The 8th most visited country in the world (yes, it is a country – though it is comprised of the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), the United Kingdom is a hugely popular destination for experienced travelers as well as those traveling for the first time. First-time English-speaking travelers in particular tend to make the United Kingdom their first journey abroad as a way to dip their toe in international travel without having to worry about a language barrier.
The United Kingdom offers a diverse blend of tourist attractions, from ancient historical structures to amazing landscapes. You would need to make several extended visits to the region to experience everything it has to offer, but for those looking for the absolute must-see highlights here is our list of the best places to visit in the United Kingdom.
No one should be surprised to see one of the world’s greatest cities on the list. Today London is an international hub of commerce, technology and fashion, but of course its roots go back centuries. The tourist track in London is well known, but bears repeating for the benefit those researching their first trip to the United Kingdom. Must-dos include a visit to Buckingham Palace to visit the changing of the guard, a double-decker bus trip across the Tower Bridge and a tour of the Tower of London, an ancient fortress palace and home to the world famous Crown Jewels.
Though it’s perhaps the most touristy activity one can take part in on a visit to the United Kingdom a journey to the ancient standing stones of Stonehenge is still a must for any first time visitor. Located in Wiltshire, England Stonehenge is the remains of a circle of standing stones set within earthworks. Theories and radio carbon dating have helped archaeologists narrow down the range of its creation from somewhere between 3000 and 2000 BC.
If you want to escape the crowds but see something every bit as amazing visit the site of Avebury Henge. It is an even larger circle than Stonehenge, and you won’t have to elbow your way through (so many) fellow tourists to get a close-up look at them.
The Scottish Highlands
Encompassing the Western Isles, the Orkney Islands, the Isle of Rum and the Isle of Skye the Scottish Highlands make up a huge chunk of Northern Scotland. Loch Torridon, Loch Etive and the famous Loch Ness – three lakes in the highlands – are a trio of jewels to rival any found in the United Kingdom. Those with an interest in geology will want to visit Northwest Highlands Geopark. Here you can see some of the oldest known rocks to be found anywhere on the planet, with estimates pegging them at roughly 3 billion years old.
Don’t worry. There’s plenty to satisfy the historians in the crowd. Castles abound in the region, including Urquhart Castle, Cawdor Castle and Donan Castle, and military buffs will want to at Fort George and the Culloden Battlefield.
Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland
A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the greatest natural wonders to be found anywhere in the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway features a jaw-dropping 40,000 basalt columns rising from the surface of the sea and forming a series of steps to the cliff-side. Formed by volcanic eruptions sometime between 50-60 million years ago the wondrous causeway features columns standing as much as 12 meters tall. Most of the columns have a hexagonal shape, though the number of sides of any given column range between 4-8.
Legend has it that the giant Fionn Mac Cumhaill (Finn MacCool) built the causeway in order to answer the challenge of the Scottish giant Benandonner.
Access to the Giant’s Causeway can be found at the town of Bushmills, which lies just 3 miles to the southwest.
Previously a kingdom beholden to no one, Gwynedd was ultimately conquered by England in the 13th century and today forms one of the eight counties that make up Wales. Gwynedd is home to the world famous Snowdonia National Park, a treasure trove of natural beauty that attracts roughly 6 million visitors per year.
Gwynedd’s beautiful coastline and towering mountains converge to make the region an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. Even if you aren’t into hiking you can take the Mountain Railway to “conquer” Snowdon’s summit.
Located just 50 miles from London, Cambridge is home to one of the world’s most prestigious universities. The university is home to more than 24,000 students, making up roughly a fifth of the local population. Founded in 1209 the university features the much lauded Cavendish Laboratory and is home to King’s College Chapel – widely heralded as one of the greatest examples of Perpendicular Gothic English architecture.
Though the university’s history dates back over 800 years, today it finds itself at the heart of modern technology. The technological center of Silicon Fen is a major player in the fields of software and bioscience.
Cairngorms National Park, Scotland
The largest national park in Scotland, Cairngorms National Park welcome nearly 1.5 million visitors annually. The massive parks spans an area of 1,748 square miles, encompassing the regions of Perth, Aberdeenshire, Kinross, Highland, Angus and Moray. The Cairngorm Mountain Range provides homes to a vast array of wildlife including polar bears, golden eagles, arctic fox, bison, wolves and wild reindeer.
Cairngorms isn’t strictly for nature lovers. History buffs can visit Corgaff Castle, Ruthven Barracks and the famous Balmoral Castle (pictured above). And don’t forget to make a stop at the Glenlivet Distillery for a wee nip of Scottish whisky.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland city of Belfast traces its roots back millennia, as proven by remains of an ancient henge – The Giant’s Ring – dated at roughly 5,000 years old. However, despite its long history Belfast wasn’t actually granted city status until 1888.
Today it is a thriving metropolis with nearly 700,000 inhabitants, and though it boasts numerous ancient wonders such as the aforementioned Giant’s Ring, Belfast Castle and St. Anne’s Cathedral its most popular attractions are of a more modern vintage.
Titanic Belfast (pictured above) takes visitors through the history of the tragically doomed ship. You’ll have a front row seat as you learn about the conception, construction and completion of the ship, the maiden voyage and how she sunk.
Fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga will be in their glory in Belfast. The city is home to Titanic Studios where the HBO show based on the best-selling novels is filmed. Not only that but day tours can be arranged to see the filming sites for Winterfell, The Wall and Dragonstone.