Encompassing parts of Wiltshire, Dorset, and Hampshire, the New Forest is one of the largest areas of open forest and heathland in England. Famous for its wild ponies, charming villages, and of course, miles of magical woodland, it’s a haven for nature enthusiasts and ramblers alike – but this peaceful region offers much more than just gorgeous scenery and interesting wildlife.
If you’re thinking about planning your next staycation, why not consider the New Forest? To get you inspired, here are nine unique places to visit in the New Forest.
1. Exbury Gardens
If you love wandering around beautiful gardens, then the sprawling 200-acre Exbury Gardens is a must-visit. Located just east of the popular village of Beaulieu, the gardens are owned by the incredibly wealthy Rothschild family – but luckily for us, the grounds are open to the public. Arguably the New Forest’s most colourful place, you can spend hours wandering along these paths and admiring the spectacular collections of plants, flowers, and many world-renowned species.
The gardens are dog-friendly, and there are several paths that take you through different areas of the gardens. You can stroll down the gorgeous Bridal Walk, cross the Japanese Bridge and watch carp swimming the pond, wander through the Sundial Garden and Daffodil Meadow, and look out for the Burmese temple bell that hangs from an oak tree. If you don’t fancy walking, you can always hop on the Exbury Steam Railway, which takes you over the pond in Summer Lane Garden, through the rock gardens, and into the beautiful American Garden.
If you get peckish, there are two lovely picnic areas at Exbury, so it’s a great place to enjoy a meal under the trees. Alternatively, you can head to one of the garden’s three excellent eateries: there’s Mr Eddy’s Restaurant, which serves seasonal hot and cold dishes, the Old Tennis Courts, which sells light refreshments and ice-creams, and VGF, which offers an extensive range of vegan and gluten-free food. To book your tickets for Exbury Gardens, click here.
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2. Wilverley Plain & Inclosure
With miles of ancient forests and wild heathland, it’s no surprise that the New Forest is such a popular destination for walkers and nature lovers, and there are countless hikes you can do within the national park. However, one of the best places for a woodland walk and some wildlife spotting are Wilverley Plain and Wilverley Inclosure, between the pretty villages of Burley and Brockenhurst.
Wilverley Enclosure is packed with both old and young trees, making it a beautiful and unusual spot for a walk – and you may be able to spot deers and ponies through the branches as you stroll. The Wilverley Inclosure walk is 3.5 miles, and is accessible to all ages and abilities – so if you’re looking for a pretty picnic spot with impressive views, it’s hard to beat. If you don’t fancy packing a picnic, you can always fuel up at The Old Station Tea Rooms en route.
Wilverley Plain lies beside Wilvery Enclosure, and this is another great spot for a wildlife ramble. Keep an eye out for ponies and the many bird species that make their home on this heathland, as well as the iconic Wilverley oak tree, which was blown over during a storm, but has been propped upright and continues to grow!
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3. Hurst Castle
If you’re a history buff and love exploring old castles and learning about their past, you’ll definitely want to visit Hurst Castle, which is located in Milford on Sea, on the edge of the New Forest. Built by Henry VIII in the 1500s, Hurst Castle was originally used as an artillery fortress, but over the years it’s been adapted and used for many purposes. It was used as a prison for 17th century captives, to detain King Charles I during the English Civil War, and as a base during WWII.
Today, though, Hurst Castle is open to the public, and sitting upon Hurst Split – a 1.5 mile causeway jutting out from the coast, less than a mile from the Isle of Wight – it boasts gorgeous sea views. The castle is in good condition, and currently exhibits a range of military artefacts, so it’s a fascinating destination for anyone who’s curious about English or military history.
Dogs are welcome, and there’s a decent cafe on site too where you can enjoy a tasty selection of homemade sandwiches and baguettes as well as soups, toasties, and cakes.
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You can’t visit the New Forest and not visit Brockenhurst – a rural village so charming that it’s been declared ‘Britain’s Most Beautiful Place to Live’. Situated right in the very heart of the New Forest National Park, you can often spot ponies, deer, and sometimes even donkeys and cows wandering freely down the streets of the village – just like they would have done hundreds of years ago.
The village is surrounded by some of the most gorgeous countrysides in the area, so it’s an excellent spot for hiking – but as the most populated village in the New Forest, Brockenhurst itself has plenty to offer visitors. If you enjoy searching for antique treasures, head over to the collector’s fairs at Brockenhurst Village Hall, or have a browse in the many boutique shops.
Foodies will be in their element here too, as there are plenty of excellent pubs and restaurants to visit, as well as cosy tea rooms and cafes. You may also want to pay a visit to the popular hotel The Pig, where you can enjoy a sumptuous dinner, sip drinks in the classic panelled bar, or even treat yourself to an indulgent spa treatment in the hotel’s treatment rooms – which are uniquely housed in a former potting shed and shepherds hut!
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5. Bolton’s Bench
If you’re a fan of myths and legends – or simply exploring quiet and curious places – then a visit to Bolton’s Bench should definitely be added to your New Forest to-do list. Located by the village of Lyndhurst is Bolton’s Bench – a small hill with a bench perched upon its summit. If you climb to the top of the knoll, you can admire quiet views of majestic yew trees, rolling fields, and ancient woodland, while taking a few moments to appreciate your surroundings and be in the moment.
But Bolton’s Bench isn’t just famous for being a tranquil beauty spot – and legend has it that beneath Bolton’s Bench, a dragon slumbers… Many years ago, a dragon terrorised the area until a knight decided to take the dragon on. After a fierce battle, the dragon fled, finally dying on this same hill. A mound grew over his body (forming the hill), but the story doesn’t end there: the knight, mentally broken by the fight, wandered aimlessly until he too returned to Bolton’s Bench, dying alone on top of the hill. His bow fell beside him, and from it, a yew tree grew – the same tree that stands today.
Whether there’s any vague truth in this old legend or not, Bolton’s Bench retains a sense of magic and mystery, and is a lovely spot to take in the views and enjoy some peace. The village of Lyndhurst is just a five-minute walk away and has plenty of tearooms, pubs, and restaurants if you’re hungry. The New Forest Heritage Centre and Museum is also situated in Lyndhurst, and if you’re interested in learning about the history and traditions of this beautiful area, it’s well worth a visit.
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The stunning village of Beaulieu is a wonderful place to spend the day and has something to offer everyone. The privately-owned Beaulieu River is known to be one of the most beautiful marinas on the South coast, and on a fine day, the banks of the river are a great spot to kick back and enjoy some rays. Or, if you’re feeling energetic, you might want to take some canoeing lessons on the river with New Forest Activities.
Beaulieu is especially famous for being the home of the National Motor Museum, which is one of the best car museums in the world. Here you can admire more than 200 historic vehicles, from Mini Coopers to Bugattis, and even a car dating from 1875. You can also give your feet a rest and climb aboard the Skytrain; this mile-long monorail is the oldest in England and provides you with excellent bird’s-eye-views of the Beaulieu grounds. There’s plenty more to discover here, from army museums to adventure playgrounds, so it’s a great day out for kids as well as adults. You can buy tickets here.
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If you love exploring historic towns during your holidays, visiting old pubs, browsing markets, and pottering around in quaint little shops, then why not make a visit to the Georgian town of Lymington? Located right on the Solent, just across from the Isle of Wight, Lymington is a classy seaside town with cobbled streets and plenty of picturesque old buildings – but the bustling, colourful harbour is the town’s main draw.
Lymington is a major yachting centre with three marinas, so if you’re interested in getting out onto the water, this is a great place to do it, and there are dozens of sailing experiences you can choose from. The Old Town Quay is a lovely spot for a stroll along the water’s edge – but you can just as easily soak up the atmosphere of this renowned old port from one of the historic pubs!
During the summer months you can take a dip at the Lymington Sea Water Baths, the oldest lido in the UK, or, if you visit in August, you might catch the Lymington Seafood Festival. If you’re into plants and gardening, be sure to visit the popular Apple Court Garden & Nursery, where you can admire beautiful Japanese gardens and tropical flowers, and pick up a selection of unusual plants to take home. Plus, the cafe is a lovely spot for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in the sun.
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8. Ringwood Brewery
After a long day hiking, exploring, or even just lounging around (it’s a holiday, after all!), few things taste as good as a cold, well-earned pint. If you love trying new craft beers and are interested in the brewing process, then why not head over to Ringwood Brewery, and sample a beer that’s local to the New Forest? Choose between the Old Thumper craft ale, Circadian IPA, or the Razor Back craft beer – or (as long as you’re not driving!), all three!
At Ringwood Brewery you can do far more than just sample a range of great-tasting beers, however; you can go behind the scenes during a two-hour brewery tour. During the tour, you’ll get to see the brewing process from start to finish, as well as smell the hops and taste the malts, and at the end of the tour, you’ll get to enjoy a tasting session. Afterward, you can have a wander in the Ringwood brewery shop, where you can browse their range of goodies and take home a free bottle of beer.
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9. New Forest Paddle Sport Company
Stand up paddleboarding is one of the most popular water sports around today, and if you’ve never done it before, the New Forest is a great place to give it a go. Not only does stand up paddleboarding allow you to explore the New Forest coastline and salt marshes from a whole other perspective, but it also has many health benefits: paddleboarding improves balance, coordination, and posture, reduces backaches, increases muscle and bone strength, and is excellent for physical rehabilitation. Plus, it’s a good way of alleviating stress and anxiety, and encouraging you to feel present.
Located in Milford on Sea, the New Forest Paddle Sport Company offers a range of paddleboarding opportunities that are suited to beginners – from brief taster sessions to magical experiences you’ll remember for years to come. If you fancy it, you can head out on a paddleboarding sunset picnic, or try a spot of moonlight paddle boarding under the stars. If you don’t fancy paddleboarding, you can also give kayaking a go here – which is another fun way to explore these gorgeous natural surroundings, and spot plenty of wildlife as you go.
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With beautiful scenery, fascinating history, interesting towns, and unique wildlife, the New Forest is a wonderful destination for a staycation. If you like to get active during your holidays, whether that’s via paddleboarding or setting off on a strenuous hike, the New Forest definitely offers enough to keep you occupied – but if you want to take it easy, and even enjoy a bit of pampering on your break, you’ll also be spoilt for choice. This magical region really does offer something for everyone, so whatever type of trip you’re looking for, the New Forest will almost certainly tick the right boxes.
Have you visited the New Forest before, or are you thinking about visiting this year? Or do you have any of your own New Forest travel tips to share with our readers? We’d love to hear about your experiences! Leave us a comment below, or join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum.