Embedded in the rolling chalk hills of the South Downs, Winchester is an ancient cathedral city and former royal capital.
Your first stop in Winchester should be the longest Gothic cathedral in the world, a Norman and Gothic masterpiece.
Some of the country’s oldest institutions can be found in Winchester.
You can call in on the Hospital of St Cross, the oldest charitable foundation in England, and take a guided tour of Winchester College, the oldest continuously running school.
Monuments like the Great Hall of Winchester Castle and the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace are amble proof of Winchester’s power in times past, when it was home to kings and hosted the wedding between Queen Mary and Philip II of Spain.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Winchester:
1. Winchester Cathedral
The stupendous Winchester Cathedral is more than 170 metres long, making it the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe.
It was founded in 642 and work began on a new structure in 1079 following the Norman Conquest.
This survives in the basic dimensions of the nave, the transepts and the crypt, while the tower had to be replaced in the early 12th century after collapsing.
At the turn of the 15th-century the nave was given its Perpendicular Gothic casing using Caen stone and its wooden ceiling beams were replaced with glorious stone vaults.
At the High Altar you can admire the exceptionally detailed 15th-century stone screen, showing the crucifixion and rich with quatrefoil arches, crockets and images of saints.
The West Window was smashed by the Parliamentarians in 1642, and its shards were then randomly replaced as a kind of collage in the 1660s.
2. Hospital of St Cross
Winchester has the largest Medieval almshouse in the UK, set in the 1130s when Henry of Blois was Bishop of Winchester.
The Hospital of St Cross resembles a college at Oxford or Cambridge in the way it is constructed on quadrangles.
It remains a functioning private foundation, home to 25 brothers, but welcomes the public on visits.
You can enter the breathtaking Norman and Gothic church, as well as the Old Kitchen and Brethren’s Hall.
The latter is where the Hospital’s brothers congregated for meals for hundreds of years, and is replete with Medieval fittings like a raised dais for the Master, and a gallery for musicians.
You can still ask for the Wayfarer’s Dole, which is a hunk of bread and a horn of beer, provided to anyone who asks for it.
3. Winchester College
Established in 1382, Winchester College may be the oldest continuously running school in the UK, and is certainly the oldest of England’s seven Public Schools.
It has been located at its present site for over six centuries, so you may not want to miss the chance to see inside an institution with this kind of history.
As a functioning school, visits are by guided tour only, and these take place all year round at set times (normally twice a day) from Monday to Sunday.
You’ll be shown around the Medieval heart of the school to see the Gothic Chapel from the 1300s, with an early wooden vaulted roof, the Chamber Court, the College Hall, the original Scholars’ Dining Room, a red brick school room from the 1600s and a Medieval cloister.
4. South Downs Way
Winchester is the western trailhead for the South Downs Way, a 100-mile path and bridleway from here to Eastbourne on the East Sussex coast.
For its entirety, the trail lies inside a National Park, the South Downs, and is the only National Trail to do so.
Winchester City Mill on the River Itchen has the official gateway to the South Downs Way.
For a short trip you could head out into these undulating chalk hills for a couple of miles to the glorious natural amphitheatre at Cheesefoot Head before returning.
General Eisenhower addressed the American troops at Cheesefoot Head before D-Day in 1944 and you can make out the humps of three Bronze Age bowl barrows.
5. Winchester City Museum
Mimicking the style of a Tudor hall, the Winchester City Museum goes back to 1861 and was one of the first purpose-built museums outside London.
One of the must-see exhibits is the Winchester Model, a fastidiously detailed scale model of the city in Victorian times.
The Roman Venta Gallery has Roman artefacts from Venta Belgarum, like mosaics, glassware, figurines and fragments of statues.
There are dioramas with scenes from life in Winchester at different phases in its long past, and kids will be able to get involved with brass rubbing, designing an Anglo-Saxon pot and dressing up in all kinds of costumes, from Roman to Edwardian.
Another exhibition traces the last days of Jane Austen who passed away in Winchester in 1817. Her personalised ivory spool case and two of her purses are on show.
6. Great Hall
The last surviving portion of Winchester Castle is the Great Hall, which was raised between 1222 and 1235, and is open as a museum.
The castle was a royal residence for hundreds of years, and was the scene of some important events like the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh for treason in 1603. The Great Hall is one of the best remaining Medieval halls in the UK, built with flint walls and limestone window and door openings.
Inside you can’t ignore the imitation Arthurian Round Table, dating to the 13th century and then restored during the reign of Henry VIII. This shows the names of members of King Arthur’s court, around a white Tudor rose.
You can marvel at the stained glass and marble columns, and head out to Queen Eleanor’s Garden, planted with the fragrances and style of the 13th century.
7. Wolvesey Castle
On a river island beside the cathedral are the ruins of Winchester’s episcopal palace, founded by Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester in the 10th century.
The castle was torn down in the English Civil War, and most of what you see is from the 12th-century palace of Bishop Henry of Blois, who was the brother of King Stephen.
The site is maintained by English Heritage, and the extensive ruins speak to the grandeur of the palace in Medieval times.
Wolvesey Castle hosted the wedding breakfast between Queen Mary and Philip II of Spain in 1554. Standing in the complex you can identify the remains of the hall, which has a round arch and a complete Norman Romanesque window.
8. City Mill
The Domesday Book shows that there has been a water-powered mill on this spot, parallel to Bridge Street since the 11th century at the latest.
Up to the 16th century it went by the name of Eastgate Mill, and the name changed to “City Mill” after it was given to Winchester by Queen Mary after as compensation for the expense of her wedding.
The current architecture dates to 1744 and the building has been in the care of the National Trust since the 1920s.
In 2004 the City Mill reopened after 12 years of restoration, and was able to produce flour by water power for the first time since the early 20th century.
Go in to try milling your own flour using hand querns and watch how bread was baked in Winchester for hundreds of years.
9. Westgate Museum
The last of Winchester’s main Medieval gates, the Westgate, has architecture going back to Anglo-Saxon times.
The gate was reconstructed in the 1100s and modified in the centuries that followed, when it was given the earliest gunports in the country.
These can be seen on the western facade.
The gate was a debtors’ prison up to the 19th century (old graffiti covers much of the walls), and has since housed a museum recalling Winchester’s Tudor and Stuart history.
The outstanding exhibit is a painted ceiling crafted for Winchester College in preparation for the wedding of Queen Mary and Philip of Spain in 1554. There are also pre-Imperial weights and measures, while you can go up the roof for a fantastic view of Winchester, and kids can dress up in suits of armour.
10. Gurkha Museum
The former rifle depot of Winchester’s Peninsula Barracks has a museum recounting the compelling history of the Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers recruited by the British Army over the last 200 years.
Six cap-badged units still serve in the army today.
The Gurkhas have always been renowned for their bravery and in their service have earned 26 Victoria Crosses, the highest honour for gallantry in the UK military.
The museum details the campaigns that the Gurkhas have fought in, from East Timor to the Falklands.
You can view photos and footage on touchscreen displays, and take in tableaux, dioramas, uniforms, paintings, weapons, war trophies and badges.
Ten of the 26 Victoria crosses earned by the Gurkhas are on show here.
11. Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium
At Morn Hill on the edge of the city, the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium has been around since 2002 and is an interactive science and technology attraction geared toward children.
The Science Centre has more than 100 activities dealing with topics like the digestive system, static electricity, sports science, the physics of gases, perception, magnetism and to name a tiny few.
The Planetarium has the highest capacity of any in the UK, and screens stand-alone movies and presentations led by astronomers.
This cavernous venue also hosts evening stargazing shows, while there are workshops, live shows and demonstrations for youngsters all year round.
12. St Catherine’s Hill
Rising sharply above the east bank of the River Itchen just south of Winchester is the 97-metre St Catherine’s Hill.
This rounded chalk hill has the best view of Winchester, and is taken up by a 58-hectare nature reserve.
The meadows on the slopes are carpeted with wildflowers in early summer, when more than 25 butterfly species can be spotted.
St Catherine’s Hill was a fort in the Iron Age, and the earthworks still stand out.
To the east and south is the sudden Plague Pits Valley, where long, rectangular mounds mark the site of mass graves from plague outbreaks.
13. Marwell Zoo
Just out of Winchester, in Owselebury, there’s a zoo linked to a conservation charity and providing habitats for more than 180 species.
Marwell Zoo is on the grounds of the Grade I listed Marwell Hall, which dates from the 14th century, and has the largest collection of ungulates of any UK zoo, from Chapman’s zebras to Arabian oryxes.
The zoo’s animals are organised into a host of themed zones, lie Into Africa, which has Rothschild’s giraffes, Old World monkeys and sable antelopes.
Fur, Feathers and Scales has a walk-through aviary with African species, and a reptile house containing Egyptian tortoises, Gila monsters and a Madagascan tree boa.
Children will adore Penguin Cove, as well as World of Lemurs, where you can view a variety of lemur species from a glass corridor.
As you make your way around Winchester’s historic core, keep an eye out for the beautiful Medieval monument on the site of the old market square on the High Street.
The Buttercross dates to the 1400s and is decorated with ornate tracery, pinnacles and crockets and has 12 statues depicting the Virgin Mary, saints and figures from the city’s history.
In 1770 this monument was purchased from Winchester by the MP Thomas Dummer.
But when he tried to take it to the nearby village of Otterbourne the Winchester townsfolk “organised a small riot” and he had to abandon his plan.
15. River Itchen
Winchester’s River Itchen is a chalk stream with remarkably clear waters and lots of wildlife visible from its banks, like otters, water voles, white-clawed crayfish, butterflies and kingfishers.
You can use the path by the river to view some of Winchester’s lovely old properties, and get to sights like the statue of Alfred the Great the City Mill and Wolvesey Castle.
You can also keep going south, out of Winchester, through water meadows along the Itchen Way, which runs along the Itchen Navigation, a 17th-century canal.
The path is 10 miles, from Winchester’s Wharf Bridge down to Woodmill in Southampton.