The county of Hampshire’s largest city, Southampton is a historic port where many of the world’s largest cruise liners continue to dock.
One such ship, the Titanic departed from Southampton on its ill-fated maiden voyage.
The city also has an aviation background as the place where the Spitfire fighter plane was assembled in the 1930s.
Southampton was the springboard for the D-Day landings in the Second World War, and earlier had been badly damaged by German bombing campaigns because of its value as a commercial port.
Riveting pieces of the old town can still be found, like the powerful Bargate, long fragments of the 13th-century walls and the princely Tudor House and garden.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Southampton:
1. SeaCity Museum
This multimillion-pound museum opened in 2012 on the 100th anniversary of RMS Titanic’s departure from Southampton.
SeaCity is in a revamped wing of the Civic Centre complex that used to hold the police station and magistrates’ court.
“Gateway to the World” is a celebration of Southampton’s life as a key port in England, documenting the people and goods that have travelled through the city since the Middle Ages.
A head-turner is the one-ton replica of the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary, which sailed between Southampton, Cherbourg and New York until 1967. The “Titanic Story” has a fresh perspective on the world’s most infamous maritime disaster, telling the story from the perspective of the crew, many of whom were based in Southampton.
You can watch re-enactments from court inquiry into the sinking and listen to audio accounts by survivors.
2. Solent Sky museum
In the first decades of the 20th century, Southampton was the home of aviation manufacturer, Supermarine, which designed the cherished Spitfire fighter plane.
That company won recognition for its success in the Schneider Trophy, a race for seaplanes between 1913 and 1931. That race and the history of the Supermarine brand are at the core of this aviation museum.
There’s a Spitfire F.24, as well as the Supermarine S.6, which won the Schneider trophy in 1929. There’s a lot of other British-made hardware like a de Havilland Vampire, a Slingsby Grasshopper training glider, a Short Sandringham flying boat and a Folland Gnat.
The museum also has propeller and jet engines by Bristol, Napier, Alvis, and Rolls-Royce.
3. Tudor House and Garden
This dignified 15th-century house on Bugle Street became the first museum in the city when it opened to the public in 1912. The half-timbered Tudor House and Garden was renovated during a nine-year closure up to 2011, and inside you can get acquainted with the people who lived and worked here down the centuries.
In its time the house has contained artist studios, a bonnet-makers, dyeworks and a bookbinder, and by the 19th century was a notorious slum, crammed with unhealthy, outdated properties that had limited running water.
You can trace every chapter in the building’s history with the help of multimedia exhibitions and artefacts in glass cases.
In the Renaissance-style garden is King John’s Palace, a Norman dwelling from the 12th century, while the house also has a stately Georgian wing hired out for functions.
4. Mayflower Theatre
One of the top cultural draws for Southampton is its 2,300 capacity theatre, which has reinvented itself a few times since it opened as the Empire Theatre in 1928. The Mayflower is a Grade II listed building, and when it was known as the Gaumont between 1950 and 1986 hosted The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Queen.
Now the programme is dominated by theatre productions and musicals like the adaptation of the Kite Runner, War Horse, Blood Brothers and the Full Monty.
There’s also opera, concerts by cover acts and shows by some of Britain’s favourite stand-up comedians, from Bill Bailey to Sarah Millican.
5. Town Walls
Southampton’s old town is protected by some of the most complete Medieval defences in the country.
These have their roots when Southampton was relocated in the 10th century.
In 1338 Southampton suffered a French raid, and later that century the response was to overhaul the defences with a two-kilometre curtain, broken by eight gates and reinforced with 29 towers.
On the north and west sides, a one-kilometre walking circuit has been preserved at Bargate Street, Back of the Walls, Town Quay and the Western Esplanade.
There are panels explaining the architecture and some of the events that took place at these locations and you can scale portions for views over the old town and New Forest.
The finest relic of the old walls is this Grade I listed gate commanding Southampton’s main shopping precinct.
First built from limestone and flint at the end of the 12th century, Bargate took on its present form a century later when it was flanked by two powerful drum towers and given arrow loops.
Also altered at that time, the south side of the gate is much more ornamental, with a row of four lancet windows above five Gothic arches.
In a niche above the central portal is a statue of King George III in Roman garb, dating to 1809 and replacing a wooden depiction of Queen Anne who reigned at the start of the 18th century.
The gate is used for short-term exhibitions by Southampton Solent University.
7. Southampton City Art Gallery
At the Art Deco Civic Centre complex, the Southampton City Art Gallery was established in 1939. The gallery holds a ” Designated Collection”, considered one of the strongest in the South of England, made up of 5,000 works spanning eight centuries.
The bulk of these pieces are by luminaries of 20th-century and contemporary British painting, sculpture and photography, like members of the Camden Town Group and the London Group, as well as Richard Long, Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon.
But there’s also an altarpiece from the 14th-century by the Ancona painter Allegretto Nuzi, and sculpture by Edgar Degas, Auguste Rodin and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.
Young ones can busy themselves with the “Please Do Touch” trail, while the gallery has a packed cycle of temporary exhibitions.
In summer 2018 there was a major show for 2011 Turner Prize nominee George Shaw.
8. Hythe Ferry
The best way to see Southampton Water is to make the short crossing to the village of Hythe on the west side of the estuary.
There’s a boat every 30 minutes, the trip takes 10 minutes and you’ll be able to look up towards the huge vessels at the harbour.
The adventure doesn’t stop when you dock at the other side: Hythe Pier runs from the centre of the village out into the estuary for 640 metres, making it one of the ten longest piers in the British Isles.
The quirky heritage tramway running along this structure is the oldest pier train in the world, first laid in 1909. For people travelling on foot or by bike, Hythe is the most convenient jumping off point for the New Forest National Park.
9. Southampton Common
A vast open space just up from the city centre, the Southampton Common covers 326 acres and has been recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest for the rich wildlife inhabiting its waterways, ponds, woods and grassland.
The ponds and streams at the common provide a habitat for an unusually high number of great crested newts.
The Hawthorns Urban Wildlife Centre can fill you in on this species and the other creatures and plants that make a home on the common.
As well as being a calming spot for a walk or bike ride, the space is also a venue for outdoor events in spring and summer.
The Common People music festival takes place at the end of May, and topping the bill in 2018 were Lily Allen and The Jacksons, while at Easter and in August you can visit the biannual fairs.
10. Sir Harold Hillier Gardens
Not far away in Romsey is a glorious 72-hectare arboretum founded in 1953 by the horticulturalist Harold Hillier.
This is all in the grounds of Jermyn’s House, Hillier’s former home, where you’ll now find a tearoom.
Coursed by winding paths and formal alleys, the park has more than 42,000 trees and shrubs, representing around 12,000 taxa, and the collections of rhododendrons, oaks, camellias and magnolias are particularly noteworthy.
Some of the many highlights are the 250-metre Centenary Border, Winter Garden, Himalayan Valley, Azalalea Woodland and Hydrangea Walk.
There’s fun for youngsters too, at the bamboo tunnel, tree house, wobbly bridge and flying carpet swing.
11. SS Shieldhall
Moored in the port next to the King George V Graving Dock, SS Shieldhall is Europe’s largest functioning steamship.
She was launched in 1955 as a “Clyde Sludge Boat”, transporting treated sewage down Scotland’s River Clyde from Shieldhall in Scotland and dumping it out at sea.
During the summer the SS Shieldhall would double as a cruise boat and in 1976 was brought down to Southampton to remove sludge and carry it out into the Channel.
By the 80s the boat was bound for the breaker’s yard before being saved after a charity appeal raised £80,000, and is now run by volunteers.
You can visit to tour the deck, bridge, foredeck, engine room, boiler room, steering gear, saloon and steam winch, or catch one of the many cruises between May and September.
12. Medieval Merchant’s House
The Medieval Merchant’s house is an English Heritage property a little way from Southampton’s city centre.
The half-timbered house was built in 1290 by John Fortin, a merchant trading with Aquitaine, and after centuries of changes, damage in the Second World War revealed its Medieval origins.
It was soon bought by the city council and restored to its 14th-century appearance.
The owner would have conducted his business from the open shop front in the porch, and goods like wine would have been stored in the vaulted undercroft beneath the building, which keeps a steady cool temperature all year round.
On the first floor you can look around the bed chambers, fitted with replica Medieval furniture but with timbers that bear the maker’s marks from hundreds of years ago.
13. Manor Farm Country Park
On the edge of a nature reserve by the west bank of the River Hamble, Manor Farm Country Park is a rural family day out on an idyllic Victorian farm.
You can see domestic animals like sheep, chickens, draft horses, cows, donkeys and pigs and learn about activities on the farm like milking, shearing sheep and working the combine harvester.
If the weather caves you can tour the barns and the historic farmhouse, blacksmith’s forge, Victorian schoolroom, church and cottage.
The visitor centre is in an 18th-century timber and brick barn, once used for threshing corn.
14. New Forest National Park
Whether you go by road or take the ferry across to Hythe, one of the UK’s most beloved national parks is less than ten miles from Southampton.
The park contains the largest surviving swathes of unenclosed pasture, heathland and woodland in England’s southeast.
The landscape is low-lying and is cycling heaven, with a system of broad, signposted paths and hire stations at villages like Brockenhurst and Burley.
The ancient beech glades in the New Forest are spectacular, and if you’re quiet, roe, fallow and red deer will cross your path.
Out on the heaths are semi-feral New Forest Ponies, descending from equines that were here before the last ice age, 500,000 years ago.
15. Southampton Boat Show
The largest boating festival in Britain takes place at Mayflower park for ten days in the middle of September.
The Southampton Boat Show is held on jetties on the water and is a high end sales platform attracting more than 100,000 people every year . Every facet of the maritime industry is represented, from engine manufacturers to sail companies, and a wealth of vessels and products are on show, whether you’re a serious buyer or just seduced by the glamour of state of the art yachts.