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Feeling Right at Home in Downtown Exeter, New Hampshire

Downtown Exeter, N.H.

Downtown Exeter, N.H.

Article and photos by Eric Hurwitz. Article updated on 12/1/17.

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Have you ever felt instantly right at home in a place you don't officially reside?

Downtown Exeter, N.H., has that effect on us, and, up until now, I had no idea why. Putting on my better-late-than-never thinking cap on and pondering why Exeter seems like a hometown to people like us from another area, I first thought of the mix of tree-lined streets, the charming hodgepodge of municipal and commercial buildings, the quintessential New England town bandstand dating back to 1916, the leafy, historic feel of Phillips Exeter Academy (a private university/preparatory school), the scenic Exeter River, and the locally-owned shops and restaurants that residents come out in large numbers to fully utilize. How nice it is to stroll downtown and take pride in a thriving central district where you can have a cup of coffee (in my case, tea), say hello to people passing on the street, and know you are in a one-of-a-kind place that has been well-preserved and enhanced with a vision. It's one thing to be a historic town (Exeter was settled in 1638!), but entirely another to combine the past charm with a revitalized, relevant 21st century presence without compromising the original look. That's Exeter, and it is simply a beautiful town to visit.

Downtown Exeter, NH
Approaching the heart of downtown Exeter.

While a wonderful warm weather destination, Exeter also feels special in the colder seasons, too -- most notably the Ring in the Season four-day Christmas celebration (Nov. 30-Dec. 3, 2017) with a parade, Santa Claus' arrival, pancake breakfast with Santa, bonfire, house tours and The Festival of Trees. For more information on this fun holiday event, log onto the Exeter Ring in the Season web site.

Exeter possesses what visitors expect in a charming, small town and economic development offices in many other towns and cities plan for... but 20 years later, well, it's often just the same old story. Exeter, on the other hand, has arrived with a vibrant downtown showcasing an excellent mix of shops, boutiques, art galleries, cafes and a growing number of full-service restaurants, all in a walkable downtown setting.  Some highlights... the Water Street Bookstore, at 125 Water St. It's a tremendous indie bookstore and arguably the largest on the New Hampshire seacoast. The Chocolatier, at 27 Water St., makes an impressive variety of handcrafted chocolates in small batches. Whirleygigs Toy Shop, at 107 Water St., is the toy shop you thought was gone forever with its non-corporate, mom and pop shop presence and a fabulous offering of classic and newer toys. Many of the toys are made in the United States. Whirleygigs was once named a best toy store by Yankee Magazine and "Best Local Toy Store" by New Hampshire Magazine. Serendipity Boutique, at 24 Water St., offers a nice mix of "eco friendly, sustainable USA Made clothing,"  as well as local, handmade goods from artists in the New Hampshire seacoast area, including jewelry, accessories, spa products and housewares.

Options abound to dine out. Green Bean on Water, at 33 Water St., is a popular cafe for homemade soups, sandwiches and salads. Me and Ollie's Cafe, at 64 Water St., specializes in homemade breads, breakfast sandwiches, salads, sandwiches, paninis, and soups. For foodies, Otis Restaurant, at 4 Front St., offers modern American and vegetarian-friendly selections, sourced locally whenever possible. The remodeled restaurant is housed in the old Sleeper Jewelry Store, built in 1910.  The Tavern at River's Edge, at 163 Water St., is more of a gourmet-type with signature dishes like filet mignon and lobster risotto restaurant. The Tavern also offers lighter meals, too, like flat bread pizza, wings, nachos and burgers.

For nature lovers, The Phillips Exeter Trail offers marked trails for walking, hiking and biking with access to the river for kayaking. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are popular activities during the winter.

The American Independence Museum, at 1 Governor's Lane, features artifacts and documents including early drafts of the United States Constitution and a Dunlop broadside of the Declaration of Independence. Guided tours explore the 1721 Ladd-Gilman House, and the Folsom Tavern. The Exeter Historical Society, at 47 Front St., offers a collection of artifacts from the 1700s to present day.

For lodging The Exeter Inn, at 90 Front St. (at Phillips Exeter Academy), fits in well with the historic look of the downtown.
The 1932 Georgian architectural style exudes charm and the overall ambiance is pure, quintessential New England. The Exeter Inn also offers the Epoch Restaurant & Bar -- a casual yet elegant dining spot that also features a seasonal garden patio overlooking The Inn’s courtyard and gazebo. There's also a bar with a good drinks list and appetizers.

In the New England town I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a lot like Exeter. You could could see your neighbors right in the heart of your own community, not in a stretched out town where you have to drive to everything.  You simply don't see too many towns like Exeter anymore  -- that is, developed but ultimately sleepy and "small-townish". Exeter makes us glad that we can travel from our home to arrive "home." Beautiful, authentic New England place, indeed!

For more information on Exeter, please log onto

Hello, small businesses in Exeter: Would you like to have your business featured as a sponsored post on VisitingNewEngland? Editor Eric Hurwitz writes detailed stories about special, small New England businesses with several articles having gone viral on social media. Your story could be permanently featured on the homepage and this page. I welcome you to take a look at our permanent sponsors to become better acquainted to the stories I passionately write about local, small businesses at Let's talk and see if you would be a good fit for our New England travel web site! Contact Eric for more information

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Not too far from Exeter:
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
York Beach, Maine
Hampton Beach, N.H.

Explore Massachusetts travel! Read the Massachusetts Town Greens book -- Discover New England's first travel attractions: town commons. Includes chapters on nearby North Andover, Rowley, Ipswich, Bradford (Haverhill) and Lawrence!

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