By Rick Steves
Everybody needs to see Stonehenge. But I'll tell you now, it looks just like it looks. You'll know what I mean when you pay to get in and rub up against the rope that keeps us at a distance. Avebury is the connoisseur's circle: more subtle and welcoming.
The stone circle at Avebury is bigger (16 times the size), less touristy, and, for many, more interesting than Stonehenge. You're free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, mounds, and curious patterns from the past, as well as the village of Avebury, which grew up in the middle of this fascinating, 1,400-foot-wide neolithic circle.
In the 14th century, in a kind of frenzy of religious paranoia, Avebury villagers buried many of these mysterious pagan stones. Their 18th-century descendants hosted social events in which they broke up the remaining pagan stones (topple, heat up, douse with cold water, and scavenge broken stones as building blocks). In modern times, the buried stones were dug up and re-erected. Concrete markers show where the missing broken-up stones once stood.
To make the roughly half-mile walk around the circle, you'll hike along an impressive earthwork henge — a 30-foot-high outer bank surrounding a ditch 30 feet deep, making a 60-foot-high rampart. This earthen rampart once had stones standing around the perimeter, placed about every 30 feet, and four grand causeway entries. Originally, two smaller circles made of about 200 stones stood within the henge (free, always open).
Visit the Alexander Keiller Archaeology Museum, with an interactive exhibit in a 17th-century barn. Notice the pyramid-shaped Silbury Hill, a 130-foot-high, yet-to-be-explained mound of chalk just outside of Avebury. Over 4,000 years old, this mound is the largest man-made object in prehistoric Europe (with the surface area of London's Trafalgar Square and the height of Nelson's Column). It's a reminder that you've just scratched the surface of England's mysterious, ancient, and religious landscape.
Eating in Avebury: The pleasant Circle Restaurant serves healthy, hearty à la carte meals, including at least one vegetarian soup, and cream teas on most days. The Red Lion Pub has inexpensive, greasy pub grub; a creaky, well-worn, dart-throwing ambience; and a medieval well in its dining room.
Sleeping in Avebury: This makes lots of sense since the stones are lonely and wide open all night. Mrs. Dixon's B&B, directly across from Silbury Hill on the main road just beyond the tourist parking lot, rents three cramped and homey rooms for a fine price.
Tours to Avebury: The most convenient and quickest way to see Avebury and Stonehenge if you don't have a car is to take an all-day bus tour. Of those tours leaving from Bath, the lively "Mad Max" Minibus Tours are thoughtfully organized and informative. Their "Stone Circles and Villages" tour covers 110 miles, with stops at Stonehenge and Avebury Stone Circles and two cute villages: Lacock and Castle Combe. Castle Combe, the southernmost Cotswold village, is as sweet as they come.
If Mad Max is booked up, don't fret. Plenty of companies in Bath offer tours of varying lengths, prices, and destinations. Note that the cost of admission to sights is usually not included with any tour. Celtic Horizons runs day tours to a variety of destinations and charges a flat fee for up to eight people .
Drivers can do a loop from Bath to Avebury (25 miles) to Glastonbury (56 miles) to Wells (6 miles) and back to Bath (20 miles).