I blame the Mexicans.
My husband and I had buzzed past Winchester on the M4 for years, always remarking that we should visit. The cathedral is one of the largest in England and we have a personal connection in that my father-in-law attended Winchester College. Still, visiting might have remained one of those things to do “one day” if not for dinner at Pitt Cue on Newburgh Street (just…go. It’s delicious and cool). The place has a handful of tables and we sat next to a couple visiting from Mexico. They were ticking off things on their weeklong visit. That day’s item was Winchester.
“Oh, we’ve been meaning to go there,” we said vaguely.
“You haven’t gone?” they asked, incredulous. We shifted in our seats. “But it’s so close,” they continued. “It’s really wonderful. You should go!” they urged, taking a bite of the heart the waiter had brought to the table.
A week later a woman from Hampshire’s Top Attractions invited us to come down for an overnight stay. Serendipity. So we went, and discovered a great place for a family getaway. We went for a weekend. Equally you could go for a day trip from London (like our barbecue-loving friends from Mexico City) or go for longer to see all the things we couldn’t in just 2 days. Here are the things we liked.
What to do
1. Spend time in Winchester Cathedral
Often olde worlde churches hit the snooze button with kids. But this Gothic cathedral is a truly awe-inspiring sight, with the longest medieval nave in Europe, plus some kid-friendly touches.
You can visit Jane Austen’s grave and a small exhibition that tells about her life, which is reason enough to go. Also great to-do’s: Ponder the Anthony Gormley sculpture as it stands ankle deep in water in a crypt that frequently floods, see the Holy Hole — the entrance to St Swithun’s shrine, and climb the painful Pilgrim’s Steps on your knees (yes, we did and yes, it is). Outside there is a sweet walled garden and an impressive Barbara Hepworth. On the day we visited, a wedding was taking place and Jerusalem boomed from the organ. Breathtaking.
Nice touch for kids: The children’s tour map is engaging and points out interesting features for both kids and grownups, such as menacing carved faces, a font whose carvings tell the story of boys brought back to life by a saint, and key historical figures.
2. Have a walk and lunch in town
We took a chance on No.5 Bridge Street because we liked the look of it and it paid off. There’s a light-filled front room with fireplace, a back skylit room next to an open kitchen and a small patio garden. The menu includes tapas and small plates, steaks, salads, sandwiches and very tasty burgers. Bishop on the Bridge has outside seating directly over the river, and The Chesil Rectory also looked interesting. (Details below.)
There are an array of places to eat nearby. Our choice meant we could park the car in the Colebrook Street pay and display, eat lunch, tour the cathedral and the garden, a walk which delivered us right back to our car. Here’s the route we took, which made for a nice walk:
3. Spend time at the Winchester Science Centre
After visiting the Cathedral we drove out to the Science Centre. There are undoubtedly more systematic ways to explore the centre but we ran from exhibit to exhibit, doing the hands-on activities: trying to move an object with our minds, testing our response times, looking through a real periscope, racing against the clock. A highlight was the planetarium, which features several different shows. We saw “Back to the Moon, for good”, all about voyages to the Moon and something of an advertisement for the awesomeness of Google. It’s away from the city centre, with ample parking, loads of interactive exhibits and a planetarium.
My tip: While it’s more expensive, get a ticket that includes the planetarium and plan to spend several hours so you can have a go on all the hands-on activities before or after the show.
“Seeing the stars and the sky all around was the best part.” –my 10-year-old daughter
4. Take a trip to Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
I fell in love with these gardens with a midcentury modern twist. The Gardens feature more than 40,000 plants and hold 13 National Plant Collections, and the main building is almost as gorgeous as the plants. You can read about it in the post I devoted to it.
We stayed the Holiday Inn Winchester, which is housed in a contemporary building 2 minutes down the hill from the Winchester Science Centre. Pluses for families: they have interconnecting rooms, family rooms, disabled rooms, and lifts for stair-free access to guest rooms. I could imagine visiting with kids as well as mobility-impaired grandparents. It has the level of comfort and cleanliness you’d expect from a Holiday Inn, and the staff were all enormously friendly. A word of warning: It’s not the right place to stay if you’re looking for local charm or a city centre vibe, or if you find things like a window from your room looking out onto the hotel atrium a bit unnerving.
The evening we stayed the hotel was also hosting a wedding, which made it pleasantly lively, although staff could not quite keep up. The next morning we had to wait to be seated for the standard buffet breakfast, which itself needed a healthy restock while around us several tables needed bussing.
We popped out to the nearby pub The Chesthut Horse, which was lovely, with a roaring fire and every table reserved for Saturday dinner. Book ahead or do what we did: get a drink and sit in the back garden.
Winchester is a bit more than an hour on a direct train from Paddington Station. Driving from Southwest London along the M4 took us about an hour and a half.
Holiday Inn Winchester
+44 (0)1962 670700
What to do
Winchester Science Centre
+44 (0)1962 863791
+44 (0)1794 369317/318
Where to eat in Winchester
We ate at No.5 Bridge Street. The other places listed here looked good too.
No.5 Bridge Street
No.5 Bridge Street
+44 (0)1962 863838
1 Chesil St
+44 (0)1962 851555
Bishop on the Bridge
1 High St
+44 (0)1962 855111
Get more info
Discover more attractions and things to do with the family at the Hampshire’s Top Attractions site.
Disclosure: We were hosted by Hampshire Attractions at the Holiday Inn Winchester and were supplied with tickets.