Ten things you really should do in Britain

There’s no shortage of things to do and see in Britain.  But if you were visiting for the first time, what would you recommend?  Here are a few arbitrary suggestions, in no particular order, just to get the ball rolling:

Get out of London, Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset

Get out of London

Many visitors to Britain head straight for London.  It is one of the world’s top tourist destinations, receiving about 30 million visitors each year, and a very special place to visit.  There is so much to see, always something happening – and a surprising amount you can do for nothing, from visiting museums to taking in the sights or wandering through a park.  But it is also very different to the rest of Britain, so think about hopping on a train or a ‘bus and going somewhere else, even if only for a day. London is surrounded by picturesque countryside and pretty villages in counties like Essex, Kent, Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. Places you can get to from London in about an hour by train include: St Albans, Cambridge, Colchester, Canterbury, Sevenoaks, Brighton, Godalming, Winchester, Windsor and Oxford. If you have time, consider visiting one of Britain’s other amazing cities, like Bath, Edinburgh, York or Durham, or doing some walking in one of Britain’s fifteen National Parks.

Visit the Lake District, things to do in Britain

Drink a pint of ale in a traditional pub

Now, when we talk about ‘ale’, we don’t mean that frozen, gassy, lager stuff that some of you who don’t know any better drink.  Both are types of beer, but ale tends to be more full-bodied and fuller-flavoured.  According to CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale – one of the most successful consumer campaigns ever), “Real ale is a ‘living’ product, which is typically produced and stored in a cask container. In comparison to other types of beer that kill off the yeast and artificially inject the beer with CO2 prior to serving, real ale contains live yeast which continues to condition and ferments the beer until it is served.” So now you know.  Ale needs to be handled carefully and should be served cool, but unlike lager you don’t need to chill it to get rid of the taste (and you shouldn’t). There are a huge variety of ales in Britain – they even vary regionally: in the south, where I come from, ale can look quite flat; in the north of England, they like a foaming head (which can result in a short measure!).  Anyway, try a pint from a decent pub (and they vary too, of course). NB – a pub is not the same as a bar or a hotel!

Drink, Real Ale, BritainGo to a castle

There are hundreds of castles in Britain, all waiting for you.  Wales alone claims to have more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe.  How many castles there actually are depends whether we include barely visible lumps in the ground, Iron Age hillforts, stately homes that aren’t castles anymore, Victorian forts – and so on. But to most people a castle is a defensive building with battlements, drawbridges, towers – and so on. And if you’ve never visited one, you should; who knows, it could become a hobby. Some castles, like Windsor Castle, are still lived in; some, like Warwick Castle, are showpiece tourist attractions; some, like Bodiam Castle, below, are romantic ruins; and some are so ruined you don’t need to pay an entry fee to see them. Edinburgh claims to be the most besieged castle in Britain.  Apart from A Bit About Britain, the best places to discover castles near you are English Heritage, Historic Scotland or Cadw.

Things to do in Britain, visit a romantic castle

Visit a stately home

There are grand houses all over Britain, some still lived in, some not, some open to the public, some not.  They range from grand aristocratic piles (so to speak), through mansions built from fortunes made out of industry or slavery, to fairly modest large houses. Some of the larger properties that are open to the public offer more than just the opportunity to tour a historic house and wander round a lovely garden.  Why you would want more than that is a mystery, but some have additional attractions such as special events and exhibitions, mazes, shops and wonderfully imaginative adventure playgrounds.  Most offer some kind of refreshment facility.  Apart from A Bit About Britain, the best places to discover stately homes near you are the National Trust, National Trust for Scotland or the Historic Houses Association.

Things to do in Britain, visit a stately home

Eat fish ‘n’ chips

Fish and chips – a white fish, usually haddock or cod, deep-fried in batter, served with hot, fairly chunky, chips (pieces of fried potato), is said to be a British national dish. The English have often claimed it as their own, but in fact you’ll find fish and chips served all over the United Kingdom.  Actually, the chip may have originated in Belgium or France and an article on the BBC website claims that fried fish was introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. Who cares? – today it’s as British as Lamb Tikka Masala and something you must try.  Although you’ll find fish ‘n’ chips on the menu in many pubs and restaurants, frankly, it’s hard to beat the taste and texture of fish ‘n’ chips bought from a genuine fish ‘n’ chip shop, with plenty of vinegar and salt on the chips.  Some believe this culinary experience is synonymous with the seaside, to be eaten with slippery fingers whilst walking along a windswept promenade, simultaneously flapping at and head-butting vicious, dive-raiding, sea gulls.  Personally, I prefer to eat in more relaxed circumstances, sitting down, with a knife and fork.  Is it healthy? Probably not, but possibly better now than in the past, when your fish and chips would arrive wrapped in newspaper.  This had the advantage of providing something to read while you were eating, but then some meddling civil servant decided that ink was bad for people, so now they come safely served in uninspiring, but hygienic, plain paper.

Fish and Chips, things to do in Britain

Spend time at the seaside

Before cheap package tours to Europe coincided with a generally better standard of living, many Brits used to holiday at the seaside.  Whatever the weather, the week or fortnight in Blackpool or Eastbourne was a family time to be treasured, perhaps taking in a show as a special treat.  Britain has a beautiful and varied coastline, with many picturesque fishing villages hunkered down beneath cliffs, hugging a pretty harbour.  Some of its traditional seaside towns, on the other hand, with good bathing beaches, a promenade, pier and all the trimmings – crazy golf, donkey-rides, slot-machines, and so on, became neglected and a little tired and tatty.  However, there are plenty that are fighting back – so think about taking your bucket and spade to somewhere like Southwold (Suffolk), Shanklin (Isle of Wight), Tenby (Pembrokeshire), Bournemouth (Dorset) or St Ives (Cornwall). Other seaside towns are available.

Oh I do like to be beside the seaside

Wander around a medieval church

Britain’s great cathedrals, like York Minster, Canterbury, Salisbury, Durham, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s – and so on – are magnificent and understandably popular.  But Britain also has thousands of medieval parish churches too – significantly more than 16,000 according to American writer Bill Bryson, who calculated that “If you tried to visit all the medieval churches in England – just England – at the rate of one a week, it would take you 308 years.” Personally, I find it hard to pass an old church without going inside. Many are almost a thousand years old, some considerably older – and some are located on sites where people have worshipped for centuries earlier, even before the arrival of Christianity.  Most are beautiful and have wonderful features, from tremendous tombs to fabulous fonts and stunning stained glass; all represent their local communities’ stories, as well as Britain’s wider history. Most villages have a church and scores of churches are already listed on A Bit About Britain. Also look at the Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after at risk historic churches in England.

St Aidan's, Bamburgh

Commune with your ancestors at a stone circle

Although not unique to the British Isles, these islands possess an estimated 1,000 stone circles. They date from the Neolithic period, the new stone age, about 3,000 BC and range from the obviously well-known, like Stonehenge, to obscure sites known only to enthusiasts and locals. While, in truth, no one can tell you exactly why stone circles were built, we can be absolutely sure that it not only took a lot of physical effort, but also considerable thought and organisation, to build them. If you visit Stonehenge, it will be a World Heritage Site visitor experience and you will learn a lot; everyone should go. But, generally, you cannot get up close and personal with the stones and it can be, of course, crowded.  Many stone circles are in remote, atmospheric, places and can often be visited for nothing.  One of my favourites is Swinside, or Sunkenkirk, in Cumbria (shown below).  Several heritage organisations already mentioned also look after prehistoric sites, but you’ll find stone circles on private and public access land too.

Swinside, Sunkenkirk, Stone CircleExperience a market

When you think about it, shopping centres are just an expensive evolution of traditional market places, where people congregated to barter goods, livestock and produce.  Markets large and small are still a feature of many towns and cities in Britain and vary from big covered daily markets like the ones in Oxford or Kirkgate in Leeds, which sell pretty much anything, to ubiquitous farmers’ markets, traditional weekly markets with stalls in old market towns and car boot sales (of which one of the best-known is Ford Airfield Market in West Sussex).  Some markets specialise; in others, the word is that you can buy whatever you like if you know who to ask.  London has some particularly good markets – Brick Lane, East Street, Borough (food), Columbia Road (flowers) and Portobello Road (which claims to be the world’s largest antiques market) – to mention but a few. They can be brash, colourful, places where you can not only pick up a bargain, but also things you won’t find in any chain store.

Visit Portobello Road, market

Visit an open garden event

Open Gardens are community events in which participating local residents open their gardens to complete strangers. Hundreds of open garden events take place in Britain every year, mainly during the summer and mostly, though not exclusively, in rural villages. Because the gardens are attached to private homes they are often quite modest and the event may only involve a few gardens; but you will find some real gems and be able to chat to the people whose labours have created them.  Open gardens can be a local event in its own right, organised by an enthusiastic gardening group, or part of a larger village show of some kind. It’s a convivial way of spending an hour or three and can give a completely different perspective on a community.  Entry fees are usually just a few pounds. Check the UK National Directory for events near you, and this article on Open Gardens.

Open Gardens in Burton in Lonsdale, North Yorkshire

So, there you are, ten suggestions for a visit to Britain.  Why ten? – it seems to be a popular number with some bloggers and travel writers. Maybe their readers have a limited attention span.  Perhaps we’ll feature ‘Another ten things you really should do in Britain’ in the future.  What would you include? Morris dancing? Attend a Highland Games? Climb Yorkshire’s Three Peaks? Watch a cricket match? The Edinburgh Fringe? Let me know!

 

73 thoughts on “Ten things you really should do in Britain

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, June, that’s very flattering! Not an original idea of mine, though. Look forward to seeing your post – believe it or not, I love France – but don’t know it well and haven’t been for years.

  1. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – so much to see isn’t there … but on a nice day nothing beats getting out into the countryside. You’ve given us lots of ideas – and so difficult to be specific. Your commenters have lots of ideas too … London town it is for me today through the Sussex countryside before the suburbs hit … cheers Hilary

  2. Jenny Woolf

    I would add to this to buy an OS map and take a walk down a likely looking footpath, although of course you’d need fairly stout shoes for that, depending on the path!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Where would we be without our OS maps, Jenny? – they’re brilliant! I don’t understand people who don’t wear appropriate boots or something to walking in out of the way places – bonkers and dangerous.

  3. Mj Hoop

    I have a Brit cousin who goes walkabout for days & weeks. There are trail maps for the tracks that go through woods, farmland, and pasture and the tracks are well marked, Im told. Did I not recently read something ,Mike, about you walking up a sizable mountain? An outing on a a canal longboat is something to remember. Sometimes a swan will follow a boat through the locks, despite being harassed. Now I’m really missing the old country again!!! I have been to Avebury. Enchanting. And Avebury village was lovely the day I was there. It’s been so long ago….and my photos are packed away. Minehead has roses in season and Lynton has a water powered car on rails to carry visitors high to the top of the seaside mountain and down again.

    I would put the English beauty spots up against those in the US any time. Old places, and so many well-preserved, for so long, soothes my soul.

  4. furrygnome

    Wonderful post. Pleased to think we’d get 9.5/10. Certainly spent most of our time out of London, though the two markets I can remember were there. We’ve had lunch and a pint in many pubs, visited many castles, and at least a few stately homes, assuming places like Balmoral and Windsor count for both categories. We had fish and chips in a greasy newspaper on the seashore in Hastings, and I’d count a medieval wool church in the Cotswolds, Shrewsbury Abbey and an old church in Evesham where we got to watch the bellringers practice as our best church visits. Ate least three stone circles, and several other ancient monuments. I don’t think we actually ever visited an ‘open gardens’ garden, but I counted up to 40 gardens open to the public. The spectacular sea bird colony on St. Kilda, a mile or two of the South Coast Path suggested above, but we’ve never seen Bluebells blooming in the spring. We’d add some of the more distant places in Scotland, like Iona, to add to your list.

  5. Lisa G.

    What a great selection, Mike! I would also prefer to see the countryside if I ever make the trip. These all sound wonderful, except maybe the fish and chips (I had some from the local supermarket and didn’t care for it), and the seaside, since in Connecticut we have a coastline that’s easy to get to. But this is a very sensible and appealing list. And I would also love to see New Forest, as Mr. Knight suggests – I didn’t know that animals like ponies roamed there.
    Amazing how many medieval churches there are in your small country. But tell me, do the seagulls really try to take your food as you walk along the shoreline? I never thought of them as so aggressive.

    1. Dorothy Willis

      I don’t know about British seagulls, but the ones along the Pacific coast in northern California will grab anything! My daughter and I once gave a fully-equipped picnic basket as a wedding shower gift. The couple, Patty and Jim, were to honeymoon driving down the coast, and we thought they would enjoy having a ready-made picnic. As it happened, they didn’t leave the wedding until very late and by the time they arrived at their hotel they were very hungry and everything was closed. So they opened our picnic basket! We had included a summer sausage, which was particularly attractive to Jim. He ate fully half of it and then there was the problem of where to store it, as their room didn’t have a refrigerator. So they wrapped it in one of the little red-and-white checked napkins and tucked it on the outside windowsill to keep cool. Early the next morning they heard a scratching at the window. They were just in time to see a large seagull staggering away, flying low, with the package of sausage! Patty says she has never seen anything funnier than that seagull making the best time it could down the beach with Jim in hot pursuit!

        1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

          When my children were younger, we were at the seaside eating donuts and a seagull swooped down and pinched my son’s out of his hands. Scary! I think they’re vicious, greedy, birds. But I daresay they don’t think much of us either.

    2. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Lisa. Fish and chips from a supermarket would be nothing like the stuff you get from a genuine chippy! We have wild ponies in other places as well as the New Forest – Dartmoor and Pembrokeshire, for example.

  6. Will McMillan

    I love your blog posts, Mike. This one made me salivate (remembering genuine fish & chips with vinegar from when I once visited Britain as a teenager) and also tear up (not sure why the lovely photo of green valley inspires me to cry, but it does…) I also love the comments afterwards, which confirm and amplify your recommendations. Due to accelerating climate crisis/disaster, I will probably confine my travel to what I can ride a bike to — or take a train to — here in the USA. But I will happily remain an international armchair traveler via your excellent blog!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Will – you say the nicest things! I guess we’ll have to develop clockwork aircraft or something – maybe wind power – or of course you could commission a sturdy three-masted sailing ship!

  7. franklparker

    Excellent sugestions in the o.p. and the comments. I would add: take a walk along one of the many coastal paths – you can easily combine that with your visit to a seaside resort, fish and chips and real ale.

  8. marmeladegypsy

    Love this list Mike. I’m pleased to say I’ve done some of those things and some are still on the list. I would add (if one appreciates choirs music) to attend an Evensong (great churches and free apart from optional offering). Visit a small country churchyard cemetery. If cycling is your thing, rent a bicycle and check out the (narrow) country roads! There’s som uch to love in your beautiful country, no matter where you go!

  9. Jim Borden

    this is an awesome list; I wish we had it when I was in London for 10 weeks a couple of years ago. We did get to Oxford and the Cotswolds, but the next time we go, we want to do more outside of London, as you suggest. A couple of our favorite things about London were the pubs and the markets; glad to see that there are opportunities to visit both outside of London (not that I’m surprised that such places exist…) 🙂

  10. Grace

    Of all the places I’ve dreamt of visiting London fell off the list decades ago – If I could I would head first to Scotland – despite not speaking the language, I expect I could spend years exploring and enjoying it. So many marvelous places in the UK that us armchairs wanderers pine for,,,

  11. April Munday

    This is all good advice that I ignored when I worked in Germany for 6 months. There was so much to do in Berlin, where I lived, that I didn’t get to see anything of the rest of the country, except Munich.

    If you’re into real ale, the next time you’re in my neck of the woods, Southampton, you should visit my local. The Witch’s Brew is a micro pub and people travel to drink there.

  12. Denise at Forest Manor

    Great post Mike!! I totally agree with you about London. It’s a fascinating (and to me) unique city, but my favorite part of our visit to England was the countryside and villages. We also loved the fisn ‘n chips, and the best I got were in a charming pub in London, which I gather is no longer in business. I like your suggestions of things to do; I would love to visit castles, gardens, and markets. If we ever get back to Britain, I plan to do these very things.

    I enjoyed your book, Mike — congrats on writing and publishing it. Take care and have a great week!

    Hugs,

    Denise

  13. artandarchitecturemainly

    What makes Great Britain so different from Australia and New Zealand? Cities and town that still have a lot of medieval and early modern architecture in place. St Albans, Oxford and Winchester are easy to get to by train and are dreamy to walk around in.

      1. Dorothy Willis

        I understand both countries will definitely preserve any medieval relics ever found on their soil!

  14. Dorothy Willis

    I have done all except the ale and the fish and chips. Unfortunately, both of these things bring on an upset stomach for me. I have always regretted not being able to join in the fun when either is being consumed.

  15. Eunice

    Excellent suggestions Mike. I love the shots of Gold Hill, the church and Southwold pier 🙂 Anyone visiting Southwold should have a look at the Under The Pier Show actually on the pier – the amusement machines in there are a real hoot 🙂

  16. John at By Stargoose And Hanglands

    For anyone with the slightest interest in the natural world a visit to a sea bird nesting colony should be a must. I’d recommend the Farne Islands as being one of the most accessible and Northumberland has so much else to see which most visitors seem to miss.

  17. Ellen

    Thank you for your great posts and information about Great Britain. We finally clicked the purchase button and we’ll be in Great Britain from 14th September until the 27th. We have an apartment booked in the Jericho area of Oxford for 11 nights and we’ll choose some day trips out from Oxford. We are considering going all the way to Canterbury the first couple days after we land. Might reconsider that because of jetlag but so far that’s the plan. I’m already selfishly praying for fair weather in September and not too many downpours! Now I’ll search your site for any info on Canterbury. Cheers!

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Excellent, Ellen! I need to add more about that part of the south east – love it round there. There used to be a wonderful ice-cream parlour, Morelli’s, just outside the cathedral. If you’re driving, there’s some pretty villages outside the city.

  18. Peter's pondering

    Great choices all. Experience a real country road, on foot, and see the glorious flora and fauna in the hedgerows (if you can find one that hasn’t been cut by chain flail mowers!

  19. derrickjknight

    An excellent list, Mike. Gold Hill is a must; I found Theakston’s Old Peculiar in Cumbria; our garden wall in Newark was made of stone nicked from the Ruined castle; Mottisfont, now a National Trust stately home not far from us now; Mr Pink’s fish and chips in Milford on Sea is worth queueing for; Bournemouth in Dorset is drivable from here; unfortunately many of our old churches are closed most of the time, so it is worth checking; Avebury’s stone circles are more visitor friendly than the now exorbitant Stonehenge; we have a wonderful centuries old market in Lymington – only open on Saturdays; we have today collected a couple of National Gardens Scheme booklets – MacPenny’s at Bransgore is permanently open, although others only at certain dates.

    I couldn’t resist a ramble round yours before suggesting The New Forest with its free-roaming ponies, donkeys, cattle, pigs (later in the year), and wild deer.

  20. Kay G.

    Oh! Someone else wrote to see the bluebells blooming! (I only got to do so ONCE, that is why I have that photo of me on on my blog!)
    And another thing I would say…make sure to somehow get yourself around people SINGING! Why, I have been amazed at how perfectly people can sing “Happy birthday to you” when I am in England! Get me around a choir and I am in heaven.
    Great post, Mike! And wish you could send me some fish & chips!!

  21. Kay

    To your excellent ten, I’d add: Bluebell woods, if visiting at the right time of year. Walk alongside a canal to see the barges. That’s a dozen!

  22. joynealkidney

    Brought back treasured memories of York Minster, enjoying the rich sound of guitars playing in Salisbury Cathedral, and sitting near the choir during a service in Westminser Abbey (and one boy cleaning his glasses with his choir surplice.

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