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Our quick-fire guide for spending 48 hours in the UK's only island city
As the age-old tune goes, we do love to be beside the seaside, and a getaway to Portsmouth – the UK’s only island city – is the perfect place to do just that. Established by the Romans, Portsmouth was once regarded as “the world’s greatest naval port” and to this day remains a bustling hub of maritime life, as well as the headquarters of the Royal Navy.
From awe-inspiring battleships to the sky-scraping Spinnaker Tower, this is a city that offers enough shifts in mood, pace and flavour to make the most of a whistle-stop mini-break in the UK.
Prepare your sea legs
Within walking distance of the city centre, Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard is battleship central. Lord Nelson’s HMS Victory is spectacular, with its impressive period detail and 104-gun firepower. Explore the decks, corridors and map-rooms of the flagship that fought off the Napoleonic fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
Then, step aboard the HMS Warrior with an immersive tour that brings to life the sights and sounds of Britain’s first iron-hulled battleship when it ruled the waves in 1860. Next head to the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s 40-metre, 700-tonne warship. This was once the ocean’s top enforcer waging wars against Scotland and France, before meeting her watery end in 1545. There’s a 10% discount on entry prices if you’ve already visited the main Historic Dockyard. Younger visitors will also love the gross-out humour and interactivity of Horrible Histories® Pirates: The Exhibition.
Tower over the city
Unmissable from the moment you arrived in Portsmouth, it’s time to grab a bird’s eye view of the city from the sail-like tower dominating the skyline. Visible from over 23 miles away, the Emirates Spinnaker Tower is a true architectural marvel. There are few more energising sensations than ascending 110 metres to the open-air Sky Deck and feeling the rush of sea breeze as you take in the stunning views. Adrenalin junkies can choose to abseil or bungee-jump down, while those who prefer a slower pace can enjoy a refined Portsmouth afternoon tea with amazing views of the Solent.
Splurge with some waterfront outlet shopping
Whether you’re a big-brand bargain-hunter or prefer independent boutiques, shopping in Portsmouth offers something for everyone. Gunwharf Quays is the heavyweight of Portsmouth shopping boasting over 90 flagship fashion and lifestyle brands including Armani, Paul Smith, Molton Brown, Le Creuset and The White Company. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from once you’re shopped out so head to Five Guys, Wagamama’s or Loch Fyne, plus it’s also a great place for after-dark drinking.
Take a lovely literary detour
Beautifully presented, the Charles Dickens Birthplace museum presents a treasure trove of Regency furniture, ceramics and other household items alongside a small collection of the author’s possessions. As you wander through the three furnished rooms (including the bedroom in which baby Dickens was born), you’ll learn about the author’s connection to Portsmouth and get a fascinating glimpse into his early life.
Have an evening of culture
There’s always something on at the city’s New Theatre Royal and the Edwardian-era King’s Theatre. Both venues host regular comedy shows and musicals plus big-hitter stars like Michael Palin. If live music is more to your taste, head to the Guildhall, the first venue Pink Floyd performed their classic Dark Side Of The Moon album. On the way you can enjoy a craft beer at the Brewhouse & Kitchen - we’d recommend the Black Swan IPA.
Talent-spot the artists of tomorrow
All the Portsmouth art galleries you need are all under one roof at Hotwalls Studios. Bustling with upcoming designers and artists, it comprises 13 individual studios and is located just a short hop from Gunwharf Quays, in the city’s historic fortifications on Broad Street. Bear in mind that all the studios have their own visiting hours, so it’s worth planning your visit in advance.
Scream if you want to go faster
Make sure you save time for a visit to Clarence Pier. With its riot of exhilarating roller coasters, amusement arcades and soft-play mayhem, the kids (and big kids) are sure to love it.
Go under the sea
You’ll never spot anything as eye-popping as Blue Reef Aquarium’s kaleidoscope of sea creatures. Follow the underwater tunnel through the Solent Seas, Tropical Treasures and Freshwater Fun habitats. Be sure to book onto the aquarium’s popular Fishkeeper Experience, which lets you get hands-on and feed everything from the ferocious piranhas to a cuddly crew of otters.
Immerse yourself in the heroism of The D-Day Story museum
Portsmouth was the headquarters and main departure point for the military and naval units destined for Sword Beach in Normandy. This fascinating and interactive museum brings the story to life by using the personal possessions and words of those ordinary people working together to achieve the extraordinary.
Promenade on a pier
For something a little more traditional and olde-worlde, head to the refined Victorian-era South Parade Pier that hosts relaxed fishing sessions all year round, even if you’ve never handled a rod before in your life. Just remember to pick up all the kit you need from the bait shop.
If you’re hungry after all that fresh air, follow the aroma of sizzling bacon and freshly brewed coffee to the nearby Southsea Beach Café. This local favourite serves locally sourced, seasonal food. Best of all, the café roof is retractable, so it’s a delight to dine there whatever the weather.
A half-hour’s walk away (or a short hop in a taxi), the atmosphere couldn’t be more different on Southsea’s quirky Albert Road. Here independent cafés and comic book stores go shoulder-to-shoulder on one of the city’s most characterful stretches.