Top Ten Things Everyone Must See and Do
If you only go to England once in your life, these are the things that must be on your itinerary.
- Canterbury. Rich in history, legend and significance; centuries of deep spirituality is woven into the very fabric of the stone, and its presence is tangible. Learn the story of Thomas Becket and see the Sword’s Point, fantasize about Canterbury pilgrims, and wander through the charming town. If you are an Episcopalian, pay your respects to the Chair of St. Augustine, the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the way from here to Stonehenge: Visit Arundel Castle.
- Stonehenge. There are other older and larger monuments, but none quite so evocative. Fences keep you at a distance, but it’s still impressive. If you’d rather get closer to the stones, visit nearby Avebury, where you can walk up and touch them. If you really love these ancient monuments, arrange several days in Cornwall where there are dozens. Nearby: Visit beautiful Salisbury Cathedral and ancient Winchester; pay respects to bones of Saxon kings, admire Roman artifacts.
- Glastonbury. This is THE destination for fans of King Arthur, as well as spirituality buffs. Tour Glastonbury Abbey, rich in myth and legend; see the Glastonbury Thorn (supposedly planted by Joseph of Arimathea), and various King Arthur sites. Fantasize about Camelot and Avalon, and ancient Christianity (“And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountain green?”). Nearby: Visit Wells Cathedral and the caves and attractions at Wookey Hole (especially if traveling with children). See cheese being made at Chewton Mendip or Cheddar (where there are also spectacular caves). Sample local cheese and cider. Visit Bath for its Roman history. Hop across to Wales to visit Tintern Abbey; take the excellent audio tour to understand why Henry VIII had to dissolve the monasteries.
- Cotswolds: Take a meandering drive through the picture-book perfect hills. Get off the beaten path into small villages and green valleys. Stay in a thatched-roof cottage B+B. Most people agree this is the most beautiful part of England, and there are numerous sights in the vicinity. Caution: crowded with tourists in summer. Nearby: for china & porcelain, visit Wedgewood or Royal Worcester, inspiring Coventry Cathedral, Warwick Castle (good for kids), Oxford. (Skip Stratford-upon-Avon.)
- Cambridge. Must do: go to Evensong at King’s College Chapel. Have tea at Auntie’s Tea Shoppe on St. Mary’s Passage. Ride in a punt on the River Cam.
- Westminster Abbey: on the way there, walk by Big Ben and Parliament (open for tours only in August-September). At the Abbey, take the “super tour” to see where British monarchs are crowned. Pay respects to the many famous people buried here. Stay for Evensong. Plan half a day (plus Evensong). Saturday and Sunday evensongs generally have the best music.
On a different afternoon, visit St. Paul’s Cathedral: take a tour, climb the dome if you are energetic, pay respects to John Donne, Christopher Wren and the Duke of Wellington, and stay for Evensong. Plan half a day here too (plus Evensong).
- Tower of London: take a tour and line up to see the crown jewels. Next to Westminster Abbey, this is the best history tour in London. Plan half a day.
- Take a double-decker bus tour to at least drive by other notable sights if you are foot-weary or short on time. There are also lots of interesting guided walking tours. Consult your guide book. Worth visiting: the open market at Covent Garden, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the British Museum, Harrods, and the Dickens Museum. In the evening, the theater is a must. Take a tour of Buckingham Palace if it’s open (limited times during the year). And most people like to shop, shop, shop. If you have an extra day, a nice outing is to take a boat cruise down the Thames to Kew Gardens and/or Hampton Court. It is an all-day activity, but a pleasant change of pace if you have time.
- Have a pint in a good local pub. Sample several pints in several pubs.
- Try different kinds of afternoon tea. Dress-up formal tea in a London hotel with fancy cakes and sandwiches. Cream tea in a quaint tea room with scones, jam and cream. Farmhouse tea in the countryside with unique home-baked treats. High tea in the north with hearty fare.
A Few Other Personal Favorites
- Gardens: English is awash with flowers in the spring and summer. Get a brochure from the British Tourist Authority and make it a point to tour some of the spectacular formal gardens, often found on great estates. All over the country, even the smallest cottages are bright with neatly kept gardens.
- Canterbury: stay at the Cathedral Gate Hotel. Canterbury pilgrims have slept in this quaintly creaky place since 1438. If you are sleeping alone, ask for the Cathedral Room. It’s tiny, but you are rewarded with a magnificent view of the cathedral. It’s easy to spend an entire day touring this cathedral, if you’re interested in church history.
- Oxford: have a pint (or something) at the Turf Tavern. If you can find it.
- Devon: eat (and stay) at Sampson’s Farm, Newton Abbot. Harden arteries feasting at the excellent restaurant, on delicacies such as filet mignon with stilton & brandy & cream, and Devonshire clotted cream with your dessert.
- Dartmoor: Drive around. Soak up the bleak landscape. Fantasize about Wuthering Heights. Pet the wild ponies.
- Exmoor: Get lost in the beautiful, dense forest.
- Windsor Castle.
- Hampton Court Palace. Tour the gardens. Try the maze.
- York Minster and its lively medieval city are best on Saturdays.
- Durham Cathedral, farther north, for those who are fascinated by cathedrals this is a highly evocative one. Pay respects to Saint Cuthbert. If you are interested in sacred sites, venture even farther north to visit the beautiful Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
- Iona: for contemplatives and fans of Celtic spirituality, this barren island is a mystic “thin place” where earth is closer to heaven. Attend a service at the Abbey, hike to special sites in the hills, and take the boat trip around the island. Or, sign up for a retreat. Note: the island is remote. After you are already in Scotland, plan one whole day of travel to get out to Iona, and another whole day to get back, in addition to the days you plan to spend on the island. So you will need to devote at least 4 days of your schedule to a visit to Iona. (It’s worth it.) Lodging sells out far in advance, so make reservations early.
Be sure to skip these:
- Changing of the Guard. You won’t get close enough to see anything worth standing in line for hours. Watch it on a video.
- Madame Tussaud’s. Tourist rip-off.
- London Dungeon. Another tourist rip-off.
- Stratford-upon-Avon. England’s biggest tourist trap. Shakespeare did not spend much time here after his childhood. His work was in London. If you’re interested in Shakespeare, there is far more to see in London, such as the Globe Theater.
- Land’s End in Cornwall. It takes forever to get there, and when you finally do, there is nothing to see but ocean.
- Tintagel. The castle ruins are somewhat scenic, but there is nothing else there except for cheesy tourist commerce. The location is remote and it’s not worth the long trip. If you’re interested in King Arthur, there are many more and far more evocative things to see in Glastonbury, the probable site of Camelot.
- Sherwood Forest and Nottingham. There is hardly any forest left now, and nothing authentically Robin Hood, only a very hokey highway tourist trap.
- Watch out for any tourist sites that have big splashy color ads and give out coupons. The sites worth seeing do not need to advertise.
- Watch out for tourist traps that play on a theme but are not authentic (Sherlock Holmes, Dickens, Shakespeare, Robin Hood and medieval knights are common lures). Save your money for the authentic sites, which are far more fun.
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