If you are a typical visitor to the UK, you'll probably arrive in London and then plan a bit of touring. The trouble is most visitors try to squeeze in too many regions in one short trip, racing from London to Scotland via York and Stonehenge with the odd Welsh castle thrown in for good measure. Do that and you'll end up exhausted and wishing you had more time to see and taste just about everything you've tried to see and taste.
If you focus your short break touring on a specific and limited area, you have a much better chance of really enjoying the experiences you have instead of just ticking them off in your "been there, done that" list. You'll go home with fond and lasting memories instead of a confused jumble. This is the approach I favor when I travel:
- pick a region with plenty to see, several places to stay and to dine.
- plan on traveling no more than two hours between destination towns or attractions.
- make the tour a circular one so that the start and finish are in roughly the same area, preferably near a departure airport, train station or ferry port.
This itinerary takes in some of the best sites west of London, as far away as Bath, about 115 miles. It includes three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Four relaxed days will do it but you can expand this trip to between five and eight days by adding the "optional days" suggestions.
Distances and times are judged for automobile touring but all destinations can be reached by train or bus.
Day 1 - Blenheim Palace and Oxford
Morning: Get an early start after your hotel or B&B breakfast and head for Blenheim Palace in Woodstock, on the edge of the Cotswolds. If you're a fan of vintage "Masterpiece Theatre", you'll know that this UNESCO World Heritage site was built for "The First Churchills", Sarah and John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. In more recent times, Sir Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim. Some of the greatest names in 18th-century architecture, landscape architecture and interior decoration were involved in its creation.
The house and formal gardens open at 10:30 am, but you can explore the Capability Brown-designed park from 9 am.
Travel: Blenheim is about 65 miles from Central London, about an hour and a half by car or the same by train to Oxford and local bus.
Lunch: There are several moderately priced restaurants and deli/cafes on the Blenheim estate serving freshly prepared food - some of it inspired by the history of the house.
Alternatively, take a walk in the charming Cotswold village of Woodstock - just outside the palace gates, and sample a traditional pub lunch at the Woodstock Arms on Market Street.
Afternoon: Visit the dreaming spires of Oxford. England's oldest university is also one of the oldest in the world. While you are there you will be following in the footsteps of presidents and kings, Nobel prize winners, authors, actors, artists, and explorers. Follow my guided walk around Oxford, or stop in at the visitor information center, 15-16 Broad Street, to book a walking tour.
Travel: Oxford is an ancient city where driving can be confusing and parking impossible. Pack what you need for the night in a light backpack and head for the Pear Tree Park and Ride Oxford, less than five miles south of Woodstock on the A44.
There's plenty to do in Oxford. Try a bit of shopping in the city's Victorian covered market or wet your whistle at the 17th-century Turf Tavern, one of Oxford's most unusual - and hardest to find - pubs. If you're in the mood for nosing around a museum, try the Ashmolean; the UK's oldest museum open to the public recently had a multi-million pound revamp to show off its fabulous collections. And it's free.
Nighty Night: Spend tonight it Oxford. It has a good selection of hotels and B&Bs at all prices. For a really unusual experience, stay at the Malmaison Oxford Castle, it's a converted Victorian prison in a 1,000-year-old Castle. The main wing was the cell block often used in episodes of "Inspector Morse". Their breakfast buffet is expensive but amazing.
Extra Day Options
Tour the picturesque Cotswold countryside and the lovely, golden stone villages near Oxford. There's beautiful walking country and a fine pub lunch at the Old Swan in Minster Lovell, Witney, about 15 miles west of Oxford on the A40. Stop in for lunch and ask for their walking maps of the nearby countryside. Or just stroll up the hill to visit the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall.
On the other hand, if you are an inveterate shopper, who can't let a day go by without a retail fix, you might want to join visitors from all over the world to head for the luxury designer bargains at the Bicester Village outlets.
Day 2 - Bath
Overview: Once again, you'll need an early start to have a full day in Bath. It's about 70 miles from Oxford using a combination of country roads and the M4 motorway and will take about an hour and a half. Try the Automobile Association (AA) route planner to map your route.
Bath is an old city with lots of confusing one-way lanes around its most interesting sights. It's also very popular and there are only 3,500 parking spaces in the city. So you might want to use one of the economical and convenient Bath Park & Ride areas on the outskirts.
The journey is well worth the effort. The whole city of Bath is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site and a visit is like a journey through time from:
- the 2,000 year old Roman baths
- through the 18th and early 19th century landmarks of Jane Austen's world
- to modern and stylish boutique shopping - some of the best outside London.
Morning: Start your visit with a free guided walking tour of Bath. A two-hour tour that covers most of the key World Heritage sites starts in the Abbey Church Yard at 10:30 am every day, rain or shine. You don't have to book. Just look for the signboard in the churchyard that says "Free Walking Tours Here."
Itinerary Tip: If you'd rather not walk, Bath's Hop On Hop Off Buses cover 15 stops over two different routes.
After your tour, depending upon your interests, spend an hour or so:
- Seeing how Georgian high society lived in the 18th century at No. 1 Royal Crescent.
- Doing some unusual shopping. Robert Adam designed Pulteney Bridge, with shops along both sides of it, in 1773. It is one of only three bridges designed with shops in the world. The Ponte Vecchio in Florence is probably the most famous. Look into the gift shop and the flower shop more for the ambiance than for the merchandise. Then aim for the Upper Town area between the Royal Crescent and the Circus for art galleries, antique dealers and independent fashion boutiques in the network of small lanes. Check out Bartlett Street, George Street, and Margaret's Buildings.
- Immerse yourself in 18th century to contemporary style at the Fashion Museum or the Jane Austen Center
Lunch: Lunch in Bath can put you in a bit of a quandary. If you want to linger over fine food for a long and beautifully prepared lunch, you'll have to leave the center of the city for one of the heralded restaurants a few miles out - like the Michelin-starred Bath Priory Restaurant. But if you're in Bath to see the sights, stay in the center and grab a pie lunch at The Raven of Bath, a free house pub. An even better idea is to fill your whole afternoon with the Roman Baths and spa package that includes lunch in the famous Pump Room.
Saving the Best for Last
Afternoon at the Baths: The 2,000-year-old Roman baths at the heart of the World Heritage site and built around Britain's only natural hot springs, are what gave this beautiful little city its name and its popularity. It's likely that an ancient British, pre-Roman tribe had already set up a shrine to the goddess of the spring when the Romans arrived. On a visit to the very well preserved Roman baths, costumed guides help you understand how Romans of the 1st and 2nd centuries relaxed, conducted business and cured their ailments in Bath.
In the 18th century, high society flocked to Bath to take the waters and marry off their children. The Pump Room, where you can now take breakfast, lunch, and tea (or try a free sample of the sulfurous spring waters), is where they socialized during the "season."
In honor of the Millennium, a new public facility, the Thermae Bath Spa, opened (a little late) in 2006. Its several thermal baths include an open-air, rooftop pool where you can swim surrounded by magnificent views of the ancient site, medieval cathedral and abbey, 18th century and modern city. Across the street, the smaller Cross Bath is a smaller pool for a quick dip. It's fed directly by the original spring dedicated to the Celtic goddess Sul.
For your afternoon in Bath, take advantage of the excellent value Spas Ancient and Modern Package. It includes two hours at the Thermae Bath Spa, admission to the Roman Baths and a three-course lunch or champagne afternoon tea in the Pump Room for about £85.00 per person. The package can be booked online.
Nighty Night: Tomorrow's itinerary starts at the crack of dawn at Stonehenge, so leave Bath after an early dinner - (try the romantic Bathwick Boatman, or the exotic and highly recommended Nepalese restaurant Yak Yeti Yak) and aim for Salisbury, about 40 miles away. The Holiday Inn Salisbury-Stonehenge is predictable but its Amesbury location is very convenient for both your visits on Day 3.
Extra Day Option
Bristol is a small and attractive university city just 12 miles north of Bath. In the early Middle Ages, it was one of England's four largest cities - alongside London, Norwich, and York. An important port, it was the departure point for John Cabot's explorations of North America and the first transatlantic trade expeditions between England and North America. Today, visitors linger around the Floating Harbor and Temple Quays where most of Bristol's museums and trendy restaurants and bars are located.
- Go for lunch on the floating restaurant, The Glass Boat.
- Follow the Banksy trail. The world famous graffiti artist is a Bristol native and several of his earliest works are scattered around the city. Visit Bristol has put together a list of Banksy's works that make a good walking tour for street art fans.
- See Clifton Village and walk the Clifton Suspension Bridge
- Try @Bristol, more a family science playground than a science museum and one of the UK's 10 best family attractions.
- Take a Bristol Packetboat Tour down the Avon Gorge and under the city's symbol, the Clifton Suspension Bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Day 3 - Stonehenge and Longleat
Morning at Stonehenge: People overuse the word iconic. When reality show celebrities, running shoes, and chocolate cupcakes can be described as "iconic", you know the word is on its way to becoming meaningless. Before it does though, try to fit Stonehenge into your travel plans; it's one of the world's truly iconic sights. Instantly and almost universally recognizable, the standing stones on Salisbury Plain still retain their mystery. Generations of scientists and speculators have not really discovered who built them, why and how.
Book your tickets in advance, online, for a morning visit as soon as the park opens - 9:30 am. That will allow you time to arrive at your next stop before lunch.
Since the restoration of the site and the building of the new visitor center in 2014, access to the monument, via a silent electric tram, is by timed ticket. So you'll really be able to see and enjoy the stones without crowds. The A344, which once ran alongside Stonehenge and gave a pretty good close-up view, has now been closed, buried and turned over. So when you actually arrive at the stones, they feel nearly prehistoric.
Most days that is, except for the summer solstice, when happy campers, New Age revelers, and curious backpackers obscure the monument with their celebrations. The shortest night of the year is the only night that English Heritage, custodians of the monument, allow overnight camping at the site. Visits and parking are also free on the night of the Summer Solstice celebration.
The Rest of the Day at Longleat
With or without a pack of children in tow, Longleat is a place where you can easily spend a full day and leave wanting to come back for more. It's about 24 miles from Stonehenge, near Warminster. Get there early because late morning queues are legendary.
The huge estate of the Marquess of Bath is one of the best drive-through safari parks in the world and, in 1966 was the first one ever created outside of Africa. Driving through the lion and Siberian tiger enclosures is thrilling. Longleat has had two breeding lion prides for many years and their dark manes are a distinctive characteristic. In 2012, a cheetah paddock was added.
The estate's infamous monkeys, who will pick every bit of tasty rubber off your car in a flash, are hysterical - in 2012, they had their own Jubilee Party for the Queen. There's also a very good maze, a choice of restaurants for meals and snacks, lots of baby animals every spring, and the island home of Longleat's pack of Lowand gorillas. Nico, a 54-year-old Silverback gorilla has his own centrally heated home equipped with satellite television.
If you tire of the animals, wander across the estate to visit Longleat House, one of the finest examples of Elizabethan architecture in Britain. It has been open to the public since 1949 and was the first stately home to open on a commercial basis in Britain. Among the more grisly treasures, you'll see there is the blood-stained vest worn by King Charles I at his beheading.
Nighty Night: If you're knackered after your day at Longleat, return to your accommodation in or near Salisbury for a second night. Otherwise, head for the Newbury area, about 60 miles away for a headstart on tomorrow.
Extra Day Option
Take some time to walk around the Medieval city of Salisbury and visit the 755-year-old Cathedral. At the Cathedral, don't miss a chance to see the best of the four existing copies of the Magna Carta, kept in the Cathedral library and available to view during normal hours. Salisbury's 404-foot spire is the tallest Medieval spire in Europe. The Cathedral is also home to the oldest working clock in the world. Created in 1385, it still strikes the hours.
Day 4 - Highclere (aka Downton Abbey) and Windsor
Morning: Find Highclere Castle, about 5 miles south of Newbury, Berkshire, on the A343 Andover Road. If you are among the millions of fans of the television serial Downton Abbey, you'll recognize this extravagant Victorian pile in a flash. Both interiors and exteriors of the house were used for filming the popular show.
Highclere is the home of the Earls of Carnarvon. The 5th Earl was a patron to Howard Carter, discoverer of the tomb of Tutankhamun. A small exhibition of Egyptian antiquities brought back by Carnarvon is currently on loan from the British Museum - but don't expect the King Tut treasures as they are in Egypt.
Highclere is not open year round, so check the website before heading there. And if you book online, note that tickets are sold for either a morning (10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.) or afternoon (1 to 4 p.m.) visit so plan accordingly.
Afternoon: Stop at a grocery store along the way to pick up a picnic or some snacks to tide you over until tea time and hit the road for Windsor Castle. The castle, one of the UK's other iconic sites, is 40 miles - about an hour - away, the last admission is at 4 p.m. and you don't want to miss it.
The Queen's favorite castle and her usual weekend home were started nearly 1,000 years ago, by William the Conqueror. Various monarchs have added to it since, creating the familiar silhouette that visitors flying into Heathrow can almost always recognize from the air. Today, it is the oldest continuously occupied and the largest castle in the world. It's packed full of treasures, so don't rush through. Make sure you stop to see Queen Mary's Doll House and don't overlook the Drawings Gallery in the Undercroft. You never know what treasures you might see there; the Royal Collection includes 600 DaVinci drawings and the Holbein sketches for the most famous portraits of the Tudors.
Windsor is close to both the M4 and the M25, on a mainline train station and served by regular bus services for easy access to Heathrow Airport, Gatwick Airport, and London.
Food isn't permitted within the Castle or grounds, though plans are afoot to add a cafe in the undercroft by 2018. The most you can buy to sustain yourself is a bottle of water. But if you decide to venture outside the castle gates for tea, you can get a re-entry ticket, free of charge, in one of the castle shops. Sir Christopher Wren's House Hotel and Spa offers hotel-style afternoon teas with all the trimmings, or try one of the little tea shops nearby on Thames Street (leading to the pedestrian bridge to Eton) for a more casual tea break.
Extra Day Option
Stay on an extra day and take advantage of what else Windsor has to offer: