Home to in excess of 200,000 residents, the city of Portsmouth is a bustling hub of work, play and nightlife. The city has played host to a number of prominent companies including IBM, Zurich Financial Services and BAE and is home to its active and historic Dockyards, the Spinnaker Tower and Europe's only scheduled commercial hovercraft service. The University of Portsmouth provides an educational backdrop to Portsmouth Football Club's failures and successes and with all this going on there is assured to be a thriving leisure and tourist industry.
With any tourist industry however, it is the financial might that provides the advertising and the pull of the Portsmouth "punters". As with any town or city there are excellent social and leisure activities that are not just your traditional rollercoaster and arcade. With a bit of hope, there is inspiration for everyone to find something different to do in Portsmouth.
This time around, we will be focusing along the seafront and harbour wall. This is where the majority of attractions for visitors from outside the area will congregate and enjoy the hot summer sun.
The Traditional Summer Seaside
Being on the coast of the Solent, Portsmouth has the benefit of being sheltered from the sea elements while also being a haven for sun-worshippers in the summer. Now very much integrated into Portsmouth is the town of Southsea, which unless you knew the area you would not realise that Southsea was distinct enough to have its own Parish Council, but we digress.
Southsea's beaches are mostly flint and gravel based and run from the edge of Portsmouth Harbour, along the edge of the Solent to Eastney Marina. For those that like a bit of traditional fair with their beaches; Clarence Pier hosts a fun fair complete with traditional and modern rides, slot machines and arcades and a bar/restaurant that serves reasonable summer holiday food.
Clarence Pier is also home to the only scheduled commercial hovercraft service in Europe running frequently to Ryde on the Isle of Wight. Beach dwellers are advised to stay clear of the hovercraft landing deck on the beachside and swimmers are often caught out by the effect that an arriving or departing service has on the swell of the Solent.
Heading south along the beach there is Southsea Common which often has events such as the Chinese State Circus, craft fairs and shows and an annual bus rally. For those enjoying a day out at Portsmouth and Southsea; it is a perfect place for a picnic among the many trees which have stood over the years.
Continuing along the seafront is the D-Day Museum and Southsea Castle. The D-Day museum at Southsea provides one of the most comprehensive historic accounts of the Allied landings in Normandy and is completed with The Overlord Tapestry; a depiction of the event across 34 fabric panels. Nearby at Southsea Castle, summer visitors and families on a budget can enjoy a free roam around the biggest line of Portsmouth Harbour's 19th Century defences. One of the features hoping to return in 2012 is a Time Tunnel where ghostly guides take you thought the English Civil War and the explosion that nearly demolished the castle. The feature was removed from Southsea Castle during building works and expected to return this summer.
For water babies, the next tourist attraction is the Pyramids Centre. Housing a gym, spa and swimming pools, the attraction is popular for its wave machine and water slides by day, and a music venue by night; families could spend all day here, with food, drinks and alcohol all available.
Continuing along the seafront you come to South Parade Pier. Over the years the pier management has changed hands, gone bankrupt and changed hands again. Opposite the pier was the derelict building of a casino and the Portsmouth infamous nightclub Johanna's. This was recently demolished following a fire in the abandoned club but the Pier still rolls on and still provides a ballroom, amusement arcades and remnants from a fun fair. Along with the pier and shingle beach is a canoe lake for the slower afternoon; with pedal boats to entertain the little ones and a beachside café for the not so old ones to enjoy.
A last museum on the Southsea seafront is the Royal Marines Museum with a look back into the history of the marines as far back as 1664. Kids can follow the training of a new recruit and may even offer inspiration for a career choice as they trek through the jungle and regular events as wide as curator talks and music from the Royal Marines Band.
Harbour-side Bars, Shopping and Tours
Starting back near Clarence Pier we have the harbour battlements of Old Portsmouth. The stone battlements overlooking Portsmouth Harbour's entrance, there is a range of tea rooms and traditional pubs along with Portsmouth Cathedral, which is open to visitors from 10am during the week and between services at the weekend. Portsmouth Cathedral regularly plays host to musical and other events and has recently featured live on BBC Radio 3 for Choral Evensong at Christmas.
Walking around from Portsmouth Cathedral, you walk past the buildings for Portsmouth Grammar School and turn left towards the imposing image of the Spinnaker Tower and Gunwharf Quays.
Gunwharf Quays is a harbour-side retail centre which acts more like outlet shopping than high street, with a range of stores from Cadbury's to HMV and Bose. The Spinnaker Tower itself provides views from its summit across Portsmouth, Gosport and out to the Isle of Wight; as well as spectacular views of the naval harbour and its workings. It is only disappointing that the naval base is that much quieter than before, with the aircraft carriers mothballed and only a few ships often stored further into the harbour for disposal.
Apart from the shopping, Gunwharf hosts a variety of bars and restaurants, including Italian, British, and even a Chinese buffet (called the Water Margin, I highly recommend it in the evenings!) - a number of nightclubs and a casino for the adults, and a bowling alley and cinema for the children. If that is enough to need an overnight stay, Gunwharf Quays even includes a hotel.
One other feature at Gunwharf Quays is the harbour tours. There are many operators that offer these tours during the summer, but one of the longer running ones runs at least hourly during the summer heading from Gunwharf to the Historic Dockyard and then around the naval installation (but not getting to close - for legal reasons) and unusually, while the tours can get as close as 50m to the quayside and warships; photography IS permitted. Other tours do depart from the Gosport Ferry Pontoon close to the Gunwharf Bus Station and Portsmouth Harbour railway station.
The Historic Dockyard itself and our last stop on this part of the Portsmouth tour is home to HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and Mary Rose Museum. Children will love running around the HMS Warrior hanging out of the cannon porthole, or in Action Stations trying out the latest Merlin helicopter simulator; just like the Royal Marines Museum at Southsea, it might find a naval recruit among the thousands of visitors each year. During the high seasons there are regular interactive sessions for the children from building a replica of the Mary Rose to introducing morse code and semaphore and these change on a weekly basis as well as across the many attractions within the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Tickets for the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard unlimited entry to HMS Warrior, National Museum of the Royal Navy and Action Stations and is valid for a single entry to HMS Victory, the Mary Rose Museum and Harbour Tours. Tickets though are valid for 1 year, so this is something that could keep the children entertained on more than one occasion without additional cost. There are also 2-year season tickets also available which offer unlimited entry to all the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard attractions; especially useful if your children are coming to the age of learning about this level of history.
Getting to These Portsmouth Attractions
Getting to the attractions that we have listed here is fairly easy, even if you are coming from outside the area.
Portsmouth Harbour Railway Station is right at the heart of the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and Gunwharf Quays. This is a perfect central point for your public transport as there are bus services to most parts of Portsmouth, including the majority of the major hotels; and for the rest there is always an ample taxi queue during the day to whisk you away.
Contrary to the Google Maps shown, there is no railway station at Clarence Pier or on Southsea seafront. To get there I would recommend getting the train to Portsmouth Harbour and joining one of the many buses that have departures every few minutes and are run by Stagecoach in Portsmouth and First Hampshire & Dorset.
A small hint. If you are intending to do a day trip by train and bus, ask at your train station for a Portsmouth PlusBus with your train tickets as these are valid on both operators and work out cheaper than either operators day tickets.
If you are travelling by car then car parking is plentiful, if a little expensive. There are car parks at or near all the attractions I have listed but all on-street parking is pay and display as well as the car parks (Gunwharf work with pay on foot/exit).