If you’re heading to the New Forest, happy days! There is so much to do in this spacious and unspoiled part of Britain. From exploring by bike, on foot or on horseback to kayaking or paddling through the salt marshes, as well as a whole lot more.
Whether spa days are more your scene or you want to go wildlife spotting, opportunities in the New Forest are plentiful. In this pretty part of Hampshire you can see the world’s biggest collection of vintage cars, savour lunch with a very local flavour, sample cider, discover Mr Selfridge’s one-time home, wander among fields of lavender or pick fruit fresh from the farm.
This guide will take you through the 20 best things to do in the New Forest so you can discover the area’s finest experiences:
1. Explore New Forest National Park by bike
With more than 100 miles of marked cycle paths, the New Forest is a cyclist’s dream. Taking to two wheels lets you explore the area at just the right pace, seeing much more than you would by car while moving much more quickly than on foot.
The best recommended routes could see you rolling by a disused railway line in Brockenhurst or following the northern forest circular near Ringwood. Alternatively, take to the quiet road between Brockenhurst to Beaulieu or ride along Rhinefield Ornamental Drive.
2. Visit Lymington
Lymington is a charming town with a twisting, cobbled lane leading down to the compact harbour. Visiting Lymington is one of the top New Forest things to do in winter as there are plenty of cosy pubs, cafes and shops to dip in and out of. See if you can spot the gold post box (for resident Sir Ben Ainslie) when wandering along the high street.
In summer, there’s the Lymington Seafood Festival in August, and you can also sample swimming in the saltwater baths. Zorbing, kayaking, inflatables and paddle boarding are also offered here during good weather.
3. Exbury Gardens
The small village of Exbury near Buckler’s Hard is home to an aesthetically pleasing 200 acre riverside garden. It’s a particularly attractive place in spring, when the azaleas and rhododendrons are bursting with colour and an abundance of daffodil bulbs are in bloom.
Exbury Gardens belongs to a division of the Rothschild family and the river running through makes a soothing place for a stroll or to sit and relax by. You can also take a trip on the steam railway during the warmer months.
4. National Motor Museum
As well as being an incredibly photogenic village in its own right, Beaulieu is the site of the National Motor Museum. A mesmerising collection of over 300 vintage vehicles is housed here – the largest in the world, in fact. If you like, you can also explore Palace House, the Montagu family seat.
The special exhibitions are noteworthy and have previously centred on James Bond, manufacturers such as Ford, and the World of Top Gear.
5. Go paddle-boarding at Milford on Sea
Hiring a paddle board or kayak from the New Forest Paddle Sport Company is one of the top things to do near the New Forest for water sports enthusiasts and keen beginners alike. Based at Keyhaven in Milford-on-Sea, lessons and experiences are offered as well as hire.
Those who take to the water with a SUP or kayak can explore the salt marshes and Keyhaven River, after launching from where the Needles Eye cafe looks out towards the Isle of Wight.
Horse riding is also one of the most popular things to do in the New Forest for fans of all things equine. As well saddling up on your own trusty steed for an hour or two, you can spot the native New Forest ponies as you ride across the heather-clad, gorse-sprinkled heath.
Favourite locations to set out from include Burley and Brockenhurst. Both of which are home to several stables and are surrounded by swathes of attractive, level ground. The perfect terrain for horses and humans alike.
7. New Forest Lavender Farm
You don’t have to travel to rural France to see and smell fragrant fields filled with stems of purple lavender plants, as the New Forest Lavender Farm brings that heady experience home to Blighty. This is one of the lesser-known and more unusual things to do in the New Forest.
As well as the New Forest Lavender Gardens, the site also offers tea rooms, providing visitors with the chance to sample a range of homemade cakes and light lunches in an idyllic setting. Before or after a wander among the delightfully scented herbs and flowers.
8. Go kayaking on the Beaulieu River
The small Beaulieu River can be accessed by kayak from Buckler’s Hard. The tranquil setting is a lovely spot for taking out a canoe or kayak. Singles and doubles can be hired locally, or you can book a guided tour if you prefer.
With over 40 miles of coastline, seeing the New Forest from the water is an experience not to be missed. Given the fact that the river is both a National Nature Reserve and a Site of Specific Scientific Interest, you can expect to see lots of flora and fauna along the way.
9. Hurst Castle
Dating from the mid 16th century, Hurst Castle was a stronghold of Henry VIII. The artillery fort formed an important part of the south coast’s defence, protecting the Solent from French or Roman invasion.
Due to its position on the end of a coastal spit, there are breathtaking views across the water and towards the Isle of Wight from Hurst Castle. The grounds of the fortress also provide families with plenty of space for an active or relaxing visit.
10. Have lunch at The Pig in Brockenhurst
In a secluded spot close to Brockenhurst, just off the road leading to Beaulieu is The Pig. It’s a country house hotel offering one of the Forest’s quintessential foodie experiences. This is thanks to the walled kitchen garden on site, a 25-mile menu, and a greenhouse restaurant.
Food with a local flavour is a way of life at The Pig, all served in the chic yet laid-back style that the brand has become famous for. This was the original Pig hotel, and has been taking the area by storm since 2011. It is, without doubt, one of the best restaurants in the New Forest.
11. Buckler’s Hard
Forming part of the vast Beaulieu Estate, Buckler’s Hard lies under three miles to the south of Beaulieu. A line of original Georgian homes can be seen here leading towards the river, and there is also the Buckler’s Hard Maritime Museum to discover.
As a popular launching point for kayakers, much of the attraction of Buckler’s Hard is down to the stunning natural waterside setting.
12. Soak up the scenery on a walk
Taking life at a slower pace is one of the simple pleasures of life in the New Forest. A simple stroll around this pretty area can be a highlight of many a stay. There are multiple routes to choose from, as recommended by the National Park Authority or Go New Forest websites.
Some of the most popular trails are a short two mile trek by Blackwater Arboretum; an easy two mile stroll past the beech, chestnut and oak trees of Bolderwood and four or five mile routes through the beautiful villages of Burley or Brockenhurst. While at 34 miles, the Avon Valley Walk is for those who prefer more of a challenge.
13. Bolderwood Deer Sanctuary
If you are taking a walk by the tall trees at Bolderwood, don’t miss the chance to look out for the local deer population here. Wildlife spotting is, not surprisingly, one of the best things to do in the New Forest. At Bolderwood you have the highest chance of seeing some fallow deer.
It’s a scenic spot located on Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive near Lyndhurst. A purpose-built platform gives visitors uninterrupted views over the meadow. The fact that forest rangers feed the deer daily during spring and summer greatly improves your chances of an encounter.
14. Lepe Country Park
If you’re craving a coastal fix during your New Forest sojourn, head south to Lepe Country Park. This mile-long stretch of shingle is ideal for birdwatchers, kite and wind surfers, walkers, swimmers, and families alike.
The site also contains remains relating to the D-Day landings. If you visit during the right season, the wildflower meadows are a spectacular sight. There is also a five mile marked walking trail, a nature reserve, sensory garden and play park, plus a cafe, BBQ hire and a kiosk selling snacks and drinks.
15. Go for a spa day with lunch, afternoon tea or dinner
The New Forest is home to some of the finest hotels in the land. As such, taking a spa day at one of these luxury New Forest hotels is a must for many. Four and five star properties known for their sublime spas include Careys Manor and Rhinefield House in Brockenhurst, Limewood near Lyndhurst and the uber luxurious Chewton Glen in Barton-on-Sea.
If you want to dine at some of the best restaurants in the New Forest at the same time, don’t forget to make a booking for lunch or dinner at Limewood’s Hartnett, Holder and Co or Le Blaireau at Carey’s Manor, while the afternoon tea at Rhinefield is outstanding. Chewton Glen also has a cookery school, overseen by TV chef James Martin.
16. Goodall’s Strawberry Farm
Located close to Lymington, Goodall’s Strawberry Farm draws on over a century of experience, as it’s been in the same family for over a century. Today there is so much more to the farm than strawberries, and visitors can also pick raspberries, blackcurrants, cherries and redcurrants when in season.
Or visit during autumn, when you can pick your own pumpkin ready for Halloween at the end of October.
17. Moors Valley Country Park and Go Ape
Moors Valley Country Park is one of the most popular places for family days out during all seasons. Even in summer the trails are rarely crowded once you get past the car parks and playgrounds. The picnic tables are well spread out, giving everyone plenty of space.
Go Ape New Forest can also be found at Moors Valley. Here the adventurous can take to an adrenaline-inducing course located among the treetops, and there are several levels of challenge to choose from. Go Ape also offers Segways to explore the forest on.
18. New Forest Wildlife Park
In a quiet spot close to the New Forest towns of Lyndhurst and Ashurst is the New Forest Wildlife Park. The spacious site on the edge of the forest showcases various indigenous species as well as some from across the world.
Around ten species of owl are among the highlights of the park, and you can also see toads, frogs, otters, hedgehogs, ferrets, foxes, pine martens, polecats, badgers, wildcats, wolves, wallabies and deer while you’re here.
19. New Forest Cider
Located in the village of Burley, the location of New Forest Cider is clearly marked by the presence of a large cider barrel occupying a prime position next to the post office. The company makes cider from the produce of their own orchards, supplemented by apples from Herefordshire and Somerset.
Popular products include perry (made from pears rather than apples) and aged vintage ciders. The beverages are made without the use of artificial additives such as flavourings and colourings, resulting in a full flavoured yet clean, crisp finish.
If you want to line your stomach in advance of your visit, there are several traditional English pubs in Burley to choose from.
20. Highcliffe Castle
Highcliffe Castle entered the spotlight when the TV series Mr Selfridge was broadcast, and was used during filming. Once a ruin, the castle has been painstakingly restored, and makes a pleasant place for a day out in a stunning coastal setting.
You can wander past the Gothic style castle and tea rooms towards the sea, where a zig zag path takes walkers and wheelchairs down to the sand and shingle beaches below. Or take a right and head through Steamer Point Nature Reserve instead.
If you want to see the Selfridge graves while you’re here, cross Lymington Road near the castle entrance into St. Mark’s churchyard. It’s interesting to note that Mrs Selfridge has a larger plot than her husband, who after years of reckless living, actually died a pauper.
With so many wonderful things to do in the New Forest, it’s no wonder that it’s one of the most popular places to stay in the UK. If you’re planning your own visit, discover the best luxury hotels in the New Forest, as well as the best New Forest restaurants. Or read my ultimate guide to the New Forest.