Prescott Park Marina offers convenient access to downtown Portsmouth. This photo shows the old Memorial Bridge prior to its removal in 2012. Photos by Scott Goodwin.

Prescott Park Marina offers convenient access to downtown Portsmouth. This photo shows the old Memorial Bridge prior to its removal in 2012. Photos by Scott Goodwin.

Portsmouth, New Hampshire, rewards visiting mariners with a historic and happening waterfront, plus the satisfaction of having negotiated some of the strongest currents on the coast.

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Kayakers will find the Piscataqua River and Great Bay estuary a paradise worth exploring.

Kayakers will find the Piscataqua River and Great Bay estuary a paradise worth exploring.

A red nun tilts and lurches as the mighty Piscataqua rushes past the massive new pilings of the Memorial Bridge. The river swirls around the Prescott Park seawall‚ hissing with energy before rushing headlong into the Atlantic.

With its legendary currents, 10’ tides and three massive bridges, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, presents its share of navigational challenges. However, with a bit of planning and some local knowledge, boaters will find this historic city to be a delightful combination of colonial charm and modern amenities.

Rolling on the River:

Diners enjoy good food and a view of the river from the docks of the River House Restaurant.

Diners enjoy good food and a view of the river from the docks of the River House Restaurant.

The Piscataqua is a big river that happens to culminate in the largest estuary in the Gulf of Maine. On a moon tide, the current can run as fast as 14 knots between the Sarah Long and Memorial Bridges. Combine this immense flow with a large commercial and recreational fleet and things can get pretty dicey in the confines of the river mouth.

But fear not: Visiting boaters can negotiate, and even enjoy, this river.
A good tip for newbies is to tune to VHF 13 and listen to the chatter of commercial skippers and the bridge tenders, the Piscataqua’s eyes and ears. The Memorial Bridge opens on the half hour, while the Sarah Long opens on the quarter hour.

Navy Salute:

The USS Albacore Center gives visitors a chance to tour the pre-nuclear-era submarine.

The USS Albacore Center gives visitors a chance to tour the pre-nuclear-era submarine.

The sprawling Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on Seavey Island greets all visitors entering Portsmouth Harbor. While the abandoned hulk of the Naval Prison, with its well-armed Zodiacs and the “Use of Force Authorized” signage, can be intimidating, boaters who stick to the marked channels and keep their distance from the docks can check out the nation’s most high-tech nuclear submarine shipyard without fear of landing in the brig.

There are three full-service marinas within walking distance of downtown Portsmouth. West of Seavey Island, Badgers Island Marina is a short walk or dinghy ride from Portsmouth. Hard on the Portsmouth waterfront, the Marina at Harbour Place and the city-run Prescott Park welcome transients and daytrippers intent on exploring the city. Other area marinas, including the massive Wentworth Marina and Resort on New Castle Island, can also accommodate visiting boaters and get them into town.

Colonial Flavor:

Strawbery Banke Museum provides a glimpse into Portsmouth's past.

Strawbery Banke Museum provides a glimpse into Portsmouth’s past.

Portsmouth is colonial at heart. Just a block from Prescott Park, Strawbery Banke Museum depicts life in Portsmouth since its days as a 1630’s English settlement, through its heyday as a major fishing and shipping port in the 18th and 19th centuries, to its industrialization in the 20th century. As you stroll the museum’s narrow lanes and cobblestone streets, be prepared to meet and chat with coopers, masons, merchants, captain’s wives and sailors.

Prescott Park gardens is a lovely place to stroll or picnic.

Prescott Park gardens is a lovely place to stroll or picnic.

Just across a small bridge at the southern end of Prescott Park, the commercial fishing fleet ties up at Pierce Island. Draggers and lobster boats bearing names like Atlantic Offspring, Intrepid and Storm Dancer lie snug against the dock, awaiting their next trip and giving Portsmouth the air of a real working port, which of course it still is.

In a boat, passing below this bridge takes you back in time to one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. You can tie up at Geno’s Chowder & Sandwich Shop for a quick lunch and stroll down Mechanic, Gate and Washington Streets, where clapboard and shingled homes crouch alongside the brick sidewalks, their rooflines crooked, their walls visibly warped, yet centuries strong.

Old and New:

Annabelle’s Ice Cream on Ceres Street serves awesome frozen treats.

Annabelle’s Ice Cream on Ceres Street serves awesome frozen treats.

Yet in Portsmouth, the modern world is never far away, making Portsmouth a city of contrasts. Over the colonial skyline, the cranes and massive steel girders of the Naval Shipyard loom. The Piscataqua—the Gundalow Company’s replica of the vessels once used as river workhorses—is dwarfed by massive tankers moving upriver to offload heating oil, food and other commodities. The Ceres Street cobblestones that once chattered under the wheels of horse-drawn carts now rattle beneath the soles of well-heeled tourists.

It wasn’t always that way, of course, for Portsmouth endured decades of hard times following the collapse of the coastal mills. The city took advantage of federal funding to restore its old port in the 1980s and 1990s, creating a haven for shopping, dining and entertainment within the confines of several walkable blocks.

Riverfront Revival:

Harpoon Willy’s is a popular place to grab a drink or a bite to eat.

Harpoon Willy’s is a popular place to grab a drink or a bite to eat.

Look to the sky, find the towering white steeple of North Church, and follow it to Market Square, Portsmouth’s hub. Boutiques, spas, bakeries, coffee shops, restaurants and pubs await you. Along Market, Bow, Daniel and Congress Streets, shoppers inspect everything from designer duds for a night on the town to shorts and flip flops for bumming around.

From Thai and Indian to French and Mexican, Portsmouth restaurants serve up a world of flavors. Duck inside the Portsmouth Brewery for a pint of local-brewed ale or take advantage of The Oar House’s dockside dining area, overlooking the fleet of Moran tugs that usher freighters and tankers up and down the river.

Wentworth Marina and Resort welcomes boaters at the mouth of the harbor.

Wentworth Marina and Resort welcomes boaters at the mouth of the harbor.

The Discover Portsmouth Center on Middle Street is a great place to learn more about the city’s latest cultural events. The Portsmouth Music Hall welcomes big-name acts. Performances range from opera to reggae, from art house cinema to readings by renowned authors. The Seacoast Repertory Theater serves up musical favorites and modern British and American dramas. For a lower-key evening, many bars in town feature live music.

Bursting with energy as if drawn from the river’s swift currents, Portsmouth is a city building a bright future with a sharp eye on its past.

For more information read our destination page Focus on Portsmouth Harbor.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum is cool spot to relax with a book.

The Portsmouth Athenaeum is cool spot to relax with a book.

 

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