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Castles and Stately Homes

Exploring the diversity and magnificence of England's castles and stately homes can occupy most of a blissful vacation. You'll find clusters in the southeast, west of Salisbury, in the Cotswolds, and on the remote northeastern coast. Note that most stately homes are open only from spring through fall. If your itinerary extends to Wales, look for Edward I's "iron ring" of castles, including Caernarfon and Conwy.

Blenheim Palace, Thames Valley. This baroque extravaganza is touted as England's only rival to Versailles.

Buckingham Palace, London. Glimpse royal life in the magnificent state rooms, open in August and September.

Hever Castle, Southeast. The childhood home of Anne Boleyn is the archetypal castle with battlements, turrets, and moat.

Holkham Hall, East Anglia. The splendid 60-foot-tall Marble Hall and salons filled with old masters distinguish this Palladian house.

Knole, Southeast. Within the seven courtyards of this 16th-century family home are silver furniture and a golden bed.

Petworth House, the Southeast. One of the National Trust's glories, it’s known for art by J.M.W. Turner.

Stourhead, the South. A visit here brings you what is considered by many the most beautiful house and landscape garden in Europe.

Wilton House, the South. The Double Cube room designed by Inigo Jones is one of the country's best interior designs.

Windsor Castle, Thames Valley. The Queen's favorite residence has a fabulous art collection.

Idyllic Towns and Villages

Year after year, armies of tourists with images of green meadows, thatched roofs, and colorful flower beds flock to England's countryside. Most will find their way to famously adorable towns along the Thames, timeless seaside resorts in the West Country, and a smattering of fairy-tale hamlets in the Cotswolds. But don't dismiss the pastoral flatlands and historic villages of East Anglia beyond Cambridge, the Norfolk coast, or the mountainside hamlets and sleepy seaside resorts of Wales.

Clovelly, Southwest. A steep cobbled street threads between flower-bedecked cottages down to the tiny harbor on the south Devon coast.

Henley-on-Thames, Thames Valley. Famous for its Regatta, the affluent town has a lovely position on the Thames and is ideal for strolling.

Lavenham, East Anglia. This village is full of Tudor buildings, the former houses of wool merchants and weavers.

Ludlow, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Heart of England. Medieval and Georgian buildings cluster below a castle in this town, whose restaurants have made it a foodie favorite.

Rye, Southeast. Writers and artists have always been drawn to the cobbled streets and timber houses of this historic little town.

Whitby, Yorkshire. A ruined abbey and a cliff-lined harbor combine with a rich fishing and whaling legacy to enhance this coastal gem.

Winchcombe, Bath and the Cotswolds. Cottages of honey-color stone line the streets of this quintessential Cotswold town.

Glorious Gardens

Despite being cursed with impertinent weather and short summers, English gardeners need no encouragement to grab their gardening tools. A pilgrimage to a garden is an essential part of any spring or summer trip. Green havens thrive all over England, but perhaps the most fertile hunting grounds are in Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire (including the Cotswolds), and Kent (the "Garden of England").

Eden Project, Southwest. Much ingenious thought and inspiration has gone into presenting the world's plants from three climate zones in huge geodesic domes in Cornwall.

Hidcote Manor, Bath and the Cotswolds. A masterful example of the Arts and Crafts garden, it is divided into garden rooms and contains the stunning Red Border.

Kew Gardens, London. A tree-top walk, huge 19th-century greenhouses, and a pagoda, as well as swaths of colorful flower beds, adorn this center of academic research.

Sissinghurst Castle Garden, Southeast. Vita Sackville-West's masterpiece, set within the remains of a Tudor castle, is busy in summer and spectacular in autumn.

Stourhead, South. One of the country's most impressive house-and-garden combinations is an artful 18th-century sanctuary with a tranquil lake, colorful shrubs, and grottoes.

Wisley, Southeast. The Royal Horticultural Society's garden splendidly blends the pretty and the practical in its inspirational displays and glasshouses.

Urban Excitement

London has everything a world capital should have—rich culture and history, thrilling art and theater scenes, world-class restaurants and sensational shopping—along with crowds, traffic, and high prices. It's not to be missed, but if you appreciate modern cities, spend time in some of England's reviving urban centers, including those in its former industrial heartland. Here blossoming multiculturalism has paved the way for a unique vibe.

Birmingham, Heart of England. Interlaced with canals, the country's second-largest city is a vibrant center for culture and cuisine and has a unique Jewellery Quarter.

Brighton, Southeast. Bold, bright, and boisterous are the words to describe a seaside charmer that has everything from the dazzling Royal Pavilion to the trendy shops of the Lanes.

Bristol, West Country. With its lively waterfront and music and food culture, this youthful city has vibrant nightlife as well as a long history.

Leeds, Yorkshire. A former industrial city now polishing its Victorian buildings, Leeds is known for its shopping arcades and a spirited music scene.

Liverpool, Lancashire and the Peaks. Dramatic regeneration, a historic waterfront, Beatles sites, and the stellar museums of the Albert Dock are stars of this city.

Manchester, Lancashire and the Peaks. Much more than football, the city offers chic urban shopping, bars and clubs, and fabulous museums, reflective of its industrial heritage.

Ancient Mysteries

Stone circles as well as ancient stone and earthen forts and mounds offer intriguing hints about Britain's mysterious prehistoric inhabitants. The country's southwestern landscape, particularly the Salisbury Plain, Dorset, and the eastern side of Cornwall, has a notably rich concentration of these sites, perplexing mysteries that human nature compels us to try to solve.

Avebury Stone Circles, South. Large and marvelously evocative, these circles surround part of the village of Avebury. You can walk right up to these stones.

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Lake District. The setting of this Neolithic creation, surrounded by brooding peaks, is as awesome as the surviving remains.

Maiden Castle, South. The largest Iron Age hill fort in England has impressive rings of ramparts and ditches that fire your sense of history.

Stanton Drew Circles, West Country. Use your imagination to visualize the vast size of the two avenues of standing stones, three rings, and burial chamber that now lie in a field.

Stonehenge, South. The stone circle begun 5,000 years ago stands on the wide Salisbury Plain. Hypotheses about its purpose range from the scientific (ancient calendar) to the fantastic (a gift from extinct giants).

Vale of the White Horse, Thames Valley. The gigantic horse here was actually carved into the chalky hillside around 1750 BC.

Wonderful Walks

England seems to be designed with walking in mind—footpaths wind through the contours of the landscape, and popular routes are well endowed with cozy bed-and-breakfasts and pubs. You can walk the whole or small chunks of the many long-distance trails or ramble through one of England's national parks. Famous walking spots are in the Lake District (congested in summer) and Yorkshire's dales and moors. Wherever you hike, always be prepared for storms or fogs. Check out www.nationaltrail.co.uk for inspiration and advice.

Borrowdale, Lake District. Have a color-pencil kit handy to capture the beauty of the dramatically verdant valleys and jagged peaks.

Brecon Beacons, Wales. The windswept uplands here are crossed with easy paths and are uncrowded.

Cotswolds Way, Bath and the Cotswolds. Hike the Cotswold Way and combine open grassland, pretty villages and sweeping views to the Malvern Hills and Severn Valley.

Peak District, Lancashire and the Peaks. Its rocky outcrops and vaulting meadows make some people say this is the country's most beautiful national park.

Snowdonia, Wales. Ferocious peaks in the national park promise challenging hikes.

South West Coast Path, West Country. Spectacular is the word for the 630-mile trail that winds from Minehead in Somerset to Poole Harbour in Dorset.

Thames Path, Thames Valley. Follow the Thames from its source through water meadows and riverside villages to the heart of London.

Thrilling Theater

There's no better antidote to an overdose of stately homes and well-groomed gardens than a face-to-face encounter with another British specialty, the theater. London is the heart and soul of the action: here companies consistently churn out superb productions. Still, be sure to sample theater outside London. Stratford-upon-Avon may be the Bard's hometown, but festivals all over the country celebrate Shakespeare's work—among the best is London's Shakespeare Under the Stars at Regent's Park. Or try a university production.

Chichester Festival Theatre, Southeast. This modernist building is known for its innovative performances.

Harrogate International Festival, Yorkshire. See street theater at the north of England's best arts festival.

Minack Theatre, West Country. The open-air theater in coastal Cornwall, near Land's End, nuzzles the slope of a sandy cliff.

Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Heart of England. Seeing any Shakespeare play is a treat in the home of the Bard.

Stephen Joseph Theater, Scarborough, Yorkshire. Alan Ayckbourn's plays are performed here.

Theatre Royal, Bath, Bath and the Cotswolds. Pre- or post-London tours often visit this Regency-era theater.

Theatre Royal, York, Yorkshire. Traditional pantomime—with dames (men dressed as ladies), slapstick, and music takes place in December and January.

Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford, the Southeast. The productions at this theater on an island often travel to London.

Country-House Hotels

In all their luxurious glory, country-house hotels are an essential part of the English landscape, particularly in the southern part of the country. Some hotels are traditional, but there’s a newer modern breed as well, and many will have spas, pools, and sports available. If you can't spend a night, consider dinner or afternoon tea. The Cotswolds and the Thames Valley are prime ground for these retreats. One tip: Ask if a wedding party will be using the hotel during your stay; these can take over a smaller establishment.

Calcot Manor, Bath and the Cotswolds. Luxury and opulence join with family-friendly amenities here where traditional and modern mix.

Cliveden House, Thames Valley. This very grand stately pile, once the Astors’ home, offers champagne boat trips on the River Thames.

Coworth Park, Thames Valley. It's 18th century on the outside but very 21st century within: this retreat combines playful luxury with spacious grounds.

Gidleigh Park, West Country. Beautiful grounds in a wooded valley on edge of Dartmoor are the backdrop for superb food and antiques-filled rooms.

Lime Wood, South. This woodland hideaway in a Regency house has the added treat of a fabulous spa.

Miller Howe, Lake District. Stunning views of Windermere, Arts and Crafts touches, and superior service are the appeal here.

Thornbury Castle, West Country. A stay in this 16th-century castle with a royal pedigree connects you to history but also includes plenty of modern pampering.

Updated: 10-2013

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