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Located on the south coast of England, Southampton served as the historic ocean liner gateway for the British Empire and the intense North Atlantic passenger trade to the U.S. and Canada. Today it is the U.K.'s – and indeed Europe's -- leading cruise port.
Best known as the homeport of Cunard's Queen Mary 2, Southampton now hosts a wide variety of cruise ships in the booming European cruise market with the principal lines being Cunard, Fred. Olsen, Royal Caribbean, P&O Cruises and Saga Cruises.
For most cruise passengers, it's the first and/or last port on a European cruise or Atlantic crossing. But New York it ain't, and the first thing you see as you approach is not the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, but a giant IKEA.
A pleasant, bustling city of around a quarter of a million inhabitants, Southampton has several areas of interest, though much of its historic medieval character was destroyed during World War II. In 1620, the Mayflower left from just outside the existing city walls, and the waterfront recalls this historic voyage. From Mayflower Park, you can enjoy watching the container ships pass en route to and from the freight terminal beyond the Western Docks, cruise ships departing from three separate locations, and excursion boats and cross-harbor ferries flitting around the port.
Today, it is a modern shopping destination, business center and university town (the University of Southampton is a major British research university; among its well-known alumni is QM2 designer
Stephen Payne with a large commercial port in addition to its year-round cruise operations.
It's not somewhere you want to hang around (unless you want to pick up some flat pack furniture), and most visiting cruise passengers will use Southampton as a gateway to nearby London (an hour and 10 minutes away by train). It is also a good starting point for the Isle of Wight (reachable by ferry) and the surrounding county of Hampshire and Wiltshire, with their numerous attractions.
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Other British Isles & Western Europe Cruise Ports:
Amsterdam • Antwerp • Basel • Belfast • Brugge (Bruges) • Brussels • Dover • Dublin • Dusseldorf • Edinburgh • Ghent • Harwich • Holyhead • Invergordon • Le Havre • Lisbon • Liverpool • London (Tilbury) • Newcastle (England) • Paris • Rotterdam • Rouen • Southampton • St. Peter Port (Guernsey) • Vigo
This is England, so English, of course! But you'll hear many different accents by both native speakers and immigrants.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the British Pound; for current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. You will find ATMs at many bank branches. Banks usually take a commission from exchanging currency, while some travel agents and exchange offices advertise commission-free exchange. Check the rates as they can vary) Credit cards are widely accepted, but please note that many taxis do not take them.
Southampton is where Titanic set sail for New York and the town celebrates this link with a dedicated exhibition at the SeaCity Museum. You can pick up everything here from Titanic models to mugs, books and tea towels.
Where You're Docked
Southampton has four widely separated cruise terminals. Two -- Ocean Terminal and QEII Terminal, accessible via gate 4 -- are located at the Eastern Docks, while the others -- Mayflower Terminal and City Terminal, accessible via gates 8, 10 or 20 -- can be found at the Western Docks. Both are about a five-minute taxi ride from the Southampton Central railway station, which is close to the city center.
There is no reason to hang around the port area, and you can either walk (10 minutes) or jump in a cab (there are ranks outside each terminal) to the city center.
In Southampton: AutoEurope (800-223-5555) is a good first call. It represents a range of car rental agencies such as Avis and Hertz (and often offers better rates than the individual agencies). Hertz has a rental agency on West Quay Road and Southampton Central Station.
Between Southampton and London by train: Go to Southampton Central Station for Southwest Trains to London. You have the option of four departures an hour (some are direct to London; check timetables) with journey times of 70 to 90 minutes. To check schedules, visit Southwest Trains or National Rail Enquiries online. You can also call 0871 200-4950 for train timetable information. Fares are cheapest for departures after 10:00 a.m., so ask for a "cheap day single” (if you're not planning on coming back) or “day return” if you're planning on returning to the ship.
By bus: National Express coaches operate between Southampton's bus station and London's Victoria Coach Station, as well as between Southampton and the Central Bus Station at Heathrow Airport. Allow about 2.5 hours.
Watch Out For
If you come from the U.S. and land here for the first time, please remember that people drive on the left-hand side of the road in the U.K. When crossing the streets, it is always best to look both ways. Drivers have the right of way, and they take it unless you cross at a lined or "zebra" crossing.
SeaCity Museum (Havelock Road; Open 10am-5pm, Mon-Sun) moved to the Civic Center in 2012, to coincide with the centenary of the sinking of Titanic. Even if you think you've seen and read everything there is to know about the Titanic, the permanent Southampton's Titanic Story exhibition is well worth a visit. Fascinating, thought-provoking and moving, it starts with a wall of names and faded photographs of everyone onboard and invites you to follow a number of passengers and officers, drawn from across classes, through the various rooms. You learn about their loves and lives and, at the end, whether they survived. The ship left Southampton on her maiden journey, with hundreds of Southampton residents as members of the crew, so it is especially poignant to have it here. There are scale models (including of the Queen Mary) interactive exhibits (including newspapers from the time) and a wide range of artifacts such as letters, jewelry and even a pocket watch stopped at the exact time the ship went down. A particular highlight is recordings from the inquiry set up after the disaster, which are played with still images, in the former council chamber. There is a coffee shop and gift shop on the ground floor selling all sorts of Titanic-themed stuff; and adjacent is another room which houses temporary exhibits..
If you are keen to learn more about the city's Titanic connections, there is a walking tour leaving from the museum that takes in memorials to the ship's musicians and engineers, none of who survived. When you leave the museum, head for Above Bar Street to the Titanic Engineer Officers Memorial in East Park (opposite the Cenotaph). Then walk to Oxford Street next to The Grapes Pub, where four members of the ship's crew had a lucky escape – they stayed too long drinking on the day of the departure and were refused entry onboard as it was about to set sail! At the end of the street, you'll spot the impressive façade of South Western House, where many families stayed the night before. Finally, walk down Canute Road to Canute Chambers, the former headquarters of the White Star Line.
Southampton City Art Gallery is located in the Civic Center and houses an eclectic collection of art from medieval to modern. The core of the collection is twentieth century and contemporary British art, with a focus on local artists, although it also has works by well-known British modern painters such as Laurence Stephen Lowry and Duncan Grant.
The Southampton Tourist Guides Association offers Heritage Walks for a small fee at 11.00 a.m. (Oct-May, Sundays only; June & July and Sept., Sun, Tue, Thurs. and Sat; and in August specialist walks every day) from the Bargate Monument in the city center, which dates back to the 12th century. The route visits the medieval town walls and vaults, St. Michael's Church (oldest section from 1070), and the site where the Mayflower and Speedwell sailed for America in 1620.
Southampton Shopping: One thing the city excels in is shopping, with three large shopping centers and numerous specialist shops in the old town. Walk along Above Bar Street towards the waterfront, and you will see the Marlands shopping center on your left at the junction of Civic Centre Road; then West Quay Mall on your right. The latter is the newer, bigger, high-end mall housing large stores, such as John Lewis, Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, plus a number of specialty shops and boutiques. The Marlands was the original mall, which despite having a significant refurbishment, is still the poorer cousin. Bargate Shopping Centre is further down the street, at the start of the Old Town. Above Bar and its continuation, High Street, have a number of pubs, cafes and restaurants to rest your feet and have a meal or drink ... or both. The 15th century Red Lion pub is one.
Been There, Done That
There are a number of harbor and ferry trips worth considering which leave from landings at the Town Quay, which is directly opposite the end of the High Street, or Ocean Village, a few minutes walk to the east. A free shuttle bus runs from Southampton Central train station.
The shortest trips are run by Blue Funnel Cruises which offers a docks' tour best enjoyed when one or more cruise ships are in, various river cruises and a day trip to Portsmouth. The boats leave from Ocean Village. The ferry to Hythe, a small town on the far side of the harbor, is another chance to get up close and personal with the big ships as it sails right past them on a 15-minute trip which connects at Hythe Pier and an ancient miniature train that rattles along the length of the pier to the town. A pub with outdoor seating affords a good view of the ships sliding by. Departures are every half-hour.
For a half-day or all-day trip, ride the Red Funnel Line ferries to East Cowes, Isle of Wight. Take one of the roomy passenger and vehicle ferries (not the hydrofoil) for the leisurely 55-minute trip past the southernmost berths then down Southampton Water and the Solent, or the high-speed ferry in less than half that time.
At East Cowes, a Southern Vectis #4 or #5 bus will take you the two miles to Osborne House, a large Italianate-style villa and Queen Victoria's favorite residence. If you want to visit the house and gardens, ask for a combined ticket for the ferry and the house. It was here that Victoria passed many a blissful summer with her husband Prince Albert and nine children, and where she died on January 22, 1901, at 6:30 p.m. at the age of 81. For further details, check the English Heritage Web site or call 01983 200022. The house is open daily from 9.00 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Feb-Nov; weekends during winter.
A second I.O.W. destination is the town of West Cowes, reached from East Cowes by using what is called the floating bridge (free) that crosses the narrow river dividing the two. The attractive main street is lined with antique stores, pubs and restaurants, and there you'll find Beken of Cowes, a famous photography store that chronicled the comings and goings of the great ocean liners and sailing yachts.
Hampshire Country Houses and Palaces: The home of the late Earl Mountbatten, Broadlands was the site of two royal honeymoons, those of Queen Elizabeth II (then Princess Elizabeth) and Prince Charles. The New Forest showcases old shipyards and a museum; the New Forest was created by William the Conqueror as a royal hunting ground. Broadlands is roughly 12 miles from Southampton, a 20-minute drive.
While in the New Forest, check out the Beaulieu Abbey-Palace House -- dating back to 1204 -- and the surrounding gardens. Also worth seeing is the National Motor Museum -- one of the biggest automobile museums in the world -- with some 250 vehicles, from antique to electric. These sites are 12 miles from Southampton; driving time is 30 minutes.
You can also jump on a train in Southampton for a half-hour ride to the market town on Salisbury. The early gothic cathedral, built from 1220 to 1258, houses the oldest working clock in Europe (it dates back to 1386) and features the tallest spire in Britain. The town also has a number of museums, and nearby you will find a number of other attractions, including Wilton House, a former convent and the seat of Earls of Pembroke since the 16th century. The Double Cube Room features a magnificent painted ceiling and splendid works of art by Sir Anthony van Dyck, furniture by William Kent and Thomas Chippendale, and an Axminster carpet.
A bit further afield, Longleat House near Warminster, is widely regarded as one of the best examples of high Elizabethan architecture in Britain and one of the most beautiful stately homes open to the public. It is currently home to the 7th Marquess of Bath. The grounds also house one of the country's top safari parks. It is about an hour and 20 minutes drive from Southampton.
Southampton is less than an hour from one of Britain's most famous natural attractions: the huge prehistoric stone circle of Stonehenge, which is located near Amesbury. The site has been undergoing an ambitious revamp, with in an attempt to return the stones to their natural environment by diverting roads nearby. The first phase -- the new Visitor Centre -- opens in December 2013.
History Afloat: Heading east on a 45-minute train journey to Portsmouth Harbour train station you can visit the Royal Naval Museum (023 9272 7562). The entrance to the museum area will be opposite a small square about five minutes walk from the station. The museum itself tells the story of the Royal Navy from early days to the present, and you can also visit HMS Victory, a three-deck ship built in 1766 and the flagship on which Admiral Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. The ship remains commissioned in the Royal Navy, and it is the flagship of the Second Sea Lord (in plain English, the personnel director of the Navy). Nearby is HMS Warrior, a much larger steam frigate built in 1860, which is also open to the public.
A well as some wonderful naval heritage, Portsmouth is also the birthplace of Charles Dickens. The house where he was born in 1809 is a few minutes' walk from the dock and has been turned into a small but fascinating museum (393 Old Commercial Road; opening hours Tuesday-Sunday (closed Mondays) from 10 a.m.-5.30 p.m.).
Portsmouth has a tiny but well-preserved old town, which includes the original city walls and a number of houses as well as a pub, the Spice Island, which sits literally at the Port's mouth and makes a perfect spot to watch ships come in and out.
More information is available at Portsmouth's website or by calling 02392 826 722.
Head over to Southampton's upscale district -- a few block stretch along Oxford Street –- where places like the Oxford Brasserie (33 Oxford Street, (023 8063 5043), for bistro fare. The White Star Tavern and Dining Rooms (28 Oxford Street, 02380 821 990) started life as a seafarers' hotel, and since opening early in the new millennium, it has proven itself to be a flagship establishment in Southampton. The interior pays homage to the history of the building, with chandeliers and comfy leather sofas. and cuisine is "modern British" with familiar names such as local sausages and mash, beer battered fish and chips and healthier options, such as pan fried fillet of salmon or breast of free range chicken. There are also three different canape menus. There are numerous other chain and bistro-style eateries in this stretch, including pizzeria Prezzo; Chimichangas, for Mexican food and Café Brazil, on adjacent Latimer Street.
On the Quayside, the Italian Ennio's (Town Quay Road, 02380 221 159) is a favourite for lunch and dinner. Cuisine is hearty, service is lovely, and the ambience is charming. Another popular choice on this stretch of road is the Spanish La Regata (Town Quay, 023 8022 3456 ) for tapas and seafood; it's open for lunch and dinner and has outside seating. Cuccini's on the Quay (023 8033 5045, open 11 a.m. until late) is another Italian option for lunch and dinner; evenings it features a jazz musician.
Newly-opened The Pig in the Wall is primarily a hotel (see Accommodations), but is also serves hot and cold tapas-style piggy nibbles from its Deli counter at lunch and dinner.
Other recommendations in the city include Que Pasa (104-108 Above Bar Street, 023 8023 5930), a lively bar cafe right in the center of the city. The location is good if you've worn out your feet while shopping, as it is only a stone's throw from the West Quay Mall. The restaurant overlooks a small park, and it has tables outside as well. This is a casual place that starts to serve lunch at 11:30 a.m. and remains open past midnight each day. The food is nothing special -- burgers, fish ‘n' chips etc. -- but at very reasonable prices.
If you fancy Indian food, one of the finest is P.O.S.H. Spices (1 Queensway; 0870 742 6282), a spacious Indian Colonial restaurant with a superb lunch buffet that is hard to beat. Dishes run from distinctly regional Indian cooking to the type of curry lunches with all the condiments that the British colonials once enjoyed. There are also various theme nights, including 70's Night and Bollywood Extravaganza. Open Sunday to Friday for lunch and daily for dinner. At Kuti's (39 Oxford Street; 02380 221 585), where you'll find eclectic and inventive fusion cuisine, such as aloo brie tikki (potato balls flavored with ginger and cashew, filled with brie and served with tamarind sauce). Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.
In Town: The four-star Grand Harbour Hotel (023 80633 033, West Quay Road) is the most luxe-oriented hotel within Southampton city limits. It has been a little neglected over the years, but changed hands in 2013 and will undergo a significant refurbishment project – which includes all the public space and 173 bedrooms -- in January 2014. There's an in-house restaurant and bar, an indoor swimming pool and a spa. Rooms are pretty tiny -– make sure to splurge for one with a balcony overlooking the harbor if you want to watch your ship come in.
Nearby, the Holiday Inn Southampton (Herbert Walker Avenue, 0870 720 1252) also has an enviable location just outside the gates to one of the port's terminals. Options for those wanting port proximity at a value price also include a Novotel, Ibis and Jury's Inn. If you're looking for a good budget option (which caters to a lot of cruise passengers), try the Holiday Inn Express (Botley Road, West End), off Junction 27 of the M27, the main road into town. It's about 15 minutes drive to the cruise terminals.
The newly-opened The Pig in the Wall (8 Western Esplanade, 023 8063 6900), is the small, but perfectly-formed sister hotel to The Pig in the New Forest, from the co-founder of the Hotel du Vin chain of hotels. It's a 19th-century pub and townhouse literally in Southampton's medieval walls, knocked together to create 12 "shabby-chic" bedrooms, a bar and a charcuterie. The hotel is in a perfect spot to explore the city's sights and a stone's throw from the dockside.
Ennio's (02380 221 159, Town Quay Road, above the Italian restaurant); is one of the city's loveliest boutique hotels. It's located at the foot of the Red Funnel ferry and the six rooms, though small, are decorated in spare Scandinavian style with funky touches. All have ensuite bathrooms.
For a well-located bed and breakfast, try the Linden Guest House,(51-53 The Polygon, 02380 225 653). It is up the hill from Southampton Central railway station and on a street with several B&B's. The cheapest rooms have shared facilities. Several other B&Bs are located on the same block.
Great Splurge-worthy Stays: Lime Wood (Beaulieu Road, Lyndhurst, 02380 287 171) is a relatively new country house hotel that is sleek and trendy without being ostentatious. There are two restaurants on site, one a brand-new venture with Gordon Ramsay protégée, Angela Hartnett, and head chef Luke Holder; and the more casual, Kitchen Table. There are bikes for borrowing, and serene New Forest trails to hike.
Another favorite is the 11-room Hotel TerraVina (174 Woodlands Road Woodlands, Hampshire, 023 8029 3784), located on the outskirts of the New Forest. TerraVina is known as much for its wine list as it is for its chic -- but comfortable -- lodgings. The hotel, owned by the proprietor of the highly lauded Hotel du Vin chain, features a restaurant, bar and swimming pool.
If you want to splurge and don't mind a 45-minute car journey to get there, then it's well worth starting or ending your cruise at the Four Seasons Hotel (Dogmersfield Park, Chalky Lane, 01252 853000), which has a property in deepest Hampshire (the village is mentioned in the Domesday Book). It's the ultimate in five-star luxury accommodation, set in its own vast grounds with an adjoining farm and fishing lake; breathtaking suites and the finest locally-sourced food from Laverstock Farm. It also has a "Ship to Shore"offer for cruise passengers, which includes a transfer to or from Southampton and daily English breakfast for two included in the price of the accommodation.
Staying in Touch
In Southampton, the Bargate Internet Cafe on the lowest level of the Bargate Centre is the easiest to find; Blue Star Internet Cafe at 97 St. Marys Road is just north of the town center.
For More Information
On the Web: Visit Southampton, Discovery Hampshire and Visit London
Cruise Critic Message Boards: British Isles/Western Europe
Independent Traveler: Europe Exchange
--Updated by Adam Coulter, Cruise Critic U.K. Editor.