The United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland (proper full name) is composed of four individual countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. With each country having their own history, traditions and even language, there is so much to see in the UK that it could take a lifetime to explore every corner. Although I tried traveling as much as I could during my two years living in London (2013-2015), I barely got to scratch the surface of what the United Kingdom is all about. I did get the opportunity to see some really cool places though!
The largest landmass of the United Kingdom belongs to England, home to London, the nation’s capital. Most of my travels over 2013-2015 were confined to England itself.
If you read my blog often, or if you’ve talked to me any time after 2013, you’ll know that my heart belongs to London. Living in this amazing capital was an incredible experience I will never forget, and as a visitor, you’ll never run out of things to do. London is home to some of the world’s best museums, beautiful parks and squares, and stunning architecture spanning many eras. The city also has a fantastic food and drinks scene, from street food, to pub grub, to fine dining, that is unmatched anywhere else in the UK.
Top tip: skip brunch and check out one of London’s amazing food markets instead!
To me, Oxford is the most beautiful city in the UK. Walking down the streets of the city centre I always feel like I am in a movie, with beautiful buildings popping up no matter where you look. Oxford is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and visitors can check out many of the colleges in the city, most of which have fantastic libraries, dining halls and gardens. Oxford is also home to multiple museums and even a medieval castle!
Top tip: Harry Potter fans must visit Christ Church to see the inspiration for the Hogwarts Dining Hall, as well as the Bodleian Library to see some HP film locations.
Despite being small enough to cover on foot, Manchester is full of fantastic areas brimming with energy. The once-gritty Northern Quarter has many cool cafés and boutique shops, Canal Street is home to one of the UK’s most vibrant gay scenes, and the former red brick warehouses iconic of the city have now been repurposed as residential, commercial, and office space. The centrepiece of the city is the gorgeous Gothic-style Town Hall (1877) on Albert Square, one of the nation’s most important Victorian buildings.
Top tip: Visit the Town Hall – it’s as beautiful inside as it is outside. All you need to do is ask at the front door for permission to enter.
Another one of England’s University towns, York is famous for retaining many aspects of its medieval past. People are able to walk along the medieval walls which still surround large parts of the old town, and The Shambles, a street with overhanging, timber-framed buildings which date back to the 14th Century, is one of the city’s main attractions. Other attractions in the city include York Minster (1472) and the York Castle (1069), as well as York’s scenic riverside.
Top tip: Grab a beer at the Kings Arms, an iconic riverside pub known for flooding every few years during storm season.
After mass destruction during WWII bombings, many parts of the city were replaced with unsightly concrete blocks. Later on in the 1980’s, the city slid into a recession and crime in the city centre became rampant. Today though, Birmingham is going through a major revival; the 1800s canals and the surviving historic buildings have been restored, and impressive modern architecture has been added, such as the Mailbox, the Cube, the Birmingham Library, the new railway station’s facade, and the redeveloped 1100s Bullring shopping centre. Funky restaurants and bars have also opened up all over the city centre, the gay village and the Jewellery Quarter.
Top tip: Check out the views from the 3rd and 7th story garden terraces of the Birmingham Library.
The medieval city that gave rise to the legend of Robin Hood makes for an interesting visit while in the UK. The Old Market Square, England’s largest square, is the heart of the town and brimming with energy. The Nottingham Castle is not great, but outside the castle’s walls you’ll find a few cool statues depicting Robin Hood characters. Nottingham is also home to some unique pubs, including the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, built into a cave and allegedly England’s oldest running pub; the Canalhouse, with an actual canal running through it; and the beautiful Pitcher & Piano, built inside a revitalized church!
Top tip: Did anyone say pub-crawl? Check out Nottingham’s unique pubs!
Another one of my favourite places in the UK is beautiful Bristol, a city full of pretty architecture, colourful street art, and some of the friendliest people in the nation. For sightseeing, Bristol has a lot to offer, including the (free) climb up Cabot Tower for beautiful views over the city, the Natural History Museum and the Arnolfini gallery, as well as the Bristol Cathedral. There are also beautiful buildings worth checking out, such as the stunning Temple Meads railway station, the City Hall and the eerie ruins of St Peter’s church in Castle Park.
Top tip: Check out the street art, which can be found all over the city – you’ll even spot a few Banksy murals.
A Roman Empire-era town famous for its hot springs, Bath is a stunning little city which has been designated as a World Heritage Site. The main highlight of Bath is a visit to the Roman baths, built over the years 60 – 300 AD and beautifully preserved to this day, or a visit to the modern-age Thermae Bath Spa for a first-hand experience of the hot springs. Other points of interest include the striking Gothic-style Bath Abbey, the Royal Crescent terrace houses, and the Fashion Museum with its collection of British fashions over the centuries.
Top tip: Admire the views from the outdoor rooftop hot pool of the Thermae Bath Spa.
The prehistoric site of Stonehenge is one of England’s most famous tourist attractions. I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed with Stonehenge, as it was much smaller and less spectacular than I imagined; yet, I can appreciate the history behind the site – it is over 3,000 years old after all! During my visit, I was lucky to have stormy skies but no rain, which made Stonehenge seem very dramatic with a backdrop of grey skies.
Top tip: Listen to the audio guide; Stonehenge is a lot more interesting if you know the history behind it.
During my time in England I got to visit the pretty seaside town of Brighton a few times, and really got to like it. The rock-pebble beaches of Brighton are very pretty despite the lack of sand, and the city has some great bars worth checking out, including many LGBT and gay-friendly pubs. Things worth checking out include the iconic Royal Pavilion, a building that seems out-of-place in the UK, and the old-school fair built on the city’s historic pier.
Top tip: The Lanes area has some great boutique shops and cafés, and a load of graffiti murals worth checking out.
Windsor & Eton
I had the opportunity to visit the twin towns of Windsor & Eaton with Eamonn, my mom and my Aunt in June 2015, and we all loved it. The fairytale town of Windsor comes complete with the famous Windsor Castle, the longest-occupied castle in the world (being an official residence of the British Royal family since the year 1110). Across the Thames, the town of Eton is home to one of the UK’s most prestigious colleges and also has some typical British architecture worth noting. The towns have many cute pubs so you can grab a beer and a meal after enjoying the sightseeing.
Top tip: You can visit easily as a day trip from London’s Waterloo Station.
Made famous by Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (first published in 1475), Canterbury is a pretty Cathedral city and UNESCO World Heritage Site that took me back in time. Full of pretty historic buildings like the Canterbury Castle ruins, the Canterbury Cathedral, and St. Augustine’s Abbey, this is definitely one of the most scenic towns I visited in the nation. Aside from the landmarks, you can get a better sense for Canterbury’s history by walking down Butchery Lane (the main pedestrian shopping street), grabbing a pub meal at the Buttermarket (the main square) or checking out the medieval city walls.
Top tip: Visit the Canterbury Cathedral – the entrance fee is worth every penny.
North of England, Scotland covers the remaining northern part of the main island of Great Britain; home to Scotch (whisky), beautiful fairytale landscapes and one of my favourite accents, my short visit to Scotland was full of great memories.
I visited Glasgow to catch up with two good friends – one who lives there, and another one who visited with me, so I also got the opportunity to get a glimpse into the every day life of the city… and eat at some great restaurants along the way! While much of my visit was occupied visiting pubs to watch the rugby (in true Scottish style), I also got to walk around many areas of the city, visit the Glasgow Botanic Gardens (even though it was freezing during my late Autumn 2013 visit!), ride the Clockwork Orange subway system, see the traffic cone-clad Duke of Wellington equestrian statue, visit the stunning Hogwarts-esque University of Glasgow, and enjoy the winter festival and Christmas markets at George Square.
Top tip: Look up haggis pakoras in local pubs, which combine the Scottish and Indian delicacies and are to die for!
A quick ride away from Glasgow is Loch Lomond, a national park surrounding Great Britain’s largest inland body of water. Loch Lomond is beautiful; during my visit in November 2013, Autumn’s orange leaves and thick fog gave Loch Lomond an air of mysticism that looked out of a fairytale. The loch is popular year round for Glaswegians due to the closeness to Glasgow, but during my visit it was virtually empty for my friends and I, which made it even more mystical!
Top tip: If visiting on a rainy day, stop by the Balloch House pub on your way out to warm up over a meal and the pub’s fireplace and cozy setting.
The last bit of the island of Great Britain, West of England, is occupied by Wales, a small country with a big heart. I’ve only got to visit Cardiff so far, but I’ve been lucky to make some great Welsh friends and can tell you Wales is probably the friendliest of the British countries!
The capital city of Wales is really cool; I’ve been lucky to visit twice and really enjoyed my time there! The city is home to Europe’s largest waterfront development, Cardiff Bay, a revitalized dockland that is not only full of history but is also very beautiful. The Bay has some great waterfront restaurants and is also home to many of the city’s attractions, including the Doctor Who Experience, the historic Pierhead Building (1897),the Senedd (senate building, 2006), and the Wales Millennium Centre (2009) which is home to the Welsh Opera. The centre of town has lively shopping streets as well as more historic sites, such as the National Museum of Wales (1915) and the 11th Century Cardiff Castle.
Top tip: Visit the Doctor Who Experience if you’re a fan of the sci-fi show… it’s great!
The fourth country that forms the UK is Northern Ireland, the only country of the UK that isn’t part of Britain, located on the northern end of Ireland. Northern Ireland is green and rustic and unapologetically Irish – and I like it that way.
The capital of Northern Ireland is small, but I’ve really enjoyed my visits there… even though I still haven’t done most of the “must-do” touristy things! Belfast is petty and vibrant, and has many great restaurants and bars. Art can be found all over the city, in the form of beautiful sculptures on the main streets and colourful graffiti murals in the back lanes. Next time I visit Belfast I’m determined to do the two main attractions of the city: take a black cab tour, and visiting the Titanic Experience.
Top tip: Have a memorable meal at Ox Cave, one of Belfast’s first Michelin-starred restaurants.