Over the past year, many of us have discovered just how beautiful and diverse the UK really is. From the dramatic highlands of Scotland to the white cliffs of the south coast, this country boasts truly spectacular scenery – but our cities are just as magnificent. While London gets most of the attention, often it’s the smaller, lesser-known cities that make the best destinations for city breaks. There’s something special about discovering a city you know very little about – and the smaller the city is, the easier it is to explore on foot, too.
Whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend away, a gastronomic adventure, or a history-infused holiday, the UK has it all. To get you inspired, here are 16 of the best UK city breaks.
From the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge to Brunel’s SS Great Britain, Bristol is a city that’s steeped in history – but it’s also known across the world for its passionate counterculture, and creative, independent spirit.
You can admire colourful street art, including murals by one of Bristol’s most famous exports – the elusive Banksy – on one of the city’s many street art walking tours. Next, why not give your feet a rest as you relax in trendy bars and watch the world go by? Bristol is a city with an unmistakable identity, and one of the best ways to discover just how unique it is is to simply sit and people-watch – particularly in the Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft neighbourhoods.
At the M Shed museum, you can learn how Bristol’s past has influenced its present, and explore its historic docks – where you can dine in one of the many restaurants in the hip Wapping Wharf. Bristol also has some of the best small breweries in the country, so if you get thirsty there’s always plenty of local brews to try.
For one of the best views of the suspension bridge, climb up to the Clifton Observatory in Clifton Village and take in the breathtaking vista from St Vincent’s Rocks. Afterwards, you can explore this leafy, elegant neighbourhood’s independent shops, and enjoy some top-notch food in one of its excellent restaurants and pubs.
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Though it’s often eclipsed by Edinburgh, Scotland’s biggest city has so much to offer. Over the past few decades, Glasgow has evolved into one of the most unique cities in the UK, blending its down-to-earth working-class roots with sophisticated culture and stately Victorian architecture.
This is a city that’s honest and friendly, and when work wraps up at 5pm, the pubs are filled with locals happy to have a chat with visitors over a pint. ‘People Make Glasgow’ is a popular expression here, and it’s absolutely true.
A must-visit attraction is Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, where you can admire over 8000 treasures and trinkets, with plenty of natural history collections and historical paintings on display. Then, you can stroll through the beautiful Kelvingrove Park.
Stubborn stereotypes suggesting that most Glaswegian cuisine is deep-friend should now be put to bed, as these days the city is filled with artisan bakeries, elegant eateries, and restaurants showcasing the best of world street food (though, if you want to try the infamous deep-fried Mars bar, there are still plenty of places to do so!).
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Though it’s only been the Welsh capital since 1955, Cardiff is just as grand and impressive as any other historical capital – and if you have an interest in castles, you’re in the right place. Wales has more castles per square mile than any other European country, and the medieval Cardiff Castle is one of the very best. Here you can admire the Victorian Gothic design, intricate wood carvings, epic murals, and vivid-coloured stained glass windows that run from wall to ceiling.
Cardiff is also one of the UK’s greenest cities, so if you fancy doing some cycling during your break, you can hire a bike and ride along the 55 mile Taff Trail that runs between Cardiff Bay and Brecon. The modern waterfront and marina are a pleasure to explore. And if you’d like to pick up some souvenirs, then head to the busy Hayes shopping district or wander the winding corridors of the city’s indoor arcades, where you can pick up some vinyls at Spillers – the World’s oldest record store.
In the evenings, the city positively buzzes as locals and tourists flock to Cardiff’s many pubs, bars, restaurants, and live-music venues.
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Arguably the liveliest and coolest seaside city in the UK, Brighton has been a popular staycation destination ever since Prince Regent went swimming here in the 18th century. Today, bohemian, hedonistic Brighton has something for everyone: sweeping pebble beaches, hundreds of independent shops, achingly cool restaurants, and the UK’s biggest gay scene.
One of the city’s top attractions is the Indian-inspired Royal Pavilion, which was first built as a royal seaside retreat, and since then has cemented Brighton’s love for all things over the top.
If you fancy doing some shopping, you can wander through The Lanes, which was once a fishing port and is now home to a whole manner of quirky shops, restaurants, and galleries. Stroll along Palace Pier to play some arcade games or treat yourself to some ice cream or candy floss – and if you’re brave enough, you can even go for a swim in the chilly yet invigorating waters.
Foodies will be in their element here too, as aside from the obligatory fish and chip shops, Brighton is also known for its vegan food scene and Michelin-starred restaurants.
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If you’re interested in history, then Canterbury is an obvious choice for a city break. This is a city of Romans and royalty, knights and playwrights – and of pioneering pilgrims and ancient architecture.
The city is perhaps best known for its world-heritage-listed cathedral, which many consider to be one of the finest in Europe – and this magnificent building contains more than 1,400 years of English history. You can spend hours exploring the cathedral and learning about its monuments – as well as visiting the site where Thomas Becket met his grisly end back in 1170.
Aside from the cathedral, a sense of history pervades much of the city, from the narrow medieval alleyways to the imposing city walls. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is another one of the city’s famous historical exports, and you can visit the Canterbury Tales Museum to enjoy a three-dimensional interpretation of these classic stories. But Canterbury is also a modern city, and its lively student population flock to the many buzzing pubs, bars, and restaurants, making this city feel like the ideal juxtaposition of new and old.
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Known for being a heartland for arts, culture, and music, Liverpool is home to some of the best museums and galleries in the country – as well as some of the most beautiful buildings.
The waterfront and Royal Albert Dock have some of the most popular attractions in the city, as well as the UK’s biggest collection of Grade 1 listed buildings in a single place, so you can spend hours walking around this lively area and admiring the views.
At the Tate Liverpool and the Merseyside Maritime Museum, you can admire modern art and learn about Liverpool’s seafaring history, as well as get an understanding of how this once-dilapidated city centre has been turned into one of the prettiest cities in the north.
And of course, no visit to Liverpool is complete without a Beatles-related experience. You can visit the world’s largest permanent exhibition, The Beatles Story on the Albert Dock, or hop on the Magical Mystery Tour, where you can discover the sights and sounds of the Beatles’ Liverpool in the 1960s.
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The idea of heading to Birmingham for a city break might have seemed odd not too long ago, but thanks to years of renewal and regeneration, Britain’s second city is experiencing something of a renaissance.
The industrial centre has been transformed into a dynamic cultural hub complete with a state-of-the-art library, a modern shopping centre, and perfectly restored Victorian buildings. To explore the history of the city, you can follow the Heritage Trail, which leads you past Birmingham’s most fascinating places, including Victoria Square, Bennett’s Hill, and the medieval Bull Ring.
The huge network of canals and waterways is ideal for both walking and cycling, and if you’re in need of refreshment, there are plenty of decent restaurants and pubs along the way.
Visit the Jewellery Quarter to check out the quirky shops and cafés and soak up the city’s lively street life – then wander through trendy Digbeth to visit the famous Custard Factory. Plus, thanks to its multicultural heritage, Birmingham is also one of the very best places in the country to get a curry.
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Though it was once known mainly for being the home of the Titanic, or for its painful and conflicted past, Belfast is another city that’s undergone a remarkable transformation in recent years.
Today, Belfast is considered rather a party town, though the nightlife here isn’t just for students, and the city boasts many excellent wine bars, cocktail clubs, jazz bars, and authentic Irish pubs. The food scene is thriving here too, and from high-end tasting menus to creative fusion cooking, there’s something for every palate.
History is still an important part of Belfast’s identity though, and if you’ve always been fascinated by the Titanic, you’ll love visiting the interactive Titanic Experience, as well as the Titanic Quarter, the shipyards where the ill-fated liner was built in 1909. There are also many walking tours you can take that will teach you about the hugely significant Northern Ireland Conflict, and in the Cathedral Quarter, you can admire the vibrant and thought-provoking street art that brightens up the neighbourhood.
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Diverse, energetic, and packed with character, Manchester is one of the liveliest cities in the UK, and it has just as much to offer history buffs and architecture enthusiasts as it does foodies or football fans.
Known as the birthplace of the industrial revolution, Manchester is home to Britain’s first modern railway, the Ship Canal, and dozens of grand Victorian buildings. To learn about the city’s history, you can head to the Manchester Museum, the Imperial War Museum North, and the Science and Industry Museum – and sports fans might want to visit the National Football Museum, too.
The city centre is packed with unique restaurants and bars, and there are always exciting events and festivals going on, no matter when you visit – from the Manchester International Festival to the enchanting Manchester Christmas Markets.
Fans of Coronation Street might be interested in the Coronation Street tour, and music lovers shouldn’t leave without attending a concert by the city’s historic symphony orchestra, the Hallé, at the Bridgewater Hall.
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Known as The City of Dreaming Spires, Oxford is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, and it’s another destination that’s an intriguing mix of ancient and modern.
Famous around the world for its university, Oxford University dates back to the 11th century, and you can spend days just exploring the university buildings. You can visit Christ Church College (which doubled as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films) and wander through the magnificent Bodleian Library – then, why not brush up your own knowledge at one of the country’s most interesting small museums, the Ashmolean?
Wandering through these old streets, with their honey-hued colleges and eye-catching spires, can make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time – though Oxford is now also both modern and cosmopolitan, and home to an emerging hi-tech community.
You can enjoy a lazy afternoon punting down the river, take a tour of The Oxford Artisan Distillery, or discover the enthralling literary history of the city by browsing some of the many book shops or doing a literary walking tour.
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Merging industrial grit with Victorian charm, Newcastle is still rooted in tradition – yet its large and energetic student population makes sure this city stays vibrant and cool.
While the Quayside was once filled with steamships and coal workers, it’s now a sophisticated urban area that’s become a hub of arts and culture in the North East. Perfect for riverside walks and cycles, the quayside is also one of the best places in the city to enjoy a meal and some drinks – or a night out ‘on the Toon’.
If you want to discover another great example of Newcastle’s resurgence, head to Ouseburn: an area that was once one of the toughest parts of the city. The former home of a bleach factory and whaling dock, Ouseburn is now a hip and happening neighbourhood, where you can browse bookstores, music shops, and eat your way through the many cool bars and restaurants.
There are also several excellent art galleries and a beautiful concert hall where you can enjoy a good show. And if you fancy learning about the city’s history, you can visit Newcastle Castle or one of the free museums.
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Sprawled across a group of hills overlooking the sea, Edinburgh is a remarkably beautiful city, and its compact size makes it a perfect destination for a city break. Steeped in history and culture, you can spend days here exploring the city and admiring its most breathtaking views.
Walk up to Arthur’s Seat, an ancient volcano, where you can gaze out at the city skyline, or give your legs a stretch and stroll up the steep path to Carlton Hill – and if you fancy even more exercise, you can hire bikes and cycle along the Union Canal.
In the ‘new town’ (which is actually Georgian) you can admire neoclassical houses with pillars and pristine private gardens. Alternatively, in the medieval Old Town, you can wander along Royal Mile, weaving your way in and out of cobbled streets and higgledy-piggledy buildings, and pick up some souvenirs in the independent shops.
Visit Edinburgh Castle, home to the oldest crown jewels in the country, and learn about some of the epic sieges and battles that happened here over the years. Then lastly, make sure you don’t miss the National Museum of Scotland, which is one of the most visited museums and galleries in the world.
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Dylan Thomas once called his hometown of Swansea an “ugly, lovely town”. But just like so many cities on this list, Wales’ second city is in the midst of an exciting regeneration – and the dull, postwar centre is slowly emerging into a hothouse for Welsh art and culture.
On the high street, derelict buildings are being reinvented as vibrant hubs for theatre and arts, and you can wander through excellent exhibitions at The Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, before checking out the Dylan Thomas Centre and learning about Swansea’s most famous son.
Foodies will enjoy strolling Swansea Indoor Market, which is the largest indoor market in Wales; with more than 100 stalls, you can sample some of the tastiest local delicacies of the Gower, including cockles and laverbread, the latter of which is a dish made from seaweed that was foraged on the shores of North Gower.
And of course, one of the main perks of a Swansea city break is visiting the five-mile beach, where you can swim, surf, or just relax on the golden sand. Plus, just a little further is the sweeping Rhossili Bay, where the beautiful Llangennith beach is equally alluring.
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Norwich is a city that has a lot going for it. Affluent, laid back, and with more than 1,000 years of history behind it, it’s also the only city in England that’s located inside a national park – the Norfolk Broads, where you can enjoy a blissful sense of peace and solitude.
But the city itself shouldn’t be overlooked, and history buffs will enjoy exploring the imposing Norman castle and medieval cathedral, and then losing themselves among the patchwork of narrow, winding alleyways that are full of hidden architectural gems. Don’t miss the Elm Hill neighbourhood, where there are plenty of magnificent Tudor buildings.
Small and easy-going, Norwich is a joy to explore. Visit the Victorian indoor market, the Royal Arcade, to discover independent shops bursting with unique treasure, or head to the famous Norwich market to browse hundreds of stalls to find some souvenirs to take home. Afterwards, you can head to the Plantation Garden where you can stroll amongst winding wooded paths and Italian-style terraces. The city is also known for its multitude of cosy pubs, so if you’re thirsty and in need of a rest, you won’t have to travel far for refreshment.
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With its Roman ruins, splendid Georgian architecture, historic abbey, and of course, thermal baths, Bath is an obvious choice for a city break – particularly because this is another compact city that’s easy to explore on foot. But though it might be mostly known for its history and connections to Jane Austen, Bath is evolving, and these days it has much more to offer than we might think.
Bath has recently emerged as one of the best places in the UK to enjoy an active city break, and you can explore the city along riverside cycle paths, or follow the National Trust walk that encircles the city.
Art aficionados will enjoy visiting the Holborne Museum, which is home to a growing collection of fine art and checking out Victoria Art Gallery, where you can admire a diverse collection of paintings and sculptures.
Fans of Jane Austen won’t have to wander far to find out more about the author or her work, but lovers of great literature might also want to visit Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, where they can step into the dark and sinister world of Frankenstein.
A visit to Bath isn’t complete with a soak in Thermae Bath Spa, and after an indulgent pamper session you can discover just how excellent Bath’s modern food scene is. From tapas and street food to supper clubs and veggie menus, there’s something for everyone here.
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York is another old city with a compelling history – albeit one that’s a little less genteel than Bath’s, and a bit more bloody.
Walking through these ancient streets can have you thinking you’ve fallen back into the medieval times – although you can go back much further in time while you’re here, and learn all about York’s Viking history with interactive experiences and tours at the Jorvik Viking Centre. York Dungeon is another fun way to uncover the darker past of this city, though if you’re more interested in art than history, York Art Gallery will keep you occupied for hours.
While there’s certainly much more to York than its past, history and heritage permeates from almost every brick and building. You can wander through the Shambles, one of the prettiest and best preserved medieval streets in the country, and potter around in its cheerful cafés and eccentric boutiques.
The awe-inspiring York Minster is one of the most spectacular Gothic cathedrals in the world and another must-visit attraction – and if you’d prefer to see the city from a different perspective, you might want to sail down the River Ouse on a riverboat.
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Whatever type of city break you’re after, the UK has something for everyone. History buffs can admire ancient Roman ruins and medieval castles in cities like Bath, York, and Canterbury. Culture enthusiasts can discover new art and music in artistic hubs like Liverpool, Swansea, and Newcastle. And people who just want to wander through vibrant, cool neighbourhoods, stopping at restaurants and pubs and browsing shops as they go along will be spoilt for choice in cities like Bristol, Glasgow, and Norwich.
Though travel restrictions may not have been something any of us wished for, there has been one unexpected perk: it’s allowed us to really find out – maybe for the first time – just how much the UK has going for it, and how much there is still to discover.
Is your city listed in this article, and do you have any of your own suggestions to share with our readers? Or do you have your own ideas for where to go for the best UK city break? We’d love to hear about UK city experiences! Leave us a comment below, or join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum.