Where to go in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1, 2, or 3 weeks
If you are reading this article it's probably because you are interested in where you should go after London on a visit to the island of Great Britain. London deserves its reputation as one of the world's great cities, but increasingly London has very little to do with the rest of the island.
Nearly all of the island of Great Britain (usually called just ‘Britain') is green with rolling hills and gorgeous landscapes. Going from place to place you'll have a chance to see a lot of that outside the train window, so you'll be able to visit other worthwhile towns AND see the wonderful scenery along the way.
I've visited all of the place mentioned below and many more that I don't recommend, so this is my honest list of the best places from an experienced traveler. I've also lived in London for 6 months and visited countless other times, and I really believe that everyone should see it at least once if they can.
Getting around England, Scotland, and Wales
Unless you are experienced at driving on the left side of the road, it's probably unwise to rent a car for a tour of Britain. Unlike Ireland, where the roads are mostly empty, these countries have a lot of traffic and driving isn't very pleasant.
Fortunately the trains go everywhere listed below and nearly everywhere else. There is a Britrail travel pass, but it's not good value unless you are going great distances with each leg. If you buy train tickets online at least a month or so in advance you'll find that they are quite cheap. But if you buy them on travel day you won't believe how expensive they are, even for a short journey.
Itinerary basics to get us started
If you are unsure of where exactly to go in Britain, here are the basic recommendations to get you started. If you've already been to London and Edinburgh you can skip down and look at all of the best options beyond those two fascinating capitals.
- 3 or 4-day itinerary: London only
- 5 to 7-day itinerary: London and Edinburgh
- 8 or more days: London, Edinburgh, and whatever else interests you most
Best options for DIY tours of Great Britain (England, Scotland, Wales)
London (obviously): 3 or more nights
Anyone looking for advice in this article obviously already knows about London and it's almost certainly where you'll be flying into. Long story short, you should spend at least 3 nights in London just to see the top highlights, and longer is better. In fact, the majority of foreign tourists into Britain only stay in London and then leave. That's not a bad idea for your first visit because London honestly contains the vast majority of the famous and notable attractions in Britain.
If you've visited London before or for some reason want to mostly skip it, there are many great options that are described below.
Brighton: Day trip or 1 or 2 nights
Train from London: 1 hour
Brighton is a seaside town directly south of London and you can reach it on an affordable commuter train in about an hour. Especially in the summer months, Brighton is very lively both during the day and in the pubs and bars at night. It has a large pier at its heart that is covered with rides and games and all of the kitchy things you might expect in an old-timey seaside resort.
It's small enough that you can get a good feel for the place in only a few hours so it's a good day trip. But hotels here tend to be a bit cheaper than those in London so staying a night or two can be fun. In spite of being kind of an old fashioned destination, Brighton is rather hip and many well-heeled London workers call it home all year round. Brighton is also arguably England's gay capital.
Oxford and/or Cambridge: Day trip or 1 night
Train from London: 1 hour to either
Most tourists will visit Oxford or Cambridge as a day trip from London, and it's an easy and somewhat scenic one-hour journey to either (in different directions). Both towns are obviously known for being the home to most of Britain's famous colleges between them, and both are charming and pleasant. Unless you are a completist or a history nerd, it's probably best to just visit one of them since they are pretty similar.
Oxford is a bit more famous and now it's more crowded partly due to the fact that many scenes in the Harry Potter film series were filmed there, but Cambridge might be a bit more photogenic at its heart. Both towns have tips-based “free” walking tours that do a great job leading you to the main sights in two hours or so.
Both towns are quite tourist-oriented with plenty of gift shops as well as hotels. Room rates in both towns are cheaper than those in London, so if you have time it's not a bad idea to stay overnight. You won't find much raucous nightlife, but both towns are loaded with interesting pubs and restaurants in the town center.
Bath and Bristol: Day trip or 1 or 2 nights
Train from London: 1 hour 45 minutes
The second most popular destination for foreign visitors in southern England, Bath is a Roman and Georgian spa city known for its distinctive architecture and hot spring baths. You can actually visit the town as a long day trip from London that might also include Stonehenge and Oxford, but that's a very long day for a quick look at these places. Bath is really a wonderful and unique town that is worth at least one night.
Hotels in Bath are quite expensive so many people stay in the larger nearby city of Bristol, which is only 15 minutes away by train from Bath. Bristol itself is a famous university town and one of the most desirable places to live in Britain, so it's an interesting contrast to gigantic London. The city is also not only the home of street-artist Banksy, but it's a hot bed of street art in general. If you want to see Bath and Bristol, two nights is ideal.
Cornwall: 2 or 3 nights
Train from London: 5 hours 25 minutes
Almost all of Britain is green and strangely beautiful, but the region of Cornwall in the far southwest of the island is arguably the most dramatic and gorgeous part. Tourists tend to focus on various small towns, so it's quite decentralized. The most famous attraction is the scenic farthest point called Land's End, which does have nice views if you can ignore the shopping center and huge parking lots.
St. Ives and Penzance are two of the better small towns for tourists, and both are in that same distant area. Newquay is a larger town that is (believe it or not) England's surfing capital. It's a lively place to base yourself and a good place to catch a coach tour of the area, with plenty of reasonably priced hotels.
The Eden Project, near St. Austell is another top attraction. It consists of two biomes (plastic domes) that house a wide variety of plants from climates and environments all over the world.
Manchester?: 1 or 2 nights?
Train from London: 2 hours 7 minutes
Manchester is England's second most famous city, mostly due to its famous football teams and decades of famous musicians who have hailed from here. But it's actually a bit smaller than the even less tourist-friendly Birmingham, which is another place to probably skip. The reason this entry has question marks above is that it's not a city to visit unless you have a specific reason to do so.
Even with its famous artistic and athletic past, Manchester is mostly a dud for foreign tourists compared to all the others on this list. There isn't much to see and most of the city center is made up of new shopping centers. Even Manchester's most famous nightlife district, which is known as the Northern Quarter, has almost nothing to offer a visitor who has come to spend time in the bars and clubs made famous by their musical heroes.
If you want to see a football match at Old Trafford, it's very hard to get tickets if you aren't a member. But if you can get tickets, that could be worth doing.
Liverpool: 1 or 2 nights
Train from London: 2 hours 14 minutes
Those who haven't studied their map might be shocked to learn that Liverpool is only 35 miles (55 km) west of Manchester. Each city has a distinctive accent, with the Liverpool accent being far more famous because it makes anyone sound like a Beatle. Liverpool is actually another marginal tourist destination that most people are probably better off skipping, but at least it's more interesting than Manchester.
Fans of the Beatles should consider this pilgrimage as a worthwhile one, especially to visit the Beatles Story attraction on the docks. There are also many tours that point out the locations mentioned in lyrics, which give you a pretty good general Liverpool tour in the process. Aside from that, Liverpool is actually a photogenic seafront town with a large historic core. The pedestrianized area that makes up the old town is mostly chain stores, but still it's a nice place to stroll and visit an English city other than London.
York: 1 or 2 nights
Train from London: 1 hour 50 minutes
If England had a “Big 3” tourist cities, they are London, Bath, and York. So if you've got 8 to 10 days to visit Britain and you don't want to go as far north as Edinburgh, those 3 cities will make a great visit. York is a Roman-era city that still has some of its city walls intact, but it's even more famous for the huge Gothic York Minster (cathedral) at its heart.
Visiting the Minster itself won't take more than an hour or two, but York itself is a lovely small city with a wonderful historic center and a pleasant river running through it. There are plenty of bed & breakfasts and charming hotels in and near the city center, so this is another interesting place to see a side of England that isn't London.
Those with more time on their hands might also want to explore the photogenic rural area known as Yorkshire, which stretches out far to the west of York. Leeds is the largest city, but visiting Yorkshire is all about the small farm villages and general scenery. It can be enjoyable in a rented car, or you can find a B&B in one of the towns and stay a day or two.
Scotland has a distinctive look and culture to some degree, so it's worth its own visit if you have the time. If you want to hit the highlights on a tour of Britain, your best options are just below.
Edinburgh: 2 or 3 nights
Train from London: 4 hours 20 minutes
As mentioned up top, the Scottish capital is the second most important stop on this island for foreign visitors, or at least those who have time. This is another Roman city with a very photogenic castle near its center, but it's also a huge cultural center for the Scots and it's a big deal internationally with art festivals each summer.
Anyone with Scottish ancestry will be fascinated by Edinburgh, but even if you don't you'll really enjoy the place. The Royal Mile in the Old Town is the heart of the action, though the “New Town” area nearby is almost as old and also a charming place to stay. Fortunately, prices in Edinburgh are noticeably cheaper than the same things in London.
Inverness and the Scottish Highlands: 2 or 3 nights
If you look on a map of Scotland, the famous “Highlands” are the northern part and especially along the jagged west coast. The scenery is phenomenal and quite varied, though it's almost all green and hilly. This is where kilts come from and many other famous Scottish things. Inverness is a charming town that is essentially the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, so it's the ideal base for day trips to the Isle of Skye and the whole region.
So after you leave Edinburgh, you want to head to Inverness for your chance to see the best of Scotland outside of the cities. Inverness is a lovely little town along a river and hotel prices are pretty reasonable.
By the way, Loch Ness is just south of Inverness and there are constant tours of the lake and a couple of nearby sights, but they are quite dull. The lake itself is extremely deep, but on the surface it's nothing special and the “Nessy” tales are silly to most people. Skip Loch Ness and focus on the Highlands tours instead.
Glasgow: 1 or 2 nights?
Edinburgh is the capital of Scotland and it's more interesting, but Glasgow is the larger city and it's only 45 miles (70 km) away. In spite of its reputation as an industrial city on the decline, Glasgow is actually surprisingly pleasant and photogenic. The main city center is loaded with shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels, and it's nicer than you probably would assume.
In other words, if you are going to one Scottish city it should be Edinburgh, and if you want to also see the best natural sights then you should head to Inverness. But if you want to see another city, perhaps on the way back down south, then Glasgow is quite a nice option.
Wales is the western part of the central part of the island of Great Britain, and it's by far the least famous of the three countries here. If you have Welsh heritage or even if you are just curious or a completist, it's worth checking out for a few days if you have them.
Cardiff: 2 nights
Cardiff is the capital of Wales and it's actually very close to Bristol and Bath in England, so it's easy to visit right after those or even as a day trip. Cardiff Castle is in the heart of the city and it's definitely worth a look. This is a city on a large port so it's got some very nice water views in different areas of town, and it's a generally nice place.
The city doesn't look very different from England, so don't expect anything too exotic. Still, if you have a couple days and you are in the area, you will be happy you came for a visit. By the way, soccer/football fans will also have heard of Swansea, which is the other large Welsh city not far away. But save your time and skip it as it's a bit of a dud, even compared to Cardiff.
Llandudno and Conwy: 2 or 3 nights
Along the northern coast of Wales, which has a different accent and culture from the south, Llandudno is the country's nicest old-fashioned seaside resort town. It's actually not far from Manchester and Liverpool so it's easier to visit from those cities than it is to reach it from Cardiff or anywhere else. There is an extremely long pier that feels like it's out of an old movie, but the whole downtown area is also very interesting and pleasant.
A 15-minute train ride from Llandudno is the much smaller town of Conwy, which is even more interesting for most foreign tourists. There is a ruined castle just at the edge of the city, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. The castle is worth the trip by itself, but the whole town is lovely and very photogenic.