We faced new budget challenges in New Hampshire. Here are our favourite cheap things to do in Portsmouth.
When we first conceived of the$200 Challenge - can two people travel for two days and spend just $200? - we knew a key factor in our success or failure would lie in our ability to target the right destination. We needed destinations that were slightly overlooked in favor of more popular neighbours. We needed destinations that were a little less trendy and a little less touristy. We needed destinations where our dollar would go just a little bit further. And Portsmouth, New Hampshire ticked all those boxes - and a little bit more.
Occasionally in the shadow of its neighbors, Boston and Portland, Portsmouth had been described to me as a city with an actual working port, not just a waterfront attraction. A city where the shoulder season moves at a slow, leisurely pace. A city with loyal fans but also one that plenty of people haven't even heard of.
I was immediately drawn to this combination of seaside town, working city, and slowly emerging tourist magnet. I knew I would love Portsmouth - but would my budget? And could the $200 Challenge possible succeed in pricey New England?
We had our eyes on the Microtel Inns and Suites by Wyndham in York, Maine, for some time. While Portsmouth had a good selection of accommodation options, none came close to meeting our goals for the $200 Challenge. But York is literally just a few minutes down the road from downtown Portsmouth and our savings far outweighed any inconvenience in driving.
There are some travel stories that read like urban legends, like business class tickets that cost less than an economy seat. But when it comes to the tall tale of getting a suite for less than the cost of a regular hotel room, I'm here to say that the rumors are true! Yes, we had a suite on a $200 Challenge!
We had been stalking their site for quite some time before we happened upon a sales code applicable to their suites. The generous promo code was just what we needed to seal the deal. For $137, we had two nights in a room with a queen sized bed and a living room with a sofa, kitchenette, fridge, microwave, sink, breakfast bar, and desk.
Alright, it wasn't a TRUE suite - it was just a larger room divided into different sections. But it was a heck of a lot better than one basic room and we really appreciated having the extra space to stretch out and relax.
When it comes to $200 Challenge accommodations, this property excelled at giving us great value for money. The room was clean, comfortable, and well laid out We gave the Microtel high marks for their pool and hot tub area, the friendly staff (who put out cookies one night!), the decent Wi-Fi, and the free parking. The carpet, however, had seen better days and was in need of a serious shampoo treatment.
Detracting from all these positive points was the lackluster breakfast. There was a real lack of "real" food. The white bread was spongy and would clearly never mold or decompose. The yogurt was stripped of fat, sugar, fruit, and, well, anything yogurt-y at all. In lieu of actual cream there was brand name creamer. The juice was a juice-beverage. It. Was. Awful.
In fairness to the Microtel, it wasn't so much that their particular breakfast was so bad - it's more that we've had far too many inadequate budget hotel breakfasts and our cumulative frustration was keenly felt. It's time for all budget hotels to raise their standards!
Cost $137 for two nights, including "breakfast".
Lunch #1: Brewery brouhaha
So here's the key thing about a $200 Challenge - you've got to really, REALLY love doing your research. This is not a game for the weak of heart or the list adverse. And one key component of this research involves a little old fashioned restaurant stalking to track down the best weekly deals and bargains. Our trip to Portsmouth was no different and first on our list was the Portsmouth Brewery.
Our research told us the brewery offered daily tours at 3:00 pm and their lower-level sister property, Lapanza Lounge, had a $1 daily PM special. Yep, you read that right! $1 cheesy fries, $1 tacos, and more. The combination of craft beer samples and ultra discounted appetizers was absolutely irresistible and we knew it would work into our budget perfectly - with some money leftover for some extra drinks in between!
So it was with heavy hearts that we arrived to the bustling brewery at 2:55 pm only to be met by a befuddled staff member who eventually told us that there were no tours that day as it was Easter Sunday. A reasonable point, except that the brewery was absolutely packed - clearly no one there was feeling particularly religious - and none of the brewery's numerous social media networks had announced this cancellation. We were annoyed, both for having a disruption in our plans and for the flippant way the staff just dismissed us.
We did stay for a round of drinks (incidentally, extremely hoppy, when we had specifically asked for something that wasn't hoppy) and a hot black bean nacho dip which was delicious. Our snack was tasty but the whole experience just left us with a bad taste in our mouth.
We recommend future visitors consider skipping this stop and instead check out Poco’s Bow Street Cantina for great Mexican food and the Spring Hill Tavern (below the Dolphin Striker) for free nightly live music.
Two key updates: This brewery no longer offers tours and they no longer have $1 specials in the Lounge.
Lunch #2: Our love for Oliver
Happily, lunch #2 was a much more enjoyable affair. We chose Me & Ollie's entirely for the name - our beloved dog is named Ollie! But this bakery by any other name would smell as sweet - and taste as good. Given that we were feeling a bit fed up (or underfed, as would be more apt) by our hotel's "breakfast", we opted for toasted breakfast sandwiches as our lunch option and we were not disappointed.
Me & Ollie's homemade bread, freshly cooked egg, and non-plastic cheese made for a very tasty and filling sandwich and was a very budget friendly choice, coming in at just under $5 each. This cute and cheerful cafe has a number of different outlets around the Portsmouth area and each is decorated with jaunty accessories and an assortment of goodies to take home, including the aforementioned bread, homemade granola, and Ollie themed T-shirts (we are indeed negligent dog parents for not bringing one home in honor of our own Oliver!) All in, this is a solid choice for breakfast, lunch, or a snack and a budget friendly choice to boot.
Another great choice if you can't make it to Me & Ollie's is The Works Bakery Cafe. All day scrambled eggs-on-bagel sandwiches are about $3 (deal!) Other sandwiches are $7-$8.
Cost: About $15 (including drinks)
Dinner #1: Pizza by the pound
Good God the pizza at the Cornerstone of Ogunquit Maine is a mighty fine pie! Our stone oven cooked pizza was topped with marinated mushrooms, house made sausage (Ryan's side), scallions, and a generous amount of cheese. The crust was blistered just right, the cheese and toppings melded into bubbly goodness, and we absolutely inhaled every single bite.
But why on earth were we in Ogunquit instead of Portsmouth? Staying in York, we were beautifully positioned to explore the entire area and a wonderful day of driving down the coast and exploring the beaches tempted us the charming Maine town of Oqunquit, which was previously the scene of my epic lobster roll crawl the year previous.
Pizza for two costs about $19 and you'll want to include room in your budget to sample from their long list of craft beers. Me being me, of course I opted for wine instead and, while it was delicious, I was a bit disappointed that their wine list didn't include anything local to the Eastern United States to keep pace with their beers, which Ryan declared fantastic. Overall this was a great stop. If I lived in the area, I would be eating here every Friday night.
Cost: $40 (including drinks, of course!)
Dinner #2: Another brewery brouhaha
Another day, another brewery brouhaha - this time at the Portsmouth Brewery's sister operation, the Smuttynose Brewery. Thanks again to our extensive research, we were confident we had a firm plan for sensational savings: A 3:00 pm brewery tour with complimentary samples, followed by a 4:00-6:00pm happy hour (with discount appetizers and beer) at their onsite restaurant, Hayseeds, which also features a $20 prix fixed menu on Monday nights.
We had planned our entire trip - to Lake Placid, then Providence, then Portsmouth - around being at the Smuttynose Brewery to take advantage of their Monday menu, the tour, and the happy hour. We had grand plans to sample tons of beer before heading to the restaurant to split some appetizers and a bargain table d'hote for dinner.
Of course, when we arrived at the brewery at the appointed time, once again a staff member looked at us like we had three heads when we asked about the tour. She eventually shrugged and said that they didn't offer tours in their low season. And then, like a light bulb suddenly popping to life, she said that a lot of people showed up looking for the tour, as the brewery hadn't updated their website. No kidding! (A quick look through six months of their multiple social media channels didn't indicate that any public announcement of high season/low season tours had ever been made).
By this point, we had reached our limit of frustration with the team behind the Portsmouth and Smuttynose Breweries. There's absolutely no excuse for any company with a modern website and multiple social media channels not to have them updated, nor for staff to act so dismissively and rudely when customers show up for a regularly scheduled event that they failed to publicly cancel. We had zero interest in hanging around for happy hour, nor for spending our hard earned money at their restaurant, and we quickly came up with Plan B.
When our spirits are low when we travel, we turn to Indian food to perk ourselves up. Portsmouth's Shalimar Indian did a solid job of turning out classic Northern Indian dishes. It was the perfect choice after a disappointing brewery trip. The only downside was that our meal was expensive. Not unreasonable in the grand scheme of things, but definitely beyond the scope of our $200 challenge budget. We had officially failed and were well over budget. And we weren't done spending yet!
Cost: $50 (YIKES!)
Coffee, coffee, and more coffee in Portsmouth
Coffee - and cute coffee shops - are one of our biggest budget pitfalls no matter where or how we're traveling. And Portsmouth was no exception - but their coffee shops really WERE exceptional! The city has such an amazing, student-y, relaxed vibe and their coffee shops fit in perfectly. We loved Breaking New Grounds and Book and Bar, the later of which has both gourmet coffee AND a license to serve alcohol! Both are fantastic places for people watching with a latte.
But all that caffeine definitely adds up. And it doesn't hurt that I always order the most expensive concoction on the menu. Oh dear.
Explore the New Hampshire coastline.
The coastal scenery just south of Portsmouth is absolutely beautiful. There are miles and miles of gorgeous seashore and, while it was too chilly during our visit to really dip our toes into the water, it was still wonderful to get out in the fresh sea air.
I highly recommend loading up on lattes from the aforementioned coffee shops and heading out to see the beautiful oceanfront roads around the city.
Explore the towns of coastal Maine
Is it a form of cheating when you're exploring one city to be so tempted by its neighbours that you head out to explore the towns of an entirely different state? Portsmouth is just on the border of Maine and the seaside towns of York, Kittery, Kennebunkport, and Ogunquit are absolutely lovely.
For those who aren't on a budget, there are tons of cute little shops and great restaurants (and, yes, some ARE budget friendly - see our pizza joint above!) There's also an incredible selection of lobster roll joints in the area, which may not sound inexpensive but some of them really are - you can see our favourites here.
Wander downtown Portsmouth
Of course, the best thing to do in Portsmouth is to actually SEE Portsmouth! We weren't in the city more than 10 minutes before I declared myself utterly in love. It has such a warm, charming, small town feel with a bit of a college vibe to it. I couldn't get over how many people were walking everywhere as opposed to driving and how alive and vibrant the streets were - even on a chilly afternoon.
If history is your passion, you'll be a happy traveler in Portsmouth. In the heart of the city center is Strawberry Banke open air museum. The neighbourhood of Strawberry Banke dates back to the 1630s and the 40 some buildings that make up the museum date between the 17th and 19th century.
Unfortunately, during our trip to Portsmouth, it was still the low season so the museum was only open for special events but it is considered an absolute must-do during late spring, summer, and early fall. (Pro tip: Look for coupons for the museum and other Portsmouth attractions and shops in the handy tourist map that you can pick up at the bookstores, many restaurants, and visitors' bureau.)
Portsmouth is also a fantastic place for window-or-actual shopping. My favourite spot is the Flower Kiosk (from the first photo at the top of the page.) Technically a flower shop, it is absolutely packed with interesting, nifty, crafty items. (Confession: I treated myself to a jade colored, ceramic rhinoceros with a hollowed out back designed to hold a house plant. Since I'm the boss of the $200 Challenge, I declare rhinoceros related purchases exempt from the budget).
Just a short walk down from the Flower Kiosk is the Portsmouth Harbor. It's a beautifully scenic spot for photos and along the way you'll pass more great shops and lots of tempting restaurants.
So how did we do?
So if you've been adding things up as you've been reading along, you'll see that we are WAY over budget at $287. Yep, this $200 Challenge is officially a big huge fail. But I have tremendous faith that those following in my footsteps will have much better luck to stay on budget. We made a solid, budget friendly choice in our hotel room - wait, our hotel SUITE! We also had a great, challenge friendly meal at Me & Ollies and were able to come up with a list of other similar cafes.
We did have a good plan in place for free and happy-hour priced beer and appetizers-as-meals, as well as free entertainment and tours, but it all fell through due to the breweries we selected. But while I am reluctant to give them a second try (based on the lax attitude of the staff), I would still seek out other breweries in the area and use brewery visits as a key component of future $200 Challenges.
Portsmouth is a challenging area for a $200 Challenge, but that doesn't mean you can't have a great weekend escape that is still budget friendly. While we did go over budget - considerably so - we still had a great experience that was very reasonably priced. We would absolutely return here and explore some more!
Other $200 Challenges include....
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