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, Virginia’s historic seaport®.
We are a river town; the deep harbor between Portsmouth and Norfolk is the reason both cities were settled by British colonists soon after they arrived in the early 1600s. In fact, until the Erie Canal made New York the biggest port on the east coast in the mid-1800s, Portsmouth and Norfolk held that distinction.
The best way to get a sense of how key the Elizabeth River was in the founding of Virginia, the Navy, and the American shipping industry is to take this breezy, 30-minute walking tour along the Portsmouth Seawall. The tour will cover about a mile along a paved walking path that extends from High Street Landing to the Naval Hospital, with a handful of stops along the way.
First, let’s walk around the landing to the flag perched on the far side for the best view of the river. High St. Landing was the original hub of Portsmouth, which was a busy port even before the city was officially sanctioned in 1752. In 1767, the first shipyard opened about a mile south of here. Originally called Gosport Shipyard, it was destroyed during the Revolutionary War, rebuilt as America’s first Navy yard, and taken over by the Confederacy before being destroyed once more. After the Civil War, the shipyard’s name was changed to what we still call it today – Norfolk Naval Shipyard – even though it’s in Portsmouth. This part of the river is not only a hub for military vessels but for commercial and pleasure ships needing repairs in drydocks. Drydock 1, the very first floating drydock in the United States opened here in 1833. Private shipyards like the one you see directly across the river work on a variety of vessels in addition to military contract work. For a deeper dive, visit the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum located on the landing at 2 High St. Let’s continue walking north along the Seawall.
On your left is the Lightship Portsmouth Museum. Built in 1915, it served the tricky waters off Virginia as a beacon to inbound ships in areas where lighthouses were impossible to construct.
Just past the lightship is the Renaissance, Portsmouth’s flagship hotel and conference center. From this point, gaze out into the harbor and imagine these spectacles from American history:
Unlit rowboats in the middle of the night clandestinely bringing enslaved people to northbound ships, on which they would stowaway to freedom in the decades before the Civil War.
Fireworks and a harbor packed with brand new vessels from the Navy Yard celebrating the 1876 centennial of the Re-United States a decade after the Civil War.
President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 launch of “The Great White Fleet” of battleships on a global goodwill mission – to shore up relationships with Allies and display military might to potential enemies.
Continue walking along North Street Landing. Until 1845, this was the main passenger ferry stop to Norfolk as it was closer, and ferries were rowed by hand. After the ferry stop shifted to High Street, this landing became a popular Victorian-era beach resort serving guests at Portsmouth’s bustling hotels. Walk along Crawford Parkway and pick up the Seawall path around the parking structure at the entrance to Tidewater Marina.
It’s easy to find LOVE in Portsmouth! This sign was installed as an offshoot of the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign. It’s situated on the Seawall near the entrance of the Tidewater Marina at Craford Bay, named for Colonel Crawford, Portsmouth’s founder. In the distance is the Portsmouth Naval Medical Center – the Navy’s oldest continually operating hospital, serving since 1830. Today 4,300 sailors and civilians take care of over 420,000 active-duty patients and their families. Continue walking along the Seawall to Court Street.
Look for Look for the historic markers near the Seawall at Court Street (pictured above, left) for some fascinating stories from the American Revolution that unfolded right where you stand. You can’t miss this remarkable example of early 1900s Victorian-era Craftsman architecture (pictured above, right) – on Court Street across from the Seawall.
Continue walking along the Seawall, turning right along the row of houses leading to the Naval Hospital.
The homes along Swimming Point feature classic architecture from many eras of American history. The best sunset location in Olde Towne is popular with joggers, parents pushing strollers, and residents enjoying the evening on their porch.
Thanks for taking the Seawall tour! If you have worked up an appetite, please visit the most impressive bar and restaurant on Portsmouth’s waterfront: Fish & Slips in the Tidewater Marina, which you can access by walking back to the LOVE sign. It’s popular not only with locals but with boaters taking advantage of the Intracoastal Waterway, for which Portsmouth is mile marker zero. Enjoy!