A genteel Victorian seaside resort on the South Coast of England, Bournemouth cultivates a polished, stately image.
This has much to do with its many gardens, planted with sub-tropical species like palms and ferns that thrive in the town’s warmer microclimate.
Bournemouth has some of the warmest sea temperatures in England, on seven miles of coast that includes four Blue Flag beaches, held as some of the best England has to offer.
These beaches are hemmed by green cliffs, and you can use funicular railways built in Bournemouth’s Victorian heyday to get down.
In a few spots the cliff is broken by a ravine, known on the South Coast as a chine and often landscaped with gardens.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bournemouth:
1. Bournemouth Beach
The undeniable main draw in any season, Bournemouth Beach is often touted as best in the country.
The term “Bournemouth Beach” is sometimes used to describe all seven miles of the town’s coastline, but normally refers to the central area by the pier and Lower Gardens.
This section has a wide strip of golden sand, skirted by the Undercliff Promenade where there are cafes, ice cream parlours and cute wooden beach huts with painted doors.
Paths zigzag down the cliff behind, or you can catch one of the three Victorian funiculars from the street above.
All along Bournemouth Beach you can hire windbreaks, deck chairs and parasols, and younger children will love using the Land Train if you want to head along to one of the quieter neighbouring beaches.
2. Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum
Atop the East Cliff is a sublime Art Nouveau villa built at the turn of the 20th century for Merton Russell-Cotes, the owner of the Royal Bath Hotel.
The villa was a gift for John’s wife Annie, and was packed with interesting bits and pieces that the couple had picked up on their travels around the world to places like New Zealand, Australia, Russia and Japan.
Go in to see those exquisite Art Nouveau interiors, illuminated by stained glass skylights and a stunning bay window in the conservatory.
The Japanese ceramics collection is acclaimed, and there are also pre-Raphaelite paintings and memorabilia relating to the Victorian stage actor Henry Irving in the room that he stayed when he visited the couple.
All year round there are temporary art exhibitions, special “drop-in” tours and talks, as well as “Board Game Fridays” in the Cafe Gallery.
3. Lower Gardens
It seems like all paths intersect at this glorious park.
The Lower Garden is at the bottom of a three-kilometre string of green spaces on the course of the Bourne, and is five minutes from the main beach and pier, and five minutes from Bournemouth’s main shopping area.
In summer you could while away a few minutes in the shade of the tall cedars and pines, and there’s also a crazy golf course, an aviary, the Pinewalk Bandstand and an outdoor art exhibition.
At the end of August the Candlelight Nights is a century-old tradition, when thousands of tea lights are arranged in imaginative designs.
Then in December, the Lower Gardens host Bournemouth’s ice rink.
A 15-minute walk from Bournemouth town centre, Westbourne is an upmarket shopping and dining area, also known as “The Village”. Come in summer and one thing you’ll notice is how much outdoor seating there is at cafes, restaurants and bars, which all lends Westbourne a continental ambience.
Spanning Poole Road and Seamoor Road is a beautiful Victorian shopping arcade, with a metal and glass canopy and an alternating brick and white limestone facade.
Like the rest of the area the arcade has design shops, all manner of boutiques, cafes, restaurants and specialty food shops.
Also inside is the smallest cinema in the UK, the “Bournemouth Colosseum”, with just 19 seats.
5. Hengistbury Head Beach
Six miles east of Bournemouth town centre is Hengistbury Head, a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The “Head” is a promontory looking over the English Channel, and has been occupied by humans since the Upper Palaeolithic.
If you don’t have a car you can reach it via the Land Train, or cycle along the promenade.
There’s a continuous beach to the west and north of headland, backed by nothing more than a natural reserve and the waters of Christchurch harbour.
The beach to the south has a blend of shingle and sand, but to the north on the Mudeford Sandbank there are soft golden sands on a sequence of bays divided by groynes.
6. Hengistbury Head Visitor Centre
In 2013, a brand new sustainable visitor centre opened in the nature reserve behind Hengistbury Head.
In a thatched building, the centre has interactive exhibitions devoted to the area’s geology, ecology and archaeology, and has knowledgeable staff who can fill you in on any detail about Hengistbury Head.
There are information boards about the various species in the freshwater of Christchurch Harbour and the saltwater of the Channel, and on screens you can see live footage inside nesting boxes around the Site of Special Scientific Interest.
You’ll also be brought up to speed on 14,000 years of human history in the area, and touch objects from the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age.
This aquarium on Bournemouth’s seafront recreates ten different marine and river environments around the world.
Among them are the Great Barrier Reef, The Mediterranean, Key West and the Amazon, all serving as a habitat for their native species like clown fish piranhas, green sea turtles, stingrays, puffer fish, dwarf crocodiles, otters and zebra sharks.
A new addition to the Oceanarium are Humboldt penguins, which live in a smartly designed beach environment where you can watch them above and below the water.
There’s a “Playzone” for kids, and a schedule of feeding times to catch throughout the day.
8. West Cliff Lift
A handy and time-honoured way to get down to the beach and promenade, the West Cliff Lift is a funicular railway carrying 12 passengers at a time up and down the cliff west of Bournemouth Pier since 1908. It’s one of three funiculars in the town, all running in the summer months.
But out of the three, the West Cliff Lift has the steepest gradient on its 44-metre line, at 70%. In the 60s the old wooden cars were replaced by the current aluminium cabins when the line was electrified, and these have satisfying views of the pier to the east.
9. Bournemouth Pier
Integral to Bournemouth for nearly 140 years, the 305-metre Bournemouth Pier (1880) is still the centre of attention in summer.
At that time of year you have to pay a small fee to get on, while if you come by in winter entrance will be free.
It’s a walk worth taking at any time of year, to survey Bournemouth’s seven miles of shore, as well as the west side of the Solent, the Isle of Wight and views of the Purbeck Hills to the west.
In summer the pier has all the joys of the English seaside, with traditional games, an arcade at the landward end and concessions stands.
The pier’s former theatre closed in 2014 and is now an indoor play area for children, while bigger kids and grown-ups can ride the Pier Zip, a zip-line whisking you over the waves to the shore from a tower on pier.
10. Boscombe Chine Gardens
Just behind Boscombe Pier is a delightful Victorian chine garden that has been regenerated since the 2000s.
Over five decades the gardens had become overgrown and associated with antisocial behaviour until they were partially cleared and replanted, all while preserving some of the Victorian resort structures.
There are two spa shelters and a lodge, interspersed with colourful flowerbeds.
Children can make a splash at the water play area and families can play a round at the mini-golf course, which is open during the summer.
By the mini-golf area and tennis courts at the upper end of the chine is the Clock Cafe where you can recharge with a cup of tea or coffee.
11. Alum Chine Beach
In the west of Bournemouth and removed from the livelier pier area, Alum Chine Beach is a calmer place to spend a summer afternoon.
The Blue Flag beach has a typical mixture of sand and shingles, and given its location is more frequented by locals and people with holiday homes in Branksome and Canford Cliffs.
If you have kids in tow, a fun way to get there is on the Land Train, running along the promenade from Bournemouth Pier.
There’s a “KidZone” at Alum Chine Beach, helping reunite lost children with their parents, as well as an adventure playground, ice cream stands and pubs.
The beach is named for Alum Chine, just behind, and the largest chine in Bournemouth, while there’s also a Tropical Garden nourished by Bournemouth’s microclimate.
12. Central and Upper Gardens
Quieter than the Lower Gardens, the Central and Upper Gardens trace the course of the Bourne back from the centre of the town to a small body of water called the Coy Pond.
By the river there’s a paved greenway that you can follow to the Poole suburb of Branksome, and either turn around and make the return journey or catch the train for a single stop back to Bournemouth.
The Central Gardens are more manicured, with heather beds, rose borders, a rhododendron walk and a pergola put up in 1990 to celebrate the Borough of Bournemouth’s centenary.
The Upper Gardens feel a little looser and more natural, and have a series of cute red bridges crossing the Bourne.
13. Shelley Theatre
If the name of this 160-seat theatre rings a bell that’s because it was built for Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein and husband of Percy Bysshe Shelley, one of the great Romantic poets.
It was attached to Boscombe Manor, home of the Shelleys from 1851 and now the site of a medical centre.
Mary Shelley passed away shortly after, before the theatre was completed, and her son and his wife Lady Jane later built the current larger venue that opened in 1870. Later in life an ailing Lady Jane Shelley would watch performances through a shutter in her bedroom, now used as the theatre’s projection booth.
14. St Peter’s Church
The 62-metre spire of this graceful Gothic Revival church is a landmark for Bournemouth.
St Peter’s was designed by George Edmund Street, most famous for the Royal Courts of Justice at the strand in London, while a few stars of Victorian architecture contributed to the interior.
The chancel is particularly rich and has frescoes and stained glass by the feted Clayton and Bell workshop.
The church also holds the Shelley family vault, and is the burial place for Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and their son Sir Percy Florence Shelley.
Mary had originally been interred at St Pancras with her eminent parents Mary Wollstonecraft (pioneering feminist) and William Godwin (political theorist), but was moved here by her son.
Percy senior died young in 1822 in a shipwreck in Sardinia.
15. A.F.C. Bournemouth
In the 2010s a remarkable sporting story has unfolded in Bournemouth.
The local football club, A.F.C Bournemouth, which for most of its 108-year history has played in the third tier of the English game, has rocketed from League Two (fourth tier) to the Premier League (the top tier) in the space of just six years.
The Cherries play their home matches at the 11,360-capacity Dean Court, easily the smallest stadium in the Premier League but noted for its noisy atmosphere, possibly because its fans still can’t believe their luck.
The club doesn’t even own this ground, having sold it in 2005 during a financial crisis, and is now working towards building a new stadium.
The Premier League season is from August to May, and Bournemouth will play a home game roughly every fortnight.