Located in Hampshire on the edge of South Downs National Park, the city of Winchester is a vibrant destination best known for its medieval Winchester Cathedral. Whether you're looking for a day trip from London or planning a long weekend in the area, Winchester has a lot to offer, from historic sites like the Great Hall and Wolvesey Castle to modern restaurants, shops, and pubs. Here are 12 of the best things to do during your visit.
Winchester Cathedral, the city's most popular attraction, is one of Europe's largest cathedrals and the current seat of the Bishop of Winchester. Founded in 1079, the impressive building has over 15 centuries of history, spanning the Anglo-Saxon era to the establishment of the Church of England to today. It's been updated and restored over the years, with much of the current building completed by the early 16th century. The cathedral, found in the heart of Winchester, is open to the public and offers guided tours on Monday through Saturday (the price is included with admission). You can also purchase an additional ticket to enter the crypt, one of the oldest parts of Winchester Cathedral, or ascend the cathedral tower, open for tours on specific dates. Those of faith are also welcome to enter the cathedral for prayer daily.
Explore Medieval Winchester at the Great Hall, a building that dates all the way back to 1067 and now exists as a museum. It includes the remains of Winchester Castle built by William the Conqueror, and houses the iconic Round Table of Arthurian legend (although experts are divided on the actual origins of the table). The 13th-century hall has a lot to see and do, with opportunities to try on historic costumes, and is inexpensive to enter. Look for the wrought steel gates that were installed in 1983 to commemorate the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Parking is available at the nearby Tower Street Car Park.
Stroll the Keats’ Walk
Follow along in the shoes of famed poet Keats, who took the same daily walk during his stay in Winchester. The easy stroll starts at the Winchester Tourist Information Centre, ventures through the Cathedral Close, and ends at St. Cross. It's about 2 miles round trip on both sidewalks and grass, so sturdy and waterproof shoes are recommended. If you want to learn more about Keats' life and work, book a guided tour through the Winchester Tourist Information Centre. Maybe you'll be inspired to write your own version of the poet's well-known ode, "To Autumn," which celebrates Winchester's beauty.
Head to Winchester's Wharf Hill to grab a pint or meal at The Black Boy, one of the city's most historic pubs. A "traditional back street boozer," the pub is known for its eclectic mix of fireplaces, taxidermy and art, and locally-brewed beers. Food is served six days a week (every day except Monday) and the menu changes daily. Be sure to come by for the traditional Sunday roast lunch, which includes your choice of lamb, chicken, beef, or a vegetarian option. The pub doesn't take reservations, so arrive early.
Jane Austen's House Museum, an independent museum in the nearby village of Chawton, is a great way to learn more about the famed author's life. The 17th-century house is where Austen wrote and published all six of her novels, and it's also where she spent the final eight years of her life. The museum maintains the house as it appeared in Austen's time, and includes her letters, jewelry, first editions of her books, furniture, textiles, and, most importantly, her writing desk. The museum is 15 miles from central Winchester, and can be reached by taking a train or bus to Alton. Free parking is available across from the house.
You can't claim to have fully explored England without learning about the Brits' favorite drink: gin. The Bombay Sapphire distillery is one of the largest in the country, and visitors can come here to see how the spirit is made. Book a tour of the distillery and sample the different types, or opt for a gin cocktail masterclass, where you'll get to shake and stir your own cocktails. Tickets must be purchased online in advance, and all visitors are required to wear close-toed, suitable shoes. After your tour, fuel up on food and even more drinks at the Mill Café.
Taste the local cuisine of Hampshire at Winchester's only Michelin-starred restaurant, The Black Rat. The restaurant, built in a former pub, serves "modern British with influences from all over the culinary world," and sources their produce and meat from local supplies and foragers. Run by head chef Matt Noonan, The Black Rat offers an ever-changing menu and a very lengthy wine list. Reservations are recommended, especially if you want to dine in one of the heated huts in the outdoor garden. Children under 12 are not permitted, so make this a night out away from the kids if you're traveling as a family.
Support independent bookshop P&G Wells during your travels to Winchester. The store, found in Kingsgate Village south of the cathedral, has been around since 1729, and sells everything from adult fiction to children's books to stationary. It hosts an array of author events and book launches, and makes an effort to highlight local writers. Past customers have included Jane Austen and John Keats, so you'll be in good company when you browse the shelves and leave with a few souvenirs.
Go back in time at the real Downton Abbey, a.k.a. Highclere Castle. The castle, which was used as a filming location for the Golden Globe-winning period drama, is a beautiful, historic spot with amazing grounds. Built in 1679 and home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, Highclere welcomes visitors at different points throughout the year, and periodically hosts special events, including a Christmas market (check their online calendar to plan ahead). The castle is best accessed by car, although you can take a taxi from the nearby Newbury train station. Be sure to wear your aristocratic best.
Tour the Ruins of Wolvesey Castle
Also known as the "Old Bishop's Palace," this ruined castle served as the main residence of the Bishops of Winchester during the Middle Ages. Located near Winchester Cathedral, Wolvesey Castle is free to enter and open daily from April to October (it's open on weekends only during the winter). Download an audio tour of the castle on your phone from the English Heritage website to learn about the castle's history as you explore.
Winchester's Military Quarter features an impressive six military museums, including the Regimental Museum of The King's Royal Hussars and The Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum. Near the Great Hall, they're located in the historic Victorian Peninsula Barracks (which also houses the popular Copper Joe's Café, where you can stop by for coffee or lunch). The museums are great for military history buffs, as well as casual travelers, and are recommended more for adults than young kids (although children are welcome). To get the most out of your visit, purchase a joint ticket, which is good for all six museums.
For a nice day out from Winchester, take the family to Marwell Zoo, a 140-acre space with a vast array of animals. Watch the penguins or marvel at the snow leopards before exploring one of four adventure playgrounds with the kids. There's also a free road train that traverses the grounds, and a ticketed scenic rail train that takes guests on a 15-minute trip past several exhibits. You'll find gift shops, cafés, and picnic areas, as well as gardens to walk through or sit in. The zoo is open every day except Christmas and Boxing Day; tickets can be purchased online.