Salty Portsmouth offers historic and modern attractions

Portsmouth is the famed home of Britain’s Royal Navy. But as Britain’s military shrinks, the port is pumping up its tourism.

Many travelers pass through this major port on England’s south coast, busy with ferries heading for France’s Brittany. And there are plenty of excuses to stop here. The city has amazing maritime history on display, and enough candy-floss-on-the-beach fun to save someone from having to visit the more touristy seaside towns like Brighton or Blackpool.

In London, I passed a billboard advertising an exotic harbor skyline with the question: “Dreaming of Dubai?” Then they break it to me: It’s Portsmouth, 90 minutes away by train.

Comparing Dubai and Portsmouth is a stretch, but Portsmouth’s iconic Spinnaker Tower is a sail-shaped monolith reminiscent of a Dubai skyscraper. It stands like an exclamation mark above a once run-down military port that is morphing into a pleasant people zone as the city undergoes an impressive gentrification.

Like Seattle’s vaguely futuristic Space Needle, the 560-foot-tall Spinnaker Tower has become an icon of its city. Visitors can ride up the tower for a panoramic view, or court acrophobia with a stroll across a glass floor.

Portsmouth works well as a day trip from London. Almost all of its visit-worthy sights line up along a two-mile stretch of waterfront, from the Historic Dockyard in the north to the Southsea neighborhood, with the D-Museum, in the south. The top sights in the walkable core can be seen in a few hours. But with its bustling shopping complex and Spinnaker Tower at Gunwharf Quays, the D-Day Museum, and seafaring atmosphere, you can easily fill a whole day.

The highlight of Portsmouth is its Historic Dockyard with Britain’s great warships, dubbed the “Wooden Walls of England.” Here, visitors can marvel at modern-day warships anchored on the docks and visit several historical warships, as well as an entertaining collection of model ships, paintings, uniforms, and other artifacts at the National Museum of the Royal Navy.

Perhaps the most consequential battle in British naval history was the Battle of Trafalgar, where Admiral Nelson and the British fleet defeated Napoleon’s fleet and saved England from so many uninvited French guests in 1805. Nelson’s flagship, the majestic HMS Victory, is the main attraction here and for Brits, it s a patriotic pilgrimage.

Henry VIII’s much older warship, the Mary Rose, is less well-preserved but just as interesting. In 1545, it capsized just two miles offshore on its way to engage a French enemy fleet. Of the 400 sailors onboard, only about 30 survived. The wreckage — with all sorts of Tudor-era items — was raised in 1982, and today it is beautifully displayed in the newly renovated Mary Rose Museum.

Portsmouth was flattened by WWII bombs (although, ironically, the Historic Dockyard was relatively unscathed). Reconstruction was hasty and poorly planned, and the city became infamous for bad architecture. But that’s changed.

Besides the waterfront shopping complex and Spinnaker Tower, efforts to rejuvenate have included refurbishing the old historic district. From the Old Portsmouth promenade, you can watch a procession of 21st-century ferries as they navigate into and out of port.

While exploring Old Portsmouth, look for the stylized chain-link pattern in the sidewalk, marking the Millennium Promenade. The chain symbol recalls the great steel chain that once spanned the mouth of the harbor and was raised to block invading warships. For a pleasant stroll, I like to follow the portion of the trail south of Old Portsmouth along the oceanfront. Interpretive panels along the way give insight into Portsmouth’s evolution, from its stone towers and fortifications to Clarence Pier, a Coney Island-type beach-party zone.

Deep down, Portsmouth is still a hardworking port town with plenty of touristic value. The blustery beaches may not be as warm and sandy as Dubai’s, but the city’s fascinating military presence and modern attractions make Portsmouth a fun and educational stop on a trip to southern England.

©2016 Rick Steves.

— Distributed by Tribune Content agency, LLC.

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