Help us plan our non-London UK trip!
June 9, 2016 3:49 AM   Subscribe

My friend and I are looking to travel around the UK for 4-5 days (leave London on Monday, return on Friday) in July. We're Americans and know nothing of the UK beyond London! Help us decide where to go. Possibilities I've considered so far: York, Edinburgh, Bath, Cornwall, Cardiff, Lake District, Glasgow.

We don't want to rent a car. We enjoy good scenery, history, and food... we've traveled before and enjoy just walking around a ton and exploring new areas. Since we'll only be away for four nights, I would rather not base in more than 2 destinations unless there's a very good reason to do so.

Bonus question: If we do York and Edinburgh, is it possible to get a train ticket directly from London to Edinburgh that would allow us to stop for several hours (or overnight, for that matter) in York? Or would we need to buy separate tickets?

Would greatly appreciate any suggestions. Thanks so much!
posted by tango! to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
To clarify, I'm looking for suggestions either among the destinations I've listed, or new destinations entirely. Thanks!
posted by tango! at 3:50 AM on June 9, 2016

For 4 nights and no car, I'd suggest Edinburgh. If the weather isn't great there's plenty to see in the city itself and there are good restaurants. If you get decent weather you could take a trip into the highlands, which are absolutely beautiful. If you like hiking it would be very accessible from there (you could just do Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh itself if you're not feeling so adventurous).
posted by crocomancer at 3:59 AM on June 9, 2016

Edinburgh for sure. I've been to all the other places on your list as well and they are all lovely, but if I only had a couple days, I'd go to Edinburgh.

I think you'd need to buy separate tickets to get an overnight in York. Also, remember that there is a sleeper train from London to/from Edinburgh, if that's where you're flying in/out of.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:19 AM on June 9, 2016

You would need separate tickets to do London / York / Edinburgh.
There isn't really such a thing as a stopping ticket that I'm aware of.

If you buy your tickets in advance (like nowish) they'll be a lot cheaper. You can pick them up in the machines in the train station on the day.

I think London / York / Edinburgh and then back is a pretty good choice over a few days.
Also Glasgow to Edinburgh is very quick. So you can easily do a quick trip over on one of your days in Edinburgh if you wanted to.

The alternative would be London to Bath then Bath to maybe Penzance (Cornwall)?
Which is a similar timed trip but west instead of North.
You can then easily bus your way around Cornwall (Lands end, little villages, lots of seaside walks) easily enough.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:20 AM on June 9, 2016

Cities are definitely the best if you want to only take the train, although you can actually do some of the peak district from train, which is gorgeous (near Manchester): check out the hope valley train line. I would probably recommend it over the lake district if you're restricted to public transport. Edinburgh is good because you can do Arthur's Seat and explore the city at the same time.

While I think it's possible to get a full fare ticket which will allow you to hop and off, it's probably best just to break up the journeys: experiment on the or and see what will work best.

Bath the city is gorgeous and one of my favourite places, but not really ideal for hiking per se. I love it, but I would say that Edinburgh/York would be a good shout. All three cities feature tons of history and variety. It's worth noting that in all three cities the super touristy stuff will involve lots of queuing at peak times. There's often options to book in advance, so if you can plan to do so it might be worth it.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 4:22 AM on June 9, 2016

York and Edinburgh is a very good choice. Two of my three favourite cities in the UK - the third being Bath. York is tiny so I'd plan more of your time in Edinburgh. Lots do see and do in the city itself.

Bonus question: If we do York and Edinburgh, is it possible to get a train ticket directly from London to Edinburgh that would allow us to stop for several hours (or overnight, for that matter) in York? Or would we need to buy separate tickets?

If you buy your tickets separately, not only will it give you more flexibility, it will likely be cheaper since you can buy tickets that don't go at peak times.

Use the National Rail site to book your tickets. There are other sites like out there but it will cost you more for no good reason.
posted by vacapinta at 4:54 AM on June 9, 2016

I would go for two days and one night in Bath -- roman ruins, Jane Austin scenery -- and then do what I did last time I was in England - a two-day walk in the Cotswolds. We didn't drive either. Took the train -- easy from Bath.

Edinburgh is also lovely, and you can get a bus tour into the highlands if you want to.
posted by girlpublisher at 5:47 AM on June 9, 2016

You would need separate tickets to do London / York / Edinburgh.
There isn't really such a thing as a stopping ticket that I'm aware of.

This is not true. You can break an Anytime ticket journey wherever you like & you can break the return leg of an off-peak ticket jouney, and sometimes (depends on train company) you can break the outward journey as well.

However, it can be cheaper to split a long distance journey up into chunks, especially if the chunks are run by different train operators, so two returns London->York & York->Edinburgh might well be cheaper than a London->Edinburgh return anyway, especially if bought in advance.

You could also do a 4-day BritRail pass, but this probably isn’t worth it unless you plan to travel on the train every day.

Other UK tourist destinations that are easily reachable by train from London? Oxford & Cambridge (probably only do one?) obviously. Taking a coach tour from London -> Oxford -> Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare...) is very popular, if very touristy :) Bath is lovely, as has been said above.

But York & Edinburgh are definitely a good choice. Don’t miss the National Railway Museum (if that’s your kind of thing!) in York on your way north.
posted by pharm at 5:57 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oops, how embarrassing, that's something I really ought to know.
Yes, you are right you could get anytime tickets which allow all sorts of hijinks like that.
(More information here)

Very probably you can get tickets significantly cheaper by having journey specific singles and so on.
I think I need to go and read up on ticketing rules again.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 6:44 AM on June 9, 2016

Country walking in the close vicinity of Bath is pretty good depending on how wild and remote you want to be. The Bath Skyline walk is lovely, and takes up a day (it's a bit short of cafes, though, unlike the city centre). But the city itself is supremely walkable, with lots and lots of really beautiful routes to walk. Hiring bikes and taking short rides out along the canal or the Two Tunnels cycle path is good, too. If you do, pop in for a swim here. Canoe hire's also available and fun and beautiful. In my view, Bath's an ideal city break, especially for food, drinks and entertainment. Some of the walking is strenuous, though, as the hills are steep (steeper than Edinburgh's). It's also worth spending a day in Bristol if you come to Bath. It's 17 minutes away by train, and has lots and lots.

That said, I've just booked a city break for next week in Edinburgh (because I live in Bath), and wow, accommodation's a lot cheaper in Edinburgh (outside festival season), so that's a definite advantage of Edinburgh. Edinburgh is also a lot less twee, and a bit more full of magnificent powerful buildings, whereas Bath's are merely beautiful.

In terms of travel, I mostly agree with everyone above, but have the following to add:
  1. It's probably too late to get real bargains with advance booking, so it's probably cheapest and easiest to stick to off-peak flexible fares.
  2. Splitting tickets is useful if you go to Bath, not really a big advantage on the West Coast line. The site Train Split is the only site that will automate the process of selling you split tickets.
  3. You will save money at no effort at all if you buy a Two Together railcard. When both of you are travelling together, it gives you 1/3 off the total ticket price. You pay £30 for the railcard, which is valid for a year.
  4. Buses are surprisingly usable and fun for tourism in the UK as long as you have a smartphone, because you have the flexible schedule that means you can fit around the bus timetables (most relatively touristy villages have buses at least hourly), and you're also flexible about where you'll go.
  5. Long distance intercity trains where the journey doesn't start or end in London (CrossCountry Trains and some Virgin West Coast. Scotrail are fine) are mainly on noisy and cramped Virgin Voyager trains. They're best avoided.
Have fun! This country has beautiful scenery and (contrary to stereotype) great food and drink.
posted by ambrosen at 6:48 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you do York and Edinburgh, one thing I'd suggest is that you do York first and then Edinburgh. I'm massively biased as I live in (and love) Edinburgh, but a friend who visited recently did it that way round and was glad he did. While York is beautiful, Edinburgh is extraordinary. So if you did Edinburgh then York, you might appreciate York less (sorry, York!).
posted by penguin pie at 7:08 AM on June 9, 2016

I think Edinburgh and Glasgow make a nice combination. You get an old Scotland vs new Scotland compare-and-contrast experience. If you decide to go to Scotland without stopping over on the way, check airfares as well. They can be cheaper than the train, even taking baggage fees into account.

Going another direction, Cardiff would make a good two day visit to tag onto Bath. There's a castle, the city centre is full of charming Victorian arcades, and the walk around the bay is lovely. But check the schedule at the stadium to be sure there isn't a big event on.

A very good resource to learn how to navigate UK rail travel is this guide from "The Man in Seat 61." I'll second the suggestion to get a two-together railcard if you plan to do much of your travel by train -- it doesn't take long to pay for itself.
posted by penguinicity at 7:37 AM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

I love York and Edinburgh but both are very similar (fancy old buildings).

Other options: Manchester (great night life); St Ives (great surfing scene); Buxton / Castleton / Peark District (beautiful scenery, industrial history); Bath (hot spring spas! more old buildings though), Bristol (nautical + hipster music scene ahoy).

There is much more to Britain than picturesque old towns and I think it would be a shame if you missed some other bits which are equally 'Englandy'.

However don't try and do all of these in the same week, you won't be able to appreciate them.
posted by citands at 9:10 AM on June 9, 2016

My husband and I went on a trip last summer for our anniversary, and we didn't want to do just London (but we did want to go for part of it) so we flew in to Manchester and took the train to the Lake District. (Keswick, more specifically.) We stayed there for four nights and then took the train down to London and flew home from there a few days later.

I highly recommend the Lake District. Most of our exploring was on foot, though we did take a bus to another town one day. It was just gorgeous. I blogged about it here, if you're interested.
posted by pyjammy at 1:28 PM on June 9, 2016

All these answers are great; thank you! Not sure if they really helped me decide, though -- now I just want to go everywhere and see everything. :)
posted by tango! at 5:08 PM on June 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

Bit late here but if you pick Edinburgh feel free to memail - unexpectedly home (in Edinburgh!) this weekend and happy to recommend things.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 4:11 AM on June 11, 2016

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