London is a vibrant, lively city, home to some of the finest history, architecture and culture in the world. Anyone would be hard pressed to not find something that interests them in this ancient city. But for those who are frequent visitors, or just looking for an escape from the city for the day, there are plenty of daytrips (or a weekend trip if you want to linger longer) that are easily accessible by rail or car.
Hampstead Heath: 30m by train, underground or car
The quickest way to get in to the country is to head north to Hampstead Heath. Surrounded by residential neighborhoods, you’ll find a vast park with grassy areas for picnics as well as wooded walking/hiking trails (horse-riding is also permitted on some of the trails). Overlooking the Heath is the stately Kenwood House, the former home of the Earls of Mansfield and was later purchased by the Guinness family (yes, the beer guy) and opened to the public. Due to an act of Parliament, the house is to be free to the public in perpetuity. There are volunteers onsite to explain the history and details of the rooms, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch some famous masterpieces on visitation. Also on site is a decent café that serves hot and cold food as well as mouthwatering cakes and sweets. Before visiting the Heath be sure to check the website for special events.
This dazzling former home of Henry VIII should not be missed. The palace is in wonderful condition and the free audio tour is comprehensive. You’ll even be treated to a real roaring fire in one of the large kitchens, and have the opportunity to meet some of Henry’s former queens in the Great Hall and ask about their life as queen. The gardens are gorgeous and make for a relaxing walk, especially if the sun is out. Once you’ve wrapped up your tour, walk across the street to The Mute Swan pub for a delicious meal and a pint.
One of Queen Elizabeth II’s favorite residences, you’ll walk the halls that British royalty has tread upon for a thousand years. One of the most incredible sites to visit while at the castle is St. George’s Chapel which has hosted weddings, christenings and funerals of royalty throughout the centuries. It is the final resting place of Henry VIII, and for historians of the War of the Roses, Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville are entombed here. Photos are not permitted in the castle or chapel which is why I don’t have pictures. The town of Windsor is loaded with shops, restaurants and pubs so once you’re done with the castle there’s still lots to see and do. We enjoyed a tasty Moroccan meal at Meimo which is at the end of a wide pedestrian center.
Canterbury is a UNESCO World Heritage site and chock full of history and culture. It was the site of the murder of Thomas Becket, and the Canterbury Tales were based on pilgrims’ journey to the famed city. The cathedral is breathtaking (there is a fee to enter), and the town is a treat to wander. For a lovely meal, consider the Café du Soleil.
A lively beach town with a royal palace, a pier and lots of medieval streets to explore. For more information about Brighton, click here.
Bath: 2h 30m by car, 1h 20m by train
Bath is a perfect Georgian-era town with its Royal Crescent and pristine architecture, but it’s also ancient and the home to an immaculately preserved Roman Bath. Touring the site is easy and the use of technology is brilliant and not intrusive. Plan to spend a few hours here as you will want to soak up every aspect of its history (no pun intended). In addition to the baths, the cathedral is stunning, and we enjoyed exploring the old narrow lanes. If you have a few days, Bath is a great jumping-off point to explore the Cotswolds. Click here for more information on some of my favorite towns in the Cotswolds.
Chester: 2h by train
Just south of Liverpool and a few minutes east of Wales, Chester was one of those towns that took us by surprise. The city has an ancient history with a cathedral that was initially built by Æthelred of Mercia in 689 AD, and was one of the last cities to fall to the Normans. It is one of the best-preserved cities in England, and also boasts the striking black and white building construction that was popular in the Victorian age. Just 30m train ride away is the famous city of Liverpool where you can explore the docks and immerse yourself in all things Beatles.
If you have more than a day, consider visiting some of the towns of Wales. If you want to really explore this incredible country you will need at least 10 days. We only had three days and visited the following towns:
Caernarfon, Wales: 4h by train
Pretty little town square with a massive, historically significant castle. Built during the 13th century, the castle is well preserved, and has been used for the investiture of the Prince of Wales since 1911.
Another 13th century castle town with a quaint village and a few pubs and restaurants. In addition to the castle, other noteworthy attractions include Aberconwy House, Conwy’s only surviving 14th-century merchant’s house and one of the first buildings built inside the walls of Conwy, Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan house built in 1576 which has been refurbished to its 16th-century appearance, and the Smallest house in Great Britain, named in the Guinness Book of Records with dimensions of 10’ x 6’.
Hay is a lovely little village that earns its claim to fame as a bibliophile’s paradise. With over twenty book shops (many featuring rare editions) and an annual Book Festival, if you love books, this is the place to be. But it’s also a cute town with lots of hiking trails along the river, and a good place to canoe. There is a castle in Hay that features in the Wars of the Roses, although as of this writing, the castle is undergoing extensive renovation and is not open to the public.
One of my favorite castles in Wales (and there are hundreds), Raglan was the childhood home of Henry Tudor, who after defeating Richard III at Bosworth field, ended the War of the Roses and became Henry VII, father to Henry VIII and grandfather to Elizabeth I. We spent a few hours exploring and absorbing the history and ambiance, trying to imagine the grand feasts that took place in its great hall. In the nearby town of Monmouth, enjoy a pint on the river and have a great dinner at La Piccola Italia.