offers everything a visitor would need: a large, super clean room, well-equipped fitness room and good-sized pool. A totally unexpected perk was the free shuttle service the hotel offers that will take guests anywhere within a 5-mile radius of the hotel. This is really convenient, especially if you want to attend some of the holiday events downtown where parking is a problem.
The Hampton Inn Portsmouth Central even offers a happy hour with complimentary beer and wine in the afternoons and hot snacks that change daily (above and beyond the breakfast that is included with your room). Honestly, stopping by the lobby in the afternoon feels more like you’re part of a local meet up than just a hotel guest, which is probably the best compliment I could give any hotel.
TIP: The Hampton Inn is located right next door to a GIANT Christmas decor store (The Christmas Tree Shops) so if you need to shop for holiday decor it doesn’t get more convenient than this!
Special thanks to Visit New Hampshire and the people and businesses in Portsmouth who hosted my stay and made me feel so welcome.