The sheer number of tourist attractions in central London may leave families feeling somewhat tethered, but a few well-placed day trips are a great way to break up any British holiday itinerary. With unique settings that offer distinct flavors of England and plenty of room to frolic, these outings — all within 2 hours’ train ride of the city — are well worth the effort. The hardest part may be agreeing on which to choose!
Hampton Court Palace
Activities abound at this palace of King Henry VIII, ranging from guided tours of the palace itself (children can don period clothing during their visit) to the magic garden with its mysterious mythical beasts and the famous Hampton Court maze. Don’t miss touring the Chocolate Kitchens, which fell out of use and were hidden for years, but have been recently restored and reopened. The littlest visitors will enjoy the music and movement of the Tiny Explorers program; older children will be tempted by Digital Missions, interactive sessions where they can meet characters from history, explore and win badges.
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Kew offers plenty of new and inventive ways to appreciate flora and fauna. The Hive, a multisensory experience and a current favorite, was designed to highlight the life of bees. Check out the award-winning Treetop Walkway, designed by the same architect as the London Eye, which brings visitors face to face with the treetop canopy almost 60 feet off the woodland floor. Other key attractions are the Palm House Conservatory, the Great Broad Walk, Kew Palace and Kitchens, play areas and, of course, a cafe.
Brighton was put on the map as a seaside resort of the Prince Regent (who later became King George IV) and has continued to attract tourists for its funky arts and music scene. The Royal Pavilion is Brighton’s most recognizable landmark, with domes and minarets that pay homage to India, but the real treasures lie inside this over-the-top, ornately decorated residence. Have a snack or lunch at the Pavilion Gardens Café and then enjoy wandering and shopping in the Lanes. Brighton Pier is always a draw for fun-fair games and sweet treats, or go the more cultural route with a visit to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. Young children might also enjoy the Volks Electric Railway that runs towards the Marina. Older kids will love the British Airways i360, the world’s tallest moving observation tower, with a giant glass orb that ascends over the city for views of the Sussex coast.
Rye is a picture postcard of a town, nearly frozen in time in its medieval, cobblestoned, half-timbered glory. Take your time meandering down Mermaid Street as you soak up the quaint scenery. With the ocean only 2 miles away, seafood is the choice for lunch — consider trying local institution Webbe’s at the Fish Café. Book lovers will also find a gem in Rye: the Georgian-era Lamb House, home to Henry James. Here, he penned several novels and even entertained H.G. Wells and Rudyard Kipling. If you have time (and a car), seek out Dungeness Beach, a headland, shingle beach in Kent, which is only 20 minutes away.
From the end of May through September, the Hitchin Lavender farm is a visually stunning outing, thanks to over 25 miles of pick-your-own fields. In addition to vibrant and fragrant lavender as far as the eye can see (holiday photos, anyone?), there is an onsite cafe and scenic views over Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire.
The stone plinths and burial mounds of Stonehenge are an uber-famous prehistoric monument and one of the ancient wonders of the world. Families will enjoy exploring the stone circle, the Neolithic houses and simply marveling at just how this phenomenon came to exist in 3000 BC — no one truly knows how or why it was built. Arrive at Stonehenge as early as possible, as it can get quite crowded.
TIP: Consider leaving time in Salisbury to see the beautiful Salisbury Cathedral, which boasts the tallest spire in all of the UK.
As one of the oldest universities in the English-speaking world, Cambridge needs little introduction. Walk in the steps of storied alumnae such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Wander through town and visit individual colleges; Kings and Trinity are popular choices. Families will also enjoy the tradition of punting along the River Cam, either with a guide or on your own, which is relaxing and delivers fabulous views of the “backs” (of the colleges). Grab lunch and a pint at the Eagle Pub, where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the structure of DNA, and keep an eye out for the gold Corpus Clock, unveiled by alum Stephen Hawking in 2008 — its clever design features a grasshopper “chronophage” that eats time.
Famous for its Roman baths and as a spa town for the well-to-do starting in the 17th century, Bath is also known for one of its most notable residents: Jane Austen. Fans of her novels will delight in a visit to the Jane Austen Centre to see how the sights, sounds and tastes of Bath influenced her writing. Other top activities are a visit to the ancient baths and the Pump Room. As you wander through town, don’t miss the famous Bath treat “Lunn Buns” at Sally Lunn’s. Fashionistas will also enjoy a stop at the Bath Fashion Museum, with its prized collection of historic and contemporary British fashion.
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