13 Experiences Every Traveler Should Have in England
Related: Best Beaches in England
Just because you’ve flown through Heathrow at some point, or taken a double-decker bus tour through London, don’t assume you’ve seen all this gorgeous country has to offer. Boasting one of the ancient wonders of the world, plus mythical stone cathedrals, fairytale forests, and, yes, surfing, there’s enough here to fill a dozen trips. Here’s where to start.
Shop Portobello Road
London’s cultural sights tend to go heavy on the grandeur—royal this, crown jewels that—but a stroll down its most famous outdoor market promises a relaxing, if treasure-filled afternoon. Portobello Road Market, a half-mile stretch in London’s Notting Hill district, bustles with covered stalls selling vintage clothing, jewelry, fresh produce, flowers, and literally thousands of antiques. It’s possibly the only attraction in the city that’s worth putting up with all the tourists who come—plus, with its concentration of pubs, quirky shops, and rich Victorian history (goods have been bought and sold in this very spot since the 1850s), there’s more to do here than just shop.
Take a Bath in Bath
UNESCO World Heritage Site Bath, famous for its Roman roots and 17th-century abbey (where England’s first king was crowned) has been on folks’ radars lately, thanks to newly opened The Gainsborough—the only UK hotel directly fed by thermal spring water. Inside the hotel’s spa, you’ll find a traditional Roman bath circuit, with thermal pools of varying temperatures, saunas, and an ice alcove. Be sure to venture out, though: the town blossoms during Fashion Week (April 18-24), with special exhibits at the Fashion Museum, plus runway shows and other parties. A must, too, are scenic walks along Pultney Bridge, shopping Milsom Street, and hot buns at Sally Lunns.
Celebrate Solstice at Stonehenge
Don’t limit yourself to just the visitor’s center at England’s famous Neolithic stone circle—experience Stonehenge the way it was meant to be experienced, around a campfire, in a vibrant, dance-filled celebration on the longest day of the year. Sunrise starts at 4:50 a.m. on June 21, and that’s when the core festivities kick off, part of a four-day festival that draws thousands to one of the world’s top wonders. Stonehenge Campsite sits closest to the actual stones, offering 4 acres for tent pitching, plus live music, a bathroom block, and some food vendors (there’s even Wifi)—what better place to celebrate a holiday as old as, if not older than Stonehenge itself?
Meander Through the Cotswolds
Driving through the Cotswolds, a 90-mile rural strip smack in the center of England, is like entering J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth—there are pale rolling hills, dense little villages with limestone cottages, a few castles, and more lush countryside than you’ll know what to do with. Try walking the full length of the Cotswold Way National Trail, or take it in bite-size pieces, with the help of WalkingEnglishman’s mini guides (and remember: it’s not a proper English country walk without a few pub stops!). For an extra splurge, book a night at Ellenborough Park (from £152), an elegantly restored 16th-century manor house with a spa and a formal restaurant serving Sudeley Castle partridge and braised pork cheek pie.
Sleep in a Yurt in Cornwall
The rugged coastline of North Devon and Cornwall, where waterfalls cascade straight from the cliff tops into the open sea, is undeniably one of England’s most impressive landscapes. For a truly unique experience, book a weekend at Koa Tree Camp, which sits on a 30-acre farm with sheep, pigs, and a pair of goats named Pete and Archie. At night, you’ll sleep in a traditional Mongolian yurt (from £330 for a three-night stay; Norwegian-style log cabins and three bell tents are also available) with a wood-burning stove. Co-founder Andy Thorne runs the surf program (one-on-one, or group lessons are available) at nearby Sandymouth beach, framed by rock pools, billowing grasslands, and million-year-old cliffs.
Stimulate Your Mind in Oxford
Oxford University is made up of 38 different colleges, each with its own history, campus, and visiting hours. Which makes trying to see all of them rather difficult. Instead, pick a few of the best, like the absurdly beautiful New College (founded in 1379, it may be the university’s most photogenic) or the regal Exeter College, where J.R.R. Tolkien conceived his fantasy masterpieces. Then, take a guided tour through one of Europe’s oldest libraries, followed by pie in the city’s covered market, and then a quick trip north to lavish Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born.
Cheer on Manchester United
Former players like George Best, Eric Cantona, and David Beckham all helped rocket Manchester United to legendary status. And for sports fans, nothing beats seeing the team play live, right on their home turf. Old Trafford, affectionately dubbed the “theatre of dreams,” is the largest club stadium in England, not to mention one of its best-kept. Sign up for an 80-minute stadium tour, or plan well ahead and nab tickets for the upcoming 2016/17 season (cheap seats can be had for as little as £28).
Climb 199 Steps to Whitby Abbey
Just over an hour north of York (a worthwhile city, too, if you have the time), the ruins of a 13th-century Benedictine abbey sit dramatically on a bluff overlooking the North Sea. Though it lacks a roof, and much of the interior has eroded over the years, the structure is visually striking in its skeletal shape. Just ask Bram Stoker, who based part of his famous novel, Dracula, on the site after visiting in 1890. Tourists today can climb the 199 scenic steps up from the seaside town of Whitby below, and set up a picnic on the cliff.
Feel the Supernatural Pull of Dartmoor
Mystical Dartmoor, in England’s southwest tip, has inspired extravagant folklore involving ghosts, devils, holy wells, and pixies—but to experience its magic, all you have to do is get lost in nature. Specifically, Lydford Gorge, an ancient, mist-shrouded woodland covered with slippery moss and lichen, where a 98-foot waterfall comes crashing down over the elm and chestnut trees. In the midst of such tranquility, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Take Tea at The Bridge
For England’s most unique afternoon tea, head to Bradford On Avon. The Bridge, which has won awards of excellence from the UK Tea Guild, occupies a blacksmith’s cottage, taking you right back to 16th-century England: creaking wooden staircase, bulging ceiling beams, white tablecloths, and antique porcelain figures lining the shelves. Waitresses in bonnets and Victorian-style ruffled aprons dart between the tables. But even if the history doesn’t do it for you—it’s hard to go wrong with delicious home-made cakes, sandwiches, and scones, all served on traditional cake stands, with Somerset strawberry jam and organic clotted cream made from Jersey cows.
Marvel at Sissinghurst Castle Garden
The 460-acre estate dates back to the Middle Ages—both King Edward I and Queen Elizabeth I stayed here—and was used as a prison tower for French sailors in the 1700s. But the real draw are its gardens, which opened to the public in the 1930s, under the ownership of poet Vita Sackville-West, a contemporary of Virginia Woolf. Often cited as England’s most prized garden estate (BBC4 even aired an eight-part docu-series about it in 2009), now is the perfect time to start planning a spring visit, when its rich flower beds, colorful hedges, and majestic courtyards burst to life with Dahlias, crocuses, and narcissi. Planning an overnighter? The adjacent Sissinghurst Castle Farmhouse (from £285) offers luxe Victorian-style rooms, with views of the estate, as well as farm-to-table breakfasts.
A perfect relic from medieval England, this staggering, richly designed cathedral was built during the time of William the Conquerer, in the 11th century AD, and houses the body of Saint Cuthbert as well as three copies of the Magna Carta. Though most modern-day travelers recognize it from the Harry Potter movies (it played Hogwarts), its riverside setting, its 217-foot tall tower (which can be climbed), and its daily choir services make it a must-see stop.
Visit Peter Rabbit in the Lake District
Cornwall has its cliffs, and the Cotswolds their Hobbit charm, but nothing really touches the majesty and deep, unspoiled beauty of the Lake District. Officially England’s largest national park, covering 885 square miles, it sits just shy of the Scottish border, with 19 lakes as well as England’s highest peak (the vast Scafell Pike, where you can see England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and the Isle of Man from one spot). Scores of travel guides have been written about the region’s epic mountain passes and pristine woodlands—suffice to say, outdoors-y types won’t be disappointed here. The Lake District has cultural appeal, too: it’s home to Peter Rabbit, a progressive theatre company, a sculpture forest, and two Michelin-starred restaurants, L’Enclume (prized for their 18-course tasting menu, £130) and The Samling.