This historic port city has salt water running through its veins – but there are fun things to do in Portsmouth beyond the harbour too
Things to do in Portsmouth
It’s impossible to talk about Portsmouth without acknowledging its status as the UK’s major port city and naval base. The significance of its marine heritage is presented to you at every turn – some of the UK’s most important historic boats are moored here, while naval museums and exhibitions line up on the harbour. Portsmouth is actually an island – largely located on Portsea island, making it the UK’s only island city. But a visit to Portsmouth needn’t be all salty sea dogs and setting sail – there is a great designer shopping centre here, and some fabulous new developments that bring some city slicking to the seaside setting.
Find the homes of two of Britain’s best loved writers
Portsmouth pops up in many great literary works, particularly those of Charles Dickens. The writer used Portsmouth as the setting for parts of Nicholas Nickleby and often visited – unsurprisingly, as the writer was born here. He came on pilgrimages to find his place of birth – a modest house on Old Commercial Road, which has since been turned into a museum celebrating the author’s life. It’s now a cosy place to learn about the Victorian writer’s life and times – the house has been redecorated as Dickens’ parents might have styled it, and displays treasures such as his snuff box and even the couch on which he died at his house in Kent.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, lived in Portsmouth too. He arrived here in 1882 to set up a doctor’s practice, and gave his most famous character, Holmes, Portsmouth as a birth place. The Portsmouth Museum has a fascinating permanent Conan Doyle exhibition, which brings together books, photographs, objects, documents and memorabilia chronicling the writer’s life.
The more you spend, the more you save at Gunwharf Quays
Traditionally, outlet centres are plonked out of town, where the designer discounts provide the incentive to travel miles out of your way. At Portsmouth, the Gunwharf Quays outlet centre has prime position on the waterfront, and more than 90 designers to help motivate you for the very short trip there. Brands including Armani, Cath Kidston and Calvin Klein each have their own mini boutiques in this stylish enclave, and sell their wares at around 60 per cent off. Aim for classic buys and you can do some very savvy shopping indeed – and then have a lunch on the harbour, at one of the complex’s many decent eateries with a view of the sea.
Marvel at the wreck of Henry VIII’s favourite boat
The Mary Rose shouldn’t really be here – it sank to a watery grave (along with some 360 out of a 400 strong crew) in 1545 while fighting the French navy. The wreck was raised in 1982, in a historic act of marine archeology, and now sits in a temperature and humidity controlled museum in Portsmouth. The Mary Rose museum brings to life this extraordinary craft – different tiered galleries explain what it might have been like to sail on her, via the many artefacts that remain intact – from combs to the skeleton of Hatch, the ship’s onboard dog.
Test your head for heights at the Spinnaker tower
At 170 metres above sea level, the Emirates Spinnaker Tower is taller than the London Eye, Blackpool Tower and Big Ben. It was built to mark the Millennium, and has been stylishly developed to make the most of its considerable altitude. You can tentatively make your way across the glass Sky Walk and watch the boats chugging in the sea below your feet, or try the rib boat simulator, which gives you a taste of navigating the open sea. If you’d rather sit back with a nice drink and take in the view of sea as far as you can see, then head to the cafe in the clouds, 105 metres above harbour level, providing the best panoramic in the area. Look out for the Portchester Castle west of the tower – this was Henry V’s base before he sailed for France and the Battle of Agincourt.
Take the Nelson Trail
Meander through the streets of old Portsmouth and you’ll get to Southsea Beach, where Admiral Lord Nelson was rowed out to his boat, HMS Victory, for the final time. The Admiral led a fascinating, intrepid life – and much of the time he spent on land was at Portsmouth. Take a self-guided trail to find out more about this national hero. Starting at Landport Gate in St George’s Road, this walk leads you through parts of the old town of Portsmouth, highlighting places and buildings of interest in his life and following Nelson’s steps on his last day. It’s a self-guided trail, but interpretation panels along the way provide you with information and insight. Many old pubs are still standing from his time – legend has it that Nelson carved his name into the window at the Dolphin Inn. There’s not much evidence of that now, but you can stand at the bar and enjoy a pint as the great man himself might have done.
So check out our hotels in Portsmouth and see what this historical port city has to offer.