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12 brilliant things to do in Southampton

Shortlisted as the UK City of Culture 2025, this modern city has a rich, maritime heritage. Here's our pick of the best things to do in the port of Southampton.

Ocean Village yachts boats. Things to do in Southampton

A historic city with a big university population and ethnically diverse makeup, Southampton has a modern, cosmopolitan-vibe. Little wonder this busy port city just made the shortlist for UK City of Culture 2025. The campaign tagline is ‘Make it So!’ – and we sure hope they do.

Inhabited since the Stone Age, Southampton’s history and character is dominated by its seafaring activity. The city was the departure point for ships like the Mayflower, taking Britons over to the new world, as well as the D-Day sailings and the White Star Line fleet including, of course, the ill-fated RMS Titanic.

Today, Southampton is the UK’s biggest hub for epic modern cruise lines, waving off the world’s biggest ships to Europe, the USA and the Baltics. (Did someone say VIP passenger list? Headscarf, oversized sunglasses and glass of champs at the ready – we’ll be there. Just saying…).

In the last two decades, Ocean Village harbour and the central WestQuay shopping area have had huge investment, with plenty of big brand outposts. And there’s still loads of characterful pockets of the city too, like Bedford Place and Oxford Street, home to brilliant independent shops and lively bars and restaurants.

Pre-cruise layover, weekend away or day out with the kids, whatever the reason for your visit, here’s our pick of the best things to do in Southampton.

1/Steer the Titanic at the SeaCity Museum

A historical snapshot of the city from ancient times to modern days is laid out at the super-immersive SeaCity Museum. The big draw, of course, is the fantastic Titanic exhibition which really encapsulates the spirit of adventure and incredible size and scope of the world-famous ship and it’s journey out of the port. You can even have a go at the helm (careful not to steer it aground like Muddy did – ahem). Ever wondered if the mechanical fortune teller that granted Tom Hanks’ character his wish in ‘Big’ was real? After our visit to SeaCity, Muddy can confirm she absolutely is. Find her beside the cafe and shop, granting secret wishes beside other brilliantly quirky Victorian amusements. Perhaps we will get on that luxe cruise after all…

2/Head to HarBAR on 6th for cool cocktails and awesome views

harbar exterior 3

Great food, tasty cocktails and gorgeous harbour views. When it comes to cool things to do in Southampton, a visit to the HarBar on the sixth floor of the Southampton Harbour Hotel & Spa in Ocean Village is definitely up there. Built to look like a superliner, the iconic, modern hotel has established itself as the city’s most luxe spot to dine and stay. When you’re done soaking up the stunning vista, there’s usually a few Insta influencers up here to keep you amused, too (#strikeapose).

3/Dress to impress with a retro fashion fix from the Beatnik Emporium

Opened in 1992, the brilliant retro Beatnik Emporium is a regular pop up at Glasto. The shop itself has moved three times but now seems pretty settled beside Watts Park, close to the University. Dig around in the excellent selection of vintage clothing, accessories and funky fancy dress. Party pick or everyday, there’s everything from sixties maxi dresses to 80s sportswear, top hats and animal masks. 

4/Watch a blockbuster show at the Mayflower theatre

Mayflower Theatre Southampton

The biggest theatre on the south coast, the Mayflower hosts BIG productions. There’s always a stellar line-up of musicals, dance, opera, drama, ballet and comedy, with loads of West End shows in the mix. Last year (2021) the MAST Mayflower Studios extended the Mayflower offer with its additional 400-seat theatre multi-arts hub. Top picks for April and May 2022? The blockbuster Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat (with Jason Donovan); The Gruffalo and the WNO’s interactive Play Opera for the kids.

5/Discover new dishes with your pick of international cuisines

Lakaz Maman Southampton
Pic: Lakaz Maman

Eat some authentic overseas cuisine without stumping up for a plane ticket. Southampton’s Bedford Place has loads of brilliant restaurants like Sakura Japanese, Nara Sushi and Diegos (Portuguese) Rotisserie. Lakaz Maman is Masterchef winner Shelina Permalloo’s Mauritian street food restaurant. In Town Quay, La Regata is a stalwart Spanish restaurant serving up properly good tapas. Theatre-goers rate Leelawadee Thai restaurant on Commercial Road, close to the Mayflower. And for something totally different, Shanghai 1814 combines opulent interiors with modern Chinese-fusion food and karaoke with dancing strobe lights. Rave on!

6/Go day tripping in New Forest or Isle of Wight

New Forest pony

Southampton is a mere 25 minutes’ by car from New Forest towns like Lyndhurst, even less to Paultons Park (aka Peppa Pig World) if you’ve littlies in tow. Cross over to Cowes on the foot passenger ferry in just an hour on the Red Funnel’s fast sailings. Or, if you prefer to stay in the city, on a sunny day Southampton Common‘s 365 acres of woodland, parkland, rough grassland, ponds, wetlands and nature trails are a great place to bring a picnic. Worth noting the huge children’s play area, too.

7/Step back in time with a walk along the walls of the Old Town

Southampton Old Town city walls

Southampton was heavily bombed in the Second World War but it’s still possible to immerse yourself in the city’s past. Take a walk around the walls, traditional timber-framed buildings, historic pubs and cobbled streets of the Old Town. Built in 1491, the Tudor House and Garden is an authentic window onto the lives of its residents and the city over hundreds of years (with a spooky intro kids will love). From April, the Medieval Merchant’s House reopens. You’ll know it by the wine barrel hanging outside. It’s there because the city was once awash with tasty vintages and still is, if you know where to look…

8/Bar hop along Oxford Street and try some brilliant local brews

Cocktail on bar Pam Pam Oxford Street Southampton things to do

Proudly independent with a lively night-time scene, Muddy’s favourite stops in Southampton’s favourite party street include Pam Pam pizza and cocktail bar (above) and the super-kitsch, tiki-style Tropic Bar. Also worth a visit, the newly-refurbished White Star Tavern pub has fresh, art deco-inspired interiors and menu to please all. Close by, at the entrance to Ocean Village, Mango is a great little Thai tapas cocktail club. Love lager? Head to The Dancing Man microbrewery on West Quay for a bumper selection of home brewed ales.

9/Be a cruise spotter at the Southampton docks

Finally returning to calmer waters, Southampton is a major embarkation point for some absolutely jaw-dropping cruise ships. Major lines like Royal Caribbean, Carnival’s P&O Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Cunard and more all dock here and make for great cruise spotting. If you’re not setting sail on one, head to the very top of the IKEA car park for a great bird’s eye view of the biggest ships. Pop in for meatballs after – but beware the impulse-buys in the massive marketplace!

10/Eat at the littlest PIG in the boutique hotel chain’s litter

THE PIG - in the wall Exterior

Tucked into Southampton’s medieval walls, The Pig-in the Wall is a cosy, 12-room city outpost of The PIG country house group. And it has all the shabby chic, rustic charm of its bigger PIG siblings. Food-wise, the focus is on sourcing the best local ingredients (click here for our brand new review). It closes at 8pm, so come for lunch or pre-dinner cocktails and super-delicious Piggie bits sharers.

11/Don your best breton top and join in the Southampton Boat Show fun

The brilliant Southampton Boat Show, held annually in September, is for serious boat buyers and, err, those of us who just like nosing around inside multi-million pound super yachts… Taking over the city for 10 days, there’s fantastic flyboard and jet-ski freestylers performances, SUP, kayaking and dinghy sailing. Get involved with Try-A-Boat sessions and a Pirates of the Caribbean square-rigged Tall Ship (complete with friendly pirate on Family Day, arrr!). Other annual highlights include the Chinese New Year parades, the ABP Marathon and Pride. Check out the Visit Southampton page for all the latest.

12/Get an art and culture fix at the God’s House Tower and Southampton City Art Gallery

God's House Tower Southampton things to do

Culture vulture? Strategically positioned at the southeastern corner of the old walls as a lookout across the Solent, the Tower at God’s House was built to house gunpowder and cannons. Now an arts and heritage centre, the stones literally have a story to tell. (There’s also a great cafe for a pitstop here, with local coffee, vegan bakes, toasties and beers). Also free to visit, the Southampton City Art Museum‘s permanent displays include historical and contemporary paintings. Coming up in the changing exhibitions are brilliant modern works on current topics like biodiversity and coastal erosion.

For more information on things to do in Southampton, see Visit Southampton. The luxe, 5-star Southampton Harbour Hotel & Spa in Ocean Village has 119 rooms including 10 suites. Or check out the family and dog-friendly Moxy Hotel and apartment-style Room2.

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