The UK’s only island city, Portsmouth has long-standing links with the British navy that have made it one of the world’s most famous maritime hubs. Founded in the 12th century, it’s still home to legendary ships such as Nelson’s HMS Victory and Henry VIII’s Mary Rose. The latter was raised from the Solent seabed to become the centrepiece of one of Britain’s finest museums, and helps to attract more than nine million visitors a year.
A modern port of call
Like Liverpool and Bristol, Portsmouth has seen a vibrant evolution from its trading port past. Since 2005, the historic waterfront has been overseen by a soaring 170m landmark named the Spinnaker Tower (currently sponsored by Emirates). It offers jaw-dropping vistas of the south coast from its three viewing decks.
The city’s proud naval heritage is also complemented by a spirit of innovation and enterprise that has made it a beacon for 21st-century industries, too. Major companies with a presence in the area include IBM, Airbus Defence and Space, and BAE Systems, as well as defence contractor QinetiQ and aerospace multinational Thales Group.
“Portsmouth is actively targeting inward investment from companies in the marine, aerospace and advanced engineering sectors, as well as a growing creative and digital presence,” says Jane Singh, visitor services and development manager at Portsmouth City Council.
It is also a notable academic city. More than 20,000 students attend a university that is a centre of international excellence in areas such as biomedical sciences, applied mathematics and materials engineering. The latter feels a particularly appropriate subject for the birthplace of Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
As Singh points out, the city’s unique heritage has provided it with some very memorable venues for meetings and events: “It has a host of unusual meeting spaces, from The Mary Rose Museum and historic ships HMS Victory and HMS Warrior to Henry VIII’s Southsea Castle and the Emirates Spinnaker Tower.
“Alternatively, the Solent Forts are complete man-made ‘islands’, available for accommodation bookings and exclusive corporate use,” she says.
Alongside current investment in city-centre infrastructure, regeneration plans are afoot for the Tipner area to the west of the city. There’s also a major expansion underway at the Lakeside Business Park to the north. Ongoing improvements to retail and leisure hotspots such as designer enclave Gunwharf Quays, as well as to the Portsmouth Hard and the Naval Base areas, also hint of greater things to come.
This year is going to be particularly notable. The Heritage Lottery-funded transformation of the city’s D-Day Museum will be unveiled, while on the hotel front, this autumn will see the opening of the £21m Village Hotel Portsmouth at the Lakeside Business Park. Answering demand for additional accommodation in the city, this modernist development will offer 153 rooms, a conference centre, and a state-of-the-art leisure club and pool.
Dickens and dockyards
One of Portsmouth’s most famous sons is Charles Dickens, born in 1812 in a house on Old Commercial Road. The property is now a charming little museum attracting literary fans from around the world.
And artistic energy still flourishes in a city with around 400 creative businesses – get a taster at the Hotwalls Studios, a complex for artists and designers carved out of the old town’s historic Point Battery and Barracks.
Portsmouth boasts two major theatres – the New Theatre Royal and the Kings Theatre. Meanwhile, the 19th-century neoclassical Guildhall provides a stirring setting for music and stage productions. It also offers one of the South East’s grander meeting and conference venues, with rooms offering capacities ranging from eight to 2,000 people.
While the ships and museums at the Historic Dockyard are the city’s big-ticket cultural attractions, it’s well worth making time to visit the Portsmouth City Museum to delve into some of its less well-known stories – such as the link to Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Prepare for a chance to test your own powers of deduction against the master sleuth.
If you’re in need of some extreme teamwork inspiration, try one of Portsmouth’s distinctive military museums. The Royal Marines Museum tells the story of the bravest of the brave in a striking Victorian seafront property in Southsea. Alternatively, the Royal Navy Submarine Museum is a pleasant 10-minute ferry ride away in Gosport. It brings a whole new perspective to coping with tight situations in a pressurised work environment.
By the waterside
The sea continues to shape a destination that officially styles itself the ‘Great Waterfront City’. Major terminal improvements are also seeing Portsmouth build on its reputation as a commercial and cruising port.
Just under 50 cruise ships – including vessels from global leaders such as Crystal Cruises – are already booked for departures at Portsmouth International Port in 2017. Situated alongside the regular ferry services to nearby Gosport and the Isle of Wight, it offers more routes to France, Spain and the Channel Islands than any other British ferry port.
Portsmouth also offers plenty of opportunities for a rather more active engagement with the ocean. Head for the Portsmouth Watersports Centre to learn – or show off – skills in sailing, kayaking, windsurfing and rowing. The centre’s half-dozen Olympic-class Laser sailing boats are popular, offering an easy introduction for novice sailors.
Visitors with free time in the city could also enjoy a diving or fishing excursion from Langstone Harbour, or book a tailor-made sailing or speedboat itinerary around the Solent – the strait between the mainland and the Isle of Wight – aboard one of Synergy Sailing’s fleet of 30 leisure boats.
You could set a course for the exact spot the Mary Rose sank, or head for the idyllic Buckler’s Hard coastal hamlet to see where warships for Nelson’s navy were built.
Engaging with nature isn’t just about all things briny in Portsmouth, though. Southsea Common is a particularly enticing portion of the city’s 900ha of open space. The vast green sward of land stretches back from the seafront promenade and beach, offering locals and visitors alike a space for tennis, beach volleyball, pitch and putt or just strolling its skein of paths.
For a more urban taste of relaxation, Gunwharf Quays is the heart of Portsmouth play, serving up a buzzy melange of restaurants, bars and shops in the lee of the Spinnaker Tower. Or for a slice of James Bond glamour, hit the modern Grosvenor Casino to weigh the odds over a host of classic games including roulette, blackjack and poker, which you can play in a special 100-seat room. All work and no play isn’t good for anyone, after all.