There are so many brilliant things to do in Hampshire with kids – it’s such a diverse county. Highlights include the rolling hills of the South Downs National Park; naval history in Portsmouth; medieval history in Winchester and some real chocolate box villages to explore (with suitably indulgent country pubs). We’ve had some great family days out in Hampshire – Milestones Museum in Basingstoke and the Winchester Science Centre have been some of our favourites recently.
Having spent the first 18 years of my life in Hants, I thought it was high time I put together a collection of the best things to do in Hampshire with children including historic highlights and hidden gems. We’ve spent a couple of half terms in Hampshire recently and we regularly visit my family so we often return to some of our favourite spots – the Watercress Line steam railway and the Basingstoke Canal are always popular with various generations in our family.
I haven’t included the Isle of Wight in this guide to family days out in Hampshire – there’s so much to see on that little isle that it warrants a post all to itself. Something I’ll put together in due course!
If you’re wondering where to stay in Hampshire with kids to make the most from a staycation in the county, I would suggest basing yourself in the South Downs near Winchester – you’re then within day trip distance of most of the Hampshire attractions. The New Forest is a bit further afield with enough going on to warrant a separate trip in its own right (something we’re planning for 2022, so watch this space).
Family days out in Hampshire
There are so many brilliant days out in Hampshire for kids – cultural attractions and outdoor pursuits to appeal to children of all ages. The ideas which follow all have an entry charge but if you’re looking for free days out in Hampshire for families, check further down this article for some of our favourite Hampshire attractions which only have a carparking charge.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard
This is a big Hampshire day out – several days out in fact. If you have a keen interest in UK history, it’s worth paying extra and buying the Ultimate Explorer ticket which is valid for a year – you’ll find it difficult to pack everything into one trip.
We enjoyed exploring HMS Warrior – there were actors in character – sailors, coal miners – who really helped bring the history to life. HMS Victory had a very good audio guide which even my seven year old engaged with. We found the spot where Nelson met his end during the Battle of Trafalgar and chatted to helpful volunteers about the ship and her history.
The Mary Rose has recently had an “experience” facelift so we witnessed life aboard the ship through clever digital re-imaginings – we even met Henry VIII and experienced the ship sinking. Visitors can view the preserved Tudor ship in its darkened, climate controlled hall – the remains are eerie and atmospheric, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the many artefacts on display – skulls of those who perished and personal possessions of the officers discovered in chests.
Impressive DNA research has reconstructed the possible faces of some of the unlucky mariners along with their likely ethnic background – it was quite an international crew. Indeed, one of the many theories of the sinking of the May Rose (no one knows for sure why she sank) is that the crew didn’t understand the captain’s instructions.
On busy days you need to be tactical when you visit Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – the submarine museum is currently very popular so it’s worth going there first if it’s something you’re keen to see (it’s in Gosport and reached by boat from the main Dockyard). All the attractions were busy by lunchtime but by the end of the day there were no queues for the Mary Rose or HMS Victory – so have a leisurely lunch to recharge your batteries.
Get really high at Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth
Whether it’s a beautiful day offering far reaching views across Portsmouth and the Solent, or there’s storm clouds brewing across the sea, the Spinnaker Tower is a fun attraction for families in Hampshire. There’s a café at the top where you can indulge in afternoon tea – a great way to make the most of your visit.
If travelling up the tower in the high speed lift sounds a bit tame, there is an opportunity to abseil down – check out the link below for more details.
Once you’ve had your fill of Hampshire views, you can head into Gunwharf Quays for shopping – there’s high street stores and designer outlets surrounding the tower.
Butser Ancient Farm, near Waterlooville
This open air living museum is a popular school trip destination – I remember visiting it myself when I was at primary school. The site recreates Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon settlements with plenty of hands-on activities for children.
Set in the South Downs National Park, Butser features a rare breed farm and lots of historical details which children will enjoy exploring – from Stone Age beds to Roman toilets.
Looking for other open air museums in the UK? I’ve written an article about the country’s best open air museums covering everywhere from Cornwall to Orkney.
Paultons Park, near Southampton
Despite growing up in Hampshire and visiting my family there regularly, I’m afraid to say I’ve never quite got round to visiting Paultons Park – even when my kids were big fans of Peppa Pig. Aside from the many Peppa-inspired rides (George’s dinosaur, Grandpa Pig’s little train, etc) there are plenty of rides for older children – rollercoasters, a log flume and various attractions which swing you around and possibly make you feel a bit queasy.
Winchester Science Centre
This is a great destination for a rainy day out in Hampshire with kids. The Winchester Science Centre is very much the definition of “hands-on” with a multitude of interactive science-themed exhibits for kids to explore. Our boys particularly enjoyed building skyscrapers with Lego before watching them tumble (or not if they’d built them well) when an earthquake struck.
The centre has been cleverly created to appeal to a range of ages with attractions offering simple fun for little children and more in-depth information for older children. In the sound and hearing section, you can step inside a giant guitar to feel the vibrations made by the strings or make sounds down echo tubes – finding out how long it takes sound to travel.
There are plenty of live events with lots of audience participation and a range of films in the planetarium. Outside, there’s a play area and space for picnicking.
I remember visiting Winchester Cathedral when I was a child – it was such a huge place to explore with so much history. It’s worth taking a guided tour of this majestic Gothic cathedral to fully understand its rich past – tours are themed, you can learn about Winchester during Anglo-Saxon and Norman times, you can explore the crypt or the tower (great views but minimum age 12 for the latter unfortunately). Entry tickets are valid for a year.
The Watercress Line, Alresford
This steam train line – also known as the Mid Hants Railway – runs from the pretty town of Alresford to the market town of Alton and it is a real winner with all members of our extended family. We’ve travelled along the line on numerous occasions – celebrating grandparents’ birthdays, enjoying the special school holiday themed days – Thomas makes a regular appearance and Harry Potter pops up at Halloween.
There are several stops between the main stations. At Ropley you can visit the train sheds and watch the engineers restoring the locomotives and carriages. You can even walk over the famous Harry Potter wrought iron bridge – used in the film at Kings Cross.
We stayed in a brilliant railway cottage at Ropley – part of the Watercress Lodges and Campsite which also offers glamping tents and camping. Our boys loved watching the engines rumbling past our living room window. It’s a great base for exploring this very lovely part of Hampshire with Winchester not far away.
Alresford is one of my favourite towns in Hampshire – its centre is lined with colourful shops and cottages and there’s a particularly good café – the Tiffin Tea Rooms. Alresford has lots of independent shops including an excellent second hand book shop which my mum likes to take her grandchildren to. And the town’s toilets also have a story to tell – they were used during the Cold War for passing on secret information through the Portland Spy Ring. The Bond films always make espionage so beguiling but this is the rather a humdrum reality.
Calshot Activities Centre in Southampton
If you’ve planned a trip to Hampshire and the weather isn’t looking promising, it’s worth checking out some of the brilliant indoor activities at Calshot. There’s a decent climbing wall, a dry ski slope and a velodrome. If the weather is on your side, you can try a variety of water sports from paddle boarding to power boating.
Hit the beach on the Isle of Wight
If you’re staying near one of the ports – Lymington, Portsmouth or Southampton – it’s worth considering a day trip to the Isle of Wight. The beaches on the mainland of Hampshire tend to be pebbly so if you’re keen for a stretch of sand, hop on the ferry and seek out one of the island’s fabulous beaches.
Castles to visit in Hampshire with kids
There are castles all along the coast of Hampshire – our country has been well fortified over the centuries. I’ve included my favourite inland Hampshire ruin here as well as a selection of coastal castles to explore.
King John’s Castle, near Odiham
This little ruin, known as both King John’s Castle and Odiham Castle, is hidden away near the village of Odiham. Sandwiched between the River Whitewater and the Basingstoke Canal, it’s a lovely area for a walk. Built at the beginning of the 13th century, Odiham Castle is thought to be where King John stayed on route to Runnymede when he put his seal on Magna Carta.
The castle is usually deserted as it’s not well signposted and there’s no car park – just a few spaces to park along Mill Lane near the ford. Don’t try to drive through the ford, it’s rather deep for a car but great for a paddle – our kids love it as much as the castle.
Looking out into Portsmouth Harbour, Portchester Castle has had a rich history to explore. From the Romans to the Saxons, on to the Normans, it has changed hands many times over the centuries, providing a significant defensive and strategic role, culminating in its use as a prison for French soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. It finally became a tourist attraction in the 19th century and continues to attract plenty of visitors today.
If you fancy a waterside walk, there’s a path from the castle along the seafront to the Salt Café which is a great spot for lunch.
Hurst Castle, near Lymington
Can’t decide whether to be a knight or a pirate? This English Heritage Tudor castle, lapped by the Solent in the New Forest, offers children the chance to be both. Built by Henry VIII as a defence against France, Hurst Castle looks out towards the Isle of Wight.
Hurst Castle is worth visiting for the journey alone – reached on foot via a two mile shingle spit or by boat, it’s a fun excursion. Once there, visitors can explore the Tudor stone keep and the Victorian wings. The castle defended England well into the 20th century.
Animal-themed days out in Hampshire for families
Hawk Conservancy Trust, near Andover
The Hawk Conservancy Trust is a really important charity which as well as caring for birds of prey, undertakes significant research to ensure the survival of these beautiful creatures. Visitors can witness flying displays, peek through the window of the National Bird of Prey Hospital and enjoy the spectacle of wild birds visiting the bird feeder .
Families will enjoy the tractor rides and children’s play area and there are plenty of walking trails through the woodlands and meadows. Spring and summer are perfect times to visit for wildflower displays.
Finkley Down Farm, near Andover
This used to be my favourite outing when I was a child. It looks like it’s expanded quite a bit since my last visit. As well as the usual animals to feed and cuddle and plenty of space for kids to run around, there’s also a decent outdoor adventure play space and an indoor soft play. The farm also features little go carts for kids to ride on and a crazy golf course.
Marwell Zoo, near Winchester
This zoo near Winchester is a registered conservation charity and breeds many rare and endangered species. Highlights include the snow leopards, pygmy hippos and Amur tigers. The zoo goes to a lot of effort to recreate natural habitats for these animals – I’m not a big fan of animal parks but this one is working hard for its animals’ welfare.
Blue Reef Aquarium, Portsmouth
This is a perfect destination for a rainy day out in Hampshire. As well as lots of local British sea creatures, Blue Reef Aquarium also features plenty of exotic and colourful sea life and there’s a freshwater section too.
The aquarium has a breeding programme for endangered species and works with a number of conservation charities.
Family-friendly museums in Hampshire
As well as Portsmouth Historic Dockyard which I’ve detailed above, Hampshire has a particularly good selection of museums to explore. The county’s location predisposes it to rather a lot of military history but there are some truly brilliant museums away from the horrors of war.
Milestones Museum, Basingstoke
Milestones is our favourite rainy day outing in Hampshire. This living museum is housed in an old hangar and it recreates Victorian Basingstoke complete with shops, vehicles and a fully working pub. Our kids love exchanging modern money for old and buying penny sweets in the old fashioned sweet shop.
One thing I find slightly disconcerting at Milestones is the section dedicated to more recent history where you might just spy items from your (seemingly distant) childhood.
National Motor Museum, Beaulieu
As I write this, certain members of my family are planning our next trip to Hampshire based around a visit to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. I’m not sure how a visit here has evaded the petrol-heads thus far.
Aside from a wide variety of fast and classic cars – there’s a section dedicated to land speed record breakers, a Top Gear area and a new temporary James Bond exhibition – there’s also plenty to see for visitors who only have a passing interest in the motorcar. There’s an excellent adventure playground, a monorail and a military exhibition.
The museum and its surrounding gardens along with Beaulieu Abbey and Palace House are owned by the Montagu family. Palace House traces the history of the family and the estate, which dates back to the 13th century.
Army Flying Museum, near Stockbridge
Hampshire really does do a good line in military museums. As the name suggests, this one focuses on aviation so you can expect to see plenty of fighter jets and helicopters. There’s over 40 aircraft on display as well as smaller artefacts such as uniforms and equipment.
Fort Nelson, Portchester
If you’ve not had your fill of military history at Portsmouth (or perhaps you’re after a cheaper outing), Fort Nelson, overlooking Portchester and Portsmouth harbour, is jam-packed full of armaments. Our kids loved marvelling at all the guns on display but it was rather a sobering experience examining the terrible weapons the world has had at its disposal.
Originally built in the 1860s to defend Portsmouth Harbour from a never to materialise French invasion, Fort Nelson is set high on a hill with a warren of tunnels beneath it. Visitors can explore this network and learn how the military had planned for an enemy invasion. Entry is free.
Jane Austen’s House, near Alton
What would Jane Austen make of today’s society, I wonder? She’d certainly have plenty to say about it – just as she did in 19th century England. Despite being lauded today as one of our literary greats, up there with Shakespeare and Dickens, Austen didn’t achieve literary fame until after her death.
Her former home – where she wrote her six novels, including Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice – has been carefully maintained and filled with objects from Austen’s life. The house and its pretty garden can be found in the village of Chawton near Alton. Close by is Chawton House, the former home of Austen’s brother. This Elizabethan manor house has a centre for the research of early female writers. The estate has lovely grounds to explore.
Unusual things to do in Hampshire with kids (and without!)
If you fancy going off the beaten track in Hampshire, there are plenty of places to visit away from the more popular Hampshire tourist attractions.
Hire a boat on the Basingstoke Canal
If you’re after a really serene and peaceful day out, hiring a narrow boat on the Basingstoke Canal is a truly tranquil day out.
We took to the water with grandparents and cousins in tow and watched the world go by from the comfort of a well equipped narrow boat.
We spied a kingfisher flitting through the greenery and plenty of other wildlife. It was early summer so everything was wonderfully green and lush.
The narrow boat travels at a similar speed to walking pace so you don’t get very far in a day. But slowing down and drinking in the scenery is really what it’s all about.
Visit the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery, near Whitchurch
A couple of years ago, we managed to dispatch our children to their grandparents and escape for a weekend of gin tasting and general gastronomy. The Bombay Sapphire Distillery offers self guided tours followed by a gin cocktail masterclass. It’s not far from Winchester so it’s a great place to visit in conjunction with this wonderful city.
The distillery is located in the attractive red brick buildings of a former paper mill. In the grounds are two eccentrically shaped glasshouses which look like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They are in fact the home of the botanicals – the plants used to infuse the gin with that unique flavour. There’s plenty of history and gin heritage to drink in as well as the gin itself.
Look to the skies at the Farnborough Air Show
This biannual aviation event is a real show stopper with every imaginable aircraft in the sky. I grew up near Farnborough and I used to enjoy watching this event from my garden with the Red Arrow and Concorde flying above our house – nowadays we watch private jets zip past on the flight path.
If you don’t fancy forking out for the tickets – they are rather pricey (and the event has been closed to the public in recent years) – you can take in much of the action in nearby parks or pub gardens.
Places to walk and cycle in Hampshire with kids
Hampshire is unusual in having two National Parks – the New Forest and the South Downs. So there’s a multitude of brilliant places to cycle and walk in Hampshire. Here are some of our favourite walks (hopefully I’ll be adding to this with New Forest ideas after our next trip):
Old Winchester Hill, near Warnford
This Hampshire National Nature Reserve is a brilliant place for a walk – even on the overcast day as we experienced it. Apparently you can see as far as the Isle of Wight on a clear day – we couldn’t see that far but the views were still impressive.
The most successful walks we do with our kids are the ones with plenty of variety and Old Winchester Hill is a perfect example. We didn’t have time to walk all the way to the Iron Age Hill Fort (we didn’t get out of bed early enough and had a pub reservation) but we still enjoyed a really varied one hour ramble taking in fields, a steep hill and woodland. The children ran most of it – a good sign.
From the main car park there are walks of varying lengths and the 160 kilometre South Downs Way runs through the area too (one I’m keen to tackle on another occasion). Alternatively, you can start a longer walk from the Shoe Inn pub in nearby Exton.
Where to park for Old Winchester Hill: the car park is at the top of the hill on Droxford Road, postcode GU32 1HN but a more reliable way to find it is with the app what3words, use consult.rooms.yourself and this should take you right to the car park entrance.
Meon Valley Trail, near West Meon
We spent a brilliant day cycling along the Meon Valley Trail during October half term. Autumn is a great time of year to walk or cycle along this disused railway line – it’s framed by trees the whole way which are wonderfully colourful in October and November.
The trail passes close to plenty of villages where you can stop in a pub or café for lunch or coffee. We started the cycle at West Meon and pedalled all the way to Wickham for lunch before returning back again via Soberton for a quick coffee. In Wickham we ate at the very hospitable Square Cow – we turned up caked in mud from our ride but they welcomed us nonetheless.
The Meon Valley is perfect for kids as it’s flat and car free so they can zoom along on their bikes safely. The distance is 10 miles but the scenery is so idyllic that it feels a lot less.
West Walk in the Forest of Bere, near Wickham
We explored the Forest of Bere – managed by the Forestry Commission – one afternoon in October half term with my parents. It’s right on the edge of the South Downs near the village of Wickham.
The Forest of Bere is great for families – there’s a play area, toilets and mobile coffee cart along with various walks and a particularly brilliant area for den-building. There’s a charge for the car park.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park
This park is free to enter (just pay for parking) and has a range of facilities including dedicated cycle routes, walking trails, adventure playground and that all important café. There are various experiences which can be booked in advance such as wild foraging and electric mountain bike hire.
Set in the South Downs National Park, this is a great destination at any time of year.
The Basingstoke Canal is beautiful in all seasons – in spring the water is alive with ducklings and other infant wildlife. Summer and autumn see beautiful colours reflected in the canal while in winter the water often freezes over in places – I used to love smashing the ice when I was little.
Certain stretches of the canal are particularly enjoyable for a wander – the area around King John’s Castle (mentioned above) and the village of Greywell are areas we tend to head to.
Hayling Billy trail and Southsea
This disused railway line on Hayling Island is about five miles long. We cycled the length of it and then hopped on the ferry over to Southsea to cycle along the promenade to the pier.
It’s not as scenic as the Meon Valley trail but it’s fun to cycle next to the sea and our boys loved getting on the little ferry. Southsea has a cycle lane next to the promenade and the pier is a good destination to head for. If the wind is against you, there’s a decent café – the Coffee Cup – half way along where you can refuel with seating inside and out.
The Lavender Fields near Selbourne
Lavender farms seem to become more and more popular each year – it’s brilliant to think that people want to visit a farm just to look at flowers. The Lavender Fields near Selbourne have a wildflower meadow as well as the many varieties of lavender. Wandering along the rows of purple blooms is a really enjoyable way to spend a day out in Hampshire. There’s also a café and a shop for all things lavender-scented.
Places to stay in Hampshire
There are some brilliant places to stay in Hampshire. I’ve just detailed the places which we have stayed at and enjoyed.
Red Shoot campsite in the New Forest
This well equipped campsite is a short drive from Ringwood and makes an excellent base for exploring the New Forest.
The campsite has a play area and it’s next to a pub. There’s also a cottage to stay in on site if you’re not keen on camping. There are plenty of trails heading off directly from the campsite so if you’ve come in a campervan you won’t need to pack up and drive off to explore.
When we stayed at Redshoot, we had a brilliant day out at Moors Valley Country Park which is just over the border in Dorset. As it’s a Forestry Commission woodland, you just pay for parking. This is a great destination for walking or cycling and there are some brilliant wooden play structures in the woods which our kids loved. There’s also a miniature railway to ride on and a Go Ape treetop assault course.
Watercress Lodges and Campsite
This collection of newly built railway cottages and glamping tents overlook the steam train Watercress Line at Ropley near Winchester.
We stayed here as a base for visiting my family when the country was in that semi-lockdown state of meeting only outdoors. If your children love Thomas the Tank Engine or steam trains in general, this is without doubt THE place for a family staycation. Our children had already grown out of Thomas when we stayed but they still loved being able to watch the trains from the living room window. You can also wander onto the platform and visit the engine sheds where workmen are busily restoring engines and carriages.
As well as the lodges and glamping, there’s space for camping. There’s also a purpose-built wheelchair-accessible bungalow at Ropley, check out Flat Spaces for more information on this.
This is an excellent and good value base for exploring Hampshire with kids – Winchester is a short drive away.
We received a really warm welcome at this brilliantly positioned Airbnb. In the heart of the South Downs, just outside the village of Hambledon, this is a great base for families who want to maximise their time outdoors. There’s loads of space – fields and an orchard to wander through – and your four legged friend is welcome to stay here too.
Just go easy on the local cider…
Have you had any brilliant days out in Hampshire? Let me know if you recommend any other things to do in Hampshire.