Harbouring Good Times: 15 Things To Do In Portsmouth

Portsmouth is uniquely Britain's only island city (it's totally surrounded by water) and home to Hampshire's most famous harbour, down on the south coast of England. While it only became a city in 1926, its significance as a naval port for centuries cannot be underestimated. However it's not just its maritime past and present that's the pull here. We've put together this shipshape list of the best places to eat, drink and keep yourself amused in Portsmouth, as well as somewhere to drop anchor should you wish to stay the night. Read on to find out what puts the pomp in "Pompey".

1. Head up high for a harbour view

View of the Spinnaker Tower (c) Portsmouth City Council
View of the Spinnaker Tower (c) Portsmouth City Council

The view from the Spinnaker Tower is a great way to get a feel for the size and scope of Portsmouth. Opened in 2005, you can see up to 23 miles away from one of the three viewing decks, across the Solent and towards the Isle of Wight. Fortunately they have a high-speed lift to take you up to the top, and if you're feeling brave you can look down from the glass-bottomed Sky Walk to see more of the structure's design.

A FEW FACTS: Designed and named after the sail of an ocean-going yacht (spinnaker), the tower, standing at 170m high is the tallest in the UK (London aside) that is accessible to the public. Weighing in at 30,000 tonnes, it is supported by 84 piles in the sea bed, with the longest being the height of Nelson's Column.

The Sky Deck is also open to the elements if you want to breathe in the fresh sea air from the top. For something more leisurely, take afternoon tea in their Café in the Clouds.

2. Take a coastal walk to see the sights

The chalk ridge of Portsdown Hill gives you a natural view, with the highest point being 120m above sea level, across Portsmouth Harbour. It's also a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), so expect to see plenty of interesting plants and animals, along with some Victorian hill forts.

3. Find out more about Portsmouth's famous fort

Fort Nelson from above (c) Royal Armouries
Fort Nelson from above (c) Royal Armouries

While you are up on the hills, head west to the most imposing of the Victorian defences, Fort Nelson, which houses the Royal Armouries and best of all - the big guns. The fort has undergone a major multi-million pound restoration, and now has a free museum and galleries for you to discover more about our national arsenal. You can stand on the battlements and admire the views or head underground to the tunnels where the ammunition was kept. Keep an eye out for some of the 350 super guns (like the 25-Pounder Gun/Howitzer and anti-aircraft guns used to protect the country during WWII) on show in the fort and grounds.

Some of Fort Nelson's arsenal (c) Royal Armouries
Some of Fort Nelson's arsenal (c) Royal Armouries

4. Visit a warship

The history of the city and the Royal Navy has been intricately entwined for more than 800 years, and there is no better place to get a feel for this, than by visiting Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. While the areas natural inlet has meant there has been coastal activity here dating back to Roman and Saxon times, it was not until 1194 that the Royal charter was granted by King Richard I to build a dockyard.

Historic dockyards (c) Portsmouth City Council
Historic dockyards (c) Portsmouth City Council

Among the highlights here is 16th Century Warship the Mary Rose, which was raised from the Solent in 1982. Excavations continue to this day, as more of Henry VIII's favourite ship is discovered and restored. (NB* The Mary Rose Museum will be closed from Jan 2016 to the July 2016) One of the most famous ships in the Royal Navy, Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, can also be found here. Find out more about the Battle of Trafalgar and life in the Georgian Navy on board.

5. Take a boat tour

You can also take a boat trip around the harbour from the dockyards and learn about the city's sea defenses. The navy boats moored in the dockyards may differ from time to time, but you'll also sail past some of the fortifications in the harbour, like the Round Tower.

Port Solent (c) Mark Maguire via Portsmouth City Council
Port Solent (c) Mark Maguire via Portsmouth City Council

6. See the sights by bus

There are plenty of tours to take, whether you want to find out more about Lord Nelson or Charles Dickens, or just discover Portsmouth's wartime connections. Local Haunts run thrice-weekly day tours from the end of May to the end of September on a vintage Red London bus - dubbed Alf. If there's a group of you, maybe try one of the ghostly twilight tours by bus or foot, and discover the haunted harbour and other spooky spots.

7. Go drinking around Portsmouth

For real ales (they have ten pumps for ever-changing casks) visit the Leopold Tavern in Southsea. They even have a TARDIS in the beer garden. Another historic pub is The Bridge Tavern, with plenty of outside seating to look across Old Portsmouth's Camber Dock while you enjoy a pint. For a good local, independent pub., try The Barley Mow, with a range of real ales and a large beer garden. Visit the Portsmouth Pubs website for comprehensive reviews and pictures of more than 150 pubs in the area.

Portsmouth (c) Portsmouth City Council
Portsmouth (c) Portsmouth City Council

8. Eat the catch of the day

Of course when you head to the coast, fish and chips are usually at the forefront of your mind, and there are plenty of places near the harbour to grab the catch of the day. If you don't mind a short drive, head east to Emsworth for Michelin-star dining at 36 On The Quay. Fish is the speciality (it's set in the harbour of a fishing village) so expect a top quality meal. Or if you don't fancy fish, Restaurant 27 has been racking up the positive reviews for its global French cuisine. There are also plenty of well-known restaurants, like Jamie's Italian, Giraffe and Nando's at Gunwharf Quays to have lunch or dinner at (and many have harbour views and outdoor areas to eat alfresco).

9. Discover Portsmouth's shopping scene

Day trips
Gunwharf Quays (c) Portsmouth City Council

Perfectly placed on the harbour, Gunwharf Quays has more than 90 high-end shops, a cinema, bowling alley and casino. You can easily spend several hours in this sprawling seafront complex, with fashion giants Tommy Hilfiger and Hugo Boss among the stores for the big spenders.

10. See some historic and beautiful buildings

Cathedral of the Sea (c) Portsmouth Cathedral
Cathedral of the Sea (c) Portsmouth Cathedral

There's been a place of worship on the site of Portsmouth Cathedral since 1188, with the first chapel becoming a parish church in the 14th century and finally gaining cathedral status in 1927. The Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury was only finally completed in the 1990s, and its waterfront parish covers much of the old city and the Naval base. While some elements of the original building remain, the majority of the Cathedral was built in a "Neo-Byzantine" style, but despite its size and splendour, remains a parish church at heart.

Southsea Castle (c) Portsmouth City Council
Southsea Castle (c) Portsmouth City Council

You can also visit Southsea Castle. Originally built in 1544, it was strengthened in the 19th century with the addition of a moat. Restored by Portsmouth City Council, you can visit the tunnels and discover more about the castle's defenses.

11. See a seaside show

Portsmouth Guildhall (c) Portsmouth City Council
Portsmouth Guildhall (c) Portsmouth City Council

The imposing Portsmouth Guildhall is the place to see the big music acts, top comedians and major exhibitions. You can see the original Edwardian features in the restored Kings Theatre (1907) while watching a play, musical, live music show or classic film. The theatre was used for scenes in the film of The Who's rock opera, Tommy, and acting luminaries like Sarah Bernhardt, Sean Connery and Rex Harrison are among the stars to appear over the years.

12. Learn about Portsmouth's literary legacy

As you would expect from the name, the Charles Dickens’ Birthplace Museum chronicles the author's early life in the city. The legendary writer was born at 1 Mile End Terrace (now 393 Old Commercial Road) in 1812, and his former home is decorated and furnished in the Regency style, allowing you to get an idea of what it was like for him growing up in Portsmouth. You can take a Dickens-themed walk around the city, starting at the Historic Dockyard and ending up at the museum.

Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum (c) Portsmouth City Council
Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum (c) Portsmouth City Council

Sherlock Holmes was also brought to life in Portsmouth via the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle arrived by steamer to set up a GP practice in Southsea, and he began his second career as an author, writing the first two Holmes novels, A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four in Portsmouth. He certainly made the city his home, playing bowls, cricket and even appearing between the sticks in goal for the forerunner to Portsmouth Football Club. Visit the Portsmouth Central Library and make an appointment to see the Arthur Conan Doyle Collection of memorabilia, or visit the Portsmouth City Museum to see the "A Study in Sherlock" exhibition to find out more. The musical links to the city include Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore, which is set in Portsmouth.

13. Watch a football match

Portsmouth Football Club, better known as "Pompey", have been playing their home games at Fratton Park since 1898. While in recent years the team have dropped from the Premier League to the bottom tier, fans fondly remember the recent FA Cup Final triumph in 2008.

14. Be at one with nature

Day trips
Hilsea Lines (c) Portsmouth City Council

Take a guided walk along Hilsea Lines, which separates Portsea Island from the mainland and was once a military base. While there were defences built on this stretch as far back as 1544, the current construction was built in 1871 to repel the expected French invasion in 1871 (which never came). Marvel at the moat and the six bastions of bombproof casemates, as well as trying to spot Kestrels and Kingfishers in their natural habitat.

15. Have some family fun

Hilsea Splash Pool (c) Portsmouth City Council
Hilsea Splash Pool (c) Portsmouth City Council

If you're visiting with the family, the city has six adventure playgrounds, a splash-pool near the D-Day Museum (if you want to combine the two) and scores of play areas, including a BMX track and skate park.

Staying there

If our guide has inspired you, why not make it a longer visit. We have plenty of places to stay in Portsmouth and the surrounding area. Near neighbour / arch rival Southampton is just west along the Solent, as well as seaside favourite Bognor Regis and historic Chichester, being less than an hour drive away. You could even get the boat or hovercraft over to the Isle of Wight for a short break. There are also plenty of other weekend break destinations and day trip ideas to discover nearby if you want to spread your wings.

Getting there

It takes around one hour and 20 minutes to get to Portsmouth from London by train via Southern Railway. If you're driving, it can take two to two and a half hours (depending on traffic). They have park and ride facilities if you don't fancy driving into town (and many of the main attractions are close together). As a large section of Portsmouth is on an island, a quick way of getting about is by ferry (cuts down the driving time considerably or it's a great option when travelling by train). You can also buy combination tickets, like ferry and bus, to give you flexibility while you visit the city.

Do you have any Portsmouth tips?

Maybe you live in Portsmouth or perhaps you've visited the coastal city before? We'd love to hear what your favourite things to do in Portsmouth are. Please share your experiences and recommendations by leaving a comment below.