Top 5 Cities and Towns in Northern England

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!

1. York

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.

2. Liverpool

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!

Liverpool © Shannon Riley-Turner

Liverpool © Shannon Turner-Riley

3. Durham

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.

Durham Cathedral ©

Durham Cathedral ©

4. Manchester

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.

Manchester Town Hall ©

Manchester Town Hall ©

5. Whitby

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.


  1. Shirley Parent says

    York and Whitby are two of my favourite places to visit from my home town in South Yorkshire near Sheffield. I’m still very much a Yorkshire lass, though I’ve lived in Canada more than 45 years.

  2. Beatrice Vaughn says

    Has anybody visited the park underneath the Durham Cathedral? There stand some tree trunks carved visible only when seen from a certain angle, forming some kind of statue…can anybody tell me what they are known as? A name ir such…

  3. Chris pagan says

    Ripon, richmond, alnwick Leeds ,and many more. The north of England is full of amazing towns ,cities, monistaries and beautiful villages many unspoild by modernisation.

  4. Simone says

    Whitby is still on my list. Manchester feels after 3 times being there just like home…

  5. says

    I am an Ex-pat, living in the USA. I love all your posts. My hometown is Manchester. I have most of my friends from there. They are constantly asking me through Facebook “When are you coming home and will you be staying for good?”

  6. says

    I feel like I don’t know the north at all well, but definitely agree that York, Durham and Whitby are all wonderful.

    Can we just mention the pronunciation of Durham, and can a local guide me if I suggest “Durrum” is miles better than “Dur-ham” ? :)

  7. ANNE SHAW says

    I cannot believe that you left out Newcastle on Tyne and Northumberland and even further north.
    The city of Newcastle has some fabulous night life and shopping not to mention the stunning old architecture.
    Northumberland abounds with stunning contryside ,old churches and not to mention all things Roman as in remains .
    Hexham Abbey has an organ made of glass made by monks several hundres of years ago just such ethereal music to the ears.
    Well i could go on and yes I am biased as an ex-pat TOON lass living in California..

  8. says

    We just toured Great Britain with C.I.E. Tours “Best of Britain” and we did get to York and Liverpool. I loved touring the country and all the little stops along the way. Our tour guide, David, was like a walking encyclopedia and we learned so much about the history of the towns we visited as well as current events.
    Wonderful experience – just made us all want to come back and spend more time at some of our favorite spots, and York would definitely be on that list!

  9. says

    Me too, fellow expat Geordie. Although I agree with these suggestions, I was surprised not to see Newcastle. Sure it would have made the top ten though.

  10. Gregg says

    Shannon well done for bringing up the north of England. As a small group tour operator from ‘the world’ into Ireland & Great Britain based in Colorado I must emphasize that the north of England is stunning. I am Londoner so you would expect me to wax lyrical about the south of England. The fact is the north of England has more historical architecture in a smaller area than the south. Ever heard of Raby Castle? Brilliant! What about Washington Old Hall, the ancestral home of the George Washington family? Super! Queen Street Working Textile Mill in Burnley is jaw-dropping & ear-popping! You will re-read every Dickens’ book after a visit! Did I mention the Brontes? Haworth is fantastic & now just opened, for the first time ever, is the birthplace of the Brontes in Thornton, Yorkshire! And the best thing? Railways started in the north of England [Liverpool or Darlington take your pick.] & it still has the best network in Great Britain making it easy to get around independently so you don’t need tour operators like us. What am I saying?!

  11. Pat says

    York is also my number one! Would also have included Leeds probably instead of Manchester – primarily because of the national Royal Armourment museum, the Kirkgate markets and the shopping – the best in the north.

  12. Gail says

    Just got back from 2 wonderful weeks motoring in the north of England, Wales and the Edinburgh area. The whole area is definitely worth visiting. Cities and castles are lovely but the scenery is outstanding. I would rather ramble about the back lanes and enjoy the wonderful surprises around the bend or over the next bank!!

  13. says

    I love Northern England, was so glad to see York made your list! There are so many beautiful areas and small towns there too, I tell everyone if you want to see “real” England, get out of London.

  14. Nita Foster says

    That looks really awesome. I live in Oklahoma USA, your home city is really awesome, nice place to live?

  15. Anne McCann says

    Not a bad list love York and Whitby is an annual must visit but- Liverpool is NOT just about the Beatles. We are a great place for staying where you can easily reach North Wales, The Lake District and the Peak District and the Lancashire Coast. We have two iconic Cathedrals and a municipal building (St George’s Hall) that is one of the most beautiful in the country with a world renowned Minton Floor. We have several theatres and we are also proud of our long history of multiculturalism ( we have not always celebrated our diversity as we should). This means that we have a small but lovely Chinatown (the oldest in Europe), a long Irish History and a wonderful festival of African Music in Africa Oye as well as a Caribbean Carnival.

    Also missed out is Chester- on a par with York , Lancaster, and- if Manchester is acceptable where is Leeds!
    The North of England is beautiful and vibrant with the coast and country easily available from many of the towns/ cities! And the “natives” are very friendly!

  16. Danielle says

    Studied abroad for the year in Northern England and had the chance to visit all these cities and they are all amazing! Great picks.

  17. Helen Sadler says

    I think that’s the first time Manchester has made it to a list of top cities – as a fellow manc I agree. Especially South Manchester which is my neck of the woods – not to sure about Liverpool

  18. Roxanne Stickler says

    A couple of years ago, we spent 2 nights in the York area, taking the bus in the city one morning. We asked the bus driver about something – I forget what – and as we got off, this charming older gentleman started chatting with us and gave us directions to all sorts of places. Unfortunately, most of it got lost in the mix – wish I’d written some of it down – Go this way, then take this street… – so kind of him! We’d been to York before but spending all day wandering around gave us a different outlook. I strongly recommend the Yorvik (?) Viking Centre – so interesting – Love the Shambles. We got a kick out of a Starbucks in an old jewellry shop. ;)

  19. Susanne Kabotoff says

    My favourites are Harrogate. Yorkshire… James Herriott country, and also Knaresborough I nursed at the Harrogate General Hospital from 1956… 1960.
    Abeautiful yorkshire area..

  20. Gordon Latimer says

    I was born and grew up in Newcastle. I used to live in Los Angeles for many years and recently retired to Las Vegas

  21. Heather A. Wilce says

    I spent a short time in Whitby, a long time ago, and I loved it. I stayed with some people by the surname of Smales, in a lovely, big old house. I recognized this picture as soon as I saw it!!!

  22. Ruth Wildgoose says

    I would have like to have seen Nottingham on the list for the Lace markets , Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem oldest pub in England, Robin Hood country, Nottingham castle and lots more

  23. Maureen Moffat says

    I’ve lived in Australia for over 40 years but Berwick-on -Tweed is my home town.
    It really is the North of England , a walled town steeped in history.
    York to me is the middle of the country, but certainly north of London.
    Northern England for me is from Durham to the Scottish border.

  24. says

    I’d love to visit all five of these cities/towns, but I’m most intrigued by York with its medieval town and Viking influence, and by Whitby with its connection to Dracula. Thanks for the inspiration!

  25. Miriam Curtis says

    Oh Oh! Lovely Whitby…better than all the big cities. Agree…the North has lots to offer the tourist…have just returned from 4 weeks on the UK…my fifth visit. How fortunate I am to have such memories. Miriam…South Australia.

  26. Julie Gritt says

    I just left my heart in THE NORTH 1 month ago. We live in Missouri and this was a dream trip for our family. We spent 2 weeks visiting family in Harrogate and loved every minute we spent in this beautiful unspoiled country. Every where you go you are surrounded by the Yorkshire Dales. We spent 3 days in London…but I couldn’t wait to get back to The North! London did not impress me at all. I feel bad for visitors who only experience London and think they have been to England. York was the perfect British tourist is eveything you dream of when you think of England. Complete with amazing Pubs and tea at Betty’s Tea room. Whitby was lovely and the Whitby Abbey is such a treasure! Northumbria was a dream! Alnwick Castle has hosted Harry Potter and now season 5 of Downton Abbey and is a must see picture perfect place…Bamburgh was equally as stunning on the coast of the North Sea. I could have spent a whole week on the coast in Northumbria exploring castles,the Moors and the coast! You can keep London…The North is where it’s at!!!!!!

  27. says

    Been to all these lovely cities, some more than others. Whitby is my favourite. My Husband and I spent our Honeymoon there and returned last year for our 45th anniversary. York is my second favourite but they are all great.

  28. Cristine Haskell says

    I too love York and Whitby. I live in SC but whenever I’m over the pond to visit my good friend in Ilkley…we have to go and visit…we’ve stayed in York, Whitby and Robin Hood’s Bay!

  29. Peter Gwinner says

    My long lost brother and I were reunited in 1998 when we were both in our 50’s. We visited back and forth between Edmonton, Alberta and Blackburn. We rambled, fished and visited a lot of places within 1/2 hour of Blackburn, visited York and had a 7 hour memorable walk around Helmshore and the Rossendale way. Our mother spent her childhood around Clitheroe and had jaunts through the Pendle hills. Not big name places but still a lot of history and wonderful residents. In other words – any town, village, or small group of houses have enthusiastic residents who will tell/show local lore and spots that have generally overlooked by the tourist industry. I am thankful that my late brother and I had great times in the “North” leaving great memories. A special Thank You to the author for bringing back those memories.

  30. Paul Metzger says

    Im saddened that Newcastle isnt on this list. Its a wonderful city with the friendliest people Ive met in the UK. Lovely architecture and the Metro Centre, not to mention a Premier League football team.

  31. Paul Metzger says

    I do as well. Its a wonderful city. And the people are the friendliest in the UK, I believe.

  32. Bob Paddon says

    My wife and I are southerners and also Banana POM’s (those who emigrate and come back home again) We lived near Durham at one time and have always loved the North.Our love for the British countryside was what we missed in Aus and life down under wasn’t enough to keep us there.We do
    not regret coming back to this green and pleasant land in spite of its faults

  33. says

    hı ı agree you ı am goıng every year to north of England from Iran
    now about 20 days waıntıng ın Ankara to renew my multıple vısa from Brıtısh consulate ın Istanbul. happy to vısıt agaın.

  34. Carole Phillips says

    Absolutely right, Anne Shaw – as an expat Geordie as well I was surprised not to see more of the North on this list… besides Newcastle, what about Alnwick, Seahouses, Banburgh and of course the Farne Islands?

  35. Carole Phillips says

    Washington Old Hall is one of my favorite places to visit – fascinating! Love Darlington as well. And we always enjoy going to Beamish!

  36. Carole Phillips says

    My late uncle and family lived in Berwick for many, many years. We always loved going to stay with them. It’s a beautiful little town!

  37. sarah says

    I am moving to Harrogate soon I’m madly in love with it there so beautiful. Can’t wait to be home.