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 coastline. So if you’re looking for inspiration for your next British weekend break, look no further. Here are ten of my favourite, tried-and-tested Great British weekend break destinations (with a PDF at the end so you can download them for later).
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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.
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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 like the Houses of Parliament, London Eye, 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 of the city, from the top of the Shard to the Sky Garden, an indoor garden at the top of a City skyscraper.
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Taste your way around the UK and beyond at London’s foodie markets – Borough is best-known but there’s also Broadway in the east and Brockley in the south. London has turned afternoon tea into an art form. The Ritz is the classic tea-lovers’ destination, but Claridges and Fortnum & Mason are just as decadently delicious. Or how about dinner with a view at London’s high-rise restaurants, like Aqua or Hutong at the Shard or Duck and Waffle by the Gherkin?
London has thousands of hotels (and I’m still getting over the shock of the cost now I don’t live there) – a few of my favourites are Z Hotels, Nadler and Point A, 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 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.
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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 and less-well-known 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 – 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.
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Dine at Cambridge’s oldest restaurant, Varsity, for tasty British classics or stop off at 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 on Benet Street. Or call into Fitzbillies for afternoon tea, a café opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum that’s famous for its sticky Chelsea Buns – a student favourite for decades.
The Varsity is Cambridge’s most stylish spot, a boutique hotel along the River Cam with a wow-factor roof terrace looking out over the college rooftops. Or 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 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.
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The Cotswolds is a beauty parade – 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 historic houses at Sudeley Castle and Blenheim Palace. Or take a walk through Painswick Rococo Gardens or Cotswolds Lavender’s springtime fields of purple.
Get out among the unspoilt Cotswold countryside by walking a stretch of the Cotswold Way – a 100-mile walking route which runs Chipping Campden to Bath. Check out the fantastic views from Cleeve Hill, Crickley Park and the Broadway Tower along the way. Or take the easier route on board the recently extended Gloucestershire–Warwickshire steam railway.
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The Cotswolds is an unexpected foodie hotspot, and you’ll find some of the best local produce at Stroud’s Saturday farmers’ market, one of the best in the UK. The area’s 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.
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. 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 an hour away in Bristol or Birmingham.
Read more: Log house luxury in the Cotswolds
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.
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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.
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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. Riverstation is another favourite, with classic European dishes on the waterfront.
The Berkeley Suites in Clifton is part hotel part apartment, with suites with mini kitchens plus access to the Berkeley Square Hotel facilities. Or for something 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 90 minutes by train from London. Bristol also has an international airport, 30 minutes out of the city on the Airport Flyer bus.
Read more: A day trip to Bristol with National Express
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.
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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.
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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 on the sand. 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.
I stayed at the Organic Panda, a six-bed holiday rental in a Victorian house overlooking the bay. Also recommended is the Pedn-Olva hotel on Porthminster beach with an 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 36 miles away in Newquay.
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.
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Take a guided tour around Cardiff’s most famous building, its city centre castle. The castle has 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.
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Wales has 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 an epic gin list). Or for something more unusual, Clink Restaurant is staffed by prisoners 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.
Cathedral 73 is a boutique B&B a short walk into town. It’s a historic building with quirky modern touches (and a private butler and Rolls Royce if you’re feeling flashy). Cardiff is two hours by train from London. It also has an international airport, connected to the city by a bus service (40 minutes) or a shuttle to nearby Rhoose station, 30 minutes by train from Cardiff Central.
Read more: A weekend in Cardiff
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.
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Head back in time to Roman Chester (or rather 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 which overlooks the main street and is the perfect photo vantage point.
Shop the Rows, Chester’s unique take on a medieval shopping mall with two layers of black and white shops 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.
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Steak lovers head to Upstairs at the Grill, a New York-style steakhouse specialising 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 glass of wine. And finish off a walk along the canal with lunch at Artichoke, a former mill with a Mediterranean-inspired menu.
At modern apartment-style Roomzzz Chester City near the racecourse, rooms come with kitchens and takeaway breakfasts. Or go old-school glam at the Grosvenor, where doormen in top hats welcome you into a lobby decorated with chandeliers. Chester is 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.
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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.
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The Lake District is packed with country pubs – 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.
Wheatlands Lodge in Windermere is a period property perfect for a romantic break. Or bag a bargain at the refurbished Keswick YHA, with a mix of dorms and private rooms. 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), and branch lines to Kendal and Windermere. The nearest airports are Manchester and Leeds Bradford, both around 2 hours 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.
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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.
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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 at the National Railway Museum. And pop in for a drink at the Roman Bath, probably the only pub in the world which has an authentic Roman bathhouse in its basement.
See York in style at Marmadukes Town House Hotel, a Victorian gentleman’s residence turned hotel with antique furniture and roll-top baths in leafy Bootham. Or if you’re on a budget, The Fort is a stylish boutique hostel in the city centre which has 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.
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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.
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Visit the teeny Gardener’s Cottage at the base of Calton Hill for seasonal food using produce from the garden outside. Or head to Stockbridge for tasty upscale Thai at Nok’s Kitchen and award-winning gastropub food at the Scran and Scallie. Edinburgh has stacks of great bars too – the Whiski Rooms, speakeasy style Bryant and Mack and Heads & Tales gin bar are a few of my favourites. And Harry Potter fans won’t want to miss JK Rowling’s old haunt The Elephant House.
I stay with my sister in Stockbridge which has tons of AirBnBs – it’s a great area to be based in, close to the city with lots of places to eat. 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 break destination?
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