Things to Do in South West England
With its dramatic Gothic facade and Britain’s highest church spire at an impressive 404 feet (123 m), the Salisbury Cathedral is one of the country’s most visited religious monuments, drawing some 250,000 visitors each year. As well as admiring the cathedral’s remarkable 13th-century architecture and exquisite stained-glass windows, visitors can climb the 332 steps to the top of the tower for a magnificent view of Salisbury.
The cathedral’s star attraction is an original copy of the 1215 Magna Carta, one of the world’s most famous and significant documents that remains a cornerstone of British law. An interactive Magna Carta exhibition walks visitors through the historic events of its legacy of social justice. The cathedral also holds the world’s oldest working mechanical clock, which dates back to 1386, and afternoon tea in the Bell Tower Tearooms.
The best way to discover the cathedral is on a 90-minute guided tour of Salisbury, with entrance included. Many visitors opt to visit on a day trip from London, often combined with a visit to nearby Stonehenge or Avebury stone circle.
This first-century Roman bathhouse complex was a meeting point for patricians who came to bathe, drink the curative waters, and socialize. The baths fell out of use with the Roman exodus from Britain but were rediscovered and excavated in the late-19th century. Explore the Great Bath, which is filled with steaming, mineral-rich water from Bath’s hot springs.
A large natural harbor along the coast of Dorset, Poole Harbour is the centerpiece of its namesake town, flowing into Poole Quay and Upton Lake. With miles of rugged coastline and beaches, the harbor is a hotspot for water sports like windsurfing, kitesurfing and stand-up paddleboarding, while Poole Quay is home to an atmospheric promenade, lined with shops, cafés and restaurants.
Poole Harbour is also the starting point for ferries to nearby Brownsea Island, as well as boat cruises along England’s UNESCO-listed Jurassic Coast, affording spectacular views of natural wonders such as Old Harry Rocks, Studland Bay and Swanage bay along the way. For the full experience, you can even combine a cruise to Swanage Bay, with a ride on the Swanage Railway heritage steam train and explore the dramatic Dorset coastline from both land and sea.
Making headlines as the largest ship in the world when it was launched back in 1843, Brunel's SS Great Britain was a revolutionary work of engineering, spearheaded by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Today, the mighty ship remains an important part of Britain’s maritime heritage, now a museum ship that stands proud on Bristol’s waterfront and draws up to 200,000 annual visitors.
Visitors to the SS Great Britain can explore below deck, dress in Victorian costumes, climb the rigging, and peek into the engine rooms, kitchens and crew quarters. Interactive on-board exhibitions tell the story of the ship’s great voyages, including accounts from passengers, crew, and ship captain, Captain Gray; the ship’s many engineering innovations; and its triumphant restoration and return to Bristol in 1970.
With its castle-like façade perched on the East Cliff and idyllic leafy gardens sloping down to the seafront, it’s impossible to miss the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. The Grade II-listed heritage building was built in 1901 for Sir Merton and Lady Russell-Cotes to house their growing private collection of art and artifacts. The remarkably preserved Art Nouveau mansion, along with its contents, was gifted to the city of Bournemouth in 1908 and formally opened as the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in 1922.
Today, the striking Art Nouveau building is as celebrated for its unique architecture and attractive gardens, as it is for its lavish interiors and sizable art collection. The gallery’s permanent exhibitions include a significant collection of European and Japanese works, dating mostly from the 19th- and early 20th-century, while the museum hosts a magnificent array of souvenirs collected by the Russell-Cotes on their world travels. As well as visiting the galleries and museum, visitors can explore the beautiful grounds and gardens, or take in the views from the on-site café.
Unique among SEA LIFE® centers due to its mix of tank and outdoor exhibits, Weymouth SEA LIFE Adventure Park encapsulates the global diversity of water-based life. From sharks to fairy penguins, sea turtles to otters, more than 1,000 species live in the 14-acre park, where you’ll also find play areas, cafés, and a mini-golf course.
Dating from between 2900 and 2600 BC, Avebury is the world’s largest Neolithic stone circle. Originally composed of three stone circles—the largest of which comprised 98 standing stones (though only 27 now remain)—Avebury is truly immense. Though the function of Avebury is not fully understood, it was likely used for pagan ceremonies.
With ancient woodlands, windswept heathlands, and freshwater lakes hemmed in by grassy sea cliffs and sandy beaches, Brownsea Island crams a startling variety of scenery into its small landmass. The mostly uninhabited island, which is run by the National Trust, is the largest of the islands in Poole Harbour.
World famous for its eponymous music festival, Glastonbury has a creative spirit that burns all year round. Steeped in history, the small town is known for its medieval abbey and links to King Arthur, as well as its lively markets, artisan boutiques, and thriving arts scene.
Located in the grand King’s House, in the shadows of the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, the Salisbury Museum is as impressive from the outside as it is on the inside. The award-winning museum is home to one of the UK’s most treasured archaeological collections, the Stonehenge Gallery, which displays items excavated from the iconic stone circle. Many visitors choose to complement their visit with a tour of nearby Stonehenge, just five miles (eight km) from Salisbury.
It’s not just Stonehenge that takes center stage—the fascinating Wessex Gallery exhibition chronicles more than 500,000 years of human history in the region and includes some of the oldest gold objects ever found in Britain. The Costume Gallery displays a colorful collection of clothing and accessories dating back from the 1750s, while the Ceramics Gallery includes rare and unusual items from the Victorian era.
Visit Salisbury Museum on a day trip from London that includes additional stops in Stonehenge and Windsor.
More Things to Do in South West England
A dramatic reminder of Bath’s Georgian heritage and one of the city’s most photographed historic landmarks, the Royal Crescent is aptly named, with its crescent-shaped row of terraced townhouses and regal architecture. Built between 1767 and 1775 by architect John Wood the Younger, the Royal Crescent features a row of magnificent terraced townhouses, looking out over a vast expanse of manicured lawns.
There are 30 houses along the crescent, each looming 47-foot (14-meters) high, fronted by gigantic Ionic columns and renowned for their beautifully preserved Georgian facades. Many of the houses are still private homes, but No. 1 Royal Crescent is now a museum, offering visitors a glimpse into life in Georgian-era Bath, while No. 16 is home to the luxurious Royal Crescent Hotel.
Smoke & Mirrors offers a one-of-a-kind Bristol experience. Enjoy an evening of comedy and magic at this atmospheric pub and 1920s-style performance venue, which hosts a cast of house magicians performing masterful feats and illusions. With seating for only 44 people, the theater offers a cozy, intimate atmosphere.
Dominated by two giant, bubble-shaped biomes—the world's largest greenhouses—the Eden Project is one of Cornwall's most famous landmarks. The biomes maintain miniature ecosystems that enable all kinds of plants to flourish: orchids, palms, and cacao trees in the Rainforest Biome and proteas, cacti, and huge aloe veras in the Mediterranean Biome.
Looming 30 meters (98 feet) over the Avebury countryside, the steep grassy slopes of Silbury Hill are an incongruous sight against the backdrop of gently rolling farmlands. This is no ordinary hill, however – the fascinating man-made structure dates back to around 2400BC and is the largest prehistoric monument of its kind in Europe.
Experts have long debated the significance of Silbury Hill, but while there are few indications of its actual purpose, its size (comparable to the Egyptian pyramids) and careful construction are none-the-less impressive. The mysterious hill also makes an intriguing addition to England’s UNESCO-listed Neolithic monuments, which include the Avebury Ring, the West Kennet Long Barrow and Stonehenge.
Wiltshire’s most important museum is the perfect complement to a visit to nearby Stonehenge, home to some of England’s most impressive archaeological finds. The museum takes visitors on a journey through the region’s fascinating history of human occupation, from the Neolithic era to the Bronze and Iron Age, through to Roman, Saxon, and medieval times.
As well as items excavated from the UNESCO-listed sites of Stonehenge and Avebury, highlights include the ruins of Bush Barrow, a Bronze Age burial mound; priceless gold and amber items that date back over 4,000 years; and a sizable collection of historic art.
A small, rural village on the southern edge of the Cotswolds in Wiltshire County, Lacock is famous for its historic feel and big-screen appearances. It has been featured in several film and television productions, including Pride and Prejudice, Emma and most recently, Harry Potter.
Sights include the medieval Lacock Abbey, with its expansive English gardens, stable house and Fox Talbot Museum, a photography exhibition named after the inventor of the negative/positive photographic process (a Lacock resident in the 1800s.)
Many visitors enjoy the two-mile walk that circles the surrounding countryside and offers views of the town and its abbey.
With its dramatically jagged cliffs towering 450 feet over lush green valleys and limestone rock face pocked with caves, the Cheddar Gorge is not only England’s largest gorge, but one of the country’s most impressive natural wonders. Formed during the last ice age and cocooning the now-underground Cheddar Yeo River, the striking gorge winds its way through the Mendip Hills for almost three miles and makes a popular site for hiking and rock climbing.
The Cheddar Gorge has also become known for its collection of limestone caves and underground caverns, which made headlines back in 1903, when England’s oldest complete human skeleton was found there – a specimen nicknamed the ‘Cheddar Man’ and now kept at London’s Natural History Museum. The most famous of the caves include Gough’s Cave, with its spectacular stalactites; Cox’s Cave, with its unique calcite sculptures and mirror pools; and the adjoining Crystal Quest, where the caves are filled with JRR Tolkien-inspired fantasy figures.
Its distinctive blue bottles and uniquely exotic taste has made Bombay Sapphire gin a household name in England for over 25 years, and since moving to new headquarters back in 2011, fans of the iconic gin can now visit the distillery and learn the secrets behind its production.
Housed in the historic Laverstoke Mill, the Bombay Sapphire Distillery affords visitors the opportunity to peek into the working distillery, learning about the history of gin and Bombay Sapphire in the Gin Academy, watching the trademark Vapour Infusion distillation in the Dakin Still House and touring the Glasshouses and Botanical Dry Room. There’s also a dedicated tasting room on-site – the Mill Bar, where each guest can enjoy a complimentary drink, or join one of the special gin cocktail masterclasses.
The UK’s best-loved holiday parks first opened in 1936 at Skegness on the east coast and expanded in the 1940s when the founder Billy Butlin opened several leave centers for British troops during the war. All entertainment was laid on, along with catering facilities and accommodation, and since those early days many thousands of families have stayed in the three Butlin’s camps. With their all-inclusive, good-value accommodation, the parks are aimed at young families and provide everything on site, including Splash Waterworld swimming pools, live musical shows in the Skyline Pavilions, fairground rides and several dining options. A daily roster of activities, from talent shows to football training, is overseen by Butlin’s famous ‘red coats’, who are usually young and talented aspiring actors or students. Constantly evolving, the Butlin’s at Minehead is close to the natural beauty of the Exmoor National Park and offers the brand-new, tranquil West Lakes Village, with wooden chalets located on the lakeside amid landscaped gardens, plus land trains to transport families around the park.
Home to an impressive collection of over 250 birds, the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) offers a rare opportunity to get up close to some of the world’s most spectacular birds, while supporting the charity’s breeding and rehabilitation efforts. As well as marveling at the mighty eagles, raptors and falcons, and taking a peek at the owls, visitors can coo over the baby birds (spring season only), enjoy the scenic gardens and woodland walks, and discover plenty of fascinating facts about birds of prey.
The highlight of every visit is the chance to watch the magnificent creatures in flight, and flight demonstrations are held three times daily. Prepare to be impressed as eagles, raptors, falcons, hawks, kites, buzzards, and vultures all take to the skies for an unforgettable spectacle.
Since 1964, Somerset’s Fleet Air Arm Museum has immersed guests in the history of British naval aviation. Four main exhibition spaces showcase a range of historic aircraft, while interactive displays provide plenty for visitors of all ages to see and do—including an award-winning aircraft carrier experience and an outdoor play area.
Torquay’s Babbacombe Model Village is a fun and charming destination that’s suitable for the whole family. It’s a representation of English village life in miniature, with cottages, gardens, and transport, as well as well-known landmarks such as Stonehenge and Windsor Castle. There are more than 400 models, and approximately 13,000 miniature people, so there’s a lot to see here.
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