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England Travel Guide: What to Do in England

If your only impression of England comes from period dramas like “Downton Abbey” and “Pride and Prejudice,” you’re missing half the story. It’s indeed a country with a rich and storied past, evident in castles and palaces, parks and stately squares. But England is also full of thoroughly modern contrasts. It’s a place where pub-style classics like fish and chips coexist with inventive Michelin-star cuisine (not to mention great curries and original takes on street food). Gritty cities, many of them undergoing renaissances, complement the splendid wild areas of the Lake District and New Forest. It’s got the traditional works of artists like Gainsborough and Constable, and the unpredictable styles of contemporary artisans like Banksy and Damien Hirst.

If there’s a jewel in England’s proverbial royal crown, it’s sprawling London, one of the world’s greatest cities. You can spend unlimited time exploring its museums, gardens, shops, pubs and restaurants, theaters, landmark attractions and, best of all, neighborhoods. London is so compelling that it can be hard to pull away.

But we hope that you also venture beyond England’s capital city. To tempt you, we’ve come up with 13 fantastic — and unusual — ways to explore England. A few do focus on adventures in the London area, but others will spirit you away to the seacoast, Lake District, the Beatles’ Liverpool and beyond. Whatever you want from your trip to England, whether it’s to experience the country’s elegant traditions or its more modern self, these experiences will help you find it.

Spend the Night in Henry VIII’s Palace

King Henry VIII is one of England’s most famous characters. The lavish nature of his courts, his many wives (and their sometimes grisly fates) and his larger-than-life appearance have made him a controversial and compelling English monarch. Hampton Court Palace is one of the only remaining properties owned by Henry VIII, and the pink-brick Tudor/Baroque mix is a constant draw for visitors from the capital. Day-trippers from London can venture along the Thames to the spectacular palace, seeing the tennis courts and the opulent grounds, even trying out the famed maze that baffled and delighted Tudor courtesans.

Take the experience one step further with a stay at Hampton Court Palace. Apartments are available for hire in the palace itself, as well as residences in the Fish Court that were formerly used by the “Officers of the Pastry,” and a Georgian house. There are a number of cafes and small restaurants on site, but you can also go five minutes up the river to Twickenham, or cross the bridge into Richmond to take in a few drinks and a meal in one of the country’s most vibrant little villages. Visit the Hampton Court Palace website to book a room in the palace.

For more accommodation ideas, see our England lodging guide.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

A Week in London by Lkeade
“My favorite day of the trip was a visit to Hampton Court Palace. This is the former home of King Henry VIII. We did not take any of the organized tours of the palace which we should have done. Instead we wandered through the rooms trying to take in the magnificence. It’s hard to believe that people live with this opulence. The best parts of the palace are the gardens. The beauty is beyond words.” Read more!

Learn to Paint in the Lake District

The Lake District has inspired some of the best art and literature not only in England but also in the world. It’s not difficult to see why. There’s something about the great lakes of Windermere and Coniston Water and the mountainous Scafell Pike that brings out people’s creative instincts. At turns both dramatic and tranquil, the region has been the subject of influential paintings by British masters like Turner and Constable, as well as poems by Wordsworth, Coleridge and Walter Scott.

Now modern-day travelers can be inspired by the scenery and paint the landscapes in their own style. Visitors to the Lake District can partake in indoor classes, learning the techniques of the masters, or pick up their easels and trek to the scene themselves to paint from nature. See or (click on Painting Holidays) to see what’s on offer for aspiring artists.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Lake District, England by Gordon T.
“I have always liked England’s Lake District, particularly in autumn — there is such an atmospheric charm to a still September day there. I have been several times but not recently so I looked forward to a week in the village of Coniston. The weather can be wet in the Lake District — and so it proved once again — but if you’ve got some indoor distractions to distract from the rain, you could ride out the time until you can be walking, cycling or boating again.” Read more!

Catch a Wave in Newquay

Newquay, in the southwestern, Atlantic Ocean-facing corner of the country, is England’s answer to the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. Surfers have been flocking to this part of the Cornwall coast since the sport became popular in the 1960s, with even Prince Charles falling in love with the Cornish waves.

Newquay really is a city built around the sea, with numerous places to rent or buy surfboards and wetsuits, and there are plenty of opportunities to take a lesson or a class. Fistral Beach, Watergate Bay and nearby Perranporth are all favorite spots among surfers, whether absolute beginners or seasoned pros. Some tips: Check out for up-to-date surf reports, and prebook your equipment and lessons at Adams Surf School before you arrive.

When you’ve had your fill of surfing (watching or participating), take advantage of Cornwall’s other recreational offerings. Why not charter a boat and try your hand at some deep-sea fishing, or rent a bike to check out the beautiful coastline? For culture, pop down to the Tate St. Ives or the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

UK Wandering & Aegean – Black Seas Cruise by Phillip F.
“Finishing our drive to St. Ives we approach the seaside town via Carbis Bay. The views as you wind down the hill toward the rail line are fabulous with aqua water shimmering against the broad golden sands. St. Ives, once a busy pilchard fishing port, is now a busy tourist port with a strong artisan flavour. Its narrow cobbled streets have the most wonderful galleries and the town now houses the New Tate Gallery.” Read more!

Take a Gourmet Tour of London

Despite England’s long-standing reputation for bland food, London’s culinary scene is one of the most vibrant in the world. Michelin-starred restaurants provide elegantly prepared delicacies, while gastropubs offer gussied-up (and sometimes very fancy) versions of English staples like toad in the hole, steak and chips, and sausage and mash. Get a good overview of the dining scene with Eating London Tours or Secret Food Tours, both of which offer intriguing tastes of the city, ranging from an Indian tour of the East End to a twilight tour of SoHo.

Before you arrive, read up on London’s culinary revolution in books such as Terence Conran and Peter Prescott’s excellent “Eat London.” We also recommend picking up a copy of Time Out’s annual restaurant guide or visiting to help you select restaurants. And don’t miss our own favorite London restaurants.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Grandmother/Granddaughter Trip by Susan Poirier
“We arrived in London and checked into the St. Ermin’s Hotel which was beautiful. We enjoyed excellent service, it’s a great central location and has a fairly good restaurant. For the next 3 days we traipsed around London, viewing the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, we rode The London Eye, spent a day at The Tower of London, visited The London Aquarium, rode the double decker buses and saw Matilda, The Musical in the theater district.” Read more!

Rent a Canal Boat in Shropshire

One of the quintessential English experiences is messing around on the water in boats. Canals formed the backbone of Victorian England’s industrial revolution, heaving loads of coal and precious metals from quarries and mines up and down the country for export from coastal cities. They were the freeways of their day. Now, however, the waterways have become lively holiday destinations. Secluded and quiet, they’re homes for wild birds and animals attracted to the reedy banks. The traditional barges and narrow boats that would once have been heavy with raw minerals have been fully renovated and fitted out as long, narrow homes away from home — ideal for travelers looking to explore long stretches of the country in one of the most laid-back ways possible.

Shropshire, once at the heart of the iron production industry, is an ideal place to try your hand at piloting one of these gentle giants, with canals crisscrossing the beautiful, green landscape. The rental company will offer a brief tutorial, but these things are relatively simple to use. ABC Boat Hire offers a range of boats and itineraries to choose from. For a shorter-term option, rent a narrow boat for a day from Maestermyn & Welsh Lady Cruisers.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Canaling in England by Lucille T
“The narrow boat set for us was named Goldeneye, a comfortable lounge and kitchen in the front half the boat, and the back half has two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a lot of storage making our two week trip much like living at home.” Read more!

Explore a Rain Forest in Cornwall

Take a horticultural journey across the entire planet in an architectural marvel of a building, made up of several enormous geodesic domes nestling in a disused quarry. Since opening to the public in 2001, the Eden Project has been a favorite destination for visitors to England. One dome encompasses the largest artificial rain forest in the world, and stepping out of the Cornish weather (even if it’s good Cornish weather) into the sweltering tropical heat can be quite a surprise! Another dome houses plants from the Mediterranean region, while foods from corresponding parts of the world (including grubs and insects in the rain forest section) are available throughout. Visit for information.

While you’re in the neighborhood, we heartily recommend a visit to some of Cornwall’s picturesque villages. Pop into nearby St. Austell, or whiz down the coast to Marazion, where the famous castle on Saint Michael’s Mount sits just off shore.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

Pirates of Penzance (Cornwall, England) by Lisa Bond
“While in Cornwall, another must see is the eco-friendly and charitable Eden Project in St. Austell. This place is truly amazing with its massive biomes. The Eden Project works on projects worldwide about environmental, social, and economic regeneration and sustainability. But more than that, this place is really fun, the food is great, and it’s totally awe-inspiring and you will not be disappointed.” Read more!

Have a Magical Mystery Tour in Liverpool

The Beatles, along with steel and coal, may be one of the country’s biggest exports of the last century, and their musical reverberations are still being felt today. Why not go on a musical pilgrimage to Liverpool, the city where it all began, the place the Beatles met each other, grew up and played their first gigs — a place that defined their music throughout their careers? Take the “Magical Mystery Tour” and discover the very roots of contemporary pop music. Visit the legendary Cavern Club where the Beatles gained fame in the early 1960s, and soak up the rock ‘n’ roll atmosphere with a live concert. Visit Strawberry Field, the Liverpool park and home that inspired John Lennon to write the pop masterpiece of the same name, and Penny Lane, a Liverpool street that inspired another Beatles favorite. Ultimately, what’s most magical about this mystery tour is coming away with a sense of how this city inspired these young musicians.

Visit to book your tour and to investigate other events at the Cavern Club, which include regular Beatles tribute gigs and themed evenings. Liverpool has developed the Beatles Quarter, an area of the city wholly devoted to telling the Beatles’ story. There’s even a Beatles-themed hotel in Liverpool; hardcore fans should check out the Hard Days Night Hotel.

Stay in a Yurt in the New Forest

The New Forest, in England’s southeast, is a national park that was originally created in 1079 by William the First as a place he could hunt deer. It’s become an area of extreme natural beauty, with gentle downs and plains, deep pine forests to explore and rivers to follow. If you really want a nature immersion experience, why not stay in an authentic, ecologically sound yurt? The yurt is a traditional round adobe house of Mongolian origins. The ones in the New Forest are situated near the town of Christchurch, five minutes from New Forest National Park, 15 minutes from the beach and within walking distance of a fantastic local pub, the King’s Arms. See

The trails and surrounding lanes of the New Forest are lovely for cycling, horseback riding and hiking, and nearby towns such as Christchurch and Milford on Sea offer terrific pubs, shops and seaside attractions. Have a look at for information on things to do during your stay.

Go Punting in Cambridge

Punting, the art of guiding a shallow-bottomed boat along a waterway with a pole, is a very English way of enjoying the old university town of Cambridge. Punts are to Cambridge what gondolas are to Venice, having been designed for the shallow rivers and canals that flow through the city.

Many companies offer guided or chauffeured punting tours around the city’s waterways, including the Cambridge Punting Company. For the more adventurous, there are also options to rent a punt and try your hand at guiding the craft yourself. There’s definitely a knack to doing it, but visitors often learn quickly and, once you’ve picked it up, it can be quite rewarding. Cambridge Chauffeur Punts is one company that offers rentals.

The English tradition of punting usually involves a stop to eat; you can pre-order a picnic from Carluccio’s (see or moor up for a bite in a waterside pub.

Become a Medieval Knight in Warwick

Fans of England’s medieval era can go well beyond simply visiting museums and historic villages. In Warwick, a town that has been continuously inhabited since at least the sixth century, the Knights of Middle England organization offers visitors the chance to engage in the trials of a knight, and learn to joust on horseback, wield a sword and fire a longbow. Visit

In your spare time, don’t miss the charm of Warwick itself, whose town center includes examples of architecture through the ages, including buildings from the Norman conquest of England through to structures from the English Civil War. The town is replete with narrow, cobbled streets and a picturesque castle, which was built in 1068 by William the Conqueror and is still open to the public today.

Explore the Real Downton Abbey

For fans of the outrageously popular “Downton Abbey” series, a visit to Highclere Castle, which served as the family manse in the show, is a crucial pilgrimage. Located about 90 minutes from London, in the bucolic countryside of Hampshire, Highclere Castle is the country seat of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Its expansive, 1,000-acre-plus gardens were designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown and are often open to the public. It’s huge fun to pose in front of the castle (which looks, surprisingly, somewhat smaller in reality than it does on television), traverse its grand staircase, visit salons, marvel at the entrance hall, peruse a handful of bedrooms and wander through the parkland.

One thing you won’t see at Highclere is the vast basement where servants roamed; instead, the area has been transformed into a museum exhibiting the family collections, including a permanent display of Egyptian artifacts collected by the fifth Earl of Carnarvon.

We highly recommend that you plan this outing in advance; to see when the castle is open to the public, visit And while many visit Highclere as a day trip from London, there’s no better way to get a feeling for the life of the nobility than to center your visit around the town of Newbury. The castle has a gift shop and tea room, but we recommend you wander into nearby Newbury and eat at Marco Pierre White’s gastro pub, the Carnarvon Arms, itself a former coach house for Highclere Castle.

Drive a Classic Sports Car at Goodwood

Want to feel a bit like James Bond? Head to Goodwood, the ancestral home of British racing, where you can get behind the wheel of a classic British sports car. The Goodwood circuit, near Chichester in West Sussex, has been synonymous with British motor sports since the 1940s and plays host to a number of annual classic car festivals, including the Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival. Visit to pre-book your visit.

Learn How Cider Is Made in Taunton

If there’s a drink that sums up the English countryside, it’s cider — a golden, alcoholic drink derived from pressed apples. This isn’t the fizzy apple pop that’s available in supermarkets, but properly rough, well-fermented cider. Scrumpy, Perry’s, Dabinett … real ciders are taken very seriously in England as they hark back, much more than beers or wines, to a simpler time before industrial Britain. Drinking cider can be a nostalgic experience, especially in the West Country, where agriculture remains a powerful part of people’s lives and apple production is high.

A visit to the West Country isn’t complete without a visit to the orchards, farmyards and presses that make this amber drink possible. But to really understand cider, how it comes into being and its place in English culture, you’ll need to take a tour of the orchards, watch the pressing process and, of course, have a taste yourself to get the full impression! Sheppy’s Cider, a family-run cider farm near Taunton, offers visitors an insider’s view of the whole process. Visitors can see farm equipment in the museum and wander through the orchards and fields.

The West Country has lots to offer besides cider. While you’re there, visit the Roman spa town of Bath, which is famous for its maze of boutique shops and its modern spa, run on naturally warmed water from underground. Or pop into Taunton, a pretty, historic Somerset town.

Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There

England, Wales & France by Kathy Montague
“Then on to Bath for lunch at the famous Pump Room and ancient Roman bath house. Impressive to walk where the Romans did so very long ago.” Read more!

Best Time to Go to England

Summer is peak season for travel to England. Winters are chilly and damp, whereas the summer season brings pleasant temperatures and some sun (although the local weather tends to be foggy and rainy year-round). The shoulder-season months — in fall and spring — are an excellent time to find temperate weather and fewer crowds to boot. Travelers to London in particular, which gets virtually mobbed in the summer, can avoid crowds and the steepest prices of the year by planning a trip during spring, fall or even winter. But in less traveled destinations, beware. Some countryside attractions and small towns shut down during the colder months.

England on a Budget

London is one of the world’s more expensive cities, and hotels can be particularly pricey during the peak summer travel season. For an affordable London stay, try alternative accommodations — B&Bs, hostels or apartment rentals — or travel to the city during cooler months. Luckily London, a major global hub, is one of the cheapest Western European cities to fly into from North America, and public transportation within London is relatively cheap. In the British countryside, buses, known locally as coaches, are an inexpensive and easy (albeit somewhat slow) way to get from city to town and back again.

–written by Josh Thomas

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

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