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 England, 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 nearby sights (take a minibus tour or choose some combination of Stonehenge, Avebury, Wells, Glastonbury, and Salisbury)
- 7 days, add: Cotswolds
- 9 days, add: York
- 11 days, add: Lake District
- 14 days, add: Durham, Stratford, and Warwick or Blenheim
- 17 days, add: Ironbridge Gorge, Liverpool
- 21 days, add: Cornwall, Dartmoor
- 24 days, add: Choose two of the following — Cambridge, Oxford, Blackpool, Coventry, Portsmouth, Brighton, Canterbury, or Dover
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.)
Build your itinerary to match your interests. Nature lovers will likely put the lovely Lake District and the more remote Dartmoor nearer the top of their list, while engineers are drawn like a magnet to Ironbridge Gorge. Beatlemaniacs make a pilgrimage to Liverpool. Coastal Brighton and Blackpool offer amusement-park fun, refreshing for families and those who've had enough of museums. Literary fans like Cambridge, Oxford, Stratford, Bath, and the South Lake District.
England's Best Three-Week Trip (by Car)
Day 1: Arrive at London's Heathrow Airport, connect to Bath (sleep in Bath)
Day 2: Bath (sleep in Bath)
Day 3: Pick up car, Avebury, Wells, Glastonbury (sleep in Bath)
Day 4: Early drive to Cornwall (sleep in Penzance)
Day 5: Cornwall (sleep in Penzance)
Day 6: Dartmoor (sleep in Salisbury)
Day 7: Salisbury, Portsmouth (sleep in Salisbury)
Day 8: Stonehenge, Oxford, Blenheim (sleep in Chipping Campden)
Day 9: Explore the Cotswolds (sleep in Chipping Campden)
Day 10: Stratford, Warwick, Coventry (sleep in Ironbridge Gorge)
Day 11: Ironbridge Gorge (sleep in Liverpool)
Day 12: Liverpool, maybe side-trip to Blackpool (sleep in Liverpool)
Day 13: South Lake District (sleep in Keswick area)
Day 14: North Lake District (sleep in Keswick area)
Day 15: Hadrian's Wall and Durham, to York, turn in car (sleep in York)
Day 16: York (sleep in York)
Day 17: Early train to London (sleep in London)
Day 18: London (sleep in London)
Day 19: London (sleep in London)
Day 20: Canterbury, Dover (sleep in London)
Day 21: Greenwich, Windsor, Cambridge, Brighton (choose one; sleep in London)
Day 22: Whew!
By Public Transportation
While this three-week itinerary is designed to be done by car, it can also be done by train and bus. For three weeks without a car, I'd cut back on the recommended sights with the most frustrating public transportation (Cornwall, Dartmoor, and Ironbridge Gorge). 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 Britain, July and August are peak season — with very long days, the best weather, and the busiest schedule of tourist fun. May and June can be lovely anywhere in Britain.
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 (anywhere but London), but sightseeing hours are shorter and the weather is reliably bad. Some attractions open only on weekends or close 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 make headlines, and days that break 80°F — while more frequent in recent years — are still rare in England. 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.