15 Best Things to Do in Portsmouth, VA

Portsmouth, VA
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There is much for you to enjoy in the legendary city of Portsmouth, Virginia.

One of the most historic seaports in the US, Portsmouth oozes with old-school charm, thanks to its scenic coastal views, abundance of museums and architectural sites, and an array of cultural experiences you would not want to miss.

But of course, your adventure in Portsmouth is not just limited to a walk down memory lane.

You can eat your heart out in any of the numerous restaurants and dining hotspots and enjoy the fresh seafood cuisine that Portsmouth is famous for.

You can also take your family on scenic nature walks and have a lovely time as you take in the beautiful sunset views of this historic seaport.

Buckle up as we offer you the top 15 things to do in Portsmouth, Virginia, that you would most definitely want to add to your itinerary!

Enjoy a Scenic Stroll along the Elizabeth River

Calm waters of Elizabeth River
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The Seawall and boardwalk along Elizabeth River are the perfect spots in Portsmouth to catch sunset views, but with plenty of marvelous sights and photo opportunities, it is also advisable to visit any time of the day.

Start your stroll along the Seawall and discover not just gorgeous sea views but also a glimpse of another Portsmouth historical landmark.

Exterior of the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth from Elizabeth river
Antony-22, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On your walk, you will chance upon the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, which is hailed as the oldest running hospital in the Navy medical system that still functions to this day.

Continue to the Elizabeth River Boardwalk, where you’ll discover a fascinating 950-foot floating dry dock made of steel built in 1979, which locals refer to as the Titan.

See a Movie the Old-school Way at The Commodore Theater

Exterior of The Commodore Theater
Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Commodore Theater situated along High Street is easily one of Portsmouth’s best-known landmarks and one of the most visited attractions in town.

Originally built in 1945, the charming motion picture theater sports an art-deco style of architecture that is not hard-to-miss.

The façade of the building sports an old-school charm that easily attracts history lovers like you.

It is also one of Portsmouth's most prided architectural and historical marvels as it is listed in the National Register of Historic Places in the United States.

Make no mistake, though, because while The Commodore has the look and feel of an old-timey theater, it actually sports the latest in motion picture technology, such as a Dolby Digital surround sound system.

You might also want to skip the popcorn and instead head over to the theater’s in-house restaurant for dinner to get a fill of their delicious fare after watching your flick.

Their restaurant is so popular that they get crowded at times, so it is highly recommended to get a reservation and request your order before your movie through the theater’s very own vintage phone to complete the romantic and classic experience!

Have a Fun and Educational Time at the Children’s Museum of Virginia

Exterior of Children’s Museum of Virginia
Mojo Hand, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Children's Museum of Virginia is not just for the kids; it’s also the perfect place for kids-at-heart!

You will find tons of various exhibits housed within one of the largest museums in the state, all offering a variety of experiences you and your little ones will surely enjoy.

Have a fun family day as you try out the countless activities situated all over this massive space, all the while learning about history and science.

While other museums prohibit visitors from touching the exhibits, the Children’s Museum of Virginia encourages guests to play with its installations and have an interactive time.

One of the most popular exhibits in the museum among young guests is the Bubbles area, where you get to make your very own bubbles in all shapes and sizes!

The museum also has its very own planetarium, the Beazley Planetarium, where you can learn all about the cosmos through a variety of space shows that are sure to teach you a lot.

Experience the Feel of 19th Century Portsmouth at The Hill House

Imagine a place where time stands still, and you’ve found yourself at The Hill House on North Street, Portsmouth.

John Thompson, a brick-making entrepreneur, built this ancestral home in 1825.

He and his wife Elizabeth Cutler went on to adopt their son named John Thompson Hill.

The property was passed on through generations of Hills and over time filled up with numerous family relics from the 18th and 19th centuries that reflected the way of living during those times.

Today, the home serves as a major attraction for history buffs and is where visitors can catch a glimpse of 19th century living through the Hill family's well-preserved collection of heirlooms displayed at their home.

Cruise the Elizabeth River on Board a Ferry Boat

Portsmouth ferry boat on Elizabeth River
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Your visit to the Elizabeth River is not only limited to a walk; see it up close and personal when you catch a ride on the Elizabeth River Ferry!

If you’re not fond of using your legs, you can opt for a cruise instead and just sit back, relax, and take in the view of the gleaming river and feel the cool air on your face as your boat zips through this historic body of water.

There are ferry trips every 30 minutes and, in addition to being a great way to see the town from a unique perspective, you can also take the ferry if you want to visit Portsmouth's neighboring city of Norfolk.

Portsmouth ferry on Elizabeth River
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Get in Touch with Nature at Paradise Creek Nature Park

Pull yourself away from the maddening crowd and have a commune with nature at Paradise Creek.

Spanning 40 acres, this marshland that is part of the Elizabeth River system and was once deemed as dead was fortunately restored in early 2000.

Today, it is a favorite among nature lovers because of its several trails that get you closer to nature as well as adventure.

Breathe in the fresh air as you traverse any of its marvelous trails and try to spot the local bird species that inhabit the area, including bald eagles, hawks, and osprey.

For an adrenaline-pumping time, hop on a kayak or canoe and row your way along the Elizabeth River while taking in the sights and sounds of nature surrounding you.

Marvel at the Beauty of the Lightship Portsmouth Museum

Lightship portsmouth on display outside Lightship Portsmouth Museum
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Only in Portsmouth can you see a real ship that’s converted into a museum!

Like most lightships, the Lightship Portsmouth served as an off-land lighthouse to guide sailors on the coasts of Virginia, Delaware, and Massachusetts upon its construction in 1915.

It served for nearly half a century before finally retiring in 1964 and earning its status as a National Historical Landmark in 1989.

Side view of lightship portsmouth
Wangkun Jia / Shutterstock.com

On the outside, it sports a restored façade featuring a red-and-black color scheme, and once you step inside, you will be instantly transformed to the past as you learn how the crew lived during the ship’s active years through countless artifacts.

You’ll find the lightship permanently anchored on the corner of Water and London streets.

Aerial view of the Lightship Portsmouth ship
MamaGeek at en.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Grab a Cup of Coffee at The Coffee Shoppe

Don’t be fooled by its simple name – The Coffee Shoppe is no ordinary café.

Sitting along Portsmouth’s High Street in the historic district of Old Towne, The Coffee Shoppe provides an array of refreshing fare for locals and tourists.

Experience dining and sipping a cup of joe in a 200-year old building where you can have a lovely conversation with family and friends over breakfast, lunch, snacks, or dinner as The Coffee Shoppe is open every day to satisfy your hunger.

Take your pick from its delicious pastries to snack on, or fill your bellies with simple yet fulfilling fare from club sandwiches and healthy wraps to salads.

And, of course, do not leave the establishment without sampling their drink offerings; whether you’re into artisanal coffee or fun smoothies, The Coffee Shoppe has got something for every taste.

Gaze in Awe at the Architectural Prowess of Trinity Episcopal Church

Brick wall near Trinity Episcopal Church
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Portsmouth is home to a myriad of historic churches, and one of them is the Trinity Episcopal Church on Court Street.

Trinity has been there at the beginning of Portsmouth’s long history as one of the first houses of prayer ever to be built on the town’s so-called “Church Square” upon its foundation in 1762.

Exterior of Trinity Episcopal Church
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Today, it is one of the most prided American treasures listed under the National Register of Historic Places.

Over two centuries later, Trinity continues to be a sanctuary for the faithful people in the town of Portsmouth.

Beyond its long history, Trinity is famous for its six windows with a spellbinding stained-glass design crafted by none other than renowned American stained glass artist Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Gaze at the Brilliant Artworks at Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center

Last but definitely not least is Portsmouth’s haven for art-lovers, the Portsmouth Art and Cultural Center.

Discover the talent of the locals for the arts and go on a tour to see the various exhibits and performances that the center holds for visitors.

There’s no shortage of beautiful art pieces from paintings and sculptures to installations that are showcased in this building that once served as Portsmouth’s courthouse from 1846 until 1960.

They even hold various lectures that give visitors a deeper look into the art and the artists that made them, as well as musical concerts and workshops that immerse the guests into the art itself.

Get Your Fill of Naval History at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum

A canon display outside Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum
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Because of its location as a seaport, Portsmouth served an important part in the country’s long naval history, and all of those memorabilia are housed within the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.

Founded in 1949, it is deemed the oldest naval museum in the entire United States and features various artifacts, such as naval ship parts and even weapons used during historical American battles from the Battle of the Ironclads to World War II.

Some of the exhibits are interactive, so you can learn more about naval history through an immersive experience.

A model of a ship inside Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum
J Clear, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Be Immersed in a Historical Walking Tour

If you still can’t get enough of Portsmouth’s rich history and are craving more, then a walking tour with Mary Veale and the Colonials should also be included in your list!

This special walking tour takes you around Portsmouth’s very own Old Towne, with tour guides dressed in period costumes and playing characters in the era, introducing you to all of the various attractions around the area.

It will be another fun addition to your historical tour, and because of its fun formulation, it’s one walking tour that is sure to catch the attention of little ones and make them more engaged in learning about history.

Discover Steam Engines of Old at The Railroad Museum of Virginia

Body of a steam train at The Railroad Museum of Virginia
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Naval ships and lighthouses are not the only things that make up Portsmouth and Virginia’s history – steam engines do, too, and you’ll discover that at this small but interesting museum on the corner of Court and Wythe streets.

It all started when the remnants of a steam locomotive named Engine No. 1134 were discovered and restored to its former glory.

Front part of a steam train at The Railroad Museum of Virginia
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The Railroad Museum was opened to chronicle the beginnings of Portsmouth as a railroad forerunner by displaying five beautifully restored train cars that tell the history of how our ancestors traveled in the past.

A red train at The Railroad Museum of Virginia
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Enter the train cars and discover how old trains used to look like and how they operated and in addition, see the equipment used during that specific period.

It is an attraction that is sure to pique the interests of train aficionados and history buffs alike.

Long body of a train at The Railroad Museum of Virginia
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Learn about Jewish Faith and History at Jewish Museum and Cultural Center

The Jewish Museum and Cultural Center is another testament to Portsmouth’s rich and diverse culture and beginnings.

Featuring an imposing Colonial-Revival style of architecture, this former synagogue is one of the very first sights that you will see when you step foot in Portsmouth.

Its history dates back to 1918, when it was known as the Chevra T’helim Synagogue and served as the seat of the Jewish faith among the Orthodox Jew believers until it ceased its operations in 1985.

But in 2008, it opened its doors once again and spread the Jewish culture to the public as a special museum exhibiting important artifacts that started the Jewish faith among the people of Portsmouth.

Take a luxurious tour within the premises or immerse yourself in an enlightening lecture at this beautiful historical attraction and learn more about the culture.

Learn More about Portsmouth’s African-American History at The Portsmouth Colored Community Library Museum

This structure is not just a mere library but instead has become a landmark of the city’s rich African-American history and heritage.

The Colored Community Library had its humble beginnings as a small reading room inside the St. James Episcopal Church in 1937, where the town’s African-American population could get their fill of knowledge and books after being turned away from the town’s main library.

Now housed in its current building along Elm Street since 2007, the museum provides visitors with knowledge about the town’s African-American history and the library’s role in championing diversity in Portsmouth through a series of interesting exhibits and museum programs.

Final Thoughts

Portsmouth is the ultimate destination for history buffs with its bounty of historical landmarks and attractions that give you a glimpse into the past.

But aside from history, there’s so much more to see and explore in this beautiful seaport that also boasts natural wonders, cultural immersions, and not to mention, good eats!

Do not miss out on what Portsmouth has to offer and see for yourself this amazing gem of a destination in Virginia and all of its wondrous attractions!