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The United Kingdom is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the entire world, with around 30-40 million tourists visiting the UK each year. This is the capital of the English-speaking world, and this language, not to mention the culture and history of the UK, has left a vast impact on the global stage – not bad for a tiny, foggy collection of islands in the North Sea!
Many folks don’t rightly know what to call the UK or its parts. The UK’s full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain comprises the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales, whereas “Britain” traditionally refers to just England and Wales.
It’s worth getting your head around it, as there’s no quicker way to irk a Scot by asking them what part of England they come from!
Each constituent nation that forms the Union has its unique flavor, culture, history, language, and rivalries. Ostensibly, you might think that the various nations and peoples of the UK don’t get along very well.
Still, you’ll find that Brits from all walks of life share more similarities than differences (except where accents and soccer teams are concerned), and if one part of the UK is threatened, its siblings will defend it fanatically.
Yes, it’s a funny old place where small towns and rural villages feel as though they’re trapped in a Jane Austen novel, and the architecture of major cities can dance from the cutting edge of modern design to literally ancient relics. And the natural beauty the UK possesses is simply spellbinding.
Interesting, right? Let’s check out some of the best things to do in the UK.
- Best Things to Do in the United Kingdom
- 1. Visiting London
- 2. Visit England at Large
- 3. Head North of the Border to Scotland
- 4. Go Hiking Around Wales
- 5. Take a Trip to Northern Ireland
- 6. Escape to the Channel Islands
- Where to Stay in the United Kingdom
- How to Get Around in the United Kingdom
- Travel Tips for Visiting the United Kingdom
- Avoid the Winter Months
- Prepare for Wet Weather
- Take Your Time When Driving
- British “Etiquette”
- British Coins Mean Something!
Best Things to Do in the United Kingdom
1. Visiting London
Come on, you knew this would be at the top of the list! If you plan to visit the UK (or just visit England), a trip to London is essential. London is the capital city of England and the UK as a whole.
Here you’ll find the seat of the British Government, which is divided between the Houses of Parliament at the Palace of Westminster (home of Elizabeth Tower and “Big Ben”) and the head of state, the UK’s reigning monarch, King Charles III, at Buckingham Palace.
London is a humungous city, with a population of around 9 million, and despite Brexit is still the most visited city in Europe. Consequently, unlike most major cities in other European countries, London has a distinctly international edge. Compared to other major cities in the UK, London possesses a unique flavor that is certainly more British than English.
London is the perfect destination for all sorts of travelers. It’s home to the UK’s best hotels, the nation’s most diverse food scene, incredible shopping, and awesome nightlife.
You’re also in the same neighborhood as world-class museums and galleries like the Natural History Museum, The British Museum, The Imperial War Museum, Tate Modern, and the National Gallery.
You’ll find some of the UK’s most famous landmarks, such as Tower Bridge, Westminster Abbey, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Nelson’s Column, and The Tower of London.
Now, any England travel guide will list these famous names, and if you follow the guides you’ll find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of other tourists. For me, London is best explored on foot and by the superb public transit system.
With its winding streets and higgledy-piggledy layout, London is full of hidden gems. Take some time to explore, and you’ll no doubt come across niche museums, pokey historic theatres, unique boutiques, and delicious local pubs and restaurants that Londoners will pack out.
2. Visit England at Large
As the largest nation-state of the UK, England tends to be the most popular destination for visitors to the United Kingdom. As different and diverse as the cultures and histories of the different countries are in the UK, they are just as different and diverse across England.
Southern towns like Bath, Cambridge, and Oxford are worlds apart from northern cities like Manchester, Liverpool, or York, and famous seaside towns like Brighton or Blackpool could not be more different than coastal retreats like Polperro in Cornwall or Whitby in North Yorkshire. Even the accents and idioms of the locals can be wildly different within just a few miles!
One relatively common thing about England as a whole is the beautiful countryside. A road trip is a great idea if you love nature and all things green.
This way you’ll enjoy the rolling hills and thick forests covering rural England. Places like the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, the New Forest, and the Chilterns are exceptionally beautiful examples of the English countryside.
If road-tripping isn’t your jam, or if you just don’t want to figure out how to drive on the other side of the road, on the other side of the car, you can see a lot of this outstanding natural beauty by train. This is a great way to save money on traversing England, compared to car rentals.
A lot of England’s historic rural villages are pretty similar and yet unique too. These are the real hidden gems of England, and many of these tiny settlements have been inhabited for over 1,000 years. Stop by at a local pub for some ham, egg, and chips or a cafe for afternoon tea.
Perhaps the best way to explore the rural side of England is on a narrowboat holiday. Relics of the Industrial Revolution, England is crisscrossed with a sprawling network of canals, once used for transporting goods around the country.
Today, England’s canals are mostly used for pleasure cruises, and the waterways are home to thousands of traditional canal boats, known as narrowboats. Narrowboats are much like floating caravans, and most are decorated as such.
They trundle along at a leisurely pace, making them the perfect mode of transport for exploring England’s countryside as well as former industrial centers like Birmingham and less well-known towns like Leamington Spa.
They’re also pretty cheap to rent, with a week-long excursion rounding out a bit cheaper than booking hotels or vacation rentals. Here are our favorite places to visit in England from the ViaTravelers YouTube channel.
3. Head North of the Border to Scotland
For many people, especially the locals, Scotland is the most beautiful place in the world. This is a tough case to argue against, as everything about Scotland, from historic cities such as Edinburgh and St. Andrews to the stern, harsh beauty of the countryside and the many outer islands, is a travel photographer’s dream.
The islands, in particular, are some of the most beautiful parts of the country. There are the Hebrides off the West Coast, with islands like Harris, Lewis, and Skye. Here, you can find some of Scotland’s finest whisky distilleries, some hundreds of years old.
Then, there are the Orkneys and Shetlands to the northeast. The Shetlands are arguably the most stunning part of the UK and home to the darling, miniature Shetland ponies!
Flying into Scotland via Edinburgh Airport is the easiest way to get into Scotland instantly, but the train is also great, if slower, option. Driving into Scotland from Northern England is best for sightseers and nature lovers, as you can stop by numerous historic landmarks and attractions such as Hadrian’s Wall and Northumberland National Park.
Once in Scotland proper, spend some time exploring the enchanting town of Edinburgh. One of the best-preserved medieval cities in Northern Europe, Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland. It’s a prime location for culture vultures or anyone interested in the history of Scotland.
Foodies and night owls will want to head north to Glasgow. Believe it or not, Glasgow is one of the food capitals of the UK. Indian food, as we know it in the West, was essentially invented in Glasgow. Two essential Scottish delicacies you must try here (apart from Chicken Tikka Masala) are black pudding and haggis.
For those who don’t know, black pudding is a blood sausage, normally served with breakfast. It possesses a heavenly, bacon-like flavor and can be satisfyingly chewy or decadently melt in the mouth depending on how it’s prepared.
Haggis is about the most Scottish thing to eat ever. In essence, it, too, is a sausage, but it’s a little more complicated. Traditionally, it’s a sheep’s stomach, containing the sheep’s minced heart, liver, and lungs, as well as onions, oats or barley, suet, herbs, spices, salt, and gravy. There are also lots of yummy vegetarian haggises out there too.
It can be eaten for every meal, and it is seriously good – so good it takes center stage during Scotland’s most hallowed holiday, Burns Night, every January 25th.
4. Go Hiking Around Wales
Wales is the one part of the UK where you may readily run into folks who don’t speak English as a first language. Of all the UK’s historic languages that are still spoken, Welsh is the most common, and a good chunk of the Welsh population speaks both Welsh and English.
You’ll know when you’re in Wales (or Cymru – pronounced kum-ri) when the road markings stop saying “SLOW” and start saying “ARAF.”
There aren’t many large cities in Wales, the largest being the relatively modest capital city of Cardiff in south Wales. That said, Cardiff is a stunning coastal city one of the UK’s most important cultural hubs, and a fun university town. Cardiff is also very close to Barry Island, a beloved and beautiful peninsula that is home to a number of historic seaside resorts.
What Wales lacks in bustling metropolises, it more than makes up for in unspoiled landscapes that are hauntingly beautiful and dauntingly tough to navigate. Wales is a top destination for hikers, adventurers, and nature enthusiasts who aren’t afraid of a challenge.
While staggeringly beautiful, Wales has some of the toughest terrain in the UK. It’s so tough that new recruits for British special forces train almost exclusively in Wales, and it’s not uncommon for recruits to die during their qualifications.
But the risks are worth the rewards, as the beauty of Wales cannot be understated. Hiking or pony trekking across Wales’s national parks will expose you to some breathtaking beauty as well as historic sites like the Welsh castles of Conwy, Raglan, and Harlech.
5. Take a Trip to Northern Ireland
While most visitors to Ireland find themselves in the Republic of Ireland (or Eire), Northern Ireland (or Ulster) is just as great a vacation destination. While the culture changes from town to town in Great Britain, the culture in Ulster is markedly different from its larger neighbor to the east, being distinctly Irish.
Once you’re in Ulster, you’ll find things much more laid back than in Great Britain. Life moves a little slower, and people make far more time for socializing and artistic pursuits. No matter where you are, you won’t have difficulty finding a pub for a drink and chatting with the locals.
As laid back as they seem, it wasn’t always the case. Once rife with violent crime and terrorism during The Troubles, Northern Ireland is now about as safe as any other part of the UK, but the scars of this difficult period are still visible.
This is one of the most fascinating things to explore in Ulster, with murals in cities like Londonderry and Belfast telling the stories of local heroes from both sides of this painful conflict.
Belfast is also where the famous fated passenger ship, the RMS Titanic, was built, and you can learn all about this enormous ship at Titanic Belfast. This gleaming monument to the sunken ship and Irish maritime history is one of the most incredible new museums in the UK, well worth a visit.
Speaking of Belfast, this city, the capital of Ulster, is the easiest place to access Northern Ireland from the British mainland. If you fancy seeing Eire first, your best bet is to fly into Dublin International Airport and then drive north.
Like the rest of the UK, Ulster has its share of beautiful countryside and natural wonders, but none more wondrous than the Giant’s Causeway on the north coast. This fascinating honeycomb geological formation is a result of prehistoric volcanic activity and is one of the most popular attractions in Ulster.
6. Escape to the Channel Islands
While not strictly part of the UK, the Channel Islands are just a short flight or ferry ride from mainland Britain or France and are among the most hidden gems in unique British vacations.
Consisting of the inhabited islands of Alderney, Guernsey, Jersey, Herm, and Sark, these islands in the English Channel, just off the coast of Normandy, are “Crown Dependencies.” While not part of the UK, they are administered by the British government and are essentially British.
This means locals speak English, adhere to the same laws, and use the same currency as those in the UK proper. But here, you will find a little taste of continental Europe (and the nicer weather that comes with it) without buying a phrasebook.
The two largest islands are the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and these make up the vast majority of the islands’ total population and landmass.
Both have beautiful beaches and warmer climates compared to the mainland. Both also have fascinating histories, with unique relics left over from the Duchy of Normandy, medieval castles, and even fortifications from the invading Nazis.
Jersey is the more metropolitan of the two islands and a lot more touristy. The capital of St. Helier has tons of terrific restaurants to sample incredible seafood.
Guernsey is more laid back but oozes with a unique charm. Walking around inland Guernsey might make you feel you’re in the Cotswolds, but spend some time at the harborfront in St. Peter Port. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re in Monaco or Nice!
Either way, both islands are prime destinations if you’ve been and done the UK before and you’re looking for something a little different. With unique attractions like Mont Orgueil and the German Underground Hospital, not to mention glorious beaches in every shape and size, the Channel Islands are ripe for a one-of-a-kind getaway.
Where to Stay in the United Kingdom
An adventure around the United Kingdom can take many forms, with every sort of destination and activity available to any sort of traveler.
That will be the hard bit for you to figure out, so the least we can do is help you figure out where to stay. Here are some top accommodations in some of the locations we’ve mentioned:
- The Dorchester – London
- Graduate Cambridge – Cambridge
- Francis Hotel Bath – Bath
- The Grand – York
- The Angel Hotel – Leamington Spa
- Leonardo Royal Hotel (Formerly Jurys Inn) – Brighton
- Royal Carlton Hotel – Blackpool
- The Crumplehorn Inn & Mill – Polperro
- Radisson Blu Hotel Edinburgh – Edinburgh
- The Z Hotel Glasgow – Glasgow
- The Parkgate Hotel – Cardiff
- Gileston Manor – Barry
- The Harrison Chambers of Distinction – Belfast
- Les Cotils – Guernsey
- Hotel de Normandie – Jersey
- Narrowboat rentals can be found here through Black Prince
How to Get Around in the United Kingdom
Driving around the UK is a wonderful experience. It can be a fun place to drive around leafy country roads, up hills, and down valleys, and the views are pretty agreeable.
But it’s not plain sailing. Remember, unlike most of the world, Brits drive on the other side of the road on the other side of the car. It’s also worth noting that most cars in the UK still have a manual transmission, although many car hire places are moving towards automatics.
The best way to traverse the United Kingdom is by using the nation’s deeply entrenched and far-reaching public transportation system.
The UK’s network of underground and overground trains, buses, and ferries are exceedingly well connected, with public transportation between villages, towns, and cities being the norm.
While it typically takes longer to get from A to B than driving, it’s cheap. It allows you to soak in your surroundings and removes the learning curve or adapting to British roads.
This brings us to the next point – tours! Countless guided tours help you enjoy top sites and attractions around the UK. Here are some of our favorites:
- This tour will take you from London to Warner Bros Studios just outside Watford for a behind-the-scenes tour of Harry Potter movie sets! If you get the chance, break off to visit the shops at Hemel Hempstead if you need some retail therapy.
- Join a private tour around London to see the famous Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Just don’t mess with the Guardsmen – you’ll regret it!
- This tour from Manchester will show you the majesty of the Lake District, focusing on England’s largest lake, Windermere.
- On this full-day tour, you can visit the historic city of Bath, Stonehenge, and Windsor Castle, the favorite home of the late, great Queen Elizabeth II.
- Head up to Inverness and on this tour, you can visit the beautiful Isle of Skye and the historic Eilean Donan Castle.
- Departing from London, this monster 5-day tour will take you through some of the most stunning natural wonders and historic sites around Wales.
- This awesome tour from Belfast traces the steps of filming locations for Game of Thrones!
Travel Tips for Visiting the United Kingdom
If it’s your first visit to the UK, then there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when planning your next adventure.
Avoid the Winter Months
Winters in the UK can be very cold and wet, and rather than being a winter wonderland, the weather can be bone-chillingly miserable, with little snow outside of Scotland and Ulster. That said, if you don’t visit in winter, you’ll miss out on Burn’s Night!
Try summer, when the weather is warm to hot – although there is no guarantee you’ll see blue skies or the sun during your visit! This leads us to the next point…
Prepare for Wet Weather
The UK is the wettest place in Europe, with Scotland receiving more precipitation than anywhere else. This isn’t saying much, as the United Kingdom sees a lot of rain and overcast skies throughout the year. No matter what time of year you visit the UK, some waterproof jacket, shoes, and an umbrella will serve you well.
Take Your Time When Driving
Drivers in the UK are among the safest in the world – but they do drive fast. Speed limits in the UK are a little more generous to speed demons than in the U.S.
There are few things more terrifying to an American tourist on the “wrong” side of the road and the “wrong” side of the car than turning the corner of a narrow, single-track country road (of which there are many) to find a huge white van barreling towards you at 60mph.
Let them drive fast and loose. If you have to drive and haven’t familiarized yourself with your British car and road laws, take the time to do so.
At first, many Brits might seem standoffish, disinterested, shy, and maybe a bit icy. While they aren’t as loud or forthcoming as Americans, they watch your every move!
This mentality is British etiquette, which typically revolves around a sense of decorum and courtesy at all times around strangers, with a side of silent judgment. It’s sort of like a dance of good manners.
If you encounter this, the best thing to do is be polite back – sincerely. After that, they’ll warm up to you quickly, and you’ll find no firmer friends worldwide.
British Coins Mean Something!
While in the U.S. and other parts of the world, we tend to write off coins as a means of doing laundry or just pocket garbage. Certain British coins carry a bit of weight to them – literally.
Keep an eye out for £1 and £2 coins, as these are actually useful, particularly when it comes to getting drinks at the pub or tipping your cabbie. They’re the thickest and weightiest of the UK’s coinage.
- About the Author
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James is a British-American writer and editor for Via Travelers who has been writing since he was wee. As someone who has spent much time trotting around the globe, James appreciates traveling smart and comfortably, and has every intention of helping VT’s readers do the same!