Although I love travelling the world, there’s no place like home, and I’ve been trying to get out and explore as much of my own country as I do others. For a small place, Britain really packs a lot in. Within a few hours you can go from world-class cities to quaint country villages, from historic towns to wild stretches of coastline. So if you’re looking for inspiration for your next British weekend break, look no further. Picking just ten has to be one of my biggest blogging challenges so far (part two is already in the pipeline), but here are ten of my favourite, tried-and-tested Great British weekend break destinations (and if you want to download the itineraries for later, there’s a link to a PDF version at the end of the post).
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Why visit? ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’ Samuel Johnson got it right – London’s a hard place to get bored. From museums and Michelin-starred dining to street art and hipster cafés, there’s a London to suit you.
SEE & DO: London’s free museums are the city’s best bargain – head to South Kensington for Science, Natural History and the V&A, Bloomsbury for the British Museum’s treasures from around the world or Greenwich for the National Maritime Museum. Take a walk along South Bank past famous landmarks from the Houses of Parliament and London Eye to Tate Modern and Tower Bridge. Or get on board a Thames Clipper commuter boat for a bargain river cruise. If the sun’s shining, head to Hyde Park for boating on the Serpentine or picnic on Primrose Hill for great views. There are plenty of places to find that perfect panorama, from the Shard to the Sky Garden, an indoor garden at the top of a City skyscraper.
EAT & DRINK: Taste your way around the UK and beyond at London’s foodie markets – Borough is the best-known but there’s also Broadway in the east or Brockley Market in the south. London has turned afternoon tea into an art form, and the Ritz is the classic tea-lovers’ destination, but Claridges and Fortnum & Mason are just as decadent and delicious. And how about dinner with a view over the city at one of London’s high-rise restaurants, like Aqua or Hutong at the Shard or Duck and Waffle next to the Gherkin?
THE DETAILS: London has thousands of hotels (and I’m still getting over the shock of the cost now I don’t live there any more) – a few of my favourites are the Z Hotels, Nadler and Point A hotels, all with good locations and reasonable prices. London’s a huge transport hub, with major airports at Heathrow, Gatwick, City, Stanstead and Luton. There’s also the Eurostar to Paris and train links all across the UK.
Read more: Visiting London on a budget
Why visit? With punts on the river, honey-coloured buildings, ornate bridges and streams of students on bikes, Cambridge is where period drama fantasies come to life. Live the student dream on campus – if only for the weekend.
SEE & DO: The university is the heart of Cambridge, and many of the 31 colleges spread around the city are open to visitors. The most famous three are King’s, Trinity and St John’s – King’s for its Gothic chapel and choir, Trinity for the Wren Library and St John’s for the Bridge of Sighs. But it’s well worth exploring some of the smaller colleges too. You can also discover art and antiquities from around the world at the Fitzwilliam Museum and get a bird’s eye view of the city from Great St Mary’s Church tower. Punting is a Cambridge must too, a relaxing way to see the college gardens and bridges – you can either hire your own or get someone else to do the hard work for you on a guided tour, often led by current or past students.
EAT & DRINK: Dine at Cambridge’s oldest restaurant, Varsity, for tasty British classics or stop off at the Michaelhouse Café for a soup and sandwich lunch in a converted medieval church. You can also follow in the footsteps of scientists Crick and Watson, who announced they’d discovered DNA at the bar of The Eagle pub on Benet Street. Or drop into Fitzbillies for afternoon tea, a café opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum that’s famous for its sticky, cinnamony Chelsea Buns – a favourite with students for decades.
THE DETAILS: The Varsity is Cambridge’s most stylish spot, a boutique hotel set alongside the River Cam with a wow-factor roof terrace looking out over the college rooftops. Or you can get a taste of student life with a B&B stay in college buildings through University Rooms. Cambridge is around an hour by train from London, and if you’re flying the nearest airport is London Stanstead, 30 minutes away by train.
Read more: A weekend in Cambridge
3. The Cotswolds
Why visit? A contender for Britain’s prettiest region, the Cotswolds are postcard-perfect England. Hunt down your fantasy country house, explore gorgeous gardens, and eat and drink your way around the delicious local food producers.
SEE & DO: The Cotswolds is a beauty parade – and if you’re looking for the most picturesque villages, head to Bibury, Bourton-on-the-Water, Stanton, Kingham and the wonderfully named Upper and Lower Slaughter. Explore castles and country houses at Sudeley Castle and Blenheim Palace, or take a walk through Painswick Rococo Gardens or Cotswolds Lavender’s springtime fields of fragrant purple. Get out among the unspoilt Cotswold countryside by walking a stretch of the Cotswold Way – a 100-mile walking route from Chipping Campden to Bath, with fantastic views from Cleeve Hill, Crickley Park and the Broadway Tower. Or take the easier route on board the recently extended Gloucestershire–Warwickshire steam railway.
EAT & DRINK: The Cotswolds is an unexpected hotspot for foodies, and you can find some of the best local produce at Stroud farmers’ market each Saturday, one of the best and most popular markets in the UK. The area is also the spiritual home of the cosy country pub – the Wild Duck in Ewen and the Green Dragon in Cowley are just a couple of my favourites. There are some great restaurants in Cheltenham too, from the Daffodil in an Art Deco former cinema to sushi-free Japanese from a Masterchef finalist at Koj.
THE DETAILS: Traditional Cotswold stone pub meets contemporary style at The Old Stocks Inn in Stow-on-the-Wold. Or go grand at Cowley Manor, a luxurious country house and spa surrounded by gardens. It’s easiest to get around the Cotswolds by car, but there are buses and train stations at Cheltenham, Oxford and Moreton-in-Marsh. The nearest airports are in Bristol or Birmingham, both around an hour away.
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Why visit? Bristol’s the southwest’s coolest city, mixing a historic harbourside with a quirky, alternative feel. Packed with street art and a hub for independent shops, bars and restaurants – no wonder it’s been voted the UK’s most livable city.
SEE & DO: Take a bike tour around the harbour with Cycle the City for a peek into Bristol’s industrial past, then find out more at MShed, a free museum surrounded by old cranes which tells the story of Bristol. Walk past some of Bristol’s most colourful buildings on your way to the SS Great Britain, Brunel’s historic ship which was once the world’s longest passenger ship. Go Banksy spotting on a street art tour through Stokes Croft. Or head to upscale Clifton Village, a smart neighbourhood full of boutique shops and restaurants. Visit Bristol’s most famous landmark, the 76-metre-high Clifton Suspension Bridge – best seen on a sunset hot air balloon ride. Or take a dip and relax in the spa on a summer’s day at the 1850s Clifton Lido.
EAT & DRINK: Bristol is all about the independents, so it’s a great place to try something new. Head to St Nicholas Market, the oldest in the city, for a wide range of food stalls from Caribbean to Middle Eastern. Or try Cargo at the recently redeveloped Wapping Wharf, with restaurants in converted shipping containers. Bristol’s the heart of cider country so don’t miss a tasting at Bristol Cider Shop as well as tasty burgers at Pigsty. Riverstation is another favourite, with classic European dishes on the waterfront.
THE DETAILS: The Berkeley Suites in Clifton is halfway between hotel and apartment, with suites with mini kitchens as well as access to the Berkeley Square Hotel’s facilities. Or for something a bit more unusual, how about a vintage Airstream-style caravan? Brooks Guesthouse has three on its roof, with en-suites and fab city views. Bristol Temple Meads, the city’s main station, is around 90 minutes by train from London. Bristol also has an international airport, which is around 30 minutes away on the Airport Flyer bus.
5. St Ives
Why visit? A seaside town with an arty side, St Ives is well worth a weekend trek down to the far reaches of Cornwall for its golden sand beaches, pretty harbour, world-class galleries – and of course those tasty Cornish pasties.
SEE & DO: St Ives is surrounded by a string of sandy beaches – try Porthmeor for surfing, Porthminster for swimming and sandcastles, or the Harbour beach for families. Or follow the South West Coast Path out of town in either direction and find your own perfect stretch of sand. St Ives is Cornwall’s artistic hub, with an outpost of London’s Tate Gallery as well as the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, Bernard Leach Pottery and lots of small independent galleries. Explore narrow streets full of cafés and unusual shops, tucked in between cute whitewashed cottages. Or if you’re visiting in September, the whole town is taken over for two weeks of music, arts and literature for the St Ives Festival, with events, exhibitions and open studios.
EAT & DRINK: St Ives knows how to do a good beach café, and both the Porthmeor and Porthminster Beach Cafés combine delicious food with a perfect position right on the sand – a glass of rosé and a plate of tapas there and I’m in heaven. As you’d expect from its location, St Ives is a great place for seafood too – try the Porthminster Kitchen or the Sea Food Café, where you choose your own fish and how you want it cooked. And of course you can’t leave Cornwall without having at least one Cornish pasty and cream tea.
THE DETAILS: I stayed at the Organic Panda B&B, a Victorian house overlooking the bay which is now a six-bed holiday rental. Also recommended is the Pedn Olva Hotel on the edge of Porthminster beach with its outdoor pool and terrace for soaking up the sea views. St Ives is 5.5 hours by train from London – or there’s also the overnight Night Riviera sleeper train. The nearest airport is in Newquay, 36 miles away.
Why visit? Over the last decade Europe’s youngest capital has been polished into a Welsh gem. Cardiff might be small, but it packs a lot in, with a bit of something for everyone – from history and culture to sport, food and nightlife.
SEE & DO: Take a guided tour around Cardiff’s most famous building, its city centre castle. It’s been everything from a Roman fort to a WWII bomb shelter over the years so it has plenty of stories to tell. Explore the nearby Victorian shopping arcades and take a walk around the art and natural history galleries at the National Museum of Cardiff. Just out of the city centre, Cardiff Bay is where its old industrial docklands have been restored and redeveloped. Now it’s a real mix of old and new, home to the Senedd (Wales’ parliament building) plus the Millennium cultural centre, red-brick Pierhead building and wooden Norwegian Church – plus a few locations which might look familiar if you’re a Doctor Who fan.
EAT & DRINK: Wales is the source of some of Britain’s tastiest produce, and it’s shown off to its best in Cardiff’s restaurants. There’s the Potted Pig for modern British dishes using local ingredients (as well as a pretty epic gin list). Or for something more unusual, Clink Restaurant is staffed by prisoners who’re working towards food qualifications. Cheese lovers don’t miss Madame Fromage, who sell heavenly local cheese platters, and you can’t visit Cardiff without stocking up at Fabulous Welshcakes in the Bay.
THE DETAILS: Cathedral 73 is a boutique B&B a short walk into town. It’s set in a historic building but has lots of quirky modern touches (and a private butler and Rolls Royce if you’re feeling flashy). Cardiff is around two hours by train from London. It also has an international airport, which is connected to the city by a bus service (40 minutes) or a shuttle to nearby Rhoose station, 30 minutes by train from Cardiff Central.
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Why visit? On the border between England and Wales, Chester has been pulling in visitors since the Romans. As well its historic side it’s the perfect place to celebrate the finer things in life, from designer shopping to a day at the races.
SEE & DO: Head back in time to Roman Chester (aka Deva Victrix) with a walk around the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre and Roman Baths. Follow the old city walls for an overview of the city. Look out for the Eastgate Clock along the way, an ornate clock on a bridge overlooking the main street that’s a perfect photo vantage point. Do a bit of shopping at The Rows, Chester’s unique take on a medieval shopping mall with two layers of black and white shops stacked on top of each other. Take to the water with a boat trip along the River Dee or a walk along the Shropshire Union Canal, lined with narrowboats and red brick mill buildings. Or meet the locals at Chester Zoo, one of the UK’s largest zoos with a focus on conservation.
EAT & DRINK: Steak lovers should head to Upstairs at the Grill, a New York-style steakhouse that specialises in dry-aged local meat. Or try tapas and Spanish sherries at Porta under the Northgate Bridge. Ginger wine bar and deli is a great place to refuel with a sharing platter and a glass of wine. And finish off a walk along the canal with lunch at Artichoke, a waterside former mill with a Mediterranean-inspired menu.
THE DETAILS: The modern apartment-style Roomzzz Chester City is right by the racecourse and comes with mini kitchenettes and a takeaway breakfast. Or go old-school glam at the Grosvenor, where doormen in top hats welcome you into a lobby decorated with sparkling chandeliers. Chester is around two hours by train from London, or the nearest airports are in Liverpool and Manchester, both 1.5 hours by train.
Read more: A weekend in Chester
8. The Lake District
Why visit? The gorgeously green Lake District is one of Britain’s top destinations for walkers, with a stunning rural landscapes of tarns, fells and forests that’s inspired writers all the way from William Wordsworth to Beatrix Potter.
SEE & DO: The Lake District covers a huge 912 square miles, so choose a section to focus on. It’s paradise for hikers, with walks varying from the gentle to the extreme. Ease yourself in with the 45-minute walk up Orrest Head Fell for fantastic views over Lake Windermere. Or tackle the peaks of Helvellyn and Scafell Pike. You can’t visit the Lakes without getting out on the water, so take a boat trip from Ambleside to Bowness-on-Windermere or hire a rowing boat and do it yourself. Explore picturesque Lakeland villages like Grasmere, Keswick and Cartmel. And if the British weather’s not playing ball, there’s the World of Beatrix Potter, her house at Hill Top and Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage to visit, plus plenty of pubs to warm up in.
EAT & DRINK: The Lake District is full of country pubs serving fresh local produce. Try the Black Bull in Coniston, Punchbowl in Crosthwaite and Drunken Duck in Ambleside. It’s not all pub food though, there’s also Michelin-starred L’Enclume – voted one of Britain’s best restaurants. And don’t miss the Lakes’ sweet treats, from Grasmere Gingerbread and Cartmel Sticky Toffee Pudding to Kendel Mint Cake.
THE DETAILS: Wheatlands Lodge in Windermere is a period property that’s perfect for a romantic break. Or bag a bargain at the recently refurbished Keswick YHA, with a mix of dorms and private rooms, some with balconies. It’s easiest to get around the Lakes by car, but there are three main train stations at Carlisle, Penrith and Oxenholme (2.5–3.5 hours each from London), with branch lines on to Kendal and Windermere. The nearest airports are Manchester and Leeds Bradford, both around 2 hours away by car or train.
Why visit? From the Vikings to the Victorians, York is a history textbook come to life – and it’s a beautiful one too, with cobbled streets, cosy tea rooms, museums and minsters to explore. Even the ghosts can’t seem to stay away.
SEE & DO: A walk around the Roman city walls takes you on a two-mile circuit of York’s historic heart, with plenty of pretty views along the way. York Minister is one of Europe’s largest Gothic cathedrals and towers over the city centre. Check out its stained glass windows and undercroft, and climb up the spiral staircase to the top of the bell tower for a panoramic view over the city. York has some great museums, from the Castle Museum (one of my favourites with its Victorian Street and random mix of exhibits) and train-lovers’ heaven at the National Railway Museum to a trip back in time at the Jorvik Viking Centre. The city’s also known for its haunting history, so don’t miss one of the nightly ghost tours for tales of spooks and spectres.
EAT & DRINK: Go British at fine-dining favourite Melton’s, with a menu featuring local Yorkshire produce, or French at Rustique for tasty bistro dishes. Betty’s Café might be a York afternoon tea institution, but I don’t think it can compete with tea on board vintage train carriage the Countess of York. And pop in for a drink at the Roman Bath, probably the only pub with an authentic Roman bathhouse in its basement.
THE DETAILS: See York in style at Marmadukes Town House Hotel, a Victorian gentleman’s residence turned hotel with antique furniture and roll-top baths in the leafy area of Bootham. Or if you’re on a budget, The Fort is a stylish boutique hostel right in the city centre with a mix of dorms and private rooms. York is around two hours by train from London, or the nearest airport is Leeds Bradford, 30 miles away.
Read more: A weekend in York
Why visit? From Hogmanay to the Fringe festival, the Scottish capital knows how to throw a party, and a city packed with as much history, culture and charm as Edinburgh is well worth celebrating at any time of year.
SEE & DO: Take a wander down the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s most famous street, past buskers and bagpipers. At one end you’ll find its 7th-century castle, towering over the city from the top of an extinct volcano. And at the other there’s the grand Palace of Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s residence in Scotland. Edinburgh’s volcanic hills make great viewpoints – catch sunset at Calton Hill or climb to the top for the top of Arthur’s Seat for views stretching for 60 miles. Explore Edinburgh’s weird and wonderful history at the National Museum of Scotland and the underground streets of Mary King’s Close. Or head out of the city centre to the Georgian New Town with its pretty mews houses and leafy walk along the Water of Leith.
EAT & DRINK: Visit the teeny Gardener’s Cottage at the base of Calton Hill for seasonal food with produce straight from the garden outside. Or head out to Stockbridge for tasty upscale Thai dishes at Nok’s Kitchen and award-winning gastropub food at the Scran and Scallie. Edinburgh has stacks of great bars too – the Whiski Rooms, vintage speakeasy style Bryant and Mack and Heads & Tales gin bar are just a few of my favourites. And Harry Potter fans won’t want to miss The Elephant House café, JK Rowling’s old haunt.
THE DETAILS: I stay with my sister in Stockbridge and there are tons of local AirBnBs – it’s a great area to be based in, with lots of places to eat and an easy walk into the city. Or The Witchery by the Castle is a lavish, Gothic-style hotel on the Royal Mile with four-poster suites. Edinburgh’s 4.5 hours by train from London and also has an international airport, connected to the city by a 30-minute tram or bus journey.
Read more: Visiting Edinburgh on a budget
So which would you most like to visit – or do you have another favourite British weekend destination?
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