Experience the best of the best with this Top 8 list of things to do and see in Portsmouth.
Walk through history and see Olde Towne’s origins and it’s continued evolution.
Plan for your visit and explore Portsmouth with the Visitor Directory.
Welcome to Portsmouth, where you’ll find the widest variety of historic architecture in any city from Alexandria to Charleston!
Unlike Norfolk, where nearly the entire historic downtown was leveled after WWII to build skyscrapers, Portsmouth’s historic district remains almost entirely intact. To keep it that way, Olde Towne was officially designated as a historic area in 1963.
This 30-minute walking tour spotlights impressive examples of residential architecture spanning three centuries of American history. The overview linked here describes some of the architectural styles you’ll see throughout Olde Towne.
We’ll begin our journey at 1 High Street, in front of the 1894 tower built for Seaboard Railway, which offered train service to Suffolk and North Carolina starting in the 1830s. When cars replaced trains in the early 1900s, this landing became the site of a bustling car ferry service to Norfolk, which ran until 1955 when the downtown tunnel opened.
Let’s walk three blocks down High Street to Court Street. Along the way, imagine cars lined up bumper to bumper awaiting the ferry – and throngs of businesses catering to the masses or motorists. The intersection of High and Court was laid out for public use in 1752 when Portsmouth was incorporated as a city – three decades before the American Revolution. The enduring churches and courthouse make it easy to get a feel for what the city was like when it started.
Turn right on Court Street, walk two blocks to London, turn right and walk one block to Middle Street. This is where our tour of historic residential Olde Towne begins.
Built in 1885, this Victorian mansion features a Federal doorway, wrought-iron porches, and massive chimneys. It was built as a private residence but eventually housed the Ballance School of Dance, and after that an Inn.
This Greek-Revival structure, built in 1839, was dubbed the Odd Fellows Hall by the fraternal organization that held meetings here. In 1900, the third story was raised and a new middle story was added, and it became an apartment building to accommodate the influx of Navy Yard workers during the height of American shipbuilding.
Built about 1784, this Colonial” tax dodger” house features a gambrel roof that allowed lower taxes than a usual two-story home would have had to pay under pre-Revolutionary British tax codes. It was used as a barracks during the War of 1812, and President Andrew Jackson dined here when he came to Portsmouth to open the nation’s first dry dock in 1833. In 1824, General Lafayette returned to Portsmouth from France and held his offical meetings in this house. Originally built a few blocks away near the harbor, it was moved to this location in 1869, just after the Civil War, when the railroad expanded along the waterfront.
Built in 1785, this classic, rustic colonial property served as Portsmouth’s old city market until the new one was built in 1870 near High St Landing, where our tour began.
Built in 1880, the Nash-Gill house is a prime example of Gothic architecture, with elaborate ornamentation not just on the facade but on the sides and rear of the mansion.
Built in 1830, this grand Federal-era mansion served as a family home until 1855, when it was expanded and turned into a hotel and resort connected to a beach two blocks away at North Street Landing.
Constructed in the 1820’s by a master builder of the early U.S. Navy, the Grice-Neely House is one of many examples of French-influenced, New Orleans architecture seen in Olde Towne. The pale color, balconies and wroght-iron railings show a distinct departure from the simpler colonial style it replaced. In 1963, this became the first historic restoration in Olde Towne, paving the way for revitalization throughout the district.
Originally constructed as an electrical sub-station in 1906, this charming building and adjacent garden was converted into apartments, then condos, and is now an Airbnb!
Constructed as a private home in 1894, this masterpiece of Romanesque Revival architecture features thick round arches over a cavernous entryway, and a dramatic tower with long windows. In the mid-1900s it was converted into an Elk’s Lodge and in the 1970’s it was used as the “castle” of Dr. Madblood, a local TV horror movie host. In 2022, Grammy-winner Jack White used it on the gothic poster for his concert just blocks away at the Pavilion.
Built in 1790, the Watts House is a pristine example of an early, Federal-era mansion. This home is where Chief Black Hawk was entertained in 1816. The chief was brought to Portsmouth to tour the Navy Yard so he could assess the military might he could face if the Native Americans persisted in land disputes with the steady influx of settlers.
Now that you’ve finished your tour of some of the architectural wonders of Portsmouth, unwind and dine in one of the most interestingly revitalized restaurants in Olde Towne.
Located at 438 High Street, adapted an existing historic stone structure to resemble a Bavarian brew pub, it comes complete with an outdoor patio shaded by lush vines. The Bier Garden serves hundreds of domestic and imported beers and German-inspired food. Family-friendly, vegan-friendly, and if you’re here in October don’t miss the Oktoberfest block party!