Historic town center of Exeter, New Hampshire. Image credit Wangkun Jia via Shutterstock.com

6 Must-See Historic Towns in New Hampshire

Not only is New Hampshire one of the smallest US states in terms of population and area, it’s also one of the oldest. First settled by the British in 1623 and one of the original Thirteen Colonies, New Hampshire is also notable for being the first state to establish its constitution and ratify the U.S. Constitution. Little wonder, then, that the “Granite State” boasts played so important a role in the formation and growth of the world’s number one superpower.

For those wanting to explore this rich history, the state’s many interesting small towns are a good bet. From the seaport of Portsmouth to the revolutionary spirit of Exeter and with a few stops in-between, these six historic towns in New Hampshire are waiting to share their fascinating stories.


View of Market Square, the main economic and commercial center of the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire
View of Market Square, the main economic and commercial center of the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, via quiggyt4 / Shutterstock.com

Portsmouth’s strategic location at the mouth of the Piscataqua River has served the town and its residents well down the years. History buffs should start their exploration of the town’s past at the Strawbery Banke Museum, a fascinating outdoor living history museum spread over 10 acres in the heart of the Portsmouth Downtown Historic District. Highlights include exploring 30 preserved buildings dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries while engaging with costumed interpreters who bring the area's colonial past to life.

Portsmouth’s bustling Market Square is another must-visit and serves as the city's cultural hub with its eclectic mix of shops, galleries, restaurants, and historic buildings. It’s especially fun in summer as street performers strut their stuff. The town's maritime heritage is also on display at the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse (guided tours available), as well as at the USS Albacore Museum with its submarine tales.


Downtown Exeter, New Hampshire.
Downtown Exeter, New Hampshire.

Exeter is the perfect destination for a quintessential New England small-town experience. The main attraction here for history buffs is the American Independence Museum located in the Ladd-Gilman House, an elegant old home built in 1755. This must-do attraction celebrates Exeter's role in the American Revolution with exhibits that include an original Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, early American artifacts, and events like the annual American Independence Festival.

Another historic landmark, Phillips Exeter Academy is one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States and was founded in 1781 by John Phillips and is open for public tours. The Exeter River is also fun to get to know, especially by following the Swasey Parkway, a scenic walking and biking path along its banks.  


Thirsty Moose Tap House restaurant at 83 Washington Street at Central Avenue in city center of Dover, New Hampshire
Thirsty Moose Tap House restaurant at 83 Washington Street at Central Avenue in city center of Dover, New Hampshire, via Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

There’s no denying tourists are drawn to Dover for its historical sites, in particular the Woodman Institute Museum. Housed in a cluster of historic buildings including the 1818 Woodman House and its even old garrison house dating from 1675, the museum also features colonial artifacts and natural history specimens, as well as displays relating to the lives of the first settlers.

A great way to get to know this museum and other historic attractions in town, as well as to gain a flavor of its rich cultural scene, is to join the monthly Dover Art Walk. Along the way, participants pop into local galleries and studios and even get to sample some live music. Traveling as a family? Fun things for kids to do in Dover include visiting the Children's Museum of New Hampshire with its interactive exhibits dealing with science, culture, and the arts.


Historic buildings on the Main Street in Concord, New Hampshire.
Historic buildings on the Main Street in Concord, New Hampshire. Editorial credit: Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

Concord, the capital city of New Hampshire, has done a great job of preserving its old-town feel. First settled in 1725 and incorporated nine years later, the top attraction here is the New Hampshire State House with its iconic golden dome. One of the oldest state capitols in the country where the original chambers are still used by the legislature, it can best be seen via an informative guided tour.

A little more recent history can be explored in the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center. Named after Christa McAuliffe, the Concord teacher who lost her life in the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and Alan Shepard, the first American in space, this fascinating attraction features interactive exhibits on astronomy and space exploration. The Capitol Center for the Arts is housed in a beautifully restored 1920s auditorium and hosts performances ranging from Broadway shows to concerts and community theater.


Main Street in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Main Street in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Hanover was founded in 1761 along the banks of the Connecticut River… by settlers from Connecticut. The town is perhaps best known as home to Dartmouth College, one of the prestigious Ivy League educational institutions, and its grounds are open to the public. It’s an enjoyable walk as the campus is renowned for its stunning architecture and green spaces, particularly Dartmouth Green, a large, inviting lawn that hosts events and provides a peaceful place to sit and watch the world go by.

Other Hanover highlights include the Hood Museum of Art, one of the oldest and largest college museums in the country with an impressive collection of art and artifacts from around the world; and the Montshire Museum of Science. Located just across the river in Norwich, Vermont, this hands-on museum is perfect for families, offering interactive exhibits on natural and physical sciences that engage visitors of all ages.


Littleton, New Hampshire, in autumn.
Littleton, New Hampshire, in autumn.

Littleton’s history goes back to its foundation in 1769 and is one of the most scenic small towns on this list due to its location in the picturesque White Mountains region. For those interested in history and architecture, the Littleton Historical Museum offers insights into the town's past through exhibits on local history, culture, and art. A quirky highlight is the

Pollyanna of Littleton statue which celebrates the town's connection to Eleanor H. Porter, author of the Pollyanna novel from 1913 (you can’t miss it: it’s located in front of the Littleton Public Library). Allow time to explore the town's Main Street, too. Among its many great shops, cafés, and galleries is Chutters candy store, home to the world's longest candy counter and a presence in town since the 1880s.

The Final Word

New Hampshire's historic towns are among the prettiest – and most historic – in New England. From the seaport charm of Portsmouth to the literary legacy of Littleton (and a few stops in between), the state's tremendous architectural preservation efforts are on display for all to enjoy in these six must-see historic towns in New Hampshire.

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