Adam's Top 10 New Hampshire Downtowns
Living in New Hampshire, I've had the good fortune of visiting dozens of its cities and towns, from downtrodden to charming. For this top 10 list, I'm attempting to (very un-scientifically) rank my favorites. My main criterion is for the city or town to have a great sense of place. More specifically, when I'm there I feel like it's a unique or special locale. It has character. It's a place where I want to spend time, and that I'd recommend to a first-time visitor. As you'll see, the communities I've chosen range in size from tiny to towering (by NH standards anyway!).
Exclusion from this list doesn't necessarily imply dislike; I simply may not have spent much time there. So without further adieu, here's my list:
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):
OK, I know. I grew up here and I'm biased. Pages could be written about the potential my home city has; unfortunately much of it has yet to be realized, hence it not cracking the top 10. With a walkable, riverside downtown, some historic buildings, and plentiful water nearby, some proper investment and TLC could vault the City on the Lakes much higher. Also, it has the Soda Shoppe. A delightfully greasy meal and some eyebrow-raising people watching. Go and see for yourself!
Maybe it's memories of childhood Octobers at the Sandwich Fair, but to this day I find the tiny town of Sandwich mighty appealing. Somehow it manages to remain old-fashioned and progressive at the same time. A farming community huddled against 3,000-4,000' mountains. If you blink, you'll miss its "downtown", but time spent here amidst glowing golden leaves and a warm hot cocoa is never wasted.
These Kancamagus Highway bookends' mountainy settings and unassuming sprinkle of ski shops and cafes are charming and give them mucho points. However, they miss the top 10 due to their extreme "Massachusetts North" busyness. These are not "off the beaten path" locales any more than U2 is an under-the-radar band.
Visiting Lincoln this past fall, my usual frustration with sitting in big-city-esque traffic (25 minutes to go one mile) was mixed with disappointment as I looked around. I think I could count NH license plates on one hand. I don't have any magical solutions, but surely there MUST be a way to better manage this onslaught. The price of popularity can be concerningly high.
Not many towns in New Hampshire have an oval at their center. When you look at the map, it's really more of a sad, melting blob inside a haphazard triangle of busy roads. No matter. The town shines during a visit to its annual pumpkin festival. Cozy restaurants, green space, and a pleasant Souhegan River view give this unoriginally-named town (it's one of four Milfords in New England and 24 in the US) a spot on the list.
Insignificant though it may be, there's something grittily charismatic about this wee downtown. Most people hurry by on Route 104, en route to Meredith or points west, but a stop here is a glimpse at a community that takes pride in its charm, invests in its townscape, and values its future.
Nearly 7 times larger than the next largest city on the list, haters will pooh-pooh this choice, noting crime, homelessness issues, and other "big city" woes. However, an evening stroll may yield some of NH's best dining, a show at the Palace Theatre, and an absorbing browse at the independent Bookery. This pockmarked powerhouse has a small but growing hint of sophistication to complement its historical brawn.
As you'll see from this list, a common denominator of the towns/cities that made it is a certain refinement and pride of place. Of course too much urbanity can cause a place to come off as condescending, pompous, or uninviting. What I seek is a successful balance between taking care of its buildings, roads, and landscapes while maintaining inviting spaces for visitors and residents in the process.
For some reason, it seems to be winter every time I visit this little gem of a town. All the more impressive, I suppose, that it squeaks into the top 10. A classic diner, the eclectic Mariposa Museum, wonderful Toadstool Bookshop and a Contoocook River-hugging park, all in a compact, walkable package. A bit off the beaten path, but I think that only adds to the appealing sense of place.
Known for its extremely wide Main Street, and being the filming site for Jumanji back in 1994-95, Southwest New Hampshire's largest (and only) city is an engaging place to spend an afternoon or longer. Its relative isolation from other population centers and youthful college-town vibe makes it seem even more of a hub than its population of ~23,000 would suggest.
I stopped here on my way to Montréal in August 2019. The town is as quaint and likable as its pint-sized name would suggest. It seems to enjoy its status as a hub in a sparsely populated area of the state. Main Street is a classy, welcoming place to wander. I ambled down Mill Street toward the languidly flowing Ammonoosuc River to get an iced mocha latte at the Inkwell and admire a covered bridge whose construction date of 2004 belied its classic lines. Littleton is truly a pleasant surprise; if you don't mind a long drive up I-93, I'd highly recommend a visit.
Hanover is the very definition of classic New England college town. Sophistication practically oozes from the buildings, flowerpots, and lampposts. Impeccably-maintained surroundings, rarefied Ivy League air, culture of a city 20 times its size. What's not to love? Well, my only complaint was the idiotically-placed benches that create pinch points and block 2/3 of the otherwise lovely sidewalks. I thwacked painfully into at least one, and you can see the person above nearly doing the same. Intelligence does not equate to common sense...
Full disclosure: despite living in NH for 90% of my life, I've only been to Exeter once. My first visit surely wasn't my last. It has that wonderful Old New Hampshire vibe with its lemon-hued clapboard and sturdy brick-fronted downtown. A stroll past classy storefronts is complemented by a gaze out at the Squamscott River; being here feels consequential. It is. You're in one of New Hampshire's oldest towns - and only about 9 miles from the seacoast. (Fun Fact: parts of the compelling 2014 indie film In Your Eyes was filmed here)
Visiting this handsome little town is like stepping into a Currier and Ives print. Brimming with historic buildings, a perfect village green, and classic sky-piercing steeple, it would rise even higher on the list but for the fact that there's really nothing to do here but stroll. (Unless you're here in mid-September for the library's extraordinary book sale - there's a great travel section but you may find it picked-over if I get there first).
Main Street in New Hampshire's state capital used to be a ho-hum, four-lane affair that didn't really function well for cars or pedestrians. That all changed a few years back when the city wisely invested significant resources into improving the experience for all. The result is a particularly inviting environment with wide sidewalks, an excellent variety of shops and restaurants, excellent theatre, and a big gold dome to boot.
With a population around 43,000 it may be one of the smaller US state capitals, but by New Hampshire standards it qualifies as our third-largest city. In my opinion it's a superb place to spend time, and the sense of community pride is palpable. Kudos to the city for some forward-thinking planning and making "New Hampshire's Main Street" one to cherish.
Ah, Meredith. Breezy, lakeside allure. The stuff of summer weekend fantasies. Before I start gushing praise, though, let's clear one thing up. From Memorial Day through Columbus Day - nearly half the year - my #3 NH downtown experiences insufferable traffic just as the aforementioned Lincoln and Conway. It stinks, there's no two ways about it. Why is Meredith so much higher on my list, then? Well, there are a few reasons, including a big wet one:
1) Winnipesaukee. As pleasant as Lincoln and Conway can be, they don't have a postcard-perfect bay whose waves lap gently at downtown's doorstep. The lake is so enticing here that it almost makes me forget about the masses. (Locals who wish to enjoy Meredith are usually smart enough to visit on weekdays or off-peak times). Arriving by water, the small-town sweep of stalwart spires and sensible yankee architecture comes into view across the sun-glistened bay. You just know you're in a special little town.
2) There's a bit more of a town center than just the main lakeside strip. Not much more, mind you, but a stroll up curved, hilly Main Street or through Mill Falls Marketplace is more satisfying than touring a town where 99% of anything you'd want to visit is on a single strip - just my opinion.
3) As if Meredith's natural setting wasn't blessed enough with Winnipesaukee, there's actually another brilliant, less-crowded lake within walking distance! Waukewan may always play second fiddle to the "Big Lake", but most towns would kill for this lake that isn't even the most notable within a one-mile radius.
4) Meredith is a place of wonderful memories for me. Boating, browsing at the surprisingly well-stocked Innisfree Bookshop, stuffing my face with pasta at foundry-chic Giuseppe's with friends and family. It all comes together brilliantly in this magical village of quaintness and reminiscences.
OK, now we're in the big leagues. Portsmouth is arguably the most important city in New Hampshire's history and has a population with the foresight to preserve its most significant historical treasures. Buildings dating from the 17th century rub shoulders with swank restaurants, shops, and the magazine cover-lovely, riverfront Prescott Park.
Wandering Portsmouth's twisting lanes, you can almost physically sense its distinction. It's not all musty artifacts though; there somehow manages to be a modern, stylish vibe in this city of only 22,000. Just when you think things might be verging on pretentious, you see a rusty old tugboat or the monumental salt pile. In addition to all its handsomeness, this city is also a gritty, working port. What a fascinating combo.
The only minor complaint I have will sound familiar by now - traffic and parking in the summer can be downright headache-inducing. Once you find yourself strolling past tony storefronts on impeccably-bricked sidewalks, the happiness will spread from your feet right up to your sea breeze-tousled hair. New Hampshire literally wouldn't be what it is without this coastal prize.
"America's Oldest Summer Resort" is my gold medal winner, sitting pretty on Winnipesaukee's eastern shore. While it's hard to ignore the monumental summer throngs and its Main Street-and-little-else layout that I decried earlier, this classy enclave's charms far surpass its headaches - especially when arriving by boat. Wolfeboro is also home to one of my favorite places in the entire world: Cate Park.
As if enjoying a quality meal and ice cream on perfectly situated docks wasn't enough, relaxing in this terraced, landscaped oasis can sooth even the most jangled nerves. Its simple marble sign perfectly embodies its unassuming majesty. It's the unheralded star who quietly steals the show.
I breathe fresh lakeside air and embrace the moment. Sounds range from flip-flops slapping on weathered docks to the drone of distant speedboats. A motley cluster of watercraft jockey for position. The yacht captain - sporting a crisp polo shirt and $85 haircut - waves amiably to the tattooed, backwards-hatted dad piloting a jet ski with his kids. Families laugh. Sparrows trill merrily in the trees. Far-off ivory sails billow silently between sapphire water and cirrus-stippled sky. As herbed aromas from a nearby café waft my way, I ask myself if there's anywhere finer to be this morning.
Few places in this world consistently bring such an authentic smile to the soul. To me, this park - this town - is an absolutely perfect mix of glossy refinement and natural beauty. The very best town in which to while away a few hours on a sun-kissed Saturday. Wolfeboro remains down-to-earth, but often feels more like heaven.
Green = honorable mention
Blue = Top 10 (#10-4)
Bronze = 3rd place
Silver = 2nd place
Gold = 1st place