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A Captivating Cathedral City: 21 Things To Do In Winchester

Once the ancient capital of Wessex, and now one of Hampshire's premier tourist destinations, the City of Winchester has inspired poetry, pilgrimage and royalty over more than 2,000 years. Its location on the River Itchen and surrounding hills made it an Iron Age settlement before the Romans took over and named it Venta Belgarum. Alfred the Great rebuilt it as his capital and the Normans soon saw its strategic importance, building the cathedral and putting their own stamp on the city. Now along with its beautiful buildings, the city has a thriving food and drink scene, with farmer's markets, fine dining and award winning pubs attracting thousands of visitors. Whether you're on a day trip or staying for the weekend, there's plenty to see and do, so here's 21 reasons to take a trip to Winchester.

1. Start with the spectacular Winchester Cathedral

Historic place of worship (c) Winchester Cathedral
Historic place of worship (c) Winchester Cathedral

Visiting the vast Winchester Cathedral is like stepping back through fifteen centuries of ecclesiastical English history. Once the most prominent royal church in Anglo-Saxon England, the Normans asserted themselves in their newly conquered Kingdom to rebuild it in their own style (the vaults of the Crypt are all that remains) before it underwent several changes to become the cathedral you see today. Highlights include the exquisite Winchester Bible, which dates back to the 12th Century, and is the finest surviving example of an English Bible in the world.

The crypt (c) Winchester Cathedral

Two of the most intriguing places to visit are at the very bottom and very top of the Cathedral. Don't miss the atmospheric crypt, with a very modern and mysterious sculpture by Anthony Gormley in the middle of it, by taking their Crypt Tour. And for outstanding views of Winchester, you'll have to climb 213 steps up the Tower - but it's worth it to see the cathedral bells and walk along the length of the roof.

2. Visit The Great Hall and other historic buildings

The Round Table in Winchester - via Tourism South East
The Round Table in Winchester - via Tourism South East

All that remains of Winchester Castle is its Great Hall, but as it is “one of the finest surviving aisled halls of the 13th century" - that's no bad thing. Hanging at one end of the hall is King Arthur's Round Table - at least, that was the legend for many years, until scientists dated it back to the 13th century. The Grade I listed Hospital of St Cross & Almshouse of Noble Poverty has been a haven for the helpless for centuries, and this ancient building is set in splendid grounds. The hospital has a Norman church, a medieval hall and a Tudor cloister to visit.

The Hospital of St Cross. Via Tourism South East

You can see what remains of the former home of the Bishops of Winchester, Wolvesey Castle, when it re-opens in April 2016 The ruins of the palace date back to the 12th century. The last great occasion to be held there was the wedding breakfast of Queen Mary and Philip of Spain.

3. Tick off the city's landmarks

King Alfred Statue Winchester via Tourism South East
King Alfred's Statue Winchester via Tourism South East

Look out for the bronze statue of Alfred the Great, the most famous King of Wessex, standing proudly in the centre of Winchester, which he had made his capital during his reign. The City Cross (Butter Cross) dates back to the 15th century and is now a scheduled ancient monument. The four figures on the Cross are believed to be William of Wykeham, King Alfred, St John the Evangelist, and former mayor, Lawrence de Annehester.

4. Experience poetry in motion on a stroll

Take the Keats’ Walk to discover why the English romantic poet, John Keats, was so inspired by the natural beauty of Winchester. It was in September 1819 he penned his ode "To Autumn" and this two-mile trail (you can download a map) which points out all the places of interest.

Inspirational Winchester (c) Winchester Cathedral

5. Learn about the links to another literary icon

One of England's greatest authors was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral aged 41 in 1817, but originally there was no mention of her famous works on her gravestone, and only four people attended her funeral. However, since then Jane Austen has been commemorated by a brass plaque erected in 1870 by her nephew, and a memorial window fitted above it. Now thousands of fans of the novelist, responsible for works such as Pride and Prejudice, flock to see her grave under the floor of the north aisle of the nave. Jane Austen's House Museum is a short drive from Winchester, in the village of Chawton, and this is the only house in England where Austen wrote and lived that is open to the public - in fact it was her last home. You can also follow the Winchester Jane Austen trail by downloading this guide.

6. Visit the places you recognise from TV and Film

Winchester City Council and Winchester Area Tourist Guides Association have launched several new tours to capitalise on the fact that city is pulling in the film crews for major productions. You might have seen costume drama Wolf Hall on BBC1 in 2015, which features several attractions in the city, or the film version of Les Miserables. If so, you can visit the locations for yourself, on tours such as the Winchester Tudor Trail.

7. Raise a glass in Winchester

Wine from the machine (c) The Black Bottle

If you've ever wanted to buy wine by the glass from a vending machine, then get your card charged with money (the card's free) at The Black Bottle and make your selection from 32 different wines. Browse the list on an iPad, pick your measure, and then enjoy your glass of wine, which is programmed to be served at the optimum temperature. You can also buy a bottle if you've sampled a few and picked a favourite. Their sister pub, The Black Boy, also offers something different to the norm - it's a backstreet-style boozer, but with an interesting line in art and taxidermy. Rather than wine, the focus here is on real ale from local brewers, and you can enjoy a pint in front of an open fire or in the beer garden - depending on the weather.

Intriguing pub (c) The Black Boy

The St James Tavern (known as the SJT) likes to describe itself as a "proper pub" - so as you'd expect they do a nice range of traditional beers, food every day, along with pie and curry nights depending when you visit. The Queen Inn has an in-house micro brewery, so make sure you try one of their own ales. The city also has a thriving café culture. If you like both wine and coffee, tackle the menu at Black, White, Red, it's owned by England Rugby Captain Chris Robshaw.

8. Did anyone say Gin O'Clock?

Bombay Sapphire Distillery - Image via Tourism South East

The Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery near Winchester gives you the chance to find out more about the unique Vapour Infusion process that gives Bombay Sapphire its distinct flavour. You can explore the ten botanicals nurtured in the glasshouses at Laverstoke Mill, before heading to the Botanical Dry Room. Complete the experience with a complimentary Bombay Sapphire cocktail in the Mill Bar or on the terrace next to the River Test. The mill itself has a fascinating history. It produced high quality paper for the bank notes of England for more than 200 years - you can find out more about its expansion during Queen Victoria's reign, in a room dedicated to this history.

9. Check out the gourmet scene

For fine dining in Winchester, start with the Michelin starred restaurant, The Black Rat (part of the same stable that looks after The Black Boy and The Black Bottle). Their renowned menu is seasonal, and they showcase local produce whenever they can, including using vegetables and herbs from their kitchen garden. Despite winning accolades for the food, the atmosphere and service is kept relaxed and relatively informal, so you can enjoy your meal without worrying too much about what forks to use.

Michelin starred dining (c) The Black Rat

For British classics in a quintessentially English building, try The Chesil Rectory, a Grade II listed medieval building with heaps of original features - think oak beams and open fireplaces. Since opening in 2008, they have won numerous awards, and this is a romantic venue to enjoy some of the best local produce in Hampshire. The Old Vine is also housed in a beautiful 18th century building, and you can get breakfast right through to supper here. They also have a bar with an outdoor (smoke-free) terrace as well as a conservatory should the weather be less kind. For a change of pace, try the Sushi and Sashimi at Kyoto Kitchen, which offers authentic Japanese cuisine. Or head out of town, to The Bugle Inn, a gastro pub (and hotel) in the pretty village of Twyford.

10. Go wild in the country

Giraffe (c) Marwell Zoo

Just a short drive from Winchester is the acclaimed Marwell Zoo, where you can get a taste of Africa in the middle of the Hampshire countryside. The 140 acre park, run by conservation charity Marwell Wildife, is home to hundreds of animals, from the tallest giraffes to the shorter Humboldt penguins. Along with seeing the snow leopards and tigers, they also have three adventure playgrounds and trains to take you round the zoo. If you're visiting for the day, the zoo has put together a list of top tips to help plan your day. To see some native species, visit Winnall Moors Nature reserve, where you can see rare dragonflies and birds.

11. Or how about a national park?

In the summer of 2015, The City Mill in Winchester became an official gateway to exploring the sweeping South Downs National Park. If you're feeling energetic, you could try walking or cycling along the South Downs Way, the only National Trail to lie entirely within a National Park. The route stretches one hundred miles, starting in the west at Winchester, before heading across to the white chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head in Eastbourne.

12. Find the forts

St Catherine's Hill is worth visiting on the edge of the park, and you get great views of Winchester and the surrounding countryside from the top of the chalk mound. You can see the ramparts of a fort from the Iron Age, cut into the hill, along with Norman and medieval archaeological remains. Danebury Hill Fort, near Nether Wallop a few miles from Winchester, has one of the best examples of Iron Age defences in the country.

13. Try and find all 19 bollards

Mona Lisa bollard (c) Winchester City Council 2015
Mona Lisa bollard (c) Winchester City Council 2015

Taking pride of place in the square in Winchester City Centre are coloured bollards featuring designs taken from iconic paintings by artists such as Klimt, Picasso and David Hockney. Take a wander round and see if you spot iconic images like the Mona Lisa. The Winchester City Council funded project began in 2005, and was designed by local artists from The Colour Factory, to brighten up the public spaces around the centre.

14. Take a trip to the theatre

The auditorium (c) Theatre Royal Winchester
The auditorium (c) Theatre Royal Winchester

The Theatre Royal Winchester started out in 1850 as a hotel, before being converted into a theatre in 1914. The building survived the threat of demolition in the 1970s and has been sympathetically restored over the years to become the only surviving cine-variety theatre in the country. They offer drama, music, dance, comedy, children’s theatre and pantomime on their roster as well as being a key part of the famous Winchester Hat Fair, which is also run by the Live Theatre Winchester Trust. Opening in 2005, the Blue Apple Theatre was founded to provide people with learning disabilities the skills and opportunities to put on plays. They offer two to three productions a year to the general public - so check their website to see if they coincide with your visit.

15. Take part in one of Winchester's famous festivals

Winchester's Hat Fair began life in 1974 as a busking festival (hence the name), but it's now the UK's longest running outdoor arts festival. While they still love to stay close to their roots, its link to the Theatre Royal Winchester has led to even more performances being added each year. Always held in the first weekend of July, you can see art in all its shapes and forms at venues and places across the city. Festivals in Winchester have a list of all the events taking place throughout the year in the city, with festivals for film, fashion and food among the line up. The nearby market town of Alresford, also holds an annual Watercress Festival in May - to honour its most celebrated local crop.

Winchester Hat Fair 2015 (c) Adrienne Photography

16. Visit Europe's biggest farmers' market

Make a date with Winchester Farmer's Market, which is held fortnightly every Sunday. It's huge, and with more than 80 producers selling all types of meat, dairy and baked goods. Winchester City Council has a list of all the other markets taking place in the city.

17. Get some shopping in

Winchester's High Street has all the big name brands you'd expect, but head down the streets surrounding it, like St George's Street or Parchment Street for more independent retailers. Kingsgate Village just oozes charm, and with historic buildings and high-end shopping, this is a nice spot to spend some time in.

18. What has Winchester got to do with the weather?

You might be familiar with the legend of St Swithun's (St Swithin) Day, in that if it rains on July 15 (His Feast Day), it'll rain for the next 40 days. The myth may have come from the mistranslation of a medieval text, however St Swithun, who was born in the city and was Bishop of Winchester for a decade, was very much a real person. He was also once one of the biggest draws for medieval pilgrimage, with his shrine, containing his bones, believed to have healing powers. The cult of St Swithun came to an end in 1538 with the sacking of the monasteries and the seizing of his relics - but a modern memorial now marks the spot in the Cathedral where he once lay.

19. Water way to spend the day

The Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail is a great way to discover the plants and wildlife along the river via the towpaths. It was created to transport coal and timber from Southampton to Winchester via barge, and now you can walk along parts of the 30 mile route (there are also buses and trains to take you back to where you started).

Baking day at Winchester City Mill (c) National Trust

The Winchester City Mill, run by the National Trust, spans the River Itchen and is still working today. You can watch the waterwheel in action as it mills the corn into grain and there are plenty of activities to keep the children occupied, as well as a shop to buy the freshly milled flour. A mill has been standing on the site since Saxon times and at one point King Henry VIII owned it. The Mill was rebuilt in the 18th Century and has been lovingly restored to its former, working glory. The unusual Twyford Waterworks can be visited at select open days during the summer - so check and see whether this Edwardian pumping station has an event on that times with your visit.

20. Learn more about the city's heritage at a museum

The City Museum is a good place to begin, as it takes you on a journey from Winchester's Iron Age beginnings up to the present day. If you like your history with a view, climb the steps to the roof of  the Westgate Museum to get panoramic views of Winchester The city also has strong military links with five museums dedicated to the armed forces. The Royal Green Jackets Museum is devoted to its three regiments, while The Gurkha Museum, tells the tale of these brave soldiers as well as giving you a flavour of the Nepalese culture. See the stars at Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, which has scores of hands-on interactive exhibits to play with.

21. See why Winchester has become a Christmas destination

Choristers on the Ice (c) Winchester Cathedral
Choristers on the Ice (c) Winchester Cathedral

Winchester's Christmas Market, whose pretty wooden chalets are inspired by traditional German Christmas markets,  has been running since 2006 Hosted by the Cathedral, which adds to the atmosphere, their open-air real ice rink is also a big draw. The market runs from the end of November and ends just before Christmas. The Cathedral also has several carol concerts, featuring their choir - some of them are free, while others are ticketed. To find out more about the city at this magical time, visit the Christmas in Winchester hub to get all the opening times and lights, lanterns and shopping information.

Winchester Christmas Market and Ice Rink. Image via Tourism South East
Winchester Christmas Market and Ice Rink. Image via Tourism South East

Staying there

If our guide has inspired you, why not stay a little longer? We have plenty of hotels in Winchester and the surrounding area. If you want to combine this trip with one to the seaside - then you're only a short drive to the coastal cities of Southampton and Portsmouth. If you fancy the latter here's 15 things to do in Portsmouth. Here's some more day trip ideas to visit nearby if you want to head off to pastures new.

Getting there

It takes just under an hour to get to Winchester from London by train via South West Trains. If you're driving, it can take around two hours (depending on traffic).

Where would you go in Winchester?

Maybe you live in Winchester or maybe you've visited the historic city before? Either way we'd love to hear what your favourite things to do in Winchester are. Please share your recommendations and experiences by leaving a comment below.