Since the Middle Ages Portsmouth has been an assembly point for campaigns by sea.
Portsmouth was made to be a naval base for its natural harbour and the protection given by the Isle of Wight, just across the strait known as the Solent.
It has the distinction of being the only island city in the UK, and is a naval base where two thirds of the Royal Navy’s modern surface fleet is docked.
For anyone into military history, Portsmouth is loaded with forts, naval museums and museum ships.
The Historic Dockyard harbours HMS Victory, the flagship of the British Navy on which Lord Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar, while the wreck of the 16th-century Mary Rose has been carefully preserved and is presented along with the items on board when she sank in 1545.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Portsmouth:
1. Historic Dockyard
The portion of the HM Naval Base Portsmouth open to the public is a bounty of British naval history.
You’ll get the chance to board some of the most famous vessels in the nation’s history like HMS Victory, the enormous HMS Warrior, as well as HMS M33, which fought at the Battle of Gallipoli.
From here you can also catch a free waterbus across the harbour to Gosport to go inside HMS Alliance, which served in the Cold War.
Next door are the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the Explosion Museum of Naval Warfare.
Before you arrive you can also find out what special events are in store at the Historic Dockyard, whether it’s child-friendly activities during the school holidays or events marking the anniversaries of key battles.
2. Mary Rose Museum
The Mary Rose was a carrack during the reign of Henry VIII that sank unexpectedly at the Battle of the Solent on 19 July 1545. More than 350 people died in the catastrophe and the wreck would lie undiscovered until 1971. Remarkably, the ship was lifted from the seabed in 1982 and in 2013 was given a modern home in a new museum building.
The shipwreck was a perfect time capsule of naval life in Tudor England and an endless variety of artefacts accompanies the preserved timbers of the wreck.
There are iron and bronze guns, surgical instruments like hypodermic needles, tankards, wooden bowls, nit combs, leather shoes, bells, gold coins and facial reconstructions made from human remains.
You’ll also find out about how the wreck was brought to the surface and then conserved before it could be put on display.
3. HMS Victory
The oldest naval ship in the world still in commission, HMS Victory (launched in 1765) remains the flagship of the commander in chief of the Royal Navy.
The finest hour of this 104-gun first-rate ship of the line came at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars.
The UK’s most famous naval officer Lord Nelson lost his life in the battle, and you’ll be able to retrace his final voyage.
After an epic restoration project, the ship has been reverted to its exact configuration when it left Portsmouth harbour on 14 September 1805. You can tour the galley, lower gun deck, orlop Deck, quarter deck, poop deck, the great cabin and Captain of the fleet Sir Thomas Hardy’ Cabin.
You’ll see a piece of the foremast from the Battle of Trafalgar and eight of the guns that were used in the fight that day.
4. HMS Warrior
Built at Blackwall in London in 1859, HMS Warrior was the Royal Navy’s first iron-hulled warship and was powered both by steam and sail.
She was the British answer to the French Second Empire’s Gloire, launched earlier that year.
The iron hull allowed Warrior to be longer than other warships of the day (128 metres), and all of its guns were on one level.
For the ten years before the ship was rendered obsolete, HMS Warrior was an object of fear, but was never once engaged in battle.
In the 20th century the ship became a lowly oil jetty and was given a full restoration after 1979 and joined the National Historic Fleet in 1987. On board you’ll hear about the feats of manual labour the 706-man crew had to perform, like raising one of the heaviest manually-lifted anchors ever built.
5. National Museum of the Royal Navy
In a line of three historic buildings in front of HMS Victory, the National Museum of the Royal Navy documents 300 years of British naval history.
Two of these edifices, No. 11 Storehouse and No. 10 Storehouse, are Grade I listed monuments from the 18th century, linked by a modern glass atrium.
The former is all about the Age of Sail, bringing home the realities of waging war on the water.
The Nelson Gallery is all about Lord Nelson’s fabled naval career.
No. 10 Storehouse focuses on the navy in the 20th and 21st centuries, but also has the fore topsail from HMS Victory, the largest single artefact from the Battle of Trafalgar.
The Sir Donald Gosling Victory Gallery from 1938 has extra insight on HMS Victory and its crew, with a compelling walk-through where you’ll meet both Nelson and Napoleon.
6. Fort Nelson
When Napoleon III was on the throne in France a land invasion by France became a real possibility, and a sequence of forts was raised along the south coast.
Fort Nelson is one of five from that period on Portsdown, just north of Portsmouth.
It went up in the 1860s and has six sides, surrounded by a ditch with three caponiers.
The fort was derelict by the 1970s but in the 80s became home to the Royal Armouries, featuring a superb collection of artillery going back to the early days of gunpowder.
Among the hardware is a a Boxted Bombard from 1450, which would fire a 60kg granite ball, French cannon from the Battle of Waterloo and pieces from the Iraqi “Project Babylon” supergun.
You can also explore the tunnels that ran between the former magazines and gun emplacements.
7. HMS M33
The newest museum ship at the Historic Dockyard, HMS M33 is one of the last three Royal Navy warships left over from the First World War.
It is also the only ship remaining from the Gallipoli Campaign between February 1915 and January 1916. In First World War dazzle camouflage, the ship can be found in Dock 1 next to HMS Victory, and you’ll begin by stepping down to the bottom of the dock before boarding.
A new exhibition shows what a battle would have been like in these cramped conditions: You can put yourself in the boots of the men who lived on this vessel for three whole years and learn about the brutal Gallipoli Campaign.
8. Spinnaker Tower
The showpiece for the regeneration of Portsmouth Harbour, the Spinnaker is an observation tower 170 metres, right on the water at Gunwharf Quays.
Shaped like a spinnaker sail, the tower is a fitting homage to Portsmouth’s naval heritage and was conceived by the local firm HGP Architects.
There are three observation decks, the most famous of which is the skywalk at 100 metres where you can look through transparent glass tiles beneath your feet.
At the windy open-air top deck you’ll get a 360° view of Portsmouth and can see as far as 23 miles.
9. D-Day Story
The only attraction in the country devoted to this crucial event in the Second World War, the D-Day Story charts the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944. Portsmouth was a key embarkation point for the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 and Southwick House a little way north of the city was the HQ for Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower.
At the heart of the museum is the Overlord Embroidery, an 83-metre hand-stitched embroidery depicting the invasion, as well as a film presentation with archive footage from the day.
There are also tanks, jeeps, artefacts from the beaches like machine guns, first aid kits, and a piece of an ambitious submarine pipeline laid to provide the invading vehicles with fuel.
10. Portsdown Hill
Portsmouth is cushioned to the north by a long chalk ridge up to 131 metres high.
These slopes offer a supreme vantage point over the city, Hayling Island, and over the Solent and to the Isle of Wight.
And at such a tactically advantageous spot, there are no fewer than six forts, including Fort Nelson.
These are all couched in chalk grassland, which is bright with wildflowers in early summer and a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its plants, insects and birdlife.
Kestrels and peregrine falcons nest on Portdown Hill, and whitethroats and yellowhammers are regularly sighted on the web of trails up here.
11. Portsmouth Cathedral
The oldest architecture at Portsmouth Cathedral goes back to a 12th-century chapel dedicated to the slain Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket.
This was almost totally obliterated in 1642 during the English Civil War, and only the Early English Gothic transept and choir survived.
In the chancel there’s a monument to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, who was assassinated by an army officer at the Greyhound Pub in Portsmouth in 1628. The imposing octagonal cupola and lantern (for shipping) were placed on top of the church in 1703, and more extensions to the nave were made in the 1930s after the Portsmouth diocese was created and the church became a cathedral.
12. Gunwharf Quays
A naval ordnance yard since the 17th century, Gunwharf Quays was redeveloped as an outlet mall in the shadow of the new Spinnaker Tower at the turn of the new millennium.
There are 90 premium outlet stores here, with reductions of up to 60% off retail price.
Some of the brands at Gunwharf Quays are Hugo Boss, Polo Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, all complemented by upscale restaurants run by celebrity chefs like Raymond Blanc, as well as a cinema and bowling alley.
Part of the joy of the place is the profusion of naval infrastructure and monuments, like the canal, figureheads from HMS Marlborough and HMS Vernon, the Georgian Vulcan Building and administration block (now the Old Customs House pub).
13. Harbour Tour
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard operates a 45-minute tour of the harbour.
An entertaining and clued-up guide will give you lots of interesting facts about Portsmouth’s coastal defences like the Round Tower and the Solent Forts.
You’ll hear about the storied history of Portsea Island, which began as a mustering ground during the conflicts with France in the Middle Ages and gradually evolved into the naval base for a whole empire.
And as the home of the Royal Navy the harbour has some modern machinery to check out, like destroyers, frigates and helicopter carriers.
14. Portsmouth City Museum
If there’s a city with a past worth exploring it’s Portsmouth.
And you can do that at the city museum, which goes into detail on specific periods, events and characters.
One is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who spent much of the 1880s running a struggling medical practice here, and is remembered with an interactive Sherlock Holmes exhibition.
The museum also has a walking itinerary you can download to see locations relating to the writer around the city.
There are also reconstructions of interiors, like a dock worker’s kitchen from 1871, a Victorian parlour and a 17th-century bedchamber.
The fine and decorative arts gallery has works from the 1600s to the present day, and there’s also a tribute to Portsmouth F.C., with the real match balls from their victorious 1939 and 2009 FA Cup finals.
15. Royal Garrison Church
In 1662 this 13th-century church on Grand Parade hosted the wedding ceremony between King Charles II and Princess Catherine of Braganza.
When it was founded the church belonged to an almshouse and hospice complex, and the way it looks now is the result of a firebomb raid in 1941. This took out the roof of the nave, which has never been replaced.
The main west window has been left empty, while the others were replaced with designs celebrating the British Army’s relationship with Portsmouth and the Church of England.
The chancel was spared and has a rib vault with ornamental bosses, and oak stalls from 1870 depicting British military heroes like Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington.