London is an amazing city with ample attractions to easily keep most folks busy for a week or more. Still, you shouldn’t ignore the surrounding area because there is a lot to see and enjoy. So, let’s take a look at a few easy side trips from London.
Just east down the river in Greenwich, you will find a tradition of sailing. You will also find the site of the creation of one of the most important navigational aids. To the north, you will find Bletchley Park, which was home to the vitally-important code breakers of World War II. To the west, you can delve into England’s history by exploring the ruins of the Roman baths at Bath. Then head to the archeological wonder of Stonehenge.
And this list is by no means exhaustive! This is just a taste of what you can find within a couple of hours’ travel from London!
We visited these sites on a school trip we were chaperoning with EF Tours. So, we definitely did not get a chance to do everything we would have liked. Still, we had a blast on these visits and certainly enjoyed the highlights of each.
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Exploring Greenwich – An Easy Side Trip from London
Greenwich is located east of the heart of London along the River Thames. It is technically part of Greater London now. The town has a significant maritime history, which you will see as soon as you arrive.
Greenwich is one of the easiest side trips from London. It is right on the River Thames and is served by the London Metro system.
Climb aboard the Cutty Sark
When you arrive at the dock in Greenwich, the first thing you will see is the Cutty Sark, one of the fastest clippers ever constructed. It was built in 1869. It served as a sailing vessel, transporting time-sensitive cargo like tea until it was replaced by steamships.
Eventually, the ship became a cadet training ship, teaching young sailors the ins and outs of the sea. In 1953, the Cutty Sark was moved to a dry dock in Greenwich where it became a museum.
You can tour the ship or even get up on the rigging (for an additional fee). You can visit this site independently or as part of a package ticket with some of the other nearby museums.
Also nearby, just short walk away from the waterfront, is Greenwich Park, a large green space with several buildings of historical importance. Here you will find the Royal Observatory, Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum and Old Royal Naval College.
Straddle the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory
Greenwich is most famous for being the site of the Prime Meridian and the home of Greenwich Mean Time. This is due to the Royal Observatory, which created one of the most important navigational devices: a clock that would be accurate on the seas.
While latitude could be measured by existing navigational devices (like the sextant), longitude required the use of a precise timekeeper. No such device existed which would stand up to the motion of the ocean.
The Royal Observatory was designed by famous English architect Christopher Wren. It includes a time ball, which is dropped at 1 p.m. every day. We heard a great talk by museum staff on how the maritime chronometer came about, as well as the history of the observatory. Then we toured the grounds. There are a ton of really cool exhibits in the museum. There is also a planetarium, which is well worth the visit for any fans of the stars.
While you are there, be sure to straddle the Prime Meridian to stand in both hemispheres at the same time. Also, be sure to check out the excellent views of the London skyline.
Enjoy the Art and Architecture of the Queen’s House
The Queen’s House was a royal retreat built in in the 17th century not far from the Greenwich Palace. The home is an architectural masterpiece. It is an example of one of the first buildings in England built in the Classical style.
Be sure to check out the extensive art exhibits, including the iconic Amanda Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, as well as the Tulip Stairs, which were the first unsupported spiral staircase built in Great Britain.
While the Queen’s House is free, you do need to book your tickets in advance.
Head Next Door to the National Maritime Museum
Great Britain has a long and storied connection to the sea. The National Maritime Museum offers several exhibits about various aspects of sea travel. You will find exhibitions on the Arctic and Antarctic regions as well as an exhibit on astrophotography.
The exhibits include replicas and historic ships and boats from all over the world. It also demonstrates how the British Empire spread to nearly every corner of the globe.
Directly across from the Queen’s House and National Maritime Museum is the Old Royal Naval College (now the University of Greenwich). The building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren to allow the Queen’s House to have an unobstructed view of the River Thames.
Grab a Bite at the Greenwich Market
Just a quick walk away from Greenwich Park is the Greenwich Market. This covered market area is home to dozens of vendors and craftsmen. We were quite impressed in the selection of random and cool stuff available at the market. There are also plenty of street food carts to procure lunch from.
If you want, you can grab lunch here and then head back to the park for a picnic. But do spend some time walking around and checking out the various vendors. Bonnie found a jewelry seller who had inherited a watch repair business. He had no idea how to repair watches and did not want all of parts to go to waste, so he started creating jewelry with them.
Getting to Greenwich
We took one of the boats from Westminster Pier (right next to Big Ben) to Greenwich, which afforded us a brief river tour of the Thames. While not technically a tour boat, the crew did some narrating and we enjoyed the trip immensely. It was a good way to see London from the river.
You can also take the metro to and from Greenwich. While it might take a few train changes depending on where you are staying, it is still a pretty easy trip.
Explore Ancient Roman Ruins in Bath
Located in southwestern England, human settlement in Bath dates back to the Bronze Age. The town is more famous for the ruins of Aquae Sulis, an ancient Roman temple and bath complex dating back to 60 CE.
It was for these ruins for which the town of Bath got its name. There are hot springs, rumored to have healing properties, at the ruins. In addition to the ruins, there is also the Bath Abbey, a Renaissance cathedral, as well as really nice walkable downtown, spas and museums. It was also the home of noted author Jane Austen for many years.
The Ruins of Aquae Sulis
You will start your tour overlooking the pools below. Then wind your way through the various rooms of the ruins. There are several exhibits on life in the town during Roman times.
As you walk in, you will have one of the best views of Bath Abbey, perfect for a picture. Then wander through the exhibits. The exhibits are extensive and I would expect to spend at least an hour checking everything out.
I particularly enjoyed the exhibits on the engineering the Romans used to create the bathhouses and move water to the various pools. The engineering prowess of the Romans remains a source of amazement for me.
Be sure to check out the fountain where you can taste the mineral water from the spring. I won’t say it was good but it was still really cool to taste.
Marvel at the Bath Abby
The Abbey Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, commonly called the Bath Abbey, is located right next to the ruins of Aquae Sulis. The cathedral was completed in 1611 CE and is one of the largest examples of Gothic architecture in Western England.
While the church does allow folks to visit, it is an active church with regular services. Be sure to check the schedule before trying to tour the cathedral and be sure to dress accordingly.
You can easily spend half to a full hour touring the inside of the cathedral. It was at this site where the first king of all England, King Edgar, was crowned in 973 CE. Be sure to check out the impressive stained glass East Window and the 4,000-pipe organ.
Wander the Town of Bath
You will find a pedestrian-friendly city center just around the corner, with plenty of shops and restaurants to partake in, perfect for finding lunch. We found plenty of options in town for a meal.
There are plenty of spas in town taking advantage of the same mineral hot springs as the Roman ruins, which would make for a great way to spend the afternoon.
If museums are your thing, you will find two art museums, an architecture museum, an astronomy museum and a fashion museum.
Getting to Bath, a Historic Side Trip from London
Bath is a good destination for a full day or as part of a joint trip to both Bath and Stonehenge.
From London, you can easily take either a train or a bus to get to Bath. The train takes about 90 minutes and drops you off at the south end of city center. A bus takes about 3 hours but is cheaper.
You can also rent a car and drive, which might be advantageous if you are planning on visiting Stonehenge along with Bath in one day.
Revel in the Mysteries of Stonehenge
Stonehenge is truly a wonder of ancient England. The earliest stones used in the monument date back to around 3,000 BCE, Walking the ground of this monument is profound. Imagining the difficulty in creating this circle of stones with Bronze Age tools just adds to the mystery.
Stonehenge makes for a great day trip from London. While it is not exactly easy to get to Stonehenge using mass transit, it is certainly worth a visit.
Touring Stonehenge As a Side Trip from London
Once you arrive at Stonehenge, your first stop should be the new and quite informative visitor center. The quality of the exhibits impressed us. We wished we had seen these first rather than doing a guided tour as part of the trip.
Outside the visitor center, there is a mock-up of a Bronze Age home which is what the builders of this monument would have lived in. It was very cool and worth checking out. Once you finish checking out the home, you can either walk to the monument or take a shuttle bus. The walk was not bad, terrain-wise, but was a bit lengthy.
At the monument, there is a paved walkway around the monument. Our tour leader led us on the wide part of the loop first, stopping several times to explain various aspects of the monument. To be honest, while the information was good, I was anxious to actually take some pictures of the monument, especially while we had good light. Looking in the distance, there was some rain coming in and I wanted to take some pictures up close before it hit.
Then the rain hit… but it wasn’t just rain… it was hail, too. I was really kinda pissed I lost out on a lot of photo opportunities because I was listening to the tour. While the tour had good info, it was not anything more than what the exhibits at the visitor center had.
I was also pissed because I had left my daypack with rain gear on the tour bus. It had been sunny when we started, so I didn’t feel I needed it. And I was not alone; many people in our group left their jackets and raincoats on the bus. Stonehenge is in the middle of a wide open area. There is no cover from the weather, so when the storm hit, we all got soaked.
Pro tip: Make sure you bring inclement weather gear. I saw online that my experience here was not unique. Stonehenge tends to have unpredictable weather.
The monument itself is more than worth the trip. The wonder I felt seeing this structure in person, despite having seen many pictures and videos of it, was profound.
I would expect to spend about two hours visiting this site.
Getting to Stonehenge
While Stonehenge is a quite popular site to visit, getting there via mass transit is not exactly easy. Basically, you will need to take a train to Salisbury, walk from the train station to a bus terminal and then take a bus an hour to the nearest stop. From there, it is a 1.5-mile walk.
That said, you can get a bus tour in Salisbury or in London, which takes a lot of the logistical difficulty out of visiting the monument. You can also get a tour that incorporates visiting Bath, making for a long but packed day for sightseeing.
Lastly, you can rent a vehicle, allowing you to move on your own schedule. We did this as part of a guided tour of London, so had a bus to take us from London to Bath and then to Stonehenge. That gave us a lot of flexibility and made it easy to go from London to Bath to Stonehenge and back to London in one day.
I could, however, see turning this into a two-day trip. I would spend one day touring Bath and then spend half a day tour Salisbury, which has its own cool city center to explore, before heading to Stonehenge in the afternoon and then heading back to London.
Unlock the Code in Bletchley Park
Located north of London in Milton Keynes, Bletchley Park is an idyllic estate with a storied past. In World War II, it was home to the Government Code & Cypher School, the famed British codebreakers who cracked the Nazi codes.
Not only did the work done at this site help save Allied lives and bring about victory, it also pioneered the use of computers, which is highlighted by the adjacent National Museum of Computing.
Visiting Bletchley Park, a Side Trip from London
Bletchley Park is a bit of a sprawling campus of various buildings, including the mansion, garage and various huts used for breaking different encryptions. Fortunately, there are also a couple cafes with plenty of food options on-site.
Start your visit at the visitor center to see all of the basic exhibits and then head to Teleprinter Building to see the film and exhibits on the impact of the codebreakers on the invasion of Normandy. The film, in particular, really connects the dots, especially for folks not familiar with the impact of these codebreakers on WWII.
After that, wander your way through the various buildings, which have excellent exhibits on how the codebreakers worked and some of their accomplishments. Be sure to visit Hut 8, where legendary computer scientist Alan Turing worked to break German naval codes, and the Mansion, which served as the headquarters for the facility.
One thing I loved about visiting this site was the idyllic grounds, with a pond and plenty of green space to allow the codebreakers to decompress. You can easily spend an entire day here, depending on your level of interest.
Don’t Miss the National Museum of Computing
Located just a few minutes’ walk away from Bletchley Park, the National Museum of Computing preserves some of the earliest computers and follows the evolution of computing and its applications. Don’t let the museum’s austere exterior deter you, it is really cool inside.
The museum houses a working reconstruction of Bombe, a mechanical computer credited with allowing the Allies to quickly break the daily cipher of the Enigma code used by the German Navy. It also houses Colossus, the world’s first programmable digital computer.
Aside from those cool historic computers, it also traces the history of consumer and professional computers. Honestly, I felt a bit old seeing a first-generation iPhone in a museum. That said, it was really cool to see some classic video games and be able to play them. I would plan on spending a couple of hours here.
Getting to Bletchley Park
You can easily reach Bletchley Park by train taking between 60 and 90 minutes from London. The site is a 10-minute walk from the train station.
While there aren’t a ton of restaurants nearby, the site has a couple of really good cafes for lunch.
I recommend planning on spending an entire day exploring these two sites. There is a lot of really cool history to uncover here.
Final Thoughts on Side Trips from London
There’s a lot to do in London itself. Based upon our week-long trip, you could easily spend a full week just exploring London with another several days taking day trips to explore the area around London.
While we were in London, we did these four side trips and really enjoyed them. We definitely feel like we could have spent a LOT more time in Greenwich and Bath. Honestly, we could have spent two days in each of those cities and still had stuff to do.
Stonehenge is very much worth the trip and simply must be seen. It is kinda like the Grand Canyon… No matter how many times you have seen pictures, seeing it in person is just so much more profound.
When it comes to Bletchley Park, we had a workshop for our students at the National Museum of Computing which took a large portion of the day. It was a great workshop and the kids loved it but it did take up a lot of time that I would have loved to have spent exploring the exhibits at Bletchley Park.
I highly recommend planning additional time for your trip to London to give you the opportunity to take advantage of these exceptional side trips.
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