The UK is full of interesting cities perfect for a city break holiday. Whether you want to catch the urban buzz or enjoy a surprising amount of chill in the city, we’ve got options to suit all tastes and pockets. From coastal charm to historic wanderings, we’ve got you covered. We’ve collected some old favourites and new experiences to give you our top 10 UK city breaks.
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- 1 Brighton: Regency Seaside Splendor
- 2 Chester: Unique Roman Walled City
- 3 Belfast: Game of Thrones and Titanic Heritage
- 4 Liverpool: Martime Heritage and Merseybeat
- 5 St Davids: Britain’s Smallest City
- 6 Birmingham: City Of One Thousand Trades
- 7 Exeter: Drake’s Ship and Roman Ruins
- 8 York: Vikings, Chocolate and Trains
- 9 Oxford: Dreaming Spires and Seat Of Learning
- 10 Edinburgh: Scotland’s Seat of Power
- 11 London: Exploring by Neighbourhood
- 12 Your Top 10 UK City Breaks
- 13 UK Itineraries
Brighton: Regency Seaside Splendor
It’s difficult not to find something to love about Brighton. Whether you’re looking for a wild rampage through seaside attractions or a more contemplative look at its Regency beauty (and why not do both?), there’s so much to enjoy at the coast here. Close enough to London to day trip if you wish, that would still give you time to experience the charms of its legendary pier (with its ghostly neighbour the West Pier), visit the Royal Pavilion, sample some delicious veggie and vegan cuisine and lose yourself in the Lanes and North Laine.
- the elegant Royal Pavilion, its gardens and its stories
- walking the Pier with all the fun of the seaside
- veggie and vegan food
- street life and shopping in the Lanes and North Laine
Read more: Best Things To Do In Brighton
Chester: Unique Roman Walled City
This walled Roman city on the Welsh borders has a great sense of history. Half close your eyes, and you could imagine yourself an early merchant, surrounded by timbered, beamed and jutted houses full of all sorts of exotic wares. The city walls themselves are the most complete in Britain, running for nearly two miles with a footpath on top. On Eastgate, you’ll find Eastgate Clock, said to be the most photographed in England after Big Ben.
Unique to Chester are The Rows. These are shops or dwellings where you descend from the street to the lower level or go up to a walkway which connects the higher levels. Just outside the city walls is the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain, and there’s also Chester Castle to explore. Here too you’ll find the only professional open-air theatre company outside London, performing at Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre for a summer season.
- Exploring The Rows
- Walking the City Walls
- Summer Open Air Theatre in Grosvenor Park
Read more: Visit Chester
Belfast: Game of Thrones and Titanic Heritage
Occupied since the Bronze Age, Belfast has so much to discover. Home to more than 40 public parks, it’s a green city which has seen substantial growth since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Take time to learn more of the history of The Troubles and the regeneration of this beautiful city.
If you’re in thrall to Game Of Thrones, you can’t fail to take the tour of the location sites here at Winterfell Castle on the Castle Ward estate. You can even go glamping on the site. Titanic Belfast is the world’s largest Titanic visitor experience, with nine interactive galleries to explore. Then get some fresh air and see the city from on high with a hike on Divis and Black Mountain.
- See Game of Thrones come to life at Castle Ward
- Learn the history of the Titanic
- See Belfast Lough and the city from on high at Divis
Learn more: Visit Belfast
Liverpool: Martime Heritage and Merseybeat
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Liverpool is a city with a fine seafaring tradition. Its compact centre makes everything walkable, with great views of the Mersey and the historic docks. It’s home to Merseybeat, and in the Cavern Quarter you’ll find tributes to The Beatles, Cilla, and the acts performing at the legendary Eric’s.
Don’t forget to set aside time to fully explore Royal Albert Docks, where you’ll also find Tate Liverpool, the Merseyside Maritime Museum and The Beatles Story. Then view the elegant Three Graces, where you’ll see liver birds Bertie and Bella atop the Royal Liver building. Take the legendary Mersey ferry, and maybe meet Antony Gormley’s iron men emerging from the sands at Crosby Beach.
- the view over Merseyside from Radio City tower
- Royal Albert Dock, especially at sunset
- the Cavern Quarter – full of intriguing things to spot and do
- Crosby Beach, setting for Antony Gormley’s Another Place
Read more: Things To Do In Liverpool: Maritime To Merseybeat
St Davids: Britain’s Smallest City
Small but incredibly perfectly formed, St Davids has a population of under 2000 people, but a mighty long list of reasons to visit, making it one of our top 10 UK city breaks. Named after the patron saint of Wales, St Davids is situated on a beautiful peninsula between Cardigan Bay and St Brides Bay in Pembrokeshire. The city itself is in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, and is designated a conservation area. This has justifiably been called some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world, making this a city break with a difference for the weary traveler.
Take the Puffin Shuttle to explore the coast and the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. You can book boat trips to see wildlife, including whale and dolphin watching trips. Ramsey Island is an RSPB nature reserve, home to guillemots and razorbills. In the city itself, there is a fine Norman cathedral, built to replace an earlier building regularly ransacked by Vikings. There’s also the fourteenth century Tower Gate and the Celtic Old Cross. The Oriel Y Parc gallery displays national treasures including the work of Graham Sutherland.
- Spot birds, dolphins, whales and wildlife on a city break
- Walk the spectacular coast path and Whitesands bay
- Enjoy history and art in this small city
Read more: Best Beaches in Wales
Birmingham: City Of One Thousand Trades
Britain’s second city has a beautifully compact centre. Noted for having more miles of canal than Venice, much of the canal area has now been refurbished and renovated, making for great canalside dining and entertainment in and around Gas Street basin. The magnificent Museum and Art Gallery and Town Hall are complemented by the new Library of Birmingham – all encased in a flower cage. Nearby is the Electric Cinema, a restored old building with a fine repertoire.
Don’t forget Birmingham’s extensive shopping options from the new Bullring, elegant Grand Central and the Mailbox through to hip and eclectic buys at the Custard Factory. There’s even a chance to explore Middle Earth through the Shire Country Park, near Tolkien’s childhood home, and take the Tolkien Trail to find the Two Towers from Lord of the Rings.
- Socialising and shopping at the Custard Factory, Grand Central, the Bullring and the Mailbox
- The talking lifts and secret rooftop garden at the Library of Birmingham
- Canal life in and around the Mailbox and Gas Street Basin
- Visiting The Shire on Birmingham’s Tolkien Trail
Read more: Romantic Things To Do In Birmingham
Exeter: Drake’s Ship and Roman Ruins
Sir Francis Drake, the legendary sailor, was a Devon man, and he is said to have been a regular at the Ship Inn, near the historic centre of Exeter. Just around the corner, you’ll find Tudor Mol’s Coffee House, still providing refreshments in Cathedral Green many centuries later. The spectacular cathedral is worth a visit, as is ruined Rougemont Castle which commands a beautiful central park. There’s plenty of seafaring charm to enjoy in this city on the Exe estuary, including entertainment and dining venues on the Quayside.
Look out for the “house that moved” a Tudor house popped gently onto massive rollers and moved out of the way of a new road development. On a fine evening, take a walk alongside the Exeter Ship Canal out to the Double Locks, a pub that can only be accessed by boat or on foot. You might be interested to squeeze your way down Parliament Street, said to be the narrowest street in England and right beside the elegant Guildhall. And check out Gandy Street, full of tiny shops said to have inspired J.K. Rowling. All these quirky discoveries help make Exeter one of our top 10 UK city break destinations.
- Quayside walks on a sunny evening down by the River Exe, seeing the Roman city walls
- Cathedral Yard, the historic centre and the ruins of Rougemont castle
- The tight squeeze that is Parliament Street and the gilded Town Hall
- Gandy Street’s atmospheric shops
Read more: Places You Must Visit In Devon
York: Vikings, Chocolate and Trains
Situated on the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss, York was founded by the Romans in 71AD. It became the capital of kingdoms including Jorvik, the Old Norse from which its name is derived. It became a major wool trading centre in the Middle Ages, the hub of the railway network, and a manufacturing base for confectioners. Today the ancient city walls and other parts of York’s history such as Micklegate Bar (the south entrance to the city) are key visitor attractions, making this one of our top 10 UK city breaks.
Clifford’s Tower, part of York Castle, sits beautifully on a plump mound overlooking the city. The centre is full of the exquisitely-named Snickleways, narrow pedestrian routes leading to former market places. Medieval shopping street The Shambles is full of charm. Formerly a row of butchers’ shops, you can still see the ancient fittings in many of the buildings. York Minster has to be considered one of the most spectacular cathedrals in England. There’s a large National Railway Museum with the biggest collection of railway locomotives in the world; George Hudson the railway promoter insisted that “all t’railways come to York”. You’ll also find the Yorvik Viking Centre, York Dungeon and York’s Chocolate Story, surely a fine combination of attractions.
- If you’re a travel fan, the National Railway Museum will inspire you with thoughts of past journeys
- The castle, Clifford’s Tower and York Minster – all graceful and beautiful buildings
- The Shambles, full of atmosphere and stories
Read more: Visit York
Oxford: Dreaming Spires and Seat Of Learning
Poet Matthew Arnold coined the phrase “city of dreaming spires” to describe Oxford in a way that has forever captured the essence of the city. Home to the oldest university in the English speaking world, the university is first mentioned in the 12th century, with St Edmund Hall (1255) University College (1249), Balliol (1263) and Merton (1264) being the earliest seats of learning. Christ Church Cathedral is unique in having a college chapel and cathedral in one site.
With such a long focus on learning, it’s not surprising that Oxford has plenty of places to expand your brain and delight your eyes. Notable are the Bodleian Library, its shelves growing at three miles a year from the copies of each new book published in the UK. Then there’s the elegant Radcliffe Camera, built in 1748 and now a reading room. You wonder just how much work you might achieve in such splendid surroundings. The museums are understandably world-class too from the Ashmolean (containing exhibits from Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Turner and Picasso) to the Pitt-Rivers (archaeology) and the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments.
Brain exploding from all that learning? Get some endorphins on the water; after all, this is the city that provides one half of the annual Boat Race. Not to mention the potential to go punting on a flat-bottomed boat, surely one of the most challenging feats of coordination I have ever tried (failed) in my life.
- Wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere. There’s a historical treat around every corner.
- Enjoying the cultural life of the city, from music and history to literature and film
- Getting out on the river, whether or not you’re happy to try and punt for yourself!
Read more: Visit Oxford
Edinburgh: Scotland’s Seat of Power
It says something about all that Edinburgh has to offer when you struggle to summarise your thoughts. Seat of the Scottish Parliament, home to the Royal Mile and Holyrood House, the affectionately named Auld Reekie (Old Smoky, from its coal fires) has so much to see and do that one city break won’t be enough. Old Town with its medieval street layout and the Georgian New Town form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you plan your visit well in advance, Edinburgh is renowned for the world’s largest international arts festival, the Fringe, and also the celebrations for Hogmanay and Burns Night.
Built on seven hills including Castle Rock, Arthur’s Seat – one of the earliest known sites of human habitation – and Calton Hill, you’ll enjoy exploring Edinburgh’s charms on foot. From Greyfriars Kirkyard to Grassmarket and the shopping of Princes Street with its beautiful gardens below, you’ll find it difficult to squeeze in everything you might want to see. Side trips to the port of Leith (including the Royal Yacht Britannia) and Portobello for its beach and promenade are highly recommended.
- Walking the Royal Mile and visiting the Castle and Arthur’s Seat
- Exploring the Fringe Festival and Hogmanay
- Taking to the coast at Leith and Portobello
Read more: This is Edinburgh and Sleeper Train To Scotland
London: Exploring by Neighbourhood
You may have noticed that this is number 11 on our list. We’re always happy to add a bonus. But more seriously, it would be remiss not to include London on a list of city break destinations. Here I’m urging you to look at London a little differently. Instead of thinking LONDON in big capital letters with all that entails, I’m suggesting you pick a theme or a location to enjoy your best city break here.
There are so many choices open to you from London’s greatest hits, surely the obligatory choice for your first visit, through to theatre or cultural breaks. Or else choose a particular part of London to explore. I’d suggest leafy Hampstead or maritime Greenwich, for example. Or get under the skin of a location by choosing somewhere with history and stories to explore; on our last two city breaks in London, we stayed near Leadenhall Market and also went exploring Shad Thames.
- Taking the greatest hits tour on your first visit; we recommend a river cruise and a bus tour to introduce the city
- Picking a neighbourhood to explore well on a short trip; Hampstead, Greenwich and Camden are all great choices
- Choosing something you love, such as theatre, music or art, and setting your itinerary to focus on that choice
Read more: Exploring London’s Shad Thames, London Theatre On A Budget, and Non-Touristy Traditional Pubs in London
Your Top 10 UK City Breaks
There were so many more contenders for this top 10 UK city breaks. I had to put aside historic Cambridge, maritime Bristol, the stories of Canterbury and Durham, pretty Inverness and vibrant Cardiff. Where would you go and why?
If you’re heading to the UK, why not check out our 10 day UK itinerary? Here we’ve given you 5 choices of the best UK trips, some by road, some by rail and a final bonus which doesn’t involve unpacking every night.
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