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With our rich history under British rule, sightseeing in England is practically a rite of passage for the Canadian traveller. Yet alongside the landmarks we know so well from films, television, and history lessons is another Britain, a place rich with opportunities for adventure, learning and indulgence.
Whether you’re planning a first visit to England or looking to discover something new, check out our picks below for some of the best timeless and offbeat experiences to build into your itinerary.
Insider tip #1: Rent a car to explore the south of England. London is extraordinary, but even more spectacular sights lie within a day’s drive of the city. The thought of road tripping around England might be intimidating — and it’s true that driving on the opposite side of the road, in the opposite side of the car takes some getting used to — but there’s no more exhilarating way to experience the English countryside. Just be sure to ask a local about the rules of the roundabouts.
Designed by renowned British architect Sir Christopher Wren, St. Paul’s Cathedral is a must-see. As you climb Peter’s Hill, its famous dome looms with immense beauty, as if it were the centre of the world. Take the guided tour to experience firsthand the rich history and spiritual significance of the church and admire the interior details, such as the high altar made of marble and gilded oak and the intricate wood carvings by Grinling Gibbons.
Famished from exploring the city? Stop in for a bite at Indigo, located inside the award-winning luxury hotel One Aldwych in Covent Garden. Executive Chef Dominic Teague secretly went allergy-friendly, taking gluten and dairy off his menu without guests being the wiser. Enjoy healthy and hearty fare with a lot of flavour as you bask in the ambiance of the restaurant balcony overlooking the hotel lounge — inviting, luxurious and chic.
Insider tip #2: A 25-minute walk along the River Thames from St. Paul’s is another iconic address: the Tower of London. It’s served as a prison, a fortress, a storage space for military weapons and was the original home of the Royal Mint. After your theatrical guided tour, led by actual Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace, visit the Crown Jewels Exhibition to see some of the treasures of the British Monarchy.
What’s more English than afternoon tea? Oxford’s Macdonald Randolph Hotel puts on a lovely spread in their well-appointed drawing room, including a variety of looseleaf teas and a mouth-watering selection of cucumber and cress sandwiches, scones and pastries arranged beautifully on tiered trays. For a few extra pounds, upgrade to the Celebration package, which includes a glass of champagne for each guest.
Oxford is a world-renowned seat of higher learning, so while you’re there, why not go to school? The gothic exterior of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is itself a marvel, but then you enter into a massive room filled with a variety of geological wonders and natural history specimens that looks like something straight out of Harry Potter. (Many buildings in Oxford served as filming locations for the magical movie franchise; walking tours are available.)
Insider tip #3: A 20-minute drive from Oxford on the edge of the rural area known as the Cotswolds is the 16th-century Thornbury Castle, a truly extraordinary lodging. After a fine-dining experience in their acclaimed restaurant, take a walk in the marvelous garden that surrounds the estate, where King Henry VIII once strolled with his second wife, Anne Boleyn.
Step back in time — way back — to when Britain was the northernmost province of the Roman Empire and explore The Roman Baths. The museum is built above and around the painstakingly-preserved remains of a temple to the deity Sulis Minerva that incorporated a bathing pavilion fed by a natural hot spring. Rest near the tranquil green waters of the Great Bath, then wander the museum to learn about the people of Aquae Sulis, as Bath was once called, and the Beau Street Hoard, one of the largest caches of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain.
In the spirit of “When in Rome,” head to the Thermae Bath Spa, a modern take on an old tradition, and relax like the Celts and Romans did 2,000 years ago. Soak in warm, mineral-rich waters, lounge in the steam rooms and finish off with a dip in the rooftop pool overlooking the city.
Insider tip #4: Escape the city to Combe Grove, an 18th-century manor house situated on 28 hectares of woodland. Keep the relaxed vibe going as you enjoy old-world luxury and modern amenities with an unparalleled view of Bath and the lush Limpley Stoke Valley.
Travellers seeking the tranquility of nature and the roar of the sea flock to Cornwall and Devon, the southernmost counties in England. Among the many quaint harbour villages of the Cornish coast, Portloe is considered by many to be the prettiest. The lovely Lugger Hotel, situated on a cliff overlooking the sea, offers easy access to spectacular hiking on the South West Coast Path National Trail, wildlife-watching cruises and the magical Lost Gardens of Heligan. Once the most magnificent feature of the Tremayne family estate, the gardens were shuttered during the First World War and remained derelict until the 1990s, when a Tremayne descendent discovered their remains and undertook a massive restoration effort.
Some 200 million years ago, much of Great Britain was covered by a tropical sea. The steep cliffs of southern Devon county are full of the fossilized remains of prehistoric marine creatures. The roughly 150 kilometres of coastline from East Devon to Dorset are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts fossil hunters of all ages.
Insider tip #5: The coastal town of Lyme Regis in neighbouring Dorset County is a good base for exploring the Jurassic Coast. Stay at the Dower House Hotel, a former headmaster’s residence converted to a bed and breakfast.
Check out the video below for a look at these and other activities in the south of England!
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