A Guide to Old Portsmouth Town: Exploring Past and Present

  • Post category:England
  • Post last modified:April 27, 2023
  • Reading time:8 mins read

Portsmouth: Past and Present

Anyone looking for an interesting day out on the South Coast should look no further. Portsmouth stands proud, a mixture of old and new, overlooking the Solent. Across the water, the bulk of The Isle of Wight can be easily spotted. If you have an interest in history, the sea, or anything connected to the Royal Navy, this is the place for you. If you have no interest in any of the above, Portsmouth is still the place for you., as it successfully mixes old with new, traditional with modern. Visit it on a day when the sun sparkles upon the water, making the waves seem shimmery and immerse yourself in the lively hustle and bustle, watching the world go by – not to mention the variety of watercraft.

2 Famous Old Portsmouth Pubs

The cobbles that mark the area of Old Portsmouth are steeped in history, echoing the footsteps of fishermen, sailors and smugglers of a bygone era. The area boasts two main pubs, the Spice Island Inn and The Still and West, both providing hearty fare.


Interestingly, both places started their lives as brothels for the seafaring folk of Portsmouth and beyond, however, as this was in the 18th century, there is nothing to worry about and they are both extremely respectable, family friendly, eating and drinking hostelries.

Old Portsmouth and Famous People

As well as a rather notorious past, Portsmouth also has a literary past, being the birthplace of Charles Dickens. You can visit the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum to learn more about one of the world’s most famous writers which is located on Old Commercial Road, open weekends 10am – 5pm, March to September. Following The Dickens Trail will similarly give you an insight into Charles Dickens’ life and inspirations as you take a walking tour of 14 different places covering a staggering 8 miles in all.

Admiral Horatio Nelson is an important historical figure connected to Portsmouth. However, he had connections with and support for the slave trade at the time, so he remains a controversial figure in the present day. Nelson is well known for his many battle victories with the Royal Navy. A statue of him stands in the Grand Parade along with HMS Victory, the ship where he met his final destiny during the Battle of Trafalgar, lying in dry dock at Portsmouth Harbour.


Following the road round from the two pubs at the waterside, the hub of old Portsmouth, you stumble upon Capstan Square, The Round Tower and The Hotwalls. Originally, there was a capstan situated here (a drum equipped with a ratchet), which was used to draw the chain down to close the harbour. You can ascend the steps to the Round Tower and walk upon its walls to the Hotwalls, the city’s old defences. This nickname originated many years ago, when cannonballs used to be heated before firing, in order to make them more deadly upon impact and burn the enemy’s ships.

Modern Portsmouth

Interestingly, leaping back into modern life, a row of scooters can sometimes be found parked in a row outside one of the “watering holes”, suggesting that people travel in groups from near and far to socialise on the waterfront.


Again, keeping in with the modern day, gaze to the right across the water and you will see Spinnaker Tower, a 170m high observation point, standing sentry over the Solent. This building boasts two cafés, the Clouds café being 105 metres above the harbour, with 360 degree views where High Tea can be booked, 12pm – 4pm every day. The tower is also host to a glass floor and is used as both a comedy venue and a wedding venue. Its construction started in 2001 with a grant from the National Lottery as part of Portsmouth Harbour redevelopment and it opened to the public in 2005. Whilst gazing at this landmark, you will notice the Isle of Wight Ferry making its regular 45 minute trips between Portsmouth and Fishbourne, on the North of the island, which then provides easy access to the main towns of Newport and Ryde.

How to Spend a Day in Old Portsmouth

In order to make the most of your visit to Old Portsmouth, you could allocate a couple of hours aboard HMS Victory (flat shoes/boots a necessity), see the cabins, canons and ask the extremely knowledgeable and helpful guides any questions you may have about Nelson or the Battle of Trafalgar. Browse in the gift shop where you are able to buy all manner of ship and battle related artefacts, including old bullets. Whilst you are there, notice also, HMS Warrior, Britain’s first ironclad ship. This should take up most of your morning, by which time you will be ready for lunch. Try out one of the two previously mentioned pubs, the Still and West serves delicious and reasonably priced food, both indoors and outdoors. If you choose this pub, you will be sat as close to the water as you can be without actually getting your feet wet – glorious on a hot day.

After a leisurely lunch by the sea, meander through the Old Town, following the landmarks mentioned previously. Climb the steps up to the Hotwalls and take in the beautiful and relaxing vista. Pause awhile on the specially created wavy benches, designed, one would imagine, to mimic the waves of the sea. Finish your day with a coffee, or maybe something stronger, at Spinnaker Tower, the ideal spot to pause and relax.

Places to Visit near Portsmouth


If you should wish to stay overnight, other interesting nearby places to visit are Southsea, a typical seaside town with piers, amusement arcades, funfairs and a common which hosts the Southsea Show, kite festivals, military vehicle exhibitions and the popular Victorious Festival, to name just a few. Southsea has a pebble beach, seafront promenade and is totally family friendly.

Hayling Island

Hayling Island is also nearby, East of Portsmouth and can be reached by road regardless of the tides. As the home of windsurfing, there’s no shortage of water sports on offer along with a traditional seaside feel.


Southampton is 30 miles away and is also worth seeing as it is home to the Sea City Museum which houses an interactive model of the Titanic (which tragically departed from Southampton in 1912). There is also a City Art Gallery, specialising in Modern Art and the Solent Sky Museum, featuring vintage aircraft such as the legendary and iconic Spitfire.

How to Get to Portsmouth

Portsmouth is easy to reach via road or rail. There is a direct train service from almost any major town in the South, including London. It also offers a Park and Ride service for those not wanting to drive all the way, however, parking in Old Portsmouth is very easy, both Broad St Car Park (East Street, PO1 2GR) and The Harbour Car Park (Havant Street, PO13EQ) are accessible and user friendly.


So all in all, if you are in the South of England with a day or more to spare, Old Portsmouth and its harbour are a must. And if you are lucky enough to be invited to a wedding at Spinnaker Tower, make sure you allow time in the days before or after to explore and appreciate this beautiful area.

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