Southampton is one of those cities on England’s South Coast that’s easy to overlook. Heavily bombed in the war, it’s not the most picturesque of places, but as one of Europe’s major cruise ports, millions of cruise visitors pass through every year. Dig a little deeper and you’ll discover plenty of things to do in Southampton, from museums and cultural attractions to an interesting old town with medieval walls and houses.
The port is gateway to the beautiful Hampshire countryside and the New Forest, with many things to do near Southampton that can easily be visited in a day. So if you are visiting Southampton, here are some of the things I’d recommend you visit in and around the city. You may also like to read my article on Top 10 places and things to eat in Southampton.
1 Walk Southampton’s old city walls
Just a short distance from the port you can walk the medieval city walls of Southampton that encircle the old town and were built to preserve the town from attack from the sea. You can still see the arcades that formed the entrance to warehouses where wine barrels were stored and walk along the top of the walls that would have overlooked the beach, a fashionable spot for sea bathing in the 18th century. At weekends there are guided tours of the wall starting at Bargate or pick up a self-guided walk leaflet from The Tudor House.
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2 Step back in time at The Tudor House
In the old quarter of Southampton, a short walk from the cruise port is the recently restored Tudor House, dating back to the 15th century. An audio guide takes you through the rooms to uncover the history of Southampton over the centuries.
There’s a pretty Tudor knot garden, views over the city walls, a kitchen laid out with food that the Tudors would have enjoyed and a glass-sided cafe overlooking the garden. For another dive into the history of Southampton, visit the nearby Merchant’s House that is furnished and preserved, as it would have been in the Middle Ages.
Getting there: Walking 10 min from cruise terminal. Adults £4.75 Children £3.75, Family ticket £13.50
3 Shop till you drop
If you enjoy shopping for international brands you’ll find them all in one place in the West Quay shopping mall in the center of Southampton. The major stores are John Lewis and Marks and Spencer with a wide range of fashion, lifestyle and technology stores as well as plenty of cafes and restaurants. If you’re looking for designer names at bargain prices you’ll find them in at Gunwharf Quays outlet shopping center near Portsmouth Harbour, which can be reached by train from Southampton, close to the other attractions of Portsmouth.
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4 Nautical connections at SeaCity Museum
The SeaCity Museum explores Southampton’s connection with the sea over the centuries, with travellers from all over the world passing through the port. In 1912 the Titanic set sail from Southampton with most of its crew coming from the city. A poignant street map on the floor marks each person lost with a red dot, over 500 people from the city alone.
There are many interactive exhibits such as the Disaster room where the 1930s enquiry into the Titanic’s loss is replayed. An exhibition of Port Out Southampton Home (until June 2017) evokes the romance of the golden age of cruising from the 1920s to the 1950s.
Getting there: Walking 20 mins, Taxi 10 mins from the cruise terminal. Free shuttle bus from the terminal to SeaCity museum running 1 per hour. Adults £8.50 Family £25 Open daily 10am-5pm
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5 The Southampton City Art Gallery
Next to the SeaCity museum is the Southampton City Art Gallery in the light and airy space above the public library. Under the high arched ceiling of the main gallery you’ll find everything from contemporary and twentieth century art to old masters and impressionists such as Monet.
The side galleries hold regularly changing exhibitions and look out for the wood panelled gallery with a series of Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Sir Edward Burne-Jones showing the Perseus story from classical mythology.
Getting there: Walking 20 mins, Taxi 10 mins from the cruise terminal. Free shuttle bus from the terminal to SeaCity museum running 1 per hour. Free entrance although a donation is appreciated. Closed Sundays.
Read more: Top 10 places to eat in Southampton
Read my article on Top 10 places and things to eat in Southampton for cruise visitors
6 Beaulieu Motor Museum, Palace House and Abbey
Put together a national motor museum, 13th century Cistercian abbey and stately home of the Montagu family set beside a lake, and you have the ingredients for a fun packed day out for all ages and interests. The Beaulieu motor museum is the big draw, housing over 250 vehicles from motoring history but the house is also beautiful with a lived in feel and interesting displays in the Victorian kitchens.
Wander through the orchards and gardens, or get around on the high-level monorail or the open top vintage bus. If you have time, drive 10 minutes further to Buckler’s Hard, an 18th century village where ships for Nelson’s navy were built.
Getting There from Southampton: Taxi 30 mins, or Beaulieu can be booked as a cruise excursion. Entrance Adults £24, children age 5-17 £12, family ticket £64 with discounts if you book in advance.
7 The Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth
At Portsmouth Historic Dockyard you can visit some of Britain’s most historic ships including Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory and the Tudor warship Mary Rose. Around the waterfront are plenty of pubs and cafes for a bite to eat. The harbor scene is dominated by the 170 metre tall Emirates Spinnaker Tower, for views over the harbor from the skywalk and cafe in the clouds. A short walk away is the designer shopping outlet at Gunwharf Quays and one stop further on the train you’ll find the trendy area of Southsea with boutique stores and independent eateries.
Getting There from Southampton: taxi 30 mins, train 1 hr with 2 per hour.
8 A taste of rural Hampshire in Romsey
For a flavour of rural Hampshire life visit the pretty market town of Romsey, gateway to the Test valley. Behind the tourist office is the medieval King John’s House which brings to life 750 years of history in Romsey, with a pretty garden and tea shop. Nearby is the imposing medieval Romsey Abbey containing beautiful religious art and treasures. You can join the long distance walking path, the Test Way following the River Test, past nature reserves and Broadlands, the home of the late Lord Mountbatten. Finish your day with an ice cream at Sundae’s Child or a traditional afternoon tea in one of the many cafes.
Getting There from Southampton: Bus 30 mins, 2 per hour. Taxi 25 mins. Train 30 mins, 2-3 per hour.
9 England’s ancient capital of Winchester
Once King Alfred’s capital, the small cathedral city of Winchester is a quintessentially English place to visit. At its heart is the ancient Winchester cathedral where Jane Austen is buried and farmer’s markets are held at weekends. Stroll along the river to see a working water mill at Winchester City Mill and the ruins of Winchester Palace, home of the Bishops of Winchester. Further up the hill is the Great Hall with a replica of King Arthur’s round table and the 18th century Peninsula Barracks with several military museums. With plenty of pubs and cafes, Winchester is a great day out for all ages.
Getting There from Southampton: Taxi 30 mins, Bus 1 hour with 2-3 per hour. Train 20 mins with 2-3 per hr.
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10 Salisbury and Stonehenge
Stonehenge is one of the best-known pre-historic monuments in Europe, featuring in many a selfie moment. The stone circle is a masterpiece of Neolithic engineering built from stones transported long distances using only simple tools, yet no-one knows for sure why it was built. Start at the new visitor center with exhibitions and Neolithic style houses, and then walk around the stone circle (but not inside it). Your visit is easily combined with a visit to the cathedral city of Salisbury, with elegant houses inside the cathedral close such as Arundells, the home of British Prime Minister, Edward Heath. Read about my visit to Stonehenge.
Getting There from Southampton: Train Southampton to Salisbury 30 mins, 2-3 times an hour, then bus from Salisbury station to Stonehenge 30 mins, 2 per hour. Salisbury and Stonehenge are typically offered together as a cruise excursion.
You may also like to read my article on Top 10 places and things to eat in Southampton for cruise visitors
Guide Prices if you want to arrange your own cruise excursions
Taxis are available at the Southampton cruise port terminal and prices are agreed with each driver but typically a 2-3 hour return trip to attractions within 30 mins drive is £80-100. Train fares for a return ticket to places mentioned are from £5-12 return depending on distance and time of day. Bus tickets are generally a little cheaper than train but may take longer.