Asking me to name my favorite New England state is a bit like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. I'll admit that New Hampshire holds a special place in my heart, though. From sandy shore to the summit of New England's highest peak, the "Live Free or Die" State's diverse landscape provides a stunning backdrop for a host of memorable things to do, season after season. It was challenging to select the 12 must-see attractions and must-do experiences that await in NH, but I hope my list of top things to do inspires you to explore New Hampshire.
New Hampshire is home to the region's best theme parks for little tykes: Story Land and Santa's Village. We took my daughter to both when she was 3-1/2: the perfect age to enjoy the simple magic of gliding in a swan boat, climbing aboard Cinderella's pumpkin coach and feeding Santa's reindeer. If you don't have preschoolers, you can still enjoy a New Hampshire theme park escape. At Canobie Lake Park, a New Hampshire fixture since 1902, you'll find antique rides alongside modern marvels like the Untamed steel coaster. New Hampshire is also home to one of New England's largest water parks: Water Country.
New Hampshire only has 18 miles of shoreline, but wow does it make the most of this diminutive length of coast! Hampton Beach is the state's largest sandbox, and it's open to the public free (although parking costs a pretty penny). On summer days, Hampton Beach is packed... and for good reasons. The surf is invigorating but not intimidating. The boardwalk is lined with eateries, arcades and myriad other amusements. And there's always something happening, from free nightly concerts at the band shell and headline performances at the historic Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom to Monday movies on the beach and Wednesday night fireworks to major events like the annual Master Sand Sculpting Competition.
In a region with a reputation for superb scenic driving, New Hampshire's Kancamagus Highway (pronounced kanc'-ah-MAU'-gus, but save yourself the trouble and just call it "The Kanc") eclipses other contenders for the title of New England's best byway. This 34-mile route through the White Mountain National Forest is picturesque year-round, and if you're visiting New Hampshire in the fall, it's a must.
Watch the video of my family's SkyVenture adventure, and you'll understand why this Nashua, New Hampshire, attraction is one you'll be talking about years after your visit. It's not every day you get to fly like Superman in a vertical wind tunnel! If you've always wanted to skydive but have a healthy fear of falling out of a plane, this alternative allows you to experience the unforgettable sensation of flying, and it's safe for almost anyone ages 3 and up.
Free beer and gorgeous horses. Need I say more? A visit to Anheuser-Busch's brewing facility in Merrimack, New Hampshire, makes for an affordable outing. Your free brewery tour includes the chance to sample several beers (if you're 21 or over), but the highlight of your visit will likely be viewing the famous Budweiser Clydesdales. Try to time your trip for the first Saturday of any month, when Clydesdale Camera Day is held. Visitors can meet and take pictures with a Clydesdale free of charge from 1 to 3 p.m.
Yes, there is a castle in New Hampshire, and it overlooks the state's most spectacular body of water: Lake Winnipesaukee. You could easily spend a half-day or more touring Castle in the Clouds and learning of its owner's tragic riches-to-rags story, hiking to a waterfall and other scenic spots within the 5,500-acre estate and lunching at the Carriage House Cafe, which offers light fare and incomparable lake views.
7. Scenic Railroads
Riding the rails is an old-fashioned way to admire New Hampshire's natural wonders, and several memorable excursions await Granite State visitors. You haven't truly experienced New Hampshire until you've ridden the Mount Washington Cog Railway, an engineering achievement that is almost as impressive now as it was in 1869 when it debuted. From the base in Bretton Woods, the train climbs 6,288 feet along the steepest track in America to the summit of Mount Washington: New England's highest peak. Rail fans will also want to consider trips offered by Conway Scenic Railroad or a picturesque and leisurely lakeshore trip aboard the Winnipesaukee Railroad.
I've visited America's Stonehenge in Salem, New Hampshire, twice, and both times, I was completely mesmerized by this quirky and mysterious attraction. There are no clear answers as to who was behind the creation of these cave-like stone dwellings and astronomically aligned rock formations, which are more than 4,000 years old. You're guaranteed to be intrigued as you explore this ancient site. Snowshoe rentals are available, so you can even set out to see the megaliths during the winter months.
Thanks to the lack of a sales tax, shopping in New Hampshire is a bargain, especially when you scour one of the state's outlet shopping centers for deals. Moultonborough, New Hampshire, is home to what may be the oldest store in the USA, so be sure to browse the Old Country Store for tax-free souvenirs when you visit nearby Castle in the Clouds, too.
10. Moose Alley
New Hampshire's best place to spy moose is the stretch of Route 3 that runs north from Pittsburg to the Canadian border. Known as "Moose Alley," this scenic drive winds past covered bridges, wooded expanses and a series of pristine lakes that form the Connecticut River's headwaters. So, even if a gangly hulking creature does not cause you to hit the brakes hard, you're still in for a wild ride.
If you're an art lover, you simply must include a stop at sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens' estate in Cornish on your New Hampshire itinerary. Now a national park, it's not terribly well known, and the lack of crowds makes this historic home and its sculpture-dotted grounds even more enchanting. You'll have the unique opportunity to view replicas of many of Saint-Gaudens' most intricate and important works, cast from original molds; to learn about the sculptor's life and process; and to find inspiration here, as did the many Cornish Art Colony members who followed Saint-Gaudens to New Hampshire.
Gorham, New Hampshire is home to America's oldest man-made attraction: the Mt. Washington Auto Road. It doesn't rank higher on my list because, to be honest, it's a bit of a harrowing drive. Still, this highway to the tippy top of New England has been traveled since 1861, and it's one of those once-in-a-lifetime undertakings you should consider. My advice: Ascend the Mt. Washington Auto Road on a guided van tour. That way, you'll remember the spectacular views, rather than the white-knuckle driving experience.