9 fab things to do in Southampton

Boats in Southampton Marina.

Southampton has transformed over the decades. - Credit: Visit Southampton

Forty years after leaving, SUE CADE rediscovers Southampton, a modern city rooted firmly in its maritime past 

When I was given the chance to revisit the city I grew up in and see how it has changed over the years, I couldn’t resist. Southampton has always had a lively vibe, with its commercial port, ferries crossing to the Isle of Wight and large cruise ships setting sail.  

This part of the city was always rough and ready, the Frog and Frigate renowned for its feisty atmosphere and sawdust scattered on the floor. The area was smartened up during the 1980s with the development of Ocean Village. It’s the perfect place to sip cocktails and admire the yachts and motorboats in the marina. Banana Wharf has great views and the freshest of salads, one featuring locally sourced Romsey watercress. For more local delights, Pampam on Oxford Street offers a pizza showcasing a tasty Isle of Wight blue cheese. 

Exterior of the Sea City Museum in Southampton.

The Sea City Museum’s Titanic Experience provides fascinating details on the ship's history. - Credit: Visit Southampton

Sited on the Solent, Southampton has a such a massive connection with the sea. It’s where the Mayflower first set sail from (take note, Plymouth friends!) as well as the doomed Titanic. Its haunting story is told at the Sea City Museum’s Titanic Experience which provides fascinating, intimate detail using interactive exhibits, oral testimonies and a clever audio visual show set in the old courtroom. Even growing up here, I had no idea that so many Sotonians had perished with the Titanic, and I found it all quite emotional.  

Map of Southampton with red dots on it.

At the Titanic Exhibition a map of the city features red dots which show homes of people who died when the ship sank. - Credit: Visit Southampton

I was also nonplussed in the Gateway to the World exhibit, realising for the first time that the African twins who joined my year at secondary school were very probably refugees from Uganda. There’s so much to see at the museum - City Council venues manager Steve Newell says some people visit over two days in order to see it all. 

Nearby, Southampton Art Gallery is another impressive space. When I visited, a major exhibition was running in association with the National Gallery featuring 58 works with paintings by Monet, Gainsborough, Maggi Hambling and Paula Rego from both the Southampton and the National Gallery's collection. It marks part of Southampton’s bid to become UK City of Culture in 2025. 

My choice to study for a degree in drama was heavily influenced by productions I saw at the sadly defunct Nuffield Theatre and the Gaumont Theatre - now the Mayflower. I was delighted to be shown round the city’s newest cultural centre, Mast Mayflower Studios where three studio spaces are geared up for workshopping, rehearsals and performance. The ambiance of Mast is light, contemporary and collaborative, and there’s a host of associate companies resident in the building too. 

Southampton is a city full of surprises and although many old buildings were destroyed during Second World War bombing raids, there’s still evidence of its colourful heritage. Walk past the massive West Quay shopping centre and through an unassuming arch and you’re suddenly in another world, the old town with its Tudor House attraction. 

Exeterior of a Tudor house in Southampton.

The old town features the Tudor House as an attraction. - Credit: Visit Southampton

I remember the house from school trips but a massive amount of work has been done to repair and enhance the building – and stop it from falling over! Designed to bring history to life, visitors ‘meet’ the former inhabitants, whose ghostly voices provide an engaging introduction to how Southampton was in its earlier incarnations. Outside, the traditional knot garden is a wonderful haven for plants, bees and butterflies, and the new café roof has more flowers to encourage wildlife. 

The centre of Southampton sprawls from the High Street and shopping malls to the port and Ocean Village. I’d forgotten just how green the city is. There seems to be a park around every corner and many magnificent trees – I worked out that when they were planted I’d have been knee-high to a grasshopper. Now they are 50 feet tall! Houndwell Park is a mere hop skip and jump from vegan eaterie Café Thrive in Hanover Buildings, which offers takeaways to enjoy in the park on a sunny day.   

It was a total pleasure to have the opportunity to visit Southampton; of course it has transformed over the decades but it still retains so much character and vitality. I’m visiting later in the year to take part in the Southampton Marathon and I’m really looking forward to seeing even more of this vibrant city. 

Exterior of the Dolphin Hotel in Southampton.

The Dolphin Hotel is ideally located to explore the city on foot. - Credit: Visit Southampton

An ideal spot to stay 

Sue was a guest of Visit Southampton, staying at the Dolphin Hotel. The oldest hotel in Southampton, it’s ideally located to explore the city on foot. Double rooms from £95 including breakfast. 

Colourful display panels at the Titanic exhibition in Southampton.

Many Sotonians perished with the Titanic. - Credit: Visit Southampton

Ten Southampton facts 

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  1. The area has been inhabited since the Stone Age.

  2. The iconic Bargate is part of the remains of a wall built around the town in medieval times.   

  3. The Mayflower set sail from Southampton in 1620. 

  4. The Bargate’s iron lions from 1743 were recently restored after one’s tail fell off.

  5. Jane Austen lived in the city with her family in the early 1800s after her father died and celebrated her 18th birthday at the Dolphin Hotel.  

  6. Comedian Benny Hill was born in Southampton in 1924. 

  7. The Spitfire fighter plane first flew from Southampton Airport on March 5, 1936. 

  8. Southampton was one of the most heavily bombed UK places during the Second World War. 

  9. Clarence Birdseye first tried out his fishfingers, called ‘herring savouries’ on Sotonians in the 1950s.   

  10. Southampton only became a city in 1964.