Being a National Park, with mile after mile of open countryside and moorland to explore, the New Forest is a great place to head to if you’re looking to escape from it all for a while. Within the park’s boundaries itself there are plenty of lovely small towns and villages to discover, although for those seeking a little more hustle and bustle, there are a number of larger towns and cities within easy reach of the New Forest.
Boasting their own history, unique attractions and winding streets, a visit to these towns and cities makes for a great day out. What’s more, they are less than an hour’s drive away, making a New Forest cottage the ideal base from which to explore the South Coast and beyond.
Christchurch is found only around five miles to the south-west of the New Forest’s boundaries, meaning you could even cycle there if you wanted to, with plenty of fun things to do, activities and attractions found in and around the town. Located on the Dorset coast, close to the border of Hampshire, Christchurch is home to several beautiful beaches – perfect if you’re looking to escape to the seaside for a day.
Across its four-mile-long coastline, Christchurch is home to six wonderful sand and shingle beaches: Highcliffe, Avon, Mudeford, Friars Cliff, Gundimore and Highcliffe Castle. These are great for family days out, watersport activities and coastal walks alike, with views across the Solent to the Isle of Wight and the Needles.
The town also boasts two castles, great for both history and sightseeing: Christchurch Castle, an 11th century stronghold built within a Saxon fort, and Highcliffe Castle, a Grade I-listed mansion built in the 1830s. More history can be found at the medieval Priory Church, as well as at the Red House Museum and Garden, housed in the attractive buildings of the parish workhouse.
Christchurch really comes into its element when it is hosting one of its many festivals, whether that’s the renowned Food and Wine Festival held every May in the streets of the town centre, or the Christchurch Festival, which showcases local music and bands. Foodies may also love the annual Cheese and Chilli Festival, while the Mudeford Arts Festival and the Priory Music and Arts Festival are two more celebrations of the arts held in the town.
This charming port city can be found just to the east of the New Forest, across the water. Its maritime associations are one of its main draws, as it hosts some of the country’s biggest waterside events, including the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race and the International PSP Southampton Boat Show. The SeaCity Museum, agreat day out, also further examines Southampton’s connections with the sea, and is set in the heart of the city’s Cultural Quarter.
Entry to the SeaCity Museum also includes entry to the Tudor House Museum, perhaps the most important historic building in Southampton. Spanning eight centuries of art, ranging from the Renaissance to the present day, the Southampton City Art Gallery is also an interesting cultural attraction, featuring everything from painting and drawing to sculpture, film and photography.
Southampton is easy to explore; take a guided walk through the Old Town, a boat ride along the River Solent or follow a self-guided trail that leads through the city. It also has a wealth of choice when it comes to places to shop; there are shopping centres hosting big names, boutique quarters and weekly markets galore.
If you’re seeking a more active time in Southampton, try your hand at sailing, take to the slopes at the Alpine Snowsports Centre, or head to The Quays, an enormous pool complex, which kids are sure to love, and one of four major diving centres in the UK.
Slightly further west along the Dorset coast from Christchurch lies Bournemouth, the county’s largest town and a thriving coastal resort. With seven miles of golden sandy beaches to enjoy, Bournemouth offers all the fun of a classic seaside day out and much more.
Set in the middle of the beach is the town’s famous pier, while lining the seafront are all the traditional amusements and attractions to keep the whole family entertained: arcades, crazy golf, the Oceanarium and even a zipwire.
Alongside the miles of beach to explore, Bournemouth also enjoys more than 2000 acres of gorgeous gardens, while there is even more nature and scenery to take in at the coastal nature reserve.
Even when the weather doesn’t go the way it should, this large town still offers plenty of things to see and do, especially for the culture-lover. Pottery and ceramics cafes can be found throughout the town, while the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum showcases a great collection of Victorian art as well as treasures from across the world.
This historic city was once the heart of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and today there are still many well-preserved historic sites that reflect this changing location over the centuries. Amongst Winchester’s medieval streets, you will discover the thousand-year-old Cathedral, the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, once the home of Anglo-Saxon bishops, and the City Mill, the oldest working watermill in the UK. The Great Hall is another site steeped in legend, said to contain King Arthur’s Round Table.
One of the best ways to take in the city’s history and sights is to follow one of its many interesting trails. Trace the footsteps of King Alfred on the City Walk, follow the Jane Austen Trail to learn more about the famous writer, discover Winchester’s wartime past on the Military Trail and explore the Viaduct Way, the city’s restored historic railway.
Winchester is also a foodie’s delight, being home to the country’s largest farmer’s market, as well as a selection of wonderful pubs.
For something to keep all ages entertained, Marwell Zoo is a popular day out for all the family, and plays an important role in protecting several rare animal species. Over at the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium, be dazzled by the wonders of our universe.
Poole is Bournemouth’s next-door neighbour and Dorset’s second-largest town, with much to offer in terms of things to do. One of Britain’s most famous beaches, Sandbanks, can be found in Poole, as well as two other lovely sandy beaches: Shore Road and Canford Cliffs.
For even more natural scenery, head to the nearby Upton Country Park, where there are woodland trails to wander along and stunning gardens to soak up. You can also take a boat trip out to the National Trust’s Brownsea Island, rich in both wildlife and adventure.
At the town’s centre, you will find the bustling quay, where you can go crabbing, watch the fishing boats and explore the heart of Poole’s Old Town. Poole Museum is another great place to learn about the town’s history, with four floors of exhibits which span everything from archaeology to art.
Also great for a rainy day is Tower Park, one of the largest entertainment centres on the whole of the South Coast. Activities on offer for all the family include a water park, cinema, bingo and a bowling alley, making it a great rainy-day attraction.
One of the UK’s smallest cities, Salisbury is world-famous for its stunning cathedral, which is home to one of the four original Magna Carta manuscripts. The streets are equally as historic, decorated with timbered buildings, and you can take a step back in time inside a number of attractions including Mompesson House, a quintessential Queen Anne townhouse, Arundells, the home of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, and the award-winning Salisbury Museum.
Get to know the city on one of the many guided walks available, and visitOld Sarum, located two miles north, the original site of Salisbury, which dates back to the Iron Age. For a more unusual day out, take the family to the Salisbury Escape Rooms.
There’s a variety of events happening in Salisbury throughout the year, from the International Arts Festival to the Christmas light switch-ons, meaning there is always something to do and see. The city also boasts a number of excellent entertainment venues, including the Playhouse, City Hall and Arts Centre, which showcase everything from live comedy to theatre.
Salisbury is a great place to shop, with thousands flocking to the bi-weekly charter market and the many other markets held less regularly. The city is home to three shopping centres, but several independent shops can also be found, especially on Fisherton Street. To one end of the street, don’t miss Fisherton Mill, an enormous arts emporium.
Isle of Wight
From the New Forest harbour town of Lymington, you can make the ferry crossing over the Solent either by car or on foot to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, taking just 40 minutes.
Yarmouth is the gateway to the island, with its buzzing harbour, Grade II-listed pier and 16th century castle. Located in the western corner of the Isle of Wight, this is a great place from which is explore some of the area’s beaches and coastal resorts.
Freshwater Bay is one of West Wight’s most picturesque beaches, a mix of sand and pebbles, carved out of the surrounding chalk cliffs. Slightly west at Alum Bay, you can see The Needles up close, a row of three distinctive chalk sea stacks, with the surrounding attractions offering a varied family day out.
With the Isle of Wight being small in size, there’s much that can be easily reached from Yarmouth slightly further afield. Cowes, on the north coast, is perhaps the liveliest town on the island, with beaches, shops, restaurants and museums to enjoy. Among its unique attractions are the chain ferry, which helps passengers cross the River Medina in a matter of minutes, and the world-famous Cowes Week, the largest and oldest sailing regatta in the world.