An obvious first choice, the UK’s capital is absolutely brimming with iconic but often over-crowded tourist attractions like Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye. But a short tube ride east takes you out of the crowds to one of the city’s most interesting and authentic areas. Ride the Central Line to Stratford, which hosted London’s memorable 2012 Olympic games. Wandering through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, you can’t help but notice Anish Kapoor’s striking ArcelorMittal Orbit, a spectacular 115m tall sculpture with two viewing platforms and, for the daring, a high speed slide! On a hot day, cool off in the park’s Splash Fountains and then wander alongside the picturesque River Lea towards Hackney. Once an overgrown and unloved corner of the city, these days the Lea is lined with beautifully painted canal boats, chic bars and notable restaurants.
On Sundays, alight at Bethnal Green station for Colombia Road Flower Market. This street market has been running since 1869 and is home to a vibrant collection of florists, independent bakeries and galleries — perfect for adding colour to your Instagram feed. A short walk brings you to the V&A Museum of Childhood, one of the world’s best collections of vintage toys and games. Feeling a little weary? Directly opposite the museum lies York Hall Day Spa, an affordable thermal bath in a beautifully-restored 1929 building. Or why not work out alfresco at London Fields Lido? This heated open-air pool is open year-round and is a fun and active way to enjoy an alternative London experience.
The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester has long been a hub for culture, music, art and sport. Its relatively compact size, travel links and easy access to the surrounding countryside of the Peak District and Pennines makes Manchester an ideal long weekend break. Manchester is synonymous with football, so plan ahead to catch Manchester United play at Old Trafford or Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. The National Football Museum is also packed with fascinating history and facts about the beautiful game. If art and culture is your cup of tea, check out Manchester Art Gallery, just off St. Peter’s Square. This small gallery showcases contemporary and classical artworks in a beautiful historical building. Hungry after all that highbrow culture? Delicious dishes await in nearby Chinatown — look for the strikingly decorated Chinatown Archway. Alternatively, cross St. Peter’s Square to The Midland Hotel, where you can enjoy a traditional afternoon tea before continuing your day.
A short walk down to Deansgate brings you to the spectacular John Rylands Library, an imposing Victorian gothic building resembling a cathedral. Inside, marvel at the intricately carved stonework and fascinating exhibits, such as the oldest known piece of the New Testament and an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales dating back to 1476. From high culture to pop culture; just five minutes’ walk away on Peter Street, neon-lit stairs lead to NQ64, a lively bar dedicated to retro arcade games. Challenge your friends to a round of Street Fighter, Super Mario or Space Invaders while sipping on a craft cocktail then continue the low-key vibe with dinner at Rudy’s, a renowned spot for authentic Neapolitan pizza. A ten-minute walk brings you to the Northern Quarter, where you’ll have your choice of hipster bars and restaurants. The best people-watching is to be found at Mackie Mayor, a historic market building dating back to 1858, now housing an atmospheric food court.
Wales’ capital city since 1955, Cardiff is actually one of Europe’s smallest and newest capitals. Brought to prominence in the early 20th century for its coal exports, contemporary Cardiff is packed with attractions to fuel visitors’ interests. Croeso i Caerdydd! Welcome to Cardiff! Start your visit at the Civic Centre, which lies in Cathays Park at the heart of the city. Formerly part of Cardiff Castle’s grounds, this has been a popular place to visit since the early 20th century and is home to major landmarks like the Wales National War Memorial, Cardiff University and City Hall. This area also boasts the excellent National Museum of Wales, which curates one of Europe’s best collections of Impressionist artworks, along with a captivating exhibition charting the evolution of Wales from the Big Bang to the present day — dinosaur skeletons included!
Rugby fans should head to Principality Stadium, where a 90-minute behind-the-scenes tour explains Wales’ passion for its national sport. After that, it’s a short walk to Zerodegrees Microbrewery, for craft beers paired with delicious pizza and mussels cooked in this gorgeous Grade II-listed building’s open-plan kitchen. No trip to Cardiff is complete without a visit to Cardiff Castle, whose history stretches back 2,000 years. Pre-book a house tour of the magical castle apartments, designed in the 19th century by the architect William Burges. The fairytale atmosphere here is enhanced with stained glass windows, animal figurines and elaborately gilded ceilings — it has to be seen to be believed! Look out for regular concerts and theatre performances set within the castle grounds.
From one capital to another; Edinburgh is home to Scotland’s parliament and has a rich and fascinating culture all of its own. The famous Edinburgh Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival, taking place at venues across the city every August when the city is at its busiest. Built in the 12th century, Edinburgh Castle sits atop a dormant volcano in the city centre. It is home to the National War Museum, which charts the city’s military significance throughout the ages, and The Royal Palace, where you can tour Mary Queen of Scots’ former quarters. Winding your way back down Castle Hill to the Royal Mile, stop for a wee dram at the Scotch Whisky Experience. Taking visitors on a journey through whisky’s history and customs, you’ll uncover everything there is to know about Scotland’s favourite drink. Continue along The Royal Mile until you arrive at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Queen Elizabeth’s official Scottish residence. With grand state apartments, peaceful gardens and a glittering collection of royal jewels, this is a must-visit stop on your Edinburgh tour.
If you’re hungry, Arcade Bar specialises in whisky and Scotland’s national dish, haggis. Made from sheep’s liver, heart and lungs combined with oats and various herbs and spices, haggis is certainly far tastier than it sounds! Burn off your dinner with a hike up Arthur’s Seat. At 251 m above sea level, this stunning, two-hour walk offers visitors panoramic views over Edinburgh and is the site of a well-preserved 2,000 year-old hill fort. Of course, these days, visitors also flock to Edinburgh because of its association with a certain boy wizard. Author JK Rowling lived here when she was first inspired to write the Harry Potter series and you can now take a dedicated Potter Trail around the city. Magical and historical, there’s plenty to enchant visitors to Edinburgh.
This seaside city is renowned for its laid-back vibe and great entertainment scene. An hour by train from London, Brighton is an ideal weekend destination due to its compact size and variety of attractions. Pack your bucket and spade for a trip to the seaside! Brighton’s Royal Pavilion is a striking Regency-era building that looks surreally like the Taj Mahal. Built for King George IV, the architecture deliberately drew on influences from India, while the interiors are packed full of sumptuous Chinese-inspired silk wallpapers, gilt chandeliers and carved wooden furniture for a stunning effect. Just opposite, in Royal Pavilion Garden, is the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, which houses a wide range of contemporary and historic artworks alongside a rotating schedule of temporary exhibits. From here, head to The Lanes, Brighton’s most famous shopping area. These narrow, winding streets are home to a huge number of independent boutiques, jewellers and designers — ideal for picking up a souvenir of your visit.
Enjoy drinks with a view at the British Airways i360, a revolving tower that offers excellent views over Brighton, the South Downs and the English Channel. Rumour has it that on a clear day, you can see all the way to France and the on-site bar is a welcome spot to unwind after a busy day of sightseeing and shopping.