By Rick Steves
So much to see, so little time. How to choose? To help you get started, I've listed my top picks for where to go in Great Britain, my plan for your best three-week trip, and tips on when to go.
Depending on the length of your trip, and taking geographic proximity into account, here are my recommended priorities:
- 3 days: London
- 5 days, add: Bath and the Cotswolds
- 7 days, add: York
- 9 days, add: Edinburgh
- 11 days, add: Stratford, Warwick, Blenheim
- 14 days, add: North Wales, Wells/Glastonbury/Avebury
- 17 days, add: Lake District, Hadrian's Wall, Durham
- 21 days, add: Scottish Highlands, Liverpool, Ironbridge Gorge
- 24 days, add: Choose two of the following — St. Andrews, Glasgow, Cambridge, South Wales, Isle of Skye
Note: Instead of spending the first few days of your trip in busy London, consider a gentler small-town start in Bath (the ideal jet-lag pillow), and let London be the finale of your trip. You'll be more rested and ready to tackle Britain's greatest city. Heathrow Airport has direct bus connections to Bath and other cities. (Bristol Airport is also near Bath.)
Your itinerary will depend on your interests. Nature lovers will likely put the lovely Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, and North Wales nearer the top of their list, while engineers are drawn like a magnet to Ironbridge Gorge. Beatlemaniacs make a pilgrimage to Liverpool. Literary fans like Cambridge, Stratford, Bath, and the South Lake District.
Britain's Best Three-Week Trip (by Car)
Day 1: Arrive in London, bus to Bath (sleep in Bath)
Day 2: Bath (sleep in Bath)
Day 3: Pick up car, Avebury, Wells, Glastonbury (sleep in Bath)
Day 4: South Wales, St. Fagans, Tintern (sleep in Chipping Campden)
Day 5: Explore the Cotswolds, Blenheim (sleep in Chipping Campden)
Day 6: Stratford, Warwick, Coventry (sleep in Ironbridge Gorge)
Day 7: Ironbridge Gorge, to North Wales (sleep in Conwy)
Day 8: Highlights of North Wales (sleep in Conwy)
Day 9: Liverpool (sleep in Liverpool)
Day 10: South Lake District (sleep in Keswick area)
Day 11: North Lake District (sleep in Keswick area)
Day 12: Drive up west coast of Scotland (sleep in Oban)
Day 13: Highlands, Loch Ness, Scenic Highlands Drive (sleep in Edinburgh)
Day 14: Edinburgh (sleep in Edinburgh)
Day 15: Edinburgh (sleep in Edinburgh)
Day 16: Hadrian's Wall, Beamish, Durham's Cathedral and evensong (sleep in Durham)
Day 17: North York Moors, York, turn in car (sleep in York)
Day 18: York (sleep in York)
Day 19: Early train to London (sleep in London)
Day 20: London (sleep in London)
Day 21: London (sleep in London)
Day 22: Whew!
By Public Transportation
While this three-week itinerary is designed to be done by car, it can be done by train and bus or, better yet, with a BritRail & Drive Pass (best car days: Cotswolds, North Wales, Lake District, Scottish Highlands, Hadrian's Wall). For three weeks without a car, I'd cut back on the recommended sights with the most frustrating public transportation (South and North Wales, Ironbridge Gorge, and the Scottish Highlands). Lacing together the cities by train is very slick, and buses get you where the trains don't go. With more time, everything is workable without a car.
When to Go
In most of Britain, July and August are peak season — my favorite time — with very long days, the best weather, and the busiest schedule of tourist fun. For Scotland, the weather is best in May and June.
Prices and crowds don't go up during peak times as dramatically in Britain as they do in much of Europe, except for holidays and festivals. Still, travel during "shoulder season" (May, early June, Sept, and early Oct) is easier and can be a bit less expensive. Shoulder-season travelers usually enjoy smaller crowds, decent weather, the full range of sights and tourist fun spots, and the ability to grab a room almost whenever and wherever they like — often at a flexible price. Winter travelers find absolutely no crowds and soft room prices, but shorter sightseeing hours and reliably bad weather. Some attractions are open only on weekends or are closed entirely in the winter (Nov–Feb). The weather can be cold and dreary, and nightfall draws the shades on sightseeing well before dinnertime. While rural charm falls with the leaves, city sightseeing is fine in the winter.
Plan for rain no matter when you go. Just keep traveling and take full advantage of bright spells. The weather can change several times in a day, but rarely is it extreme. As the locals say, "There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." Bring a jacket and dress in layers. Temperatures below 32°F cause headlines, and days that break 80°F — while more frequent in recent years — are still rare in Britain. Weather-wise, July and August are not much better than shoulder months. May and June can be lovely anywhere in Britain. While sunshine may be rare, summer days are very long. The midsummer sun is up from 6:30 until 22:30. It's not uncommon to have a gray day, eat dinner, and enjoy hours of sunshine afterward.