Photo by Evan Novostro/Shutterstock
Photo by Paul Martin/Shutterstock
Whitstable’s Old Neptune Pub, built from wood reclaimed from previous storm-tossed buildings on the site, invites long and ale-fueled afternoons.
Getting out of London, even for just a few hours, can bring a deeper understanding of the rest of the country. Seaside pubs, college towns, Roman baths, cutting-edge museums: We’ve rounded up great options for quick trips out of the city.
There’s a reason central London has 10 major train stations. Head almost any direction, and a quick train ride can carry you to castles, historic university cities, fantastic art collections, ancient ruins, and distinctive pubs. A day trip from the city can reveal more about the British character than afternoon tea at Harrod’s would. So all aboard: Get out of town for a full day of exploring a different side of England.
Starting point: London Victoria
Distance: 60 miles. The train takes 1 hour and 20 minutes (direct) and costs around £30 (US$39).
Don’t forget to pack: Sunglasses and a windbreaker. This is the English coastline, after all.
Best for: Windswept strolls along pebble beaches working up an appetite for fresh local oysters and a pint of pale ale.
Less than 90 minutes from the capital but the antithesis of a bustling metropolis, sleepy Whitstable is a perfect day-trip destination on the Kent coast. Spreading out from the south side of the Thames Estuary, the seaside town’s tangle of narrow roads is home to several art galleries, intriguing independent shops, and plenty of historic pubs.
Get there mid-morning for third-wave coffee at somewhere like Blueprint, before browsing clothes, records, or art on the high street, and then enjoy local seafood at the the Lobster Shack, where you can see the oyster beds nearby at low tide. Your afternoon is probably best spent on the pebble beach, strolling past the fishermen’s huts (that you can stay in) and taking a dip in the water if it’s hot or you’re brave, then hunkering down at the Old Neptune pub. A friendly boozer that’s literally on the beach, the Neppy is constructed from reclaimed timber from previous buildings on the site that washed away in 19th-century storms. On weekends, bands jam and people cram into every nook, tucking away pints of local Shepherd Neame beer and fish and chips.
You could also elevate that seaside staple at somewhere like the Sportsman, a big draw for foodies just outside town where cod is switched for roasted gunard or turbot, or thornback ray with cockles and vinegar dressing. Trains back to the capital run twice an hour until around 10 p.m. –Tim Chester
Starting point: Paddington Station
Distance: 94 miles. The fast train takes 1.5 hours and costs around £45 (US$58).
Don’t forget to pack: A bathing suit if you want to indulge in a soak.
Best for: Exploring layer upon layer of British history in a pretty, walkable, UNESCO World Heritage–listed town.
“Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” exults young Catherine Morland, heroine of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. You don’t have to be wearing a cunning bonnet to agree: Bath offers modern visitors the chance to see ancient Roman baths and temples alongside genteel Georgian architecture and medieval churches.
Start at Bath Abbey, a 10-minute walk from the train station. Built and rebuilt throughout the Middle Ages, the grand church is crunchy old Gothic on the outside and smooth Victorian Gothic revival on the inside (the interior received an overhaul from Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1864). Admire the intricate fan vaulting in the nave, but don’t dawdle, this is a day trip. A short stroll will take you back a few centuries to the Roman Baths, a magnificent spa-and-temple complex built by the Romans around 60 C.E. and shored up through the centuries. The museum, full of artifacts and original pavements, is worth a browse. Inspired to take a soak yourself? Thermae Bath Spa, down the street, is a modern spa built on Roman foundations that offers a two-hour package that gives access to the open-air rooftop pool and the Minerva pool.
After the spa, lunch is in order. The Olive Tree, which was awarded a 2019 Michelin star, serves lunch Friday through Sunday. Chef Chris Cleghorn’s kitchen depends on local suppliers to provide the freshest seasonal food. The neighborhood surrounding the restaurant is rich with regency architecture—side-by-side, elegantly proportioned, champagne-colored buildings. Follow the Gravel Walk, a path that skirts the eastern edge of Royal Victoria Park, past the Georgian Garden and down all the way to Queens Square for a nice plummy taste of Georgian Bath.
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Just off Queens Square, the diminutive collection at the Jane Austen Centre reveals more about Bath life during the early 19th century, and the on-site Regency Tea Room—where servers wear period costumes—offers a clear choice for true Austen fans. The ill-mannered Darcys among us can opt for a pint at the Raven or a cocktail (made with local cider) at the Dark Horse on the walk back to the train station (both have nice food options if the evening stretches on). Trains back to London leave every 30 minutes or so until almost 11 p.m. –Ann Shields
Starting point: St. Pancras, King’s Cross, and Liverpool Street Stations all have frequent train service to Cambridge.
Distance: 50 miles. The fast train (from King’s Cross) takes about 45 minutes and all other trains take anywhere from an hour to an 90 minutes each way. Tickets cost £16–25 (US$21–32).
Don’t forget to pack: A good pair of walking shoes. The historic center is compact but full of cobblestone pathways.
Best for: Manicured parks, Gothic architecture, and museums that rival London’s.
This university town is easily accessible by train from three different stations in London. The 45-minute fast train from King’s Cross leaves every 30 minutes, making it perfect for impromptu day trips.
Start your morning with pancakes at Benets on King’s Parade in the center of town. If the view of King’s College Chapel directly across the street isn’t enough, pop in for a tour after breakfast. Easily the most recognizable building in Cambridge, the chapel features fan vaulting on its stone ceiling that dates back to the early 16th century.
The Fitzwilliam Museum is a mere five-minute walk south. There you can meander through its halls to discover more than half a million artifacts and works of art in the university’s collections. The Egyptian galleries are popular, but you can also find masterpieces by Titian, Rubens, and Monet.
If the weather cooperates, don’t miss going punting on the River Cam. Before you hop on one of the flat-bottom boats (which you propel by pushing a pole along the shallow river bed), get a takeaway hamper from Fitzbillies for a mini picnic onboard.
Despite being a college town, Cambridge isn’t simply a trip for academics and offers much more than the typical pub and café fare you’d expect. Along with restaurants like Parker’s Tavern, which opened at the revamped University Arms hotel in 2018 and the two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House, you’ll want to extend your day trip and stay for dinner, too. —Lyndsey Matthews
Starting point: London St. Pancras International or London Victoria
Distance: 76 miles. The train takes a little less than two hours and costs £10–14 (US$13–18).
Don’t forget to pack: A camera and sunnies. Shutterbugs will have a field day at the colorful and quirky Dreamland amusement park.
Best for: Modern art fans, thanks to the Turner Contemporary complex. Foodies won’t be disappointed either, nor will those who like to follow hipsters to the latest stylish outpost—Margate has become known as “Shoreditch-on-the-Sea.”
You’re going to want to head out early for a full day of art-gazing, foodie exploits, and wandering around a reborn retro amusement park. What was once a neglected seaside town has been transformed into a hipster haven, a process that was jump-started by the opening of the Turner Contemporary Gallery in 2011. Begin your day at the Scandinavian-inspired Mala Kaffe for locally roasted pour-over coffee alongside treats and open-faced toasts while you check out which exhibitions are on at the nearby Turner. You can also opt for a heartier breakfast at the Bus Café, a double-decker bus turned mobile restaurant with views of the bay.
After a solid dose of culture, head into town where you’ll be hard-pressed to pick among first-rate seafood eateries. Get a Bloody Mary with your fish and chips, oysters, or any kind of shellfish your heart desires at Buoy and Oyster, or book a table at Angela’s for a more refined dining experience—the seasonal menu reflects the finest local selections. For an innovative take on seafood, head to Hantverk & Found, where the ever-changing menu has Asian influences sprinkled throughout.
Now that you’re fueled up, you are ready for Dreamland. Hopefully you strategized somewhat during lunch as this feast-for-the-senses amusement park is filled with rides and art installations but also hosts numerous concerts and events. Make sure you stay well past sundown to catch the park in all its lit-up glory. –Michelle Baran
Starting point: Paddington Station (Marylebone has a lot of departures, too)
Distance: 52 miles. The train takes a little over an hour and tickets cost around £15 (US$19).
Don’t forget to pack: An external charger for your phone (or a DSLR); you’ll want to take lots of photos of the soaring ceilings and historic sights. Also, an umbrella, because, well, Britain.
Best for: Ogling the many architectural styles on a world-class campus and nerding out in museums.
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Oxford, a city of about 150,000 people an hour northwest of London, is home to legendary Oxford University, a 10-minute walk from the station. Some evidence suggests that teaching took place there as early as the 11th century, and by the end of the 12th century learning was in full swing, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Alumni include saints, prime ministers, and Hugh Grant, and the setting has inspired some of literature’s most beloved stories. (Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland here—check out the family-friendly festivities on Alice’s Day in July—and Lyra Belacqua, the heroine of alum Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials book series, grows up in a fictional version of Oxford.) Exploring the golden-hued, waterside college town is a fine way to get a break from the sprawl of London.
Throughout town, you’ll spot many architectural styles: English Palladian at the James Gibbs–designed Radcliffe Camera (dubbed “Rad Cam” by students); the towering Gothic spire at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin; even a bridge inspired by the Rialto in Venice on New College Lane.
If the weather is fine, join one of the many walking tours of the campus and town offered by Experience Oxfordshire. Themes include Influential Women of Oxford and Ceilings and Spires and offer insight into the personalities that have made an impact on Oxford. Bibliophiles should be sure to book a tour for the Old Bodleian Library, which is only accessible with a guide (or opt for one of the literary-themed walking tours through Experience Oxfordshire). For something more personalized, book a private “Oxford Excursion” through AFAR partner Context Travel.
For lunch, order local fare at Turf Tavern, the same historic pub where Margaret Thatcher and Stephen Hawking have dined (its foundations go all the way back to the 14th century), or pop into the Eagle and Child, where J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis, and their “Inklings” buddies hung out.
In the afternoon, dawdle at the myriad (free!) museums in town. Check out the expansive ancient coin collection (and plenty of other artifacts from around the world) at the Ashmolean Museum, admire ancient Peruvian textiles or dance masks at the Pitt Rivers Museum (which displays its collection by type of object rather than by region of origin), or enjoy works by today’s creatives at the Oxford Museum of Contemporary Art. —Sara Button
Starting point: London Victoria, London Bridge, and St. Pancras Stations
Distance: 54 miles. The train takes around an hour to an hour and 16 minutes and costs around £27 (US$35).
Don’t forget to pack: A large tote for any classic vinyl, antique housewares, or designer threads you may acquire. But leave the sunglasses at home so that you have an excuse to buy a new funky pair if the weather is nice.
Best for: Street-art spotting, vintage shopping, and seaside walking.
Brighton marches to its own off-beat drummer. More hippie than hipster, the walkable seaside city is a colorful place—whether you’re talking about the street art and splashy shopfronts, the Victorian pleasure pier, or its legendary Pride parade.
As you walk into the city from the station, it’s hard to miss the Prince Albert Pub, with its giant memorial mural to dead musicians including Tupac and Bowie. But look closer for one of Banksy’s most famous pieces, The Kissing Coppers. (The current version is a replica—the pub’s owner sold the original in 2011.)
Next, turn your steps to the bohemian North Laine neighborhood and hop between retro clothing shops like the well-curated Snoopers Attic or cavernous Beyond Retro, stopping to fuel up at a vegan café or with a coffee at Pelicano roastery. Or head instead to the narrow pedestrian streets and designer boutiques of The Lanes district. From there it’s just a few blocks to the Royal Pavilion. The extravagant chinoiserie-style exterior of George IV’s seaside palace, with its onion domes, minarets, and turrets, is somehow surpassed by the lavish interior.
Lunch in style on oysters at English’s, the oldest seafood restaurant in the city, or go casual with fish and chips at the lively Brighton Palace Pier. It’s worth strolling past the carousel, rides, and arcade to recline on a striped deck chair at the pier’s end and look out over the English Channel. You may want to ride the British Airways i360’s glass pod to the top of the 531-foot viewing tower for scenic overlooks, or you may simply want to end the day with a 20-minute stroll west along the pebble beach to Instagram the brightly painted beach huts in Brighton’s twin city, Hove. But whatever you do, don’t head back to London without grabbing an ice cream made with Sussex milk from Gelato Gusto—this is a seaside resort after all. —Maggie Fuller
>>Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s London Travel Guide
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