Ultimate Guide to Portsmouth, NH

Photo courtesy of Jon Winslow

So, you got orders to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (PNSY)! When we made this move the boat was making a change of homeport for over a year there.  Moving to Maine in December was not ideal, but the restaurants and amazing summers completely made up for it. 

When you receive orders to PNSY it’s incredibly confusing to determine where the base actually is located. Not dissimilar to the Naval Submarine Base New London (Groton) , the base is actually located in Kittery, Maine on Seavey Island, but is named for the adjacent town and mailing address of Portsmouth, NH. .  Tip: There are two gates to get onto the shipyard and they often change which gate is open. I do not recommend going on or trying to get off base between 8am and 9am or 4pm and 5pm,  the traffic for all the shipyard employees heading to work and going home can lead to significant wait times.

Fast Facts

  • The population of Portsmouth, NH is 21,896, while Kittery, Maine is 9,846(2018 U.S. Census)
  • Portsmouth was settled in 1623.
  • Portsmouth is located three hours from Burlington, VT; one hour to Portland, ME; one hour to Boston; and five hours from Montreal and NYC.
  • Nearby airports include Boston Logan International Airport, Manchester-Boston Regional Airport, and Portland International Jetport.
  • PNSY is home to approximately 1,000 naval personnel and their families, and typically supports four submarine crews at a time.
  • The shipyard employs about 8,000 civilians and provides services to many retirees.


Portsmouth Naval Shipyard has a long history of shipbuilding starting with the USS Washington in 1815. During WWI the workforce expanded dramatically, which is when it began building submarines. Seventy submarines were built during WWII at PNSY, with a record four submarines launched in one day! The last submarine built at PNSY was the USS Sand Lance in 1969.

Today, PNSY provides overhauling, refueling and modernization work for the submarine fleet.

Where to Live: Portsmouth or Kittery?

Both locations have their own pros and cons. Pros for Kittery, ME: often less traffic, closer to base, slightly lower rental cost, beach accessibility. Cons for Kittery: smaller downtown area, less access to takeout and public transit, further from Boston/ Manchester.

Pros for Portsmouth: closer to larger downtown, closer to Boston/ Manchester, greater public transit. Cons: more traffic, further from base, higher rents. South Berwick, Maine is a bit further out, but a very nice area that has a lower cost of living. Base housing has two sections one physically on base for officers only and there is another section approximately five minute drive down the road in a small neighborhood in Kittery available for all families.

Eat & Drink

As I said in the beginning the winters are long, but the restaurant scene makes up for it!Exploring the food in the Portsmouth/ Kittery area is absolutely wonderful! The restaurant scene is vibrant, from nationally acclaimed chefs celebrating sea-to-table cuisine, to local experts specializing in gluten-free and ethnic options. There are several critically-acclaimed local breweries, including Portsmouth Brewery, Redhook Ale Brewery and Smuttynose Brewery. Tip:: If you can make a reservation at the restaurant you want to go to no matter the time of year make it. Otherwise wait times can quickly grow especially during peak tourist times.

The Rosa Restaurant is a classic Italian restaurant that opened in 1927, a long standing Portsmouth tradition. It was one of the first restaurants recommended to me by a local who grew up in the area.  I highly recommend the Rosa White Pizza or bruschetta to start followed by the chicken parmigiana, then finished off with the zepole. You can’t go wrong with any of their dishes. Lexie’s  is another must visit!  Thinking about their burgers and fries makes me want to take a trip back. Super reasonably priced with incredible taste! You must get a burger, truffle fries, AND a shake. Trust me. White Heron is a bit of a walk outside of the Portsmouth downtown area, but the tea selection is extensive. They accommodate a wide variety of diets including vegan baked goods and delicious gluten-free alternatives.

The coolest bar experience I have ever had was drinks at the Wallingford Dram. It’s a small bar tucked away in downtown Kittery. They make all their own simple syrups from fresh herbs making their cocktail menu incredibly unique. My husband and his shipmates frequented Rudder’s for lunch enjoying their burgers on days the boat food was not suiting their taste buds and they could get away.  It provides classic pub food and drink along with being walking distance from base gate in downtown Kittery. Anju Noodle Bar boasts “free style asian cuisine” including different kinds of ramen, buns, and bowls to choose from. Don’t leave Kittery without giving it a try if you enjoy noodles. Annke Jans is a great place to go for a romantic date night or celebratory meal. With an ever changing menu based on seasonal foods this bistro always has new dishes to try.

Things To Do

MWR at PNSY has a great selection of rentals including for water activities kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, in addition to all the gear you need for winter sports snowboards, skis, etc. You should definitely check out their discounted tickets for local attractions along with museums and events in Boston. There are frequent group trips to Boston and ski locations.  

One of my favorite activities, I was lucky enough to do with my fellow sub spouses, was parking at Kate’s grabbing a tea and scone on Badger’s Island, then walking over the Memorial Bridge downtown and around to Prescott Park then on to Pierce Island to say hi to Seymore the seal. We did this at every time of year and often with our dogs.  In the summer Prescott Park hosts outdoor movies and plays on their lawn and in the winter just down the street Strawberry Banke Museum erects an ice skating rink. The Portsmouth Escape Room is a great double date night! In the summer I also enjoyed visiting the secluded Seapoint Beach that requires a Kittery town beach pass. Parking is monitored and ticketed, which allows for lucky pass holders to have a very quiet beach experience even in high tourist season. If you enjoy outlet shopping the Kittery Premium Outlets are minutes from base.

Day Trips:

Boston is approximately an hour south from the Portsmouth/ Kittery area. If you are headed to the airport and are not looking to drive I highly recommend the C&J airport shuttle. Boston is packed with a huge variety of events and places to visit. New England Aquarium exhibits include penguins and seals in addition to an enormous tank with a huge variety of marine life. It’s very near the North End neighborhood of Boston where you must grab cannolis at Mike’s Pastry.  The Museum of Science, Boston has exhibits of adults and children of all ages. Beyond the exhibits there are planetarium, Omni theater, and 4D films shows throughout the day.

Approximately an hour north of Portsmouth/ Kittery is Freeport, Maine is a sweet seaside town. The headquarters for LLBean is located in Freeport with a 7 acre campus. LLBean hosts many free events including concerts, movies, yoga and more on their campus. Freeport is a great place for a weekend getaway at a bed and breakfast as there are so many to choose from depending on price point and style. Both local and outlet shopping are plentiful in Freeport if you are looking to pick up some new duds while visiting.

Acadia National Park is a stunning place to visit approximately three and a half hours from the Portsmouth/ Kittery area in Bar Harbor, Maine. It is a dog friendly national park. I was lucky enough to make the trip while the fall foliage was in full force.  We had lunch at the Jordan Pond House where there is no bad place to sit to enjoy the incredible views. You must have their popovers and tea to warm up. 

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Have you been stationed in Portsmouth? Drop a comment with some of your favorite things to do or your best tips.

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