From the high mountain peaks of the Cairngorms to the sandy, sun-kissed coves of Cornwall, the UK is a spectacular place for breathtaking natural scenery. And making sure that these places can be enjoyed by generations to come is a huge responsibility.
In an effort to conserve our magical coast and countrysides, the government has designated many of these places as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) – or, in Scotland, National Scenic Areas (NSA).
This means that these areas are not only protected from various forms of development, but local authorities also work to enhance their natural beauty and make sure they can be enjoyed by all in an environmentally-responsible way.
There are currently 46 AONBs in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and 40 NSAs in Scotland. What’s more, The National Association of AONBs tells us that 66% of people in the UK live within a half an hour’s drive of one.
But, with so many dazzling places to choose from, it can be difficult to settle on just one for your day, weekend, or even week away. With that said, we’ve put together a list of 10 of the most breathtaking areas of natural beauty in the UK that’ll hopefully get you inspired.
1. The Wye Valley, Welsh-English border
Snaking its way through the counties of Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, and Monmouthshire is one of the UK’s most beautiful rivers: the Wye. The river itself, its banks, and the surrounding valleys are so picturesque, that 58 miles of its lower stretches have been designated an AONB.
Nature lovers can explore this Eden on foot, hiking up limestone gorges and through striking bluebell fields. Or, another popular option is to take to the water and see the sights from a canoe. Floating lazily down the river is a particularly relaxing way to see everything that the Wye Valley has to offer.
The Wye Valley is also home to a wide variety of wildlife to keep a watchful eye out for. Otters and kingfishers are popular sights – there are even beavers living along the river, though, you’re unlikely to see one, as there are only two of them in the whole valley. But you can always hope!
Scattered throughout the Wye Valley are also a variety of historic sites. For example, why not visit the ruins of Tintern Abbey, which was originally built by Cistercian monks in 1131? There’s even a pub nearby so you can enjoy the ancient architecture with a frosty pint in your hand.
2. Northumberland’s Coast, North East England
The Northumberland coast is probably the most awe-inspiring stretch of sand and sea in the North of England. With long, windswept beaches, rolling dunes, and towering cliffs, this is the perfect place to visit if you’re looking to marvel at the beauty and power of the natural world.
If wildlife is what you’re looking for, then you’ll find plenty of it here. For one, the Northumberland coast is famous for its birdwatching. Throughout the year, a wide variety of migratory and native bird species can be seen. The Farne Islands, which are located just a few miles off the shore, are one of the coast’s biggest attractions as they’re one of the best places in the world to see puffins.
If you’re interested in visiting this area of natural beauty and want to soak in every sight that it has to offer, one of the best ways to explore it is by walking the Northumberland Coastal Path. Stretching 62 miles from Cresswell in the south of the county to Berwick-upon-Tweed near the Scottish border, it’s one of the best coastal walks in the UK.
You can tackle the path a section at a time, or you can walk the whole thing over the course of a holiday. Alternatively, you can simply visit one of the stops for the day. To get an idea of where to visit, head over to the Visit Northumberland website or have a read of our article; 8 unforgettable beauty spots in Northumberland?
3. Ben Nevis and Glen Coe, Scottish Highlands
Home to the tallest mountain in the UK, the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe areas are a must-visit if you enjoy natural beauty. The scenery is not only breathtaking but wide-ranging; with lush woodland, serene meadows, bubbling rivers, roaring waterfalls, and mountains of all shapes and sizes.
Located in the Southern Highlands, this 400 square miles of peaks and valleys is a hiker’s paradise. There are plenty of routes for all abilities.
For example, walking along the shores of Loch Leven is a popular choice for those looking for something that’s not too strenuous. Or, there are plenty of more adventurous trails that thread their way around the famous Three Sisters of Glen Coe, offering unbelievable views.
Though, don’t worry if hiking isn’t your thing because you can see everything that the Ben Nevis and Glen Coe AONB has to offer by car, with lots of viewpoint stops along the way. This article from ZigZagonearth.com will give you some pointers on how to plan your road trip.
Aside from taking in the sweeping Highland vistas, there’s also a lot of history to learn about in the area. Perhaps most famously, Glen Coe was the site of the notorious massacre of 30 members of the MacDonald clan in 1692 by their guests, the Campbells. In fact, there’s still a sign in the lobby of the popular Clachaig Inn that reads: “No hawkers or Campbells”.
4. The Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland
The Causeway Coast is a stretch of dunes, beaches, and cliffs on the Northern Coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. It’s full of natural beauty and wildlife as well as fascinating history and myths.
Without a doubt, the biggest draw to this spectacular place is the Giant’s Causeway itself. It’s made up of 40,000 interlocking black basalt columns which form a pathway out into the sea. Legend says that giants used the causeway to travel over the Irish sea to Scotland. It’s truly a one-of-a-kind, natural sight.
Although, there’s plenty more to see and experience than just the Causeway. For example, you can travel to Rathlin Island for the day, which is a great place to see seabirds and seals. Or, why not take a walk over the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge, which offers unparalleled views of the coast?
If you love history, then you might also want to visit the ruins of Dunluce Castle. It was built in the 13th century and is perched on a sea stack so, again, it offers dramatic views along the shoreline.
And if you’re in the mood for some slightly different (but equally impressive) scenery, then why not take a trip inland and visit the Dark Hedges; an enchanting, tunnel-like avenue of beech trees? For more information, you can visit the Visit Causeway Coast and Glens website.
5. Chiltern Hills, Central-South East England
The Chiltern Hills are what many might consider quintessential English countryside. With endless rolling hills, dense forests, and wide fields of lush green and vibrant yellow, it’s easy to get lost in this area’s serene beauty.
Located just northwest of London, the Chiltern Hills span across Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, and Oxfordshire, covering 660 square miles (322 of which are officially considered an AONB), so there’s plenty to explore.
If you’re simply wanting to marvel at this area’s beauty, then why not consider taking a stroll through one of its impressive forests, like Wendover Woods or Ashridge Estate? The latter of which, specifically a place called Dockey Wood, is famous for its bluebells, which form a thick purple carpet under the trees in late spring.
Scattered amongst the Chiltern Hills are also a variety of quaint market towns with lots of things to see and do. For example, Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire is home to the ruins of a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, which was famously visited by William the Conqueror on his way to London following his victory at the battle of Hastings.
To find out more about what to see and do in the Chiltern Hills, you can head over to the Visit the Chilterns website.
6. Gower Peninsula, South West Wales
The Gower Penninsula is a large stretch of land in southwest Wales that reaches into the Bristol Channel – and much of it is considered an AONB.
One of the very first places to be officially recognised as an AONB, the Gower Penninsula is famous for its long stretches of sandy beaches and beautiful coastal walks.
The beach at Rhossili Bay is particularly impressive and was named the best beach in Europe by Suitcase Magazine in 2017. It even landed a spot in their top 10 for the whole world, so it’s a must-visit if you find yourself in the area.
Two things to look out for while visiting Rhossili are the Helvetia Shipwreck and Worm’s Head – a striking rocky ribbon of land that’s cut off from the coast at high tide.
And for more stunning scenery, why not head over to the north shore and take a walk through the famous salt marshes? This strange, eerie, and beautiful landscape is unlike anywhere in the UK, and it offers views for miles around. The panorama from Weobley Castle is particularly worth the trip.
To find out more, why not visit the Visit Swansea Bay website?
7. Shetland, between Norway and mainland Scotland
As well as being the most northern point in the UK, the Shetland Islands are one of the most beautiful places that we have to offer. Although only 16 are inhabited, Shetland consists of around 100 individual islands, so the scenery is truly diverse.
This magnificent archipelago of wind, salt, and rock is a must-visit for nature lovers. For one, there’s plenty of wildlife to be seen here. The Shetland Islands are a famed birdwatching hub where you can spot a whole host of species like puffins and razorbills.
But it’s not only birds that you need to keep your eyes peeled for; the Shetland Islands have the highest density of otters of anywhere in Europe. In fact, ‘otter tours’ (where a guide will show you them in their natural habitat) are a popular tourist attraction. You can even spot orcas off the coast, though sightings are relatively rare.
However, the geography of the Shetlands is just as impressive as its fauna. With around 1,000 miles of coastline, there are endless beaches and coves to discover, all of which will have a different, charged magic depending on the time of day you visit and what the weather’s like.
You never know, you could even see the Northern Lights on your visit (or ‘Mirrie Dancers’, as locals call them). Though they’re pretty elusive, so it’s best not to plan your trip around it.
To find out more about what the Shetland Islands have to offer, you can take a look at the Shetland.org website.
8. Mourne Mountains, Northern Ireland
What is it about mountains that makes us so fascinated with them? Is it the satisfaction that comes with climbing to the top? The awe-inspiring views that are almost always promised at the summit? Or perhaps it’s simply their sheer size and imposing nature?
Whatever it is, mountains and their surrounding landscapes are undoubtedly stunning, and this is especially true for the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland.
This AONB encompasses 220 square miles of mountains, moorland, woodland, reservoirs, and coast, so it’s a veritable playground for anyone that enjoys the outdoors.
There are plenty of hiking routes for all abilities here. For example, if you’re looking to take in the sweeping vistas at a leisurely pace, then you can explore relatively flat routes around bodies of water like the Silent Valley and Spelga reservoirs.
Or, more experienced walkers can consider taking on the Mourne Wall Challenge, where you’ll follow the famous stone wall for approximately 30km over seven of the 10 highest peaks in Northern Ireland.
And for those with limited mobility, driving around this AONB is also a great way to explore it, with the roads that take you along the coast being particularly captivating. The Visit Mourne website has some helpful information on exploring by car, as well as more about the area in general.
9. Isles of Scilly, South West England
Twenty-eight miles off the coast of Land’s End in Cornwall lie the Isles of Scilly; a calm and contemplative archipelago and the UK’s smallest AONB.
With its especially mild climate (for the UK, that is) and long stretches of glowing sandy beaches, when you arrive, you might think you’ve accidentally landed in the Mediterranean. The Isles of Scilly consists of approximately 140 islands, though, only five are inhabited and the population sits at just over 2,000 people – so it feels like an untouched natural oasis.
Besides swimming in sun-kissed coves and laying on the pristine beaches, there’s plenty to see and do on the Isles of Scilly. For example, like many of the places on this list, it’s an excellent place to spot all kinds of wildlife from seabirds like cormorants and oystercatchers to Atlantic grey seals.
Though, some of the Isles of Scilly’s greatest sights actually lie below the waves. Due to the relative lack of pollution here, the water is exceptionally clear. This, combined with the kaleidoscopic coral reefs, abundant marine life, and haunting shipwrecks, make the archipelago a famed spot for divers.
So why not check out the Visit Isles of Scilly website to find out more?
10. The Cotswolds, Central-South West England
Natural beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes, it’s rough, rugged, and immense, as is the case for places like the Mountains of Mourne, Ben Nevis, and Gen Cloe. Though, at other times, it’s soft, mellow, and tranquil – and the perfect example of this is the Cotswolds
Sitting on a bedrock of Jurassic limestone and spanning nearly 800 square miles, this AONB is famous for its enchanting beechwoods and lush grasslands. The Cotswolds has no shortage of rolling hills, roads, and trails, which makes both walking and cycling a great way to see the sights.
Some of the most popular walking trails include the Cleeve Hill Walk, which offers picturesque views of the meadows below, and the Rollright Stones Walk, which takes you past a mysterious group of stone monuments dating back to the Neolithic period.
With such a large area to explore, it can be difficult to decide where to visit. Though, if it’s natural beauty that you’re looking for, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the lavender fields. Seeing rows upon rows of thick, woolly purple will certainly be a sight you won’t forget in a hurry!
To find out more, why not visit the official Cotswolds tourism site here?
As you can see, the UK has a wide variety of breathtaking areas of natural beauty, so whether you love climbing mountains or relaxing on quiet beaches, there’s truly something for everyone here.
Though, it’s worth remembering that this list isn’t exhaustive and there are plenty of other amazing AONBs to explore. To find out more about them, why not check out this list of all 46 in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland from Landscapes for Life? And to discover the 40 NSAs in Scotland, you can head over to the NatureScot website.
Or, for more inspiration for days out or staycations in the UK, you might want to visit the travel section of our website.