Located on England's sunny-ish south coast, Southampton is the country's busiest cruise port, receiving more than 2 million passengers a year. Yet few linger in the city itself, choosing instead to take excursions to higher-profile destinations such as Stonehenge and London. "People think it's ugly and bombed and there's nothing to see here," explains Katie Santos from See Southampton tours. I grew up 100 kilometres along the coast and am ashamed to admit I felt the same. Southampton was somewhere you went to get on a boat, not to stay and hang out. Or so I thought.
Back in the late 18th-century, the city was a glamorous wellness resort. People flocked here to bathe in the healing seawater and drink from the town's mineral spring. The streets were filled with dashing men in uniform and elegant women promenading with parasols. It had cultural cachet, too. Shakespeare moved here in the 1590s to become the patron (and alleged lover) of Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton. Jane Austen was also a resident, celebrating her 18th birthday in the Dolphin Hotel.
Fast forward a century and one can imagine the excitement on April 10, 1912, when the "unsinkable" RMS Titanic set sail for New York. Onboard were some of the world's wealthiest people, plus hundreds of emigrants hoping for a new start in America. We all know how that ended but the SeaCity Museum does a good job of providing fresh insights into this familiar tale. More than 500 locals died in the disaster and the city is riddled with Titanic connections, from The Grapes pub, where passengers celebrated before embarking, to the former White Star Line offices where the death notices were displayed.
Sadly, much of the city's architectural splendour was obliterated by German bombs during WWII. Not only was Southampton an important strategic base but it was also home to the factory that manufactured the Spitfire. The aircraft's designer, R J Mitchell, grew up here and the excellent Solent Sky museum is a fitting tribute to the man and his work.
What did survive the onslaught (and in fact saved thousands of lives) were the city's underground vaults. They can only be accessed if you are with a registered guide and Santos shows us two examples, including a surprisingly ornate space built by Cistercian monks in the 1300s as a wine showroom.
Part of Southampton's struggle to keep visitors has been that until recently it didn't have a five-star hotel. That changed last year with the unveiling of the swish £25 million Southampton Harbour Hotel. Designed to resemble the stern of a cruise ship, the 85-room property has a spa, an expansive rooftop bar and sweeping views over Ocean Village Marina. It's also home to The Jetty, the city's best seafood restaurant, whose decadent haddock souffle might just be the tastiest seafood dish I've ever eaten.
Other notable restaurants include the Dancing Man Brewery, a brew pub housed in a 14th-century wool house, and Lakaz Maman, an excellent Mauritian eatery with British MasterChef winner Shelina Permalloo at its helm.
All of which means the city is much more than just a place to get on or off a boat. I've yet to cruise into Southampton but if and when that happens, I plan to linger.
Rob McFarland was a guest of Visit Britain and Southampton Harbour Hotel.
Located in Ocean Village Marina, Southampton Harbour Hotel offers luxurious nautical-themed rooms and a complimentary shuttle service to the cruise terminal. Rates from £135. See southampton-harbour-hotel.co.uk
See Southampton offers a range of themed walking tours with expert guides. Prices from £6 per person. See seesouthampton.co.uk