The best things to do in the United Kingdom range from clambering over rocky headlands to visiting castles, lunching in cozy country pubs, and seeing a play in Shakespeare’s hometown. Whether you’re interested in history, culture, shopping or food, you’ll find plenty to see and do. Use this list as a reference for planning your trip to England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Forget about standing in a crowd to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace: There’s a lot more to see at the Queen’s weekend home, Windsor Castle. See magnificent state rooms filled with gilt furniture, objets d’art, and paintings. The Queen’s collection of drawings includes work by Leonardo da Vinci and Holbein. Queen Mary’s dollhouse is worth queuing for. And in a nearby gallery, dolls the size of toddlers have top Parisian couturier wardrobes, given by the French to the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. And it’s only a half-hour by train or coach from London.
The British Museum is the largest museum of human history in the world. Its treasures include Egyptian mummies, objects from the Mesopotamian Kingdom of Ur, the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphics, an Easter Island statue given to the museum by Queen Victoria, the marbles that once graced the Parthenon, and the Lewis chessmen featured in Harry Potter, The list is endless, and here’s the good news: It’s free.
England’s stately homes are among the treasures of the United Kingdom. They offer rare glimpses into how the other half lived from the Elizabethans onward. Most are now run as businesses where you can see art collections amassed by families across hundreds of years, as is the case at Chatsworth in Derbyshire. Some even boast gardens created by legendary figures like Capability Brown, who landscaped Blenheim Palace. For amazing family attractions, head to Longleat Safari Park—the first outside of Africa—and its well preserved Elizabethan house. Check the National Trust website to learn more.
There’s so much to see in Bath that it’s easy to overlook why this remarkable spa town exists in the first place. In their day, the Roman Baths were a wonder of the ancient world; they were the largest Roman bath complex ever discovered and the only natural hot springs in Britain. Newly designed exhibits let you listen in on Roman gossip while exploring how the baths were used (like how Emperor Hadrian banned mixed nude bathing because of the hijinks that ensued). After, take a dip in the naturally heated waters at the modern, millennium-built spa.
Cruise a Loch
Whether you choose a Scottish cruise on Loch Lomond or Loch Katrine, look for Nessie while cruising Loch Ness, or head south for romantic cruising on Windemere in England’s Lake District, you will be in for a scenic treat. The deep, dark waters of Britain’s Ice Age-gouged lakes are surrounded by dramatic mountains and shores teeming with wildlife. Eagles and peregrine falcons soar over the Scottish Lochs. The daffodils that inspired Wordsworth cover the Lake District Hills in springtime. And you might just spot Peter Rabbit in the Lakes—this is Beatrix Potter country, after all.
The name of this route, the A82, may not sound particularly romantic or promising. But if you are a fan of scenic drives, this is one you will long remember. Starting from the western shore of Loch Lomond, the drive takes you across Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, past heather covered hills that rise to snowy peaks. The route crosses through Glencoe, one of Scotland’s most dramatic mountain glens, then Fort William. You'll travel along sea lochs and Loch Ness to Inverness. It’s only 133 miles, but take your time to enjoy it.
Make visiting a destination pub your goal as you stroll through the Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey, Kent, or Sussex countryside. You don't have to touch alcohol at all to enjoy the relaxed experience of a generous lunch. These days the food can range from pub classics, like sausage and mash or fish and chips, to Sunday roasts with all the trimmings. The ambiance is casual but the food isn’t.
A Victorian poet called Oxford "the city of dreaming spires" after its ancient medieval buildings. There’s a lot to see in the city that hosts the oldest university in the English-speaking world (founded in 1096), and quite a few of the university buildings are open for guided tours. While you're there, stop by the Ashmolean, the world’s oldest public museum—it’s free and full of treasures. Cambridge is 113 years younger but equally lovely. A walk down the “backs” of the colleges, along the River Cam, is a must.
Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage site is a remarkable natural phenomenon. Composed of 40,000 mysterious octagonal basalt columns—all formed by a volcanic eruption—the "walkway" leads from the cliffs into the sea near the town of Bushmills in County Antrim. Visitors can walk and scramble on the stones for free, but it’s worth paying the admission for the National Trust’s excellent, award-winning Visitor Experience. It includes a guided tour and an audio guide. An exhibition at the visitor center explores the formation of the stones and the legends and folklore that surround them. It’s a bracing day out.
The UK is studded with Stone Age structures and earthworks left by mysterious, ancient people. The secrets and purposes of places like Stonehenge, Silbury Hill and the sophisticated monuments of the Neolithic Heart of Orkney are yet to be revealed, but tantalizing hints are starting to be uncovered. For instance, the Stonehenge Visitor Center, opened in 2013, includes an exhibition of the latest theories and discoveries. Visit English Heritage or Historic Environment Scotland to learn about more ancient sites.
The Great East Window of York Minster, the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world, has been undergoing 15 million pounds (nearly 19.5 million US dollars) worth of cleaning, restoration, and protective treatment for more than 12 years. It’s set to be revealed in all its glory in May 2020—good reason to add Northern Europe’s largest Gothic cathedral, in England’s best preserved medieval city, to your travel plans.
Snowdonia National Park in Wales has some of the highest peaks and best views in Britain. It also can claim some of Britain’s best castles. For a great overview of North Wales, try to get to the top of Mount Snowdon, the highest UK mountain south of Scotland. Some paths are more challenging than others, but the easiest way up is via the Snowdon Mountain Railway. Relax and enjoy the views while you ride up in style.
Be Charmed by the Prettiest Villages in the World
The picture book villages you’ve seen on calendars and "Miss Marple" really do exist. Their half-timbered facades, thatched roofs, tiny village greens, tea rooms, and pubs are tucked away all over the UK—especially in England. You have to meander through areas where they cluster as you won't find them on the way to somewhere else. Suffolk, where Kersey and Lavenham are located, is a good hunting ground. Look in Devon, Dorset, Cambridgeshire, Kent and Essex. Stay off the main highways in these places and you'll be rewarded.
Nothing beats the old-fashioned give and take of a traditional market with its piles of fresh fruit, vegetables, meats, cheeses, and baked goods; handmade crafts and artisanal products; and clothing, fabrics, and household goods. Almost every small town has a market square and at least one market day a week. Big cities have dozens of general and specialist markets. The opportunity to handle goods while exchanging banter is irresistible.
After defeating the Anglo Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, one of the first things William the Conqueror did was build castles. These European fortress/homes were an innovation that changed the face of Britain. There are Norman castles all over England, Wales, and Ireland—but the ones built in William’s lifetime, in England’s southeast, are especially interesting. Castles in Dover, Rochester, Hastings, and Pevensey were part of his legacy. So was the round tower of Windsor Castle. But the most impressive of all is the capital’s own castle, the Tower of London.
If you are a film fan, Britain is like one big movie set. Just planning an itinerary around Harry Potter locations—followed by visiting the actual studio sets where most of the films were made—can fill a two-week vacation in England and Scotland, easily. Or go on the Downton Abbey Trail to see the places featured in the television series and film. Highclere Castle, which stood in for Downton Abbey itself, is a highlight. And its connection to Lord Carnarvon, who, with Howard Carter, discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb, makes it an attraction in its own right.
Erected in 1779, the Iron Bridge—a graceful span across the Severn in Shropshire—was the first cast iron bridge in the world, and has given its name to a village, a gorge, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This peaceful, bucolic place was one of the earliest centers of industry in the world, the place where the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown. Craftsmen, attracted to the area’s coal, iron, and limestone, set up cottage industries in what soon became the world’s first manufacturing center. Today there are 10 museums and a fun, living village for families to explore.
If you never thought you’d enjoy a play by Shakespeare, you’ll be a convert after seeing a lively and irreverent performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Bard’s hometown. See the Shakespeare family homes and Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, too. The town has been a tourist magnet for hundreds of years (check the guest book in Shakespeare’s birthplace), but the kitsch can easily be avoided because there is so much else to see.
The Scots were masters at placing their fortresses in dramatic spots. Edinburgh Castle dominates most of the city from its position atop a volcanic plug above Princes Street Gardens. About 40 miles northwest, Stirling Castle looks impregnable. Visit Edinburgh for its fabulous views and a chance to see the “Honours of Scotland," their crown jewels. Then head to Stirling for its connections to Robert the Bruce and William Wallace.
The Shard, one of London’s newest skyscrapers, is the tallest building in Europe. The uninterrupted views of London above the Thames—and for miles in all directions—are truly breathtaking. Have your camera ready. Your friends will think you took these aerial views with a drone.