If you’re considering a visit to England for the first time, chances are you’re only thinking about London. As much as I love the capital city, for my money, I’m going out to some of the “other” British cities. And I’m not talking small villages, even though some of my favorite places on Earth are English villages. I have lots of favorites, but if you’re thinking about a first-time visit to the United Kingdom, here are my favorite four non-London England cities to visit. When we visit the U.K. we’ve always had a car, but all of these cities are accessible via train and motorcoach.
York is probably my favorite English city outside of London. There is so much history here, great pubs, a large city center that is pedestrian-only and plenty of shopping. And possibly one of my favorite things about visiting York was the drive through the beautiful Yorkshire countryside to get there. We did have a stressful situation getting there, but if you’re driving and have time, enjoy the journey.
In York, a highlight of any visit is the beautiful York Minster, one of England’s great churches. The current building was begun in 1220, and took 250 years to be completed. The Gothic church is the largest north of the Alps, and is the seat of the York bishop. It’s the second-leading Anglican church in England behind Canterbury.
York dates back to A.D. 71 when it was the northernmost city in the Roman Empire. Constantine was proclaimed emperor in York (then known as Eboracum) in A.D. 306. The city also has connections to the Vikings, and was a Danish trading center known as Jorvik from the 9th through the 11th centuries. The conquering Normans later fortified the city with a castle and the walls that still surround the city today.
Speaking of those walls, a highlight of any York visit is a walk on them, particularly from Goodramgate where all the fabulous thrift shop fines are around to Bootham Bar, one of the fourth-century Roman gates in the wall. It’s a short walk, but it gives good views around the back side of York Minster.
When we visited York, we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast inn near the Yorkshire Museum. We didn’t visit the museum, but enjoyed casual walks through the adjacent park.
There are several other museums in York, and they might be exceptional. I have no clue since we didn’t visit them. But what I do know is walking around York is such a fun experience. And I can’t complain about the multitude of pubs.
Norwich, located about a three-hour drive northeast of London (and accessible by train), doesn’t seem to be on many travelers’ radar. But Norwich has a fond place in my heart, as it was the first British city I spent time in on my first visit in 1998. My mother-in-law grew up in Norwich, so my wife has a lot of family in the East Anglia city. And I’m sure that plays a role in my fondness. But being in the heart of Norfolk makes Norwich a great base for a few days, especially if you want to experience great coastal communities, the beautiful Broads or some of those great English villages.
What would I suggest doing in Norwich? As in any European city, you can’t go wrong just walking around the historic city center. I’ve spent more than a month collectively spread over three trips in 1998, 2005, and 2012 in Norwich, and my favorite activity is walking the city, particularly the Riverside Walk along the River Wensum.
Norwich has a Castle Museum that children will particularly love, a unique market where I’ve bought everything from Nick Hornby novels for mere pence to a beautiful plate for my mom, and beautiful Elm Hill, an old cobblestone street with quaint shops.
But not to be outdone is the spire seen from all around the city: Norwich Cathedral. We love Norwich Cathedral. My wife’s grandfather did some construction work on this massive church many years ago.
And if spending a day or two in Norwich, consider going out to Cromer or Great Yarmouth to enjoy the North Sea, or take a boat ride through the Broads.
Bath is a beautiful city that is an easy train ride west of London. It’s close enough for a day trip from London but really should be experienced overnight. The city is filled with beautiful B&Bs. And if you have any interest in visiting Stonehenge, there are many tours that depart from Bath and only take up a few hours of your time.
Like York, Bath has a Roman connection with its ancient Roman Baths. Sure, they’re well known, but what makes the city worth a visit to me is the beautiful architecture of the city’s buildings, most of which was built in the 1700s. I found the easiest way to see the city was from the top of a double-decker tour bus. It’s the only city I’ve ever done a hop-on hop-off tour bus, and it was a great way to see the city’s sights, from the Avon River to the Royal Crescent and the Circus.
And if you’re a Jane Austen fan, you might enjoy visiting the Jane Austen Centre, which focuses on the author’s time in Bath. I read her novel “Northanger Abbey” before our visit to get a feel for the city.
Speaking of day trips from London and cities connected to great British authors, Stratford-Upon-Avon is one of the best and easiest to get to. We drove from London to Stratford late on a Friday morning, saw the city’s highlights, and were back in London by 5 p.m. to beat the traffic. It would have been nice to stay longer, maybe even spend a night in town to see a Shakespeare play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Co., but all the Shakespeare-related highlights can be seen in a few hours. And if you have time, nearby in Warwick is what is possibly the country’s finest medieval castle, Warwick Castle. But I haven’t been there, so I’ll just stick to Stratford.
You can purchase a combo ticket from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust that gives entry to the Shakespeare Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and Nash’s House (there is a combo ticket that includes the two sights outside of Stratford). The Shakespeare Birthplace is a good place to get an overview of the Bard’s work in the museum that is attached to the birthplace home. Hall’s Croft was the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, and Nash’s House is adjacent to what was Shakespeare’s retirement home.
A short walk from the city center is the beautiful Holy Trinity Church, sight of Shakespeare’s grave.
After visiting the church we strolled the River Avon and enjoyed the town’s shops and a pub.
I love London. My favorite football team plays there (Tottenham). I proposed to my wife there. We have dear family in the city. But I’d rather spend my time in England in its smaller cities, where a pint is more affordable, the Yorkshire pudding seems more traditional, and the pubs feel like home.