Inspiration Destinations UK The Best UK City Breaks

The Best UK City Breaks

May 21, 2024
Bath, one of the UK's best city breaks - Luxury Escapes

From the dreaming spires of Oxford to the Roman spas of Bath and Manchester’s artsy cool, these UK cities showcase all that’s great about Britain.

Look a little closer (and beyond London), and you’ll find the UK has endless options for a city break packed with culture, history, good food and good times. Some are living museums from another era, while others cut a new path when it comes to food and culture – and some even do both (Manchester, we’re looking at you).

From cosy wrapped-up winter weekenders to cities than shine in the summer, here’s our pick of the best UK cities for a fun-filled mini-break.

Best UK city breaks in the north

Edinburgh: one of the most beautiful cities in the world

Edinburgh, one of the UK's best city breaks - Luxury Escapes
Edinburgh. Source: Jörg Angeli, Unsplash.

It’s no surprise Travel + Leisure declared this university city one of the most beautiful in the world. From the winding cobblestone laneways and ancient architecture of the Old Town to the neoclassical masterpieces of the Georgian New Town, the Scottish capital is certainly aesthetically blessed. Feast your eyes from the medieval Edinburgh Castle, home to the Scottish crown jewels, whose position atop Arthur’s Seat offers some of the best views of the city. The thrill of exploring this city lies in uncovering quirky boutiques, one-of-a-kind eateries (like The Gardener’s Cottage, serving kitchen garden fare from a 19th-century worker’s cottage) and atmospheric pubs serving the city’s signature Scotch whisky. Visit during August for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and see some of the UK’s most exciting up-and-coming performance artists at work, in one of the most uninhibited, joyous celebrations of art and culture the world over.

Launchpad for: exploring wider Scotland and the Highlands.

Manchester: gaining global renown for its cultural cool

Named one of the 54 Places to Go in 2024 by the New York Times, Manchester is one of the UK’s most exciting and progressive cities. From its role in shaping history (it was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and the Suffragette movement), to its music (The Smiths, Oasis and Joy Division were founded here) and world-renowned football clubs, its heritage is as captivating as its pioneering present. It’s packed to the rafters with distilleries and microbreweries, galleries, epic shopping, theatre, foodie hotspots and nightlife, meaning no day is the same. Sign up for a city tour or go behind-the-scenes at Old Trafford, home to the legendary Manchester United Football Club. A 10-minute journey south of the city by train is Stockport, a historic cobblestoned borough that’s gaining attention for its independent boutiques and trendy eateries.

Launchpad for: the well-heeled surrounding suburbs and nearby Liverpool and Leeds.

York: cathedral city encircled by medieval walls

Beyond this Yorkshire city’s imposing medieval stone walls are countless further sites of historic significance. It’s home to one of the world’s most exquisite cathedrals, the 7th-century, Gothic-style York Minster, which never fails to astound with its sheer scale and beauty (some of its stained-glass windows date back to the 12th century). The Shambles, with its rickety timber-beamed houses and cobblestones, is regarded as one of the best-preserved medieval streets in Europe. Visit here for cosy cafes, gift boutiques and confectionary. JORVIK Viking Centre is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek icon thanks to its ride immersing guests in the Viking-era York (complete with farmyard smells).

Launchpad for: nearby Harrogate, where you can take afternoon tea at the famous Betty’s, and the Yorkshire Moors.

Best UK city breaks in the east

Cambridge: punting amid one of the world’s oldest universities

Cambridge, one of the UK's best city breaks - Luxury Escapes
Cambridge. Source: Shutterstock.

Much like Oxford, the city of Cambridge unfolds around the historic buildings of its university. Its fascinating heritage as one of the oldest universities in the world dates back to 1209, with famous alumni including Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. Its architecture is a tour from medieval times to Victoriana, from the spires of King’s College Chapel, an icon of the city skyline, to the ornate Bridge of Sighs at St.John’s College. The best way to discover the city? Travel like the students do, by punt on the River Cam, or on bicycle through cobblestoned laneways, discovering cosy cafes, markets and independent boutiques.

Launchpad for: Suffolk and the Norfolk coast.

Best UK city breaks in the south

Oxford: literary legends in a medieval university city

The dreaming spires of Oxford’s 12th-century university have inspired nine centuries of scholars, artists and literary legends both within and outside its walls. Many of its buildings, which are scattered around the centre of the city, are open to visitors, offering a glimpse into their ancient architecture, creaky corridors and pristine gardens and quads. Book a city tour through the Bodleian Library (or ‘the Bod’), one of the oldest in Europe, having been in operation for more than 400 years. The city’s museums are also internationally renowned; The Ashmolean, Britain’s first public museum, for its Egyptian collection, and Pitt Rivers for its global archaeological and anthropological treasures. Punting on the River Thames is a whimsical activity for summer, so much so that Lewis Carroll devised Alice in Wonderland while undertaking the very same activity in the 1860s. Alight along the riverbank for refreshment at a typical country pub.

Launchpad for: the Cotswold villages and the famous Bicester Village designer outlet village.

Bath: dive into Roman-era spa heritage

This pretty Somerset city is so rich with Georgian architecture and Roman relics, that it’s the only one in the UK to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety. The jewel in its crown is the extraordinarily well-preserved Roman Baths, which still stand as they did some 2,000 years ago (note you can’t swim here, though, you’ll need to go to the nearby Thermae Bath Spa). Visit attractions dedicated to literary legends and previous Bath residents Jane Austen and Mary Shelley, admire The Royal Crescent (an arc of 30 honey-hued, Grade I-listed Georgian houses), and soak up the atmosphere on the banks of the River Avon that flows through its heart. The charming little Fashion Museum Bath, in the city’s Assembly Rooms, is also well worth a visit for a further glimpse into its social history.

Launchpad for: the maritime city of Bristol and Glastonbury.

London: for cosmopolitan capital culture

For fast-paced, high-octane adventuring, you can’t go past London, whose pioneering spirit at the edge of fashion and culture is incomparable not only within the UK, but on the world stage. Beyond the must-see heritage sites (Tower of London, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace), get a taste for the diversity of its boroughs, from the well-heeled west through to the achingly arty east. You’ll never be short of world-class dining, shopping or theatre shows in the buzzing West End, while even rainy days promise endless discovery at the city’s 170-plus museums, whether your interest is priceless ancient treasures or thought-provoking modern art. More educational family fun can be found at The London Dungeons and Madame Tussauds.

Launchpad for: the entire south, with trains to seaside Brighton and kitsch Southend-on-Sea.

Best UK city breaks in the west

Cardiff: waterside Welsh capital

The famous accent and warm welcome of the Welsh is one of the first things you’ll notice upon entering Cardiff. This compact city is one of the greenest in the UK, with the huge 130-acre Bute Park at its heart. Dive into 2,000 years of history at Cardiff Castle, with its fascinating mishmash of Roman, Norman and Victorian architecture, and uncover the city’s Celtic roots at the open-air St Fagans National Museum of History. The pretty waterside Cardiff Bay wharf is home to boutiques and cafes to peruse by day, while the locals’ love for a party means the restaurants and bars buzz by night.

Launchpad for: the Welsh countryside.

Looking for more inspiration? Check out England’s Prettiest Staycations: Top UK Holidays for a Summer Break.

About Rebecca Ellwood
An English girl in Melbourne, Rebecca's exploring and tasting her way around Australia and beyond – and she does love a little luxury (who doesn't, darling?)

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