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Situated on the south coast of England, Portsmouth has always been synonymous with sailors, naval history and literature. The city, dating back as far as the Roman conquest, has always been an important strategic location for Britain’s seafarers and continues to be the home to the Royal Navy to this day.
By Danielle Jones
But dig a little deeper into this seaside city and you’ll find a place that is filled with fun both for kids and adults. It’s often named in top cities to bring up children and by spending a little time here and it’s easy to see why.
Across the city there are independent eateries, splash parks, plus a whole range of interactive galleries and museums that cover art and history from the recent to the ancient.
With areas such as Southsea, you are treated to beautiful Victorian architecture intermixed with more modern dwellings.
Fratton is home to the beloved Portsmouth FC, or Pompey as they are affectionately known. Gunwharf Quays in Portsea has top designer boutique outlets and the impressively tall Emirates Spinnaker Tower.
Its location is paramount as well, situated just an hour and a half from London by train, you can also jump on a boat to France or even choose from three different ways to get to the Isle of Wight.
So if you fancy a spot of seaside nostalgia, with enough to keep everybody amused, here is our guide to the best that Portsmouth has to offer families.
Southsea Seafront: Although it has a stony beach, Southsea seafront is filled with attractions – including many free ones – that make it an ideal place to spend time with the kids. With two splash parks (three if you include The D-Day Story Museum fountains) the summer holidays make it an ideal place to take the kids for a paddle in the sun. One of the splash parks is situated by Canoe Lake. This seawater lake is the perfect spot to go crabbing or take one of the giant swan pedalos out for a ride – costing £8 for 20 minutes of seafaring. There’s also an adventure playground for bigger kids complete with its very own zip wire.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard: Head to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard on Portsea Island and you’ll be able to spot Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous H.M.S. Warrior and Nelson’s beloved H.M.S. Victory. Within the dockyard itself is the Action Stations Museum. Here the kids can run wild with an indoor climbing tower, laser quest and military simulators. Entrance starts at £18 for adults and children between 5-15 go for free.
Once they are well and truly run out of steam, then make sure to visit the recently refurbished Mary Rose Museum. Following the raising and restoration of the famous wreck, you can discover more about the Tudor world and King Henry VIII’s tragic vessel. Entrance for adults is £16 and £8 for children between 5-15.
Clarence Pier: For a traditional afternoon of British seaside fun then Clarence Pier will certainly deliver. The pier is home to a range of funfair rides, amusement arcades and the famous Pirate Mini Golf. For £14.99 there are wristbands available for unlimited rides and a range of places to grab a burger or some fish & chips. The pier itself is somewhat unusual as it actually runs parallel with the seafront rather than out towards the sea. Also, make sure you swing next-door to take a look at the hovercrafts coming in and out of the terminal.
Victorious Festival: Arguably more geared up for the grown-ups, but definitely super family-friendly, is the annual Victorious Festival held on Southsea Common. This relatively new festival started life within the dockyard walls but has steadily grown to its current size. As well as some amazing past headliners (Prodigy, Dizzee Rascal, Ocean Colour Scene and the Manic Street Preachers to name a few), there’s also a huge kid’s arena. All the children’s activities are included in your ticket cost and comprise of a Nerf gun battle arena, special appearances from characters and CBeebies favourites and even a circus. The festival runs over the August Bank Holiday weekend and tickets start from £42 for aged 13+, £8 for 5-12-year olds and £1 for the under 5s.
The Queen’s Hotel
This beautiful Edwardian-style building stands proud overlooking Southsea Common. Built in 1903 it has housed American presidents, British Prime Ministers and even appeared in an episode of Mr Bean! There is a restaurant onsite and hosts numerous events throughout the year, including garden parties in its beautiful grounds. They have a number of family rooms and many benefit from having gorgeous sea views. It’s also right by Southsea shopping precinct which includes a huge range of independent restaurants and cafes to enjoy. Price: Rooms start from £205 per night for a family room.
Somerset House Boutique Hotel
For a super luxurious stay in the city, this independent hotel is definitely worth a booking. Housed in a superbly-restored Edwardian building, each room is individually decorated, oozing a chic sumptuous vibe. They boast their own bar and a la carte restaurant and a well-stocked English breakfast buffet. It’s also a mere 400m from the beach for an early evening walk with the kids. Price: From £91 per night.
For something a little more no-frills s, the Ibis in nearby Fratton is ideal. Despite being a bit further away from Southsea, Gunwharf Quays and the city centre, there are regular buses and it’s about a 20-minute walk from most attractions. It’s also very conveniently located by Fratton train station meaning it’s easy to check-in and unload your luggage before heading out to explore the city. Price: Rooms start from £43 per night.
Croxtons: With their moniker coming from Southsea’s original name, Croxton Town, this new tap house and restaurant is becoming a firm favourite with families in the area. Their menu caters for all dietary requirements and preferences and they’ve also started serving a brunch that would suit any Instagram feed. Highlights on the menu include their vegan Campeche Bowl and their Breakfast Tacos, complete with Bloody Mary sauce. Price: Breakfast starts from £5.95 and most meals are around the £12 mark.
Southsea Beach Café: This is the perfect spot to watch the waves crash the shore – whether it be in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. Ideally located on the seafront itself, the covered over eatery gives the impression of al fresco dining without actually needing to be outdoors. Snuggle in next to the wood burner and enjoy a decadent hot chocolate with marshmallows or tuck into a big plate of locally sourced SBC Fish & Chips after a day of seaside fun.
Price: Mains start from £8.50.
The Merchant House: Located on the super trendy Albert Road, The Merchant House is another tap house restaurant that has proved popular with locals. They serve up a huge range of real ales and beers, many from breweries located on the island, and their kitchen is run by Need Street Food. With a diverse menu of vegan and nonvegan options, highlights include their Vietnamese Roll of crispy belly pork and topped with Asian slaw and their Jackfruit Chilli Fries. If you’re around on a Sunday, then be sure not to miss out on their amazing Roast Dinners. Added bonus is that all profits from their food sales go to help malnourished people across the world.
FEED: Located next to Gunwharf Quays shopping, under the railway arches, FEED serves up some of the best food in the whole city. With its low ceilings it offers an intimate place to grab a breakfast or spot of lunch. They have a kid’s menu but will also happily adapt adult plates for smaller appetites. Seating is communal and is often filled with a huge mix of families, sailors and students. Menu highlights are their fluffy American-style pancakes, dripping with syrup, gourmet burgers and their Lotus Biscuit Milkshakes.
Price: Food starts from £5 per plate.
How to get there
Portsmouth is well connected by road and is located right by the M27. It is around an hour and a half by train from London Waterloo and two hours from London Victoria. The nearest airport is Southampton at 40 minutes away and an hour and a half from London Gatwick.
Driving from London to Portsmouth takes around an hour and around an hour and a half by fastest train.
Mixing a city break with a seaside stay. The city always has something going on and there’s also plenty of nightlife for adults. There are over 100 playparks for younger kids in the city and numerous activities for older children as well. Most places are within walking distance of each other and it’s worth taking a day from your trip to head over and explore the Isle of Wight. It can be reached in 15 minutes via the Hovercraft into Ryde, or 45 minutes if you take the car ferry.
Best time to go
Summer and winter are the two best seasons. The hot weather is a great excuse to get down to the beach and go swimming – there’s also a huge calendar of events on throughout the summer down on the seafront. In winter the dockyard becomes a Victorian wonderland with historic rides and stalls that are as much for the parents as the children. Keep in mind that the city is based on an island and has limited amounts of driving routes off and on. Also make sure to check to see if Portsmouth F.C. are playing at home as this can cause traffic jams in the city, as can festivals and events on the seafront. Gunwharf in particular can get quite busy on a weekend, but has brilliant public transport links so you can beat the shopping crowds.
The city is serviced by both Uber and its own local firm, Aqua Cars, by app. Many of the hotels offer discounted food for their residents as well. The majority of museums are free of charge, however the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard charges – they do however offer multi-buy tickets, so you can save if you are planning on visiting a range of attractions.