If you’re looking for a summer holiday surrounded by history and culture, then the UK is one of the best places to go. The cities here hold secrets that reach back through the centuries, with intricate architecture and local traditions keeping the memories of the past alive.
Here are some of the most intriguing small cities in the UK, each with their own individual charm and sights to behold. You can spend several days exploring their nooks and crannies, or use them as a base to discover the surrounding countryside.
The charming cathedral city of Durham is one of the most unusual settlements in northern England, with the old town centred around a large meander in the River Wear. It was founded over the resting place of St. Cuthbert, and you’ll see many references to this hallowed saint as you explore the city.
The focal point is Palace Green in the heart of the city, which is overlooked by both Durham Castle and Durham Cathedral. The castle is part of Durham University and during term time is lived in by the students. You can take a guided tour of the building given by one of the robed alumni. Outside of term you can actually stay inside the castle yourself, perhaps up in the keep or down in the gatehouse keeping watch over the comings and goings.
The cathedral is one of the most impressive religious structures in the world, and is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Dating back to 1093, the cathedral is one of the last intact monastic buildings in the country. It also served as a filming location for the Harry Potter movies so see if you can spot where some of the famous scenes were shot.
Durham is stuffed with tempting tea shops and independent restaurants, and there’s a lovely riverside walk to enjoy if you want to burn off some of those cream cake calories.
Medieval York is also located up in the north of England, and makes a great base if you want to explore the wider area too. The beautiful rolling Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors are right on your doorstep. The city itself is a lesson in time travel, with timber-beamed houses lining the cobbled streets everywhere you turn.
A real highlight is York Minster, which sits in the centre of the old historic district of the city, and has been the heart of Christianity since the 7th century. Make sure you walk around the exterior to admire it from every angle, before heading inside to explore. Keep an eye out for the famous Rose Window, and climb the central tower for sweeping panoramic views out over the old city.
Other sights not to miss include the Treasurer’s House, with its lovingly planted gardens and resident Roman ghosts, and the timber-framed Merchant Adventurer’s Hall which dates back to the 14th century. If the sun is shining, and it often does in York, take a stroll along the medieval city walls and appreciate the sprawling districts from a new angle.
The accommodation in York is a real treat too, with lots of charming hotels and guest houses to choose from. Stay in the old quarter within the city walls if you can. York is a really popular place to visit with tourists flocking here from all over the world, so making your hotel booking well ahead of your trip is always a good idea.
The capital city of Scotland is one of the most popular destinations in the UK, thanks to its captivating architecture and fascinating past. Edinburgh is also a jumping off point for tours of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, as well as the northeast coast so it makes sense to begin or end your holiday here.
The Old Town is where the action is, and it’s best to base yourself here if you want to explore the city highlights on foot. The Royal Mile is always a good place to start, and you can see the old tenement houses standing like sentinels along the road. Take an underground tour to discover the hidden city of old at Mary King’s Close, and try and resist the souvenir shops displaying all manner of tartan-themed memorabilia.
Next, walk uphill to visit the famous Edinburgh Castle, which dates all the way back to the 12th century. Inside you can see the Crown Jewels of Scotland, as well as the Stone of Destiny and the Mons Meg gun, which fires each day at 1 PM. You can take a tour or just wander around alone, whichever floats your boat.
Royalist fans should head to the Palace of Holyroodhouse to see the official Scottish residence of the Queen. If you know your history you’ll remember that Mary Queen of Scots lived here before being sent to her death at the hands of Elizabeth I. Don’t leave the city without also checking out the Royal Yacht Britannia to see how our current Queen spent her days at sea while touring on this famous boat.
Lincoln is another historic cathedral city with bags of charm. Hidden away in rural Lincolnshire in the east of England, the city is best enjoyed on foot once you arrive. The medieval architecture can be traced back to Norman times, so if you want to know what cities looked like back in the day, this is the place to come.
Built by none other than William the Conqueror, the Castle is a must-see, perched on a hill in the middle of the city, keeping watch over the lands. Inside there’s a Victorian prison to discover, as well as a rare copy of the famous Magna Carta signed by King John back in 1215. The views from the castle walls over the old town are spectacular so don’t forget to pack the camera.
Of course you mustn’t miss a visit to Lincoln Cathedral, which was once the tallest building in the world. The Gothic design is very photogenic, and you can take a tour behind the scenes up in the eaves to discover some of the workings of this giant cathedral.
Muster your energy for a climb up Steep Hill, which is decked out with quaint gift shops, galleries, tea rooms, local restaurants, and traditional pubs. This is a great place for some souvenir shopping as well as a spot of lunch afterwards for a breather.
Our final historic city is Bath, found down in the rural county of Somerset in the River Avon valley. Known for its ancient Roman baths, the city is a World Heritage Site and one of the most-visited destinations in the southwest.
The thermal springs permeating through the limestone bedrock are supposed to have healing properties, and made for a soothing dip through the centuries! Today the Roman site is a museum with enough statues, springs and temples to keep even the most avid history buffs happy. You can take the waters yourself in one of the nearby spas.
Imagine yourself strolling through the pages of a Jane Austin novel as you walk along the Royal Crescent, admiring the Regency houses that stand proud along the street. Some of them are hotels so this is a great place to stay if you want to be in the thick of things. Pop into the Jane Austin Centre if you’re a fan of hers!
There’s an here abbey too, dating back to the Middle Ages and famed for its fan vaulting in the nave. If you want a breather from all the history, then pop over to Royal Victoria Park for a tranquil garden meander or even a picnic. See if you can spot the monuments dotted around the lawns.