8 Under-the-Radar Destinations to Visit in the UK
There's no question the United Kingdom—England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland—is a gorgeous place to visit. Its brooding moors, glassy lochs, and pastoral hillsides have inspired writers for centuries (this, after all, the birthplace of Shakespeare, Dickens, and the Brontë sisters), while its crumbling castles and grand estates offer glimpses of a kingdom once on top of the world. If you've already checked off London and Edinburgh, these 8 under-the-radar destinations in the UK offer just as much history and natural beauty.
It’s safe to say that most of Wales is under the radar—at least for most Americans. But England’s next-door neighbor deserves a closer look. Sure, it might have similar windswept coastlines, historic castles, and sheep-roamed countryside, but its mountains to the north are something else entirely. Much of Welsh folklore feeds off the dreamy snowscapes of Snowdonia National Park, the rumored location of King Arthur’s long-lost sword, Excalibur. After poking around Conwy, a medieval waterfront village home to a 13th-century castle (and a gateway to the park), it’s time to head inland. Hike the miles of trails, which pass by rushing waterfalls and through thick forests, or scale the summit of Mount Snowdon by train—then bed down in Palé Hall, a restored 1871 Victorian mansion turned hotel with beautiful rooms (think chrome tubs, antique four-poster beds, and views of Dee Valley) and an even better restaurant. More fun trivia: it once hosted Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria.
A pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, located at the heart of Canterbury Cathedral, was the framework for Chaucer’s 14th-century Canterbury Tales, what would become one of the most preeminent works of English literature. The town it was inspired by still rests on these laurels—helped, in part, by its other relics of history including a wall built in Roman times and the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey, where Christianity was first introduced to southern England. Together with St. Martin’s Church, the cathedral and abbey form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can catch old and new acts (everything from Shakespeare’s The Tempest to Mamma Mia! and War Horse) in the acclaimed Marlowe Theatre. Be sure to stop by The Goods Shed, a working market built in an old railway shed that retains its exposed brick walls and floor-to-ceiling Victorian windows, for a pre- or post-show meal (lamb chops with barley and mint; terrine with homemade chutney; rose hip and crab apple sorbet). The best part? It’s all under an hour away by train from London.
Orkney Islands, Scotland
The Orkney Islands aren’t your typical tropical paradise. No, what you’ll find instead is a chilly 70-island archipelago off Scotland’s north coast ringed by red sandstone cliffs teeming with seabird colonies—and not much else. Two thirds of the islands are unpopulated, all worn by time and battering winds, which have helped shape incredible natural landmarks like Pentland Firth, a dangerous waterway riddled with ship graveyards, and gravity-defying “sea stacks.” Even greater points of interest: a stone circle that predates Stonehenge, Viking-era cathedrals, and prehistoric villages built during the Stone Age.
This is not the Leeds of a decade ago. A working-class city once predominantly known for manufacturing is now a vision of 21st-century urbanism, with canal-side apartment complexes, a sleek financial center, and one Victorian shopping arcade after another. There are also incredible landmarks to visit like Millennium Square, home to fashionable shops and excellent restaurants like Thai Edge, and the Royal Armouries, which houses military artifacts from the 17th to 20th centuries. (Like all UK museums, it’s free to enter.) After lightening your wallet in Thornton's Arcade, escape the city chaos with an afternoon stroll in Park Square, then do like the locals do and pop into a pub. We love the Northern Monk Refectory for its signature drafts and on-site brewery.
Inner Hebrides, Scotland
Scotland in 2017 is celebrating a year of History, Heritage, and Archaeology, and no place captures the spirit (quite literally) more than the Hebrides, home to some of the best makers of Scotland's best export, scotch. Islay, where nearly a quarter of its residents still speak Scottish Gaelic, has eight active distilleries (including world-famous Lagavulin and Ardbeg) that produce some of the world’s strongest- and smokiest-flavored whiskies due to their barley’s high peating levels. Most islands in the Inner Hebrides are characterized by brooding landscapes—basalt crags, pink granite mountaintops, sweeping valleys, glittering bays—and peaceful harbor towns with spectacular seafood restaurants. The Three Chimneys Restaurant and Inn, in a crofter’s cottage on the Isle of Skye, is a standout for its Nordic takes on local produce. After exploring Skye’s Cuillin hills and folkloric fairy pools, tuck into Scottish flavors like Shetland salmon with beetroot or venison tartare with mushroom.
After Bath, Harrogate might be the most beautiful spa town in Britain. Its Victorian days are long gone, but you can still get a Turkish bath in the Royal Baths and shop for antiques between strolls along its residential lanes, lined with Georgian townhouses and, in the spring, rows of daffodils. The pace is slow here—all the better to extend your afternoon visit to Bettys Tea Room, in business since 1919, where pastries (delivered by cake trolley) are served on doilies and your choice is either a Yorkshire Tea brew or Taylors of Harrogate Coffee. Beauty notwithstanding, Harrogate is also a gateway to Yorkshire Dales National Park, home to some of the country’s most scenic walks.
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Belfast, Northern Ireland
Despite Northern Ireland’s turbulent past, Belfast has managed to find its creative groove. You can’t turn down a street without running into edgy street art, much of which documents the city’s struggles with politics, religion, and identity. Then there's the blooming culinary scene, led by the Muddlers Club, a cool 52-seat bistro whose open kitchen serves mouthwatering plates like scallops with Jerusalem artichoke purée and smoked monkfish over squid-ink risotto. On the design front, local hospitality giant Beannchor leads the charge. The brand has followed up the success of its five-star Merchant Hotel with a destination bar, a pizzeria chain, a café, and most recently, the Bullitt Hotel, modeled after the 1968 Steve McQueen film of the same name. No detail here was overlooked, from the muraled ceilings to the cute “2B or not 2B” inscription on desktop pencils to the ski-themed lounge.
Peak District, England
We've all heard of England’s Lake District. The lakes, forests, and fells of Cumbria have lured holiday-goers for centuries, including some of Britain’s most famous wordsmiths like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Beatrix Potter. While the Peak District may not have those same shimmering lakes or literary heritage, its topography is just as stunning—exposed limestone emerging from blankets of green moss, caves carved from glacier meltwaters, heather moorland snaked by narrow rivers. Buxton, a spa town modeled after Bath with its own geothermal spring, is worth exploring, as is Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, which stood in as the stately residence for Mr. Darcy in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice. Just a 30 minutes’ drive northwest brings you to Peveril Castle, an 11th-century Norman stronghold founded by William the Conqueror's favorite knight.
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