Need a break from the hustle and bustle of London after a week of sightseeing? England's compactness means there are don't-miss day trips on the doorstep of the capital. From the dreaming spires of Oxford to sophisticated, sexy Brighton, and upper crust Windsor and Eton to classy Bath, you can easily hop on a train or catch a bus to a range of real gems.
The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold called Oxford ‘that sweet city with her dreaming spires’. For visitors, the superb architecture and the unique atmosphere of the more than three dozen colleges – synonymous with academic excellence – and their courtyards and gardens remain major attractions.
The town dates back to the early 12th century (having developed from an earlier Saxon village) and has been responsible for educating some 26 British prime ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and the current PM, David Cameron.
Best sight: Pitt Rivers Museum - an Aladdin’s cave of explorers’ booty spread over three floors and crammed with such things as blowpipes, magic charms, voodoo dolls and shrunken heads from the Caribbean, Africa and the Pacific.
Best place to eat: Jericho Tavern - Chilled out, with big leather sofas, a large beer garden and a live-music venue upstairs (supposedly Radiohead played their first gig here), this old coaching inn just outside the city gates in the trendy Jericho district has added gastropub to its CV and it’s a winner.
Best place to drink: Turf Tavern - Hidden away down a narrow alleyway off Holywell St, this tiny medieval pub is one of the town’s best-loved and bills itself as ‘an education in intoxication’. Home to real ales and student antics, it’s always packed and is one of the few pubs in Oxford with plenty of outdoor seating.
Getting there and away
- Bus - Oxford Tube and Oxford Espress buses depart every 10 to 30 minutes round the clock from London’s Victoria coach station and can be boarded at various other points in London too, including Marble Arch, Notting Hill Gate and Shepherd’s Bush.
- Train - There are two trains per hour from London’s Paddington station.
With its large student population, the country’s biggest gay scene outside London, and working-class families down for a jolly, this city by the sea caters to everyone. It offers in one outstretched hand atmospheric cafes, excellent restaurants, old-style beach seafood huts and good-for-a-laugh amusement pier.
The town’s character essentially dates from the 1780s when the dissolute, music loving Prince Regent (the future King George IV) built his outrageous summer palace, the Royal Pavilion, here as a venue for lavish parties by the sea. And that charmingly seedy ‘great-place-for-a-dirty-weekend’ vibe lasted throughout the gang-ridden 1930s of Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock and the mods versus-rockers rivalry of the 1950s and ’60s.
Best sight: Royal Pavilion Palace - Brighton’s primary attraction, the Royal Pavilion, is an extraordinary folly – Indian palace on the outside and over-the-top chinoiserie within. The first pavilion, built in 1787, was a classical villa. It wasn’t until the early 19th century, when things Asian were all the rage, that the current confection began to take shape under the direction of John Nash, architect of Regent’s Park and its surrounding crescents. The entire over-the-top edifice, which Queen Victoria sold to the town in 1850 (apparently she found Brighton ‘far too crowded’), is not to be missed.
Best place to eat: Sam’s of Brighton – Not exactly in the thick of things, this family-owned restaurant (those are pictures of the kids on the wall) in easternmost Kemp Town is well worth the journey for its innovative takes on dishes like roast breast of guinea fowl and braised Southdowns lamb. Brunch is served from 10am at the weekend.
Best place to drink: Basketmakers Arms Pub - Probably the best traditional pub in Brighton, Basketmakers is in the North Laine district, southeast of the train station, and has eight ales on tap. Food (fish of the day, Mexican chilli) is way above average and served daily from noon to 8.30pm (7pm on Saturday, 6pm on Sunday).
Getting There & Away
- Bus - National Express runs hourly buses from Victoria coach station.
- Train - There are about 40 fast trains each day from London’s Victoria station, and slower ones from Blackfriars, London Bridge and King’s Cross.
Windsor & Eton
With its romantic architecture and superb state rooms, Windsor Castle is one of Britain’s premier tourist attractions and, since it is so close to central London and easily accessible by rail and road, it crawls with tourists in all seasons. If possible, avoid visiting at weekends and during the peak months of July and August when the queues to get into Liz’s humble abode are at their longest.
If you can’t avoid these periods and need a respite from the crowds, cross the pedestrian Windsor Bridge over the Thames and head for Eton. By comparison it’s far quieter. And while it, too, is a one-trick pony in the form of the world’s most prestigious boys’ school, its pedestrianised centre is lined with antique shops and art galleries rather than chain restaurants and high street brand shops.
Best sight: Windsor Castle - British monarchs have inhabited Windsor Castle for more than 900 years, and it is well known to be the Queen’s favourite residence and the place she calls home after returning from her work ‘week’ (now just Tuesday to Thursday) at the ‘office’ (Buckingham Palace). A disastrous fire in 1992 nearly wiped out this incredible piece of English cultural heritage, luckily damage, though severe, was limited and a £37 million restoration, completed in 1997, has returned the state apartments to their former glory.
Best place to eat: Gilbey’s - This little restaurant just beyond the bridge in Eton is one of the area’s finest. Terracotta tiling and a sunny courtyard garden lend a Continental cafe air, but the understated decor and menu are indisputably British.
Best place to drink: Two Brewers pub - This 17th-century inn perched on the edge of Windsor Great Park and the Long Walk is close to the castle’s tradesmen’s entrance and supposedly frequented by staff from the castle. It’s a quaint and cosy place, with dim lighting, obituaries to castle footmen and royal photographs with irreverent captions on the wall. Great pub grub too.
Getting There & Away
- Bus - Green Line buses Nos 701 and 702 link Victoria coach station with Windsor at least hourly every day.
- Train - Trains from Waterloo station go to Windsor Riverside station every 30 minutes, or hourly on Sunday. Trains from Paddington go via Slough to Eton and Windsor Central station.
This delightful city of honey-coloured stone has always been renowned for its architecture, especially its fine Georgian terraces. Nowadays, though, it is celebrated in equal measure for its association with the novelist Jane Austen – not so much for her actual works but for the films based on them. Sometimes it seems the crowds just can’t get enough.
Best sight: Roman Baths Museum - Ever since the Romans arrived in Bath, life has revolved around the three natural springs that bubble up near Bath Abbey. The 2000-year-old baths now form one of the best-preserved ancient Roman spas in the world.
Best place to eat: Circus - This appropriately named restaurant on the western edge of the Circus is our favourite place in Bath. The food, prepared by chef/owner Alison Golden, is excellent and beautifully presented, the welcome is warm, and you can choose to eat on the ground floor over overlooking a small courtyard or in the intimate cellar dining room.
Best place to drink: Star Inn – Not many pubs can boast they serve ‘ales from the vineyards’ or retain their original 19th century bar fittings. It’s the brewery tap for Bath-based Abbey Ales; some ales are served straight from the barrel into traditional jugs, and you can ask for a pinch of snuff in the ‘smaller bar’.
Getting There & Away
- Bus - National Express links London’s Victoria coach station with Bath up to 10 times a day.
- Train - There are direct trains from London, Paddington and Waterloo stations at least hourly.
This article was updated in November 2012.
For more ideas on what to see on a day trip from London, check out Lonely Planet's England travel guide.