Southampton is a port city in Southern England famed mostly for its cruise terminal, and… well, to be honest, not much else.
When I tell people I’ve been to Southampton, they often ask why. Did I need to go to Costco for hot dogs? Pillage IKEA for meatballs? Or perhaps I was boarding a cruise, or hurling myself onto a flight?
The answer is (shockingly) none of the above. I was just being my usual (annoyingly curious) self, and let me tell you, I’m glad I took the time to go.
Granted, Southampton isn’t the prettiest city in terms of aesthetics. Heavy bombings during WWII meant that much of the city today is rebuilt. Unlike other South Coast cities, it’s also not the most ideal beach destination, with no sandy beaches at all close to the city centre.
… But, with those expectations managed, Southampton has a surprising amount of cool things to see. There’s a ton of unique history here (after all, this was the first departure point of both the Titanic and the Mayflower), plus there’s quite a few fun surprises for those openminded enough to give it a chance.
SO, if you’re wondering what to do in Southampton, I’ve got you. From visiting spite-consulates made for fictional kingdoms to prancing around some epic museums, here are the top fun things to do in Southampton, England.
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1. Visit the SeaCity Museum
For my fellow museum fangirls, a visit to the SeaCity Museum is one of the best things to do in Southampton, particularly if you’re interested in the story of the Titanic.
The SeaCity Museum contains exhibits on the history of Southampton as a hub for migration and, most famously, the Southampton Titanic Story.
In case you didn’t know, the Titanic embarked on its first (and final) voyage from Southampton, with 724 out of the 908 crew members being from the city.
The museum centres the stories of these crew members from Southampton, providing new perspectives to a story we know far too well from 1997 movies which gave us crushes on Leonardo DiCaprio and door-related trust issues.
Of course, the SeaCity Museum isn’t just about the Titanic – you’ll find plenty of info on the maritime history of Southampton in general as well, making for an overall insightful experience that really helps you “get” Southampton a lot more.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING: SeaCity is open seven days a week and costs £9.50 for adults. You can also get joint passes to see SeaCity and the Tudor House & Garden for a discounted price.
2. Get a Photo of the Titanic Engineers’ Memorial
While on the subject of the Titanic, the SeaCity Museum isn’t the only thing to do in Southampton for those interested in the Titanic Story. There’s also the Titanic Engineers’ Memorial, one of the most beautiful and unique Southampton attractions, located in East Park.
When the Titanic was lost, the chief engineer officer, 24 engineers, 6 electrical engineers, two boilermakers, a plumber and a clerk all died while remaining at their posts, committed to their jobs. They continued to fight the rising waters as the ship sank, and delayed it as much as possible so others could escape.
Since 1914, this stunning bronze and granite memorial has stood in the park to honour the sacrifice of those brave engineers. The monument depicts statues of Nike (the Greek goddess of victory) along with carvings of the engineers. It’s a lovely spot to visit and remember their sacrifice.
3. Relax in Mayflower Park
There are a number of free things to do in Southampton, including spending time in Mayflower Park.
This park is an excellent spot to see the sunset and have a look at mega cruise ships which usually dock here as well. If you visit during the day there’s a playground for kids, benches, public toilets and a café to sit and enjoy watching the world go by.
Directly opposite the park is the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Memorial, which is also worth visiting. On that note…
4. See the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Memorial
As I said, the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Memorial is located across the road from Mayflower Park, and also looks very pretty at dusk when the illuminating lights are switched on.
The Mayflower is famous for being the ship which brought the pilgrims to the New World (America) in 1620. While most accounts say the Mayflower departed from Plymouth, it actually first sailed from Southampton along with another ship called the Speedwell.
The Speedwell developed leaks and so both ships stopped off at Plymouth for repairs, although the Speedwell was then abandoned. This memorial was erected in 1913 at the spot where both ships originally sailed from Southampton, so it’s a unique little piece of history well worth checking out.
5. Walk Around the Medieval Town Walls
Searching out the remains of the medieval town walls is one of the most fun things to do in Southampton, and there’s even a circuit with information panels along the way.
As I mentioned earlier, Southampton was heavily bombed during the Blitz in WWII, which is why most of the city now appears very modern (it all had to be rebuilt). The medieval walls which once enclosed the city managed to escape relatively unscathed though, and are now conserved because of their historical importance.
If you’re looking to see some history and get a walk in, you could do the entire 1.6 miles route, past more than a dozen old towers and gates.
… But if you’re short on time (or energy!) head to the western section to see some beautiful arcades like in the photo below.
6. Admire Bargate
One of the remaining gates in Southampton’s medieval walls is Bargate, which is also the most impressive.
Bargate used to be the main entrance to the city, so it’s very fancy with 11 heraldic shields and 2 (restored) lions made of iron guarding the gate. This gate was originally built in 1180 but has been updated and added to in the following centuries.
There’s a building surrounding the gate which has been used in the past as a prison, the city’s guildhall, a court, police headquarters, a museum, and a gallery although nowadays it’s not usually open to the public.
You can still walk underneath the gate and admire this Grade I listed building though – it’s quite an interesting contrast to all the modern shops along Above Bar St.
7. See Spitfires at the Solent Sky Museum
There are lots of cool things to see in Southampton, including a number of historic planes at the Solent Sky Museum.
This is an aviation and aircraft museum (formerly known as the Southampton Hall of Aviation) which mostly focuses on the history of the planes that were produced in the Southampton, Solent and Hampshire regions – particularly the Supermarine Spitfire.
The Spitfire was famously used during WWII and is still popular today, but did you know it was manufactured in Southampton?
Aircraft enthusiasts will love being able to see the many planes on display here, along with cockpit sections and engines. The Hampshire Police and Fire Museum is also part of this interesting attraction which is open every day and costs £12 for adults.
8. Visit the Wellington Arms
If you’re interested in some quirky stuff to do in Southampton, I would suggest you head to the Wellington Arms for a drink and a fun story!
The Wellington Arms is a charming little pub that bills itself as the British consulate for the Kingdom of Redonda, a kingdom that (long story short) is located in the Caribbean between the islands of Nevis and Montserrat.
Although not officially recognized as a kingdom, its roots go back to 1865, when a man named Matthew Dowdy Shiell claimed it for himself, later passing the crown down to his son, and appointing knights and dukes along the way.
You can read the “kingdom”‘s full story here.
But what does this kingdom have to with Southampton, you might ask? Well, back in 2007, the pub’s landlord came up with the idea of turning it into a consulate to skirt an upcoming smoking ban. He consulted with the King of Redonda who knighted him, and went on to pursue this wild loophole.
I don’t think he was able to avoid the smoking ban in the end, but there’s still a golden plaque marking the pub’s status as a Redondan consulate… and yes I must re-iterate that this is a completely true story.
9. Explore Holyrood Church
Okay, onto more serious Southampton activities: visiting Holyrood Church.
Holyrood is one of the five original churches in Southampton, although today it’s now a memorial dedicated to sailors of the Merchant Navy.
Originally constructed in 1320, this church was ruined during the Blitz in 1940, but rededicated as a memorial in 1957. The remains of the church are quite unique and beautiful, especially the little mechanical men underneath the clock (you can just see them in the photo below) which used to strike small bells every quarter of an hour.
This recognisable monument is quite a cool place to visit and have a wander around while exploring the city, so be sure to add it to your list of things to do in Southampton!
10. Have Dinner at the Former Royal Pier
Just like other coastal cities such as Blackpool, Brighton and Bournemouth, Southampton was also once home to a beautiful pier.
The Southampton Royal Pier was first opened in 1883 and was an elegant place to stroll along while enjoying views of the ships that passed by – like the Titanic in 1912. Unfortunately, the pier was damaged over time and became derelict, but the gatehouse building still remains.
Today this building is home to a fancy Indian restaurant called Kuti’s Brasserie, which is both a delicious and stunning spot for a meal while looking out over the historic pier remains!
11. Shop Up a Storm
Ask South Coast locals why Southampton is worth a visit, and I guarantee someone will bring up the fantastic shopping.
Indeed, this is often THE city that shoppers flock to during the holidays, and for special occasions. Why? There’s just so much choice.
There are quite a few places to go shopping in Southampton but my personal favourite is the Westquay Shopping Centre.
Not only is this a massive shopping mall filled with shops, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, and other businesses, but the main entrance also looks really cool next to part of the medieval walls.
With over 130 shops inside and regular events held on the esplanade throughout the year, this is a very buzzy part of the city to explore, and well worth a visit if you’re looking to do some shopping.
12. Have a Drink Where Jane Austen Lived
Today, the Juniper Berry is a charming traditional English pub where you can have some drinks and a meal, but it was once the home of famous British author Jane Austen!
Austen is usually more associated with Bath and Winchester, but she and her family also called the original building on this site home for three years between 1806 and 1809.
That house was unfortunately demolished in 1901, but there’s a small plaque on the exterior of the building marking where it was, which is part of a Jane Austen heritage trail through the city.
If you do decide to follow the trail then the Juniper Berry is the perfect stop for a refreshment break along the way!
13. Step Into History at the Tudor House and Garden
The Tudor House and Garden brings ancient history to life and a visit to this fascinating museum is one of the most unique things to do in Southampton.
Originally built in the 1180s, the Tudor House and Garden was actually the first museum ever to open in Southampton, in 1912. Throughout the years it was used as a merchant home, a lodging house and a number of small businesses before it was nearly demolished.
Today this museum recreates the rooms and lives of former tenants, so it’s a fascinating step back in time to explore. The garden is also a recreated formal garden from the Tudor period and is particularly pretty.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING: The Tudor House and Garden is closed on Friday but open all other days from 10am – 3pm (and until 5pm on weekends). Entrance costs £6 for adults, and can be combined with a ticket to also visit the SeaCity Museum.
14. See Medieval Life at the Medieval Merchant’s House
Another one of the top things to do in Southampton is a visit to the fascinating and interactive Medieval Merchant’s House.
The house was originally constructed in 1290 by a prosperous merchant, although it has lived many lives in the centuries since, including as a lodging house, a beerhouse and even a brothel.
The building was then partially damaged during the Blitz, which actually revealed most of the medieval structure still within it.
Now this Grade I listed building is cared for by English Heritage, and it’s also been turned into a beautiful museum with replica period furnishings showing what the original merchant’s home might have looked like.
It’s quite fun to explore the shop at the front and then see how the wealthy family would have lived. No doubt, for history nerds, this is a Southampton must-do.
15. Visit the Beaulieu Motor Museum
Lastly, while located outside of the city centre, one of the most popular activities in the Southampton area is a visit to the Beaulieu Motor Museum to see some very famous cars.
While it’s actually about a half-hour drive out of central Southampton, any automobile enthusiast will jump at the chance to see the more than 285 different vehicles on display.
Many of the vehicles housed here are historic or famous, including ones from TV and films including Mr Bean’s mini and the flying Ford Anglia from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”!
Top Gear fans can also enjoy the special exhibit that’s dedicated to cars that have been featured on the show and a ticket to the Motor Museum includes entrance into the family home of the museum’s original founders as well as the ruins of Beaulieu Abbey.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING: Tickets to the National Motor Museum cost £27 for adults (or £24 if you buy them online in advance) but this also includes entrance to the Palace House & Gardens, Little Beaulieu, Beaulieu Abbey, The Secret Army Exhibition and unlimited rides on the monorail.
Did I miss any of your favourite things to do in Southampton?
Let me know in the comments so I can add more recommendations to my list!