Ten Days in the UK via Train
Friends, I have been playing a lot this month with creating itineraries around the UK, partly because I am still trying to fit in a few last wanders through the Britain before our time is up and also because I often find myself making recommendations to others about where to go. Because Ten Days in the UK seems to be about how long most of our friends can get away when they come, I have chosen to plan around that length of time.
What you want to do in the UK depends on how much time you have and on whether you want to see the cities or the countryside.
I have come to dearly love the Scottish and English countryside, which is why I spend so much time tromping through fields on foot. But, walking through the more remote parts of the UK is usually going to involve renting and driving a car. On the wrong side of the road. Down tiny little lanes.
And because that can be frustrating, I thought I would first create a trip you can take completely by train. This trip hits a lot of great UK cities and manages to cover England and Scotland, so you get a great variety of culture. I think this is a great trip for someone who has never been to the UK before, and actually the UK is a great first trip to Europe for anyone feeling intimidated by the idea of not speaking English.
So if you’ve never left the good ol’ US of A and you want to have a wander through the UK without the bother of learning to drive on the left side of the road or trying to speak another language, this trip is for you.
Days 1-3. London
Arrive in London, preferably via Heathrow Airport where you can take the Underground straight into the middle of London.
Go ahead and purchase an Oyster Card at the machine at the London Heathrow station and put around 20GBP on it. (You can add more if/when you run out) You will use this card on the buses, the DLR and the underground in London to get around. You can even use it on some of the boats on the Thames. You tap your card to the yellow circle when you enter the Underground. Then you tap it again when you exit so that it stops charging you. On the bus you only tap it when you board the bus and you don’t have to tap out. I highly recommend figuring out how to get around by bus because it is cheaper and though sometimes slower, you get to see more by bus. (Go ahead and try for the top, front seat!)
My general rule on London transport is if I am going less than a half mile I walk, but anything between 1-5 miles, I take the bus and further than that I use the Tube because it’s the fastest. I find having internet and Google Maps available on my phone to be oh-so-helpful! But you can also use a paper map and London is wonderful for having maps around town to help you figure out where you are.
On your first day you’ll be jet lagged and exhausted, but you want to stay awake as long as possible to adjust.
There is so much to see in London that I could not possibly cover it all. I would recommend checking out some guidebooks at the library and then making a list of your top ten sites you want to visit. I often even take photos of guidebook pages (museum descriptions, maps, etc).
But here are some of my fav things I’ve done in London:
Walk Southbank (the south bank of the Thames River) If it’s a pretty day, you can walk all the way from Tate Modern (at the Millennium Bridge) to the London Eye on the south side of the river. The river walk will be crammed with food stalls, street performers, used book sales and all kinds of people watching. I love it.
City Cruises I think seeing London from the water is a must. I love these little river cruises and all the funny tidbits that the boatmen share as you ride along. (They are funny). You can choose between a set cruise time or a hop on/hop off ticket that is good on any of their boats for 24 hours. I have done both. Love it.
Eating London: Food tour in East London. This is SUCH a great tour! A combination of food + street art + history. And they have a new one in Central London that looks fun as well. East London is my favorite part of London, and part of it is the food for sure! I also love Camden Market for browsing food stalls and eating all kinds of street food. Saturdays can be insane in Camden.
Go to Evensong at Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral. Evensong is a short service that is sung that happens almost every day in these grand cathedrals and it is free to attend. I would always rather attend a service than tour a church.
Context Travel Tours of London: We did a great history of theater tour of London with Context Travel, but there are loads more to choose from. These are small (often private) tours with local experts, and they have some great ones for families.
Museums! There are so many museums in London and they are almost all free to visit. The British Museum is a favorite but I also enjoyed the Tate Modern and The National Gallery.
Day 3. Travel from London to York via train.
A word about trains: The train times are available to search at trainline.com. You can search prices and times and pay with your credit card. But then you have to have THAT credit card to collect the train tickets at the station. You can buy your tickets on the day of travel at the station, but they are generally much cheaper if you buy them 9-12 weeks in advance and you can reserve your seats. Here’s another place to read about booking UK trains.
I would take the train from London in the afternoon or evening to save on one night of expensive London accommodation. So grab a picnic for the train and then enjoy a drink in a pub in York before heading to bed.
Day 4. Visit York.
We loved our time in York! We learned about Vikings and chocolate, walked the city walls and drank loads of tea. Also Evensong in York Minster!
Day 5. Train to Durham. Visit Durham. Train to Edinburgh.
Durham is right on the train route between York and Edinburgh, so even if you don’t stop, keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of this city on a hill out your window. You can easily wander the city of Durham in a day, so if you grab an early morning train out of York and a later one to Edinburgh, it’s worth a wander.
On our day in Durham, we climbed to the top of the famous cathedral, walked the river that surrounds the city, found some gorgeous Italian food and spent some time in the town square. There’s also a castle and a fun market hall.
Days 6-7. Visit Edinburgh.
Wake up early on Day 6 and go for a walk in Edinburgh before anyone is awake. The city streets will probably be glistening with rain but don’t be daunted. My favorite moments on the famous Royal Mile always seem to be those dark, rainy mornings darting out for a coffee before the shops have opened up and the street is cluttered with kilts, tartan scarves and Celtic jewelry.
There’s so much to do in Edinburgh that you will easily fill two days! Here are a few suggestions, but consult a guidebook and the internet to find your own favorites or take a look through the archives to see what we’ve done on our many visits to the Scottish capital.
If you’re feeling up for a good hike/climb, head to the top of Arthur’s Seat. Gorgeous walk and great views of the city. The walk starts at the bottom of the Royal Mile in Holyrood Park, past Holyrood Palace.
A smaller hill to climb that also has a great view of the city is Carlton Hill. It’s on the opposite side of town from the Royal Mile. Turn right on Princes Street after crossing the bridge and head up the road.
Again Context Travel for a thorough history of this city. Several to choose from, but I did the Old Town tour where I learned much more in depth history of Edinburgh. There are also street tours up and down the Royal Mile that you can join in. Definitely worth it to do some kind of tour of Edinburgh because there is so much history! Also the underground tour is well-loved.
Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace are both worth touring but are rather pricey. You can buy a combo ticket, but if you have pretty weather and you just want to walk up to these and see them from the outside, you can go all the way in the gates of both of them. (that’s where you buy the tickets) The insides are like touring fancy old rooms and lots of history.
The National Museum of Scotland is one of the best museums in the UK and it is free to visit. Loads to see in there. It’s massive. Just wander around until you can’t read little plaques anymore and come back later.
The National Gallery in Princes Street Gardens is also free and well worth a wander. There are some Italian masters in the collection and of course, famous Scottish artists. Look for McTaggart, landscape painter with gorgeous scenes from the west coast of Scotland.
A picnic in Princes Street gardens might be my favorite way to eat in Edinburgh. You can get lovely picnic food at the M&S food hall (either in the train station or a larger one on Princes Street), but if the rain pours and pours, we like the museum cafes for lunch as well.
Combine eating and sightseeing by popping in the Elephant Cafe if you’re a Harry Potter fan, as JK Rowling wrote from a table in the back with a view of the castle.
Days 8-10. Option A.
If you’re coming to visit me, you would travel to Aberdeen this day and I would show you around the Highlands and then put you on a plane on Day 10 to head home.
My favorite Aberdeenshire moments are:
Touring a castle ruin (sometimes even better)
Eating fish & chips in small villages or on the beach
Touring whisky distilleries (so many choices)
Hillwalking or forest walking
However, if you’re not coming to see me, you would need a car for all of the best the Shire has to offer, so I’m going to go ahead and say skip Aberdeen and go on to Option B.
Days 8-10 Option B.
Day 8. Take the train from Edinburgh to Inverness. Visit Inverness and Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. You can book a tour straight out of Inverness or you can take a bus to Urquhart Castle.
Day 9. Take a bus or a tour a little farther afield just to get a taste of classic Scottish scenery. Visit the Isle of Skye, Glencoe or Eilean Donan Castle.
Day 10. Fly home from Inverness.
A few more planning details:
An Option C for your last three days would be to take a bus tour of the Highlands straight out of Edinburgh and then fly back home via Edinburgh. There are great tour companies that leave straight from Edinburgh almost daily and for the end of your trip, you might enjoy being taken around a bit instead of navigating on your own. You can do a backpacker type tour or a little bit nicer highland tour.
Flights. I use several different websites/apps to search for flights. On Kayak you can easily check the price for flying into one city and out of another, which saves you traveling all the way back to London by train at the end of your journey through the UK. I also like Momondo and Skyscanner for checking flight prices.
Packing. Your time in the UK will be so much more pleasant if you are not weighed down with lots of luggage. Hopping on and off trains and buses is easiest with a small backpack. Here is what I pack when I am galavanting around Europe.
Sleeping. Of course there are SO many options for hotels and hostels in the UK, but as a family, we have enjoyed staying in private rooms in YHAs (youth hostels). We can usually get a room with the number of bunks we need (4-6 depending on who is coming along) and for breakfast, we either prepare our own in the hostel kitchen or eat from the menu at the hostel. There are many YHAs in London but I love the St Paul’s for location. And we have stayed in the YHA in York as well. In Edinburgh and Inverness, we have had luck with hostels and with renting apartments through airbnb. For Edinburgh, I recommend staying on or near the Royal Mile if possible.
Money and credit cards. The best way to pay for everything in the UK is to use a credit card has a chip in it. Also, side note: You want to get a credit card that does not have international fees before you come. Both Chase and Capitol One offer cards with chips that don’t have international fees. You can also use your debit card to get cash, which some places will require. I try to use my credit card as much as possible because my bank does charge me a fee to pull out international currency. However this fee is generally lower than the one I would pay to exchange American dollars. So I leave all cash at home and just bring my credit card and debit card.
Ok that’s it! Any questions?? Ask in the comments and I will try my best to fill in details. Also, if you have been to other UK cities you love, feel free to highlight them in the comments. I only included cities I have been to so I might have missed your favorite.
Coming soon: Ten Days in the UK by Car. Road trip options for the adventurous souls who want to see more of the countryside or who have already been to London!