Often when people think about the UK what tends to come to mind first for many non-Brits is London. It is of course still by far the top tourist attraction in the country and one of the most visited cities in the world, with whisperings that it may soon top that list making it the world’s most visited city.
The capital’s sheer size, status and infamy worldwide often overshadow the rest of the UK and London often gets equated with England or the UK as a whole outside the country. Images of London and the “London experience” are often seen as representative of the whole country and the linguistic, architectural, geographic and cultural diversity of the rest of England and the UK is obscured.
Being a northerner, I’m often aware that the north of England is rarely on the itinerary of visitors from abroad either because people haven’t heard too much about it and often due to time and money restraints and the logistics of travel but if you do get the opportunity there are some fabulous hidden gems to be found “up north” that are well worth a visit! I love to celebrate the uniqueness and wonder of our northern counties!
So on that note, I thought I’d share my personal top five favourite cities (and towns) to visit in northern England. Enjoy!
York is one of my favourite cities in the whole of the UK and always somewhere I take visitors when I’m playing tour guide. It is one of the best preserved medieval cities in the country and has retained much of its incredible medieval architecture; from the tiny winding cobbled lanes of the town centre and the Shambles, to the awe inspiring massive Gothic cathedral of York Minster that dominates the skyline.
There are a number of great attractions to take advantage of while visiting, including a ton of fantastic museums. My personal favourite is ‘The Jorvik Viking’ Centre where you can uncover York’s early Viking past on the site of an old village and examine some of the best-preserved Viking artifacts ever found.
The old town centre of York is encircled by Roman era walls and it is one of the best preserved of the old walled cities in England. You can still walk along some long preserved tracts of the Roman walls right around the city and it’s truly a fantastic way to get a great view of some of the major landmarks. There are lots of great tours on offer to help you see as much of the city as possible, from river cruises and double decker bus tours, or just go for a wander and “get lost” as the town centre is quite small and very walkable.
The city of Liverpool is obviously famous worldwide because of four of its natives who put it on the map. You know who I’m talking about! The city of course still celebrates and cashes in on ‘Beatlemania’ and there are some wonderful Beatles themed attractions for fans to indulge in. You can visit the Beatles Story Museum at Albert Docks and also take a look at the yellow submarine hotel docked in the water there at the docks (yes, it looks just like THE famous yellow submarine).
Guided Beatles “Magical Mystery” bus tours leave from the docks and take you to many of the famous sites associated with the fab four, including Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and the boy’s childhood homes. You can also visit the Cavern Club for some great live music and some brill photo ops with a statue of John Lennon. Beyond The Beatles, Liverpool has so much to see!
Much of the old city centre remains and there has also been some wonderful heritage restoration of as well as new development in recent years. The beautifully restored docklands are the largest group of Grade I listed buildings in the country and home to some great free museums!
Located in the north east of England, Durham is a well-preserved cathedral city with ancient origins. It boasts a spectacular cathedral perched atop a hill high above the cobbled meandering streets of the old town that has changed little in the last 200 years. The impressive cathedral has been named the best-preserved Norman building in the country and when standing before the monumental architecture it is easy to see why.
There’s also the world heritage listed Durham Castle, which is definitely worth a visit. Take a wander around the quaint town centre and the old medieval market square, which still frequently holds regular markets. It’s quite a hilly city, so be prepared for the climb to the top of the hill where the cathedral stands. The view from the top offers beautiful panoramas of the city and is definitely worth the climb! If hills aren’t your thing then you can always take advantage of the peaceful riverside walkways and enjoy the tranquility of the woodlands.
Once a booming industrial city of the Victorian era, Manchester grew at an enormous rate from the late 18th century, from a sleepy backwater to the first true industrial city of the modern era. It’s fallen from its glory days at the heart of the British Empire’s cotton industry and the city went through some tough times in decades past which have given the city a bit of a bad, but undeserved, reputation.
I personally think there’s a very unique kind of beauty to be found in its abandoned factories and beautiful neo-Gothic architecture, though I may be a little bit biased as a Mancunian! The city has come leaps and bounds from its low days now and had extensive re-development over the last decade especially. It really is booming and is now the fastest growing city outside of London, encouraging many big businesses to relocate north. It has a lot to offer the traveler looking for a different “British” experience, from its two football clubs, bustling city centre and grand Victorian architecture.
The beautiful seaside town of Whitby lies in a natural harbour on the North Yorkshire coast. The old fishing port was once at the centre of the whaling industry and remnants of its long fishing heritage can be found everywhere, from its small fishing cottages with their quirky port hole windows, or the still bustling harbour waters packed with boats, to the whale bone archway perched above the town.
Narrow brick fisherman’s cottages line winding cobbled streets that snake up the cliff side in a very haphazard but uniquely English picturesque way. As you make your way to the top of the old town you encounter the steep “199 steps” that take you the rest of the way to the cliff top and offer incredible views of the town below. Perched on the top of the cliff is the medieval church of Saint Mary’s and its eerily beautiful graveyard that looks out towards sea, behind lies the ruins of the 7th century Whitby Abbey that inspired Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’.
If the walk up all those steps isn’t your thing they why not wander through some of the shops that line the cobbled streets. Whitby has managed to weather the storm that has left so many grand old British seaside towns in decay, it’s maintained it old charm and lots of quirky vintage style shops have moved in. The town also claims to sell some of the county’s best fish and chips, so why not try some authentic newspaper wrapped deliciousness in a seaside cafe or on the beachfront.
Shannon Turner-Riley is a British expat who splits her time between her hometown of Manchester and Vancouver Island on Canada’s west coast. A lover of travel, history and culture, she enjoys sharing all things wonderful about her native England with fellow enthusiasts. Holding a BA in Anthropology and embarking in a new adventure in the form of a MA in Cultural Heritage Management at the University of Durham later this year she hopes to continue to expand and share her passion of Britain’s incredible history and culture.