Ever since the Romans first arrived in 43 AD, London has continually grown and evolved into a bustling metropolis. Both then and now, people from all over Britain, Europe, and the rest of the world have been drawn to live, work, and holiday in this exciting city. However, while 18th century writer Samuel Johnson has been famously quoted as saying, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” many Londonphiles would still disagree. At one time or another, virtually everyone needs a break from hectic city living. From lifelong Londoners to first time visitors, a short-term change of scenery is often in order at some point. Getting away for a spell for a day trip from London can be an invigorating and a refreshing opportunity to explore a new locale and “recharge our batteries.”
The beauty of a Do-It-Yourself, or “DIY” day trip, is that it allows travellers to experience a place on their own time and in their own way. It’s also a wonderful way to gain more confidence as a traveller, especially for those who dream of more extensive solo adventures. And since many city folks do not own cars, all of the adventures in our DIY day trips guide are accessible via public transportation. Whether you’re looking to dive into history and architecture, do some exploring, are seeking a cute small town, or something with more international flair, here are some ideas for fun days away from the city.
Day Trips from London: For history and architecture lovers
Hampton Court Palace: One of King Henry VIII’s many palaces is just a stone’s throw from the centre of London, but it’s one of just two which survive to this day. Nestled south of the Thames and west of the city centre, it’s technically still part of the Greater London area, yet has a quieter, softer, suburban pace. It’s a place where you can literally walk in the footsteps of some of the UK’s most legendary monarchs: Elizabeth I, James I, William and Mary, and George II, who was the last monarch to reside there. For those who love to know the background stories behind grand historical buildings and individuals, the audio guide to the complex is well worth picking up at reception.
Architecture (and art) enthusiasts will be blown away by the Chapel Royal, which has one of the most spectacular ceilings in Europe and is the site where Henry VIII married Catherine Parr, his last wife. The essence of Great Britain’s larger than life monarchs surrounds visitors in the Great Hall, which is the last remaining medieval hall in England. It was here that King James I was entertained by Shakespeare’s King’s Men acting troupe, and magnificent Tudor tapestries still line the walls. Try to see if you can find the one remaining Henry and Anne Crest that King Henry VIII missed when he was attempting to eradicate her presence in the hall. Foodies will be greatly interested by the ins and outs of the lofty kitchens, the running of which was basically a well-oiled machine back in the day.
Kids of all ages will enjoy getting lost in the life size maze made from yew hedges as well. It’s an exact replica of the one King William III commissioned during his heyday. Finally, strolling through the Hampton Court Gardens makes one feel you’ve accidentally wandered into Wonderland. It almost wouldn’t be a shock if a little white rabbit wearing a waistcoat ran by whilst consulting his pocket watch!
If you have spare time after leaving the palace, several boating companies run short trips along the River Thames nearby. If you’re fortunate enough to have a sunny day, this is a relaxing way to end your tiring explorations.
How to get there: Check the South West schedule before catching a train from Waterloo station. Trains run around every 30 minutes and the trip takes just over 30 minutes. Upon arriving at the Hampton Court stop, walk over the bridge and its right there. For alternative transport options, visit the Hampton Court Website.
For fans of Harry Potter, Books and Punting
Cambridge: Over the centuries, this university town on the River Cam has fostered the development of so many young students, including the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, Christopher Marlowe, Watson & Crick, Sir David Attenborough, Sir Steven Hawking and even Sacha Baron Cohen during his uni days. The university was founded in 1209 and is among the top five most esteemed in the world. Come September, the town’s population swells with students, and every summer, tourists swoop in and keep the city going.
Harry Potter lovers will feel as if they’ve stepped into their favourite books whilst walking around the magnificent old campuses in town, from Corpus Christi to Peterhouse and more. Next door to Corpus Christi is the Eagle, the pub that James Watson and Francis Crick excitedly ran into right after they discovered DNA in February 1953. There’s a special “Eagle’s DNA” ale, named in the scientists’ honour. Also nearby is John C. Taylor and Stephen Hawking’s Chronophage “time eater” clock, at the intersection of Bene’t Street and Trumpington Street. Examine and inspect it to see if you think it lives up to its “genius” hype – but heads up – it does do something special at midnight.
Another grand local institution, Trinity College, was founded by King Henry VIII, and above the entrance, there’s a statue of him which is visible from the street. All around town, from books to antiques to souvenir knick-knacks, during a wander through the streets, you’ll find loads of quaint shops to peruse, as well as eateries to enjoy. A stroll by the river along the backs of the universities is not to be missed, and neither is a punting trip down the river itself.
How to get there: Look up the Greater Anglia and Great Northern train schedules, which run from Kings Cross and Liverpool Street Stations, respectively. Alternatively, National Express buses also run from several London stations to Cambridge.
For nature lovers:
WWT: The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) runs multiple ecological reserves around the country, and luckily, one of them is inside the Greater London area. WWT was founded by Peter Scott, the son of an Antarctic explorer who went on to become an Olympian, as well as a conservation champion who also founded the IUCN “the red list.”
Built on reclaimed reservoir land in 2000, the WWT’s 100 acres of lakes, ponds, gardens, meadows, and wetlands are now home to a massive variety of colourful plants, birds (including black swans), multiple duck species, and even a few adorable brown otters. As avian migratory patterns change with the seasons, the birdlife spotted around the centre can vary as well.
There’s a viewing tower where the WWT often has staff or volunteers with binoculars to borrow. Pollinators such as butterflies, dragonflies, and honeybees are regularly spotted. Don’t miss the chance to wander through the different subsections of the park that represent various regions of the world – there’s an Australian section, a North American section, and so on.
How to get there: Several buses (such as the 33, 72, 209, and 485) run from the Hammersmith Station to just near the London Wetland Centre.
For a relaxed, sweet, small town:
St. Albans: The Cathedral City of St. Albans is an easy train ride from London and the train station is just a few minutes’ walk from the centre. St. Albans was among the first towns linked to London on the old Roman road, so it is steeped in British history. This market town, which hosts a traditional street market every Wednesday and Saturday, received its first Royal Charter in 1553. St. Albans Cathedral is a Norman church and former abbey which dates back to the 11th century.
Not only does the town have lovely green parks to enjoy, but Roman ruins can be found, including Britain’s only remaining Roman theatre. As well as the Romans, St. Albans also has Celtic and Anglo-Saxon roots, as well as plenty of medieval architecture. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which the Guinness Book of World Records lists as Britain’s oldest pub, can also be found in this charming town. The town hall is a Grade II listed building and is also home to the visitor’s centre, which has information on guided walking tours and other local activities and excursions.
How to get there: It’s a twenty minute train ride to St. Albans City Station from St. Pancras; check Thameslink for times.
Chislehurst Caves: What do the ancient Druids, Romans and Saxons have in common with David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd? At one time or another, they’ve all been to Chislehurst Caves in Kent.
Originally flint and chalk mines, these 22 miles of “caves” were actually entirely carved out by humans. Two spooky rumours are tied into the legends of the caverns: one, that they’re haunted by a ghost near the underground pond, and two, that it’s a site where the Druids practiced human sacrifice on elaborately engraved altars. From 1940-1941, the caves became an air raid shelter for 15,000 area residents during the Blitz; their safety came at a cost of 1p per night. People got to work and established sleeping quarters, electric lighting, a chapel and a hospital, all of which can be seen during lantern-lit guided tours.
In April 1941, near the end of the Blitz, one baby was born there; she was christened Rose Cavena Wakeman in honour of her unique birthplace. Sounds down there can carry for about a mile, so the cave system has been used as a concert venue by Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and David Bowie, before becoming a tourist attraction. Whovians will also enjoy seeing where Dr. Who once filmed too.
The Chislehurst tour guides offer fascinating insight into the history and mystery of the caves at a reasonable price, and are the only way the public is allowed in anymore. Check the website for opening times and tour schedules.
How to get there: From Cannon Street Station, Southeastern trains run to Chislehurst station and take about thirty minutes. On the street outside Chislehurst station, signs direct pedestrians towards the caves, which are only a couple of minutes’ walk from there.
For something with international flair:
Lille: 80 minutes away from Kings Cross St. Pancras is Lille, France, a lovely day trip anytime of the year, but particularly during Christmastime. After a ten minute walk from the Lille train station, starting along Avenue Le Corbusier, visitors can find themselves in the centre of the old town.
With its stunning art collection, architecture, cuisine and more, it’s not difficult to understand why Lille was named 2004’s European Capital of Culture. Lille is a charming French city not far from the nation’s border with Belgium, and this proximity is reflected in its beautiful, Flemish-influenced buildings. Take a stroll down and around the beautiful, winding streets and alleys, including those in the Quartier Royal and the ancient Passage des Trois Anguilles. The town’s Palais des Beaux Arts is arguably home to provincial France’s finest collection. Art connoisseurs can find masterpieces and works created by Goya, Rubens, Monet, Picasso, Donatello and many more famous artistes.
When it comes to dining out in Lille, crepes are a classic (and solid) go-to choice, Northern French wines (including champagne!) or Flemish beers are the local drinks to imbibe, oysters or moules frites from the nearby coast are a must for seafood lovers, and fans of French fromage shouldn’t miss the rich Normandy cheeses, such as a warm Camembert. For those who manage to save room for dessert, it’s hard to go wrong with delightful French chocolate or a beignet. However, for a more refined sit-down experience, Maison Meert, a tearoom in an 18th century building, is renowned for its pastries.
The tourist office offering a plethora of information about activities, arts, architecture, dining, and more, lies in a Gothic former royal palace and is open Monday through Saturday. Christmastime is an especially lovely season to visit Lille, as a festive, traditional European market is set up near one of the two town squares – there’s even a Ferris wheel for those wanting a higher view of the area.
How to get there: Book direct, round trip train tickets from Kings Cross St Pancras to Lille with the Eurostar. Don’t forget to bring your passport!