Southampton: Gateway to the world

If you’ve never considered Southampton for a city break, here's why why you should pay it a visit


The UK is blessed with a number of wonderful cities to visit. But we have been to so many of them that when I decided to take my youngest son, Jack, away for a few days, it felt like we were almost running out of choice.

Having enjoyed some of the best-known British city breaks, from Edinburgh to York, Norwich to Bath, Nottingham to Cardiff, eventually we settled on Southampton. And it turned out to be a great decision.

While it might not be the first city that springs to mind, there’s more to discover than you might expect, plus as Londoners, it wasn’t far from home — less than 90 minutes on the train.

Known as the cruise capital of Europe, we started our visit at the docks: home to some huge liners, we were off on the Steamship Shieldhall, Britain’s largest working steamship instead.

Powered by two steam engines fed by two oil-fired boilers, it’s like a living museum — visitors are welcome to explore, and there were numerous volunteers to answer any questions, from how radar works to the intricacies of the engine room with its pistons spitting out steam. It was incredibly hot in the bowels of the ship and gave a real sense of what it must have been like working on these old vessels.

When we weren’t exploring, it was relaxing to sit on deck in the sun as the ship sailed down the Solent. With regular commentary, it made a good introduction to the city, along with singers regaling us with songs from the 40s and 50s, as we tried the well-priced snacks and drinks.

But while Southampton is well-known for its centuries of maritime history, by far the most famous is the Titanic, which started its ill-fated voyage to New York here.

That connection is echoed across the city, including at The White Star Tavern (named after the shipping line), where we stayed overnight, and where many Titanic passengers also slept before their trip.

There’s a free Titanic trail to follow, which takes around an hour, a good way to discover some of the landmarks related to the ship.

The White Star itself is located on Oxford Street, which bears little resemblance to its London namesake, and is lined with restaurants. It was an excellent place to stay, with a Titanic theme (of course) to our bright, spacious room, including prints on the walls and complimentary chocolates.

While there weren’t too many non-meat/shellfish options on the restaurant menu, there were still enough for us and the food was delicious. The breakfast menu next morning was particularly strong, and we gobbled up eggs, toast, pancakes and bircher muesli with fruit.

The White Star is well placed as a starting point to walk around the city too, known as one of the best in the UK for its green space, along with the medieval walls to stroll on. Our next goal though was the SeaCity Museum, which really is a gem: thoughtfully and cleverly done, both Jack and I thought it was up there with the best museums we’ve ever visited.

Although half of the museum is about Southampton and its historic connection to the sea, it’s the displays sharing the story of the Titanic which were particularly memorable. The exhibits give you a sense of what it was like in Southampton back in 1912, how desperate people were for jobs, and how exciting it was to go and work for the “unsinkable” Titanic.

Following some specific stories (without knowing until the end if these people survived or died), you also hear witness testimony along the way. It is also very moving, with real telegrams on display whose short messages (“arrived safely”) somehow say so much. To finish, there’s a courtroom where the disaster is discussed as if you are actually at the enquiry into what happened.

A contender for the City of Culture 2025 (although it eventually lost out to Bradford), there’s a good reason Southampton made the finals. After the SeaCity Museum, we were impressed by the City Gallery nearby: free to enter, it’s full of wonderful paintings and sculptures, from Rodin to Antony Gormley, Monet to Gainsborough, which all felt very accessible, with well written captions describing each piece of art.

There’s also the Mayflower Theatre, and the John Hansard Gallery, another huge art collection, which is part of the University of Southampton, the Hares of Hampshire public art trail coming this summer, not to mention the Solent Sky museum, which depicts the history of aviation in the area.

It’s easy to stumble across the city’s historic highlights as you walk around too. Along with the Tudor House, you’ll find the Bargate, a medieval gatehouse right in the centre, or God’s House Tower, the new contemporary arts and heritage centre which is housed in the medieval wall.

But when you’re away with a teenage boy, it can’t all be about museums and art. Luckily, Southampton has a lot of other attractions, too. Firstly there is shopping galore, with the vast WestQuay boasting almost a hundred shops, as well as restaurants — a Snickers milkshake at Creams, along with pancakes and ice cream felt an indulgently holiday-like treat.

Our next destination was 1st Base, an indoor baseball batting cage, where our hour-long session saw Jack getting better and better as the time went on (unlike me). The ball is tracked so you can see how you far you would have hit it in a real stadium and I have to say that it’s something I’d love to try again in future — if only it was a bit nearer to home.

Also great fun — and not just for younger members of the family — was the High Score Arcades, a free play amusement centre, full of games from Pac Man to Galaxian. Pay one price to enter, then play to your heart’s content: we tried all sorts, from snowboarding (virtually, of course), to shooting aliens and winning big on pinball.

We refuelled around the corner afterwards at the Ottoman Kitchen, a family-run Turkish restaurant with vegetarian options galore, and not only the best pita bread I’ve tasted but also the best sigara boregi spinach and feta parcels (after a lifetime of intensive research on my part, that’s no mean feat).

For so many people, Southampton is only seen in passing before embarking on a cruise, but even our little holiday proved that this bustling culture-filled city is worth far more of your time.

Getting There

A night at the White Star Tavern costs from £120 including breakfast.

For more information, go to

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