Unusual Things to Do in Portsmouth
The coastal city Portsmouth, UK, is a place of contrast, character and quirk | © Adrian Seal / Alamy Stock Photo
A vibrant waterside city on the south-east coast of England, Portsmouth is a place of contrast, character and quirk. Not all candy floss and catamarans, this maritime metropolis boasts over 60 miles (97 kilometres) of coastline, a string of Roman fortifications, and endless antique and bohemian boutiques. Here, we peel back the layers to reveal a more local side of the city.
You’ll feel vintage vibes at Portsmouth’s core. Draping its streets, retro retailers are set up in Southsea – the southernmost tip of the town. From old fireplaces, fishing tackle and boating accessories, to statues, toys and enamel signs, every corner of Parmiters Antiques tells a story. Otherwise, opt for Dress Code where everything ‘alternative and subcultural’ is all sewn up. Try Vintage at 97 for inimitable designs. Railing against the ordinary, this independent charity shop on Elm Grove emboldens disabled and disadvantaged young people to make their mark on fashion.
© Jonathan Carpenter / Alamy Stock Photo
Southsea Beach may be the obvious choice for tourists, but the rugged stretch in the east of Portsmouth deserves your attention. Eastney Beach, frequented by naturists and non-naturists alike, is sprawled across the undeveloped area of the seafront and has stunning views of the Solent and Isle of Wight. For 5 miles (8 kilometres) of unspoilt coastline, Eastoke Beach on nearby Hayling Island is only a short boat trip away. This steep shingled strand, wrinkled with timber barriers, has Blue Flag status and makes for the ultimate escape from the crowds.
Sample the Produce
Viviers Fish Market brings the colourful hues of the coast to its counter. As well as landing fresh fish and shellfish for the public and trade, this seafood sensation situated on the Camber Quay also provides the perfect place to sample Portsmouth’s produce. First casting its nets in 1985, the enterprise has since branched out to London’s Billingsgate Fish Market. Though the scale of catches depends on the season, the market’s team of expert fishermen offer crabs, lobsters, oysters, clams and scallops most days. Specialities include fresh fish kebabs and lobster or crab cooked there and then.
Smell the Roses
Flourishing on Victorian fortifications, Southsea Rose Garden (or Lumps Fort) sits in parallel with Portsmouth’s esplanade. What was once a semaphore station for covert communication is now a lush, scented green space away from the dust and din. With overflowing borders and rose-clad pergolas, this local secret serves as an ideal spot for lunch. Not only does the garden capture the fragrance of up to 40 varieties of roses, but its high-reaching walls also guard against the elements. And with the mild oceanic climate of Portsmouth, these deep-rooted perennials thrive in the summer months.
Take a Trip to No Man’s Land
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo
Another Victorian folly on our list, No Man’s Land is a former fortification built roughly 150 years ago. With a long and varied history as a cannon-loaded sea fort, a luxury hotel and the hideaway of a one-time owner, No Man’s Land is definitely one of the more unusual places in Portsmouth. These days, the fort is back open to the public, playing host to wedding parties, birthdays and corporate getaways. If you’re looking for an interesting place to hold your next big event, perhaps the middle of the Solent should be on the cards?
Survey the Skyline
For a peerless perspective of the city, make your way up Portsdown Hill. This 430ft (131m) chalk ridge overlooking Portsmouth and beyond affords the widest aspect ratio of the skyline. As well as offering great views, this Hampshire peak attracts birds such as yellowhammers, whitethroats, and peregrine falcons to name but a few. Creating a superlative setting for wildlife photography, its pathways weave in and out of wildflower meadows and wildlife-rich habitats so the public can get up close with nature. Be sure to wrap up to bear the prevailing south-westerly winds.
Explore a Sunken Wreck
Dragged from its briny depths, the Mary Rose makes for a haunting view into Tudor life. Once the pride of King Henry VIII, this medieval warship was lost to the sea with the majority of her crew after a short tussle with the French. After being found in the 1980s, a major operation was undertaken to resurrect her, and, after an extensive preservation programme, the Mary Rose is now open for the public to view. Featuring a fascinating selection of artefacts from the time, the Mary Rose exhibition gives its guests an eerie view into what life was like nearly 500 years ago.
Stroll Down Albert Road
© Seapix / Alamy Stock Photo
One of the cultural cores of the city, Albert Road offers a mix of kooky cafes, independently run shops and charming restaurants. Centred around the King’s Theatre, which routinely features some outstanding casts, the road is home to an eclectic selection of businesses. With everything from comic books to cafes and vintage bookshops to beloved bars, there is a real bohemian feel to the area. If you’re a music lover, make sure to check out the Wedgewood Rooms, which has hosted some of the biggest names in British music over the last 10 years.
Discover the City’s Past With a Mystery Tour
Offering guests a unique mystery to solve along the way, the Mystery Guides’ tours are a great opportunity to see the city in a new light. Turning Portsmouth into a giant puzzle board, the treasure hunt will take you to every fascinating nook and cranny of the city while you learn about its local history. With several different tours available to try, you’ll be sure to come back for a new adventure. The tours are a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon in the coastal city.
Hide Away Under the Big Screen at No.6
Although it might seem strange to take a trip to the cinema when visiting a city, the No. 6 Cinema is definitely considered one of the hidden gems of the south coast. Built into a Grade II-listed former boathouse, the cinema has a large main auditorium and frequently plays a mix of big releases, foreign-language and cult classics, meaning you’ll never be short on something interesting to watch. Not only that, but the bar is an excellent place to catch a drink and have a cosy chat after the film.
Additional reporting by Nicholas Grantham
These recommendations were updated on September 4, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.