21 things to do in Southampton

The largest city in Hampshire, Southampton has been a major port since the Norman Conquest of 1066, when it helped service England's then capital, Winchester. Probably the most famous ship to depart Southampton's shores are the Mayflower (1620), and of course, the ill-fated RMS Titanic in 1912. With its double high tide, making it easy for large ships to head in and out of the harbour, it remains one of the Britain's major ports and the current cruise capital of the country. But there's more than just a maritime past to keep you entertained for a day trip or weekend break. Here's our guide to where to eat, drink and play in one of the most historic and warmest cities in the UK.

1. Take a walk through the city

Titanic Memorial (c) Southampton City Council
Titanic Memorial (c) Southampton City Council

Southampton has some of the best-preserved medieval town walls in England, and you can follow their route on the Old Town self-guided walk.    Walk the QE2 Mile from the Cenotaph, down through the city, and you end up at the waterfront at Town Quay. You'll spot Holyrood church and the famous Bargate, a Grade I listed medieval gatehouse, en route. Or take the Titanic Trail. In just over an hour, you'll pass numerous memorials, and other points of interest dedicated to those who died when the ship sank in 1912. You can download all the trails from the Discover Southampton website.

2. Learn more about Southampton's history

SeaCity Museum (c) Southampton City Council
SeaCity Museum (c) Southampton City Council

At the state-of-the-art SeaCity Museum, you'll learn all about Southampton's strong connection with the sea. There's an area dedicated to the Titanic tragedy which saw an unprecedented 500 homes in the city lose someone in the disaster. The Pavilion at SeaCity Museum also has a rolling programme of special exhibitions. To see something of national industrial significance, visit the Bursledon Brickworks, the only remaining steam driven brickworks. At its peak it made 20 million bricks a year before closing in 1974, however a rare quirk meant the workers were still using all its original Victorian machinery and buildings. If you've ever fancied making your own brick, head down there as they have this and plenty of other hands on activities for the family to try.

Bursledon Brickwork. Image via Tourism South East
Bursledon Brickwork. Image via Tourism South East

3. Sample Southampton's restaurant scene

If you're hungryOxford Street is a great place to start. As well as a large choice of restaurants, there are also plenty of independent shops and bars. Quay Fifteen continues to win plaudits for its seasonal south coast cooking. You can order a la carte, or go for one of their curated tasting menus, which changes on a monthly basis. Eastern cuisine is well catered for with Kohinoor of Kerala specialising in South India food while Everest Cuisine focuses on authentic Nepalese cooking.

4. Drink in the sea air

Grab a drink at the bars and pubs in Ocean Village with views across the marina of the luxury yachts. The Rockstone is also a good place to head whatever the weather. It has two gardens for the warmer months, and a large red brick fireplace for when it's cold. They serve up real ales, and host drinks festivals throughout the year. For a historic pub, try The Grapes for real ale, and keep an eye out for the Titanic memorabilia on the walls (it even featured as a backdrop in the film) If you like your cask ale brewed on site, then the Platform Tavern's Dancing Man Brewery is worth a visit. It's a traditional pub which specialises in live music, and has a direct view of where the Titanic ship was berthed before it set off. For wine and cheese, try the Three Choirs Vineyard, which also doubles up as a nature reserve. Take a tour and learn how to pair the two, or just sit and have a glass of wine overlooking the vines.

5. Head to the historic buildings

The timber framed Tudor House & Garden is the living embodiment of 900 years of English households. The Old Town property has been restored and now has extensive displays of their treasures and family-friendly facilities. English Heritage look after two notable Southampton properties, the Medieval Merchant's House and Netley Abbey. The former has been restored to its 14th century glory while the latter is one of the best examples of a surviving Cistercian abbey in England. The abbey's romantic ruins have inspired the painter John Constable, as well as the writer Horace Walpole among others.

6. See some paintings

Southampton City Art Gallery (c) Southampton City Council
Southampton City Art Gallery (c) Southampton City Council

If you've been to the SeaCity Museum, the free Southampton Art Gallery is just around the corner. The core of the internationally renowned collection is twentieth century and contemporary British art, however they also have western art from the Renaissance to the present day, as part of their 5,000 works on display in this light and modern venue.

7. Visit the theatre or cinema

The Mayflower theatre. Image via Tourism South East
The Mayflower theatre. Image via Tourism South East

The Mayflower was built in the 1920s, and is the South’s biggest theatre. It shows a mixture of touring productions, including many musicals direct from their West End run, as well as dance performances, operas and plays. The Harbour Lights Picturehouse has an amazing spot overlooking the marina, and a cafe and bar for pre-film drinks. See the best offerings from the independent and art house scene, as well as screenings from the likes of the National Theatre and Royal Opera House.

Harbour Light (c) Southampton City Council
Harbour Light (c) Southampton City Council

8. Watch a gig

As a university city, Southampton has a thriving live music scene, and the O2 Guildhall Southampton is where most of the big name acts play. This classical Grade 2* listed building has hosted David Bowie and Pink Floyd in the 1970s, while recent big gigs include The Killers, Amy Winehouse and the Kaiser Chiefs. For more intimate gigs, The Brook plays host to tribute acts and retro bands while The Talking Heads has acoustic nights and jams, along with live performances.

9. Go shopping

West Quay shopping centre (c) Southampton City Council
West Quay shopping centre (c) Southampton City Council

West Quay shopping centre has more than a hundred stores, including the top brands like John Lewis, right in the city centre. Visit in 2016 and West Quay’s £70 million Watermark extension should be open, including a ten screen cinema, restaurants and a new public plaza in front of the city’s historic walls.

10. Get active outdoors

The ancient New Forest National Park is on Southampton's door step. Within a short drive or bus journey you can see thatched cottages, ponies and wildlife - find out more things to do here. Itchen Valley Country Park is also great for a family day out, with 440 acres, loads of picnic spots, and the River Itchen. If you're feeling energetic and like heights, try swinging through the trees on the Go Ape Tree Top Trail in the park.

11. Try some watersports

For sailing and rowing, powerboating and stand up paddle boarding, head to the Southampton Water Activities Centre. They have instructors on hand if you're inexperienced, and options if you're at a more advanced level and fancy a sail down the Solent.

Sailing (c) Southampton City Council
Sailing (c) Southampton City Council

12. Learn to dive

The Quays is one of only four High Performance Centres for diving in the UK and several of Team GB’s Olympic divers train here. They offer taster classes if you've never dived before, but if you don't fancy making that leap, there's a fun pool with flumes, fountains, slides and a whirlpool.

13. Or go skiing on "real" snow

The Alpine Snowsports Centre allows you to get your winter sport fix all year round. You can try snowboarding and skiing, or just mess about on the inflatables and spin down the slope instead.

14. Get a round of golf in

The Southampton City Golf Course is one of the best examples of a municipal course in the country, and you can play either the 18-hole course of the 9-hole course, depending on how much time you have.

15. Cheer on the Saints

Premier League team Southampton FC have played their games at St Mary’s Stadium, near the city centre, since 2001, and famous former players include Alan Shearer and Theo Walcott.

16. Watch some cricket

Hampshire County Cricket Club play at The Ageas Bowl (known as the Rose Bowl) in Southampton. You can watch county cricket, as well as some of England's One Day International games, during the warmer months.

17. See Southampton's screen connections

The hit Sunday night TV show, Howard’s Way (1985–1990), showed off Southampton's shipbuilding history, as well as its more glamorous side. Take a cruise up the River Hamble and visit the yachting village and harbour of Hamble before heading upstream to Old Bursledon, home of the Elephant Boatyard and Jolly Sailor pub - both of which will be instantly recognisable to fans of the series. You can also get on board the SS Shieldhall, between May and September for a short cruise - the largest working steam ship in Britain featured in both the opening and closing sequences of the film adaptation of Angela’s Ashes (1999) starring Robert Carlyle. The 400 acre, Manor Farm Country Park, in Southampton featured in BBC 2's look at domestic farming and life during World War II, Wartime Farm (2012). You can go and feed the chickens, milk the cows, ride the horses and enjoy other fun, family pursuits as well.

18. Browse some boats

Britain’s biggest boat show takes over the city centre every September, when hundreds of the world's leading sailboats and powerboats take to the water. As well as entertainment, the top maritime suppliers and boat builders will all be exhibiting their boats and equipment.

Southampton
Southampton

19. See how Southampton influenced the skies

One of the most famous and influential planes in aviation history was invented in Southampton - the iconic Spitfire. At The Solent Sky Museum you can find our more about it, and get up close to one itself. The museum has 18 historical aircraft on display along with plenty of other exhibits. A project to build the first National Spitfire Monument in the city is also gathering pace, with a design in place and sponsorship being sought.

20. Get the ferry over to Hythe

Watch the big cruise liners coast past before hopping on the historic Hythe Ferry for a round-trip across to Southampton. They also hold the official Guinness World Record for the oldest pier train in service - and you can travel 640m on it. Hythe is also on the summer Beach Bus route, which takes you to places in the New Forest and coastal villages in the summer months, and operates a hop-on, hop-off policy.

21. Celebrate Christmas on the coast

The Southampton Christmas Festival traditionally runs from the middle of November until just before Christmas Eve and features a traditional German market with all the usual elements - crafts, beers and more sausages than you can shake a stick at. The free festival also has plenty of entertainment, with musicians performing every day next to the bespoke chalets in the centre of the city. In 2015 , the specialist high wire artist Falko Traber will perform the ‘Flying Santa’ show in a sleigh with his reindeers at a height of 25m - a first for the UK.

Staying there

We hope our guide has inspired you to stay longer, in which case you'll be needing somewhere to stay - there are plenty of hotels in Southampton and the surrounding area to choose from. You're also only a short drive to the rival coastal city of Portsmouth. If you fancy a trip -  here's 15 things to do in Portsmouth. Or perhaps you have historic Winchester in you're sights - there's plenty going on there too - be captivated by a cathedral city. Finally why not set sail to the Isle of Wight on one of the Red Funnel Ferries’ frequent, hi-Speed foot passenger service between Southampton and Cowes.

Southampton
Southampton

Getting there

It takes just over an hour to get to Southampton from London by train via South West Trains. If you're driving, it can take around two hours (depending on traffic). You can also fly there, as Southampton International Airport offers great links to towns and cities in the UK as well as abroad.

BAA Southampton. Image via Tourism South East
BAA Southampton. Image via Tourism South East

Where would you go in Southampton?

Maybe you live in Southampton or perhaps have visited the coastal city before? Either way we'd love to hear what your favourite things to do in Southampton are. Please share your recommendations and experiences by leaving a comment below.