Samuel Johnson famously said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and it’s hard to disagree with him. But if you can pull yourself away from London for a day or two, you’ll find a host of accessible, irresistible towns that will reward you at every turn. Here are eight amazing day trips from London.
Around the world, Bath is synonymous with the celebrated writer Jane Austen. Austen lived and wrote in Bath for many years, and its importance as a place of pilgrimage for her fans is unparalleled. But if English literature isn’t your thing, Bath should still be on your list of day trips from London. The town is famous for its Roman-built spa baths; the power and influence of the Romans in Great Britain cannot be overstated, and archeologists are still unearthing remnants of their occupation. In March 2012, a hoard of 30,000 silver Roman coins was found less than 500 feet from the baths!
Home to the most complete collection of Georgian architecture in the world, Bath is beautiful, tremendously walkable, and filled with charm. London Walks, my favorite tour company in London, organizes guided day tours to Bath that include transportation on high-speed trains, making excellent use of your time. If you travel to Bath independently, the trip will take 90 minutes by train and about 2 hours and 45 minutes by car.
Bath might have been Austen’s home, but true fans will know that Brighton also occupied a special place in the author’s heart — and her novels. The seaside town played a pivotal role in Pride and Prejudice. “In Lydia’s imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness,” Austen wrote. And Lydia was absolutely correct!
To this day, Brighton remains an intoxicating mix of oceanfront holiday town, university hot spot, and fantastic shopping destination. The Brighton Pier features all the amenities of an over-the-top amusement park, and it’s a particularly fun stop for sugar-loving kids. In the city, the aptly named Lanes are a collection of narrow lanes and alleyways dating to the late 1700s. The Lanes are filled with tiny shops selling everything imaginable, including leather-bound journals and tiny mice carved from soapstone — exactly what I picked up on my last visit. At the Lanes, you can find vintage clothing, antique books — even wedding cakes!
Brighton is less than an hour away from London by train and 90 minutes away from London by car.
Dating to the 15th century, Herstmonceux Castle is one of the oldest significant brick buildings in England. But it’s not a museum or a historic home — it’s a university campus! Now a branch of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Herstmonceux Castle had fallen on hard times before a university alumnus saw the property’s potential and gifted it to the school. It’s home to spectacular gardens, including one of the finest Shakespeare gardens in the world, as well as woodland walking trails.
Visitors are encouraged to visit the gardens, participate in a guided tour of the castle, and see the Observatory Science Centre’s telescopes, remnants of the days when the property was home to the Royal Greenwich Observatory. The nearby village of Herstmonceux is undervisited by tourists and, as a result, offers a rare chance to enjoy everyday English village life, including pub visits. Save some spending money to pick up a very special kind of basket. The Herstmonceux area is famous for its trugs, or baskets made from split willow boards. They make great souvenirs!
Only a 90-minute drive from London, Herstmonceux doesn’t have its own railway station, though rural buses can take you there from the Polegate Station. The best way to get from the castle to the village center is by taxi, although the students enthusiastically walk and bike the 2-mile jaunt.
Located 50 miles northwest of London, the small city of Oxford is home to the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Though the university is consistently ranked as one of the world’s best universities, there’s nothing stuffy about a visit to Oxford. There’s no university campus per se; the buildings of the university’s different colleges are sprinkled throughout the city, giving the entire city a decidedly youthful feel. The city of Oxford is also a beautiful example of architectural diversity: It is home to examples of every style of English architecture from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present.
Should you feel inspired to expand your knowledge while you’re there, the university operates a number of free museums and galleries that are open to the public. One, the Ashmolean Museum, houses works by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Picasso, and Turner, and it is not to be missed.
Guided coach tours to Oxford are easy to find in London. The ideal package would include transportation to the city (which is an hour away from London by train and 90 minutes away by car), a guided tour around Oxford (I loved the hop on, hop off tour bus), and free time to explore to your heart’s content. Keep an eye out for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland souvenirs. Author Lewis Carroll had a long relationship with the city and the school.
5. Hastings And Battle
It’s usually an insult to describe something as past its prime, but no one in Hastings or Battle would be offended if you said that the towns peaked way back in 1066. One of the most significant battles of Western history took place by these towns in southeast England. At Hastings, William, the Duke of Normandy (later known as William the Conqueror), defeated Harold Godwinson, the Anglo-Saxon king, in a battle that changed the course of history. But Hastings and Battle are no ordinary war sites. In fact, very little remains of England’s most important battle. But a trip here is essential for English history buffs. It was on these shores and fields that modern-day England began to take shape.
Battle Abbey, founded on the site of the Battle of Hastings, was completed in 1094 to commemorate those who died during the fight. It was all but destroyed during Henry VIII’s reign, and all that remains today is the outline where the abbey once stood. However, auxiliary buildings still stand and are used in part by a school.
Hastings Castle, one of three fortifications built by William when he landed on the English shore, stands in partial ruin. Erosion, time, and sieges by the French (and later by Nazi Germany) have taken their toll on the castle’s stone walls. In 1951, Hastings Castle was carefully restored, and guests are now welcome to visit between March and October. During the winter, the weather is unpleasant, and the rocks are too slick to be safe.
March is a superb time to visit. The castle is open, but few tourists are around. Every March, the town of Hastings hosts a popular half marathon. A miniature railroad operates along the beach and is perfect for relaxed sightseeing (or resting those post-run legs!). The nearby Saint Clement’s Caves are home to a great interactive display on the region’s smuggling history. You didn’t think those cliffs and coves were only used by William the Conqueror, did you?
Hastings is 90 minutes from London by train and 2 hours from London by car. Driving independently or joining a tour is the best way to make the most of your time in the area.
6. Stonehenge And Salisbury
Arguably the most famous prehistoric monument in the world, Stonehenge is one of Britain’s most important historic sites. It’s also one of the most mysterious. A visit here is at once peaceful and slightly eerie, as you contemplate the lives of unknown people who lived thousands of years before you — and managed jaw-dropping feats of engineering. Stonehenge can become quite crowded, and extra effort to arrive early or closer to closing will be rewarded with a more intimate experience with the rocks.
The nearby city of Salisbury, often seen as little more than a base from which to visit Stonehenge, is vastly underrated. Salisbury Cathedral dates to the early 1200s and is revered as a fine example of Early English Gothic architecture. The cathedral’s clock is one of the oldest working clocks in the world, but it’s far from the most precious artifact housed at the church. Salisbury Cathedral is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta! Oblivious to the building’s majesty and the treasures within are the peregrine falcons that call the tower their home. And if there’s something about the cathedral’s grounds that looks vaguely familiar, Harry Potter fans will be quick to inform you that some movie scenes were shot there.
Make sure your day in Salisbury includes time to explore beyond the cathedral — the city is well worth seeing as well. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, Salisbury hosts public markets, as it has since 1227. Galleries, festivals, theaters, and libraries are important parts of public life in the city, and the excellent Salisbury Museum includes an exhibition on the archeology of Stonehenge — perfect for rounding out a visit.
London Walks offers a comprehensive day tour that includes both Stonehenge and Salisbury. Salisbury is about 90 minutes away from London by train and 2 hours away by car.
If you ask locals to describe Canterbury, they’ll say that it’s a cathedral town — but they might neglect to mention that it’s the most famous cathedral town in the world. Canterbury Cathedral, the site of the 1170 assassination of Saint Thomas Becket, is significant for both Catholics and Anglicans. Pilgrimages to the cathedral have been taking place for over 1,000 years, a movement immortalized in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
It’s also a prehistoric town: Paleolithic axes and Bronze Age pots have been found in the area. The Canterbury Cathedral and the Canterbury Roman Museum are great places to tap into the city’s history, culture, and spirituality, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Hiring a local guide is a particularly good idea here. Canterbury welcomes many tourists, but few explore beyond the well-worn paths mentioned in guidebooks. Case in point: The city has a great art and theater scene — perhaps unsurprising, since the playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe is Canterbury’s most famous son — and theater tickets are less expensive than they are in London.
Canterbury is an hour away from London by train and 90 minutes away from London by car.
Yes, you read that correctly! I’m talking about THAT Paris, the capital of France across the English Channel on mainland Europe. Thanks to the Eurostar high-speed train, you can get to Paris’s Gare du Nord from London’s Saint Pancras Station in 2 hours and 16 minutes.
Tickets can cost close to $100 each way. Unless you snag the tickets during a sale, this trip might not be the most frugal of adventures. But if money is no object and you don’t mind getting up early, you can arrive in Paris in time for a late breakfast of café au lait and croissants, enjoy a city tour, spend a few hours at the Louvre, go up the Eiffel Tower, and be back in London for a late dinner. Or you can opt to dine in the City of Lights — maybe enjoy a late-night boat ride on the Seine — before rolling back into London just before midnight. With such a romantic itinerary at your disposal, perhaps it would be worthwhile to throw practicalities out the window.