Retro: Great Britain
Looking back, I really could have split up a Great Britain retro into one for each country: England, Scotland, and Wales. It really surprised me how each one was so different from one another, in terms of culture, language, cuisine, landscape, everything - despite how small and close together the countries are. At any rate, here’s a list of our favorites things we got to experience during our few weeks there - throughout each country, and the whole of Great Britain.
Places to Go
Some favorite specific areas within each country that we loved.
• Cornwall. The Cornwall area (England’s southwestern tip) was, by far, my favorite thing we did throughout the whole of England. It’s truly a magical place, with rugged, beautiful coasts and tiny fishing villages nestled in-between. We rented a car and spent our time just driving through the narrow hilly roads and pastures, exploring the different towns - they look like something straight out of a story book. Specifically, my favorite villages were Port Isaac, Mousehole, and St. Ives. Other than that there are tons of breathtaking coastal paths to walk along (some favorites were Padstow to Polzeath, Port Isaac to Port Quin, and Lizard Point to Kynance Cove), beaches (surfing at Fistral beach in Newquay is a must!) and tourist attractions (Land’s End, St. Michael’s Mount, Eden Project).
• London. London is truly one-of-a-kind, you can find much better guides to this city elsewhere (from people who spent much more time there), but a few of my favorite parts to walk around were Convent Garden, South Bank area, Notting Hill, and wherever there were mews. One thing I appreciated about London was although it is a very expensive city, many of the museums (e.g. the Tate Modern, Natural History Museum), are free-of-charge.
• Cliffs of Dover, if you haven’t been here before than you’ve definitely seen pictures, and it’s one of the few places that are just as beautiful in person. Chalk white cliffs set against a deep, blue sea. On clear days you can see all the way across the strait to France - even though it was a bit too hazy for that when we visited, it was a sight to behold nonetheless. We hopped on a tourist bus to get there, if you do that my only recommendation is to make sure they give you enough time at the cliffs; our tour did Canterbury, Dover Castle, and Cliffs of Dover all in one day, and we felt like it wasn’t enough time at the cliffs themselves - we could have stayed for hours.
• Cambridge was definitely one of my favorite cities in England, it was really energizing to walk around such an old town steeped in so much history - a place that gave us the likes of Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing, and all the significant discoveries and advancements that came along with them (and so many more). Sign up for a free walking tour and they’ll take you around to all sorts of different 500-year-old shops and universities and cobblers and candy shops. Also, get a Chelsea bun at Fitzbillies!
• Stratford-upon-Avon - Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of Shakespeare, and we knew we had to make the pilgrimage. Definitely see a Shakespeare play while you’re there, and apart from that it has a cute downtown area and a beautiful riverwalk.
• Stonehenge - You’ll have to decide for yourself if this one’s worth your time, it’s a quick half-day trip but a lot of people think it’s “just a pile of rocks”. Personally I thought it was pretty cool! It helps to do a little research behind the mystery surrounding Stonehenge - archaeologists believe it was built around 3000 BC, nobody really knows how the stones were transported such long distances, but most believe it was used for Summer/Winter Solstice festivals, funerals, and as a place of healing. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I think it was worth the visit.
• The Highlands. I’d been to Edinburgh and Glasgow on previous trips, but the cities have nothing on the highlands of the north. It truly feels so remote and mountainous up there it’s almost otherworldly. Check out some lochs (Loch Ness, Loch Lomond), castles (Urquhart, Eilean Donan), hike as much as you can.
• Old Man of Storr on the Isle of Skye - This hike in the Isle of Skye was one of the coolest ones we’ve done in a long time. It’s a pretty quick trek and so rewarding - from the top you can see an area called the Sanctuary, which is a cluster of huge, black rock pinnacles, flanked on the east overlooking the Sound of Raasay, and grassy slopes on the west. On the way down you can walk through the Sanctuary pinnacles, which just feels surreal. Even if you don’t do that particular hike, Skye had some of the most beautiful landscape and treks we’d seen in Scotland!
• The Fairy pools, another favorite on the Isle of Skye. A quick walk through a large system of waterfalls, forming pools that are vibrant blues and greens. When we went it was a little cold, but on warm days you can go swimming in them too.
• Iona. A bit out of the way, but definitely a cool pilgrimage if you are religious/spiritual/just plain interested. Historically, it’s where the Book of Kells was crafted, and it’s also considered a “thin place” where heaven and earth seem to touch. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get there, but it’s definitely a spiritual and very introspective experience. Plus, on the way there you’ll pass through Oban, an idyllic seaside town; and drive across the Isle of Mull, a beautiful and rugged island in the Hebrides.
• Snowdonia National Park. A beautiful national park in northern Wales with some of the most fairytale-esque landscape you’ll ever see. There are lots of short hikes throughout the park, but you’ll want to climb Mt. Snowdon for the best view! It’ll take you six hours or so, and it’s pretty steep at parts, but it’s definitely worth it for the amazing views of the unique Welsh countryside from the top.
• Pen-y-fan, a really beautiful and quick hike in Brecon Beacons National Park, with great views of the rolling green countryside.
• Hay-on-Wye. You’ll have to time this one right, but if you get out in summer you can go to the Hay Festival, a huge annual literary festival. It was really fascinating to hear all sorts of different authors/comedians/academics discuss all sorts of things, from books, politics, ethics, et cetera. Even if you can’t make it for the festival, year-round Hay is considered a “book town”, meaning that there are an unusually high number of bookstores scattered throughout the area, so it’s really just a great place to walk around and discover something new to read.
Things to do
Some of our favorite activities and cultural experiences throughout the country.
Throughout Great Britain
• Hiking. I think I put this in almost every single retro (because it tends to be what we prioritize when we travel), but this little island had some of the best hikes we’ve done in a long time - from Lake District and coastal paths in England, Snowdonia National Park in Wales, and the highlands and islands of Scotland. There is so much unique landscape too, and I always believe one of the best ways to see that is by hiking.
• Go to a Choral Evensong at a chapel. This was one of the coolest experiences we’ve had in a while. A Choral Evensong service is a simple choir service, usually about forty-five minutes long, and held in the “even” point of the day - between active day and restful night. The services are free, open to all religions, and is an almost 500-year-old tradition. It is really amazing to hear the psalms, magnificats, preces & responses bouncing off the walls in cathedrals that are hundreds of years old. We went to an even song in Cambridge (at King’s College), but there are tons of them all across the country, a quick Google search will help you find one that can fit your schedule.
• Go to a play, needless to say one of the best places in the world to see some shows is in London! We went to one in the London Coliseum, literally just by walking around and seeing signs and grabbing tickets on whim, and because of that they were really affordable. Another classic thing to do is to see a play at the Globe Theatre, a theater associated mainly with Shakespeare - you can get “groundling” seats and watch a play standing as the peasants would, for only five pounds a ticket! (Or, you can always spring for a real seat). We also saw a Shakespeare play in Stratford-upon-Avon, which was another great experience that I’d highly recommend.
• Take a fishing tour in Cornwall. One of Cornwall’s main industries is fishing, and in a lot of the villages down there you can get out in a fishing boat and learn a bit more about it, and take whatever you catch home for dinner.
• Golf. Modern golf originated in Scotland, and now there are over 500 courses in the country. It’s definitely a quintessential experience to go for a round or two while you’re there.
• Tour a whisky distillery. Whether you’re a fan of Scotch or not, you’ve got to learn a bit about the process and the differences between them in a distillery tour! A few years back when I visited Scotland by myself I did more of a “tasting tour” in Edinburgh, but this time we visited the Talisker Distillery in Skye. And, of course, it always comes with some free samples!
• Listen to a pipe band/see highland games. You’ll probably see men in kilts playing bagpipes within a few seconds of walking around any major city, but if you want to experience a little more, then definitely check out some traditional music festivals. Bagpipe music might be an acquired taste, but it’s a must when in Scotland. Or, check out a highland games festival to see more kilt-clad Scots in caber toss, stone put, and traditional dancing competitions.
Food to eat
Throughout Great Britain
• Classic pub foods were the main things throughout Great Britain worth trying - fish & chips, bangers & mash, shepherd’s/cottage/steak-and-kidney pie, etc. Personally pub food isn’t my favorite kind of cuisine, but there’s something special about eating those fish and chips in a seedy pub in London.
• Sunday roasts/carveries are another classic meal in British cuisine - meat, potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire puddings.
• Full English/Scottish/Welsh breakfast. Another classic that doesn’t need much explanation, but definitely a must-get while in Britain! The dish doesn’t change much throughout the regions, but it’s fun to see the small differences throughout each country (e.g. Scottish-style black pudding, Welsh-style sausages).
• Borough Market, a favorite (and historic) market in Southwark dating back to the 12th century. A great place for grabbing a coffee or lunch from a food stand, and just fun to walk around.
• Cornish pasties, the national dish of Cornwall - a cooked pastry filled with meat and vegetables (sort of like an empanada)…we definitely ate about one of these a day while in Cornwall. While pasties are definitely the iconic dish of Cornwall, if you’re there also check out some of the other classic Cornish dishes - fish pie, crab sandwiches, hevva cake.
• Bangledeshi food on Brick Lane, or anywhere really. The UK hands-down has America beat in terms of Indian/Bangladeshi food, due to the large number of migrants in the area. Brick Lane in the East End of London especially has a high concentration of Bengali people and restaurants, and is known for having some of the best Bangladeshi restaurants in the city. The UK has adopted some of the flavors into their own cuisine too - you’ll often see “curry sauce” on a takeaway or dive menu. We prefer the more authentic Indian/Bangladeshi dishes, but the British curry has become a staple worth trying anyway!
• Afternoon tea or cream tea. Getting an afternoon tea was definitely on my England bucket list, it seems like such an iconic experience - scones, finger sandwiches, little pastries, a pot of tea. We did this only once though, it’s not exactly the cheapest meal you’re going to find in England. However, what we did get an obscene number of times, was cream tea - not quite as fancy as afternoon tea - just a scone, jam, clotted cream, and tea. Very popular around Cornwall and Devon, but you can get it almost anywhere. Prepare your scone either jam on bottom, cream on top Cornish style; or cream on bottom, jam on top, Devon style.
• Haggis, neeps, & tatties. If you’ve heard of Scottish food before, you’ve probably heard of haggis. I personally don’t think it’s that weird, I grew up eating this stuff, but it’s essentially a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs, minced with onion and oatmeal, then steamed inside the sheep’s stomach. It sounds off-putting, but honestly it’s good, just try it I swear. At pubs you’ll often see it served with neeps (mashed turnips/swede/rutabaga), tatties (potatoes), and a whisky sauce, but we also saw it prepared all sorts of other ways too (battered and fried was surprisingly good). It’s the national dish of Scotland, and if you can stomach it, I’d highly recommend!
• Scotch pie. You’ll see meat pies all throughout Great Britain, but Scotch pies were my favorite - minced mutton and its distinctive hot water crust pastry shell.
• Tablet and shortbread, two traditional Scottish desserts. Tablet is a lot like fudge, but a bit grainier and brittler. Shortbread originated in Scotland, try to look for one with only three ingredients: butter, sugar, and oat flour.
• Salmon. Salmon is a big industry in Scotland, the cold waters and strong currents produce lots of salmon with a high fat content, which is exported all over the world.
We didn’t explore much into Welsh cuisine, but the two traditional dishes we had were Welsh rarebit, which essentially just seemed like toast and a cheese sauce; and laverbread, which isn’t bread, but more like a seaweed mush (not our favorite to be honest).
We’ll always have a soft spot for Great Britain, as Peter is mostly English and I’m part Scottish. It’s easy to feel at home there, at times the culture is so similar to America that it almost didn’t feel like we were traveling. As much as we like to feel challenged and out of our comfort zones during travel though, sometimes it’s nice to find our home away from home, and the U.K. gave us just that.