Top 10 Cities to Visit in the United Kingdom

This past summer I studied abroad in England. I travelled all around the country, and even took a trip to Wales. The experience is something I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world, and it turned me, in part, into a mini Rick Steves. So, for all you abroad-hopefuls or those already in England for the semester, or if you just really want to visit the country, here are the ten places in England and Wales that you NEED to visit:

10. Canterbury

Originally, I never thought I would visit this small city. My high school English teacher raved about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but it was never a book I had particularly enjoyed very much. During my last weekend abroad, I decided to take a bus out to see the famous cathedral for the day. It sits in the middle of the town, surrounded by a huge stone wall and fancy gate entrance. And it is as grand inside as it appears from the exterior--a building filled to the brim with history and outstanding architecture, along with a tie to entertainment. After touring the building, I headed down to the other two major historical sites in the city: St. Martin’s Church and St. Augustine’s Abbey. St. Martin’s is the oldest church in England, and St. Augustine’s Abbey are the ruins of a monastery founded by the man who converted Anglo-Saxons from paganism to Christianity. It was an intriguing town to walk around in, and I learned more about English history there than I ever expected to.

9. Windsor

This is a town accessible by train from London Waterloo station. The main attraction of this pretty English town is the Queen’s favorite place, Windsor Castle. If Buckingham Palace’s Changing of the Guard is too hard to find a decent spot for, come watch the one here instead. Much less crowded, and therefore, much less stressful. The major highlights of this castle includes St. George’s Chapel, where many royals are buried, such as Henry VIII and his favorite wife (Jane Seymour), as well as Queen Elizabeth II’s parents and sister. But there is more to the town than just a castle. There is the famous ‘Crooked House’ down the road, as well as Frogmore House, where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried. Since Buckingham is closed for tours 10 months of the year, if you want to get an insight into the royal life, this is the place to do it.

8. Richmond-Upon-Thames

This small river town is easily accessible from London’s Waterloo train station using an Oyster card (their version of the SmarTrip). First emerging from the train at your destination, you may notice how quiet it is. It is a typical suburban town, with an old English twist. This town is home to Hampton Court Palace, the famous home to Henry VIII (and a few of his wives), as well as William and Mary. Some may recognize it for scenes from the Tudors (which I actually binge-watched before going to see the place), and others go because of their fascination with the royals of the past. The castle was easily my favorite building to visit in the country, just because of the rich architecture and history behind it. If you’re a fan of European history, or grand staircases and stained glass windows—this is a must-see during your visit to Great Britain.

7. Cambridge

If you’re into science and math, you’ll be in your element here at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It is definitely more picturesque than its rival school, Oxford, with the great views you get by punting on the River Cam. Walk up the ancient castle mound ruins just outside the city center, you get a fantastic view of the entire town for free. A bridge Issac Newton created stands outside one of the school’s buildings.  The pub where Watson and Crick announced that they had discovered DNA still sells ale and pies. The King’s College Chapel at the university is yet another example how much history the country has compared to the United States. Go during graduation season, because the outfits the students wear for their robes are quite interesting.

6. Bath

If you’re going to visit this city, make sure you do a tour that will also stop at Stonehenge. The two are relatively close to one another, and Stonehenge is perhaps one of the most iconic sites in the world. Missing out on it would be a huge mistake, even if you do think it’s just a pile of rocks. Bath itself is full of ancient history as well. The name itself hints that the Roman baths are famous in the country. There is also a giant church, the Pulteney Bridge, the Circle and Crescent, as well as Jane Austen history. If you decide to take a day trip out here, make sure you taste the Roman bath water at the end of the tour! It’ll surprise you.

5. Oxford

While its rival is a bit more aesthetically pleasing, there is much more to do in Oxford. Cambridge focuses more on sciences, whilst Oxford concentrates more on literature and history. The door that inspired the wardrobe in the Chronicles of Narnia is a few blocks from the center of the university. The lightning scar that Harry Potter has on his forehead was inspired by a mark lining tiles outside by the school. There are a few other Harry Potter ties to the town as well, such as the Grand Staircase in Christ’s Church—which was used as the Hogwarts staircase to the Great Hall in the first film. Or the courtyard and tree where Draco Malfoy was turned into a ferret in the fourth film. J.R.R Tolkien and C.S Lewis were known to frequent a pub in the town (the Eagle and Child) and discuss their books with one another. To get a view of Oxford, travel up the tower of St. Mary’s Church in the city center. And to finish up the day, tour the Bodleian Library. You may find yourself more immersed in a library than you ever have before.

4. Stratford-upon-Avon

The home of Shakespeare. This is a town you need to see even if you hated Romeo and Juliet back in high school. The Tudor style homes with thatched roofs throughout the town itself are well worth the bus ride. You can go to Shakespeare’s birthplace, his final home (Nash’s Place), Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (where he courted his future wife), as well as Harvard House. Trinity Church next to the River Avon is where he and his wife are buried, and that in of itself is quite a sight to see. The city may not be a bustling one in the way that London and Bath are, but it is quite easily one of the best and most relaxing places to visit in Great Britain.

3. Cardiff

Wales is the forgotten fragment of the United Kingdom. Its flag is not even represented on the Union Jack, but the dragon is still mighty. The birthplace of Roald Dahl is one of the more fascinating cities to visit, mostly because of how drastically different the Welsh are from the English. The accent alone is evidence enough that one is no longer in the land of the stereotypical polite and quiet Englishman. All street signs are written in English with Welsh underneath; it’s like walking into a parallel universe. The castle at the center of town is great fun to walk around, and there are often festivals held there. If you are a fan of Doctor Who or its spinoff Torchwood, you could walk around for hours near the Cardiff Bay and explore all the filming locations you recognize from the shows. A shrine to the character Ianto near the dock only proves how important the British sci-fi show and its spinoff are to the city. And if that isn’t enough, the Doctor Who Experience is on the other side of the bay, filled to the brim with artifacts and props and costumes from the show’s 50+ year history.

2. Liverpool

Some football (soccer) fans I’ve told about my travels in England ask why I did not go to Manchester instead of Liverpool. And the answer has only four words: Paul, John, George, and Ringo. On my last Sunday in the country before my final week of classes began, I took a train up to northern England, ready for all-things related to the most famous band in the world. The city is not only a major industrial port city on the River Mersey, but it is the birthplace of the Beatles. The museums and buildings in the city unrelated to them are also fantastic. But I only had a day. So, I took the Magical Mystery Tour (tourist trap sounding I know) around the suburban areas of the city to visit the Fab Four’s childhood homes, Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields etc. I also visited the Beatles Story Museum, which was filled with visiting fans of all ages. And the amount of statues and monuments dedicated the band is insane. There is one for Lennon regarding peace by the football stadium, there is one for Eleanor Rigby, and there are plenty lining Matthew Street where the famous Cavern Club is located. I only spent several hours in the city, but it is a city I had a ton of fun in and would recommend to anyone. 

1. London

I spent the majority of my time here, seeing as I went to the London School of Economics for two months, and it is easily the best European city I’ve ever been in. There is never a shortage of things to do in the nation’s capital. From Buckingham Palace to the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey to Big Ben and Parliament—one can never get enough of it. While the multitude of museums close at 5, the nightlife in the city is fantastic. The West End is the cheap equivalent to Broadway, restaurants and pubs are fun, and St Paul’s or Harrod’s at night is gorgeous. Places like Freddie Mercury’s house, or the Harry Potter Studio Tour, or 10 Downing Street are not only important to locals, but to people around the world. Karl Marx is even buried in London. Every which way you turn there is something related to a famous film such as Notting Hill or the Parent Trap, or the home of a famous Brit like Charles Dickens. And to see it all, go up the Aqua Shard or Sky Garden for free (never the overpriced London Eye). You could spend your life here and never see it all. Take as much in as you can.

Honorary Mentions:

Belfast:The capital of Northern Ireland where the R.M.S Titanic sailed from. I didn’t get a chance to visit, but it has all the typical UK sites: a castle, museums relating to British history, and a botanic garden. The Grand Opera House is supposed to be spectacularly grand as is Stormont (their Parliament building). If trying to find a bridge between Dublin and London, this is probably the place to do it.

Glasgow: The port city is known for its Victorian architecture and as a cultural hub in Scotland. It is home to the Scottish Opera, Ballet, and National Theatre. Some major sites to visit would be the Cathedral, the Lighthouse, and George Square. And if buildings and town squares bore you, the museums apparently outshine many in the country.

Edinburgh: The weekend I was going to go, there was a major drama festival going on. It’s apparently renowned across Britain, so prices for hotels and train tickets skyrocketed, and I changed my mind. But it is full of fantastic historical sites. Holyrood Castle and King Arthur’s Seat are two must-sees in the hilly city. It’s definitely the first city I’ll be visiting once I go back to the United Kingdom.

All photos belong to the author.