London has enough to keep you occupied, entertained and fascinated for a lifetime – just ask any Londoner. But if you’re taking the time to travel across the pond, don’t limit your entire experience to London. Instead, get out and see the countryside. What you’ll find is that London is a great home base for exploring some of the remarkable historic attractions in southern England. Here are six ideas to get you started.
There has been a castle on this site since 1119, rising majestically from a moat inset among 500 acres of parkland and formal gardens. Its varied history has seen it as private property for six of England’s medieval queens, and a palace used by Henry VIII and his first wife. Now, as one of Britain’s most visited historic sites, you can enter the State Rooms and see original Tudor and Medieval artifacts. The grounds enhance the site as a great family day out, with falconry displays through summer, punting on the moat, and a kids’ playground with a scale model of the castle, complete with Maiden’s Tower and rope bridge.
Winston Churchill was born at this grand Baroque palace in 1874, and was heir presumptive to the dukedom for five years. It was here in the gardens, at the Temple of Diana, that he proposed to Clementine Hozier, and they were married for 56 years. Today, enter through the heavy wooden doors into the imposing Great Hall and to the intricate State Rooms, where you can see the porcelain displays, and the famous Blenheim Tapestry. There are permanent exhibitions about the life of Churchill, or step outside into 2,000 acres of landscaped park and gardens, including the Duke’s Italian Garden and serene water terraces.
It’s the world’s most famous stone circle, a beautiful, mysterious prehistoric collection of immense standing stones. The history of this UNESCO World Heritage Site is uncertain, but it is said to date back to Neolithic times, approximately 3100 B.C. Rather like the pyramids in Egypt, the question is, how was this masterpiece of engineering built using just basic tools? Fast-forward to the 21st century and the state-of-the-art visitors center, with permanent and temporary exhibitions and audio tours. Head to Stonehenge around the solstice (June 21 and Dec. 21) and you’re likely to come across sun-worshipping pagans and druids, who see this as a sacred site.
Hampton Court Palace
It’s not surprising that this was Henry VIII’s favorite royal residence. See for yourself the grandeur of his Great Hall, with an intricately decorated hammer-beam roof, and his tapestries hanging from the walls depicting the story of Abraham.
The very size of the Tudor kitchens reveals just how central food was to palace life for the royal family and 600 members of the court – and certainly indicates Henry’s reputation as “a consumer of food and women.”
Head to the landscaped gardens to get lost in the maze, and then see for yourself the Great Vine from 1769 – considered the world’s largest vine.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mother Church of the Anglican Communion and thereby seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury – it’s no wonder this Gothic cathedral is a top travel attraction and not just a place of worship. It’s filled with monuments to great battles, a cavernous crypt and a single candle – a shrine that marks where Archbishop Thomas Becket met his grisly end. Don’t miss the well-preserved carvings on the columns, and vivid medieval stained glass. If you’re there at noon, you’ll be treated to informal recitals from visiting choirs.
It’s just an hour’s train ride from central London to picturesque Windsor, on the River Thames and an imposing riverside landmark. This is the world’s oldest inhabited castle, its history spanning almost 1,000 years. It also is one of the official residences of the queen, who loves spending a week here in June and many weekends. Changing the Guard takes place here each day (except Sunday) at 11:30 a.m. Head inside for the State Rooms, which usually have a temporary exhibition – through Sept. 29 you can see Royal Childhood, with cribs, toys and photos galore of little princes and princesses of bygone generations.