The 5 best day trips from London by train

All the allure of the Big Smoke will have you chasing pavements for days to discover all its many farmer’s markets, hipster districts and fancy cocktail bars. But don’t forget that there’s a whole country outside of London waiting to warmly welcome you with a cream tea and possibly a pint, all of which comes closer (and of less expense!) than London may have you believe. Armed with our recommendations of the best day tours from London – from a leisurely swim at Bath Spa, to fish ‘n’ chips on the queer coast of Brighton Town – the United Kingdom and all its dapper gentlemen are sure to have you chuffed as anything.

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Bath, UK | Photo: Sung Shin V.

1. Bath

If Jane Austen affairs and steamy Roman spa breaks pique your attention, then Bath is the place for you. Planted in the heart of Somerset – the English county known for its rough cider and rolling pastures – Bath is the flower that brings sophistication and style to the South West. Travel back in time by road or rail (the train taking just 90 minutes from Paddington Station) to arrive in Bath, where the UNESCO-listed Royal Crescent buildings blend both Roman and Georgian heritage and offer a glimpse of high-society England of the 18th century. Among the city’s most prized attractions is the Roman bathhouse known as Bath Spa, still operating to this day with added amenities including saunas and beauty treatments. The Jane Austen Centre meanwhile is a more niche option for your itinerary, allowing you to live out your Pride and Prejudice fantasies and enjoy a cream tea in a Regency period tearoom.

Besides bathing, Bath offers much in the way of history, showcasing the country’s last Gothic church, Bath Abbey, and a number of medieval bridges traversing the streams and waterways beyond Great Pulteney Street’s Georgian Quarter. Don’t be fooled, however, because although Bath is a heritage city it’s also very much a cosmopolitan space full of lively bars and hippie cafés, with Sydney Gardens and the Artisan quarter serving as popular meeting points for young locals. After a full day of sightseeing choose to refuel at a heritage pub or trendy bistro, afterwards taking advantage of Bath’s compact nightlife scene and its seasonal festivals, covering theatre, classical music and literature largely outside of the busy summer season.

Bath, UK | Photo: Eleanor Styles

Photo: Bruce Mars

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Just 60 minutes from London by train, Oxford is one of the easier London day trips, allowing for a culture-filled morning exploring the impressive Oxford campus

2. Oxford

Equally admired for its architectural heritage and elegant charm is the student city of Oxford, home of the prestigious Oxford University which dates back to the 11th century. Just 60 minutes from London by train, Oxford is one of the easier London day trips, allowing for a culture-filled morning exploring the impressive Oxford campus and its medieval college builds, such as the Bodleian Library and Ashmolean Museum, both open to the public. Christ Church is another site not to miss, particularly for fans of the Harry Potter movies and those wishing to admire the Old Master paintings inside. Gothic masterpieces and manicured quadrangles aside, Oxford also benefits from its university heritage in another way, notably with its local canon of fantasy literature and romantic poetry. Authors such as CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, Philip Pullman and even Dr Seuss all either studied or lived in Oxford, inspired by the city to build fictional worlds. In literary fashion, one of the most Oxford things to do is to hide away in one of its old-world pubs to discuss the greats over a pint with local professors.

Oxford | Photo: Lina Kivaka

Photo: Viktor Forgacs

3. Winchester

Also about an hour by train from London and another collegiate beauty is the small city of Winchester. One of the most mellow day tours from London, home of King Arthur’s legendary round table and a whole series of heritage sites, Winchester has the added bonus of being easily navigated on foot. Unlike most UK cities, Winchester was built in a grid formation, just moments from the early settlement of Old Sarum, and centred by stunning cathedral grounds serving as the burial place of Anglo-Saxon kings and Jane Austen herself. The tales of both Alfred the Great and King Arthur arose from Winchester, stories retold in vivid colours on walking tours along narrow riverside streets passing medieval palace ruins near the city centre. Stroll Britain’s oldest high street with its mix of familiar chains and independent boutiques fronted by Elizabethan and Regency-era architecture, or venture further out on a river walk to the St Cross gardens, homing in on a cosy café or pub when the weather takes a turn.

Winchester | Photo: Marius Mangevicius

4. Canterbury

Following on with the cutesy and cobbled theme, Canterbury easily finds its place among the most prized heritage cities in England thanks to its fascinating medieval streets and literary intrigue. Arrive in Canterbury in under an hour by train from London, walking into the centre from either station. Most tourists make a beeline for the cathedral and its gardens, but branch off any of the alleyways surrounding to find a treasure trove of independent book shops, cafés and historic landmarks, such as Roman ruins and monuments to Geoffrey Chaucer, the so-called father of English poetry who immortalised the city in his works. Other key stories of Cantebury include the assassination of Thomas Beckett and the return of Richard the Lion Heart in the 12th century, all told on intriguing walking tours through the sloping streets. Old but by no means ageing, Canterbury thrums year-round with an energetic mix of warm locals, students and tourists, the latter all clambering for an authentic pub lunch or central lodging. Book ahead for the best spots, tackling the reconstructed Roman market and museums on weekdays to avoid the crowds.

Canterbury | Photo: Ali Kiresci

Photo: Jose Llamas

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Brighton is the capital’s weird sidekick, endearing visitors with an affable mix of independent British pubs, restaurants and hippie hangouts among wonky alleyways that tilt drunkenly towards the sea

5. Brighton

Saving the queerest and nearest until last, we stop finally at the gay capital of the UK. Brighton. Resting on the pebbly coast just an hour south of London by train, Brighton is the capital’s weird sidekick, endearing visitors with an affable mix of independent British pubs, restaurants and hippie hangouts among wonky alleyways that tilt drunkenly towards the sea. Jaunt downhill from the train station through a soundscape of buskers and haze of pot smoke, closing in on the beachfront to fight seagulls for dominion over your fish ‘n’ chip lunch. Anything but a hassle, Brighton reminds Londonites and travellers alike not to take life too seriously. Simply embrace the chill of the English coast with a sense of humour (and an extra jacket!), hopping easily between boutique tailors and crystal healers while slurping on artisan coffee and Cornish ice cream without a care in the world.

Undoubtedly one of the best day trips from London, Brighton’s biggest selling point is in its fabulous queer community, at home amongst the city’s population of creative misfits. Most alive on weekends when Londoners come to party in their masses, Brighton’s unique nightlife scene has something for everyone. From raving on the beach to performing drag with lads on their stag, the city always has the means to surprise. During the day, see the weird and wonderful Royal Pavilion, the 19th-century palace built to be the Prince Regent’s ultimate party pad, catch a show at the Brighton Dome or do a spot of boutique shopping in The Laines. Then, later on, the Marina can satiate your need for classy dining surrounded by wealthy yacht owners!

Photo: Justin Chen

Brighton | Photo: Alex Ovs

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