THERE’S A LOT to see and do in the United Kingdom. There is loads of history and beautiful scenery. And there is London, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan, most fun and most interesting cities. And also, unfortunately, one of the most expensive.
First, let’s get the terminology right. ‘Great Britain’ refers to the large island that contains England, Scotland and Wales. The ‘United Kingdom’ is a political term for those three countries and the northern part of Ireland. ‘The British Isles’ refers to Great Britain and Ireland and all the little islands around them.
The biggest island, Great Britain, is very heavily populated, with over 60 million people. The amazing thing is that it still has plenty of empty countryside – bleak moors, rugged mountains, verdant forests, bucolic farmland and beautiful rolling hills. Traveling around this green and pleasant land, stopping in places at random, is one of life’s great joys.
The Top 100 Countries index rates the United Kingdom as the 4th best country on earth to visit. It is in the Top Ten in an impressive six categories: clean environment (6th), popularity and tourist infrastructure (both 7th), number of World Heritage sites (8th), freedom (9th) and low corruption (equal 10th). And Britain’s socialized National Health System means it’s not a bad place to fall sick or have an accident.
But it is also one of the most expensive places for visitors, especially in and around London. The good news is that London is worth it. And once you get outside that wonderful city the rest of the United Kingdom can be reasonably good value for money.
Britain’s compactness makes it an easy place to visit. It’s not difficult to get around, though the traffic can be horrid if you are driving. They drive on the left side, which can be tricky for Americans and Europeans, but the drivers are mostly courteous. The trains are fun and easy but they are expensive unless you book months ahead.
It’s probably the best place in the world for a bit of culture – art, music, drama. And most major global sports were invented there – most notably soccer, tennis, rugby and cricket.
It is also very diverse. If you can’t find something to do in the United Kingdom, or something that appeals, you are just not trying.
London and the South-East
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO London was the greatest city on earth, capital of the largest empire the world has ever seen. It was the commercial and political hub of the globe. Its star has faded a little today.
But London remains one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and interesting cities, and one of the most visited. London and Paris and New York are probably the world’s only true world cities. It dominates southeastern England. “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” said Samuel Johnson nearly 400 years ago. That remains true today.
There are dozens of fabulous attractions in southern England that are a day trip from London. You could never see and do it all in a lifetime of visits. It is impossible to write a list of all the things you should do there. Start with Stonehenge, Windsor and Eton, Dover, the Cotswolds, Arundel, Brighton, Winchester.
The place is brimming with activities, to suit every taste and every budget. Just walking around aimlessly is worthwhile. Places like the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and St Pauls Cathedral are musts, and there are dozens more. The theatre scene is the best in the world – better than New York. The West End around Leicester Square is the heart of it, but there are other great places all over town, such as the Royal Albert Hall in Westminster, which we think is the best performance venue on earth.
The area immediately around London is called the ‘Home Counties’. Beyond them the southeast also includes all the area between the River Thames and the English Channel. Sussex, Kent, Hampshire, Surrey – this is for many the real England. It is all quite upper class and expensive and a bit twee, but the English can get away with that.
You can easily spend a whole vacation only in this area. It is dotted with pretty villages and pleasant countryside. Only an hour or so northwest of London is the university town of Oxford, which is really worth a visit. The South Coast contains many pretty seaside resorts. There is stuff to do everywhere. This is one of our favorite parts of the world. Even without London it would be worth many visits. With London, it is essential.
We just keep going there, again and again. We love the Sherlock Holmes pub in the West End and the Tattershall Castle pub and restaurant in a boat on the Thames where you can look across to the London Eye. They are only five minutes’ walk from each other.
We particularly like Brighton on the south coast, the hippest and happiest and most alternative place in all of England.
The West Country
WEST OF LONDON, past Berkshire and Wiltshire to Somerset and Dorset and Devon and Cornwall, is one of the most attractive parts of England. The beauty of the Cornish coast, with its picturesque fishing villages, is legendary. Villages like Penzance and Port Isaac and St Ives are world famous for their rugged maritime land-scapes. Land’s End, at Cornwall’s tip, is well named.
The beautiful city of Bath is remarkable for two reasons: the ancient Roman spa that gives it its name, and the regularity of the streetscapes of the residential buildings designed by John Ward in the 18th century, considered the pinnacle of Georgian architecture.
Nearby is the city of Bristol, one of England’s most attractive larger cities and with an extensive maritime tradition. To the south-east is historic Plymouth, also a wonderful town.
We love it. Bristol is a fabulous city, and the streetscapes in Bath are truly amazing. Try and make it to the Hunter’s Rest in the countryside between Bristol and Bath, the archetypal English country pub. Stay over if you can (but book ahead as there’s only four rooms). And the Cornish coast is very beautiful.
The Midlands and Northern England
The Midlands was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. It is a heavily populated area, with the great cities of Manchester and Birmingham and Liverpool, and other major centres like Coventry and Sheffield. These hard-working cities made England the world’s economic powerhouse in the 19th century.
This region is not normally regarded as a tourist destination, but there is a lot to see. Birmingham is a great place, with a rejuvenated city center and more canals than Venice. Nearby is Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon (which attracts far too many tourists).
Liverpool was home to the Beatles and is a must see for fans of the Fab Four. There are some special Beatles tours, which are lots of fun. Manchester is the second largest city in Britain, with its top two soccer teams.
Further north are the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District National Parks, with some of the best scenery in England. York-shire often seems like a country in its own right (its inhabitants certainly seem to think it is). Its central city of York is a delight.
The Midlands and the North are much cheaper than London and the South. There is still a bit of a North-South divide in England, with this area more working-class and less pretentious. We’ve had some of our best times in England here.
We’ve spent a lot of time around Durham and Tyneside. Newcastle and Sunderland were once gritty industrial cities, but like the rest of northern England they have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in recent years.
Not as high on most people’s list as down south, but still a wonderful place. You simply have to do a Beatles tour in Liverpool, and watching a match at Old Trafford - soccer or cricket - is something else. The north of England is worth visiting for the Lakes District alone.
Outside of Newcastle, overlooking Durham cricket ground, is Lumley Castle, now a remarkable upscale hotel. We were lucky enough to stay there once. You should too if you can.
SCOTLAND IS A VERY different country to England. They have been joined politically for 400 years, though there is now a strong movement to tear Scotland away again. Scotland has less than 10 percent of Great Britain’s population, but its effect on British history and British culture has been inordinately large and mostly positive.
A high proportion of Britain’s best engineers, explorers, philosophers and soldiers were Scottish. They say Scotland built the British Empire, not England. There is much truth to this. Scotland is the proudest of nations, and rightly so. And they have the bagpipes. For many this is a mixed blessing, though the sound of massed pipes and drums is one of the world’s most stirring.
It is also a great place to visit. Edinburgh is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and the Scottish countryside can be very impressive. Scotland’s largest city Glasgow, once regarded as an industrial wasteland, has become hip and trendy.
The third biggest city is Aberdeen, on the coast north of Edinburgh, wealthy from North Sea oil. Small cities like Perth and Inverness are great places to visit.
The Highlands and Islands are beautiful. There is a road bridge across to the Isle of Skye nowadays, but best to do some island hopping on the small ferries that move between them. Scotland continuously rewards the independent traveler.
Edinburgh is one of those magic places. Inverness is the most wonderful small city, and you can head off to nearby Loch Ness to feed the monster a little piece of shortbread. It was not until we saw the Highlands in winter that we understood the meaning of the word ‘bleak’.
Wales, like Scotland, is a country in its own right, with its own Gaelic language and traditions. It is also very beautiful. There are just three million people in Wales, most of them in the heavily populated South, which means large swathes of the country are wild and almost unpopulated. One great place to see in the south is the ruins of Tintern Abbey, nearly a thousand years old. It’s just a short drive from Bristol or Cardiff.
The island of Anglesey in the north-west, and the country on the mainland near it – in and around Snowdonia National Park - is picture-perfect.
Wales is not as much of a must see as Scotland. The south, where most people live, is rather ordinary, though Cardiff is quite a nice city. But Wales has the best mountains in Britain and some of the best scenery.
The Giant’s Causeway off the northern coast is outstanding, and the new Titanic exhibition in Belfast, on the very site where the ship was built, is outstanding.
But it remains a sad city, still riven between Protestant and Catholic. There is a massive barrier between the Green and Orange suburbs reminiscent of the Berlin Wall, with giant gates that are locked at night to prevent the two communities from mingling. They have their own pubs and their own schools. This is astonishing in the 21st century, in a supposedly civilized country like the United Kingdom. Belfast certainly isn’t united.
The Crown Liquor Emporium is as fine a pub as its name suggests, though we were told it was the most bombed place in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Belfast has some truly great pubs, though make sure you know whether it is a Catholic pub or a Protestant pub as soon as possible.