Wiltshire is rich in the reminders of ritual and packed with not-to-be-missed sights. Its verdant landscape is littered with more mysterious stone circles, processional avenues and ancient barrows than anywhere else in Britain. It's a place that teases and tantalises the imagination – here you'll experience the prehistoric majesty of Stonehenge and the atmospheric stone ring at Avebury. Add the serene 800-year-old cathedral at Salisbury, the supremely stately homes at Stourhead and Longleat and the impossibly pretty village of Lacock, and you have a county crammed full of English charm waiting to be explored.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Wiltshire.
England is endowed with countless stunning churches, but few can hold a candle to the grandeur and sheer spectacle of 13th-century Salisbury Cathedral. This early English Gothic–style structure, built between 1220 and 1258, has an elaborate exterior decorated with pointed arches and flying buttresses, and a sombre, austere interior designed to keep its congregation suitably pious. Its statuary and tombs are outstanding. Highlights of a visit here are the cathedral’s original 13th-century copy of Magna Carta, and taking a tour of the tower. Inside the cathedral Beyond its highly decorative West Front, a small passageway leads into the 70m-long nave, lined with handsome pillars of Purbeck stone. In the north aisle look out for a fascinating medieval clock dating from 1386, probably the oldest working timepiece in the world. At the eastern end of the ambulatory the glorious Prisoners of Conscience stained-glass window (1980) hovers above the ornate tomb of Edward Seymour (1539–1621) and Lady Catherine Grey. Other monuments and tombs line the sides of the nave, including that of William Longespée, son of Henry II and half-brother of King John. When the tomb was excavated a well-preserved rat was found inside Longespée's skull. The spire Salisbury's 123m crowning glory, its spire, was added in the mid-14th century, and is the tallest in Britain. It represented an enormous technical challenge for its medieval builders; it weighs around 6500 tonnes and required an elaborate system of cross-bracing, scissor arches and supporting buttresses to keep it upright. Look closely and you'll see the additional weight has buckled the four central piers of the nave. Sir Christopher Wren surveyed the cathedral in 1668 and calculated that the spire was leaning by 75cm. A brass plate in the floor of the nave is used to measure any shift, but no further lean was recorded in 1951 or 1970. Despite this, reinforcement of the notoriously "wonky spire" continues to this day. Tickets and other information Timed tickets must be booked in advance via the website. These are valid for repeat visits for 12 months after purchase. Tickets include access to the Chapter House where you can view Magna Carta. Check the website for the availability of tours, including the very popular tower tours. The cathedral really comes into its own during evensong. Again, you will need to book your visit in advance.
Magna Carta on display in Salisbury Cathedral's Chapter House is one of only four surviving original copies. A historic agreement made in 1215 between King John and his barons, it acknowledged the fundamental principle that the monarch was not above the law. It's a still-powerful document, beautifully written in Latin and remarkably well preserved. It's displayed in an interactive exhibit in the 13th century Chapter House. There's also a high-resolution facsimile in the North Transept.
An ultramodern makeover at ancient Stonehenge has brought an impressive visitor centre and the closure of an intrusive road (now restored to grassland). The result is a strong sense of historical context, with dignity and mystery returned to an archaeological gem. A pathway frames the ring of massive stones. Although you can't walk in the circle, unless on a recommended Stone Circle Experience tour, you can get fairly close. Admission is through timed tickets – secure a place well in advance.
With a diameter of 348m, Avebury is the largest stone circle in the world. It's also one of the oldest, dating from 2500 to 2200 BC. Today, more than 30 stones are in place; pillars show where missing stones would have been. Wandering between them emphasises the site's sheer scale, evidenced also by the massive bank and ditch that line the circle; the quieter northwest sector is particularly atmospheric. National Trust–run guided walks (£3) are held on most days.
Stately Wilton House provides an insight into the rarefied world of the British aristocracy. One of England's finest stately homes, it's been the house of the earls of Pembroke since 1542, and has been expanded, improved and embellished by successive generations. Highlights are the Single and Double Cube Rooms, designed by the pioneering 17th-century architect Inigo Jones. Wilton House is 2.5 miles west of Salisbury; bus R3 runs from Salisbury (£2.70, 10 minutes, one to three hourly Monday to Saturday).
Overflowing with vistas, temples and follies, Stourhead is landscape gardening at its finest. The Palladian house has some fine Chippendale furniture and paintings by Claude and Gaspard Poussin, but it’s a sideshow to the magnificent 18th-century gardens (open 9am to 5pm), which spread out across the valley. Stourhead is off the B3092, 8 miles south of Frome.
Half ancestral mansion, half wildlife park, Longleat was transformed into Britain's first safari park in 1966, turning Capability Brown's landscaped grounds into an amazing drive-through zoo populated by a menagerie of animals more at home in the African wilderness than the fields of Wiltshire. There's a throng of attractions, too: the historic house, animatronic dinosaur exhibits, narrow-gauge railway, mazes, pets' corner, butterfly garden and bat cave. It's just off the A362, 3 miles from Frome. Save around 10% by booking tickets online.
The huge ramparts of Old Sarum sit on a grass-covered hill 2 miles north of Salisbury. You can wander the grassy ramparts, see the original cathedral's stone foundations, and look across the Wiltshire countryside to the spire of the present Salisbury Cathedral. Medieval tournaments, jousts, open-air plays and mock battles are held on selected days. Bus X5 runs hourly from Salisbury to Old Sarum (£2.30), Monday to Saturday. It's also a stop on the Stonehenge Tour bus.
Malmesbury Abbey is a blend of ruin and living church, with a somewhat turbulent history. Notable features include the Norman doorway decorated with biblical figures, the Romanesque Apostle carvings and a four-volume illuminated bible dating from 1407. A window at the western end of the church depicts Elmer the Flying Monk, who in 1010 strapped on wings and jumped from the tower. Although he broke both legs during this leap of faith, he survived and became a local hero.