Most cruise ship passengers breeze right through Southampton on their way to or from London, just 70 miles away. Considering its history — and proximity to other great attractions, from Stonehenge to the home of “Downton Abbey” — this port town in southern England is worth a closer look. Here’s our inside scoop on what to see and do before or after your cruise.
Splurge: Careys Manor & SenSpa – This 77-room, brick hotel sits adjacent to England’s New Forest National Park in the village of Brockenhurst. It’s pretty much everything you would picture in an English country house: Many of the spacious manor rooms have four-poster beds with fluffy duvets and crisp sheets, and a two-course breakfast, which can be served in your room, is included. Doubles from $208.
Steal: White Star Tavern – As an homage to history, this tavern is named for the shipping company that sent the Titanic on its fateful voyage, which departed from Southampton in 1912, but this place — which is just a short walk from the terminal — is truly hip. Rooms are small but clean and modern, with comfy beds and surprisingly large bathrooms with soaking tubs. There’s also free Wi-Fi all over the property. Perhaps the only downside is that the three-story building has no lift (that’s an elevator to us yanks), but employees will happily cart your luggage upstairs. Doubles from $150.
Tip: Be sure to purchase power converters before arriving in the U.K.; some luxury hotels have them for guests, but many do not. The stakes are high: Power comes out of U.K. wall sockets at 220 volts; in the U.S., it comes out at 110 volts. If your devices aren’t dual-voltage, they could actually explode if you plug them in without a converter.
Breakfast: Annies Café – Lots of restaurants boast they have the “best English breakfast” in Southampton, but Annies has won numerous city competitions over the years. Order a traditional fry-up, which comprises two eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, mushrooms, potatoes, and toast. And get there early — on Sundays, the queue winds down the street.
Lunch: Grand Café – Skip lunch in favor of afternoon tea at this historic eatery, which dates back to 1865. The café pours afternoon tea seven days a week: The standard menu includes a selection of sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and preserves, cake and petits fours, seasonal fruit, and your choice of tea. Traditional pub fare — including a heaping portion of (locally caught) fish and chips — is available here.
Dinner: Ennio’s – Locals — and, more importantly, Italian tourists — swear by this upscale Italian eatery, which overlooks the Town Quay in one of the swankiest parts of town. While the standard menu offers traditional favorites, the weekly two-course regional menu features dishes from two specific regions of the chef’s choice. Don’t leave without trying the liqueur-drenched tiramisu, the house specialty.
Drinks: The Talking Heads Pub – For eclectic live music that ranges from Celtic to punk to ukulele, check out this pub on Portswood Road. A favorite among locals, the intimate venue hosts performers every night of the week. It offers two regular beers — Andwell King John and Longdog Lamplight Porter — as well as three “guest” beers from local breweries. Many of these brews are served at room temperature, which is how they do it in the U.K.
Tip: Restaurant food is taxed excessively in England, usually around 20 percent. The tax does not apply if you get food to go, though, so consider dining alfresco or back in your hotel, especially if the coffeehouse or lunch place doesn’t have a lot of atmosphere anyway.
For Everyone: Stonehenge – Arguably one of the most famous prehistoric monuments on Earth, this United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site is less than an hour from Southampton and is easily accessible by car or bus. The attraction recently switched over to a timed ticket entry system, so book tickets ahead of time online. Once there, sign up for the free audio tour; the 45-minute rundown offers insight into how and why the monument might have been built.
For Couples: Highclere Castle – Fans of BBC’s biggest hit know this estate as “Downton Abbey.” Home to the Carnarvon family since the 1600s, it’s where “Downton” is shot. Hire a driver for the 45-minute trip. When crews aren’t filming, the castle and grounds are open to the public for self-guided tours.
For Families: SeaCity Museum – This museum showcases Southampton’s relationship with the sea over the last 200,000 years, paying particular attention to shipbuilding and, of course, the Titanic. An exhibit about immigration and emigration incorporates an amazing number of historic records from city archives; regular kids’ activities include hands-on crafts such as origami and collage classes, as well as puppet shows and storytelling hours.
For the Adventurous: Go Ape – Wiggle through tunnels, climb over suspended bridges, and zipline amid the treetops at this adrenaline-inducing adventure attraction in the 440-acre Itchen Valley Country Park near Hampshire, just outside town. Tours are available year-round, but call ahead in the event of inclement weather.
For History Buffs: Tudor House & Garden – The Elizabethan era is alive and well at this timber-framed building facing St. Michael’s Square. Take the self-guided audio tour for a sense of how wealthy families in the 1400s lived. Along the way, exhibits display collections of Georgian and Victorian jewelry, toys, and other items, such as a leather flask in the shape of an Elizabethan lady. Later eras are represented, too. One of the perennial favorites in the collection: a penny farthing bicycle that dates back to the late 19th century. The Tudor also offers regular crocheting classes, which are open to the public.
Taxis are a reliable option for getting around Southampton and the surrounding area, but rides are cheaper if you call ahead rather than flagging one down. Many onboard pursers can arrange car services before you disembark the ship; otherwise, try West Quay Cars.