In keeping with the country’s famous practicality, what’s impressive about England’s ancient sites is how many of them are still in use. The historic cities and open landscapes that lie outside the capital are home to a unique blend of history and charm, with castles and colleges that have been around for a millennium, resorts that go back to the Romans, and one of the oldest holy sites in the world. If you want a change of pace from the things to do in London, then you’ve got plenty of options.
- Oxford. Nothing captures the quintessentially English brand of carefully restrained pretension like the City of Dreaming Spires. Famed for its scholars, museums, and the serial comma, Oxford has been giving English academics something to argue about for almost a thousand years, and you can feel more sophisticated just by walking the streets that host the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Find buildings that went up before the Norman invasion, pay a visit to the world’s oldest public museum, and check out the Headington Shark while you’re in the neighborhood. If you’re in the mood to go back to school, Sandeman’s New Europe can show you around the town’s most famous colleges, plus organize an easy train ride from London.
- Windsor Castle. The Queen’s favorite weekend home has been a royal retreat since the reign of Henry I and a fixture along the Thames since William the Conqueror’s day. So, you could say there’s a few things to see. The complex got expanded in phases over about 800 years, so you get a whole history of English architecture while you explore the immaculate grounds. It’s not completely open to the public, what with the royals and all, but a guide from Premium Tours can break down all the history as you see the sights, from the Queen’s Guards at the castle gate to the Round Tower and St. George’s Chapel.
- Stonehenge. For every historic site the English are still using, there’s one so ancient that no one quite remembers what they even made it for. The ring of giant standing stones, older than the pyramids of Giza, wait in the middle of an open field to remind you just how far back the civilization here goes. The team from Evan Evans Tours can get you there by midmorning, when you can see how the sun and shadow play into its design while you admire some of the Bronze Age’s best engineering, along with some of the world’s oldest graffiti.
- Bath. For some slightly less ancient history, you can head a bit farther west to the natural hot springs along the River Avon. Everybody loves a good spa town, so a visit to Bath shows off nearly 2,000 years worth of resorts, from the Roman-era spa baths that gave the city its name to the 18th-century Cross Bath and the modern Thermae Bath Spa, which combine the same mineral-rich waters with modern public health standards. You can sign up with a guide from Viplondontour if you want to make a day of it, check out the Georgian-era homes and churches, and see all the Doric and Ionic columns you could ever need.
- The Cotswolds. There was a time when England was a just collection of tiny, peaceful villages scattered over green, grassy hills. And if you head out into the Cotswolds, that time is now. Take a stroll through the countryside of rolling hills, stone-built houses, and single-lane roads where it feels like the Industrial Revolution was somebody else’s business. A trip with International Friends can show off the scenery along with a stop at Shakespeare’s old home amid the grand Gothic churches at Stratford-upon-Avon.
- The Lake District. If you want to get even further from the city life, head up to North West England for a day at the Lakes. All the tallest mountains in the country are collected in the highlands of Cumbria, along with the longest, deepest waterways this side of Hadrian’s Wall. Take a ride with Golden Tours to see the landscape where Beatrix Potter got her love for nature and wildlife, sip on fine English tea, and get to know the ways the countryside still shapes the country’s identity just as much as all the things to do in London.
What’s your favorite way to get in touch with England’s history?