It had been almost 10 years since my last visit to Portsmouth – and to England for that matter. When my family recommended we go see the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. Sure, I had visited before, but I loved my experience. So much has changed since then, too, and there’s always new attractions being introduced. Plus, it’s fun to revisit places you’ve been in the past, because maybe there’s something you missed or forgot.
A Quick Overview
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is part of the city of Portsmouth, located in the southern portion England almost directly between Brighton and Bournemouth. If that still means nothing to you, there’s a map below. It’s about a 45-minute drive from where we were staying in Southampton, and a little less than two hours from London, making it an easy day trip if you’re staying in the capital city. (I’ll cover transportation a little later.)
The dockyard is part of the HM Naval Base Portsmouth, and is managed by the National Museum of the Royal Navy. It’s home to several historic buildings and seafaring vessels, offering an immersive glimpse into Britain’s maritime past.
There are numerous things to see and do at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, it may seem a little overwhelming at first. You certainly don’t want to miss anything, but you also don’t want to rush through it, as many of these attractions deserve your attention. Here are a few ways to make the most of your visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
Do Your Research
Know before you go. This is a rule I try to live by when I travel, otherwise, I feel as if I’m wasting time deciding what to do next. Sometimes I don’t always live by it, but if you only have one day at the dockyard, I recommend doing your research.
The Portsmouth Historic Dockyard website has lots of helpful information to assist in planning your visit. You can find the key information, such as opening and closing times, admission, attraction details and more. You can even view a map to locate the attractions you most want to see, so you know ahead of time where to go. There’s also information on family facilities, accessibility, directions and parking. Lots of useful things to make your visit go a little smoother.
Purchase an All Attraction Ticket…
Even though it’s the most expensive ticket option, it’s the best value by far. It gives you access to the dockyard and all the attractions. In addition, it grants you access to Harbor Tours, Mast Climbing and entry to off-site attractions (Royal Navy Submarine Museum, HMS Alliance, and Explosion Museum of Naval Firepower in Gosport.) Another bonus: You can buy it once, and visit all year! Now, if you’re just visiting England once, that factor isn’t relevant. However, if you live close enough and happen to go back to Portsmouth often, it’s the best option.
There are individual attraction tickets available, which is great for anyone interested in visiting just one thing in the dockyard, or for those who want to save a little money.
…And Purchase Online
While it may not save you a lot of time at the entrance, buying your ticket online will save you money. You get 20% off the ticket price when you buy it on the website. It’s the best value out there.
Take a Harbor Tour
One of the best parts of my visit to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard was the Harbor Tour. It was the last thing we did on our visit, but I recommend starting with this if you can. It gives you a nice overview of the dockyard, the modern Royal Navy vessels and the many historic fortifications that were built to protect Portsmouth. I’m a history geek, and I loved soaking up all the fun facts and minute details. The tour is only 45 minutes, but the captain packs a lot of information into that time. The Harbor tours leave from the jetty alongside the HMS Warrior. Schedules vary based on the season and weather conditions. Be sure to check with the Visitor Center for sailing times.
Take Your Time Visiting the Mary Rose
On my last visit to Portsmouth, the Mary Rose was still being restored after being lifted from the ocean back in 1982. She wasn’t ready for anyone to see. Now, the conservation process continues, but visitors can actually view the remains of this Tudor ship and the thousands of artifacts left over from the wreckage in an extensive museum located next to the HMS Victory.
The story of the Mary Rose is heartbreaking, but fascinating. It was Henry VIII’s flagship, the pride of his Navy fleet. It served for 34 years before sinking in 1545 during an engagement with a French invasion fleet a little over a mile from the entrance to Portsmouth Harbor. It wasn’t until 1971 when a portion of the ship was discovered under the silt at the ocean floor. Eleven years later it was raised and has been drying in a temperature controlled facility for over 30 years.
The museum features three floors chock full of artifacts recovered over the years. You’ll see armory, clothing, ammunition, cooking supplies, medical resources and the personal remains of the hundreds of crew members who lost their lives. With everything there is to see, be prepared to dedicate a few hours in the Mary Rose Museum. It’s worth it. Fair warning to all animal lovers, there was a dog aboard the ship and his skeleton is on display at the museum. I got emotional when I saw it, a bit of a Pompeii moment—those who have been know what I’m talking about.
On the third floor, you’ll be able to access the main exhibit, the Mary Rose herself. Air-controlled doors separate this portion from the rest of the museum. The door muse be sealed before opening the second to enter the exhibit. As you view the vessel, you’ll see video images of actors portraying the crew, working as they would throughout the ship. It’s a clever way to show how the crew lived day to day aboard this once immaculate structure.
Note: You can take pictures, and the museum encourages that you snap as many as possible and share them on social media. However, due to the sensitive nature of the ship and artifacts, there is no flash photography.
Make a Stop at Boathouse 4 (Especially if you have kids)
Built in 1939 for World War II, Boathouse 4 is now a fun family attraction. While our group consisted of adults, we still had a great time exploring this interactive indoor attraction. Costumed staff welcome you as they show how the wood was cut and shaped to build navy vessels over the years. The central arena is filled with historic boats that are being restored by students of the International Boatbuilding Training College. There were some students at work, sanding and shaping the hulls of small ships.
On the second floor, overlooking the boatbuilding skills area is “The Forgotten Craft” exhibit, which highlights the small boats that played a key role in the Royal Navy. Children were everywhere as we made our way through the rows of boats. At the far end was the “Mast & Rigging” experience, where kids can scale the masts of a ship and see if they can ring the bell at the top. Part of me wanted to try it, but I figured I was a little too old (and big) for that.
Occasionally, actors will break out into a monologue, weaving tales of battles and bravery, immersing guests into a different world they’ll only know through elaborate stories. This is a highly entertaining attraction, especially if you’re visiting with children.
Explore the HMS Victory
The Royal Navy’s most famous warship, the HMS Victory is a must see when you visit Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. This living history museum allows guests to wander through the vessel’s rooms and on the deck, where they can see the spot where Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson died (it’s marked by a brass plaque). The HMS Victory has been sitting in dry dock since 1922, and is continually being conserved to maintain the original appearance and charm. While we didn’t check out the Victory on my latest visit (the line was way too long), I did get a chance to see it back in 2008. Even though that was almost 10 years ago, I remember vividly how incredible it was to walk through that historic ship, imagining the men who worked, slept and died there. If you do visit the Victory, be sure to get a hand-held audio guide. It’s the best way to discover the ship through Nelson’s eyes.
Stop for Lunch or a Snack
Between all the museums, ship tours and boating excitement, you’ll need a sustenance break to refuel. Portsmouth Historic Dockyard has several onsite restaurants and cafes where you can recharge with a cappuccino or tea, sandwiches and pastries, or even full meals of crab and steak. We took a quick snack break at the Mary Rose Café, where we picked up some cold sandwiches and chips. You can also dine al fresco at one of three picnic areas: Porter’s Garden, Port Arena, and outside Boathouse No. 7.
Additional Tip: Pick up a Portsmouth Souvenir
I didn’t purchase anything on my last visit, but I regret it. There were some special and unique mementos I considered buying, but chose not to. We were on the tail end of our trip, and I didn’t want to spend any unnecessary funds. Also, I had to consider my suitcase space. Anyway, I recommend taking some time to wander through the Mary Rose Museum gift shop and Nauticalia. You’re sure to find a fun gift or two for friends and family, or even for yourself. It’s a great way to bring home a piece of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard and remember your experience here.
Both my visits to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard garnered some of my best travel memories. It’s entertaining and educational, and always leaves me wishing I had just a little more time. Good news, I still have my all attraction ticket.
If you go…
- Location: Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is located within Portsmouth Naval Base. The entrance is at the corner of Queen Street and the Hard.
- Hours of Operation: 10am-5pm (Nov-March); 10am-5:30pm (April-Oct). Some of the attractions have different closing times, so be sure to check when you get to the visitor center or at the individual attraction’s entrance.
- Getting There: You can reach Portsmouth by car, bus, rail or ferry. There are many local bus services that stop at Hard Interchange (next to the entrance), and you can check routes and times with First Bus, Stagecoach and Bluestar Bus. If you’re coming from London, you can take a train from Waterloo directly to Portsmouth. If you’re coming from Southampton, there is regular, daily service. The train station is a short walk from the entrance. There is also ferry service that operates from France, Spain, the Isle of Wight and Gosport.
- Parking: There is an official Portsmouth Historic Dockyard parking lot a few minutes away. If it’s full, there are others near Gunwharf Quays and Havant Street. The website has a page dedicated to parking, so you know where to go ahead of time.
- Best times to go: We went on a Saturday, and I wouldn’t recommend this. We arrived about 30 minutes after it opened, and the line was crazy long. It did move quickly, however, so if you must go on a Saturday, you won’t be waiting too long. If you can make it during the week, there will be fewer crowds. Also, if you only plan to spend a few hours, it’s worth arriving a little later in the day when the rush has died down.
- Avoid bringing a large bag: Much of the slowdown at the entrance was due to the mandatory bag search. If you have a large bag, it will take longer to search.
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