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United Kingdom: Must-See Places

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Picture what makes the United Kingdom special in your mind and chances are the image you conjure will be completely different from person to person. For some, it’s a global city and financial hub, and for others, it’s the highlands, castles, classic literature, ancient ruins, rock and roll, Harry Potter, and the Queen. Consisting of the isle of Great Britain - which includes England, Wales, and Scotland - and Northern Ireland in the northeast of the Isle of Ireland, the UK (officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) is a nation encompassing such a diverse history and culture that no one place can represent all it contains. To help you get a feel for this island nation and create your own adventure on its shores, we’ve created a list of where you can start to tackle both islands on your next trip and beyond.

London
Photo by evantdang from Unsplash.

1. London

London, UK

Whether it's your first trip or you’ve visited before, the best way to see London is on foot and via its world-renowned public transportation network, featuring the London Underground. Purchase an Oyster Card at your nearest Tube station, add some pounds to it, and let the city lead the way. Interested in history? Visit the Tower of London , the Churchill War Rooms , or one of the city’s many free museums (we love the Victoria and Albert Museum ). Want to soak in the lights of the big city? Grab a bite to eat at Covent Garden , head to Piccadilly Circus, and catch a show in nearby Soho. Seeking a quieter morning stroll in a cafe and some antique hunting? The candy-colored houses of Notting Hill are the perfect backdrop for your London story.

With 3,500 pubs in London alone, you could visit a different one every day for nine years and still have more to go. This is all to say, London is a place you can return to again and again and continue to find enchantment in new discoveries every time. There’s something for everyone here, and if you let yourself wander, you’ll find for yourself just what makes it a global city. Looking for more London gems? Take a look at our London: Must See-Places article.

Cambridge
Original photo by Cmglee licensed under CC 3.0.

2. Cambridge

Cambridge, UK

Cambridge is best known as home of the University of Cambridge , but even if scholarly pursuits aren’t your thing, visit for the pace alone. It’s a quieter universe of stone castle-like halls, students and scientists scattered in the park, punt boats drifting along the river, and bicycles everywhere.

To see it up close, hire a punt from Scudamore's Punting Station to take you upstream into the heart of campus, past student-only green spaces and wedding-cake-like buildings funded by Henry VIII that now serve as mere dorm rooms. Your punter will share wild stories along the way; whether or not they are true, you can debate later over a pint nearby at The Eagle , the pub where Watson and Crick proclaimed to an unassuming lunch crowd that they had “discovered the secret to life.” Before ending the day, don’t pass by the tiny door with the ice cream cone sign just next to the pub. You may have to queue, but the wait for Jack's Gelato , the best gelato in Cambridge, is worth it.

Cambridge is accessible via rail from London and the closest airport is London Stansted, where you can catch a direct train into the city multiple times an hour.

St Ives
Original photo by Ruben Felgenhauer licensed under CC 2.0.

3. St Ives

St Ives, UK

The first time you find yourself looking out across the vivid turquoise waters of St Ives, Cornwall, you’d be forgiven for checking a map to confirm you are, in fact, still in the United Kingdom and not a Mediterranean Island.

With a bustling harborside village, featuring seafood restaurants, ice cream shops, local craft shopping, paddleboard rental, boat tours, and even a small beach, the town is an excellent place to base yourself for a taste of the UK’s southwestern-most tip. Enjoy lunch upstairs at The Harbour for unbeatable views of the sea; order a crab roll, made with fresh crab caught right outside, and you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t take it to go - carry any food outside on the street, and you’ll surely be attacked by seagulls, a sure sign to all that it’s your first time here.

St Ives is closest to Newquay Airport, just over 25 miles or 50 minutes to the north, and it's also accessible via rail into the St Ives train station. If you’re comfortable driving on the left side of the road, rent a car and drive out into the surrounding Cornish countryside to really make the most of your trip.

Snowdonia National Park
Original photo by LlynLlydaw licensed under CC 4.0.

4. Snowdonia National Park

Gwynedd, Wales LL48 6LF

At 3,560 feet, towering Mount Snowdon is the tallest mountain in Wales and the highest point in the UK outside of Scotland. Visitors from all over come to hike up to the top, which can be done in less than a day. Even if hiking isn’t your thing, Snowdonia National Park , 800+ miles of protected National Park land in the mountainous region of north Wales, is worth the trip.

If you’re comfortable renting a car and driving from London or wherever your starting point will be, head to the village of Betws-y-Coed and you’ll really see the best the Welsh countryside has to offer.

Begin with a bite to eat next to the fireplace of Ty Hyll , also known as the Ugly House. Then don’t miss Swallow Falls Waterfall , a breathtaking waterfall system easily viewable from a just-off-the-road visitor platform or accessible via a short hike along a narrow footpath. Make sure to leave time to just drive through Snowdonia National Park itself, taking in the mountains, grass, water, stone, goats, and fog.

Giant's Causeway
Original photo by Giuseppe Milo licensed under CC 2.0.

5. Giant's Causeway

Bushmills, Northern Ireland BT57 8SU

Venture across the Irish Sea to the northeast corner of the Isle of Ireland and you’ll find yourself in the stunning country of Northern Ireland. This corner of the UK is renowned for its otherworldly scenery which includes jagged cliffs and long, winding dirt roads. Its remoteness has even led to it serving as the filming location for numerous films and TV shows, including—perhaps most famously—Game of Thrones.

To absorb the vastness of nature here, journey north to the Giant's Causeway , a UNESCO site and UK National Trust reserve of nearly 40,000 basalt columns; legend says it's the remains of a causeway constructed by giants, hence the name. If you aren’t afraid of heights, brace a crossing to the tiny island of Carrickarede via the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge , erected by fishermen nearly 250 years ago. The scene is truly, in all senses of the word, wild.

At just over 60 miles or 1 hour north of the capital of Belfast where the main airport is located, Giant’s Causeway is easily accessed in a day trip from the city via car or as part of an organized tour.

Edinburgh
Original photo by Andrew Colin licensed under CC 2.0.

6. Edinburgh

Edinburgh, UK

Edinburgh is known for its hills, its haggis (a dish of sheep’s entrails), and of course, its whiskey, and it’s easy to experience them all without looking far. To get the best view of the city, ascend to the top of Arthur's Seat , an ancient extinct volcano in Holyrood Park right in the city center. There are several different paths catering to all fitness levels to reach the top and—when you do—you can see for miles in all directions (if it's a clear day).

Back on the ground, grab a milkshake at Mary's Milk Bar and walk across the street to sit in the grass and admire Edinburgh Castle up close. Or for a chance to sample local cuisine, try Bertie's Proper Fish & Chips , where locals and tourists alike gather for some of the best fish and chips around; if you’re really feeling Scottish, opt for the deep-fried haggis, washed down with Scottish whiskey.

Edinburgh has a special kind of magic to it (J.K. Rowling even wrote parts of Harry Potter here). Reach the city via rail to see for yourself (it’s just under five hours from London) or take a direct flight into Edinburgh airport.