When I travelled around Vietnam for two and a half months in 2012, I spoke regularly to Vietnamese students about the amazing places I had been in their country. The response was always the same: ‘Wow, you’ve seen more of my country than I have’. It got me thinking about how much I’d seen of the U.K. and Ireland. I was embarrassed that I’d seen numerous cities and places around the world but very little of my own country and nearby Ireland. So I came back on a mission to explore as much as possible on my doorstep.
In no particular order I’ve now been to Liverpool, Exeter, Manchester, Oxford, New Forest, Cambridge, Dublin, Bournemouth, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Dartmoor National Park, Canterbury, Lake District, and the Yorkshire Dales. I also spent three years living in Brighton as a student and London is only a 30 minute train ride away from where I live. Although I have many more places to see (fellow travellers will sympathise that the list only ever gets longer), here is my two week itinerary for the UK and Ireland.
London, England (3 days)
Obviously there are endless things to do in London and lots of alternative options to the main tourist sites. However, London is a beautiful, historic and fun city and so the main tourist sites are really important on a first visit! In no particular order my list over three days would include: Houses of Parliament tour (UK residents can get free tickets by emailing their MP but there are many other tour options for a fee on the parliament website); a spin on the London Eye; Covent Garden for street performers; if it’s a nice day walking along the South Bank from Waterloo Bridge all the way to weird and wonderful Borough Market; going up The View at The Shard (or going to the bar with no entry fee for a £12 drink and still getting amazing views); the Sky Garden at Fenchurch Street (free but MUST book in advance); a loop around lovely Hyde Park, including a visit to the Princess Diana memorial and breakfast overlooking the Serpentine; Buckingham Palace; and if you’re feeling brave a trip out to Draughts Board Game Cafe in East London (a fun night out if you’re a geek like me!).
Brighton, England (1 day)
I have a soft spot for Brighton. It’s the most liberal city in the UK and has a great laid back vibe. While it’s a major student city, it’s not particularly dominated by students or the two universities. There’s plenty to keep you occupied on a day trip from London. Of course, a walk along the pebbled beach is a must. If there is any sun at all, Brighton beach will always be packed! You could also try your luck in Brighton Pier’s amusement arcade or if you’re feeling very brave, go on the fun fair rides at the end of the pier. Spend a couple of hours getting lost in the Lanes, which are a series of twisting narrow alleyways. The North Lanes are dominated by independent jewellery shops and the South Lanes has cafe culture galore with restaurants and independent shops thrown in. Curry Leaf is a great Indian street food restaurant, there’s not much on the menu but the food is excellent, the decor is fun (although watch your head in the toilet!), and the staff are friendly. If you want nightlife, Brighton is the place. There’s a bar, pub and club in Brighton and neighbouring Hove for every day of the year catering for all tastes. My favourites are the Oxygen shot bar and Shooshh… nightclub (previously Honey club). There’s also plenty of live music, comedy, and theatre at Komedia.
Oxford, England (2 days)
Oxford is the best of old England. It is, of course, dominated by Oxford University, who’s colleges are scattered over the city but this only adds to its charm. We started with a free 2 hour walking tour with footprints tours, which I would highly recommend as the tour guides are fantastic and very funny. We then spent most of our time just wondering around the city getting lost and taking in the different colleges. Christ Church College was by far the most impressive (the dining room was used as the Hogwarts Great Hall in the Harry Potter series). We aren’t normally fans of museums but worthwhile stops (they are on the same road) were the Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses an amazing archaeological collection, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which has a range of natural history specimens. Both were really interesting and well laid out. Climbing the 127 steps to the top of University Church is highly recommended to get amazing 360 degree views over Oxford.
Lake District, England (3 days)
By far the most beautiful place in England. Every time I look at the photos, I still can’t believe how amazing the landscape is. We didn’t follow any particular routes but we were staying near Kendal so we spent the first day walking around Windermere, all the way up to Ambleside. We spent the second day cycling around Elterwater. The final half day was spent walking around Keswick. The evenings were spent eating dinner in a pub and having a drink by the fire, which finished off the day perfectly. A car is essential for the Lake District.
Manchester, England (2 days)
Manchester is a really modern and fun city. It has been at the forefront of regeneration in the north and these efforts have paid off. A friend and I went at the end of November so the main Christmas market outside the town hall was in full festive swing and was lovely to walk around for an hour or so. The town hall itself is also worth a walk around. We were there on a girly weekend so highlights for us were the shopping, including the massive Arndale centre, and the fabulous Canal Street as the centre of the Manchester Gay Village for a night out (no prudes allowed!).
Dublin, Ireland (3 days)
Dublin is a fantastic, friendly and vibrant capital city. Even though we didn’t have the best weather (we went in November), we had a great time and found there was so much to do.
The hop on, hop off bus has two routes – red and blue – and is a great way to see the city. Unlike many others I’ve been on, often the drivers do the commentary, which gives a great personalised experience. We spent most of our time on the red one, which takes you to all the main sites including: Trinity College (well worth a walk around), Christchurch cathedral, Chester Beatty Library (worth a quick visit), Guinness Storehouse (we went but not overly impressed with the museum… was quite fun learning how to pour the best Guinness pint though!), Kilmainham Gaol (excellent prison and tour, would highly recommend), and Dublin Zoo (amazing zoo, really enjoyed it – book tickets in advance to get a better deal). The blue route takes you to some of the same sites plus additional sites in the east of the city around the docks.
As well as visiting the main sites listed above, we also had a lovely walk around St Stephen’s Green (park), went to the Savoy Cinema (founded in 1929), and had an evening in the Temple Bar area.