Updated October 10, 2019
Southampton is known as the cruise capital of Northern Europe, and has played a key role in British seafaring history for hundreds of years. But it's more than just a port -- the town has been busy reinventing itself as a destination in its own right and there are plenty of sights and things to do over the course of 48 hours. And the town is compact, with everything a short walk or taxi ride away.
Perhaps Southampton's biggest claim to fame is that the Titanic set sail from here in 1912. The city suffered terribly from the loss -- more than 500 households lost a family member -- and there is a walking tour and a permanent exhibition at the Seacity Museum where you can learn more about the tragedy. Less well known, but arguably more historically significant, the Mayflower set sail from Southampton around 300 years earlier, taking the first settlers across to America.
The city also has the third-longest surviving medieval walls in the UK, which though badly bombed in the Second World War, can still be walked round. And literary buffs will appreciate Southampton's associations with Jane Austen, who lived here for three years and was a frequent visitor. (But for those of you who prefer beaches, national parks and outdoor pursuits, that's all on Southampton's doorstep too -- check out our 5 Best Day Trips from Southampton.)
To help you plan your stay, we've broken down 48 hours in Southampton so you can get the most of your time there, before or after your cruise.
Exploring in and Around the Old Town
You'll need to stock up on fuel for the day's activities, so don't be shy about ordering a Full English breakfast. Nowhere serves up sausages, eggs, bacon and hash browns better than Mettricks (1, Guildhall Place, Guildhall Square), but if you fancy something lighter, you could have your eggs Benedict, Florentine or Royale-style. Or don't have eggs at all. Instead, opt for pancakes or filled bagels. Mettricks serves from 7:30 a.m. during the week and from 9 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
Southampton is a town best explored on foot, and you can follow in the steps of those who sailed on the Titanic or the Mayflower on a walking tour. While you could theoretically self-guide around town, we think it's worth booking an organized walking tour. Local guides are full of anecdotes which will enrich your experience, and -- better still -- they can tailor the walk to suit your interests.
If it's Titanic history you're after, they'll point out hotels where passengers stayed before they sailed (very different establishments depending on the class in which they were due to travel), as well as bars frequented by the crew-to-be. All these places still stand today, as do the original offices of White Star Line, the company that built and owned the Titanic. The city also bosats a permanent Titanic exhibition at the Seacity Museum (see below).
Equally, there are places of interest to be found for those curious about Southampton's Mayflower history and author Jane Austen. She lived in the city for several years and used to party at the Dolphin Hotel (which still exists), where she celebrated her 18th birthday.
Southampton also boasts the third-longest surviving medieval walls in the UK. Not only can you walk along them, your guide might have a key which unlocks some of the vaults that lie beneath. Henry V was a great lover of wine and had these caverns built to store thousands of barrels of French vino. During World War II, these vaults were used as bomb shelters.
End your walking tour in the heart of the old town at the Tudor House (Bugle Street), which has a wealth of information about Jane Austen (she attended a nearby school here). In addition to being a museum with more than 800 years of history (there are witch marks on the walls!), the house has a fabulous garden and cafe. On the menu are inexpensive soups, salads, jacket potatoes and homemade quiches, as well as a mouth-watering array of cakes and scones. On a nice day, you can enjoy your meal in the garden itself. Last entry to the cafe is 2:15 p.m. Mon to Thursday and 4:15 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The Tudor House is closed on Fridays.
After lunch, have a quick trip around the Tudor House itself before heading to SeaCity Museum (Havelock Road; open 7 days a week 10 a.m. to5 p.m.). SeaCity opened on April 10, 2012, to mark the centenary of RMS Titanic's departure from the town's port, and the museum's interactive Titanic exhibition is world class. Survivor testimonies, artifacts and re-enactments are all powerful stuff which will have you searching for tissues. (Be sure to have some in your pocket.) You won't want to rush this experience; to do the exhibition justice, you'll need a couple of hours. The souvenirs sold in its shop -- ships in bottles, old-fashioned trunks, beers and glasses dating from the 1900s -- are so tempting that your credit card could get a good workout.
Editor's note: you can buy a combined entry for Tudor House and SeaCity Museum.
If your legs aren't yet protesting and you've the inclination, next door to SeaCity is the City Art Gallery (Commercial Road; open Monday to Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed Sundays). Entrance is free and masters well-represented, with sculptures by Rodin and Degas, as well as paintings by Thomas Gainsborough.
If you've done all of the above, you've truly earned yourself a tipple, and Ocean Village is the place to go. This area has seen a massive regeneration and is now a high-end cluster of bars and eateries overlooking a pretty marina. For the best view, head to the brand-new five-star Southampton Harbour Hotel (5, Maritime Walk, Ocean Village) whose exterior is designed to look like a cruise ship. On the sixth floor you'll find HarBAR, which has a buzzing, classy vibe with aperitifs and gin cocktails to match. Try the "Copa Pothecary" (handcrafted gin with juniper berries, raspberries and orange served on ice) or the "Message in a Bottle" mojito. On Friday and Saturday nights, there's a live DJ and dancing, and if the weather's good, there's a wood-fire pizza oven on the balcony.
Before or after dinner, head back outside for a stroll around the marina to admire the yachts and boats bobbing on the sparkling water.
You don't need to travel far for a meal that will linger on the tastebuds for a long, long time. On the ground floor of the Southampton Harbour Hotel is The Jetty. The emphasis is on fish, but there are plenty of meat options too. For mains, we tried both "Catch of the Day," which was lemon sole, as well as calves' liver; both were sensational. But at the equivalent of $13, it was the starter of gin-cured chalk stream trout that stole the show. It was no surprise to learn that the chef held a Michelin star in his previous restaurant, and the great news is that prices aren't exorbitant.
If you fancy a change of scenery, however, head around the corner to the Grand Cafe (1, South Western House), which opened its doors in 1865. This restaurant was frequented by the first-class passengers of the ill-fated Titanic, and its ornate chandeliers and large wall mirrors give it a bistro vibe evocative of a bygone era. Thankfully the cuisine is more current, drawing on classic British and Mediterranean flavors and using seasonal produce. Again, there's plenty of fish, but there are also steaks, burgers and chops.
Feeling lucky? If so, there's a casino next door to the Grand Cafe, where you can roll some dice on the roulette table to win pocket money for your forthcoming cruise or to make a downpayment on your next one.
Isle of Wight
For a change of scenery, we think you should head slightly farther afield to the Isle of Wight. There's a romance about this 23-by-13-mile island. It dazzles in the sea about 12 miles south of Southampton and is easy to reach. Red Funnel operates regular crossings to and from the island, and their terminal is bang in the center of Southampton's seafront. You can either take the high-speed Red Jet foot-passenger service (30 minutes, $14 per person) or, if you have a car (or want to rent one in Southampton), you can take it on the regular hourlong ferry ride. We don't think a car is essential though; taxis and public buses are readily available. Alternatively, you could hire a bike or walk -- plenty can be reached on foot alone. Oh, and don't worry: you won't need your passport.
If you can't function properly without breakfast, then have it in Southampton before you go. The Artisan (157-158 Above Bar Street; open from 7:30 a.m. Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. on Saturdays and from 10 a.m. on Sundays) isn't far from the ferry port, and having won a "Barista of the Year" award, they're rightly proud of their coffee. The smoked salmon brunch should set you up nicely for the day, and in good weather you can even take breakfast on the patio, overlooking a pretty square.
If you can hang on, however, have breakfast on the Isle of Wight. The ferry docks in Cowes (famous for its yearly summer sailing regatta), and Eegon's of Cowes (72 High Street) is a gem of an old-fashioned cafe which serves big portions -- try the fry up -- for bargain prices.
Every August, Cowes plays host to the world's biggest sailing regatta, and there are lots of nautically themed shops and galleries in town, as well as a plethora of artisan boutiques. You can eye them up while you decide exactly what it is you'd like from your morning. You could stay in Cowes and its environs all day. There are beaches nearby, and you could stroll along the parade into Gurnard for lunch at the Watersedge Cafe (Shore Road, Gurnard) for tasty salads and fish cakes with a knockout view.
But if culture and history are what you're after, then Osborne House is a must-see (York Avenue, East Cowes; open from 10 a.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays during low season). It was Queen Victoria's holiday home by the sea, and you can take the chain ferry to East Cowes and walk up. There are regular tours of the house, which was where the movie "Victoria and Abdul" was filmed, but you can also visit just the grounds, exploring walking trails and Queen Victoria's own private beach with views across The Solent.
Feeling more active? Why not hire some wheels and cycle some the Isle of Wight's renowned bike trails? We recommend the easy 24-mile Red squirrel Trail. So-called because this is one of the few places in the UK where you can still catch sight of a red squirrel, the roundtrip Cowes trail runs along disused railway paths and through quiet countryside. It's perfect for the whole family.
If you're following the Red Squirrel Trail, come off it at Landbridge, Newchurch, and you'll arrive at the famous Isle of Wight Garlic Farm (Mersley Farm, Mersley Lane, Newchurch). There you can learn all about garlic as well as eat it. If the thought of garlic beer and ice cream is a turn-off, don't worry: not everything in the cafe is garlic-infused, although it does make their Ploughman's and Isle of Wight beef burger even tastier! There's a garlic-free kid's menu and a shop next door, which has free tasters of garlic-inspired goodies.
If garlic's not your thing, hop on the No. 1 Southern Vectis Bus that leaves direct from Cowes' bus terminal into Newport, the island's capital. Have lunch at Thompson's Restaurant (11, Town Lane). Chef Robert Thompson is the youngest British chef to win a Michelin Star, and you can taste it in the food. Top tip: Tuesday to Friday from noon to 2:30 p.m., there's a great value seasonal set menu.
From Newport, you can hop on any bus to explore all corners of the island. We suggest taking the No. 7 bus (runs every half hour) to the market town of Yarmouth; from there, take the hop-on, hop-off open-top Needles Breezer bus to the westerly tip of the island and Alum Bay, where you'll find the three landmark chalk stacks known as The Needles. There are short 20-minute cruises available to take you up close to The Needles if you'd rather not just admire them from afar. This is a popular site for fossil hunting and collecting colored sands.
If you prefer a quieter setting, however, head to unspoiled Brook Beach. It forms part of the Jurassic Coastline, where dinosaurs are believed to have walked thousands of years ago and fossils have been collected since the 1850s. This is a good spot for kite-surfing and swimming, but it's best to bring some water shoes, as it's rocky in places.
The Dancing Man Brewery (1 Bugle Street, Town Quay) is right opposite the Red Funnel ferry terminal in Southampton and is the perfect place to relax and celebrate your fossil find once you're back on the mainland. Its name hints at what it is, but this is no ordinary micro- brewery. It's set in a medieval 13th-century wool house, and its interiors are all wooden beams, vaulted ceilings and exposed brick walls and you can smell the hop in the air. If beer is not your thing, there are plenty more options on the drinks menu.
For ease, you could climb the spiral staircase to the Dancing Man Brewery's upstairs restaurant. They've got a great vegan menu and starters so original -- grilled sardines, herb-baked camembert and pork crackling -- that you might never make it to mains.
If you'd prefer a change of scenery, however, turn left from the brewery, and keep going until you reach La Regata (Town Quay). This thrumming, popular tapas restaurant is so authentic that everyone who works there is Spanish. Wines are all riojas; the sangria's great too. Enjoy it with a plate of queso de cabra (grilled goat cheese on toast), some albondigas (beef meatballs) and a dish of pulpo a la gallega (octopus on a bed of potato).
More likely than not, your head is ready to hit the pillow by now. But if you've still energy to burn, catch a show at the Mayflower Theatre (Commercial Road) or the Nuffield Theatre (University Road). Both venues are close together, and on the bill is big-hitting entertainment, from musicals and comedy to musicians and Shakespeare.