With all eyes on London this last year, there’s more reason than ever to plan a tour of the British island. From all the highlights of the capital to the neon lights of Brighton pier and the vast moors of Dartmoor National Park, this 12-14 day itinerary will guide you around the south of England, taking in the mysterious circle of Stonehenge, the birthplace of Shakespeare and the famous Roman spa of Bath.
Three or Four Days in London
You could spend weeks exploring London’s myriad treasures, but three days will give you a good taster – try to aim for a weekend in the city to give you the most options. Start off with a tour of the central London sights to get your bearings – the hop-on hop-off double-decker sightseeing buses or a personalized black taxi tour are the best options and will whisk you around the key sights.
Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly circus and London Bridge make great snapshots, but make sure you hop off and explore at St Paul’s Cathedral (don’t miss the eerily impressive ‘Whispering Gallery’), Buckingham Palace (get there early if you want to snag a good viewpoint for the changing of the guard) and the legendary Tower of London (pre-book a tour to dodge the breathtaking queues). Friday and Saturday are late opening nights for many of the city’s museums and galleries, so you can cram an evening of entertainment in too.
For shoppers, Saturday is the time to hit the markets. Portobello – an eclectic mélange of choice antiques, vintage wares and local designers – is the top choice for locals and the range of quirky cafes make it the perfect spot to sample a classic English breakfast – opt for the full works and you’ll be set until dinnertime. Notting Hill, Knightsbridge (home to Harrods) and Kensington High Street are all nearby and present a wide range of shops without the hassle of Oxford Street.
Enjoying London’s green spaces is a must too – Hyde Park is the most famous and comes alive through the summer months with free music stages, pedal and row boat rides along the lake and horse riding, but those looking for a space less inhabited by tourists will find plenty of alternatives. Primrose Hill is a local favorite as well as being notorious for celebrity spotting and Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath offers incredible views of the city’s landmarks, plus there’s open-air swimming at the park’s three lakes.
Don’t just stay in central London though – Greenwich is accessible by boat and has a plethora of maritime treasures, plus the impressive Greenwich park (a 2012 London Olympics venue) and Wimbledon village – of tennis and Wombles fame – makes a welcome change of pace from the tourist hoards, with rows of designer and local boutiques, exquisite cafes (French patisserie Maison St Cassien is much loved), a worthwhile Tennis Museum and stables offering horse riding along the beautiful Wimbledon Common.
Read more about things to do in London
Two Days on the Southern Coast
A winning combination of cosmopolitan cool and effortless beachside nonchalance, Brighton is the Londoner’s beach of choice, and its colorful array of shops and cafes make it a welcome pit-stop less than an hour from the bustle of London.
A maze of shopping streets wind down towards the seafront with everything from local designers and surf stores to handicrafts, quirky gifts stalls and vintage shops galore. Once you’ve stocked up on unique souvenirs, soak up the summer energy at the famous Brighton Pier, gawp at the panoramic views from the Brighton Wheel, admire the Royal Pavilion and take a stroll along the smooth pebble beach.
This is the place to tuck into some good old English fish ‘n’ chips too – the Palm Court Fish Restaurant and Horatio’s bar are great starting points, but there’s plenty of choices along the pier – be sure to ask for a side of mushy peas. As the sun sets, Brighton Pier comes alive with dancing neon lights and those hoping to party without the prices of London will find some of England’s best nightclubs nestled beneath the beachfront arches. Or else take a twilight stroll along the promenade, check out the fairground rides and try your luck at the Palace of Fun arcade.
Read more: The London Weekend Getaway: Brighton
Southampton and Portsmouth also make attractive destinations, both major British ports rich with historical significance. The closest to Brighton is Portsmouth, where naval history is brought to life at the impressive Historic Dockyard – here, the modern Royal Navy Fleet can be viewed alongside three of history’s most renowned warships (the HMS Victory, HMS Warrior 1860 and the Mary Rose) and some of the world’s most notable naval museums.
The equally impressive D-Day museum also calls Portsmouth home, offering plentiful information for those interested in the famous D-Day landings of WWII and there’s the Royal Marines Museum, the Explosion! Museum of Naval Firepower and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum to keep you busy. If all this leaves you feeling a little seasick, wave goodbye to your sea legs and head inland to The Point, where you can potter along quaint cobbled streets and sample some quality pub grub.
Alternatively, head to Southampton, a port town holding extra significance this year as the 100th anniversary of the fateful Titanic looms – it was here, at the White Star Dock, that the Titanic bid farewell to the British isle, five days before the tragic sinking. The Southampton Maritime Museum holds the city’s permanent exhibition on the Titanic, but the City Council have organized numerous events to commemorate the anniversary, including a Titanic cruise leaving from Southampton docks.
Read more: Southampton — Sailing Port of Titanic
It’s not all about the ocean here though – Southampton nurtures a vibrant arts and theatre scene, possessing some of the best concert halls and theatres in the region, and the Old Town is a charismatic stretch to wander in the daytime, packed with popular eateries, bustling markets and historical monuments.
Two Days in Southwest England
A bus or train ride will land you Exeter, the gateway to England’s fourth largest county, Devon, and home to some of the country’s most stunning geology. Nature lovers can take their pick here – there’s the geographically impressive Dorset and East Devon coast (Britain’s only all-nature UNESCO world heritage site) nicknamed the ‘Jurassic Coast’ and both the Exmoor and Dartmoor National Parks.
Dartmoor’s dramatic tors, boggy marshes and forested flatlands provided the famous backdrop to the Sherlock Holmes classic Hound of the Baskervilles and hit the big screen recently in the Spielberg epic War Horse – fans of both can take guided walks to the respective locations.
The National Park has a vast network of hiking and cycling stations, but there are plenty of alternative activities for the adventurous – climbing, canoeing, horse riding and fishing all offer great ways to explore Britain’s striking countryside. Open-air swimming, a Dartmoor miniature pony centre and the local pastime of Geocaching and Letterboxing, a kind of orienteering-cum-treasure-hunt-for-adults, keep things interesting.
Read more: [PHOTOS] Highlights of South Devon, England
Two Days in Bristol and Bath
The cultural centre of the region, Bristol is a great city for arts aficionados and club goers and there’s a wide range of seasonal events and festivals to entice entertainment enthusiasts, but it’s the neighboring city of Bath that tempts more laid-back tourists.
A designated UNESCO World Heritage site famed for its architectural prowess, Bath was once home to British author Jane Austen and attracts a good deal of tourists to its Jane Austen centre. The city is crammed with historical buildings like the 1827 Beckford’s Tower, the 15th century Bath Abbey, the medieval stylings of Lacock Abbey and the renowned Royal Crescent.
Go on a tour of Bath from London
Make sure you pay a visit to the famous Roman Baths, an imposing temple and bathing complex flowing with natural hot water; check out the city’s many stunning parks (the Georgian Garden is a popular choice) and explore Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House & Museum, a fascinating look and taste of the region’s food as well as a great place to stop for afternoon tea.
A trip to the nearby landmark of Stonehenge – a bizarre collection of 5,000 year old stones circled on a plain in Salisbury – is another tick for the must-see list. The World Heritage Site is a mere 45-minute drive from Bath.
Two Days in Oxford and the Cotswolds
The world famous university town of Oxford is the modern definition of picturesque, blending historical architecture with lush greenery and stylish high streets to make it one of Britain’s richest cultural hubs. Known as the City of Dreaming Spires, Oxford is home to the unbeatable Blenheim Palace, the celebrated Ashmolean Museum, an array of remarkable churches and The Bodleian Library – a nod to the city’s rich literary history. A visit to the Bicester Village outlet (home to discounted wares from numerous top designers) or an hour punting along the river offers tourists the chance to revel in the more lavish lifestyles of upper class Britons.
The neighboring Cotswolds is London’s answer to the Hamptons, an area of traditional English villages, rolling sheep farms and limestone quarries and where affluent Londoners choose to spend the summer. Opt to visit one of the vibrant market towns like Burford or Witney, attempt one of the many regional cycle paths or take a ride on the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway. If you really want to experience the countryside in style, hire yourself a vintage car and cruise the highways, or take to the skies in a hot air balloon. Horse riding and racing is hugely popular in the area too; equine enthusiasts can head to the Cheltenham Racecourse, take a ride around the horse-friendly Cirencester or even check out the world famous Badminton or Blenhiem Horse Trials.
One to Two Days in Shakespeare Country
Finish off your trip at one of Britain’s premier attractions – the unassuming market town of Stratford-Upon-Avon that owes its fame to being the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Set on the River Avon, the scenic town abounds with Shakespeare related sights, mostly run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, including Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the pre-marital home of William Shakespeare’s future wife; Shakespeare’s burial place; and Mary Arden’s House, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother.
Fans of the famous playwright can pay a visit to the newly refurbished Royal Shakespeare Theatre – bound to be busy during the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival (kicking off this April), or simply enjoy the town’s surrounding greenery and riverside pubs.
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– Zoë Smith