Visiting Portsmouth – A City Guide
Portsmouth is in every way shaped by the sea. Set on one of England's finest natural harbours, it has been home to royal warships and merchant vessels for centuries.
It still is. Sleek Royal Navy frigates, huge cargo vessels and ferries from France and Spain drop anchor within sight of historic vessels that include Lord Nelson’s flagship.
The city's maritime heritage is its biggest lure, but not far from Portsmouth visitors can explore rolling countryside in the South Downs National Park, home to rare birds, beasts and butterflies.
Portsmouth: city layout
Portsmouth’s historic centre stands on Portsea Island, near the mouth of the River Solent. There’s open water on three sides of the city.
To the west is Portsmouth Harbour, where you’ll find Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and places to shop, eat and drink at Gunwharf Quays.
To the east is another broad bay, Langstone Harbour. Narrow Ports Creek flows between the two, justifying Portsmouth’s boast that it’s ‘Britain’s only island city’ – though Cosham, north of this channel, is within the modern city limits.
The southern tip of Portsea Island, the Southsea area, full of cafés, bars and antique shops, overlooks the wide Solent estuary and the English Channel.
Top attractions in Portsmouth
To get your bearings, you can take an elevator to the top of the 170-metre Emirates Spinnaker Tower. Designed to look like a giant sail, it overlooks Portsmouth Harbour.
Back at sea-level, a must-see attraction is Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Nelson’s HMS Victory is the pride of the collection here, along with HMS Warrior 1860, the Royal Navy’s first ironclad warship.
The National Museum of the Royal Navy Portsmouth highlights British sea power from medieval times to the present day. Water taxis link the main dockyard complex with Explosion – Museum of Naval Firepower.
If you’re a Charles Dickens fan, don’t miss the house where the author was born in 1812. Dickens’ father was a Navy clerk, and the family home is now the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum.
The concierge recommends…
Hotels in Portsmouth
You’ll find hotels in the centre of Portsmouth and in and around Southsea that offer visiting families and business travellers facilities like free off-street parking, gyms and indoor pools. If you’re travelling by car, you can stay close to the M27 at places like Fareham, west of the city.
If you want to be within easy walking distance of all of Portsmouth’s key sights, Gunwharf Quays is a handy base. The Emirates Spinnaker Tower dominates this buzzy waterside district of shops and eateries.
Other attractions such as Portsmouth Historic Dockyard are on your doorstep. Gunwharf Quays is also conveniently close to the quays where ferries for France, Spain and the Channel Islands dock.
South of the harbour area, Southsea is a peaceful residential district where you’ll find cafés, bars and quirky antique shops. Southsea Castle, built in the 16th century, is a landmark here. There’s easy road access to the ferry port and M25 motorway.
Eating Out in Portsmouth
You’ll find lots of south Asian, Chinese and Italian eateries in Portsmouth, alongside restaurants serving modern European cooking.
You’re by the sea, so it’s no surprise that there’s plenty of fresh seafood on the menu. You can also enjoy lamb from the South Downs, New Forest game like wild boar and venison, and Hampshire strawberries.
Gunwharf Quays offers dozens of places to eat and drink, from wine bars and pubs to cafés and restaurants that fly the flag of many of the UK’s most popular chains.
Families will find plenty of familiar favourites here, serving child-friendly dishes like pizza, pasta and burgers.
Down in Southsea, you can browse stalls selling organic local produce and an array of street food like tapas and pulled pork at Southsea Farmers Market. This part of town is also home to plenty of individual eateries selling modern European- and French-influenced menus.
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Shopping in Portsmouth
In Portsmouth, you can browse in shopping centres where you’ll find stores selling mainstream brands and everyday necessities. There are also plenty of places where you can pick up top brands at bargain-basement prices. For something different, seek out one of many boutiques selling original clothes and accessories.
On the waterfront at Gunwharf Quays, bargain-hunters will find big-brand shops and outlet stores selling brands like Nike, Timberland, Superdry, Oakley, Boss, Hobbs and Karen Millen. There are plenty of cafés and eateries here, too.
Museum shops selling gifts, souvenirs and educational toys with a maritime flavour can be found at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and other visitor attractions.
Southsea is a happy hunting ground for lovers of original arts and crafts, antiques, vintage clothes and accessories. You can browse for all these at regular street markets on Palmerston Road, Southsea’s main shopping precinct. What’s on sale depends on which day you go.
Arts, Crafts and Vintage Shopping in Portsmouth
Culture and Nightlife in Portsmouth
Portsmouth’s main cultural venues, including art galleries and theatres that present live pop and classical music, comedy and ballet, can be found in the city centre within easy walking distance of Gunwharf Quays. Most of the city’s cinemas are also in this part of town.
Portsmouth’s youthful clubbing scene is concentrated in the city centre, where clubs like Liquid, The Astoria and Popworld cluster near the University of Portsmouth campus. You’ll find posh cocktail bars with DJs and dance floors at Gunwharf Quays.
The Emirates Spinnaker Tower Comedy Club presents shows featuring some of the UK’s leading performers.
Funky pub venues presenting local and visiting musicians, tribute bands and comedy performers can be found around the Southsea area. Several smaller nightclubs that cater to a mainly local crowd offer an alternative to the big city-centre clubs.
Comedy and Drama in Portsmouth
Visiting Portsmouth with a Family
Portsmouth has plenty to please mums, dads and kids of all ages. Indoor and outdoor activities abound, ranging from museums and harbour cruises to swimming pools and trampoline centres. You’ll find family-friendly cafés and souvenir shops selling educational toys at most museums and attractions.
Portsmouth Naval Dockyard offers lots of hands-on activities for young visitors. At Boatyard 4, its indoor family attraction, those who dare can climb to a masthead ‘crow’s nest’. Toddler tours using music and visual images let little visitors explore Explosion! The Museum of Naval Power at their own pace.
Gunwharf Quays is full of eateries serving familiar, child-friendly snacks and meals. Many offer child-sized portions and menus for children. Shops here will also please fashion-conscious teens looking for bargains.
For a family day out, head for Southsea, where you’ll find fun things to do and see, from flumes and pools at the Pyramids Centre to dodgems, waltzers and roller-coaster rides at Clarence Pier.
On and Under the Water with a Family in Portsmouth