Ships ahoy! Stand by your guns for a full broadside

What is it?

Home to three of Britain's most historic fighting ships, preserved and displayed at a working naval base, with associated museums. HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, the wreck of the Tudor warship Mary Rose, and the world's first iron-hulled warship, HMS Warrior. It is the Good Britain Guide 2004 Family Attraction of the Year.

Where is it?

Portsmouth naval base. Enter through Victory Gate at the corner of Queen Street and the Hard (; 023-9286 1533).

Something for children?

Ships. Plus, more specifically, the Royal Navy interactive museum Action Stations. Children can get to grips with a replica of a helicopter's controls, watch a large-screen pirate adventure film, enjoy a simulated ride in a Sea Harrier jet or Lynx helicopter and play lots of shoot 'em up computer games. There is also a climbing wall, and canoeing and skiing machines for older children.

At another museum, called the Dockyard Apprentice Exhibition, children are given a card to clock in as they enter, then taken through a mock shipyard and given a glimpse of the graft and craft needed for ship-building.

Of the ships, HMS Warrior is the best for younger sailors. They have free rein to run up and down between decks and explore from the engine room, up to the decks, where the enormous cannons were stored in an armour-plated citadel. At launch, this steam and sail-powered battleship was the largest, fastest, and most powerful warship in the world. But she never fired a shot in anger and was obsolete within a decade. For younger children, a play area designed like a boat, the Fighting Top, is a big draw.

Something for adults?

The highlight of the day is the tour of the HMS Victory, in which Nelson met his heroic end in 1805 and without which, according to our RN guide, we would now all be speaking French.

The ship is still used for formal occasions by the Second Sea Lord, and if another sea battle should break out, the grand dining room could collapse, as it did in Nelson' s day, with walls sliding up to the ceiling, and solid-looking, wood chairs folding flat as the cannons roll out. The lower decks are dark and gloomy and the stocks and whips used to keep the mainly non-volunteer crew in line were on show. The spot where Nelson was hit by a sharpshooter from a ship close by is marked by a plaque and the place where he died below three hours later has a large portrait of his deathbed scene. We learnt that, rather than be buried at sea, Nelson's dying request was to be buried in England. So he was doubled up in a barrel of brandy, to keep him fresh. The brandy was decanted, the story goes, and served to the sailors so they could drink a toast to their fallen commander.

The battle can be relived opposite the ship itself in the Royal Naval Museum's interactive installation "Trafalgar", which, complete with the sights and sounds of the gun-deck during action, tells the full story of how Nelson outwitted the French. Lurching back a few centuries, adults and older children will be fascinated by the wreck of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's favourite fighting ship, which sank in the Solent in 1545. Visitors are given an audio guide which tells the story of the salvage in 1982 as they view the wreck behind glass being continuously sprayed with polyethylene glycol, a water-soluble chemical which will preserve it indefinitely. In the Mary Rose museum, more than 1,200 relics are on display; big cannons and longbows, as well as the crew's possessions, such as bowls, coins, rosaries and even a backgammon set.

I'm hungry

There is a Costa Coffee in the Visitors' Centre; the Mezzanine Café in Action Stations sells sandwiches and snacks. Tradewinds restaurant serves hot food, including children's meals, and the tables can be used for an indoor picnic.

Can I buy a souvenir?

Yes. Three gift shops, the Mary Rose shop, the Victory shop and Nauticalia, sell maritime-related gifts and artefacts.

How do I get there?

By road: Leave the M27 at junction 12 and follow the brown Historic Waterfront signs, then the Historic Dockyard signs to the Historic Ships car park, (£4.80 for up to eight hours). By rail: Portsmouth Harbour station, five minutes from Victory Gate, has regular services to London Waterloo and regional stations.

By sea: There are ferries from Gosport, Isle of Wight, France and Spain.

Will there be queues?

In the summer, the Victory tours are suspended and guides are dotted around the ships instead, so queues are unlikely. At busy times you may have to wait for some of the bigger draws at Action Stations for up to 40 minutes.

Admission: Tickets for the Mary Rose, HMS Victory (including Royal Naval Museum), HMS Warrior and Actions Stations can be bought separately. They cost adults £9.50, children aged five to 16 years £8, and a family (two adults and up to three children) £33. An all-inclusive ticket, with a 40-minute boat tour of the harbour thrown in, costs adults £14.85, children £11.90 and a family £47.55. The Dockyard is open daily from 10am to 5pm until 31 March, then 10am to 5.30pm until 31 October. Under-16s must be accompanied by an adult.

Disabled access: Wheelchair users have restricted access and the visually impaired are asked to visit with a carer as a safety precaution. Registered disabled people pay a reduced entrance price and their carers are not charged entry. Disabled toilets and wheelchairs are provided free. Action Stations and Mary Rose are fully accessible but the other ships have many stairs. Special arrangements can be made; call ahead for details.