There is much more to the UK than the usual list of top 10 London attractions. For starters, there are four separate countries – England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – each offering city and country pleasures, wilderness adventures, quaint villages, monuments, free museums and miles of challenging coastal trails. The food is a lot better than you may have heard. Use this guide to fill your journey with the best choices for you.
Plan your trip
Best Time to Visit: Late spring and early fall are the best times to visit when days are long, and there’s a good chance of mild, dry weather. Prices are lowest in January and February, but it is also cold and wet. Many attractions are closed, but if you like theater, museums and indoor activities this is an inexpensive way to visit.
Language: English. Many popular attractions offer guided tours or audio tours in European languages and Chinese.
Currency: Pound Sterling (£)
Getting Around: The train service in the UK is very well developed and is the best way to travel between cities and regions. While bad weather and industrial action can interrupt services from time to time, the number and frequency of long-distance, regional and local trains will surprise many North American travelers. Most fares are cheaper for off-peak travel and when purchased in advance. The National Rail Inquiries website is a comprehensive online guide to times, prices, and service status across the country.
Long-distance buses (called coaches in the UK) are the cheapest way to get around. Because they use the country’s highway system, they are also the most boring. One company, National Express, operates most intercity buses, and four other major regional companies operate local service networks. Local buses offer short, practical daily trips, so routes are not well coordinated between regions. But if you’re interested in taking day trips from specific urban or tourist hubs, you might find buses – like the Greenline buses between London and Windsor Castle – that serve the purpose. Traveline, a partnership between transportation companies, local authorities and passenger groups, has a website that can help you plan a trip using local resources.
Travel Tip: Return tickets (called return fares) are often a more expensive way to buy bus and train tickets than pairs of single tickets (called one-way tickets). Please check before you buy.
Things to do
The UK has thousands of years of history and culture on a slightly smaller island than Michigan. As you can imagine, there is quite a bit to see, and much of it involves easy day trips to major cities or transportation hubs. But surprisingly much is covered by vast wilderness areas. It’s easy to put too much into a visit. Instead, try to focus your journey around a few themes:
- Day trips from major cities. London in the south east and Edinburgh in central Scotland are both cultural centers, centers for free museums, shopping, theater, music and eating out. They are also surrounded by areas rich in historical attractions and natural beauty, so they make a great base for day trips and short breaks.
- Spend time in a National Park. National parks protect landscapes, coasts, moors and mountains. But they also contain working farms, quaint villages, castles and hundreds of ancient monuments. Hike the lakes of Lakeland (a Scandinavian word for hills) in the Lake District or marvel at the mountain views and clear mountain lakes in Snowdonia National Park (which is also full of castles). If you take a walk on the grassy chalk hills of South Downs, you often see France across the English Channel. There is skiing in the Cairngorm National Park and pleasant walking and cycling trails in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Each national park offers something different.
- Shop at traditional markets. Some, such as the permanent outdoor market in Norwich or the covered markets in Oxford, Birmingham and Leeds, have not changed much in hundreds of years. London also has its share of beautiful markets – from Borough Market for adventurous foodies to Portobello Road, a huge, overwhelming antique market that is a must.
- Catch up with Shakespeare in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. The Royal Shakespeare Company Stages Bard’s work with surprising disrespect and imagination that is hard to resist. There is plenty to see and do, including visits to Shakespeare’s family homes and Anne Hathaway’s cottage.
- Visit royal and traditional sites. There’s good reason why Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral are so popular with visitors. However, try to visit these traditional sights outside the school holiday seasons.
What to eat and drink
Forget the clichés about awful British food. That is ancient history. Today, you’ll find as many Michelin stars in London as in New York and much more spread across the UK. Whether you’re talking good food or neighborhood bistros, it’s easy to find modern European dishes with vegetarian and even vegan options in the most UK cities and tourist destinations.
Outside of the major population centers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the picture is a bit more hit and miss. But there are some traditional British specialties that you really should try.
- Taste a full British breakfast at least once. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland add regional accents to the classic breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans and tomatoes. If you’re on a tight budget, this breakfast will prepare you all day long.
- Enjoy afternoon tea with all the trimmings – scones with jam and cream, crumpets, sandwiches, fresh cream pies and endless pots of tea.
- Try different regional beers on tap. They won’t be ice cold, but the basement temperature is still pretty cool.
- Fish and chips can be great – crispy and hot – or sour (greasy and lukewarm). Ask a local where you can find the best.
- Eat seafood and shellfish in Scotland; it comes from the cold waters of the North Atlantic and the North Sea and is great. And if you are in Whitstable take some oysters.
- It is easy and often cheaper to find good quality ethnic food all over Britain. Indian, Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisines are widely available.
Where to stay
Accommodations range from five-star luxury and glamping to international budget chains and holiday homes, referred to as self-catering in the UK. Some types of accommodation are particularly British and worth considering.
Consider a bed and breakfast, ranging from fully equipped guest houses to small inns. In rural areas, you may find rooms to rent in private homes. Or try a caravan; that is how Europeans call campers, and some caravan parks rent them out as cottages. Larger trailers in caravan parks are known as ‘statics’. Country house hotels, which range from large comfortable homes to very large estates that have been converted into luxury accommodations, are another option. More and more pubs are also offering boutique-style hotel rooms as alternative accommodation.
How do I get there?
Visitors usually fly into the UK from North America via the main London airports – Heathrow and Gatwick, or by charter flight to London Stansted and London City. There are public transport options from Heathrow and Gatwick to central London.
But the UK has many more airports that receive international passengers with direct or connecting flights from North American airports. Depending on your final destination, you can save money on land transportation by flying to Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, East Midlands or Bristol Airport. Read more about alternative UK destination airports.
Travelers from continental Europe can cross the English Channel by ferry, drive through the Channel Tunnel or travel on the Eurostar passenger train. There are also good connections – by plane or boat, from Dublin or Belfast.
- Do not rent cars in cities. Wait until you have left London or other major cities. You save on parking fees and congestion costs (it costs £ 11.50 a day to bring a car into central London). Public transportation – buses, trolleys, and metros – are available in most major cities, as are city bikes – parked everywhere and easy to use with a credit card.
- Consider cooking for yourself. This is what Europeans call holiday homes. There is a lot of choice, ranging from short rental apartments in cities, cottages and village houses for rent. If you cannot find what you are looking for online, the local tourist authorities have enough information.
- Take advantage of what’s free. Almost all of Britain’s essential museums are free to visit. Historic attractions have reduced access for seniors and students.