14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Portsmouth, England

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Updated Dec 25, 2023
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Author Bryan Dearsley traveled to England in the spring of 2022 where he spent eight weeks exploring its towns and cities, including the historic port city of Portsmouth.

Portsmouth in Hampshire (or "Hants") owes its importance to its large harbor. This magnificent natural harbor has played a major role in England's development and history since the days of the Spanish Armada, and continues to serve as the principal base of the Royal Navy to this day.

Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth
Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Today, His Majesty's Naval Base, Portsmouth (HMNB Portsmouth) remains the most important naval station in Great Britain. As a result, many of the city's most popular tourist attractions are related to naval history, particularly around the historic harbor area.

Here, in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, you'll find a number of the country's most famous historic ships, each providing evidence of its past naval might: Lord Nelson's HMS Victory; Henry VIII's Mary Rose; and HMS Warrior, the Royal Navy's first ironclad warship. All three vessels at one time knew Portsmouth as their home port.

To learn more about why this city is one of the best places to visit in England for those interested in naval history, be sure to read our list of the top tourist attractions in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

1. Climb aboard Nelson's HMS Victory

HMS Victory
HMS Victory | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

A short distance north of the landing stage for ferries to the Isle of Wight, in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, visitors can find the gateway to the old docks and the site of Lord Nelson's famous flagship. Built in 1765, the magnificent 197-foot-long HMS Victory, along with its five decks and 104 cannons, has been masterfully restored to its former glory.

It's also famous as where Lord Nelson met an untimely death. In his hour of victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, barely 20 minutes after he'd penetrated the French lines, Nelson was fatally wounded and died aboard his legendary ship. Nelson's "Trafalgar Coat," which the admiral was wearing at the time, can in fact be viewed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London.

Afterwards, visit the nearby National Museum of the Royal Navy. Here, you'll find numerous mementos relating to Nelson and seafaring in the 18th century, including a splendid 46-foot panoramic painting by William Lionel Wyllie recording the course of the battle.

Location: Main Road, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire

2. See Henry VIII's Flagship at the Mary Rose Museum

Mary Rose Museum
Mary Rose Museum | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

The famed Mary Rose, the flagship of King Henry VIII's fleet, is a ship of great historical interest. This four-deck vessel with its 91 bronze cannons was built in 1509 and later enlarged to 700 tons in 1536.

In 1545, during a sea battle against the French, it sank just a mile and a quarter from its homeport of Portsmouth. Lifted from the bottom of the Solent in 1982, the remains of the vessel, consisting largely of sections of her hull, are now on display at the Mary Rose Museum.

In addition to seeing the remains of the vessel's formidable hull, now dry and preserved, up close, visitors can also spend time exploring displays of some of the more than 26,000 rare artifacts discovered in the wreck. Among them are personal items belonging to the crew, along with musical instruments and tools.

Address: No 3 Dock, Main Road, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: www.maryrose.org

3. Take a Tour of Queen Victoria's HMS Warrior

HMS Warrior
HMS Warrior

In June 1987, after eight years of restoration work in Hartlepool, HMS Warrior finally returned to its home port of Portsmouth. Launched in 1860 and, along with her sister ship, HMS Black Prince, the world's first armor-plated and iron-hulled warship, this 418-foot-long, 9,700-ton vessel ranked as one of the biggest and best-equipped vessels of its type.

Now a floating museum, HMS Warrior is a treat to explore. Highlights of a visit include seeing the restored crew quarters, including the Captain and officers' areas, along with displays portraying the tough life at sea. For a truly memorable visit, you can even book a fun dinner experience aboard this historic vessel (it can also be booked for weddings).

HMS Warrior
HMS Warrior | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Also worth seeing is HMS M33. Built in 1915 and one of only three surviving WWI-era Royal Navy warships, this recently restored vessel can be viewed alongside HMS Warrior and HMS Victory at Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard.

Location: Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire

4. Wander around Portsmouth Historic Dockyard (for Free!)

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Wandering around the grounds of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is one of the top free things to do in Portsmouth. It's worth noting, though, that while admission to the grounds is free, tickets are required to many of the most important attractions within the site. These include the Mary Rose, HMS Victory, HMS Warrior, and the WW1-era HMS M.33.

That said, if you're pressed for time or money (or both) your free admission will enable you to get up-close to most of these vessels in order to take some memorable photos. A number of the site's historic buildings are in fact also open to all guests, including the fascinating Boathouse 4. Here, you can linger awhile and watch staff and volunteers at work preserving a number of smaller historic vessels.

Other highlights include spending some quiet time in the historic Porter's Garden, as well as catching glimpse of some of the Royal Navy's modern fleet in the adjoining port area.

Address: Victory Gate, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: https://www.historicdockyard.co.uk/

5. See the Views from Spinnaker Tower

Spinnaker Tower
Spinnaker Tower | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Soaring nearly 560 feet (170 meters) above the Solent, the Spinnaker Tower is a highlight of any visit to Portsmouth. Located on the waterfront at Gunwharf Quays, this popular tourist attraction offers wonderful panoramic views of the city and its spectacular harbor, as well as over the south coast and the Isle of Wight.

On a clear day, views extend for up to 23 miles from the tower's three observation decks, as well as from its café, aptly named the Café in the Clouds (try the high tea!).

Emirates Spinnaker Tower
Spinnaker Tower

Once you've braved the glass-floored Sky Walk, spend time learning about the area using the interactive touchscreen information system. Thrill seekers will want to try the breathtaking abseiling experience, which allows you to descend the exterior of the tower via ropes.

Location: Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: www.spinnakertower.co.uk

6. Visit the D-Day Story

The D-Day Story
The D-Day Story | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

The excellent D-Day Story in nearby Southsea houses numerous fascinating displays relating to the Allied invasion of France's Normandy coastline in 1944. Highlights include weaponry and vehicles used during the invasion, along with immersive displays that include the sights and sounds of the battle and the long preparation leading up to it.

The museum also houses the Overlord Embroidery, a 27-foot-long tapestry. The world's largest such tapestry, it encapsulates the key moments of this turning point of WWII. A café and shop are located on-site.

The nearby Blue Reef Aquarium presents displays of the mysteries of the underwater world.

Address: Clarence Esplanade, Southsea, Hampshire

Official site: https://theddaystory.com

7. Get Your "Fun" Fix at GunWharf Quays

Gunwharf Quays
Gunwharf Quays | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Situated between Portsmouth Historic Dockyards and Old Portsmouth and just steps away from the railway station and ferry terminal, Gunwharf Quays is a great spot to spend time while exploring the city. In addition to its more than 90 shops, numerous restaurants and cafés are available for those wanting to dine or grab a snack.

In addition to being home to the Spinnaker Tower, other popular attractions here include the restored canal and docks, including an original historic crane; a number of interesting sculptures and memorials; and the colorful figurehead from HMS Marlborough.

Fun harbor tours are available, along with paddleboat rentals suitable for families.

Location: Portsmouth Waterfront, Hampshire

Official site: https://gunwharf-quays.com

8. Royal Navy Submarine Museum

Royal Navy Submarine Museum
Royal Navy Submarine Museum | Comrade Foot / photo modified

Just across the water from Portsmouth in Gosport is the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. Highlights include Britain's first submarine, Holland I, launched in 1901, along with HMS Alliance, launched just after the close of WWII.

Other notable displays include a German WWII-era mini submarine, an Italian human torpedo, along with a variety of weaponry. The attraction also features many other fascinating interactive exhibits dealing with life underwater in a submarine.

Address: Haslar Jetty Road, Gosport, Hampshire

Official site: www.nmrn.org.uk/submarine-museum

9. Explore Old Portsmouth

Round and Square Towers in Old Portsmouth
Round and Square Towers in Old Portsmouth

Located in an area known as "Old Portsmouth," the Round Tower (1418) and the Square Tower (1494) have, for centuries, guarded the entrance to the city's harbor and naval dockyards. The Square Tower was originally the residence of the military governor, and is today used for functions, weddings, indoor markets, and concerts.

The interior of the Round Tower has been converted for use as an exhibition gallery, while its rooftop is open year-round and affords wonderful views over the city and harbor. It's also home to a café, The Canteen, which also offers excellent views over the Solent.

Location: Broad Street, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: www.squaretower.co.uk

10. Portsmouth Cathedral

Portsmouth Cathedral
Portsmouth Cathedral

The foundation stone of Portsmouth Cathedral, formally known as the Cathedral Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury, was laid in 1185. The chancel and transepts date from Norman times, while the choir is in the late style of Sir Christopher Wren. A highlight is the south side aisle of the choir, dedicated to the Royal Navy and including mementos of the Mary Rose and Nelson's HMS Victory.

Other religious landmarks to include on your Portsmouth travel itinerary are the Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St. John the Evangelist, built in 1882, and the Royal Garrison Church. Also referred to as Domus Dei, it was built in 1212 as a hospice and almshouse.

Also worth checking out is the nearby historic 10 High Street, Buckingham House. It was here that the Duke of Buckingham was murdered in 1628.

Address: St. Thomas's Street, Old Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: http://portsmouthcathedral.org.uk/

11. Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum

Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum
Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum

The Charles Dickens' Birthplace Museum consists of the house where the great novelist was born in 1812, as well as many fine examples of Regency furniture that once belonged to his family. Among the memorabilia are manuscripts, copies of his novels, and his deathbed, brought here from his home in Gad's Hill Place, Kent.

Guided walking tours of Dickens' favorite Portsmouth haunts are available, as are readings of his work and other Dickens'-themed events. There's also a great little shop selling related books and souvenirs.

Address: 393 Old Commercial Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: https://charlesdickensbirthplace.co.uk

12. Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery

Portsmouth City Museum and Art Gallery
Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery

The twin-turreted and strangely attractive Victorian-era Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery is worth visiting for its extensive collections of art and craftwork. Another big draw is the museum's large collection of material related to Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the hugely popular Sherlock Holmes character.

Highlights include details of the author's early life as a doctor in Portsmouth, along with exhibits pertaining to the many incarnations of Sherlock in film and theater. Also of interest is a permanent exhibition dealing with the story of the city, portraying daily life from the 17th century onwards through models, regalia, photos, and videos.

In summer, spend some time in the charming gardens as you indulge in a snack from the museum's café. There's also a well-stocked shop on the premises.

Address: Museum Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire

Official site: https://portsmouthmuseum.co.uk

13. Take a Trip to Southsea

Southsea Pier in Portsmouth
Southsea Beach and Pier in Portsmouth

Southsea, just a few miles east of downtown Portsmouth, is a popular suburb of Portsmouth and boasts a lovely three-mile-long promenade offering excellent views across to the Isle of Wight. It was in fact here that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle practiced as a doctor when he wrote his first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet.

Southsea Beach is a popular spot for families and sunbathers to spend time. Southsea Castle, built by Henry VIII in the 16th century, contains a number of exhibits connected with the city's history from Tudor times to the Victorian era. From the castle walls, there's a superb view across the Solent to Spitbank Fort.

Southsea Rock Gardens
Southsea Rock Gardens | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Southsea Pier is easily accessible from the beach and is also worth a visit. If you're planning on visiting the D-Day Story, pop into the adjacent Southsea Rock Gardens, a very leasant green space overlooking Southsea Beach.

Other things to do in Southsea include visiting Cumberland House Natural History Museum, with exhibits devoted to the flora and fauna of the sea, and exploring the Eastney Beam Engine House. This impressive Victorian building contains a pair of restored 1887 Boulton Watt beam engines and pumps. Also check out Fort Cumberland, a pentagonal-shaped stronghold constructed in 1746.

Location: Southsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire

14. Enjoy a Drive to Stansted Park

Stansted Park
Stansted Park

Just a few miles northeast of Portsmouth is Stansted Park. This spectacular 1,800-acre parkland area features an arboretum, walled gardens, and an ancient chapel, and is well worth adding to your travel itinerary. A variety of easy-to-follow walks are available for visitors to explore.

The Christopher Wren-style Stansted House dates to the 17th century and contains the Bessborough collection of paintings and family furnishings, including early 18th-century paintings. There's also a café serving a great afternoon tea in an old restored glasshouse.

Location: Stansted Park, Rowland's Castle, Hampshire

Official site: www.stanstedpark.co.uk

Where to Stay in Portsmouth for Sightseeing

Luxury Hotels:

  • Located right on the oceanfront by the South Parade Pier, the Seacrest Hotel is a family-owned hotel with real character. The rooms and suites have charming vintage style and comfy beds. Book the rooms on the third floor for ocean views. The hotel is pet friendly, if you're traveling with a dog. It also has free parking.
  • Florence Suites Boutique Hotel is part of The Mercer Collection, which has other properties in town. The rooms are spacious with modern country decor and comfortable beds. A complimentary breakfast is served in the restaurant each morning. There is a sun terrace with outdoor furnishing for nice days. Spa services including massages can be arranged.
  • The 4-star Portsmouth Marriott Hotel has lots of amenities including a swimming pool, hot tub restaurant, workout room, and a spa. It isn't the world's most luxe hotel, but the rooms and suites are clean and comfortable with large windows and bold pops of color. It is also dog friendly.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • The Somerset House Boutique Hotel is walking distance from Southsea Beach and a nice mid-range choice. The hotel features Edwardian-style decor in its spacious rooms and suites. The beds are comfy and draped with Egyptian cotton sheets. Breakfast is included, the property is dog-friendly, and spa services are available.
  • For an eclectic sleep, try the G! Boutique Hotel, which has quirky, art-focused rooms and suites - one features a round bed and a Jacuzzi tub set on raised red tiles beneath a cherry red lip sculpture. Rates include a full breakfast.
  • The Queens Hotel is a landmark property done up in Edwardian Baroque style. Rooms are spacious with period decor including four-poster beds, upholstered chairs, and heavy drapes. There is an on-site restaurant, and room service is offered.

Budget Hotels:

  • Premier Inn Southsea is a top budget pick. The clean and comfortable rooms have a purple and white color scheme, and some feature ocean views. There are family room options if you are traveling with kids. Amenities include a restaurant and access to the beach.
  • In the Southsea area, the Hotel ibis Budget Portsmouth is a 10-minute walk from Fratton Station. They offer tidy rooms with triple, double, or twin beds that work well for families or groups of travelers. Kids stay free.
  • For a pet-friendly budget hotel the Travelodge Portsmouth works. It has cheerful rooms with white linen-clad beds and desks. There is a vending machine but no restaurant. Parking is free.
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