While you can’t possibly run out of things to do in London, it’s always nice to get out into the English countryside. University towns, seaside resorts, castles and ancient monuments are all within easy reach of the capital. Here are the best day trips under two hours from London – so hire a car or hop a train or bus to add an extra dimension to your London visit.
Follow generations of notable Cambridge University scholars – think King George VI, Charles Darwin, Douglas Adams and Tilda Swinton – and walk the halls and byways of its 31 stunning colleges (don’t miss the famous Kings College). Make like many a student and try your hand at punting on the River Cam, which runs through the town. Also take time to enjoy Cambridge’s bustling market square, glorious botanical gardens and its wealth of museums and galleries. Stop in at the iconic Fitzbillies for a traditional afternoon tea.
Getting there: 1.5 hours’ drive; or 50 minutes northeast of London by train.
If, like me, your impression of Brighton has been coloured by the sinister Graham Greene novel Brighton Rock, have no fear. These days the bohemian seaside town south of London offers awesome nightlife and the UK’s biggest gay scene, not to mention the extravagant Royal Pavilion (there’s ice skating out the front at Christmas), and the neon-lit Brighton Pier. Wander The Lanes to browse vintage clothing, antiques and cute cafes; have fish and chips on the pebbled beach; and grab a stick of Brighton Rock candy for the trip back to London.
Getting there: 1.5 hours’ drive; less than one hour on the train.
Oxford is home to Britain’s oldest university, which has provided settings for the Harry Potter films, including standing in for Hogwarts Library (the university’s venerable Bodleian Library). But my favourite aspect of this city northwest of London is its museums, including the lovely Ashmolean Museum, which is showing the exhibition Power & Protection: Islamic Art & The Supernatural until January 15; and the curious Pitt Rivers Museum, which has in its collection a silver bottle said to contain a witch. You can also go punting here, along the River Cherwell.
Getting there: 1.5 hours’ drive, rail or bus.
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While London city has impressive royal abodes, a trip west to riverside Windsor will take you to the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world, and the Queen’s weekend retreat. It has been home to monarchs for nearly 1,000 years, and houses spectacular treasures across its five hectares, including quite a few baubles from the Royal Collection. You can also visit Eton College, where princes William and Harry went to school, and visit the LEGOLAND theme park.
Getting there: 35 minutes to 1 hour’s drive; half an hour on the train.
Its purpose has baffled archaeologists and historians, and its construction in the Stone Age remains a mystery, but Stonehenge has inspired many a myth and legend. My favourite theory is that the monolith, which sits in a field near Salisbury, was in fact a giant musical instrument. Take the train to the medieval market town of Salisbury, which is worth a visit in itself – particularly the famed cathedral – and then take a bus to Stonehenge. At Stonehenge, check out the visitor centre and its exhibitions, then walk or catch the shuttle to the stone circle.
Time: About two hours’ drive; or two hours by rail and bus.
If you’ve always wanted to experience a true English maze, head to the lovely Leeds Castle in Kent. The circular maze in the castle’s grounds is made of 2,400 yew trees and mirrors the shape of a Queen’s crown. Once a Norman stronghold, Leeds Castle has provided a roof over the heads of medieval queens, King Henry VIII, Jacobean and Georgian nobles and more. It also has a somewhat unusual collection of dog collars, dating back to the 15th century, including a Spanish iron herd mastiff’s collar, which would have been helpful warding off wolves and bears.
Time: Just over an hour’s drive.
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