History and the sea come together in Portsmouth like nowhere else in Britain, so the city's Historic Dockyard complex is your obvious first port of call. Every schoolchild has learnt of Nelson and HMS Victory, but it's something else to pace her wooden decks and clamber amongst her cannon. Immaculately restored, hundreds of artefacts from cook-pots to ships’ toilets bring the seafaring past to life; when you've finished, there's Henry VIII's Mary Rose and HMS Warrior – Britain's first ironclad – to see as well. Ashore, teenage imaginations are stoked by the sights, sounds and smells of the Dockyard’s Royal Naval Museum and 'Action Stations' hi-tech science centre with a naval twist, featuring jump-jet simulators and a high-octane modern-day pirate movie. A harbour cruise getting up-close and personal with today's battle-fleet rounds off the visit in more leisurely fashion.
Beyond the dockyard gates, Portsmouth's skyline is dominated by the Spinnaker Tower with its dramatic needle spire and billowing 'sail'. Take the high-speed elevator 30 storeys up and you'll be rewarded with 40km views, while beneath your feet – almost literally if you walk out over the glass floor – you can watch toy-town ships and ferries chugging in and out of harbour.
Head for Fort Nelson crowning Portsdown Hill eye-level with the Spinnaker Tower – for those not yet sated by militaria, this restored fortress houses the national collection of artillery, which means everything from the trebuchets unleashed by Russell Crowe in ‘Gladiator’ to Saddam Hussein's supergun. Daily live firings wake everyone else up too. If you're still not done, at the foot of the hill stands Portchester Castle, northern Europe's best-preserved Roman fortress.
Don’t think Portsmouth’s all fight, fight, fight: take a break from the bloodshed by walking a short way to Southsea, the city's gently dog-eared seafront suburb. One funfair, two piers, a long pebble beach, a boating lake and acres of municipal grass add up to a thoroughly old-fashioned seaside resort, though its Blue Reef Aquarium is bang up-to-date. For more of the same (less the piers and aquarium), hop on the foot ferry across to Hayling Island, unlikely birthplace of windsurfing.
Southampton, Portsmouth's south coast rival, may have less history on show, but it does offer the area's best upscale shopping (start at WestQuay) and the thrills-and-spills of Paultons Park, which, though not in the same league as, say, Alton Towers, still has loads to do for even the littlest ones, with the ever-so-popular Peppa Pig World and will no doubt win your heart with its genuinely friendly, family atmosphere. On the other side of the city, Manor Farm Country Park contains a working Victorian farmstead, complete with animals and costumed actors. Additonally, Southampton's West End area is home to the Tree Top Adventure Go Ape!
For those with a car, Southampton is also a gateway to Beaulieu National Motor Museum and the New Forest National Park, 600 square kilometres of heath and woodland that's a major family holiday destination in its own right.
It's sailing, though, that Southampton has made its own, and the city's a great place to give the sport a try. For complete beginners the best bet is to book a half-day taster course at Southampton Water Activities Centre (ages 8 and up). For something more ambitious, book a RYAStart Yachting Experience Weekend at Hamble School of Yachting, for kids from around 10 accompanied by a parent or guardian. If these sound too active, you can still see lots of yachting action by taking a day-trip to the Isle of Wight on the Red Funnel Ferry: the hour-long crossing to Cowes doubles as an impromptu cruise.
Visit the genteel cathedral city of Winchester linking Hampshire's coast and countryside. Cushioned between soft hills and with the clear waters of the Itchen flowing through it, Winchester seems hardly to have grown since it was England's ancient capital. Parents enjoy strolling through its graceful streets, kids can see King Arthur's Round Table on display at its castle, while the Gothic cathedral, the longest in Europe, has something for everyone: transcendental architecture, the tombs of King Canute and Jane Austen (her home at nearby Chawton is open as a museum), and a certain notoriety as stand-in for the Vatican in the film of The Da Vinci Code. If it rains, the Intech Science Centre is a hands-on winner, while 15 minutes up the M3 in Basingstoke is Milestones, Hampshire's child-focused living-history museum.
Outside Winchester, Marwell Zoo is a day-out in itself, with breeding groups of some of the world's most endangered animals in generous grassy paddocks, plus adventure playgrounds, a miniature steam train and activities such as face-painting and zoo-keeper talks.
Rising just north of Marwell, the Hampshire Downs form the backbone of the county and contain much of its prettiest countryside. These glorious chalk hills are easily explored at either the Queen Elizabeth or Farley Mount country parks, which both offer hiking, cycling and picnicking, as well as fabulous viewpoints. Another, quieter hilltop viewpoint is Watership Down – of rabbit fame – in the far north of the county.
Between the hills, the valleys of the Test, Itchen and Meon shelter strings of exquisite villages of the sort that would have warmed Miss Marple's heart – East Meon is perhaps Hampshire's prettiest. Larger, but no less countrified, Hampshire's market towns catapult you straight back to the Georgian era: four of the best are Lymington, Petersfield, Odiham and Stockbridge (also visit the nearby Hawk Conservancy). Finest though is Alresford; all pastel-wash and country quiet amid its watercress beds, it’s reached by steam on the Watercress Line.