From Land’s End in the south to John O’Groats in the north, there is so much to see in the UK. There are hundreds of free museums across the country, thousands of urban parks to browse, tens of thousands of interesting communities to visit and millions of acres of land to explore. And the country has 25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There is certainly much more to do than talk about the rain and see if the Queen is at home in Buckingham Palace.
London – As Samuel Johnson wrote, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”. This is truer than ever, as London offers a huge range of attractions to suit all tastes. Enjoy art at the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, among others. The theatres and cinemas in the West End and on the South Bank, as well as the Globe, Shakespeare’s replica theatre, offer cultural delights. And of course there are all the traditional sights to see such as Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square and the London Eye.
Edinburgh – The capital of Scotland was originally centred on the Old Town and the Castle and Palace of Holyrood, but the New Town is a Georgian masterpiece. Both the Old Town and the New Town are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Oxford and Cambridge – In the two former university towns, you can walk among the dreamy towers, take a dip in the river and walk through the college quadrangle at certain times.
For a more complete list, see the Cities section of this article, or read the relevant pages for each country and region that interests you.
Parks and nature
The United Kingdom has a number of National Parks and designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty which serve to conserve the country’s natural heritage. There are a total of 15 National Parks in England, Scotland and Wales (10 in England, 2 in Scotland and 3 in Wales) and 49 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (35 in England, 4 in Wales, 9 in Northern Ireland and 1 on the Anglo-Welsh border). There are no Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Scotland, but there are 35 National Scenic Areas across the country.
The British countryside is unique and diverse. In the south of England you will find the rolling countryside and picturesque villages of the Cotswolds, the chalk hills of the Downs and the prehistoric cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. To the east you will find the tranquillity of the Fens Lowlands. The North of England offers beautiful scenery and outdoor activities in the Lake District, Peak District and Yorkshire Dales. Wales offers the ruggedness of Snowdonia National Park and the beautiful beaches of Gower. Scotland has the vast wilderness of the Highlands and the beauty of the islands. Northern Ireland is blessed with the Giant’s Causeway and the north coast of Antrim.
Prehistory – before the human species
The first scientific discoveries of prehistoric creatures (dinosaurs, marine reptiles and pterosaurs) were made in the 19th century in Dorset and Devon on the south coast of England. Today, visitors can go on a fossil safari along the beaches and cliffs of the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and see some of the original finds at the Natural History Museum in London.
History – Stone Age, Roman Period and Dark Ages – before 1066
People in Britain have long tended to leave their mark on the landscape. Throughout history, they have left their mark on the landscape for tomorrow’s tourists to enjoy. It started with our prehistoric ancestors who built mysterious stone circles and burial mounds at places like Stonehenge and Avebury.
Then came the Romans, who not only built the first roads, but also married the locals and left behind magnificent buildings, such as villas (e.g. Fishbourne), public baths especially in Bath, Hadrian’s Wall in northern England, and Roman walls and buildings all over the country, including London, Lincoln, York and Cirencester (the capitals of the four British provinces at the end of the Roman period).
After the Romans left, the British Isles fell into the Dark Ages with the rest of Western Europe. Even during this time, when much of the knowledge, civilisation and culture of the Roman period was lost, the people of the British Isles continued to leave their mark on the landscape of the country, with elaborate burial mounds such as those at Sutton Hoo and treasure finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard, whose finds can now be seen in the British Museum and the Birmingham Museum respectively. Over time, waves of immigrants and invaders from areas of what is now Germany, Denmark and Norway brought new languages and customs with them. English, Scottish and Welsh identities began to form during this period.
History – Norman period and Middle Ages 1066 to 1603
The year 1066 marks a major change in the history of the country, when the Kingdom of England is conquered by the Normans in northern France. The Normans introduced the system of feudalism into England and most of the population was forced to work the land in the service of their Norman masters. To consolidate this system in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Normans began a building race, building castles to intimidate and dominate, and churches to inspire and unite. Among the most notable castles were the Tower of London and those of Windsor, Durham and Warwick. Wonderful Gothic cathedrals were also built during this period, the finest of which can be found in Canterbury, Durham, Norwich, Lincoln, Salisbury and York, each of which also has an ancient city centre dotted with medieval buildings and streets. The Christian faith has developed even in the most remote parts of the country. Monastic communities have formed on Holy Island (Northumberland) and Mont Saint-Michel (Cornwall), cut off from the mainland by the tides. As the Normans extended their power into Wales in the 13th century, more castles were built at Cardiff, Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech. In Scotland too, which remained an independent kingdom from England throughout the Middle Ages, large castles were built in Edinburgh and Stirling. And in both England and Scotland, great centres of learning emerged with universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St John’s.
As political stability increased and peasant revolts, the Black Death and the rise of a middle class diminished the power of the old feudal system, castles lost their importance. The monarchs of the Tudor dynasty preferred to live in the comfort of grand palaces rather than cold castles, and it was during this period that Hampton Court was built. In towns such as Stratford-upon-Avon and Chester there are many examples of middle-class townhouses built in the typical ‘black and white’ Tudor timber-framed style. Henry VIII’s reign also saw the Reformation, during which England broke its ties with the Roman Catholic Church and a new state religion, the Church of England, was founded. During this period, many monasteries and abbeys were destroyed across the country, although many ruins can still be visited, for example at Tintern in Monmouthshire and Rievaulx near Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
History 1603 – 1900
The UK is dotted with historic sites from the Stuart, Georgian, Regency and Victorian eras. Fine examples of English country houses can be found at Blenheim, Chatsworth and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which shows the splendour of the royal regency by the sea. Cities with classical Georgian architecture include Edinburgh and Bath, and much of central west London. The neoclassical movements saw the construction of many new churches, including St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which has been rebuilt. The Union with Scotland also brought a resurgence of interest in castle life, and many members of the newly wealthy aristocracy and middle classes built luxurious houses in imitation of medieval fortresses to manage their own (often forcibly depopulated) Highland estates. Although there are many such buildings in Scotland and even in other parts of the United Kingdom, the most famous example is Balmoral, which has been the summer residence of the British monarch since 1852.
The founding and growth of the British Empire saw the expansion and professionalisation of the country’s armed forces, both land and sea, and a massive increase in trade around the world. The National Army Museum in London traces the long history of the British Army, while many garrison towns such as Aldershot have their own military landmarks. Chatham and Portsmouth each have historic dockyards housing some of the Royal Navy‘s finest ships of yesteryear, and Bristol is home to Brunel’s giant and revolutionary merchant steamer SS Great Britain. The Empire period also saw the modernisation of the Houses of Parliament into the iconic building we know today, including the construction of the famous Clock Tower, and the export of similar parliamentary systems of government around the world. Various financial institutions in the City of London, such as the Bank of England and the London Stock Exchange, are among the oldest in the world.
The Industrial Revolution, which began in England’s West Midlands and gradually spread to the United Kingdom and then the world, led to a huge increase in the British population, a one-way migration to the growing cities and the development of heavy industry. Key sites of the period include Ironbridge, the site of the world’s first all-iron bridge, the Saltaire factories, the Belfast dockyards, the coal mines of South Wales, the Lancashire cotton mills and London Docklands. Other Victorian gems include the fantastic transport infrastructure (the Manchester Ship Canal and London’s St Pancras station are just two striking examples), the Royal Albert Hall, Tower Bridge, Clifton Suspension Bridge near Bristol, the Forth Rail Bridge near Edinburgh, and the town halls and municipal buildings of many industrial cities such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield.
Modern Britain – 20th and 21st Century
The early 20th century was the heyday of British seaside resorts, with towns such as Blackpool, Bournemouth, Brighton, Llandudno, Southport, Torquay and Scarborough welcoming millions of visitors each year to their beaches, theatres and entertainment venues. In Liverpool, the two great 20th-century cathedrals dominate the skyline, as do a wealth of Art Deco buildings (including some of the world’s first attempts at skyscrapers), and there are other modern treats across the UK: the glass domes of the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Northern Angel outside Newcastle, London’s famous mid-20th-century skyscrapers such as the BT Tower. Century and 21st Century icons the Shard and the Gherkin, the redeveloped Cardiff Bay and the new Titanic District in Belfast.
The UK can rightly be called the ‘home of sport’ as it is the birthplace of five of the world’s major sports: association football, rugby, tennis, cricket and golf. There are sanctuaries for all these sports throughout the UK: Wembley (London), Old Trafford (Manchester), Anfield (Liverpool) and Hampden Park (Glasgow) for football, Twickenham (London), Millennium Stadium (Cardiff) and Murrayfield (Edinburgh) for rugby, Lords (London) for cricket, the All England Club at Wimbledon for tennis and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St Andrews for golf.
The term ‘football’ of course refers to club football or soccer. It is by far the most popular spectator sport and is played throughout the UK at amateur and professional levels, with the most famous competition being the English Premier League. There is also the FA Cup, the oldest national football cup competition in the world. Although many teams have passionate fans, the days of widespread “football hooliganism” are largely over. Rugby comes in two forms or “codes”: Rugby Union has 15 players per team and is particularly popular in Wales, southern England and the Midlands, while Rugby League has 13 players per team and is popular in northern England. Football and rugby are traditionally played in autumn, winter and spring, although the professional rugby league season is now played in summer. Cricket is only played in the summer and is most popular in England. One of the biggest events in the cricket calendar is the Ashes, a series of 5 Test cricket matches played each year between England and Australia, with the two teams taking turns to host the series. The five matches are played at various venues in England and sometimes Wales, with the famous Lord’s Cricket Ground always being one of the venues where England host the series. All of these sports attract large audiences, both at the matches themselves and on television, and it is very common to watch them on television in pubs and bars.
The championship, Wimbledon at the All England Club, is the oldest of the four major tennis slams, the only one played on grass courts, and is widely regarded as the most prestigious of the four tournaments. In golf, the Open Championship is one of the four major men’s golf tournaments and the only one of the four to be played outside the United States. The tournament rotates between different courses in the UK each year and returns to its home venue, the Old Course at St Andrews, every five years. Although the United Kingdom is no longer one of badminton’s strongholds, the All England Championships remains one of the biggest badminton tournaments in the world.
For rowing fans, a famous event in the calendar (in March or April) is the Boat Race, a race between the men’s rowing teams of Oxford University and Cambridge University. The event is a race between eight rowing boats and takes place on a course of more than 4 miles on the Thames, on the border between the counties of Middlesex and Surrey.
The United Kingdom has hosted the Olympic Games three times in its history and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London 2012 is still a major sporting venue and landmark in the capital. It is worth noting that the British team is the only one to have won at least one gold medal in every edition of the Summer Olympics since the modern Olympic Games began in 1896.
- Big Ben (formerly known as Elizabeth Tower in Westminster, London), probably one of the most emblematic buildings in the world.
- Edinburgh Castle is a royal fortress beautifully situated on one of the highest points in the city. The castle has been in continuous use for 1000 years and is in excellent condition.
- Stonehenge, an ancient stone circle near the town of Salisbury Cathedral in Wiltshire.
- Georgian architecture and the Roman baths of Bath.
- York Minster Cathedral in the historic city of York.
- Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of the head of the Church of England. It is located in the city of Canterbury in Kent.
- Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon, is the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
- The ancient and world-famous universities of Oxford and Cambridge.
- The Eden Project near St Austell is a huge botanical garden with an indoor tropical forest and Mediterranean bio-domes.
- The Giant’s Causeway, sixty miles from Belfast on the north coast of Northern Ireland, is a World Heritage Site and a natural wonder.
- Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to three of the largest ships ever built and 800 years of naval history.
- Angel of the North, an impressive contemporary steel sculpture in Gateshead.
- Lincoln Cathedral, is the medieval cathedral of the city of Lincoln.