From Roman rule and medieval legends, through to civil wars, witchcraft, and world wars; the UK’s history is certainly rich. And amazingly, we’re able to get a glimpse of it through the wondrous castles, palaces, estates and ruins that still stand today – each brimming with fascinating stories to tell.
In case you’re looking for some ideas for where to visit, we’ve put together a list of historic places from across the UK that are great for discovering all sorts of history. From medieval castles, fortresses and abbeys to brutal prisons, luxurious royal residences, and even a mysterious witchcraft museum, we hope they spark your interest.
1. The Tower of London, London
The Tower of London is one of the UK’s most iconic historical sites. Since it was built by William the Conqueror around 1078, it’s served as a famous fortress, palace, prison and execution site. If walls could talk, the Tower of London would leave us speechless.
Many famous events happened here, like the mystery of the Princes in the Tower, the murder of King Henry VI during the Wars of the Roses, and the execution of King Henry VIII’s second wife Anne Boleyn – the first ever English queen to be executed. The rich history here even stretches to the Second World War, where a number of spies were shot at the tower. From Traitor’s Gate, to the Bloody Tower and the Crown Jewels, you certainly won’t run out of things to see.
2. Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland and Cumbria
Built by the Roman army under the instruction of Emperor Hadrian in 122AD, Hadrian’s Wall took around six years to complete, and stood to guard the North-West frontier of the Roman Empire for almost 300 years. It included various forts and ditches to protect against invading armies, and it helped control smuggling and immigration in and out of Roman territory.
Stretching 73 miles long from Wallsend on the River Tyne in the East to Bowness-on-Solway in the West, it’s best to plan your trip to Hadrian’s Wall in advance, as we’re certainly not expecting you to walk the entire thing in a day! But don’t be fooled, it’s not just a wall – there are numerous forts, barracks, trails, and museums to explore along the way.
3. Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland
The world-famous Titanic ship was built in Belfast before she sailed to Southampton to begin her infamously tragic voyage on April 10th 1912. Titanic Belfast first opened in 2012 and it provides an amazing insight into the history of the ship and her voyage, stretching over nine interactive galleries, features, and exhibitions.
While you’re there, you can complete your Titanic experience with a visit to SS Nomadic – the world’s last remaining White Star Vessel, and tender to RMS Titanic. You’re free to walk the decks and explore the ship that’ll take you back through 100 years of fascinating maritime history.
4. Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire
If you’re into your 20th century history, then Bletchley Park is a must see. During the Second World War, Bletchley Park was Britain’s top decoding centre – home to the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School. Their work in decoding enemy messages had a profound impact on the outcome of the war, and experts have credited it with shortening the conflict by as much as two years.
5. Warwick Castle, Warwickshire
Built by William the Conqueror in 1068 on the bend of the River Avon, Warwick Castle’s history is a rich one. The castle has seen its fair share of prisoners, scandal, and bloodshed. It was attacked during The Barons War in the 13th century, King Edward IV was locked up here during the Wars of the Roses, the castle was intrinsically involved in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, and prisoners were held here during the English Civil Wars.
These days, the size and grandeur of Warwick Castle, and the fact that there is so much to see and do, make it an excellent day out.
6. The Roman Baths, Somerset
Situated in the beautiful city of Bath, the Roman Baths are a well preserved insight into Roman life. Bath was founded upon a bed of natural hot springs and when the Romans invaded Britain in 43AD, they began to build a religious spa on the hot springs site which became a centre of bathing and socialising.
The baths led to the establishment of a small Roman urban settlement named Aquae Sulius – ‘the waters of Sulius’ – after a goddess who was believed to have healing powers. Today you can enjoy a tour of the baths and on-site museum, but unfortunately, you won’t be able to get in the water yourself!
7. Edinburgh Castle, Scotland
Edinburgh Castle has a long history as a royal home, military stronghold, fortress and prison, and it’s one of the oldest fortified sites in Europe. Today, the Scottish ‘honours’ are held at the castle, which are the oldest Royal Regalia in Britain and were used at the coronations of monarchs, including Mary Queen of Scots and her grandson Charles I.
As you make your way up Castle Hill, you’ll be walking in the footsteps of the many soldiers, kings and queens who visited, and you can stand in wonder at the sites where great historic events occurred, like the death of Queen Margaret (later St Margaret) in 1093, and the birth of James VI by his mother Mary Queen of Scots in 1566.
8. Stonehenge, Wiltshire
For those interested in ancient history, the Prehistoric monument of Stonehenge is one to add to your checklist. The unique stone circle that makes Stonehenge so recognisable was built in the late Neolithic Age around 2500 BC, and the last changes to the monument were made in the early Bronze Age, around 1500 BC.
Whilst we don’t know for sure what Stonehenge was used for, theories have varied from it being a place to study planet movements, a place of healing, and a site for funerals.
9. Kidwelly Castle, South West Wales
Situated in Carmarthenshire in South West Wales, Kidwelly Castle is a Norman castle rising above the river Gwendraeth that dates back to the 12th century. If you’re into medieval fortresses, then this is the place for you. It was built as a Norman defence against the Welsh, but came under numerous attacks by Welsh princes during the 12th century.
To get a feel of the castle’s history, you only have to imagine what it would’ve been like as a Welsh attacker; having to conquer the drawbridge with a swarm of arrows flying at you, before being faced with the four towers in the inner castle with no way out. Kidwelly was a true killing site.
10. Osborne House, Isle of Wight
This gorgeous house and estate that was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1845 provides an amazing insight into the couple’s lives. Situated on the Isle of Wight next to the sea, the estate gave the royals and their children an escape from court life. Queen Victoria used the site to entertain, and sought comfort in staying there after Albert’s death in 1861.
Built in the Italianate style after Prince Albert said the views overlooking the Solent strait reminded him of the Bay of Naples, it’s hard not to be amazed at the wondrous architecture of this building.
11. Canterbury Cathedral, Kent
The history of Canterbury Cathedral traces back almost 1,400 years to the arrival of St Augustine in 597AD, who established Christianity in England and became the first ever Archbishop of Canterbury.
Famously, The Martydom area of the cathedral was the site of Archbishop Thomas Becket’s murder under the orders of King Henry II in 1170, and soon after became one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in Europe – and still is to this day. The cathedral’s monastery was a key target of King Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries which led to its closure in 1540, and the cathedral suffered damage as a result of Puritan activity during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s.
12. HMS Belfast, London
Launched in 1938, HMS Belfast was a Second World War Royal Navy warship. Today, she’s the only remaining British Ship from the D-day fleet, and one of only three left in the world. She played a key role during the war, patrolling the Atlantic, capturing enemy vessels, and playing her part in many battles. After the war, HMS Belfast was sent to the Far East and played a role in various campaigns including the Korean War, before being decommissioned in the 1960s.
These days you can visit the museum ship on the River Thames in London, where reimagined figures and scenes are used to tell the ship’s fascinating story.
13. Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire
These abbey ruins in North Yorkshire are the largest monastic ruins in the country, and you can’t help but be moved by the devout lives that were lived here. Founded by a group of Benedictine monks in 1132, Fountains Abbey was a key target of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, which led to its closure in 1539.
Today, the abbey ruins are accompanied by beautiful water gardens, and visitors are able to stay in 14 Fountains Abbey holiday homes which include an Elizabethan manor house and 17th-century converted barns.
14. Stirling Castle, Scotland
Situated on a volcanic rock overlooking the River Forth, Stirling Castle was the meeting point between the Lowlands and Highlands of Scotland. This ancient castle became a popular royal residence, military stronghold, and centre of Government over the centuries.
During the Scottish Wars of Independence, Stirling Castle changed hands eight times over the course of just 50 years. It was the site of famous battles (including the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and Bannockburn in 1314) and of scandalous deeds, like the murder of the Earl of Douglas by James II. It was also one of the childhood homes of Mary Queen of Scots and James VI.
15. The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, North Cornwall
Hidden in the small village of Boscastle in Cornwall, this independent museum holds an array of fascinating witchcraft-related artefacts, and explores the extraordinary role that magic and sorcery has played in British history.
If you haven’t explored the history of witchcraft before, then prepare for your mind to be blown. Witchcraft was denounced as heresy in 1484 by Pope Innocent VIII, and made a capital offence in Britain in 1563. Between 1484 and 1750, it’s estimated that around 200,000 ‘witches’ were tortured or killed in Western Europe.
16. Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
Hampton Court Palace was the spectacular home of King Henry VIII and the Tudor dynasty. The infamous king brought all of his six wives here and tales of their ghosts have been said to roam the halls. Not only was the site originally Tudor, but there’s also a Stuart touch left to the palace by William III and Mary II, as well as that of the Georgian kings who later lived there.
As you walk through the grand hall and sparse rooms filled with famous portraits, you can’t help but feel the rich history lived out at the palace.
17. Crumlin Road Gaol, Belfast
Crumlin Road Gaol, also known as HMP Belfast, is a former prison and the only remaining Victorian era prison since 1996. Since it first opened in 1846, Crumlin Road Gaol was a fully operational prison for 150 years. If you’re up for the tour, you’ll follow in the footsteps of around 25,000 prisoners including the many suffragettes, loyalists and republicans who were taken here.
18. Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey is an architectural gem of the 13th to 16th centuries, and provides a somewhat unrivalled parade of British history. As the resting place of more than 3,000 Britons, the abbey holds the tombs of many kings, scientists, poets, and prime ministers including Queen Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Isaac Newton – as well as the shrine of Edward the Confessor. It’s also been the site of every Coronation since 1066, and has hosted many royal weddings, including that of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, as well as funerals, for example Princess Diana’s.
19. Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Blenheim Palace is one of England’s largest houses and the only non-royal country house with the status of ‘palace’. It was constructed in 1704 as a gift to the Duke of Marlborough from Queen Anne after his victory against French forces in the Battle of Blenheim. On 30th November 1874, Blenheim Palace also became the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, and it was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War.
Whether you explore the palace by yourself or as part of a guided tour, key highlights of the site include the beautiful Blenheim Tapestry, the palace’s magnificent state rooms, the spectacular grounds, and the Baroque design architecture of the palace.
20. Dover Castle and Tunnels, Kent
Standing on the Strait of Dover – the shortest sea crossing between England and continental Europe – Dover Castle has been of great strategic importance throughout history.
The beginnings of the castle were built in the 1180s by King Henry II, and other additions were made over the next 800 years in line with the ever changing warfare. It was the site of many medieval battles and sieges, and it hosted many great figures – including the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Anne of Cleves, and Charles I’s wife Henrietta Maria. It also became headquarters to troops stationed in Dover during WWI and the re-established navy base during WWII, and even stood as one of 12 Regional Seats of Government during the Cold War.
21. St Michael’s Mount, South West Cornwall
Wrapped in countless myths and legends, tales of St Michael’s Mount trace as far back as 495AD. Pilgrims from all over began to draw to the mount in the 13th century after miracles were said to occur there.
It’s also seen its fair share of warfare, for example when it was held by the Earl of Oxford during the Wars of the Roses. The on-site cannons were used to drive a Napoleonic ship to its capture, and the first beacon was lit at the top of the church tower to warn London of the approaching Spanish Armada in 1558.
21. Leicester Cathedral and the King Richard III Visitor Centre
This gorgeous cathedral (first constructed by the Normans and was rebuilt and altered between the 13th and 15th centuries) is the site of King Richard III’s remains – the last English monarch to be killed in battle.
Just across the road from the cathedral is the King Richard III Visitor Centre which was built to retell Richard III’s remarkable story after his remains were discovered in a Leicester car park in 2012. Although he only reigned for just over two years, Richard’s life continues to fascinate people. Even if you think you know his story inside out, chances are that you’ll learn something new here.
23. Arbroath Abbey, Scotland
Founded in 1178 by King William the Lion and consecrated in the name of the King’s childhood friend St Thomas Becket, this medieval abbey was once the richest in Scotland. It is the burial place of King William who founded it, as well as Margaret of Scotland and Henry Edgar. It’s perhaps most famous for its involvement in the Declaration of Scottish Independence in 1320 after a letter known as the Declaration of Arbroath was sent to the Pope by 39 Scottish barons asserting Scotland’s independence.
As you stroll up the High Street in Arbroath, you won’t miss the abbey’s eye-catching red sandstone ruins.
24. The Churchill War Rooms, London
If you’re interested in the famous Second World War Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Churchill War Rooms cover everything from his early life and military career, through to his political campaigning and days after the war.
The Churchill War Rooms were the birthplace of many key decisions that helped pave the way for an Allied victory. As you make your way through the rooms, it’s not hard to picture the tense days and nights spent there during the war.
25. Caernarfon Castle, North West Wales
This medieval fortress was first constructed as a motte-and-bailey castle in the late 11th century as a result of war between Welsh princes, and it was replaced with the current stone structure by King Edward I in 1283, which took 47 years to build. While the site largely fell into disrepair during the Tudor period, it was again held by Royalist forces during the English Civil Wars and besieged by the Parliamentarian enemy three times.
Although the interior buildings no longer survive, you wouldn’t know it from the impressive outside view of the castle which appears mostly complete and strong.
26. Fishbourne Roman Palace, West Sussex
This Roman Palace in Fishbourne can be traced back to 75AD and is the largest residential Roman building uncovered in Britain. The palace has been excavated and preserved with many original mosaics still surviving, and there’s an on-site museum to visit too. As you wander around the site, the pomp and luxury that the owner of this magnificent Roman house would have enjoyed is clear.
27. Tintagel Castle, North Cornwall
The site of Tintagel Castle was inhabited since the late Roman period at least, and it’s been long associated with Arthurian legend after Geoffrey of Monmouth named it as the site of King Arthur’s conception during the 12th century. Over the years it’s inspired the imagination of many poets, writers, and even the brother of a king (King Henry III).
While not much remains of Tintagel Castle today, the outlines of the castle are still visible and it overlooks the magnificent Cornish coastline.
28. Windsor Castle, Berkshire
Windsor Castle has been the home of reigning monarchs since the time of Henry I in the 12th century, and remains an official royal residence of Queen Elizabeth II today. Over the years, it withstood a siege during the First Barons’ War in the early 1200s, became the military headquarters for Parliamentary forces during the English Civil Wars, and was used by the royal family as a refuge during the bombing raids of the Second World War.
Sitting on a medieval structure, Windsor Castle is largely Georgian and Victorian in design, and the magnificent state rooms inside provide a fascinating insight into royal life.
I want to make a trip out of my visit - where can I book accommodation?
With the uncertainty surrounding trips abroad this year, like many others you might be considering planning a staycation instead. With so many historic sites to choose from, you could consider making a full holiday of your visit, and even plan a tour that ticks a few sites off of your list in one go! Websites like AirBnb and Booking.com have a great selection of accommodation options.
If the Cornish sites of Tintagel, St Michael’s Mount, and the witchcraft museum have sparked your interest, then why not make a holiday out of it this summer? You could plan a road trip down the Atlantic Highway – maybe even visit Stonehenge on the way – and plan an overnight stay or two in one of Cornwall’s beautiful seaside resorts.
If you fancy heading further north, to Stirling Castle, Edinburgh Castle and Arbroath Abbey, you could plan a Scottish staycation, and perhaps check in at Hadrian’s Wall on the way. Or if you’re hoping to knock multiple sites off your list in one go, you might like to opt for a trip around London and the surrounding suburbs to take in the history of various sites like Westminster Abbey, HMS Belfast, the Churchill War Rooms, and Windsor Castle. It’s entirely up to you.
If you’ll be travelling by car and would like to combine your visits to various sites, you might find some inspiration for your route in our article 6 of the best UK road trips.
When we take the time to reflect on our nation’s past, it’s hard not to be blown away at the breadth of history that’s taken place on our soil. From prehistoric sites, Roman occupation, witchcraft and civil war, through to world wars and our present day monarchy; the UK’s really seen it all.
We’re extremely lucky to have such an array of sites that we can visit for a special glimpse into the fascinating figures and events that have shaped our history. And what’s more, no one can deny they make fabulous family days out, so that everyone – history buffs and futurists alike – can join in the fun.
Have you visited any of the historic sites above before, or are planning to? Which are your favourites, and which periods of history interest you the most? Join the discussion on the Rest Less community forum, or leave a comment below.