From London to Liverpool, Edinburgh to Brighton, it’s hard to choose between some of the best cities in the UK. Of course, unless you’re lucky enough to live in one of them, these cities are off-limits for now. The UK is under lockdown until mid-February at least, meaning that domestic travel is off the cards.
There’s a strict travel ban between Scotland and England, and it’s not allowed to travel between Wales, Northern Ireland and England unless for essential reasons.
However, it’s a perfect time to plan for a post-lockdown staycation. Whether you’re a fan of beaches, buildings or culture, here are some of the UK’s must-visit cities, to act as inspiration for when we can travel domestically again.
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Best cities in the UK for beaches
Pastel-painted beach huts, seven miles of golden sands, landscaped Victorian parks, land trains, cliff lifts, and the world’s first (and only) pier-to-shore zip line, Bournemouth ticks all the boxes for a classic UK holiday by the seaside. Often warmer than the rest of the UK, with temperatures in July averaging at 17°C, it’s easily one of the best cities to visit in the UK for cool off in the new seaside fountains or at one of the four Blue Flag beaches. The only trouble is picking between Alum Chine, Durley Chine, Fisherman’s Walk or Southbourne.
The Russell-Cotes art Gallery and museum. Housed in a spectacular Grade II listed villa at the top of East Cliff, the museum’s amazing art nouveau interiors and stained glass skylights mean you’ll leave with some share-worthy holiday snaps. Inside, you’ll find an acclaimed collection of Japanese ceramics as well as Pre-Raphaelite paintings, and a new exhibition (until April 2021) of the gallery’s prized artworks seen through a new lockdown lens. The museum is open from 10am to 5pm Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and it’s best to pre-book online, as visitor numbers are limited. An adult ticket will set you back £7.50 while for kids and students it’s £3.63 (and children under 5 go free).
Where to stay in Bournemouth:
Check in to the Hilton Bournemouth for luxurious rooms with panoramic views of Bournemouth Bay plus an indoor heated pool and Sky bar, or book one of the Hampton by Hilton‘s bright, modern rooms, which come with breakfast and WiFi. Both score 4.5 out of 5 on our new cleanliness ratings system.
How to get there:
Bournemouth airport is just four miles from the city centre, or you can drive to Bournemouth from London in just over two hours or catch the (slightly quicker) train from London Waterloo.
The ancient lanes of Brighton’s ex-fishing village centre are now strung with quirky shops and one-off bars, its exuberant Royal Pavilion and unapologetically tacky pier pulling in the crowds. Brighton’s nightlife lights up the south coast all year round, with live music, theatre and comedy rounding out the city’s arts scene – look out for the many socially distant, COVID-friendly incarnations that are being dreamed up now.
The world’s tallest moving observation experience, Brighton’s British Airways i360. You’ll take in 360-degree views as your viewing pod glides slowly up to 450 feet. Adult tickets will cost £15 and children can visit for £7.50. Book online in advance and you’ll get a small discount.
Where to stay in Brighton:
Base yourself on the seafront at the opulent Hotel du Vin, where you’ll find a sweeping staircase leading to quirky rooms, some with rolltop baths. Alternatively, book at the quirky A Room with a View, crowned one of the most unusual UK staycation spots by yours truly.
How to get there:
At only an hour away by rail, Brighton makes a great weekend away from London. Coming from elsewhere? The easiest way to get here is to fly to London Gatwick and take the regular fast train from the airport to the city.
Best cities in the UK for architecture
Few cities are as beautiful as Cambridge, its dreamy spires rising up from the green fields around the River Cam, making it one of the best cities to visit in the UK for architecture buffs. Drink it all in by taking a walk along ‘the Backs’ of the college, snapping some photos of King’s College Chapel (currently closed to the public), or partaking in an essential Cambridge activity – a spot of punting on the river. The city is dominated by the stately facades of its university colleges, and the vibrant student population keeps the food and bar scene interesting.
Cambridge University Botanic Garden. For a fun, free day out, explore this 16-hectare teaching and research garden. Home to over 8,000 plants, it was opened in 1762. Spot more than 100 species of birds, reptiles, and amphibians too. The garden is open 10am to 4pm and you’ll need to book online before your visit. An adult ticket costs £6 – kids under 16 go free.
Where to stay in Cambridge:
The best hotel in town is the chic Varsity, in the thick of the colleges and with its own spa and roof terrace. There are just 48 individual rooms, many with lovely views over the city, and it scores top marks on our COVID-friendly cleanliness scale. If you’re a bit more budget-conscious then you can’t go wrong with a room at the Premier Inn, with comfy beds and free WiFi, just to the east of the city centre.
How to get there:
Cambridge is well-serviced by the railway, with nearby Peterborough connecting to the major north-south line between Plymouth and Aberdeen, and trains from London can be surprisingly affordable. London Stansted airport is only 30 miles down the road as well.
Scotland’s capital makes one of the most romantic city breaks in the UK at any time of the year. Couples flock there for blustery walks to the top of Arthur’s Seat in winter, springtime strolls by the Water of Leith, summer’s epic Fringe Festival (the UK’s largest) and the party to end all parties, Hogmanay, at each year’s end – it’ll be a bit more muted this year than usual, but it’s still a beautiful place to bring in 2021. And that’s before we even mention the castle, the Royal Mile or the whisky. Make sure fit it all in with our 24hr video guide to the city, which you can watch here.
Getting an overview of Scottish history at the National Museum of Scotland, which has re-opened with coranvirus protection measures in place. The Made in Scotland, Changing the World exhibition is an insight into the scientific and technological inventions made in Scotland over the last 300 years, and is fun for adults and kids alike. The museum is open daily 10am-4.30pm (seasonal opening hours) and entrance is free, although every visitor must pre-book timed tickets online.
Where to stay in Edinburgh:
If Edinburgh is one of the best cities to visit in the UK then the Sheraton Grand Hotel and Spa is one of the best places to stay. Book one of its opulent rooms for castle views and access to the fabulous thermal circuit in the One Spa. The hip, budget Motel One Edinburgh Royal is another good choice, with bright, modern rooms with touches of tartan.
How to get there:
Edinburgh makes an easy last-minute getaway, thanks to direct, reliably cheap flights from many regional airports and a well-served train station. Journeys from the south and Midlands feature a dramatically beautiful stretch of the East Coast line via Berwick upon Tweed.
Once known as the Second City of the British Empire, Glasgow is a vibrant melting pot of historic architecture and contemporary culture, making it one of the best cities to visit in the UK for sampling both. Stately Georgian buildings abound, as do hip bars and restaurants (currently operating under coronavirus-related restrictions), and the ex-industrial heartland of the Clyde is today a revamped and rejuvenated area of real cultural clout. Find out more with our top 11 things to see and do in Glasgow.
A fine feast at Porter & Rye. Try their porterhouse steak for two, to taste world-famous Scottish beef at its best. Don’t forget to book your table in advance – most places are taking pre-bookings only.
Where to stay in Glasgow:
You’ll get a friendly Glasgow welcome wherever you go, but One Devonshire Gardens Hotel du Vin is a cut above the rest, with kilt-wearing concierges to meet you at the door. The rooms are pretty special too – some even have standalone baths in the bedroom. For more wallet-friendly accommodation, check in to the Z Hotel where you’ll find snug rooms and a reception/bar serving complimentary breakfast.
How to get there:
Glasgow is served by two airports but Glasgow International is the go-to airport for domestic flights to the rest of the UK (Glasgow Prestwick runs only short-haul flights to Europe). There are trains to Glasgow every 40 minutes from London and it’s only an hour between here and Edinburgh.
Best cities in the UK for culture
Liverpool has England’s largest collection of museums and galleries outside London, a vibrant music scene and superb shopping – and, of course, a football team or two. Take the famous ferry across the Mersey, explore the historic Albert Dock, see the Liver Building, and hit the Beatles trail around this rejuvenated ex-industrial powerhouse.
Liverpool has dozens of museums and galleries but you can’t miss the Tate Liverpool gallery at the Royal Albert Dock. Explore an expansive collection of British and international modern and contemporary art in peaceful surroundings. Entry is free, but you’ll need to pre-book a timed ticket online. The gallery is open Monday to Sunday, 10am-5.50pm.
Where to stay in Liverpool:
It has to be the Hope Street Hotel, for its independent spirit, fabulous London Carriage Works restaurant, and unrivalled location between the city’s two cathedrals – some rooms have terraces with views of both. On a budget? Once again, the Z Hotel comes up trumps, with its compact rooms, central location, and terrific prices: rooms start at £60 a night.
How to get there:
Liverpool is easily reachable by road, although you may want to take advantage of cheap flights if coming from further afield – Belfast, Edinburgh, and Castletown (Isle of Man) airports operate direct flights to Liverpool.
Where to start? With world-leading museums perhaps, or the fantastic shopping to be had? How about the diverse cuisines on offer or the endless, eclectic bars? What about the copious green space and endless attractions? You get it. London has it all – in spades. The highlights? Start with the British Museum (booked a timed ticket online), Covent Garden, the London Eye, the Tower of London, the Shard…
Even those who’ve done it all might have missed this one. In 2016, the ArcelorMittal Orbit in the Olympic Park launched a brand new attraction: a helter-skelter slide all the way down the UK’s tallest sculpture. It’s the world’s longest and tallest tunnel slide, and predictably enough, more than rivals the London Eye for spectacular views of the city. You can book adult tickets online from £16.75. Child tickets cost from £10.75, or pick up a family of four ticket from £53.
Where to stay in London:
Book a room at the stylish Andaz London and you’ll get five-star service and chic boutique style in one very attractive package – the 19th-century ex-Great Eastern railway hotel. There are five bookable bars and restaurants, and an easy favourite is Eastway, for reliable brasserie dishes, including great steaks. Or, save your money for those swanky skyscraper restaurants and head to the Z hotel: there are several dotted around the city in Soho, Shoreditch, Piccadilly and Victoria, each with the trademark small but perfectly formed rooms.
How to get there:
As the hub of England and the UK, London has excellent transport links to all corners of the country and beyond, with five major airports located around Greater London; Luton, Stansted airport, Gatwick, Heathrow, and London City. With so much choice, it’s easy to find good city break deals to London. Once you land all you’ve got to do is hop on a coach or the good-value easyBus by easyJet to get into the centre of London. Alternatively, come by train to get straight to the heart of the city, with Kings Cross and London St Pancras providing quick access from the Midlands, the north of England, and Scotland, while London Waterloo or Paddington are the main endpoints for services from the West Country and Wales.
Portsmouth has long been a naval heavyweight, with the harbour’s strategic location exploited by every monarch since Henry VII. Today the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to the HMS Warrior, HMS Victory, and the Mary Rose, plus the National Museum of the Royal Navy. The D-Day Museum is worth the short detour out of town, while the Spinnaker Tower should be climbed for its maritime views our over the Solent – and the chance to test your head for heights on its see-through floor.
The D-Day Museum. Book adult tickets online for £9 (£4.50 for children) to save money compared to on-the-door prices. The museum is a fascinating introduction to the history of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy – don’t miss the 59-metre long Landing Craft Tank that carried 10 tanks to Normandy for D-Day. The D-Day Museum is open daily from 10am to 5.30pm.
Where to stay in Portsmouth:
The Marriott Portsmouth has plush rooms and a heated pool in a good, central location. Alternatively, try Florence House, where luxurious, homely rooms fill a lovingly restored Edwardian house. Breakfast, WiFi and parking are all included.
How to get there:
Portsmouth is well connected to other south coast cities by rail, with Southampton (pictured below) to the west (30 minutes), and Brighton to the east (80 minutes). Southampton Airport is 20 miles away from the city centre, with trains connecting to Portsmouth.
*Published January 2021. Any prices are lowest estimated prices only at the time of publication and are subject to change and/or availability.
Have we missed your favourite UK city? Tell us which British destinations you think make the best city breaks in the comments section below and we’ll include your recommendation in our next line-up!
Need more ideas for weekend breaks in the UK? We’ve got plenty…
- Readers’ recommendations: Britain’s best beaches. Not everyone loves Blackpool, but you’ve got to admit, there are some cracking beaches in the UK.
- 10 of the best walking and hiking routes in the UK. Lace up those hiking boots, it’s time to head for the hills.
- Food with a view: best skyscraper restaurants in London. Head for heights? Check out our guide to rooftop dining in London
Discover where you can go
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