In December of 2016 my family and I took a trip to England for Christmas vacation. We spent ten days exploring London and the surrounding cities, and each day was full of activities.
We were fortunate enough to have a rental car in the United Kingdom, and that allowed us to see more of the country than we would have if we had to rely on busses. That being said there are plenty of bus companies that offer day trips to many of the locations that we visited, so you can still explore other cities if you don’t have a car (or if you don’t want to flirt with death by trying to drive in the UK.)
Here’s an overview of our itinerary:
As you can see we went to a lot of cities during the 10 days that we were in England. This travel guide is a bit lengthy, so let’s just jump right in!
Day 1: See Stonehenge
My family and I flew into the London airport but didn’t spend much time in the city; we were so burnt out from all of the traveling that all we could do was get our rental car and drive to our Airbnb outside of the city. During our first full day in England we were rejuvenated and ready to explore England, and the first thing on our itinerary was to see the iconic Stonehenge. I remember driving through the English countryside and looking through the window to watch sheep graze on green grassy pastures with tiny cottages in the distance and stone hedgerows separating one farm from another. We turned onto a tiny road and in the distance we could see the famous stones standing above the earth.
The first view that we got of Stonehenge from that small road was one that isn’t what immediately comes up when you google it; it wasn’t from the point of view of inside the circle or right up next to the stones. Instead we saw sheep on a rolling hill with the stones in the background, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing.
We eventually made it to the visitor center where we learned that the tickets to stand up close and in the middle were out of the question. A free shuttle runs from the visitor center to the stones every 10 minutes but my family opted to walk the 1.5 miles instead since we had been sitting in the car for most of the day. The trail meandered through the same idyllic English landscape I had been admiring during the drive over; we walked up and over hills, passed by grazing sheep, and took a shortcut through a thicket of trees. We weren’t able to see the stones until the end of the trail and we happened upon them right as the sun was setting and the sky was alight with color.
It was a very surreal experience to finally see something that I had learned about in middle school and high school. Standing in front of those ancient stones felt like I was participating in a historic part of humanity.
If you are able to visit Stonehenge one day I highly recommend taking the 1.5 mile hike to the stones instead of riding the shuttle bus – not only do you get to enjoy the landscape of the park but you’ll also feel like you’ve earned the right to look at the historic monument. Keep in mind that the last admission is 2 hours before the advertised closing time, and if you book online you get a discount on your ticket. If you have plenty of time and want to experience Stonehenge on a more personal level I recommend getting a Stone Circle Access ticket; it’s much more expensive than the normal ticket but it allows you to get up close to the monument. Availability is extremely limited for that experience so be sure to request the visit ahead of time.
Day 2: Explore the Roman Baths in the town of Bath
On our second day in England we visited the town of Bath so we could explore the historic Roman Baths. The ancient structure was once a religious spa that was originally constructed in 60 – 70 AD. The baths are fed from a natural spring that pumps hot water in from the nearby Mendip Hills.
Our tour of the Roman Baths took us deep into the heart of the ancient building and through the cave-like tunnels below. We learned about the history of the structure and were able to stand next to the steaming green water. The humidity of the baths was a welcome diversion from the cold winter wind.
After our tour of the Roman Baths we set off to see what else the city of Bath had to offer. We walked around Bath Abbey, an area of town with a towering late Medieval gothic church surrounded by shops and restaurants. We also popped into the Jane Austen Center and learned about the life of the writer who lived in the city. It was a beautiful day and it felt great to spend the entire afternoon walking around the city and stretching our legs after all of the traveling we did two days before.
Day 3: Visit the towns of Stratford-Upon-Avon and Warwick
Our next stops were the cities of Stratford-Upon-Avon and Warwick. We visited both cities in the same day but still managed to fit in a lot of activities.
In Statford-Upon-Avon we went to Shakespeare’s birthplace; a tiny cottage surrounded by towering trees and lush gardens. My brother and I are both English majors – he studied classical literature while I was focused on modern-day editing and media production – so it was exciting to visit a place that was rich with literary historical importance. Even if you aren’t interested in classical literature the cottage was fun to look at. We also visited the cottage of Anne Hathaway – Shakespeare’s wife.
As we drove onward to Warwick the day got even gloomier and a heavy fog settled over the city. We toured the Church of St. Mary and climbed up a steep round staircase to get to the top of the tower attached to the church. The climb was easy for me but had my mom scared half to death since the steps were slippery and worn after centuries of being climbed; however, the view from the top was well worth the 134 steps. Warwick looked eerily beautiful with the fog hovering over it and patches of sunlight piercing through the haze.
Day 4: Go to Birmingham
The next city on our itinerary was Birmingham. It was yet another gloomy English day when we arrived in the city but we still made the most of it. We started the day by walking to Victoria Square; a pedestrian area of the city that is home to the Town Hall and the Council House, as well as countless sculptures and fountains. If you’re in Birmingham around Christmas time, like we were, then you might be able to see the town’s Christmas tree and attend the Christmas Market and Craft Fair in the square.
From there we walked to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where we saw exhibits that ranged from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches to modern video installations. I for one am not a huge fan of modern abstract artwork (I love abstract paintings but that’s where I draw the line) so I didn’t really enjoy the video installation portion of the museum. That being said there was still plenty to see and do at the Museum and Art Gallery and it was all free, so I can’t complain.
Since we were in Birmingham on New Year’s Eve there wasn’t much in town that was open. We saw a movie to pass the time and then attended the city’s end of the year celebration event later in the day.
Day 5: See Oxford
The next day we drove South towards London but made a pit stop in Oxford to see the city. My dad had attended school in Oxford as part of a semester abroad program when he was in college, so he was excited to show us his “old stomping grounds” as he called it. It was rainy and cloudy so we all got thoroughly soaked as we walked around, but it was fun to see my dad act rejuvenated by visiting places from his youth.
All of the buildings seemed to glow with an orange tint in comparison to the surrounding gray skies and everything felt more alive in the mist and the rain. We went into a few small shops and puttered around the city, but ultimately didn’t stay for long due to the weather.
Day 6: Walk on the Abby Road and stroll through Hyde Park
On day 6 we finally returned to London, where we flew in. At this point in the trip we said goodbye to our trusty rental car and relied on taxis and public transportation to get us where we wanted to go.
We started the day by walking from our Airbnb to Abbey Road, which is famously depicted on a Beatles’ album with the same name. The crosswalk was crowded with people trying to recreate the “Abbey Road walk” while simultaneously yielding to passing cars. As a nineteen year old I was absolutely mortified when my family wanted to get a picture of their own on the crosswalk, so I insisted that I take the photo in order to avoid the embarrassment of being in it (teenagers, am I right?).
The main thing I learned from that excursion is that if I ever live in London I should never buy a house near Abbey Road.
Once we got the Abbey Road photo over and done with we wandered around the city for the rest of the day. The highlight for me was when we went to Hyde Park right before sunset. The park is huge and takes up 350 acres of the city, so walking through it enabled us to get away from our urban surroundings and immerse ourselves in nature.
There is a pond in the park called the Round Pond that is near the Kensington Palace, and the water was teeming with ducks and swans. It was amazing to get up close and personal to such beautiful creatures as opposed to having to admire them from a distance. I didn’t feed the animals, of course, but they swam forward nonetheless. Watching the sunset over the water and bonding with the swans was a perfect end to the day.
If you end up going to London be sure to add Hyde Park to your list of things to do! Depending on the time of year there are even events that take place in the park, most of which are free to attend. Here is a link to the event page on the park’s website so you can see what is going on when you go.
Day 7: See Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey
Day 7 of our trip was day 2 in London, and we did a lot of walking. We used the busses to get across the city and walked from attraction to attraction, starting with Buckingham Palace. There were crowds of people standing beside the towering gates that surrounded the palace, all waiting to catch a glimpse of England’s royalty.
When we left the palace we took a bus to Big Ben and Westminster Abbey; both of which are impressive architectural features of the city. I remember feeling unimpressed by Big Ben simply because of the manner in which we saw it. We took a public bus to the intersection in front of the attraction and as soon as we got off the bus we were staring right at the enormous clock tower. It was a very unceremonious way to approach such a historic structure, so looking at it felt as natural as looking at any old building would. Or maybe the fact that I had spent the past 6 days traveling to impressive monuments and seeing historic cities had finally caught up to me, and as a result I felt desensitized to it all. Either way, I’m glad I saw Big Ben but it wasn’t as impressive as I thought it would be.
Westminster Abbey on the other hand was a commanding sight; the grand building with huge stained glass windows and gothic spires was quite impressive. Westminster Abbey is a royal church in London where coronations and royal weddings take place. It was exhausting walking around the church and touring the surrounding buildings, that’s how big they all were.
Day 8: Tour Trafalgar Square, see the Marble Arch, and walk through the National Gallery
Trafalgar Square was one of my favorite places in London; it was bustling with locals and tourists, there were fountains and statues in every corner, and someone was always either playing a musical instrument, painting, or performing at any given time. It felt like it was the place to be in London.
Trafalgar Square is surrounded by grand and imposing buildings, the most notable of which is the National Gallery. The National Gallery of London is a free art gallery with over 2,300 works of European art. I am obsessed with classical artwork so this museum was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip because I was able to see some of my favorite artists, such as Monet, Seurat, Rembrandt, and van Gogh. I highly suggest spending part of your day in the National Gallery if you’re in London.
Day 9: Hike up Primrose Hill, see the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, and pretend to be Harry Potter
The last few days of our family trip were extra special because we were able to meet up with our good friends from Croatia. Remember Mia, the foreign exchange student who lived with me in high school and then took me home to Croatia with her during the summer after I graduated? Her family also visited us when we went to Ireland. It’s become a fun tradition to link up with them whenever we’re in Europe since it’s so cheap for them to fly from Croatia to wherever we are.
We woke up early on the morning of day 9 and took a taxi to Primrose Hill so we could watch the sunrise over the city. Primrose hill is located in Regent’s Park and is 213 feet tall, which makes it the perfect vantage point to view London’s skyline.
From there we went to the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. The Tower Bridge is an iconic landmark of London that is part suspension bridge with two towers in the middle that are connected by a suspended walkway. It was free to walk along the pedestrian path on the bridge but it would have cost money for us to venture into the towers and walk across the glass walkway, so we opted to not do it.
After we saw the bridge we walked to the Tower of London, which is a historic castle not too far from the bridge. The fortress was recently converted from a prison to a tourist attraction complete with guided tours, a mini zoo, the crown jewels, and the royal mint.
Our last stop of the day was Platform 9 3/4 at the Kings Cross Station. My family couldn’t resist visiting the fabled train station from the Harry Potter series while we were in London, and it was worth the stop. We put on our house colors and pushed our baggage through the brick wall in order to get to the magical platform on the other side. All of this means that I am now officially a witch.
Day 10: Ride the London Eye, shop at Camden Market, and see a play at the London Palladium
Our last full day in London was full of activities as my family tried to take advantage of all the city has to offer. We started by going to Camden Market, a huge shopping area with tons of murals, quirky shops, and tiny street vendors. There are plenty of amazing places to eat at the Camden Market as well so keep that in mind when you plan your visit.
Once we finished shopping at the market we went for a ride on the London Eye, the famous ferris wheel with huge observation decks. The weather was a bit gloomy but even so we were able to get a fantastic view of the city as we soared through the sky. This attraction is very touristy and as a result there can be a pretty long line to ride, so be prepared to wait unless you go on a rainy day like my family did.
Our last activity with Mia’s family was to see a play at the London Palladium. We bought tickets to a pantomime version of Cinderella, which meant the show was very sarcastic and at times a bit raunchy. It was a lot of fun and a great way to end our time with our friends.
I went to England with my family when I was in the height of my vegan prime, so I was thoroughly committed to not consuming any animal products. If you read my recent travel guides to Ireland (we went to Belfast, Cork, and Dublin!) then you know that I am now less strict with my diet when I travel because I want to experience the culture and flavors of wherever I am, and I understand that sometimes it is hard for my family to accommodate my dietary needs. That being said every restaurant in this travel guide has at least one vegan option or vegetarian options that can be made vegan.
Full disclosure: I am only including this restaurant in my travel guide so I can urge you not to go there. Pushkar is a tiny Indian-style restaurant in Birmingham that was one of the only places open on New Year’s Eve that didn’t require a reservation to get in. The food was terrible and tasted like it was cooked by someone who had no idea what spices were.
The George Inn
The George Inn is the last remaining galleried pub in London, and as a result is owned by the National Trust of the United Kingdom. The authentic 17th-century pub has plenty to eat and drink but doesn’t have a wide variety of vegetarian options, so be sure to check their menu ahead of time if you have dietary restrictions.
Ichiryu Hakata Udon House
I am still dreaming about the food that I ate at Ichiryu Hakata Udon House, that’s how good it was, which makes it all the more devastating that the restaurant is no longer open. I’m sharing this place with you in spite of that in the hopes that one day Ichiryu Hakata will reopen. I kid you not the udon that I ate there was the best udon I have ever had. I got vegetable tempura udon, pictured below, and it was an actual challenge to eat it all. Keep your eyes peeled in case Ichiryu Hakata Udon House ever returns to London.
Zizzi in Birmingham serves the best vegan pizza I have ever had, and I’ve had my fair share of vegan pizzas. The pizza had creamy butternut squash on it and homemade vegan cheese, and I’m still not over how amazing it was. Every time my mom and I get pizza together we search for butternut squash as a topping but haven’t been able to find one as good as what we had at Zizzi. If you’re in the area definitely give it a try, you won’t regret it.
Ned’s Noodle Bar
After our busy day walking around the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London my family and Mia’s family were all starving, so we went to Ned’s Noodle Bar. The tiny chain restaurant serves customizable Chinese noodle bowls which made it easy for everyone to get exactly what they were craving.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken either by myself or my family and are used with permission. Header photo by Dennis Alfonso.