When it comes to historic cities there are few with more of a back story than Winchester in the South of England. In fact it was once the capital city of the Kingdom of Wessex. Here’s everything you need to know about the seat of power for none other than King Alfred the Great and all the things to do in Winchester with kids.
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Why is Winchester worth visiting?
Winchester oozes history from every building, street and medieval archway and can claim links to the mythical King Arthur as well as Alfred the Great and numerous other royals down the centuries. It’s a top destination for history buffs, but why is Winchester worth visiting when you have children in tow?
One of the top reasons why Winchester is a good city to explore as a family is its city centre is compact – you can tick off plenty of sights on foot within a day.
Wandering along Winchester’s paved streets with half timber buildings is like stepping back in time. And with cheap entry into many of the city family-friendly museums it’s easy to have a fairly thrifty day out.
Winchester also close to a lot of other Hampshire attractions so is a good base for exploring the area.
Explore Winchester’s history
Here’s what to do in Winchester if you’re keen to discover the mystery and folklore behind this historic city.
1. The Great Hall and Round Table
The Great Hall is all that remains of a castle first constructed by William the Conquerer in 1067. It was built in the 13th Century as a replacement to the original hall and has hosted more than it’s fair share of historic figures in good times and bad.
The Great Hall is most famous today for housing the Round Table, which according to legend is the table used by King Arthur and his knights.
Spoiler alert: carbon dating and tree ring evidence date the table to the 13th or 14th Century.
Find out more about visiting The Great Hall.
2. Winchester City Museum
This hands-on museum it tells the story of Winchester from Roman times to its place as a medieval capital and onwards through the centuries to when it was the home of Jane Austin.
There are plenty of activities for families as well as recreations of Edwardian and Victorian shops, and artefacts for young explorers to sort through.
You can also find our more about King Alfred and Jane Austin. The writer came to Winchester to seek medical help and sadly died here in 1817. Two of her purses and a personalised ivory spool case are on display in the museum.
Find out more about visiting Winchester City Museum.
3. Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral is not only the city’s most recognised landmark, it is also the home to a stunning array of art and architecture dating back to Norman times.
From the ornate medieval tiles on the floor to more than a thousand carved stone bosses in the vaulted ceilings there’s so much to take in.
Book a tour to make sure you see all the Cathedral has to offer. Families can also ask for a children’s tour map to help them discover interesting facts and the stories held in the walls of the Cathedral.
Cathedral entry costs £10 for adults but accompanied children under 16 can visit for free.
Find out more about visiting Winchester Cathedral.
4. Westgate Museum
If the walls of Westgate Museum could talk what a tale they would tell. This historic building was once part of a gateway to the city. It houses a painted Tudor ceiling commissioned on the occasion of the wedding of Queen Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain in nearby Winchester Cathedral.
It’s hardly the place you’d expect to find graffiti but it’s here too. For 200 years the building was used as a prison for people who’d run. up bad debts. The prisoners whiled away their time cutting their names, dates and pictures into the walls.
Today there’s hands-on activities for all the family including trying on a replica coat of armour and Tudor costumes, brass rubbings and a spotter trail. You’ll also find school holiday and half term activities throughout the year.
Find out more about visiting Westgate Museum.
Free things to do in Winchester
Wondering what to do in Winchester without breaking the bank? Here’s some budget saving activities:
5. King Alfred City Walk
Follow in the footsteps of King Alfred the Great who ruled England from 871 to 899. He is such an important figure in our history because he is credited with making strategic military moves that led to the creation of England.
He was also a scholar who formed important laws of the land and helped to spread literacy.
No wonder he has ‘The Great’ added to the end of his name.
The City Walk is a free downloadable guide that takes you on a tour of some of the important King Alfred landmarks, from his statue on Broadway to his last known resting place at Hyde Abbey Gardens.
The tour is in three loops, so perfect for families to decide on how far they want to go.
Find out more about the King Alfred City Walk.
6. Wolvesey Castle
This ruin in the heart of Winchester was once the home of the city’s medieval Bishops. It’s now looked after by English Heritage and is free to visit.
Find out more about Wolvesey Castle.
7. Winchester City Mill
Here’s another free thing to do in Winchester: visit the mill. It’s the oldest working watermill in the country with more than a thousand years of history. Up until the early 20th Century it was still in regular use.
It’s now looked after by the National Trust. There are hands-on activities for kids to have a go at as well as milling demonstrations. Winchester City Mill is open Wednesday to Sunday.
Find out more about visiting Winchester City Mill.
Things to do in Winchester when it rains
Winchester’s museums are a good place to head when the weather is rubbish but here’s some more ideas for where to go when it’s wet:
8. The Arc
Catch a family-friendly theatre show and half term activities at The Arc arts centre.
Find out what’s on at The Arc.
9. Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium
If your kids followed Tim Peake’s Prinicipia Mission onboard the International Space Station then a visit to Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium will leave them buzzing.
It’s home to the UK’s largest stand alone planetarium cinema and has loads of hands on activities to get them thinking like scientists.
As well as being great place to hand out on a rainy day, it also hosts lots of half term and school holiday activities.
Here’s a review of our visit to Winchester Science Centre & Planetarium.
Find out more about what’s on at Winchester Science Centre.
10. Tiny Treasure Town
Here’s a great thing to do in Winchester with toddlers – a role play centre where they can let their imaginations run free.
There’s a miniature shop, building site, bauty salon, home, veterinary practice, and space station for little ones to explore.
Find out about all the activities to do at Tiny Treasure Town in Otterbourne.
11. Soft play in Winchester
Here’s where to find soft play centres in Winchester when the weather fails you and the kids still need to burn off energy:
- Qube Soft Play at the Carroll Centre, Stanmore
- The Craft House, Kings Walk
- The Adventure Barn, Marwell Activity Centre, Owslebury
Events in Winchester
Here are some of the must see events in Winchester’s event calendar:
12. Winchester Hat Fair
This has to be one of my favourite reasons to visit Winchester.
Each July the city centre is taken over by a band of street performers. There’s everything from acrobats to side shows and bite-sized theatre productions all to be found in the narrow alleyways and market squares of this picturesque city.
The Hat Fair began in the 1970s and has its roots in busking. Its name comes from the performers placing their hats on the ground and asking their audience to show its appreciation by placing money in it.
Find out more about what’s on at the next Winchester Hat Fair.
13. Winchester Cathedral Christmas Market
Winchester’s Christmas Market is recognised as one of the best in Europe – in fact it’s regularly placed in the top 10.
What makes it so special is its unique location in the Cathedral’s Inner Close, its handpicked high quality exhibitors and bustling atmosphere.
It’s inspired by traditional German Christmas markets with pretty wooden chalets, festive lighting, the sound of Christmas carols and the aroma of mulled wine and cinnamon drifting in the air.
Things to do near Winchester
There’s plenty to do not far from Winchester too. Here’s my recommended family attractions and day trips from Winchester:
14. Marwell Zoo
If you are looking for things to do near Winchester that involve animals, then take a trip to Marwell Zoo. It looks after hundreds of exotic and endangered animals.
When you arrive, I’d recommend hopping on the land train close to the zoo entrance for ride around the park to get your bearings before setting off on foot.
When we last visited Marwell the tropical house had just opened. It is home to butterflies, birds and reptiles. We also love seeing the penguins, giraffes and tigers.
If you want to get up close with the capybaras, flamingos, pygmy hippos and white rhinos take the rail train (extra charge).
As well as the animals there are five adventure playgrounds dotted around this 140 acre wildlife park.
You can also stay at Marwell’s hotel*, which puts you just a minute’s walk from the zoo entrance.
Find out more about visiting Marwell Zoo.
15. Paultons Park
If you are wondering if there’s a theme park near Winchester, then look no further than Paultons Park. It has more than 70 thrill rides for teens, toddlers and babies.
There’s five themed worlds to explore as well as a collection of exotic birds and animals.
Younger family members will not forgive you if you don’t venture into Peppa Pig World. This zone has rides for all ages featuring characters and stories that toddlers will know well from the TV series.
Read about our visit to Paultons Park just before we moved to Devon.
Find out more about days out at Paultons Park.
16. Itchen Valley Country Park
If you’re after some fresh air then Itchen Valley Country Park is one of the top things to do near Winchester. It has 440 acres of water meadows and woodlands to explore, as well as an adventure playground and plenty of space for picnics.
The park rangers put on regular craft and activity days aimed at families, as well as a totem trail for inquisitive kids.
Itchen Valley Country Park is also home to the Go Ape! Tree Top Adventure, which has a 193 zip wire – such great fun!
Read about our Go Ape! Adventure at Itchen Valley Country Park.
17. Hinton Ampner
When it comes to things to do near Winchester with children on a sunny day this one does not disappoint. This 20th Century garden and estate surrounding a 18th Century manor house overlooks the rolling South Downs.
Today it’s in the care of the National Trust so is free to visit for members. Bring a picnic and enjoy the gardens.
Find out more about exploring Hinton Ampner.
18. Bishops Waltham Palace
The Palace was the residence of the Bishops of Winchester from the 12th to the 17th Century but went into ruin after the Civil War.
It is now an English Heritage site and is extremely picturesque. Pack a picnic and have a stroll through the grounds and what remains of the Palace walls. It’s free to visit.
Find out more about Bishops Waltham Palace.
19. A day trip to Southampton
I know what you’re thinking: isn’t that where you go to join a cruise?
Yes, more than a million people embark on cruise ships from Southampton every year, but it is also a destination in itself.
Explore the city’s relationship with the ocean at SeaCity Museum, step back in time at the Tudor House Museum and find out why Southampton is linked to the Spitfire at Solent Sky.
Read about these places and even more things to do in Southampton with kids in my dedicated guide.
20. A day trip to Portsmouth
Before moving to Devon I lived in a Portsmouth postcode for more than thirty years, so have a pretty good idea of the very best attractions for families and days out in Portsmouth.
Explore the home of the Royal Navy, climb the Spinnaker Tower for panoramic views of the Solent or replan on the beach.
Find out my full list of things to do in Portsmouth with kids.
Family-friendly places to eat in Winchester
Here’s some family-friendly restaurants we can recommend in and around Winchester:
How to get to Winchester
Winchester has its own train station which is on the line from Waterloo in London. It’s also easy to get to by rail from Portsmouth and Southampton.
If you are travelling by car I can recommend using one of the park and ride services sign posted off the M3. This is much easier than driving through the small city centre to find parking.
Have you visited Winchester with kids? What attractions would you add to this list?
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