Portsmouth, New Hampshire
The epicenter — but by no means the only center — of southeast New Hampshire is Portsmouth (population: 20,500), which was named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as "one of the most culturally rich destinations in the country." Its streets are filled historic buildings, sidewalk cafes, galleries, boutiques and jazz clubs.
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One allure of Portsmouth is that it's nestled amid nearly 50 picturesque New England towns in the region, many of which have grown enough to offer residents a sampling of city conveniences within the slower pace of village life.
Portsmouth is in Rockingham County, which also includes Derry (population 23,000) and Salem (29,000); all three are within commuting distance of Boston. Upstream is Strafford County, which includes the mill towns of Dover (29,000), Rochester (32,000) and Durham (9,100), home to the main campus of the University of New Hampshire (enrollment 15,600). All these towns are steeped in history — some were founded 400 years ago — that will make any retiree feel young.
UNH's Museum of Art houses a permanent collection of more than 1,500 works and also supports exhibitions, concerts and poetry readings. University music programs support more than a dozen student bands, orchestras and vocal groups. Movies, plays and lectures are always on the bill at the Memorial Union Building. Nearby Exeter (9,900) is packed with Victorian architecture, bell towers, stone walls and a cute downtown.
Unemployment is low, thanks to a diverse economy based on health care, education, telecommunications and more. The median household income is in the top one-10th in the U.S., but the cost of living is almost as high, mostly because of steep home prices and property taxes.
But the overall tax burden is low, because the state has no sales tax or income tax. Want outdoor activity? You can go clamming and swim in the Atlantic Ocean, hike 1,342-foot Nottingham Mountain, and end the day with a dip in freshwater Merrymeeting Lake, all within Rockingham and Strafford counties.
The area has fine golf courses, 66 miles of coastline for sailing, and several marshes and rivers that are excellent for canoeing and kayaking. Portsmouth's Isles of Shoals are a delightful day trip. Mountain bikers enjoy the Rockingham Recreational Trail, which runs for 26 miles.