From unique museums and historic city walls to quirky pubs and restaurants galore, those looking for places to visit in Southampton have plenty of choices at their fingertips.
While admittedly, Southampton isn’t the prettiest city to look at, what it lacks in fairytale aesthetic, it makes up for with interesting museums, fun activities, and plenty of opportunities for shopping… including a giant IKEA right in the city centre (a rarity in the IKEA world).
It also happens to be the UK’s cruise capital, welcoming upwards of two million passengers a year.
So, whether you are planning your first visit or simply curious about things to do before/after boarding a cruise, here are some of the most unique and interesting places to visit in Southampton.
The Southampton Town Walls
At first glance, it might be tough to picture that Southampton was once a thriving medieval town. Unlike nearby Salisbury which remained unscathed through World War II, Southampton was one of the worst bombed cities in England during the Blitz, which explains its mainly modern skyline.
One telltale sign of Southampton’s medieval past however remains – the medieval town wall circuit which wraps around the city for 1.6 miles, taking you past over a dozen towers and gates.
These walls once completely enclosed the city of Southampton, along with 29 towers (some with cannons) and eight gates. From the 17th-century onwards the stones from the walls and gates were often removed for use elsewhere, with many sections of the walls demolished completely.
The walls were one of the only parts of Southampton to survive the Blitz mostly unscathed, and from after the war their historical importance was recognised, with much work done to conserve what remained. Nowadays there are a series of panels on different sections of the walls for visitors to learn about the history while walking.
Can’t make it around the entire trail? The western portion of the Town Walls is particularly worth a look, with beautiful Arcades still very much intact.
Of all the remaining gates in the city, Bargate is the best known (and also the prettiest). As the former main entrance to the medieval city, it offers a glimpse at Southampton’s former glory, with 11 heraldic shields, and 2 newly restored lions made of iron on guard duty.
Bargate was built around 1180 with alterations and additions made in the 12th and 13th-centuries. Over the years the building surrounding the gate has been used as a prison, the city’s guildhall, a court, police headquarters, a museum and a gallery.
Today the gate is a Grade I listed building but is not usually open for visitors to explore the interior. A walk underneath through the gate, and some photos are a must though!
The Tudor House and Garden
The Tudor House and Garden was Southampton’s first-ever museum, originally opened in 1912. It even survived the destruction of the Blitz, although a house two doors down was not so lucky!
The building which is now known as Tudor House was originally built in the 1180s and known as King John’s Palace, although there’s no evidence of King John ever having visited. It was owned by the Southampton town mayor and merchant John Whytegod in the 14th-century and then passed through the hands of a number of merchants in the centuries following.
During different time periods, the house has been used as a merchant home, a lodging house and then a number of small businesses before becoming almost a slum and nearly being demolished.
Today the Tudor House is an interesting museum demonstrating the lives of its previous tenants and the history of the city of Southampton. There’s also a recreation of a formal Tudor garden for visitors to explore.
This fascinating museum is home to the Southampton Titanic Story, which frames the tragic and famous tale of the Titanic in a new way – through the stories and lives of those from Southampton.
While Belfast is where the Titanic itself was famously built, Southampton is where it embarked on its first and last voyage, with many Southampton locals in tow. In fact, 3/4 of the staff on board were from Southampton, with over 700 local crew members, of which only a fraction survived.
The SeaCity Museum is one of the most visited Southampton tourist attractions, particularly since there are so many hands-on activities and displays. Along with the story of the Titanic, the other main exhibit looks at the history of Southampton as a hub for migration.
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.
Solent Sky Museum
The Solent Sky Museum is definitely one of the best places to go in Southampton for fans of aviation and aircraft, particularly if you’re interested in the famous Spitfire.
This aviation museum was originally called the Southampton Hall of Aviation and focuses primarily on the history of aviation in the Southampton, Solent and wider Hampshire area. The Supermarine aircraft company is based in Southampton, so there are a number of their aircraft on display, including the Supermarine Spitfire.
All up there are more than 20 planes (some replicas) or cockpit sections on display at the Solent Sky Museum, along with 15 engines as well as the Hampshire Police and Fire Heritage Collection. The museum is open seven days a week and costs £10 for adults.
The Wellington Arms
One of the most unusual places to visit in Southampton probably doesn’t seem that unusual at first, but the Wellington Arms pub has a very fascinating story!
At first glance, the Wellington Arms is a cosy pub with a nice beer garden and some excellent ales to sample….. but it’s also the location of the British consulate for the Kingdom of Redonda, well, sort of.
The Kingdom of Redonda is an island in the Caribbean which is technically part of the country Antigua and Barbuda. However, there’s a story by the fantasy author M. P. Shiel that his father claimed the island as the Kingdom of Redonda and M. P. Shiel was crowned as its king in 1880 by a bishop from Antigua.
The whole story is very likely a fiction that was developed to fool the presses, but over the centuries many ‘Kings’ of Redonda have granted titles to friends, including the landlord of the Wellington Arms in 2007.
Bob Beech was the landlord who was also made a knight of Redonda and his pub was granted status as a consulate of Redonda by the King. The Wellington Arms then attempted to avoid the British ban on smoking in public spaces by declaring itself the embassy of Redonda to gain diplomatic immunity. It didn’t work, but if you’re looking for somewhere in Southampton for a pint, this is definitely one of the quirkier choices!
Make sure you read the full story here as well.
The Juniper Berry
While Jane Austen fans are typically more drawn to destinations like Bath (home to a full-on Jane Austen Centre) and Winchester (where she died & was buried), those who are especially dedicated may also want to give Southampton a visit, as Jane and her family called the city home for three years.
On the site of their former address, you’ll now find a lovely little pub named the Juniper Berry, which is a traditional English pub serving up ales and comforting pub grub.
Little remains of the Austen connection here these days, apart from a plaque affixed on the front, but it’s a great spot to stop for a bite or drink while exploring the rest of Southampton. They also have guest rooms available!
PS: If you’re a Jane Austen fan, it is also said that she celebrated her 18th birthday at the Dolphin Hotel in Southampton (which still exists today, but is a Mercure property).
While today a memorial dedicated to sailors of the Merchant Navy, Holyrood Church was one of the 5 original churches that served the walled town of Southampton.
This imposing structure was originally built in 1320 and stood as a prominent fixture of Southampton’s landscape until German bombs in 1940 reduced it to ruin. In 1957 the remains were dedicated to the sailors of the Merchant Navy and it remains a very recognisable landmark on Southampton’s High Street.
Underneath the clock in what remains of the main tower, there are two quarter jack figures, little mechanical men who struck small bells on each quarter of the hour.
If you’re looking for uniquely beautiful places to visit in Southampton, Holyrood Church is one of the most poignant and interesting church ruins we’ve ever visited, and well worth a stop.
Titanic Engineers’ Memorial
One of the lesser known places to visit in Southampton is the beautiful (and moving) Titanic Engineers’ Memorial.
Since 1914, this bronze and granite memorial has stood in East Park to honour the engineers whose lives were lost when the Titanic sank 3 years prior. The chief engineer officer, 24 engineers, 6 electrical engineers, two boilermakers, a plumber and a clerk all died during the ship’s sinking, but they all died remaining committed to their jobs.
The inscription on the monument further bears testament to the fact that the engineers continued to fight the rising water during the ship’s sinking, delaying the ship’s destruction as much as possible so others could escape.
The monument features a statue of the Greek goddess Nike, who represented victory, along with carvings of the engineer officers. It’s a lovely spot for a moment of calm in the city, to remember the bravery of the engineers.
Mayflower Pilgrims’ Memorial
Erected in 1913, this memorial commemorates the departure of the Mayflower (and Speedwell) from Southampton back in 1620.
When the Mayflower set out for the New World with a group of families now known as The Pilgrims, it did so from the port of Southampton, with another ship called the Speedwell. The Speedwall developed a series of leaks which had to be repaired, leading to it being abandoned in Plymouth, where the Mayflower took on some of the passengers that were on board.
So while Plymouth is often referred to as the departure point of the Mayflower, that’s only because of the problems with the Speedwell, and the original departure point was from the location where the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Memorial is located in Southampton.
… It’s especially pretty at sunset:
While Southampton may be lacking in beaches, there are still several glorious vistas where you can take in the sunset.
One of the most scenic and popular is from Mayflower Park, where you can at once admire the sun setting over the water and whatever mega-cruise ship happens to be docked. It’s located directly opposite the Mayflower Pilgrims’ Memorial, across the road, so it’s easy to visit both spots in one go.
There’s a playground for children within the park, as well as plenty of benches, a café and public toilets. It’s definitely one of the most picturesque things to see in Southampton, especially if you enjoy ogling massive cruise ships.
The Former Royal Pier
While English destinations like Blackpool, Brighton, and Bournemouth are all well known for their beautiful piers, it was actually Southampton that once had one of the most spectacular piers in the entire country.
Originally opened in 1883 by (then Princess) Victoria, the Southampton Royal Pier was an elegant place to enjoy the English seaside and admire the multitude of magnificent ships and liners that passed through… including, of course, the ill-fated Titanic that departed from Southampton in 1912.
Over the years, through war, fires, and general disrepair, the pier became largely derelict, with only the gatehouse building remaining intact today, thanks to restoration efforts.
Fortunately for those who want a peek into the former glory days of the pier, the building is now home to an upscale Indian restaurant, so be sure to book a table to enjoy the vibes and the view at this unique example of Southampton attractions.
Medieval Merchant’s House
If you’re interested in medieval life then the Medieval Merchant’s House is one of the best places to visit in Southampton.
This Grade I listed building is now a museum, and one of the most well-preserved buildings of its type. The house was originally built by a prosperous merchant called John Fortin in 1290 but was converted several times during the following centuries; being variously used as a lodging house, a beerhouse and even a brothel when war broke out in 1939.
During the Blitz, part of the building was damaged, revealing much of the original medieval structure within. In 1984 it came under the care of English Heritage, with much of it restored to its original medieval condition.
Nowadays it’s an engaging destination, with replica period furnishings so visitors can imagine what it was like to live in it during the medieval period. The front of the ground floor has been recreated as a medieval shop front, with the rest of the house displaying a merchant’s home.
Beaulieu Motor Museum
While it’s technically about a half-hour drive from the centre of the city, the Beaulieu Motor Museum is still one of the most popular Southampton destinations that visitors flock to.
This museum was founded in 1952 by Edward Douglas-Scott-Montagu (the 3rd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu), as a tribute to his father, John, the 2nd Baron Montagu. John Douglas-Scott-Montagu was a pioneer of motor vehicles in the United Kingdom and was famously the first person to drive a motor car into the yard of the Houses of Parliament.
While the museum started out small, it has grown tremendously, with more than 285 different vehicles now on display, many of them famous and/or historic. Some notable vehicles here include Mr Bean’s mini, the Flying Ford Anglia from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” film, and a special exhibit dedicated to the cars from the Top Gear television series.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR VISITING: Tickets to the National Motor Museum cost £26 for adults (or £23 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.
Westquay Shopping Centre
Last but not least, if you’re looking for a place to go shopping in Southampton, a visit to Westquay Shopping Centre is a must.
Westquay covers a huge area of 95,600 square metres, filled with shops, eateries, cinemas and leisure spaces. There are more than 130 shops to choose from, so it’s a very popular Southampton destination for retail therapy!
There’s a large esplanade to the left of the Portland Terrace entrance to the shopping centre, where the modern-looking Westquay buildings contrast with the remains of part of Southampton’s medieval walls. Many fun events and pop-up attractions are held on this esplanade as well, particularly in summer.
Have we missed any of your favourite places to visit in Southampton?
Let us know in the comments!