Southampton or Bournemouth? Which South Coast Destination?

Southampton or Bournemouth
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How to choose between Southampton or Bournemouth? The two places have many similarities; they’re both located on the beautiful South Coast of England. They’re both student hubs with thriving universities and vibrant, youthful cultures. And they both definitely know how to party. 

But that’s where the similarities end because these two offer very different holiday experiences. One is a bustling port city with a fascinating history, home to cruise ships, great shopping, spa treatments, and sailing schools. The other is a classic British seaside town where it’s all about the beaches, the surfing, and the buckets and spades. 

We’ve listed the main similarities and differences for you here, looking at everything from price to nightlife to natural charm, to help you decide which of these south coast spots is right for you.

Southampton or Bournemouth: History and Art

Southampton, the birthplace of the spitfire, has a rich history.
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Southampton has a long history as an important strategic port. You can still see the fortified walls built in the 10th century to protect the old town from invasion. It was the historic port where the Titanic first set out on its ill-fated journey, and where the Mayflower sailed from on her voyage to America. It’s the birthplace of the Spitfire airplane and the embarkation point for the D-Day landings.

The stories of all these historical events can be found within the city’s museums, many of which you’ll find in the city’s Cultural Quarter. There, you’ll also find a hub of performance venues and art galleries, including the Southampton City Art Gallery and the Mayflower Studios.

Bournemouth’s history began in the Victorian era. Built in 1810, it was planned as a health resort where people could enjoy the fresh air and the therapeutic effects of sea bathing. You’ll find fine examples of Victorian Architecture through the city, such as the famous Bournemouth pier, the Grade I listed St Peter’s Church and the Royal Bath Hotel, the first hotel built in the city back in 1938.

Art and history lovers should check out the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, which houses a wonderful collection of British art, and also visit the University of Bournemouths exhibition spaces.

Conclusion: Southampton. Its history is just more exciting than Bournemouth’s! 

Southampton or Bournemouth: Beaches

Bournemouth has some of the most beautiful beaches in Britain.
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The South Coast of England has some of the United Kingdom’s most stunning beaches, and many of them are located around Bournemouth. With their soft golden sand and water that goes tropical blue in the sunshine, these award-winning spots can rival the best beaches of the Mediterranean. 

Bournemouth beach, located in front of the town center, is undoubtedly the busiest and most popular. It has a proper British-seaside vibe with fish and chips, ice cream shops, and the iconic rows of colorful beach huts. But there are plenty of other options available along the 7 mile stretch of sandy coastline.

Head to Durley Chine if you’re after something a little calmer but still with all the facilities – and a handy pub. Choose Shore Road Beach for watersports and surfing, take the land train to Boscombe for a beach full of activities, or Southbourne Beach for clifftop walkways and stunning views. 

Despite being a port city, Southampton doesn’t have any beaches. It’s not located right on the coastline but up the tidal estuary of Southampton Water. Along either bank of this estuary are beautiful walks, nature reserves, and small, rocky stretches that are tranquil places to walk and picnic but do not have any facilities or sand. But don’t despair, there are many lovely beaches nearby, they just require a drive from the city center. Like Calshot Beach, located 16 miles from the city on a spit of sand jutting out into the Southampton Water and offering panoramic views of the Solent, Southampton, and the Isle of Wight. 

Conclusion: Bournemouth. Southampton cannot compete with Bournemouth’s world’s famous beaches. 

Southampton or Bournemouth: Activities

Bournemouth is one of the premier surfing destinations in the UK
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Bournemouth pier is the focal point of the city and a hub of family-friendly activities, including an old-school arcade, fishing spots, restaurants and bars, and the amazing pier to shore zip line. In the Rockreef Center, you can scale 28 fun climbing walls and drop down vertical slides.

The small but compact town center contains all the major high street shops plus a scattering of some unique ones like the Bournemouth Vintage Emporium. There are plenty of activities to keep children happy, like paintballing, crazy golf, the zoo, or the waterpark. But when in Bournemouth, everyone should really try the surf! The swell around Bournemouth Pier has been attracting surfers since the ’60s and there are several surf schools along the coast to help you get to grips with those waves! 

Since Southampton is known for its port and marinas, why not take to the water while you’re there? Take a day trip to explore the Solent, head out after dark on a party boat, take the ferry over to Hythe or to the Isle of Wight. Maybe take a boat out yourself on a sailing or powerboat course, or visit during September to catch the Southampton Boat Show, the largest boating festival in Britain. 

Back in town, make the most of Southampton’s renowned shopping scene at the Westquay center, offering over 90 stores and late-night opening. If it’s sports you’re into, why not try and catch Southampton FC in action in a Premier League football game. If you’re after some you time, check out Southhampton’s wellness scene with 20 spa and treatment centers within the city. For kids, head to Marwell Zoo, go bowling, or climb trees at the Go Ape experience. 

Conclusion: personal choice. It depends on your vacation style, city and shops or seaside and surfing?

Southampton or Bournemouth: Nightlife

Both of these destinations have thriving vibrant nightlife scenes.
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Both places have large universities (Southampton has two), so the youth culture is strong in both, and there is no shortage of nightlife. In Southampton, you can choose from a range of quirky venues for your night on the town. Soak up the history at the 13th century Duke of Wellington, grab a Bag End burger at Tolkien-themed Hobbit bar, drink Prohibition-era cocktails at a 1920’s speakeasy, or head to the Bookshop Alehouse, where you can drink craft beer while you read! Once you’re suitably tipsy, pick your nightclub. Follow the LGBTQ+ crowd to Edge Bar, or Cafe Parfait for an over 21’s night, or Oceana for all your massive multi-room club needs.

One of the most popular aspects of Bournemouth’s after-dark scene is that it’s confined to a small area with all the major pubs and clubs within walking distance of each other. And since it attracts not only students but also the hen and stag party crowd, you should expect that area to be full of large groups or loud revelers.

Start your night with craft beer tasting at Brewhouse and Kitchen or individually tailored cocktails at Smokin’ Aces. Fuel up with a burger at hipster favorite Sixty Million Postcards before heading to the Old Firehouse, where decades of students have danced to top DJs. Or keep it classy on the rooftop Sky Bar or head to the award-winning Bar So for champagne and cool vibes. 

Conclusion: A draw. Both places offer a range of venues to suit all tastes, ranging from youthful hedonism to sophisticated style, (although to be honest both are a little heavier on hedonism than sophistication).

Southampton or Bournemouth: Entertainment

you'll find plenty of cultural entertainments in both destinations.
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If your nocturnal activities don’t revolve around cocktails and dance floors, you can still find plenty to amuse you after hours. Southampton enjoys many famous acts at its stellar live music venues such as the Orange Rooms, the O2 Guildhall, or The Brook. In addition, the Mayflower Theatre offers the chance to see some of the best live performances and touring shows in the United Kingdom. With musicals, opera, ballet, comedy shows, cabarets, and pantomimes, you’re sure to find something to suit your tastes.  

Similarly, Bournemouth has plenty of live music venues, including its own O2 Academy and Bournemouth International Center. Pavilion Dance offers a chance to watch breathtaking dance performances, take classes of your own or be part of their community programs. Watch ballet, musical theatre, or a comedy show at the Bournemouth Pavilion, or catch a performance by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra at The Lighthouse. Visit during the first weekend of October to see Arts by the Sea. A free-to-enter festival of music, installations, and artistic performances held around Bournemouth’s many outdoor spaces. 

Conclusion: Bournemouth. There’s not much to pick between these two for cultural entertainment, but we’re giving it to Bournemouth for the outstanding Arts by the Sea festival. 

Southampton or Bournemouth: Parks, Gardens and Nature

Southamptons sculpted and manicured public gardens.
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Southampton offers several chances to commune with nature, from city parks perfect for a lunchtime picnic to the large Southampton Common, complete with an adventure playground and paddling pool and the Tudor House’s sculpted and manicured gardens.

Nature-lovers should head to the beautiful Lakeside Country park, reclaimed from gravel pits and home to wildlife such as woodpeckers and foxes. For more of a wilderness, head to the Itchen Valley Country Park, where you can wander or cycle for miles in perfect tranquility and watch for otters, herons, and kingfishers along the banks of the river. 

Bournemouth has 1000 hectares of award-winning parks and gardens. The most popular of which are the grade II listed gardens that run through the Bourne Valley to the center of town. This 1.5 mile stretch of greenery is divided into the Upper, Central, and Lower Gardens, each with different attractions and atmospheres.

The Lower Gardens are the closest to the town center and here you’ll find the bandstand, minigolf, aviary, and Bournemouth’s famous tethered hot air balloon, from which you can get a birds-eye view of the beautiful coastline. Visitors can also explore ten designated nature reserves for a chance to spot some wildlife. 

Conclusion: Draw. We love that both cities respect the importance of green spaces, parks, and reserves for use by people, birds, and wildlife. 

Southampton or Bournemouth: Price and Accommodation

Bournemouth's beach huts offer some of the most expensive accommodation in town.
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Despite Southampton’s larger and more built-up appearance, Bournemouth has almost double the accommodation options. This is because Bournemouth is in higher demand, not all year round but certainly in the summer months when the town fills up to bursting point and accommodation books up far in advance. Unfortunately, this demand has also driven the prices up, so you’ll find the average price of a 3-star hotel in Bournemouth is £145 while in Southampton, it’s a more reasonable £85. 

But you’ll find you can eat and drink on any budget in either destination. In Bournemouth, this might mean enjoying takeaway fish and chips instead of dining at the many celebrity chef-owned restaurants. In Southampton, it’s a choice between a night out overlooking the yachts in the marina districts or heading to the student bars for more budget-friendly prices. 

Conclusion: Southampton. Bournemouth’s prices reflect its popularity as a summertime seaside destination, whereas Southampton is more affordable all year round. 

Southampton or Bournemouth: Conclusion

Southampton is a vibrant port city.
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If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see that it’s a draw: two-all to both destinations and several inconclusive categories. This is not because we’re indecisive or because these places are too similar; in fact, it’s the opposite. These two south-coast spots offer very different holiday experiences, so the choice really comes down to you and your vacation style. 

If you want a proper seaside holiday in a beach resort town and don’t mind paying for the privilege, you should visit Bournemouth.

But if you’re not bothered about the beach, if you’d rather be in a bustling city with a thriving waterfront, great shopping, and a smaller price tag, you should head to Southampton. 

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Anita is from Wales and has been a travel addict since her first trip to Australia ten years ago. Since then she's lived and worked in Oz, New Zealand and Canada, worked many ski seasons and travelled widely through South East Asia, Morocco, India and Europe. She's a nomad, freelance writer, foodie, compulsive reader, tea addict and animal lover.