Suggestions for visiting the UK?

My wife and I have been thinking of visiting the UK for awhile, and we’re finally starting to make some plans. I would be grateful to anyone reading this that might have some time to make suggestions on places to go, things to do, etc.

Here’s a bit of background, if it helps.

We have both traveled internationally before; this would actually be the first time either of us has visited another English-speaking country. We are content, and in fact would prefer, to venture outside the most popular touristy areas (though that doesn’t mean we’d want to miss something awesome just because it’s popular.)

We will have a little less than a week, most likely. That means staying on one area, or two at the most. Some other tidbits:

  • I particularly enjoy old buildings: churches, castles, cathedrals. A 400-year-old country church off a dusty road would be as interesting to me as Westminster Abbey — I’d consider both awesome to see. Castles that are in a good state of repair would also be great. I’d enjoy getting in the countryside as well.
  • My wife would enjoy literary connections: anything related to Dickens, A. A. Milne, Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, etc.
  • Although I know London is full of amazing sights, and that is certainly one destination we’re considering, I am also fine with things like Roman ruines in Wales, A. A. Milne’s estate, country churches, sites in Scotland, etc.
  • Ireland / Northern Ireland might be a possibility, but we are mainly focused on Great Britain so far.
  • Would we be able to accomplish this without a car? I understand it is rather difficult for Americans to have to drive in the UK.
  • Are there non-conventional lodging options such as bed and breakfasts that might let us get to know our hosts a little better?
  • If it helps understand me better, some highlights from my past trips included the amazing feeling of stepping back in time at Marienkirche in Lübeck or the Museum in der Runden Ecke (a former Stasi building in Leipzig), exploring the old city of Rhodes, or becoming friends with a shop owner in Greece and attending an amateur radio club meeting with him.

Finally, we would probably not be able to go until September. Is that a reasonable time? Is part of September maybe less busy but still decent weather?

Thanks for any advice!

31 thoughts on “Suggestions for visiting the UK?

  1. Scotland is incredible. You can see most of the sights around Edinburgh without a car; just walk around. I highly recommend seeing the royal residence at Holyrood House, the Royal Yacht, and Arthur’s Seat.

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  2. You didn’t mention if the two of you would go by yourself or you also would take the kids with you.

    I’ve been wanting to go to Britain just to see Bletchley Park and Down House — “the former home of the English naturalist Charles Darwin”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Down_House
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bletchley_Park

    But then, I don’t have to cross the Atlantic to get there.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    It would be just the two of us this time. Both of those look interesting. Don’t know how I could have forgotten about Bletchley Park!

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  3. A few scattered bits of advice, not terribly coherent, sorry! I will try to come back and write some more.

    September is normally quite nice / ok weather all over the UK, it starts to get wetter and colder in late September and onwards, but it’s usually still quite nice even up in the North (where Iive). The south is warmer than the north, if that’s important; so Devon, Dorset, Sussex are warm(er) places. Winchester near Southampton/south coast is beautiful. The North and in particular the north of Scotland are significantly colder, but for some of the sights available it is more than worth it :)

    The big obvious places would be London and Edinburgh, and there is a lot to see in those places, and they expect tourists and cater towards them. Most of the rest of the countries see very little tourism and so have less tourist infrastructure. But you’d cope fine anyway, they still have hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, and suchlike. You will not need a car inside the big cities. (I would avoid driving anywhere within 10 miles of London if it could be helped!)

    Check out “English Heritage” and “National Trust” and “National Trust for Scotland”. These are charities and organisations that curate historic stuff, including the quieter off-the-beaten-track style things. If you plan a journey around bigger cities, you could find things in the area from these organisations (there are a *lot* of little things)

    Outside of the big cities I think you will need a car (or bicycles) to get to things. Thinking about where I live in the North East, if you want to travel to most of the interesting National Trust properties, they are almost always slightly out of the way in rural areas. However I’m not sure whether driving in the UK should be that bad for you folks in the modern age, especially outside the busy city centres and if you avoid rush hours. Rental companies almost certainly offer automatic transmission vehicles (manual is much more common for domestic here).

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  4. “400-year-old country church”, not sure we have any that young :-). Have a look at York, Chester, Bath or Oxford. All old cities with lots of historic buildings.

    Trains between cities and large towns are very good, though not always cheap. Booking trains in advance will save some money.

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  5. Seconded on the advice above – the country is fairly small so if you’re staying in one of the larger places it’s relatively easy to day trip to smaller areas.

    Bed and breakfast accommodation is very common in the UK, though when looking for it check that it’s not a regular hotel – basic hotels are often listed as B&Bs since that’s the service they offer but have less of the personal touch. airbnb also have a fairly big presence so might be a good option there.

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  6. Can’t disagree with any of the above. Would add the lake district, but not without a car.

    If the car is a big thing stick to London or Edinburgh. London is great but as I live close, I’ve never done a break there, so can’t comment.

    Edinburgh is a great city, esp. on foot. I would thought a week would be a good duration. The weather in late september could be iffy. As I recall the trains to Glasgow are OK.

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  7. If you aim at 2nd half of September you will miss the UK school holidays, and tourist places will mostly be less crowded (apart of London, Edinburgh and a few other places that attract international visitors in large numbers).

    Weather in Sept is not much more of a lottery than (say) August; you could get 2 weeks of Indian summer, or endless rain; most likely it will be “changeable”.

    You could probably satisfy your other requirements by throwing a dart in a map and keeping within a 30 mile radius…

    But, if operating without a car you could spend several days on foot in York: “roman” city walls, a castle, a cathedral, National Railway Museum, Yorvik Viking Centre, quaint old pedestrian only shopping streets. Add in a day trip to Hawarth and Bronte country – probably possible by rail/bus with a bit of organisation.

    As others have said, if you want to explore the countryside, you will probably want a car though.

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  8. Thanks for all the suggestions! Looks like I should look into how this whole international driving license thing works further.

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    Andy Cater Reply:

    Oxford – 40 mies from London with a good coach.

    Cheltenham and the Cotswolds

    Bath – 40 miles from here, beautiful city, countryside, connections with Austen

    Brecon / Hay / Abergavenny and the southern bit of Wales

    Four days is a tiny, tiny time

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  9. You really should visit Edinburgh. It has the old buildings, and is a UNESCO world literature city (or similar), so your wife ought to find plenty to interest her. (I think we might have the biggest monument to a writer anywhere.)
    But Edinburgh in August, when the festivals are on, isn’t so great unless you go specifically for that. All the accommodation booked up.
    For castles, Northumberland (the North East of England) has the most / best preserved of them in my experience (Alnwick will look familiar from films).
    Can you do it without a car?
    It would be a hindrance in Edinburgh, you can see all the good stuff on foot, but to explore the rest of Scotland, you probably need one. Public transport in the UK is worse than the rest of Europe.
    OpenStreetMap coverage is fairly complete. Works for all my road trip routing needs.
    If you stick to train then you could do well to just travel up the East Coast mainline from London to Edinburgh, breaking the journey as you go. That gets you York and the NE of England (Berwick is a surprisingly nice wee town I found).
    Let us know what you decide :)

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    Jonathan Reply:

    +1 for the northern line train route. York → Edinburgh via Durham, Newcastle and Berwick is very pleasant ☺

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  10. September is a great time to visit Cambridge. An hour on the train up from London, take bed and breakfast in a college (before the students get back), hire a bike and the city is yours. Kings College Chapel, punting along The Backs, tea in The Orchard at Granchester reading Rupert Brooke.
    For castles I agree with others and advise checking the National Trust (http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/)
    Don’t forget to book some good weather :-)

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  11. We really like London and the last time we went was pretty good. We took a hotel close to an Underground station and in walking distance of the museums like Natural history and the V&A and close to the parks. (the Premier Inn London Kensington Hotel) Using oyster cards it’s fairly fast and easy to visit London, and it has more then enough history and even a surprising amount of parks.

    Using an app on your smartphone is also easy to take the bus to go round so you see more sights and sounds.

    I also drove to the UK two years ago and… not only is the driving on the left but the roads are also very narrow (even for a European driver like me) and the whole ‘traffic landscape’ is very different. I did not enjoy that trip nearly as much. I would go to great lengths to avoid driving.

    The weather in September can be variable, another reason for a destination with a lot of choice.

    Also from London you’re in Paris, or better Brussels, in no time by train. And if you book in advance you often find relatively cheap tickets. You’ll also find bus trips to nearby destinations like Canterbury.

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  12. If you visit us in Oxford to see the Eagle & Child, pop over the road to the Lamb & Flag too. Like Cambridge, Oxford is an easy day trip from London. Lots of walking tours, a damn near thousand year old university plus a rather newer one and lots of good countryside (Cotswolds) around and about. Oxford also does literary, and not just Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. Bletchley is 40 minutes drive away.

    If you can drive stick shift (as I believe the US term is), don’t sweat about driving. You probably won’t need an international licence – I’d have to check, but Aussies certainly don’t. We somehow manage to drive in North America without needing an international licence and survive on the weird side of the road :-)

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  13. +1000 for Edinburgh. It’s the most beautiful city I have seen so far and the people are just lovely.

    The view of the castle from about everywhere in the central city is awesome. Arthur’s Seat is worth the hike. There’s an astonishingly beautiful path through parts of the city along the Water of Leith Walkway. The parliamant building is great. Calton Hill gives a good view over the city without too much effort (but still climb Arthur’s Seat!).

    My first visit was with my wife almost ten years ago and we stayed here: http://www.stravenguesthouse.com/

    The couple that is running the B&B is lovely and they offer the best breakfast. The waffle with fruits and honey is pure sin. The only downside is that you have to take a bus into the city which takes 20-30 minutes. And there was not much good food around so you should dinner in the city.

    I am going to share a few photos with you on Google+.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    That sounds great, and that B&B link does too. Thanks!

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  14. If you get the chance, try to visit Cornwall. It’s likely to be a bit warmer than the rest of the uk and is also where lots of Brits go on holiday so there’s lots to see and do. A train journey down there will provide you with lots of beautiful scenery to look at. When your there, you can visit St Michael’s mount ( surely it must have been in a few films) and if you can, see if you can watch a play at the minack (spelling) theatre. There’s also spectacular cliff walks and the Tate gallery. St Ives is a beautiful seaside town. But aren’t they all. Wherever you go, take a raincoat!

    There are loads of b and bs in the uk. The quality varies, so you’ll have to take a chance. If you visit hay on wye, I can thoroughly recommend the old post office as a place to stay. It’s fantastic.

    If you want to meet people, one good way to do it is to go to mass at a local church. Most have some sort of coffee morning afterwards, where you can chat to the locals. They’ll all be very friendly.

    +1 for York and Edinburgh. York can be done without a car. I’m less keen on Oxford, but I can see it’s attraction. If you get the chance, visit the pitt rivers museum. Also ime the colleges tend to be closed or charge for entry. I’m also not sure if you’d even be allowed in some places – the Radcliffe camera ( someone could correct me on that) for example

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  15. A 400-year-old church? That’s probably the youngest church you will get to see!

    Visiting the UK is a great idea, there are many scenic places, and it’s history is at the root of the current world. Globalization started there! ;)

    With just 4 days, I think I would spend 3 days in the London area including a day trip to Cambridge (convenient by train) and I would complete the trip by going from London to Edinburgh on a night train with the Caledonian Sleeper, enjoying the scenic view on many different kinds of countryside landscapes without a car!

    In general, British museums are excellent: rich collection, with a rich museography which caters to everyone. And many of them are free for the visitors.
    Some museums I would particularly recommend in London are:
    The Science Museum. If you lack time just go there for an hour and visit the ground floor, I bet you’ll learn something interesting!
    The Natural History Museum is also wonderful, especially the section on evolution (the museum is dedicated to Darwin, after all!). The architecture itself is worth seeing.
    So many wonderful museums about WW2 history. If I had to choose only one I would pick the Imperial War Museum in London. Or if you go to Bletchley Park they have an exhibition well worth seeing about daily life in the late 30s and during WW2.
    The London Transport Museum is fascinating for a rail transport lover such as yourself.
    Virtually every famous artist who lived in London for a while has its own little museum, with a generally very interesting collection.
    The Greenwich Observatory should also interest you.
    And if you want to visit a castle “in a good state of repair”, I cannot recommend Windsor enough. That’s where the adjective “majestic” gets its true meaning!

    In Cambridge (Grantchester actually), don’t miss the Orchard, a tea garden where many writers gathered and found inspiration. I guess both your wife and yourself will love it!

    Close to Cambridge, I really like the church of Eely. The gravestones tell you the life stories of people buried there. Each and every one of them was apparently the loveliest person ever. It’s both comical and deeply moving.
    Walk in a British cemetary also, there’s something special in the way they are set up. Something very disorganized, with all kind of life thriving over the graves and winning over death.

    Bletchley Park is truly amazing and the best museum on the history of computing I’ve ever visited, but since you already know a lot about this history I don’t think you should make it a priority.

    There are so many more wonderful places to visit in the UK. Let’s only mention The Lake District, Cornwall, the Scottish Highlands, Northern Ireland, Kent, Hadrian’s Wall (a personal favorite!). But given the short time you have and your interests, I just don’t think they are a top priority.

    Hope this helps!
    Nicolas

    PS: The UK is probably the easiest place on Earth for weather forecasters: don’t forget your umbrella!

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  16. I’d suggest some mix of a day in London (the Dickens museum is under rated) and time in Cambridge (colleges, museums, unusual and easy without a car) and Norwich (everything from Roman to millennium sights, stunning cathedral and castle in the city centre, loads of churches – mostly disused/recycled in England’s most godless city, OK bus network and bus/train links to nearby towns if you want to take a look, bike&go hire available from the station in a friendly city, quintessentially English without being full of tourists like the others, good b&bs between Newmarket and Dereham roads). You’d miss the more dramatic landscapes (the fens and forests on the Cambridge- Norwich train line aren’t bad IMO) but it checks lots of other boxes.

    Second or third weeks of September should mean the schools have started (quieter tourist sites but busier rush hours), universities won’t have (more chance to see colleges) and did I mention that Norwich is in the driest part of the country? ;-) No sure things, so bring both waterproofs and sunscreen!

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  17. As a tourist, having a car in London is a nightmare. Having one in the countryside is essential.

    It’s really not a big deal to get used to driving on the left for a while. You just need to be a little more vigilant, not a bad thing when you’re driving in a place you don’t know anyway. Stickshifts are prevalent in the UK but you can probably request an automatic.

    You may or may not have to get an international driver’s license. Many countries let tourists drive using their US license.

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    MJ Ray Reply:

    Don’t go overboard. Having a car in the countryside is not essential (mine sits on my drive most of the time) but it will often be slower (buses often stop at the bottom of the drives of stately homes and so on, which is a long walk; and many rural services finish about 6pm), so I recommend staying near the cycle-friendlier cities if time is limited and you don’t want to drive. While I love the English countryside, the US has far larger chunks of English-style countryside in places like Georgia so it’s probably not going to add enough difference for the time it would take – with the possible exception of ancient/possibly-ancient things like Stonehenge, the Cerne Abbas Giant or Lindisfarne.

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  18. Hi John, long time no hear or visit. Best wishes for your U.K. trip. We have been going about two times a year for up to two months at a time for the last five years. Our Daughter works for BP and they needed her there. She and the family moved back to Texas in July, on our GDaughter’s fifth birthday.

    Nicolas has great ideas. I would see the Science Museum and the Greenwich Observatory and the Maritime Museum in Greenwich for sure. Bletchley Park is interesting too though you would have to travel up there to eat up a whole day by train and …

    If you stay in London don’t get a car, parking is the pits and the Tube and busses go most everywhere, pretty fast. Taxis are affordable.

    Out of town, a car will be really nice. Their main roads are better than a lot of ours, freeways and toll roads too. Ireland, Scotland, and Isle of Man have narrow roads that they call highways. Learn the numbering system, “M” roads are the best, “A’s” good but go thought towns, etc. and so are easy to get off by accident.
    YOU WILL NOT NEED AN INTERNATIONAL LICENSE. Your U.S. license works fine. Rent before your go for much better rates. In smaller towns with train stations they will pick you up at the station. Look for that.
    We have rented for Wales, Scotland, Ireland, but not Isle of Man. They are all more rural and you’d like to get off the main highway or rail tracks.

    Since we stayed so long with the kids we would take a cruise or other travel into different parts of Europe. Most major places we have been now, or to nearby.

    We have spent the day in Paris a couple of times taking the Chunnel train. Paris is not really a driving town either, you will need a really good navigator. But their mass transit is good and you can walk around to the museums, the Eiffel, and some castles or the subways or trains go there.

    Google the Museums, etc. to get an idea. Time flies and four days isn’t long at all.

    Congratulations on getting married. Best wishes for a happy married life.

    I was revisiting the Blogstock ‘o8, you and I are the only ones now blogging regularly and open to the public. Most of the others have picked up Facebook and I am friends with most all of them still.
    ..

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  19. “Are there non-conventional lodging options such as bed and breakfasts that might let us get to know our hosts a little better?”

    Youth Hostels. They are amazing. Usually buildings of historical importance, run by friendly folks and frequented by people who’re friendly too. Very low-cost, but totally non-fancy. This means bunk beds and shared toilets. Self catering (they may have shared kitchen facilities).

    Example: http://www.yha.org.uk/hostel/wilderhope-manor
    Beds starting for GBP 10 per night. Not a typo.

    It’s not just the cost though. Youth Hostels are in locations where you can’t build anymore (National Parks). For example the Youth Hostel for Windermere (Lake District) is closer to the water than any other building and has better views (IMHO).

    Misc. recommendations:
    Conventional shopping -> Oxford Street. Start at one end (the end near Hyde Park) and keep walking through it. You’ll end up near SOHO, which has some of the best restaurants in London, and you’ll be tired and wanting a big meal.

    Hyde Park – cycle through it. You can rent cycles by the hour from all around it.

    Shakespeare’ Theatre – The Globe (in London) and a visit to his hometown.

    You’ll probably end up taking a bus to Oxford / Cambridge anyways – historical significance, great buildings, literary connections, the whole nine yards.

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    MJ Ray Reply:

    Unless you need to cut costs or love bouncing around Greyhound-stylee, take the train to Oxford (50minutes, instead of at least 90 by coach) or Cambridge (50 not 110).

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    Jonathan Reply:

    The Lakeside Hotel in Windermere is literally on the lake; you step out of the breakfast room and onto a jetty, so the Youth Hostel isn’t, sadly, the closest you can get. (However the Lakeside is 5* and correspondingly priced)

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