Before you head home after your Island break, make sure you make some time to explore historic Portsmouth? This fascinating city has so much to offer, from cultural and historical attractions to fine restaurants, bars and shops.
The city, population 195,000, is the home of the Royal Navy and has been the country’s foremost naval port for centuries: Henry V assembled his troops here before sailing to France in 1415; in the 1540s, Henry VIII built the world’s first dry dock here; Nelson set off to Trafalgar from here in 1805, and the city was a key embarkation point for the D-Day landings of 1944.
The city’s naval heritage is brought to life at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, and HMS Warrior 1860, Britain’s first iron-hulled battleship, are both to be found here. Mary Rose, the jewel of Henry VIII’s fleet, also rests here. In fact, this Autumn, a new museum dedicated to this most famous of ships will open its doors, bringing together the hull and most of the 19,000 artefacts that were raised with her back in 1982. Also in the Historic Dockyard are the Royal Naval Museum, housed in huge Georgian storehouses, and Action Stations, an interactive showcase of today’s Navy.
You also get a real sense of the city’s nautical past in the narrow lanes and seafront battlements of Old Portsmouth. The area was once the haunt of press gangs, and it’s easy to imagine these tough recruiters roaming the streets for would- be sailors. The taverns around here once offered them rich pickings, but today are convivial spots to enjoy drinks or a meal.
Close by, you’ll find the city’s cathedral, with a history dating back to 1180. The understated beauty of this handsome cathedral is beguiling.
The light coloured stone and towering bronze doors of the exterior change their hue with the seasons and, indeed, even over the course of a day. Inside, there’s an immense feeling of space and serenity – a result of the vast arches and pillars in the nave and the huge windows that let light flood in.
Also near here is the City Museum, home to an Arthur Conan Doyle exhibition (in celebration of the years he lived in the city), the ‘Story of Portsmouth’ exhibition and the new ‘Football in the City’ exhibition. Finally, pop into Charles Dickens’s Birthplace Museum, furnished in the style of 1809, when Charles’ parents, John and Elizabeth Dickens, set up home here. 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of Dickens’s birth and the museum – and, indeed, the city itself – have a number of events planned to celebrate the year.
From the old to the new – now make your way to the seafront development of Gunwharf Quays. There are some excellent outlet stores here, more than 20 bars and restaurants, a multiplex cinema, a contemporary art gallery, bowling alleys and nightclubs. And looming over the whole ensemble is the Spinnaker Tower, a stunning 170-metre structure with three viewing decks. At the first deck (100 metres up), full height glass walls surround you on three sides and, for those with a real head for heights, there’s also the largest glass floor in Europe to walk across. The second deck has self-contained multimedia ‘Time Telescope’ stations showing the history of the harbour, and deck three – The Crow’s Nest – is open to the elements, enabling visitors to feel the wind in their hair.
A scenic walk runs from Gunwharf Quays to Southsea seafront at the southern tip of Portsea Island, along a route lined by distinctive blue street lanterns. There’s plenty to see in Southsea, including the D-Day Museum with its famous Overlord Embroidery. Inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry, this traces the progress of Operation Overlord, from its origins in the dark days of 1940 to victory in Normandy in 1944. Southsea Castle, dating back to 1544, is well worth a visit, as is the award-winning Blue Reef Aquarium and its walk-through underwater tunnel. Plus, of course, there’s Southsea’s beautiful seafront with its playgrounds, funfair and plenty of space to unwind.