The Isle of Wight probably isn’t at the top of – or even on – your list of potential vacation destinations. But it should be.
Located a few miles off the coast of Hampshire, in the English Channel, Isle of Wight is England’s largest offshore island. It’s not exactly a household name, at least in North America – though it’s easy to confuse with Isle of Wight, Virginia.
England’s Isle of Wight is located less than 100 miles from central London and less than 80 miles from Gatwick Airport, the main international air hub south of the British capital. Gatwick has direct flights from major North American cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, and Vancouver, among others. Isle of Wight’s proximity and connectedness make it easy to visit as part of a larger trip to the U.K.
There’s no bridge to Isle of Wight, but it’s well served by speedy car ferries. The best service is Wightlink Ferries out of the mainland towns of Portsmouth and Lymington, just across the Solent strait. For foot passengers, Wightlink’s round-trip day tickets cost roughly 15 to 19 pounds ($19 to $24). Round-trip overnight tickets (valid for one year) cost roughly 21 to 25 pounds ($26 to $31).
Here’s where to go and what to do for a budget-friendly trip to the Isle of Wight.
Overview of Isle of Wight
Like the rest of Great Britain, Isle of Wight is awash in history. Archaeological records suggest the island has been inhabited for at least 8,000 years. Later, during the Bronze Age, Isle of Wight’s ample tin deposits made it an important mining center. However, little is known about the island’s Neolithic and Bronze Age inhabitants.
Isle of Wight’s more recent history is clearer. During the 1st millennium B.C., the island was colonized by Celtic peoples from continental Europe. The Romans swept through sometime after 100 B.C., leaving a handful of vacation homes (but, apparently, no permanent settlements) in their wake. Traces of these grand villas’ ruins are visible at various points on the island and just offshore, though they’re not major tourist attractions.
Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Isle of Wight was home to a succession of pagan tribes and, later, Christian immigrants from mainland England. The Vikings periodically raided the exposed island, which was eventually subsumed into a unified England by King Alfred. After the Normans invaded England, the entire island was granted to the wealthy de Redvers family, which ruled it as a feudal fiefdom until about 1300 A.D.
Medieval and Modern History
For the next several hundred years, the Isle of Wight was the subject of numerous sieges and invasions by Spanish and French forces, leading the British government to build extensive coastal fortifications at tremendous cost to the crown. Beginning in the 1800s, the fully secured island gained favor as a vacation retreat for Britain’s upper class, welcoming temporary inhabitants such as the writers Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson.
Royals favored the Isle of Wight as well. Queen Victoria died here in 1901, not far from the world’s first commercial radio station.
Isle of Wight’s relative calm was shattered during World War II, when it suffered frequent bombing raids. Following the war, the British government used parts of the island to test and build long-range missiles and space rockets. The counterculture found its way here in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when a massive music festival – Isle of Wight Festival, basically the British equivalent of Woodstock – put Isle of Wight on the cultural map.
Isle of Wight Today
Today, Isle of Wight is a pastoral and picturesque mix of inland farms, rolling woods, sandy beaches, dramatic coastal cliffs, and charming towns. Though much of the island is privately owned, key coastal areas (including The Needles, Compton Bay and Downs, and Hamstead Heritage Coast) are protected from development.
About 140,000 people live on the island, mostly in its coastal towns. With about 30,000 inhabitants, Ryde (on the northeast coast) is the largest settlement, followed closely by the county seat of Newport.
Top Things to See and Do on Isle of Wight
Intrigued by Isle of Wight? Hop on the Wightlink Ferry and spend a few days touring this 150 square mile slice of Old England. If time and budget allow, these exciting activities all need to be on your list.
1. Learn Something at Osborne House
Located in the townvi of East Cowes, the grand Osborne House was Queen Victoria’s beloved home. She reportedly once said, “It is impossible to imagine a prettier spot.”
Osborne House is part Gilded Age mansion, part country estate. You could spend a week on the grounds and still not see everything. If you have just an hour or two, don’t miss the Swiss Cottage, an accessory chalet for children; the opulent, Eastern-influenced Durbar Room; the hothouses with tropical plants; and the classical, expertly maintained Victorian garden. Keep an open mind and you’ll learn more about the Victorian era – and Queen Victoria herself – than you ever imagined possible.
Osborne House is open from 10am to 4pm during the winter months, from 10am to 5pm during the fall, and from 10am to 6pm during the summer. However, its hours can be a bit erratic, and it’s subject to closure for long stretches (for instance, the first half of November), so check the website before visiting.
Adult admission is 15 pounds per person. A family ticket (up to two adults and three children) is only 39 pounds.
2. Go Tropical at Amazon World
Amazon World is the closest thing to a proper zoo on the Isle of Wight. As its name suggests, it focuses on tropical animals, though it’s not strictly limited to the Amazon – one of the most popular exhibits features meerkats, social ground-dwelling mammals native to African steppes and deserts. If you’re exploring the Isle of Wight with kids, Amazon World should be at the top of your list.
Amazon World is open from 10am to 5:30pm during the summer. Winter hours can vary, so call ahead before visiting. Adult admission is 10.50 pounds. Family packages (two adults and two children or two adults and three children) cost 35 pounds and 41.50 pounds, respectively.
3. See the Isle on Two Wheels
Whether you’re a die-hard bike commuter or just an occasional peddler, you can probably appreciate a good bike ride. With its modest land area, manageable terrain, and quiet country roads, Isle of Wight is the ideal setting for a day on two wheels.
Once you arrive, contact Wight Cycle Hire, the island’s foremost cycle outfitter. John, the owner, knows the island’s lanes, byways, and alleys like the back of his hand – just remember to tell him we sent you.
Wight Cycle Hire is based in the town of Yarmouth (the second smallest town in the UK), on Wight’s northwest coast, but John and his team happily deliver cycles anywhere on the island. Feel free to take the team’s route suggestions, plan your own route on Wight Cycle Hire’s website, or place your trust in the hands of an expert Wight Cycle Hire guide.
If you don’t want to spring for a human guide, consider purchasing a paper guidebook for 7.99 pounds. It’s a comprehensive overview of Isle of Wight’s walking and cycling routes.
Adult standard bikes start at 20 pounds per 24-hour period, with steep discounts for longer rental periods. Wight Cycle Hire is open Monday through Saturday, from 9am to 5pm, and from 10am to 4pm Sundays.
4. Get Married at an Enchanted Manor (Seriously)
Admit it: You’ve always wanted fairytale nuptials. At Enchanted Manor, you can actually indulge that fantasy – and, remarkably, still save money on your wedding (at least, compared with the cost of a traditional wedding).
Once an exclusive hotel for upper-crust guests, Enchanted Manor has been transformed into a bespoke venue-for-hire that specializes in weddings and customized special events. With capacity for 60 guests, it’s best for smaller ceremonies, but it has a slew of add-ons and amenities, including a game room, a fully equipped kitchen, a barbecue hut, a garden hot tub, a therapy room (for massages and other treatments), a private dining room, and reduced-cost car ferries from the mainland.
Enchanted Manor’s wedding packages start at less than 4,000 pounds for a three-day weekend or four-day midweek. Two-hour weddings cost just 350 pounds – perfect for informal witness ceremonies. Day hires (no overnights) cost 950 pounds. Check Enchanted Manor’s tariff page for more details.
5. See the Needles Before They’re Gone
They’ll surely be here when you arrive, but these dramatic chalk spires, which cling to the western edge of Isle of Wight, will eventually succumb to the relentless power of the wind and waves.
For now, the Needles extend out into the water from U-shaped Alum Bay, capped by the famous Trinity Lighthouse. Start at the top of the cliffs above the bay and ride the gondola down to beach level, making sure to snap plenty of pictures of the distant formations along the way. A return chairlift ticket costs 6 pounds.
If you plan other activities in the area, such as Jurassic Golf (a family favorite) or the 4D Cinema Experience, buy a pack of Supersaver tickets (12 tickets for 9 pounds). Supersavers knock 25% off the cost of each activity, including gondola rides. See a full list of prices here.
You can visit the Needles daily, between 10am and 4pm, except during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Opening hours are extended during the summer months, but call ahead to learn the exact closing time.
6. Spend a Peaceful Afternoon at The Battery
Almost directly above the Needles, overlooking beautiful Alum Bay and the English Channel, is The Battery – or, as it’s properly known, The Needles Old Battery and New Battery. This impressive fortification played a crucial role in the U.K.’s modern military history, from defending Isle of Wight and the rest of Great Britain from German bombing raids, to secret rocket development and testing during the early days of the Space Age.
The Battery’s clifftop setting has a stunning view of the surrounding waters and the Needles themselves, including the prominent gap where a fourth formation – known as Lot’s Wife – collapsed back in the 1700s. Before you head down to the beach, check out the secret tunnels under the fort and check out Tennyson’s Monument, a permanent memorial to one of Britain’s best-known literary figures.
The entire Battery property is accessible for 6.20 pounds per adult. New Battery is free for all. Opening hours are generally 10am to 5pm or 5:30pm. However, winter hours are severely restricted, and the property is often closed altogether. High winds can force temporary closure as well. To avoid disappointment, call ahead.
7. Soak Some Sun at the Beach
The English Channel isn’t exactly the Mediterranean. However, as England’s southernmost exposure, the Channel coast is the best local sun-seekers can get. With consistent, mild breezes off the water, Isle of Wight is a few degrees warmer, and a tad sunnier, than inland cities such as London and Birmingham.
The Isle of Wight literally has miles of beaches. Each stretch has a unique look and feel. One of the most popular (and sandiest) is Appley Beach, where the difference between high and low tide is immense. Low tide is an amazing time to explore areas normally covered by water.
Ryde, conveniently located within walking distance of a Wightlink terminal, is popular too. Both Sandown and Ventnor Beaches have extensive commercial districts nearby, though many vendors close up shop during the off-season. For a relaxed experience, check out Gurnard Beach, a secluded stretch of smooth pebbles with little human activity.
For more information about Isle of Wight’s beaches, check out Visit Isle of Wight’s excellent guide.
8. Bring the Family to Robin Hill Country Park or Blackgang Chine (or Both)
Isle of Wight has two beloved amusement parks. Both are worth your time, especially if you have kids.
Blackgang Chine, located on the site of a collapsed ravine that once descended 500 feet from the island’s interior to the seacoast, is England’s oldest amusement park. It’s kid-friendly too. Visitors experience “fighting pirates on-board your own ship, discovering life-size moving dinosaurs and escaping from danger, being sheriff of your own cowboy town, rounding up the outlaws and locking ’em up – or experiencing the magic of being fairy princess in your own castle!” It’s paradise for adventurous kids.
Blackgang Chine admission is 17 to 19.50 pounds per person, depending on the day. Combo tickets, which include entry at Robin Hill Country Park, cost 29.75 to 36 pounds per person, depending on the season. Combo tickets include free reentry for one week from the purchase date. Blackgang Chine is closed November through mid-March.
Robin Hill Country Park
Robin Hill Country Park is newer and more adult-friendly. The highlight is the downhill toboggan run, a pulse-pounding (but controlled) descent that stretches a full quarter-mile. The extensive, semi-cultivated woodlands offer a reflective break from kids’ screams and shouts. The falconry exhibit shows off an ancient pursuit for a new generation.
Robin Hill admission is 14.75 to 18.50 pounds per person, depending on the day. All tickets include free reentry for one week from the purchase date. Robin Hill’s hours are restricted during the late fall and winter, and the park may be closed altogether on some days, so it’s best to call ahead during the low season.
9. Taste Local Flavor During Cowes Week
If you’re a festival fan, don’t miss Cowes Week. Held in late July or early August, it’s arguably Isle of Wight’s busiest week of the calendar. The centerpiece is a massive regatta that draws expert mariners from all over the world. There’s plenty to do shoreside too, including multiple music venues, a blowout fireworks display, and a breathtaking air show.
Cowes Week attracts a motley crowd, from grizzled old sailing veterans to members of Britain’s upper crust, so it’s a great time to people-watch.
10. Indulge Your Inner Musician
The Isle of Wight has yet to replicate its most glorious music festival to date: the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, which drew as many as 600,000 attendees and marked one of Jimi Hendrix’s last public appearances.
There’s still plenty to do, though. For a community of its size, Isle of Wight has an impressive festival calendar. In addition to Cowes Week, highlights include:
- Isle of Wight Festival, which maintains the counterculture vibe of the original at diminished scale (early to mid-June)
- Newport Jazz Festival, one of southern England’s most popular jazz celebrations (early June)
- Mondomix, an experimental eruption featuring spoken word, electronica, worldbeat, and other diverse styles (early June)
- Ventnor Fringe, an expansive arts festival that’s about more than just music and is modeled after the wildly successful Edinburgh Fringe
Many of these festivals take place in early summer. If you’re a music buff, aim to visit during that time-frame.
11. Surf Beginner-Friendly Waves
The English Channel isn’t exactly a surfer’s paradise. Thanks to strong winds off the Atlantic and the North Sea, the waters here can get pretty choppy. What qualifies as a big surfing day on the Isle of Wight would barely register in California or Hawaii.
Still, beginners can have fun here. The island’s best surfing spot is definitely Compton Bay, part of the National Trust’s Compton Bay and Downs preserve. Swells reliably reach up to four feet at low tide. Check out Magic Seaweed‘s surf report before visiting, and remember that there are no lifeguards on duty here.
If you’re not up for surfing, no problem. You can easily spend the afternoon wandering the trails – the extensive ABC of the Downs Trail runs for seven-and-a-half miles. The land and water views stretch for miles, with very little development (aside from the odd farmhouse or village) to ruin the view. In the right season, the area explodes with butterflies and wildflowers.
12. Stay at The George Hotel
Looking for a place to stay on Isle of Wight? It’s hard to go wrong with The George Hotel, a quaint property on the Yarmouth waterfront.
The main building has been standing for nearly 400 years and is fully aware of its pedigree, making the tongue-in-cheek boast that its “sweeping staircase, ancient paneling, uneven floors, and stone flags is complemented by smart contemporary flourishes.” Each of its 17 cozy rooms is unique, and most have world-class water views out to the strait or harbor.
The George has two onsite restaurants: the Conservatory (a casual spot perfect for quiet breakfasts and lunches) and Isla’s Restaurant (an upscale alternative for romantic dinners). Both emphasize fresh, local ingredients. The Conservatory has stunning views of the Solent Strait. Due to demand and limited space, reservations are required at Isla’s.
The George isn’t cheap, but it’s not a bad deal either. Low-season bed and breakfast rates start at 140 pounds per room, rising to 200 pounds per room during the high season. Look out for The George’s special offers, which can significant cut the cost of midweek and winter getaways.
13. Get the Royal Treatment
If you’re feeling restless at The George, or simply want a change of scenery, book a night or two at The Royal, an exquisite Ventnor property that truly lives up to its name.
Founded in 1832, The Royal is one of a relative handful of establishments listed in every Michelin Guide since 1911, the venerable guide’s first year of publication. Fine dining is a major part of its appeal. The full-service restaurant is among the best-regarded eateries on the entire island. The lower-key brasserie is great for a relaxed evening meal, and the conservatory and veranda offer dramatic, refined backdrops for lunch or afternoon tea.
The Royal can be expensive. Low-season bed and breakfast accommodations start at 190 pounds per room (rooms with great views cost significantly more). Low-season dinner, bed, and breakfast accommodations start at 260 pounds.
However, given the level of service and the quality of the food, the value proposition is clear. And The Royal’s frequent seasonal deals can lower the total cost. For instance, a visit in the low season (November through January, not including Christmas week) costs less than 400 pounds for two nights with breakfast, dinner, and a round-trip ferry.
The vast majority of international visitors to England fly into London and spend most (if not all) of their time in the capital. London has plenty to keep the average traveler busy, but there’s a lot more to England (and the U.K., which also includes Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) than its biggest city.
As one of the most proximate and accessible of the country’s must-visit regions, Isle of Wight should absolutely be on your British shortlist. If you’re looking to save money while traveling, check out our 11 Ways to Save Money on Vacation and 10 Affordable Travel Tips to Stay Within Your Vacation Budget.
Have you ever been to Isle of Wight, England?