Great rivers and parks, pathetic housing ... so goes a traditional Southampton refrain. But it's one that is currently being revised as major residential and commercial projects look set to transform a handsome and historically rich city that has associations with the battle of Agincourt and such illustrious ships as the Mayflower and the Titanic as well as the QE2 and her regal predecessors.

"Prices are strong," says Graham Freeman, the regional director of Connell estate agents. "We now have an uninterrupted motorway link to London, and there's also been an influx of blue-chip companies. The quality of housing has improved beyond recognition in the last 10 years and continues to do so."

Across from the New Forest, Southampton occupies a peninsula formed by the Itchen and Test rivers and Southampton Water. "The Itchen divides the city into two halves and people rarely migrate from one side to the other," says Steven Birch, the senior branch manager of Fox & Sons estate agents.

The centre is witnessing major residential development alongside large- scale commercial development. "Woolston, Bitterne, Bitterne Park and other areas on the eastern side of the city are a fair bit cheaper than Shirley and Bassett and other central areas," Mr Birch notes.

According to Mr Birch, trendy young owner-occupiers are attracted to Ocean Village, "a huge waterside marina with cinemas, restaurants, bowling, and night-life. Families and older buyers look at suburban areas such as Chilworth, and investors buy in city-centre areas such as Polygon for student rentals." State and independent schools are good.

Areas such as Polygon, Fitzhugh and Banister's Park are sandwiched between the bustling civic centre and the large Southampton Common, with its three lakes. Nearby are The Dell, home to Southampton Football Club, and the Hampshire county cricket ground, the latter having been acquired by Berkeley for residential development starting next year.

"We already have outline planning permission to build 120 flats and houses," says Chris Thompson, the managing director of Berkeley Hampshire. "Especially with the success of Ocean Village and Leisure World, Southampton has become trendy. It has a good local rental market, and we also sell to retireds as well as young couples. In Hampshire people are retiring back into the city, perhaps to where they originally lived. There is net inward immigration."

A dearth of warehouses means a scarcity of Docklands-type loft conversions. Eighty one-, two- and three-bedroom flats will soon be available in Imperial Apartments, South Western House. Berkeley converted the listed building, formerly a hotel, into a mixed-use block containing bars, restaurants and a health club.

Crest is marketing the second phase of Baron's Mead in Maybush, near Southampton General Hospital, with two- and three-bedroom homes, from pounds 64,000 to pounds 89,950. Crest also has 35 three-, four- and five-bedroom detached houses in Atherley Fields, and its Dock House conversion of a former customs house in the town centre will yield 60 flats.

Ex-council properties are available and variable in price and attractiveness. Mr Birch notes that "most areas a few miles from the centre contain local authority housing, some of which have turned over several times to private buyers".

The Low-Down

Transport: The M27 is in effect a ring road linking Southampton to the M3 and London, which is 67 minutes by train. There is an international airport, and ferries serve the Isle of Wight and Cherbourg.

Prices: Ocean Village Marina, according to Connell, starts at pounds 70,000 for a one-bedroom flat, pounds 85,000-pounds 100,000 for two bedrooms, and a starting price of pounds 150,000 for three-storey properties. Fox's list includes five- bedroom homes in Bassett and Chandler's Ford for less than pounds 200,000. Two- bedroom flats are available for less than pounds 40,000. Many flats and houses are priced in the pounds 70-pounds 80,000 range, usually for two or three bedrooms. Some flats are more expensive than houses with the same number of rooms. Second-hand flats in recently built houses are occasionally available, as are three-storey three-bedroom period houses, which cost pounds 125-pounds 150,000.

Other properties: Ottoman Homes is converting the Grade II-listed Admiralty House (1902) into 17 two-bedroom and one three-bedroom flat, most of which have been reserved. Four remain, ranging from pounds 120,000 to pounds 165,000. Cheap and cheerful: Ex-council flats for pounds 40,000 and less.

Shopping and dining: West Quay Shopping Centre, the UK's largest in-town shopping centre, is scheduled to open next autumn. It is adjacent to West Quay Retail Park and Leisure World, will offer 4,000 parking spaces and has already signed up Marks & Spencer and John Lewis. Ethnic restaurants in central Southampton include Thai and Bangladeshi as well as French, Italian and Spanish.

Flopping: Leisure World is a multi-entertainment complex containing cinemas, restaurants and nightclubs. A swimming and diving centre is nearing completion. Plays, musicals, ballet, classical music and opera are performed in the Mayflower and Nuffield Theatres, among others. Balloon, boating and other festivals for doers and watchers are frequent.

Grey matter: An Oceanographic Centre has been established as part of Southampton University. Other higher-education institutions in the area are Southampton Institute, City College and University of Southampton New College. Also several English-language schools.

Council tax: Band D is pounds 655.

Estate agents: Connell 01703 226941; Crest 01932 700500; Fox & Sons 01703 225155 (Fox's auction catalogue depicts many properties on offer in and near Southampton); Mann & Co 01703 843069; Waterside Properties (specialists in marina, coastal and riverside properties) 01703 841191.