Despite its unfortunate name, Cockburn Street is a lovely wee street that leads from Waverley Train Station in the New Town up into Edinburgh‘s spectacular Old Town. Much of the Old Town still follows its medieval street plan, comprised of a network of cobbled streets, narrow closes and wide avenues. Edinburgh’s Old Town is full of grander, glitz and history. Wander up to Royal Mile (High Street), marvel at the cathedrals, churches and museums, walk along grand buildings, watch street performers, duck into lively pubs and cosy cafes, before finally arriving at Edinburgh Castle, an idyllic fortification that perches on a huge crag formed by a now-extinct volcano. Alongside Edinburgh’s New Town (built in the 18th-19th century), Edinburgh’s city centre is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the most significant cultural hub of Scotland. Because of limited space and advantage of living within the defensive wall (now gone), the Old Town became home to some of the world’s earliest “high rise” buildings as early as the 16th century. Though boasting certain advantages, the tightly-packed atmosphere was vulnerable to flames, and the Old Town is marked by the Great Fire of Edinburgh of 1824, which obliterated huge portions of buildings on the south side, and their rebuilding in Victorian times led to the accidental creation of numerous passages and vaults under the Old Town. Another blight on Edinburgh was the 20th century slum clearances, when the rundown, overpopulated slums of Canongate were cleared out in the 1950s to make room for grander buildings. Despite these darker elements of Edinburgh’s past, the Edinburgh of today is a busy, lively and fun place to be.
Pro tip: Looking for a wool or tweed souvenir? Avoid the shops on High Street as unfortunately a lot of that is made in China these days. You can’t go wrong with traditional Harris Tweed, made solely on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides and with each weaver certified to the brand’s high standards.
One of the most striking ruins in the centre of England, Kenilworth Castle is one of the finest examples of a royal palace in the Middle Ages. Subject of the six-month long Siege of Kenilworth in 1266, believed to be the longest siege in English history, Kenilworth is perhaps most famous for its Elizabethan connection. Construction on the castle began in the 1100s, but it was during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that Kenilworth came into its stride. Owner Robert, Earl of Leicester, was deeply in love with Queen Elizabeth (or perhaps just her money and power) and spent thousands of pounds renovating and luxuriating the estate. He built a new garden simply because Elizabeth complained about the lack of a view. He entertained 31 barons and 400 staff from her court during her final (and longest ever) visit. He put on pageants, fireworks, bear-baiting, mystery plays, hunting and lavish banquets at the grand Kenilworth Castle. But sadly, she never married him, and he died in debt (did you expect a different ending to the story?). The story of Kenilworth Castle ended about as happily ever after as the romance of Robert and Elizabeth. Colonel Joseph Hawkesworth “slighted” or deliberately destroyed Kenilworth in the 17th century based on political affiliations. It was stripped, turned into a farm, and largely forgotten about until famous author and poet Sir Walter Scott wrote Kenilworth, immortalising the estate in Victorian literature. Today, the mostly-ruined castle is a popular tourist destination, having acquired a little of its former grandeur.
Pro tip: Kenilworth Castle is an easy day trip from Stratford-upon-Avon. Also, for literature nerds, Sir Walter Scott is not the only author inspired by the castle – check out British-Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie’s short story, ‘Foreboding,’ part of the collection, Eight Ghosts.
Southern England’s county Somerset is a great place for exploring the quintessential English countryside dotted with farms, small towns and cathedrals and abbeys such as Wells Cathedral. In 1175, the magnificent building of Wells Cathedral was constructed (though not terminated until 1490!). Dedicated to St Andrew, it is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and is among the most important cathedrals in England. Some historians say that Wells Cathedral is actually the first truly Gothic building in all of Europe – quite an impressive achievement, and enough to draw amateur historians and architecture nerds in from near and afar. On the grounds of Wells Cathedral, besides the beautiful cathedral, find also the Bishop’s Palace, a series of stunning gardens and the 15th century Vicars’ Close. Wells is a relatively small town in the rural county of Somerset, and so Wells Cathedral is not far from the lush green English countryside.
Pro tip: Wells is a great day trip from either Bath or Bristol (1 hour). From Salisbury, home to another famous cathedral, Wells is about 1h30. Wells can easily be combined with Glastonbury, a place recognised for its music festival and Arthurian legends, just 15 minutes away.
The jewel of the north, Inverness is known as the city that crowns the shores of Loch Ness, famed home to the mythically elusive monster Nessie. Despite this claim to fame, few visit the compact Scottish city, and even fewer appreciate it. The official gateway to the Scottish Highlands, the northern-ness of Inverness gives you the feeling of being at the ends of Earth’s civilisation (it’s the UK’s northernmost city). Small enough to visit in a day, Inverness is one of Europe’s fastest growing cities. It is ranked 5th out of nearly 200 British cities for best quality of life as well as Scotland’s 1st (and the UK’s 2nd) happiest city; being collectively happy seems to be a northern thing as Denmark, Sweden and Norway also often rank at the top of world lists. As you wander the streets of Inverness, there’s certain familiar British-ness (e.g. Boots, Cafe Nero, WH Smiths and Tesco’s…) but at the same time, something resoundly Scottish. Start at the majestic Leakey’s Bookshop and follow the River Ness past the ancient churches and over bouncing bridges, past the modern castle on the hill as the rivers weaves and twines its way towards the long and narrow Loch Ness. Long before you arrive, you’ll stumble across a series of long and narrow islands – the Ness Isles – a 3 mile (5k) forested loop fringed by the quiet river – a place just perfect for a stroll or a jog in the fresh air of any season! Oh and by the way, Macbeth is from here! Or rather, his real life 11th century counterpart was.
Pro tip: Inverness Train/Bus Station is in the city centre. The airport is an easy 25 minute bus ride – get bus 11A from Marks & Spenser’s. There are Loch Ness half day boat tours for those wishing to see the lake and ruins of Urquhart Castle. Looking for quick, yummy food? Try the Filling Station by the train station for hearty comfort food.
Loch Rannoch and Mount Schiehallion (Scottish Highlands), Scotland
There are some places that make you sigh happily with their perfection, tranquility, magnificence – and the Scottish Highlands certainly qualify. Narrow lakes like Loch Rannoch dot the rugged, picturesque landscape – and while overshadowed by their famous sister Loch Ness, these lochs are no less impressive (and with the added bonus of no monster lurking under their waves!). In fact, it is Rannoch’s isolation that makes it so special and authentic. Framed by the spectacular (though perhaps unpronounceable) Mount Schiehallion, this amazing corner of the Highlands definitely qualifies as paradise. Roughly translating to the “Fairy Hill of the Caledonians” (Iron Age and Roman era peoples from Scotland), Mount Schiehallion is as mysterious as it is beautiful. Sometimes described as the ‘centre of Scotland,’ there’s no doubt that Mt Schiehallion holds a magical pull to it. As eccentricities go, Schiehallion was the setting of a strange experiment to ‘estimate the mass of the Earth’ in 1774 by the interestingly-named Charles Mason (not what you’re thinking of…). The base of thinking went something like, ‘if we could measure the density and volume of Schiehallion, then we could also ascertain the density of the Earth,’ all of which led to the Cavendish Experiment two decades later, which was even more accurate. Setting aside physics and mathematics, the naturally symmetrical mountain, its peaceful lake, its quaint surrounding villages and lovely green pastures of sleepily grazing sheep all make for a beautiful landscape and unforgettable foray into Scotland’s wilder side.
Mt Schiehallion located at the centre (unlabelled Loch Rannoch is just beside it)
As mentioned before, Winchester was once the capital of England (or at least Wessex, established and ruled by the West Saxons). Though once a great fort and regal seat of power, the Winchester of today is very different. In fact, today’s Winchester is so quaint and charming that one forgets that it was once home to England’s early kings. One of the best things about all English cities is, well, the pubs. A pub, or public house, is a “house” that is licensed to sell alcohol to the general public. Pubs can be traced back to Roman taverns & inns, which organised the sale of ale to the public. Even after the Romans left, the Anglo-Saxons continued to establish regulated alehouses, usually in private homes that quickly became the focal point of the community for spreading news, gossiping, or simply meeting up with other villagers, and are often found conjoined with hotels or inns. These gave way to official (by decree) public houses, which in turn led to today’s pub. Pubs are largely distinguished from other drinking establishments for their focus on ale as the primary beverage. Today, pubs are simply decorated, with a loud, lively atmosphere. There’s usually a match on, or else there’s a pub quiz. Service is at the bar, nearly all menus are predictable (often even called ‘pub food’) and the alcohol on tap is a variety of ales. Best of all, it is in many ways the heart and soul of England.
More Cool Places to Visit in England outside London
Before London was London, England (well, technically Wessex, an ancient kingdom in southern England) was ruled from Winchester. It’s hard to imagine that this cheery, quaint town in southern England was once a major seat of power – but then again, history loves to throw us curve balls (like the fact that Brits were once ruled by Vikings, Russia was still a feudal state until well in the 18th century, Italy wasn’t Italy until the 19th century, and there are still parts of Spain where Spanish is not the most widely spoken language, etc). Originally the Roman city of Venta Belgarum, it became known in 648 as Wintan-ceastre (‘Fort Venta’ in Old English). And by the way – about the Vikings, we owe them the present layout of Winchester; good ol’ Alfred the Great rebuilt Winchester during the 9th century in order to create a better defense against the Viking invaders. Today, Winchester is a quaint city full of lively pubs and historic streets, and makes a great point of entry to visit the even older and more mysterious New Forest.
Rain, rain, go away, come again another day…Here in Lyon, now that the deluge has started, it seems determined to continue for the duration of the weekend. Therefore, it only seems fitting to post a photo of a rainy day. As everyone in the world already knows, the UK is a rainy place. What many people don’t know is that it doesn’t actually rain that much there when one looks at the accumulated inches/centimeters of rain (in fact, London and Washington, DC have similar annual accumulation). No, most of the time, the UK is just grey and drizzling. This, of course, can be frustrating, but it can also be beautiful. All of these drizzly days make for green grass and an abundance of flowers. Since there are less of them, they make you appreciate the sunny days like never before. And in some ways, you love the British Isles for their rain, because really, how can Scotland be Scotland without a few grey skies? Edinburgh, arguably the prettiest of Scotland’s main cities, seems to sparkle like a diamond after a bout of rain showers especially here on the city’s beautiful High Street. Umbrellas with fun colors and designs are as much a part of the local fashion here as coats or shoes. And really, the occasional rainy day can be fun! A rainy day means curling up with a good book and a cup of joe in a snug coffee house. It means hitting up museums and cinemas. It means watching a TV/movie marathon. It means spending two hours baking cookies or muffins. It means a fantastic excuse to have that delicious hot chocolate or fancy latte. So stop frowning, grab your umbrella, and jump in a puddle!
View of the River Avon from Halfpenny Bridge in Bath, England
The Avon. In Celtic, the word “avon” meant “river,” and as a result, there are quite a few “River Avons” in the UK. As this particular Avon (known as the “Bristol Avon” to differentiate) snakes southward through the English countryside, it finally arrives in Bath. Bath is famous not only for its Roman baths (hence the name), but also for once being home to Jane Austen (Bath must have made an impression on her as it appears in more than one of her much-loved novels). Bath is—how to put it?—posh. It is a city built on elegance, propriety, and beauty. Every one of its cobblestone streets are worn smooth and sparkling. The rows of houses that line the road—all made of Bath limestone—are stylish and elegant. The centre, with its magnificent abbey, Roman baths, and meandering High Street, is breath taking. And then of course, there’s the fine, classy buildings comprising of the Circus (two semi-circular buildings surrounding a roundabout that sports a small collection of magnificent oaks), and just next door, the famed Royal Crescent, which is—if possible!—an even grander affair. Even when you leave the center—let’s say you decide to follow the river, or better yet, you take to the beautiful Kennet and Avon Canal—you cannot escape the majesty of the rolling hills, thatched cottages, arching bridges, and stone houses that make up the English countryside. Small though the Avon may be, it will be difficult to find a more grand, more picturesque or more beautiful English river.
Ah, London, the capital of the world—the UK. It’s hard to think of a more – well, wonderful – place on this continent (even if its not actually on the continent, something the Brits constantly remind everyone else of!). Yes, often grey, often a bit rainy—but doesn’t that just make it all the more—London? London wouldn’t be London without its fog and rain! (That said, a sunny day in London is like a dream come true). In central London, we find the iconic London Eye (in the top right corner), not far from the infamous Houses of Parliament, usually the first stop on any London itinerary. This city, while expensive enough to make you cry, has so much to offer—life, culture, a little bit of everything. Looking for quaint, crumbling buildings on cobblestone streets? We’ve got it. You want crazy fun nightlife? Find it here. Looking for artsy, funky, hole-in-the-wall bars and cafes? Got that too. High culture? It’s everywhere. Fancy tea-houses? But of course. Grungy, dodgy bars? Uh huh. Some of the best museums you’ll ever see? Take your pick! The chance to see a real-life royal family? Come to London! Great shopping (if you’re into high-end shopping…)? Always. Literature, theatre, opera, ballet…? It’s here. Picnics in the lovely Hyde Park? Unbeatable! A chance to taste cuisine from literally any corner of the world? Come to London! …Plus, who doesn’t love the Union Jack?!
Battle of Somme war memorial near Stonehaven, Scotland
Standing on the top of Black Hill and dominating the cloud-streamed skyline, this is an impressive (and unexpected) war memorial erected in the middle of a relatively empty, cow-dotted field. Dedicated to the British Army’s worst day in history where over 60,000 Brits died at the Battle of Somme in a single day, this little stone memorial was placed here by citizens on the nearby town to commemorate those who were killed in battle as well as their fellow countrymen who also lost their lives. It makes for a somber moment of reflection on an otherwise joyful hike through the rugged Scottish countryside.
At 135 meters tall, this is the tallest Ferris wheel in Europe. And it is also the most visited attraction in the UK – three and a half million people ride this wheel every year! Why? Probably because they want to see one of the most beautiful views of one of the most beautiful cities! Even in the rain – in fact, the rain makes it all the more authentic – London is one of the most majestic, lively, and interesting places on Earth, and it is one of those places that you can visit over and over again and still find something new and exciting to see each and every time.