The south coast of Hampshire and Dorset is one of England’s greatest coastlines – and among the many towns that welcome visitors from across the UK, Christchurch and Lymington are firm favourites.
Nestled at the meeting point of the River Avon and the River Stour, Christchurch is dotted with independent boutiques and galleries, as well as some truly divine dining spots. Side streets lined with red-brick cottages and pastel-painted terraced houses, as well as the beautiful Mudeford Sandbank and nearby Hengistbury Head make it one of the most photogenic towns in the area. With many flocking to nearby Bournemouth, Christchurch stands out as a peaceful seaside getaway – with plenty to see and do.
Further east, Lymington is a Georgian market town and port on the western bank of the River Lymington. Set in the beautiful New Forest National Park, its rich maritime history has a hearty mix of sailing and smuggling. Boasting incredible views of the sea and with some delightful restaurants and boutique shopping, it’s a hidden jewel on the Hampshire coastline.
So let’s head to the coast – and take a look at a two-day break in these beautiful towns.
Day one: Christchurch
Stepping off the train into the quiet and unassuming Christchurch, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stepped into a leafy Bournemouth suburb. Fortunately, you’re just a few minutes from all of the amazing things that Christchurch has to offer – so let’s start with brunch!
If you’re keen to get to the seaside, then take a 15-minute walk to the quay, and before you know it you’re being whisked across to Mudeford Sandbank. Here you’ll find the Beach House – a popular café with incredible views back across the harbour and over to Hengisbury Head – and a perfect spot for a quick bacon roll before heading out to sand and the sea views.
If you fancy a bite sooner rather than later, then Cuckoo’s Coffee Bar is an idea spot for a quick bit in the town centre. Just a few minutes from the station, it’s a delightful family-run affair that specialises in great coffee and freshly-prepared breakfasts – from a full English to smashed avocado on sourdough.
Hunger sated, it’s time to explore – and there are two options available which show both spectacular sides of Christchurch.
The first is to head out to Hengistbury Head – if you’ve elected for brunch at the Beach House then this is easy, as you’re just a short stroll along the waterfront away from some seriously spectacular views. From the town centre, it’s just a short bus to the visitor’s centre. Once here, you can admire the incredible views of the harbour and the English Channel, or admire some of the rare (and not-so-rare) wildlife you’ll find here.
If exploring history is more your thing, you could do much worse than staying in Christchurch itself and heading on a self-guided walk among some of Christchurch’s historic quarter.
Heading from the remarkable priory to Christchurch Workhouse (now, fortunately, a rather lovely museum and gallery that’s well worth popping in to), and on to Church Street’s distinctive red-brick houses, the old Market Square, the River Avon and the Place Mill – it’s a historian’s dream.
By the time you’ve finished, it’ll be time for lunch – and Christchurch continues to please with its selection of cafes and restaurants.
For light bites head to the Tuckton Tea Gardens. Set in beautiful gardens beside the River Stour, you’ve got stunning views to match the delightful cakes and locally made New Forest ice cream – perfect for a relaxing hour watching the boats go by. Heading in the summer? Barbecue river cruises depart daily for an hour’s cruise along the River Stour, followed by a barbecue buffet in the Tea Gardens.
Another dog-friendly spot is the Arcado Lounge in central Christchurch. Once a 1960’s furniture shop, the beautifully-restored frontage gives way to a light and airy spot with great food and a jovial atmosphere (as well as plenty of genuine sixties furniture adverts adorning the walls!). An extensive menu means that lunch can be as light or as filling as you want it, with plenty of vegan options to cater for everyone.
Pub lunchers need look no further than the Thomas Tripp – a community pub named for the famous local hero and smuggler. One of Christchurch’s favourite pubs, you’ll find its Seafood Shack hidden in the courtyard garden. Undoubtedly one of Christchurch’s best foody hidden gems, you’ll find some of the best local seafood and shellfish here prepared daily. Just make sure to book in advance! But worry not if you’re not a seafood fan, there’re still some great pub classics on offer here – as well as some mouthwatering steaks and burgers from local cows.
With lunch over, it’s time to head back out – and a weekend by the sea wouldn’t be complete without time at the beach! So we’re off to Mudeford – a quick hop on the ferry whisks you round to this pretty ex-fishing village and Avon Beach. A popular beach for families, it’s a gently sloped sandy beach, making it perfect for sandcastles, or watching the windsurfers and sailors in the designated watersports area in front of the car park. Just don’t forget your sunscreen!
More adventurous types might like to take part in that age old Mudeford tradition – crabbing! Nearby Haven House Inn gift shop carries all the necessary equipment, and a quick trip to the Fish Stall secures your bait – leaving you to head to the waterfront and try your luck, bucket of water in hand to stash your catch.
And so on to dinner – and once again the choices are numerous! Fine diners may wish to book ahead and secure a table at The Jetty, the award-winning restaurant perched on the water’s edge in the grounds of Christchurch Harbour Hotel. Headed by Alex Aitken, one of the South’s most renowned chefs, you’ll find here some of the freshest fish anywhere – landed daily at Mudeford Quay. Indeed, TV chef Nadia Swahala named The Jetty as her “favourite restaurant in the world” – high praise for any eatery.
Those after a more relaxed and trendy venue may wish to head to James and White, a bar and kitchen on Church Street. Priding itself on local ingredients, you’ll find the rather unique Black Cow pure milk vodka, baked goods from nearby Ringwood, and even coffee roasted nearby in Bournemouth. Stay after dinner tucked into cosy sofas and watch night fall over the water.
For good-quality pub staples, Ye Olde George Inn steps up to the plate, with classics like scampi and chips to remarkably good stonebaked pizzas (with some exotic topping options like jackfruit) – all of which can be enjoyed in the courtyard garden at the back.
Day two: Lymington
Day two starts with getting back on the train – and heading to nearby Lymington, one of the south west’s other hidden gems. Just 45 minutes away by train, it’s a pretty jaunt through the heart of the New Forest, taking you to another pleasant seaside town with plenty to do.
If you choose to forgo breakfast in Christchurch, we can definitely recommend some delightful spots in Lymington to head to once you jump off the train at Lymington Town station.
The Larder offers some deliciously healthy breakfasts at its Earley Court café, just a few minutes from the train station. Of particular note are its divinely put together juices and smoothies – although the mashed avocado toast with chili flakes is definitely one to perk up your morning.
Alternatively, independent coffee house Coffee & Drift is a newcomer to Lymington Quay, but rapidly proving its popularity thanks to some seriously good coffee! Team it up with the signature breakfast melt for a breakfast of champions.
Breakfast in hand, it’s time to spend the morning exploring Lymington. If your swimwear has dried off from yesterday’s beach trip, we recommend a dip in England’s oldest seawater lido – the Lymington Sea Water Baths. Having entertained families since 1833, more than 110 metres of sea water pool hosts 200 metres of inflatable obstacle courses and stand-up paddle boarding, making it a spectacular aquatic playground for kids and grownups alike.
For a quieter morning, the nearby St Barbe Museum and Gallery offers a more sedate pace of life, but just as fulfilling – with some remarkable exhibitions taking place to spark imagination and inspire creativity – from local wildlife displays to a view of Lymington’s history and the part it played in the war against revolutionary France.
Heading towards lunch, it’ll be a relief to hear that Lymington doesn’t disappoint on the food front either. The Borough Arms is a traditional country pub with a child-friendly garden, offering traditional pub food in a cosy and welcoming venue.
Head to the Harbour for glorious food with a matching view at The Haven – with floor to ceiling windows and heated outdoor terrace to make sure that no matter the weather, you’ll be able to make the most of the spectacular sights from Lymington across to the Solent and the Isle of Wight. Seasonal menus and a catch of the day mean that it’s a delight no matter what time of year you visit.
A hidden gem in itself, Lymington has a remarkably good independent shopping scene on its High Street. With its Saturday markets being ideal for picking up a bargain, you’ll also find a wealth of unique boutiques specialising in fashion to homewares – meaning that it’s perfect for picking up some unique gifts and mementoes of your trips. Just remember to explore thoroughly – hidden courtyards abound, with even more to be discovered!
Kids will enjoy a trip into the deepest part of the New Forest to discover an unlikely museum – the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu! From some true English classics from the golden age of motoring to record breakers and grand prix legends, kids will love getting up close to these remarkable vehicles and exploring history in the stunning settings of Beaulieu Palace.
After a day spent in the town soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the shopping and sights, why not grab a drink and dinner to round off the day before heading back to Christchurch.
As evening draws in the Elderflower Restaurant offers an opportunity to make the evening a truly special one, thanks to Head Chef Patron Andrew Du Bourg’s tasting menus – just make sure to book in advance as waiting lists for the highly in-demand restaurant are lengthy!
For more easy-going dining then Lanes is our recommendation – a hidden gem that once stood as a church and school, but now serves as the labour of love of chef Peter Leyland-Jones and his wife Nicola. Offering some beautiful surroundings (and equally delicious food) it’s an ideal spot for a romantic dinner to celebrate your last evening in Dorset.
Heading back to Christchurch
The last train to Christchurch from Lymington leaves after 22:00 each night, so there’s plenty of time to make the most of the evening. And with regular trains towards London into the evening, it’s easy to go straight home too.
Whichever you decide to do, it’s clear that there’s an amazing weekend in store in Christchurch and Lymington. So plan your next trip – book your tickets in advance to get the best deals, and save even more when you use a railcard.
Fancy extending your stay? Lymington is also a gateway to the Isle of Wight – and you can find out more about things to do there in our destination guide.