Why now is the perfect time to explore Britain's finest cities

Nick Trend
·19-min read
edinburgh - george clerk/istock
edinburgh - george clerk/istock

As everyone else heads for the countryside, dare to be different and experience the delights of some of Britain’s great cities instead

For all the excitement about overseas travel finally restarting, there is no getting away from the fact that most people are staying in the UK for their holidays this year. There are far fewer complications and it is far less risky to book a break to a destination you can drive to, and to plan a holiday which you can postpone much more easily if we have another lock-down – either local or national.

As a result, demand for cottages, camp- sites, hotel rooms and other accommodation has already exploded for bookings throughout July and August. The British coast and countryside will be heaving this summer – surely it will be the busiest year ever for staycations.

It will be an entirely different story in the cities, however. While most of us head for the hills and beaches, places like York, Bath and London – normally besieged by overseas visitors at this time of year – will be much, much quieter than usual. Perhaps only a trickle of tourists will come from Europe, almost none from the US and tiny numbers from the rest of the world.

In short, this summer looks like an opportunity to avoid the crowds on the coast and in the National Parks and see our most beautiful cities devoid of the tourist crush.

So, to help you make the most of them, we have come up with mini-guides to five cities – London, Bath, Cambridge, York and Edinburgh – with our suggestions for what to see and do this summer.

Please check latest visiting arrangements before travelling and note that for most you need to book tickets and a visiting time in advance.

London

I recently saw a photograph of Parliament Square in the 1920s. It was busy with people; men in flat caps, women in voluminous dresses. But there were no sightseers: they were all simply going about their business. There is something of that feeling about London at the moment. It’s an extraordinary time when sights and streets have been reclaimed by the local population. There are no coaches lined up on the Embankment, no groups of marauding French teenagers, and no selfie sticks. The museums and sights, now starting to reopen, are havens of hush, but even if you aren’t interested in seeing the traditional attractions, enjoying London as it is at the moment is an experience in its own right – one we will surely never have again.

The sights

The ones to see are those usually most popular with tourists. In a typical year, more than 60 per cent of visitors to the National Gallery and British Museum, for example, come from overseas. The National Gallery has already reopened and the British Museum hopes to do so during the summer. So you’ll be able to enjoy two of the world’s greatest museums in peace and tranquillity. At the National Gallery you can take in an outstanding Titian exhibition – his “poesie” paintings are reunited there for the first time in 400 years. It opened only three days before lockdown, but the run has been extended until Jan 21 2021. From the National Gallery you could walk down to Westminster Abbey, another sight normally besieged by overseas visitors. It is an excellent chance to see the new museum, with its astonishing views down the nave from high in the triforium galleries.

westminster abbey
westminster abbey

The walk

There are so many possibilities and you probably have your own hit list of the parts of London you want to see. But an excellent, ready-made itinerary which will be far quieter than usual and is conveniently marked by plaques in the pavements is the Jubilee Walkway. The whole thing is 15 miles long, but it’s divided into shorter loops and the six-mile western loop is the most appealing for a summer walk. Starting in Leicester Square, it heads down to Trafalgar Square, into St James’s Park, past Horseguards Parade and into Parliament Square, passing Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster.

From here there is a long stretch along the south bank of the Thames, up past St Thomas’ Hospital, the London Eye, the National Theatre and Tate Modern before crossing the Millennium Bridge just before Shakespeare’s Globe. Now you are in the city and from St Paul’s Cathedral the route goes up Ludgate, Fleet Street, Chancery Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. The final stretch takes in the Royal Opera House and Covent Garden Market before completing the loop back at Leicester Square. Full details and a map are available.

What you’ll miss

The nightlife, the theatres and shows; the crowded pubs and restaurants will obviously all be in abeyance for some months yet. But you can offset some of that loss of intensity and dynamism by strolling out to enjoy the parks and the walkways along the river or the atmosphere in the main squares and avenues. London on a quiet summer’s evening may not have the same buzz and energy, but it has its own allure.

Where to picnic

The pick of the parks for me is St James’s. Along with Green Park, it is the most central, but it has the added bonus of the lake with its pelicans and black swans, as well as a children’s playground. Enjoy a rare summer when it is free from the lunchtime invasion of office workers as well as tourists.

london - alexander spatari
london - alexander spatari

Where to stay

Dean Street Townhouse, from £215 per night. CitizenM Bankside, from £95.
More information: visitlondon.com

Cambridge

Cambridge has one of the most historic and beautiful city centres in Britain, but it is also one of the most compact and suffers more than most from intensive tourism. So the thought of being able to explore without dodging the usual scrums and queues is rather wonderful. Go before October and there won’t even be any undergraduates hurtling past on two wheels, adding to the chaos. If you live within easy range, Cambridge makes an excellent day out. But it is also the perfect size for a weekend break. Normally it is short of good accommodation options in the centre, but you stand a much better chance of finding somewhere at the moment.

The sights

Punting is by far the best way to enjoy the city in summer. Scudamore’s rents them out by Silver Street bridge and you get the knack quite quickly. Currently it is offering self-hire punts upriver towards Grantchester village; to head downstream past the college gardens, you need to book a chauffeured tour. Once back on dry land, the Fitzwilliam is one of the great underrated museums in England with a fabulous collection of art ancient and modern – it is planning to reopen in August. And it would be a crime not to see the soaring vaults of Henry VI’s astonishing chapel at Kings, though no reopening date has yet been announced.

cambrdige - grant faint
cambrdige - grant faint

The walk

Although Cambridge is famous for its cyclists, most pedal to the outlying faculties, lecture halls, colleges, and sports fields. Most of the key sights are in the centre, and it is much easier to take these in on foot. Start on King’s Parade – outside King’s College, though don’t expect the best views of the college and chapel until near the end of the walk. You have Gonville & Caius College ahead of you and Great St Mary’s Church on your right. Cut through to the Market Square then head down Sidney street, past the medieval Round Church and the Cambridge Union building just behind.

Turn the corner to pass St John’s followed by Trinity – the richest and arguably the grandest of all the colleges. You may be able to glimpse the Great Court through the 16th-century gate tower. Skirt down two narrow, atmospheric streets, Trinity Lane and Garret Hostel Lane, to reach the pedestrianised Garret Hostel Bridge which has some of the best views of the River Cam. From here you can explore the “Backs”, the meadows and gardens to the rear of some of the most beautiful colleges. You get excellent views of Wren’s library at Trinity and also the most famous view of King’s chapel. Follow the footpaths round to Queens’ College and over Silver Street bridge and you will soon reach Trumpington Street, which leads back up to King’s Parade. It passes the front of St Catharine’s – the only college with an unimpeded view of its main court from the street.  

What you’ll miss

Few, if any of the colleges are likely to open to visitors this summer. It isn’t even clear if and when students will return for the new academic year. So you won’t get the same sense of youth and academia which pervades the town, nor more than a glimpse of the inner world of the colleges.

Where to picnic

If you don’t take your picnic on a punt, then head either for the fens along the river bank just south of Silver Street bridge, or the botanical gardens, about 20 minutes’ walk from the centre towards the railway station. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy your sandwiches, though currently you need to book a ticket (£5.50) and an entry time in advance.

Where to to stay

University Arms Cambridge (reopening July 31), from £169. The Varsity Hotel & Spa, from £161.
More information: visitbritain.com

Jorvik - charlotte graham
Jorvik - charlotte graham

York

With its layers of history, sublime cathedral, fanfare of museums, handsome river, and cobbled streets, York is hot on any tourist’s list. But boy, can it get crowded: more than eight million annual visitors in a city that, within its walls (medieval, by the way, not Roman) is barely a mile in diameter. With luck, this summer you can explore with breathing space.

It is easily walkable, and the walls (hop on and off at the various “bars”, or gateways) give an excellent overview. With the new one-way system, the walk will be a less fraught experience than usual too. History buffs are spoilt for choice: the time-travel experience of Jorvik, where capsules whisk you back to the Viking-age city; Victorian street recreations and 1960s fashion at the Castle Museum. Architecture lovers only need to wander: apart from the Minster, there are some 20 other churches, medieval Barley Hall and Georgian Fairfax House, plus cobbled streets of wonky-fronted buildings.

Half a day could be spent at the National Railway Museum, though for children, the attractions of The Chocolate Story and York Dungeon are equally compelling.

The sights

Hemmed in by the city’s streets, usually teeming with tourists, it can be hard to get a handle on the scale of York Minster Britain’s largest medieval cathedral. Now, with controlled visitor numbers, there’s a chance to appreciate the vast, soaring interiors of this Gothic masterpiece. Probably most famed for its medieval stained glass – the 600-year-old East Window is the size of a tennis court – other attractions include the mighty organ, the richly carved choir screen and the 100ft wide nave. The Minster even has its own police force.

Way more captivating than its prosaic title, The National Railway Museum – reopening Aug 4 – could turn you into a train anorak. Get up close, or see inside, the legendary Mallard and Stephenson’s Rocket, a Japanese bullet train and Queen Victoria’s royal carriage (complete with silk-lined loo). Forget dusty archaeological museums at Jorvik Viking Centre. Automated “cars” whisk you back to 10th-century York (Jorvik), weaving between, and in and out of, houses, workshops and pigsties buzzing with townsfolk, sounds – and smells. It was all faithfully reconstructed from excavations on the site.  

York Minster
York Minster

The walk

From the upstream side of Lendal Bridge, with its views of passing river cruisers, take the steps down to the riverside walk and wiggle your way through the adjacent Museum Gardens to Marygate, which leads up to Bootham. Turn right and hop on to the walls at Bootham Bar to stroll probably their most beautiful stretch – with views of the Minster and the Dean’s back garden – alighting at Monk Bar. Turn right down Goodramgate, popping in to the delightful – and often overlooked – Holy Trinity Church with its Georgian box pews and tiny garden, and continue down to King’s Square.

From the far right-hand side, make your way to The Shambles, the ridiculously narrow medieval street – you can shake hands across it from the upper-storey windows – turning right at the bottom towards Coppergate. From here, turn left into Castlegate, passing the handsome John Carr-designed Fairfax House, to Clifford’s Tower standing high on its mound and the only remains of York Castle. Head back to the centre along Castlegate and Coney Street to St Helen’s Square – pausing to pick up a cake from Betty’s splendid tea rooms – before strolling down Stonegate, the original Roman Via Praetoria. Overhung with medieval gables and lined with Georgian bow-front shops, it pops you out into the full glare of the Minster.

What you’ll miss

At the time of writing, there are no plans to reopen the Minster’s Tower. You’ll have to imagine the views from its 235ft rooftop, which extend over the city and the Vale of York, allowing you to spot landmarks such as the racecourse and the Nestlé chocolate factory. A flotilla of colourful hot air balloons was due to drift over the city, having risen up from the racecourse, but that won’t be happening. Neither will Bloom!, a floral show which should be filling the city centre with colour and scent. Those are just two of the summer festivals that have been cancelled. The city’s streets normally hum and thrum with buskers, from solo violinists to folk-rock bands. But because many streets are narrow, expect less music in the air.

Where to picnic

A good place to pick up provisions is Shambles Market, held daily in Silver Street. Then either weave your way through the streets towards the Minster and lovely Dean’s Park which spreads behind, or head from the market to Lendal Bridge and down the steps into the riverside Museum Gardens.

Where to stay

Grays Court, from £220. The Principal York, from £122.
Further information: visityork.org

Thermae Bath Spa
Thermae Bath Spa

Bath

It’s the middle of the day on a summer Saturday in Bath. In normal times, the courtyard in front of Bath Abbey and the entrance to the Roman Baths would be heaving with tourists, most from overseas and many in coach tour groups. There would be a lengthy queue for the 2,000-year-old baths, and a long line of would-be bathers outside Thermae Bath Spa. Come evening, boisterous hen parties would be tottering between cocktail bars. 

But these are not normal times. This summer it is more the case of “spot the tourist” in the Unesco World Heritage city, and for once you’ll be able to explore the elegant Georgian streets and some of its cultural sights without the usual crowds. 

The Roman Baths, far and away the city’s busiest attraction, has reopened. Tickets need to be pre-booked online and the timed slots are selling out on busy days, so book ahead. Highlights include the remarkably intact bathing areas, the remains of the temple to the goddess of the hot springs and fascinating finds such as curse tablets. The Holburne Museum (pre-booking requested but not required) has also reopened. It has an absorbing collection of decorative and fine art, including works by Thomas Gainsborough, Bath’s best-known artist in the city’s Georgian heyday. The engrossing Grayson Perry exhibition has been extended until Jan 2021. Set around a woodland-flanked valley and partly designed by Alexander Pope and Capability Brown, Prior Park Landscape Garden has fine views across the city and a rare example of a Palladian bridge. 

The walk

This circular route around Bath’s hilly northern side takes in five Georgian crescents, each a curvaceous wonder in honey-hued Bath stone. Start at the Royal Crescent, a palatial sweep of town houses (now mostly divided into flats) that when completed in 1775 overlooked fields. Head behind to St James’s Square, Bath’s most complete Georgian square, with a magnificent copper beech in the residents-only communal garden.

bath
bath

Go up Cavendish Road to Cavendish Crescent and admire its canopied doorways. Further up lies Somerset Place, another crescent in all but name with weird icicle-mask keystones on its central houses. Cut along to Lansdown Crescent – including its wings, a convex-concave-convex arrangement. Note its ornate wrought-iron overthrows (arches) and the sheep grazing in the field in front.

From the far end descend Lansdown Road, pausing to take in Camden Crescent on the left. Its central pediment is ioff-centre, because a landslip destroyed several buildings at the crescent’s eastern end. 

Continue down Lansdown Road, then turn into Bennett Street. Pass the Assembly Rooms, focal point of fashionable Georgian society and prime Jane Austen territory, on the way to the circular and harmonious Circus. The stone acorns on the roofline reference Bath’s mythical founder Bladud, who looked after pigs (pigs like acorns). Take Brock Street back to the Royal Crescent. 

What you’ll miss

It’s not clear when you’ll be able to bathe in the city’s waters again, as Thermae Bath Spa hasn’t yet revealed when or how it is planning to reopen. 

Some museums and galleries are shut. These include No 1 Royal Crescent (it may reopen fairly soon), the Fashion Museum and Victoria Art Gallery (neither reopening until Easter 2021) and the Jane Austen Centre. On the plus side, in the city centre, traffic has been banned on some additional streets from 10am-6pm, and there is more al fresco seating for pubs, cafés and restaurants.

Where to picnic

A prime but busy spot is on the grass below the Royal Crescent (not the lawn directly in front, which is for residents only); there are lavatories at Charlotte Street car park. In the city centre, the best picnic spot is riverside Parade Gardens. 

Where to stay

The Royal Crescent, from £330. Henrietta House, from £135.
More information: visitbath.co.uk

edinburgh - godrick/istock
edinburgh - godrick/istock

Edinburgh

If a summer in Edinburgh without international tourists is hard to imagine, August without the festivals is unthinkable. But there will be an even warmer than usual welcome from residents sharing the luxury of time and space to stop and appreciate their much-loved but often unpleasantly overcrowded city. The Fringe may be cut, the fireworks concert a damp squib, but imagine a late-night walk down an atmospheric Royal Mile; a relaxed drink in one of the Grassmarket’s pavement cafés. Consider enjoying the view from Calton Hill without a thousand clicking cameras and you’ll get the picture – this summer will be special.

The sights

Festival venues may be dark this summer, but plans are under way across the city for The Ghost Lights. A symbolic tribute to the single light left burning in closed theatres, it promises “spectacle, performance and participation”. (More events are promised: keep an eye on developments at the Edinburgh International Festival website). They won’t be the only ghosts in town either, with the ever-popular ghost tours back in business – spookier than ever with social distancing. Try the Real Mary King’s Close for history with added ghoul. This may also be your only chance to enjoy the luxury of exploring Edinburgh Castle without the crowds. Numbers controlled by pre-booking ensure that you will have no one breathing down your neck.

atmospheric Royal Mile - wasin pummarin
atmospheric Royal Mile - wasin pummarin

The walk

And speaking of crowds, this will also be the summer to climb Arthur’s Seat without feeling like you have joined a column of ill-disciplined ants. Take the Radical Road path from Holyrood Park and you will be able to look down on the Queen – or at least her palace before passing the pleasing ruins of medieval St Anthony’s chapel. Carry on down the other side to the pretty village of Duddingston, admiring the loch on the way. It’s the one in the famous painting of The Skating Minister, which you will find in the National Gallery. Hopefully it won’t be frozen over in July, but this is Scotland… Then take a turn around blissfully peaceful Dr Neil’s Garden, if your legs are up to it. Admire historic Duddingston Kirk and definitely think about booking lunch at the Sheep Heid Inn – you will actually stand a good chance of getting a table. If your motto is “two legs good, two wheels better”, cycle the quiet road around Arthur’s Seat to Duddingston, fuel up with lunch, then carry on to seaside Portobello for a stroll on the beach before returning to the city.

Where to picnic

If you want to linger like a local, grab a picnic at Soderberg the Meadows before staking your claim on the acres of lush grass on the adjacent meadows. If it’s Sunday, head for the Stockbridge Market on your way to Inverleith Park for a fabulous view of the skyline.

What you will miss 

Even we locals may come over all nostalgic for a city in which every second structure – be it a church hall, someone’s sitting room or even a telephone box – becomes a festival venue. We will all find ourselves missing the hours spent perusing hundreds of programme pages before taking a spur-of-the-moment chance, thanks to a poster glimpsed in passing or a random leaflet thrust into our hand. But on the other hand, thousands of trees will be saved…

Where to stay

Dunstane Houses, from £171. Eden Locke, from £75.

More information: edinburgh.org