The county of Hampshire can sound like a far-off place to us Londoners, but the reality is that the edge of the county sits only 13 miles outside the M25, putting it in a prime position for day trips or weekends away from London. Here's our pick of the best things to do in Hampshire.
1. Ride the Watercress Line
Choo choo! We love a train themed day out here at Londonist, and the Watercress Line is something special.
So called because it used to transport the area's fresh watercress in Victorian times, it now runs between four stations, and you can hop on and hop off at any one of them; Alresford, Ropley, Medstead & Four Marks, and Alton. Though Alresford is best-known for watercress (and is a beautiful town in its own right), each station has its own attractions. The footbridge at Ropley, for example, might look familiar to fans of the Harry Potter films...
As for what you'll be riding on, the line operates both steam and diesel locomotives to pull its vintage coaches, with locos rotated in and out of service as maintenance schedules require. If you want to take things up a notch, look out for special events such as evening dining experiences, Thomas the Tank days, and festive illuminations, as well as plenty of chances to dress up in period costume and pretend you're in The Railway Children.
The Watercress Line, Alresford, SO24 9JG.
2. Explore Winchester
History, beauty, culture — Winchester has it in spades. The cathedral city can be reached by direct train from Waterloo in just over an hour.
Winchester Cathedral is the centrepiece, open to the public and home to the grave and memorial stone of Jane Austen. It's at its best in winter when a huge Christmas market and ice rink pop up in the cathedral grounds.
The Westgate Museum — that gatehouse at the top of the hill — is as beautiful inside as it is outside, while the Winchester City Museum is a complete overview of the city's history. It's well worth wandering down side streets too, as the city is chock full of beautiful, historic architecture (Dome Alley is particularly picturesque), and there are plenty of independent cafes and restaurants for pitstops — Josie's is a favourite of ours.
3. Visit the animals at Marwell Zoo
The 140-acre Marwell Zoo is home to over 170 different species, including tigers, giraffes, zebras, penguins, snow leopards and white rhino. You can get up close to some of the (tamer) species, with a walk-through aviary and separate walk-through wallaby enclosure — though others are definitely best viewed from afar!
Five adventure playgrounds and a road train make Marwell a family-friendly day out. Keep an eye out for special events: Glow Marwell is a light trail taking place each winter, and dinosaur trails are a regular summer holiday feature.
Like all reputable zoos and animal parks, Marwell has a strong focus on conservation, both in the UK and abroad. It was involved in breeding some of the 140 sand lizards — the UK's rarest lizard, and an endangered species — released back into the wild in Dorset in 2022. The Marwell team is also involved in the conservation of Grevy's zebras in Kenya, as well as many other projects worldwide, and money raised from Marwell Zoo, including ticket sales, is used to fund conservation work.
Marwell Zoo, near Winchester, SO21 1JH.
4. Find wild ponies in the New Forest
We once saw four ponies queueing up outside a bank in the New Forest(auditions to be in the new Lloyds TV ad, perhaps?). It's the ponies and donkeys that rule around here, roaming free across the New Forest National Park. For the most part, the New Forest is fairly sparsely populated, with just a few small towns dotted about the landscape, making it ideal for tranquil walking, cycling and camping holidays.
That's not to say it doesn't have sights to see. St Michael's & All Angels Church in Lyndhurst has the grave of Alice Liddell, on whom Alice in Wonderland is based — and the Mad Hatter Tea Rooms a few doors down makes a suitably themed pitstop.
The New Forest Wildlife Park is home to wolves, lynx, wallabies and other species, and Beaulieu is home to its own attractions (details further down the article). It would be remiss of us not to mention that we had one of the best burgers of our lives at The Happy Cheese in Ashurst.
5. Visit the real Downton Abbey
We can't look at a picture of Downton Abbey without that theme tune striking up in our heads. Of course, Downton Abbey isn't a real place — the show is filmed at Highclere Castle, a privately-owned estate, home of the Countess of Carnarvon, located a couple of miles south of the Hampshire-Berkshire border, rather than the Yorkshire countryside where it's set.
Predictably, Highclere Castle's popularity has skyrocketed with domestic and international tourists in recent years, all wanting to have a poke around the Grantham's home. Plenty of tour companies run Downton-themed coach trips to Highclere, but you can also book yourself onto a tour of the castle, which visits several rooms shown on the TV show. Note that the castle is only accessible via a tour, and its gardens and grounds are only open to the public when the castle is.
There's a decent events programme throughout the year too, including festival weekends, open-air film screenings, and festive happenings.
Highclere Castle, Highclere Park, near Newbury, RG20 9RN.
6. Admire views from the Spinnaker Tower
'What is that?', many a visitor has asked as the Portsmouth skyline appears on the horizon. For despite being the loftiest structure around these parts, the Spinnaker Tower isn't all that well known, as tourist attractions go. At 170m, it's taller than London's One Blackfriars, though the top 70m or so is the spire, so it's cheating a bit.
The three viewing decks sit at a height of about 100m above sea level, offering views for over 23 miles on a good day. A 'Sky Walk' glass floor gives you a view straight down to harbour below, and there's also an open-air sky garden with deckchairs for relaxing. All are reached by a high-speed lift, and you can extend your experience further by booking a table in The Clouds restaurant at 105m, or, in summer you can *gulp* abseil the 100m from the viewing gallery back to solid ground.
The unusual shape — and the name — of the Spinnaker Tower make reference to its nautical location. A spinnaker is a type of sail, and the tower is located right on Portsmouth Harbour, next to the dockyards and Gunwharf Quays shopping centre.
Spinnaker Tower, Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth, PO1 3TT.
7. Be wowed by the Mary Rose
A short walk from the Spinnaker Tower is the Mary Rose, located within the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Built in 1510, the Mary Rose was rumoured to be Henry VIII's favourite ship — an impressive honour when you consider the man was fickle enough to get through six wives. But as fascinating as its provenance and age is the story of how she was rediscovered in the Solent in 1971, having sunk in 1545, and was raised from the sea bed in 1982.
Painstakingly restored and pieced back together, the ship is now on display behind glass, along with an impressive 19,000 objects recovered with her, which give an idea of what life on board was life. We visited on a primary school trip — a famously difficult age to impress — and remember being absolutely fascinated.
The Mary Rose, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, PO1 3PY.
8. Get revved up at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
Cars are what Beaulieu is best-known for — no surprise really, as it's home to the National Motor Museum, which has around 285 vehicles, dating from 1875, and including some iconic Formula One racing cars. Visit a retro 1930s-style garage, learn about the process of safety testing with crash dummies, and see whichever exhibitions are currently there — at time of writing, some iconic James Bond cars are on display.
If you're not a complete petrolhead, there are other things going on at Beaulieu too. Head inside Palace House to ogle family portraits and treasures, before wandering among the ruins of Beaulieu Abbey or learning about second world war spies. Kids can let off steam at the Little Beaulieu adventure playground, and you can get around by riding a monorail (or 1912 London bus).
National Motor Museum, Beaulieu, New Forest, S042 7ZN.
9. See inside Jane Austen's House
The bucolic village of Chawton is like any other in Hampshire, but for the hordes of tourists can be found wandering around it most days. The reason? Jane Austen's House, the last family home of the author, who moved in with her sister, mother, and a friend in 1809, and lived here until shortly before her death, eight years later.
These days, visitors can view some of Austen's jewellery, letters, and first editions of her novels, as well as her writing desk, all laid out in the rooms where she lived. Nearby, the churchyard of St Nicholas Church has the graves of Austen's mother and sister, and there's a statue of the author
Jane Austen's House, Chawton, Hampshire, GU34 1SD.
10. Visit Peppa Pig World at Paultons Park
If you've got younger kids in tow, Peppa Pig World is probably one of the best places to head for in Hampshire. The eponymous porcine can be found within Paultons Park, a theme park on the edge of the New Forest. Peppa's 'hood has nine different rides and attractions aimed at younger children and toddlers, as well as plenty of photo opportunities with Peppa, George, Daddy and co — it's actually a pretty magical place for young Peppa fans.
The rest of Paultons Park has rollercoasters, water rides, trains, tractors, boats and a driving school for all ages, including plenty for those under 1m tall who are often left out at other theme parks.
Peppa Pig World and Paultons Park, Ower, Romsey, New Forest, SO51 6AL.