15 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Southampton, Hampshire

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Updated Dec 24, 2023
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Author Bryan Dearsley visited England in the spring of 2022 and spent eight weeks exploring its towns and cities, including Southampton.

The southern port city of Southampton in Hampshire boasts one of the world's largest natural harbors. Until the 1930s, it was England's busiest port for transatlantic passenger travel, and giant liners like the Queen Mary were built in local shipyards.

Southampton, Hampshire
Southampton, Hampshire | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Hundreds of thousands of emigrants departed the country on ships sailing from here, including aboard the ill-fated Titanic. It's still a busy port and is a fun place to visit to watch large cruise and cargo ships come and go. The views are especially good from the excellent Hythe Ferry service that runs regularly across the Solent, the 20-mile-wide strait that separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland.

Excellent shopping facilities are located both in and around the city, one of the best being Westquay. The city also hosts many cultural attractions and events, such as the Southampton International Film Festival. Other popular things to do in Southampton include exploring the New Forest and the Isle of Wight.

Nature lovers will also appreciate the city's many green spaces and parks, including the 326-acre Southampton Common. Another area of countryside to visit is nearby Itchen Valley Country Park, a beautiful 440-acre property offering great hiking and biking.

For details of these and other great reasons why this vibrant city is one of the best places to visit in England, read our list of the top attractions and things to do in Southampton, Hampshire.

See also: Where to Stay in Southampton

1. Walk the Medieval City Walls

Medieval city walls
Medieval city walls | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

The best views of Southampton's 14th-century medieval walls, one of the longest unbroken stretches of medieval walls in Britain after the city of York, are obtained from the Western Esplanade, also the site of Wind Whistle Tower. The only remaining medieval church in Southampton is St. Michael's on Castle Way, built in the 11th century and containing Norman relics and a font made of Tournai marble.

Follow the walls south to Mayflower Park, which lies opposite the Mayflower Memorial to the Pilgrim Fathers, and Wool House, a 14th-century warehouse. Also nearby is the God's House Tower on Winkle Street, a 12th-century hospital dedicated to St. Julian.

Medieval City Walls
Medieval city walls

A variety of fun guided walking tours of the old walls and medieval vaults are available. Try the easy-to-follow self-guided tour option, with maps available from the Tudor House shop.

2. Visit the Tudor House and Garden

Tudor House and Garden
Tudor House and Garden

The magnificent Tudor house in St. Michael's Square was built in the late 15th century for a wealthy merchant family. Now a museum, it displays exhibits from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, as well as periodic exhibitions encompassing more than 900 years of local history.

Visitors can use free audio guides while enjoying the reconstructed kitchens and numerous artifacts, including Georgian and Victorian jewelry and archaeological finds from the medieval and Tudor periods.

A shop and café are located on the premises, and regular events and learning opportunities are available for visitors to participate in (check the attraction's website for details).

Location: Bugle Street, St. Michael's Square, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.tudorhouseandgarden.com

3. The Medieval Merchant's House

The Medieval Merchant's House
The Medieval Merchant's House | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Another classic old home to visit is the Medieval Merchant's House in French Street, just a short stroll from the city center. Built in 1290, this historic townhouse has been fully restored and is one of the only surviving examples of its kind in England.

Highlights of a visit include seeing collections of period furniture and wall hangings, and unique architectural flourishes that offer a fascinating insight into the living conditions of a wealthy 13th-century family. A picnic area is available for visitor use in the property's attractive garden.

Address: 58 French Street, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/medieval-merchants-house

4. See Vintage Vehicles at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu

Beaulieu & the National Motor Museum
Beaulieu & the National Motor Museum

An easy 14-mile journey southwest of Southampton through parts of the New Forest, the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu is one of the world's largest museums dedicated to the automobile. Its many exhibits include the official collection of original James Bond vehicles, as well as other famous movie cars, including the flying Ford Anglia from Harry Potter, as well as some of the homemade cars constructed for the Top Gear TV series.

Also of note is the fantastic Palace House and Gardens. Formerly the 13th-century Great Gatehouse of Beaulieu Abbey, it's a delight to explore for its immaculate spreading lawns and walkways overlooking the Beaulieu River. There's also the opportunity to ride the attraction's monorail and vintage buses.

Address: John Montagu Building, Beaulieu, Brockenhurst, Hampshire

Official site: www.beaulieu.co.uk

5. Visit the SeaCity Museum

SeaCity Museum
SeaCity Museum

The SeaCity Museum tells the story of the people of Southampton and their role in Britain's rich maritime history, including the stories of those who departed from (or arrived in) the port over the centuries.

A must-see here is the Titanic Story. This fascinating exhibit tells of Southampton's connection to the ill-fated vessel, which sailed from the port in 1912. The 1930s Art Deco Civic Centre that houses this fascinating museum is also home to the Southampton City Art Gallery.

Address: Havelock Road, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: http://seacitymuseum.co.uk/

6. Stroll the Titanic Trail

Holyrood Church along the Titanic Trail
Holyrood Church along the Titanic Trail | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

The Titanic departed Southampton on her doomed maiden voyage to New York, and as a result numerous sites around the city are associated with the vessel.

One of the best ways to learn about the city's connections to the ship is through the informative Titanic Trail. Maps are available from local tourism offices and many popular tourist attractions across the city, or on the SeaCityMuseum website.

Titanic Trail
Titanic Trail

Along the way, you'll visit the remarkable Titanic Engineers' Memorial in East Park, a beautiful bronze and granite monument unveiled in front of a crowd of 100,000 Southampton residents in April 1914 (none of the ship's 35 engineers survived). Nearby is the Titanic Musicians' Memorial, dedicated to the ship's musicians.

Another interesting stop along the way is Holyrood Church. Built in 1320, it was destroyed during WW2 but its ruins have been dedicated as a memorial to those who served in Britain's Merchant Navy. It also serves as home to the Titanic Crew Memorial.

Address: 3-5 Bernard St, Southampton, Hampshire

7. Board the Steamship Shieldhall

Steamship Shieldhal
Steamship Shieldhall | Peter Titmuss / Shutterstock.com

Part of Britain's National Historic Fleet, SS Shieldhall is the largest surviving working steamship of her type in Europe. Built in 1954 as one of the Clyde sludge boats, this impressive vessel has been fully restored and provides a working example of the machinery typical of the great ships that plied the world's oceans between the 1870s and 1960s.

In addition to educational and sightseeing outings, the ship regularly appears in the Southampton Mayflower Maritime Festival held each summer. Highlights of this three-day spectacle include a host of activities, displays, and attractions, including historic vessels, vehicles, and fly-overs by vintage aircraft.

Location: Berth 110, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.ss-shieldhall.co.uk

8. See the Planes at Solent Sky

Solent Sky
Solent Sky | Antony *** / photo modified

Solent Sky uses a fantastic collection of models and photographs, as well as numerous magnificent flying machines, to tell the story of Southampton's aviation heritage. The region is famous for its experimental and development work between 1908 and the late 1960s, the most famous being the iconic Spitfire.

Showpieces of the museum are the huge Sandringham flying boat and the Supermarine racing seaplane, the predecessor of the Spitfire that won the Schneider Trophy in the early 1930s.

Address: Albert Road South, Royal Crescent, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.solentskymuseum.org

9. Explore Old Town Southampton and Bargate

Bargate | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Just to the south of the city center, Southampton's Old Town has many unique locations associated with famous residents and visitors. These include William the Conqueror, Henry V, William Shakespeare, the Pilgrim Fathers, Isaac Watts, and Jane Austen.

Originally built as the main gateway to the medieval city, 800-year-old Bargate marks the entrance to the Old Town and is used to host temporary art exhibits and events. Numerous plaques have been laid from Bargate down to the waterside to commemorate key events, from the early Roman settlement to the opening of the National Oceanography Centre.

Location: Bargate, Southampton, Hampshire

10. Enjoy a Stroll around Ocean Village

Ocean Village
Ocean Village

East of Southampton's old town, Princess Alexandra Dock has been transformed into a modern leisure and shopping center. You'll see plenty of luxury yachts moored in the harbor in front of Canute's Pavilion, with its designer boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and cinemas, including one for arthouse and foreign-language films.

It's a delightful and easy area to explore on foot, regardless of your pace. Other fun things to do in Ocean Village include boat trips, sailing facilities, and enjoying the great views of the cruise ships moored in the Eastern Docks.

Location: Ocean Village, Southampton, Hampshire

11. Take in a Show at the Mayflower Theatre

Mayflower Theatre
Mayflower Theatre | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Built in 1928, the 2300-seat Mayflower Theatre offers a varied program of professional stage shows and music. In addition to the latest West End theater productions, rock and pop bands, and orchestras, comedians make this a regular stop on their touring schedule.

The theater also offers a number of fun dining experiences, including a high-end afternoon tea and show-time sweet treats (advance booking required). Fun behind-the-scenes tours are also available.

Address: 22-26 Commercial Rd, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.mayflower.org.uk

12. Explore the Collections at Southampton City Art Gallery

Southampton City Art Gallery
Southampton City Art Gallery | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

Housed in the same building as the SeaCity Museum, a visit to Southampton City Art Gallery is one of the top free things to do in Hampshire. Here you'll see an interesting selection of some 3,500 works of art.

Opened in 1939, highlights include old masters and English artists from 1750 to the present, as well as a valuable collection of ceramics. Food and shopping facilities are available on-site and nearby.

Address: Civic Centre, Commercial Rd, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.southamptoncityartgallery.com

13. Take a Hythe Ferry

Hythe Ferry
Hythe Ferry

Given its importance as one of the world's largest and busiest ports, it should come as little surprise to learn that Southampton also serves as an important ferry hub for local passenger traffic, too. And if there's time in your travel itinerary, a ride aboard a Southampton ferry can be a lot of fun, even if it's a short one.

A fun excursion can be enjoyed aboard the vessels of the Hythe Ferry. Sailing from the Town Quay (parking is free), this 15-minute, passengers-only journey to the town of Hythe offers superb views back over the city, as well as of the many large cruise ships that berth here. In fact, it was from these docks that the RMS Titanic departed on her fateful journey.

Part of the fun is the journey to the ferry departure point at the end of Hythe Pier. Used by tourists and commuters alike, the Hythe Pier Railway is the UK's oldest electric pier train, in operation continuously since 1909 to transport passengers along what is one of the longest piers in the country (it's 640 meters long).

Be sure to spend a little time exploring Hythe, too. In addition to the splendid views back over Southampton, it can also serve as a jumping-off point from which to explore the lovely New Forest area, or the popular National Motor Museum at Beaulieu; local bus services will get you there in minutes, as it's just five miles from Hythe.

Address: The Pier, Prospect Pl, Hythe, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: https://hytheferry.co.uk

14. Take a Walk in Southampton's Central Parks

William Chamberlayne Gas Column
William Chamberlayne Gas Column | Photo Copyright: Bryan Dearsley

One of five lovely central parks to explore in Southampton, Houndwell Park is located just minutes from the city center and is a great place to spend time if you're in need of some green space. In addition to a medieval- and maritime-themed playground for the kids, the park features numerous benches along its tree-lined and shady pathways.

A notable landmark is the 50-foot-tall William Chamberlayne Gas Column, built in the early 1800s. From here you can also explore four other connected parks, including East Park, worth visiting for its memorial to the Titanic's engineers.

Address: 563 Vincents Walk, Southampton, Hampshire

Official site: www.southamptonrocks.co.uk/listings/houndwell-park

15. Drive to Netley Abbey

Netley Abbey
Netley Abbey

The magnificent ruins of Netley Abbey, founded in 1239, have inspired many English writers, poets, and artists over the years, most notably the painter John Constable. The village of Netley is also worth visiting and is associated with famous people such as Queen Victoria, who laid the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, which Florence Nightingale helped design.

It's also where Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional Dr. Watson was said to have trained. Nearby is the Royal Victoria Country Park, which covers some 200 acres of woods and parkland, as well as a small shingle beach.

Location: Abbey Hill, Netley, Hampshire

Official site: www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/netley-abbey/

Where to Stay in Southampton for Sightseeing

In Southampton, most of the top attractions are scattered around the city, including the Tudor House and Garden, the old city walls, the SeaCity Museum, and the Titanic Trail. For easy access to all these attractions as well as the port, the center of town makes a great base, especially for first-time visitors.

Visitors traveling to the city to board a cruise ship often stay near the southern end of town for easy access to the terminals. Here are some highly rated hotels in these convenient locations:

Luxury Hotels:

  • Sleek, bright, and modern, the pet-friendly Novotel Southampton has a fitness center and indoor swimming pool. It's also near the West Quay Shopping Centre and an easy five-minute drive from the cruise ship terminals.
  • Also handy to the port and less than five minutes on foot to the Tudor House and Garden, Leonardo Royal Southampton Grand Harbour Hotel has a triangular-shaped glass facade and an inviting indoor pool. Some rooms have sea views.
  • The Mercure Southampton Centre Dolphin, in a heritage-listed Georgian building, blends original architectural features with modern decor, steps away from the old city walls and the Tudor House and Garden.

Mid-Range Hotels:

  • Handy to the cruise ship terminals, Holiday Inn Southampton boasts a pool and sea views and is at the top end of the mid-range options, while The Blue Keys, north of the city center, is popular for its great-value rates and friendly staff.
  • In the heart of the city, Premier Inn Southampton West Quay Hotel offers modern comforts near a popular shopping mall, a short hop from the Tudor House and Garden.

Budget Hotels:

  • The pet-friendly Ibis Southampton Centre offers clean, basic rooms in a convenient location near the West Quay Shopping Centre and Southampton Central Station.
  • Less than two kilometers from the city center, the homey Elizabeth House Hotel has free parking and a bistro-style restaurant, while The Regent Guest House, slightly farther from town, is a B&B with warm, welcoming staff.
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