Before studying abroad in England, my knowledge of UK tourist locations was pretty limited. Everyone knows London, of course, and I also had Oxford on my list. But while I have a few English major friends who have been to Scotland, almost no one back home really talks about Scotland or goes there just for the sake of going there, much less Wales or northern England.
If you’re planning a trip to the UK, absolutely see London. It’s a beautiful, enormous city with history everywhere—but you don’t need me to tell you that. You already know.
If you’re unsure of where else to visit in the UK like I was, here’s a list of the five places I loved the most in my travels around the country. They’re (slightly) less standard tourist destinations if you’re from outside the UK, but I think they are just as much of must-sees as places like Bath, Stonehenge, or Dover.
5) St. Ives, Cornwall
Off in the far southwestern corner of England, hard to get around without a car but worth every second of travel time, Cornwall is a remote, breathtaking region. I’d never even seen water the color of the ocean there (pictured below with relative accuracy).
St. Ives is a peaceful, vacation-y seaside town. Alongside the larger Tate St. Ives art museum, its many small galleries and resident artists fulfill the town’s reputation as an artistic center in Cornwall.
I was drawn to St. Ives for the same reason as most of the places I go—its proximity to wilderness. The Southwest Coast Path branches off of Porthmeor Hill and wanders along the rocky coast for miles. It was a bit of a muddy adventure in the winter, so I recommend hiking the path in the summer.
Back in town, walk up the road called The Terrace for stunning views of the bay, especially at dusk. Sit on the terrace viewpoint and listen to the rhythmic waves washing up against the shore; watch the shadows in the water, the colorful distant lights twinkling across the bay in the gathering blue-gray haze of evening, the pedestrians meandering to and from the train station below. Someone I met said they wanted to retire in St. Ives, and I could see why. It was so relaxing to be there; I never wanted to leave.
Aside from the view, other pluses of St. Ives include Cornish pasties, cute gift shops, the beautiful (and cheap) Treloyhan Manor Hotel, and people-watching (actually mostly dog-watching) on the beachfront.
St. Ives was the only town I was able to visit in Cornwall, but I’ve also heard good things about Tintagel and Falmouth, and those are two places I would love to return to see one day.
I was torn between writing about Bristol or writing about the Peak District—both are wonderful—but Bristol won out because it feels like a true conglomeration of all the things that make up English cities. The run-down bits, the simultaneously old and modern city center, the architecture and winding streets. There are so many faces to Bristol. It’s not a shiny, clean tourist city like its neighbor Bath, but it’s still lively and filled with lush gardens and ornate churches. It’s artistic and musical and architectural and historical.
One of the main sights in the city is the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge. There’s a small museum near the bridge dedicated to its designer, Isambard Brunel, and the bridge’s construction.
Another site I recommend is Cabot Tower on Brandon Hill. After a steep climb up the stairs, you can see a panoramic view of the whole city. On each side of the tower, plaques point the direction to major cities: Paris, Oslo, Amsterdam, Dublin, and many others.
Temple Church is a site of church ruins with a lovely garden and short walking path. This was one of my favorite churches I saw in England.
The University of Bristol Botanic Garden is a good place to wander for an hour or two. There are many smaller garden areas inside the grounds with interesting plants and landscaping. This is also a good way to get out of city center, as the Garden is located a bit of a walk away in a nice neighborhood. The day I went was very quiet; I hardly saw anyone else at all. I suspect I would go there often to read or draw if I lived near it.
Finally, Bristol is located near the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and an easy bus ride across the hills will take you to the Somerset town of Glastonbury, which is the home of impressive monastery ruins and the Glastonbury Tor.
3) Conwy, Wales
As much as I love Cardiff, if you asked me for the one place I recommend going in Wales, I would say Conwy. This is a larg(ish) city in the north of Wales, and since it is the type of place UK citizens go on holiday, it is very well-kept.
It’s possible to do quite a few north Wales day trips from Conwy, such as seeing the aqueducts or climbing Mt. Snowdon. My hotel was in Llandudno, a walk of a few miles from Conwy city center. Llandudno has its own sightseeing destinations—its bustling pier and the Great Orme, a park reserve area.
This is seasonal, but since Conwy is a bigger city, they had a Christmas Eve event that included caroling and fireworks, which I learned about last minute and was able to attend. The event introduced me to the city’s charm, even at nighttime when everything was closed. I made a few trips back in the days that followed to explore the Conwy castle walls, the quay, and the shops and cafes along the main roads.
2) The Lake District, England
The single most picturesque place I’ve ever been is Windermere in the Lake District, and I suspect that any other town there would be equally beautiful.
There are many paths for long country walks in the area. Though we had trouble researching shorter walks directly around Windermere ahead of time, we just asked at our hostel, and they had a map with paths and viewpoints they recommended.
Since I’m from Minnesota, the land of lakes and the north woods, I grew up on cabin culture—heading to a rustic cabin by the lake in the summer. Windermere and its neighbor Ambleside felt very much like vacation destinations, full of ice cream stands and boat trips and countryside hikes, and it reminded me of “up north” in Minnesota (only greener and a lot wetter).
1) Edinburgh, Scotland
I have actually heard people in Edinburgh talking about what a tourist city it is, so maybe it doesn’t fully belong on this list, but I had honestly never even heard of it before studying abroad, and it was a fluke that I ended up going there for a few days.
It was my favorite place that I visited all semester.
Like Bristol, Edinburgh has so many sides that it’s hard to explain what makes the city such a great place to experience. Maybe it’s simply that all of those contrasting elements are stuck together in one space—the harsh, dark lines of the medieval Old Town facing the sophisticated Georgian New Town across the bridge; the wildness of Arthur’s Seat and Calton Hill situated amidst the sprawl of city; Holyrood Palace, the view of the ocean, the castle, and Prince’s Street all within walking distance of one another.
I’m convinced there’s something magical about Edinburgh, and not just because it’s where J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter. Even the regular neighborhoods feel like they came straight out of a story. To quote a friend I made in a hostel: “Anything can happen there. Scotland has a way of doing things to you.”
As much as I loved doing the standard tourist things in England, like getting photos taken at Platform 9 3/4, touring Kensington Palace, and walking along the Thames between Tower Bridge and the Globe Theatre, I enjoyed my time traveling outside of London even more. I didn’t have a lot of expectations about the other places I went, and I was always blown away by how beautiful, interesting, and friendly they were. In England, every town has a story that stretches back centuries. You never run out of things to see. I hope this list gives you some ideas to start your exploration.
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