New Hampshire's one-time capital and only major seaport is a pleasantly small, low-key city. Start your visit with a stroll through Strawbery Banke, a 10-acre/4-hectare open-air museum. Wander around the collection of more than 40 structures, some of them dating back to 1695. Many of them have resident artisans demonstrating cabinetmaking, boatbuilding and other crafts.

There's plenty more vintage architecture outside Strawbery Banke. Among the choices are the 1784 Governor John Langdon House, the Rundlett-May House from 1807 (with a secret underground passage that was used to get to the mills), the 1763 Moffatt-Ladd House, the 1758 John Paul Jones House (where the famous naval hero once lived), the 1716 Warner House and the 1760 Wentworth Gardner House. Be aware that these homes are typically open only late spring-autumn. St. John's Church is a stately edifice with many appointments from the 1700s (including the Brattle Organ, said to be the oldest pipe organ in the country). Depending on your interests, there are several good walking tours throughout the city, highlighting impressive architecture and places of historical interest; maps of the self-guided tours are available at various venues in the city. Don't miss the magnificent flower gardens at Prescott Park across the street from the entrance to Strawbery Banke; in the summer, various live entertainments are staged there.

We particularly recommend taking a sightseeing cruise (some include a picnic lunch) through Portsmouth Harbor to the Isles of Shoals about 10 mi/16 km off the coast; you'll sail on the MV Thomas Laighton, a replica of a steamship from the 1800s (mid-June to Labor Day). In many ways, this is a magical location. Nineteenth-century writer Celia Thaxter lived and worked on Appledore Island, and the island called Smuttynose reputedly has been haunted since a gruesome murder there in 1873. Another nautical option is the whale-watching cruise on the Oceanic (late May-early January). If there's time, see the Piscataqua River Gundalow, a reproduction of a traditional river barge on the Piscataqua River, and the USS Albacore, a 1952 submarine that set numerous underwater speed records.

If you're traveling with kids, you may want to visit the Children's Museum of Portsmouth. It has performances, workshops and hands-on exhibits.

Just 3 mi/5 km from Portsmouth is the tiny but impressive island of New Castle (accessed via bridge), home to the impeccably restored (and saved from near-ruin) Wentworth by the Sea. Built in 1874, this was one of 19th-century New England's grandest oceanfront resorts, catering to the well-heeled. It was also the site of the signing of the 1905 Russo-Japanese Treaty (for which President Theodore Roosevelt gets credit in the history books, even though he was at home in New York at the time). This old beauty stood neglected and abandoned for years until the Marriott Hotel chain rescued and completely refurbished it in 2003. It's a great spot to spend the night (no bargain, but worth the extra cash in our opinion) or have lunch by the sea. The tiny island is also good for walking. Notice the wealth of colonial architecture, distant views and the remnants of a 17th-century military fort.

Annual events in Portsmouth include Market Square Weekend (street fair, food, crafts—June); Seacoast Jazz Weekend (jazz performances and a jazz cruise—June); and the Candlelight Tour of Historic Homes (nighttime tour of homes—mid-August). 40 mi/65 km east of Concord.

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