There’s a lot more to the United Kingdom than the usual list of top 10 London sights. For a start, there are four separate countries—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—each offering city and country pleasures, wilderness adventures, scenic villages, landmarks, free museums, and miles of challenging coastal paths. The food is a lot better than you may have heard as well. Use this guide to fill your trip with the best choices for you.
Planning Your Trip
Best Time to Visit: Late spring and early fall are the best times to visit when the days are long, and there’s a good chance of mild, dry weather. Prices are lowest in January and February, but it’s also cold and wet. A lot of attractions are closed, but if you enjoy theater, museums and indoor activities, this is a way to visit on the cheap.
Language: English. A lot of popular attractions offer tours or audio tours in European languages and Chinese.
Currency: The pound sterling (£)
Getting Around: Train service in the U.K. is very well developed and is the best way to get between cities and regions. Though bad weather and industrial action may interrupt services from time to time, the number and frequency of both long-distance, regional and local trains will amaze many North American travelers. Most fares are cheaper for off-peak travel and when bought in advance. The website National Rail Enquiries is a comprehensive online guide to times, prices, and service status across the country.
Long-distance buses (called coaches in the U.K.) are the cheapest way to get around. Since they use the country’s motorway system, they are also the most boring. One company, National Express, runs most of the intercity coaches, and four other large regional companies run networks of local services. Local buses provide short, practical everyday journeys, so the routes are not well coordinated between regions. But if you are interested in taking day trips from specific urban or tourism hubs, you may find buses—such as the Greenline buses between London and Windsor Castle—that serve the purpose. Traveline, a partnership between transport companies, local authorities, and passenger groups, has a website that can help you plan a trip using local resources.
Travel Tip: Round trip tickets (called return fares) are often a more expensive way to buy bus and rail tickets than pairs of one-way tickets (called singles). Check before you buy.
Things to Do
The United Kingdom packs several thousand years of history and culture onto an island slightly smaller than Michigan. As you might imagine, there’s quite a lot to see and much of it is within easy day trips of major cities or transportation hubs. But a surprising amount is covered by vast wilderness areas. It’s easy to try to pack too much into a visit. Instead, try to focus your trip around a few themes:
- Day Trips from major cities. London in the Southeast and Edinburgh in central Scotland are both hubs of culture, centers for free museums, shopping, theatre, music, and dining out. They are also surrounded by areas rich in historical attractions and natural beauty, so they make excellent bases 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. Try hiking the Lakeland fells (a Scandinavian word for hills) in the Lake District or marveling at the mountain views and clear mountain lakes in Snowdonia National Park (which is also full of castles). If you go walking on the South Downs’ grass-covered chalk hills, you can often see France across the English Channel. There’s skiing in Cairngorm National Park and pleasant walking and cycling trails in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Each national park offers something different.
- Shop in traditional markets. Some, like the permanent outdoor market in Norwich, or the covered markets in Oxford, Birmingham, and Leeds, haven’t changed much in hundreds of years. London has its share of wonderful markets too—from Borough Market for adventurous foodies, to Portobello Road, a vast, heaving antique market that’s a must.
- Catch up with Shakespeare in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. The Royal Shakespeare Company stages Bard’s works with surprising irreverence and imagination that’s hard to resist. There’s plenty to see and do, including visits to the Shakespeare family homes and Anne Hathaway’s cottage.
- Visit royal and traditional sites. There’s a good reason why Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle, Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral are so popular with visitors. Try to visit these traditional sights outside of school vacation seasons, though.
What to Eat and Drink
Forget the clichés about awful British food. That’s ancient history. These days you’ll find as many Michelin stars in London as in New York and lots more scattered all over the U.K. Whether you are talking about fine dining or neighborhood bistros, it’s easy to find modern European cuisine with vegetarian and even vegan options in most British cities and tourist destinations.
Outside of the main population centers in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the picture is a bit more hit and miss. But there are some traditional British specialties you really should try.
- Sample a full British breakfast at least once. England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland add regional touches to the classic eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, and tomatoes breakfast. If you are on a tight budget, this breakfast will set you up for the whole day.
- Indulge in afternoon tea with all the trimmings—scones with jam and cream, crumpets, sandwiches, fresh cream cakes, and endless pots of tea.
- Try different regional ales on tap. They won’t be ice cold, but cellar temperature is still pretty cool.
- Fish and chips can be great—crispy and hot—or dire (greasy and lukewarm). Ask a local where to find the best.
- Eat seafood and shellfish in Scotland; it comes from cold North Atlantic and North Sea waters and is terrific. And if you are in Whitstable, have some oysters.
- It’s easy, and often cheaper, to find good quality ethnic food anywhere in 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 vacation rentals, called self-catering in Britain. Some kinds of accommodations are particularly British and worth considering.
Consider a bed & breakfast, which range from fully-serviced guest houses to small inns. In rural areas, you may find rooms to let in private homes. Or try a caravan; this is what Europeans call camper vans, and some caravan parks rent them like cottages. Bigger trailers in caravan parks are known as "statics." Country house hotels, which range from large comfortable houses to very grand country estates converted to luxury accommodations, are another option. Also, more and more pubs are offering boutique-style hotel rooms as an alternative style of accommodation.
Visitors fly usually fly into the U.K. from North America through London’s main airports—Heathrow and Gatwick, or by charter flights to London Stansted and London City. There are public transportation options from Heathrow and Gatwick to central London.
But the U.K. has quite a few more airports receiving international passengers with either direct or connecting flights from North American airports. Depending upon your ultimate destination, you could save money on ground transportation by flying into Manchester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, East Midlands or Bristol Airport. Find out more about alternative U.K. destination airports.
Travelers from continental Europe can cross the English Channel by ferry, drive through the Channel Tunnel, or travel by Eurostar passenger train. There are also good connections—by air or boat, from Dublin or Belfast.
- Don't rent cars in cities. Wait until you've left London or other big cities. You'll save on parking fees and congestion charges (it costs 11.50 pounds a day to take a car into central London). Public transportation—buses, trolleys, and subways—are available in most major cities as are city bicycles - parked everywhere and easy to use with a credit card.
- Consider self-catering. That's what Europeans call vacation rentals. There's plenty of choices, ranging from short let apartments in cities, cottages, and village houses to rent. If you can't find what you want online, the local tourist authorities will have plenty of information.
- Take advantage of what's free. Almost all of Britain's essential museums are free to visit. Historical attractions have reduced admissions for senior citizens and students.