London is a fascinating city with endless attractions, but locals and visitors too often find themselves sticking to the city’s confines — despite any number of unheralded getaways within easy reach.
Should you find yourself itching to see more of the U.K., these towns and their environs offer a wealth of unexpected charms, from a rocking musical heritage and funky street art, to architectural feats and scenic stretches of coastlines even the savviest Brits have yet to explore.
Not only are the following cities an ideal jaunt from London in their own right, they each offer a starting point from which to head into the countryside and explore even deeper.
The U.K.’s second-biggest city has an unmistakable charm and swagger. Mancunians, as Manchester natives are known, are rightfully proud of their city’s industrial heritage, but it’s their creative industries that currently thrive.
Check out the scene in the galleries, bohemian bars and restaurants of the Northern Quarter or take a journey through the city’s much-celebrated musical heritage with a guided music tour. Sports fans should leave time for a visit to the National Football Museum and the hallowed grounds of Old Trafford, home to Manchester United.
Ready to escape the city? The beautiful deep valleys, heather-strewn meadows and charming villages of Yorkshire Dales National Park are less than a two-hour drive from Manchester. If you’re short on time, it’s only 30 minutes to the quirky market town of Hebden Bridge, long associated with artists and musicians, where you can explore independent shops, visit Sylvia Plath’s grave and take a stroll along the canal.
Bristol’s attractions range from the historically significant, such as the ground-breaking steamship SS Great Britain, to countercultural focal points like the street artworks of Banksy, who some in the art world have argued is native to Bristol. Don’t leave without visiting the M Shed museum, Arnolfini contemporary art gallery and the soaring Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Stretching from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel, the English county of Devon offers bucolic countryside and some of the country’s prettiest villages. Around two hours from Bristol, East Devon and the Blackdown Hills are designated Areas of Outstanding Beauty.
The 95-mile-long Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so-named for its rich geological features, stretches from Exmouth, East Devon, all the way to Studland in Dorset.
The Lancashire city of Preston may not feature on too many U.K. visitors’ itineraries, but after exploring the city’s historic buildings and leafy parks, you’ll be glad to keep the place to yourself.
One of Preston’s biggest draws is its proximity to Lake District National Park, only 45 minutes by car. With 16 lakes squeezed between England’s highest mountains, moor-covered hills and dramatic valleys, it’s easy to understand why this region inspired so many poets — Coleridge and Wordsworth, to name just two. Embark on a lake cruise, hike the hills or just unwind and take in the scenery.
There’s plenty more to do in England, but you haven’t really seen the U.K. if you only visit one of its four nations. Luckily, Scotland’s capital is less than five hours by train from central London.
Edinburgh is a compact and walkable city, not to mention heart-stoppingly beautiful. That makes checking off its main sites — Edinburgh Castle, the medieval nooks and crannies of the Royal Mile and the handsome Neoclassical architecture of the New Town — easy on even a short visit.
With a spare day you can embark upon the Forth Valley Tourist Route, a 40-mile drive from Edinburgh to the historic city of Stirling. Along the way you can see such sites as Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots; the great feat of engineering that is the Falkirk Wheel; and Bannockburn, site of Robert the Bruce’s 14th-century victory during the First War of Scottish Independence.
Finally, take in the sweeping views from Stirling Castle, perched on a volcanic rock high above the city’s cobbled streets.
The Welsh capital offers plenty to entice you and lies three hours west of London. History abounds, from its 2,000-year old castle to the world’s oldest record shop, while modern landmarks such as the Millennium arts center and the bustling restaurants and bars of Mermaid Quay offer a more contemporary taste of this young and vibrant city.
From Cardiff you can reach Brecon Beacons National Park in less than a two-hour drive. Park the car and explore some of Wales’ finest scenery on foot, past waterfalls and through rolling sheep-dotted meadows.
If you are feeling adventurous, you can hike the steep but well-marked path to the top of Pen-y-Fan. At 2,907 feet, it’s the highest mountain in South Wales.