The Thames Valley

We’ve compiled the best of the best in The Thames Valley - browse our top choices for the top things to see or do during your stay.

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  • 1. Ashmolean Museum

    What might be Britain's greatest museum outside London is also the oldest public museum in the United Kingdom. "The Ash," as locals call it, displays its rich and varied collections from the Neolithic to the present day over five stunning floors. Innovative and spacious galleries explore connections between priceless Greek, Roman, and Indian artifacts, as well as Egyptian and Chinese objects, all of which are among the best in the country. In the superb art collection, don't miss drawings by Raphael, the shell-encrusted mantle of Powhatan (father of Pocahontas), the lantern belonging to Guy Fawkes, and the Alfred Jewel, set in gold, which dates from the reign of King Alfred the Great (ruled 871–899).

    Beaumont St., Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 2PH, England
    01865-278000

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free (£5 suggested donation).
  • 2. Blenheim Palace

    This magnificent palace has been called England's Versailles, and with good reason—it's still the only historic house in Britain to be named a World Heritage Site. Designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 1700s in collaboration with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Blenheim was given by Queen Anne and the nation to General John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough, in gratitude for his military victories (including the Battle of Blenheim) against the French in 1704. The exterior is opulent and sumptuous, with huge columns, enormous pediments, and obelisks, all exemplars of English baroque. Inside, lavishness continues in extremes; you can join a free guided tour or simply walk through on your own. In most of the opulent rooms, family portraits look down at sumptuous furniture, elaborate carpets, fine Chinese porcelain, and immense pieces of silver. Exquisite tapestries in the three state rooms illustrate the first duke's victories. Book a tour of the current duke's private apartments for a more intimate view of ducal life. For some visitors, the most memorable room is the small, low-ceiling chamber where Winston Churchill (his father was the younger brother of the then-duke) was born in 1874; you can also see his paintings, his toy soldier collection, and a room devoted to his private letters (those he sent home from school in Marlborough as a young boy are both touching and tragic). He's buried in nearby Bladon. Sir Winston wrote that the unique beauty of Blenheim lay in its perfect adaptation of English parkland to an Italian palace. Its 2,000 acres of grounds, the work of Capability Brown, 18th-century England's best-known landscape gardener, are arguably the best example of the "cunningly natural" park in the country. Looking across the park to Vanbrugh's semi-submerged Grand Bridge makes for an unforgettable vista. Blenheim's formal gardens include notable water terraces and an Italian garden with a mermaid fountain, all built in the 1920s. The Pleasure Gardens, reached by a miniature train that stops outside the palace's main entrance, contain a butterfly house, a hedge maze, and a giant chess set. The herb-and-lavender garden is also delightful. Blenheim Palace stages a concert of Beethoven's Battle Symphony in mid-July, combined with a marvelous fireworks display. There are many other outdoor events throughout the summer, including jousting tournaments. Allow at least three hours for a full visit. After taking in Blenheim Palace, stop by Bladon, 2 miles southeast of Woodstock on A4095 and 6 miles northwest of Oxford, to see the small, tree-lined churchyard that’s the burial place of Sir Winston Churchill. His grave is all the more impressive for its simplicity.

    Off A4095, Woodstock, Oxfordshire, OX20 1PP, England
    01993-810530

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Palace, park, and gardens £32; park and gardens £20.50
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  • 3. Eton College

    Signs warn drivers of "Boys Crossing" as you approach the splendid Tudor-style buildings of Eton College, the distinguished boarding school for boys ages 13–18 founded in 1440 by King Henry VI. It's all terrifically photogenic—during the college semester students still dress in pinstripe trousers, swallowtail coats, and stiff collars. Rivaling St. George's at Windsor in terms of size, the Gothic Chapel contains superb 15th-century grisaille wall paintings juxtaposed with modern stained glass by John Piper. Beyond the cloisters are the school's playing fields where, according to the Duke of Wellington, the Battle of Waterloo was really won, since so many of his officers had learned discipline and strategy during their school days. Boris Johnson is the most recent of the country's many prime ministers to have been educated here. The Museum of Eton Life has displays on the school's history and vignettes of school life. The school gives public tours on Friday afternoon from early April through August, bookable online.

    Brewhouse Yard, Eton, Windsor and Maidenhead, SL4 6DW, England
    01753-370100

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £10, Closed Sept.–early Apr.
  • 4. Hatfield House

    Six miles east of St. Albans, this outstanding brick mansion surrounded by lovely formal gardens stands as a testament to the magnificence of Jacobean architecture. Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, built Hatfield in 1611, and his descendants still live here. The interior, with its dark-wood paneling, lush tapestries, and Tudor and Jacobean portraits, reveals much about the era. The beautiful King James Drawing Room is a vision in ostentatious grandeur, with its gilded ceiling and portrait-covered walls. By contrast, the Chinese Bedroom is a charming example of the later 19th-century infatuation with Far Eastern design. The intricate Marble Hall, with its elaborate carved wooden panels, is one of the most impressive rooms in the house, although perhaps the building's finest single feature is the ornate Grand Staircase, with carved wooden figures on the banisters. The knot garden, near the Tudor Old Palace, where the first Queen Elizabeth spent much of her youth, is a highlight of the West Garden. Wednesday is the only day the East Garden, with topiaries, parterres, and rare plants, is open to the public. The Park has lovely woodland paths and masses of bluebells. There are various markets, theater performances, and shows throughout the season, including open-air film screenings and, occasionally, Elizabethan banquets. Check the website for the schedule.

    Great North Rd., Hatfield, Hertfordshire, AL9 5NQ, England
    01707-287010

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: House, West Garden, and Park £19; West Garden and Park £11; East Garden Free., House Easter–Sept., Wed.–Sun. and holiday Mon. 11–4:30. West Garden Tues.–Sun. and holiday Mon. 10–5:30. East Garden Wed. 11–4:30. Park Tues.–Sun. and holiday Mon. 10–5:30 or dusk, Closed Oct.--Mar.
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  • 5. Magdalen College

    Founded in 1458, with a handsome main quadrangle and a supremely monastic air, Magdalen (pronounced maud-lin) is one of the most impressive of Oxford's colleges and attracts its most artistic students. Alumni include such diverse people as P. G. Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, and John Betjeman. The school's large, square tower is a famous local landmark. To enhance your visit, take a stroll around the Deer Park and along Addison's Walk; then have tea in the Old Kitchen, which overlooks the river.

    High St., Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 4AU, England
    01865-276000

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £8
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  • 6. Pitt Rivers Museum

    More than half a million intriguing archaeological and anthropological items from around the globe, based on the collection bequeathed by Lieutenant-General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers in 1884, are crammed into a multitude of glass cases and drawers. In an eccentric touch that's surprisingly thought-provoking, labels are handwritten and items are organized thematically rather than geographically—a novel way to gain perspective. Give yourself plenty of time to wander through the displays of shrunken heads, Hawaiian feather cloaks, and fearsome masks.

    S. Parks Rd., Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 3PW, England
    01865-613000

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Free (donations welcome)
  • 7. Stowe Landscape Gardens

    This exquisite example of a Georgian garden was created for the Temple family by the most famous gardeners of the 18th century. Capability Brown, Charles Bridgeman, and William Kent all worked on the land to create 980 acres of trees, valleys, and meadows. More than 40 striking monuments, follies, and temples dot the landscape of lakes, rivers, and pleasant vistas. This is a historically important place, but it's not for those who want primarily a flower garden. Allow at least half a day to explore the grounds. Stowe House, at the center, is now a fancy school with some magnificently restored rooms. It's open for tours some afternoons, but the actual schedule is notoriously changeable, so do call ahead or check for more information. The gardens are about 3 miles northwest of Buckingham, which is 14 miles northwest of Aylesbury. You enter through the New Inn visitor center, where there are period parlor rooms to explore.

    off A422, Stowe, Buckinghamshire, MK18 5EQ, England
    01280-817156

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £14.30
  • 8. Waddesdon Manor

    Many of the regal residences created by the Rothschild family throughout Europe are gone now, but this one is still a vision of the 19th century at its most sumptuous. G. H. Destailleur built the house in the 1880s for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild in the style of a 16th-century French château, with perfectly balanced turrets and towers and walls of creamy stone. Although intended only for summer weekend house parties, it was lovingly furnished over 35 years with Savonnerie carpets; Sèvres porcelain; furniture made by Riesener for Marie Antoinette; and paintings by Guardi, Gainsborough, and Reynolds. The collection is brought into the 21st century by an extraordinary broken porcelain chandelier, by artist Ingo Maurer, located in the Blue Dining Room. The gardens are equally extraordinary, with an aviary, colorful plants, and winding trails that provide panoramic views. In the restaurant you can dine on English or French fare and order excellent Rothschild wines. Admission is by timed ticket; arrive early or book in advance. The annual Christmas fairs and light festivals held here are well worth seeing; check the website in advance for details.

    Silk St., Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire, HP18 0JH, England
    01296-820414

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: House and gardens £25.20; gardens only £13.20, Closed Mon. and Tues.
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  • 9. Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour

    Attention all Muggles: this spectacular attraction just outside Watford immerses you in the magical world of Harry Potter for hours. From the Great Hall of Hogwarts—faithfully re-created, down to the finest detail—to magical props beautifully displayed in the vast studio space, each section of this attraction showcases the real sets, props, and special effects used in the eight movies. Visitors enter the Great Hall, a fitting stage for costumes from each Hogwarts house. You can admire the intricacies of the huge Hogwarts Castle model, ride a broomstick, try butterbeer, explore the Forbidden Forest, and gaze through the shop windows of Diagon Alley. The Hogwarts Express section—at a faithfully reproduced Platform 9¾—allows you to walk through a carriage of the actual steam train and see what it's like to ride with Harry and the gang. Tickets, pegged to a 30-minute arrival time slot, must be prebooked online. The studio tour is a 20-minute drive from St. Albans. You can also get here by taking a 20-minute train ride from London's Euston Station to Watford Junction (then a 15-minute shuttle-bus ride, free with a valid Studio Tour ticket). Via car from London, use M1 and M25—parking is free.

    Studio Tour Dr., Leavesden Green, Hertfordshire, WD25 7LR, England
    0345-084–0900

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £49.95
  • 10. Windsor Castle

    From William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria, the kings and queens of England added towers and wings to this brooding, imposing castle that is visible for miles. It's the largest inhabited castle in the world and the only royal residence in continuous use by the British royal family since the Middle Ages. Despite the multiplicity of hands involved in its design, the palace manages to have a unity of style and character. The most impressive view of Windsor Castle is from the A332 road, coming into town from the south. Admission includes an audio guide and, if you wish, a guided tour of the castle precincts. Entrance lines can be long in season, and you're likely to spend at least half a day here, so come early. As you enter, Henry VIII's gateway leads uphill into the wide castle precincts, where you're free to wander. Across from the entrance is the exquisite St. George's Chapel (closed Sunday). Here lie 10 of the kings of England, including Henry VI, Charles I, and Henry VIII (Jane Seymour is the only one of his six wives buried here) along with one very famous queen; the chapel is the last resting place of Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Phillip. One of the noblest buildings in England, the chapel was built in the Perpendicular style popular in the 15th and 16th centuries, with elegant stained-glass windows; a high, vaulted ceiling; and intricately carved choir stalls. The colorful heraldic banners of the Knights of the Garter—the oldest British Order of Chivalry, founded by Edward III in 1348—hang in the choir. The ceremony in which the knights are installed as members of the order has been held here with much pageantry for more than five centuries. The elaborate Albert Memorial Chapel was created by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband. The North Terrace provides especially good views across the Thames to Eton College, perhaps the most famous of Britain's exclusive public schools (confusingly, "public schools" in Britain are highly traditional, top-tier private schools). From the terrace, you enter the State Apartments, which are open to the public most days. On display to the left of the entrance to the State Apartments, Queen Mary's Dolls' House is a perfect miniature Georgian palace-within-a-palace, created in 1923. Electric lights glow, the doors all have tiny keys, and a miniature library holds Lilliputian-size books written especially for the young queen by famous authors of the 1920s. Five cars, including a Daimler and Rolls-Royce, stand at the ready. In the adjacent corridor are exquisite French couturier–designed costumes made for the two Jumeau dolls presented to the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret by France in 1938. Although a fire in 1992 gutted some of the State Apartments, hardly any works of art were lost. Phenomenal repair work brought to new life the Grand Reception Room, the Green and Crimson Drawing Rooms, and the State and Octagonal Dining Rooms. A green oak hammer-beam (a short horizontal beam that projects from the tops of walls for support) roof looms magnificently over the 600-year-old St. George's Hall, where the late Queen Elizabeth frequently hosted state banquets. The State Apartments contain priceless furniture, including a magnificent Louis XVI bed and Gobelin tapestries; carvings by Grinling Gibbons; and paintings by Canaletto, Rubens, van Dyck, Holbein, Dürer, and Bruegel. The tour's high points are the Throne Room and the Waterloo Chamber, where Sir Thomas Lawrence's portraits of Napoléon's victorious foes line the walls. You can also see arms and armor—look for Henry VIII's ample suit. A visit October to March also includes the Semi-State rooms, the private apartments of George IV, resplendent with gilded ceilings. To see the castle come magnificently alive, check out the Changing the Guard ceremony, which takes place daily at 11 am April to July and on alternate days at the same time August to March. Confirm the exact schedule before traveling to Windsor. Note that the State rooms (and sometimes the entire castle) are closed during official state occasions; dates of these closures are listed on the website, or you can call ahead to check.

    Castle Hill, Windsor, Windsor and Maidenhead, SL4 1NJ, England
    0303-123–7304-for tickets

    Sight Details

    £26.50 (£28.50 Sat.) for Precincts, State Apartments, Gallery, St. George\'s Chapel, and Queen Mary\'s Dolls\' House; £14.60 (£15.60 Sat.) when State Apartments are closed
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  • 11. Windsor Great Park

    The remains of an ancient royal hunting forest, this park stretches for some 5,000 acres south of Windsor Castle. Much of it is open to the public and can be explored by car or on foot. Its chief attractions are clustered around the southeastern section, known (or at least marketed) as the Royal Landscape. These include Virginia Water, a 2-mile-long lake that forms the park's main geographical focal point. More than anything, however, the Royal Landscape is defined by its two beautiful gardens. Valley Gardens, located on the north shore of Virginia Water, is particularly vibrant in April and May, when the dazzling multicolor azaleas are in full bloom. If you're feeling fit, the romantic Long Walk is one of England's most photographed footpaths—the 3-mile-long route, designed by Charles II, starts in the Great Park and leads all the way to Windsor Castle. Divided from the Great Park by the busy A308 highway, the smaller Windsor Home Park, on the eastern side of Windsor Castle, is the private property of the Royal Family. It contains Frogmore House, a lavish royal residence. Completed in 1684, Frogmore was bought by George III as a gift for his wife, Queen Charlotte. The sprawling white mansion later became a beloved retreat of Queen Victoria. It was also formerly home to the duke and duchess of Sussex, otherwise known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and can still only be visited by guided tour on a handful of days throughout August; see  www.rct.uk for more information.

    Entrances on A329, A332, B383, and Wick La., Windsor, Windsor and Maidenhead, TW20 0UU, England
    01753-860222

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: Gardens £13.95
  • 12. Althorp House

    Deep in the heart of Northamptonshire sits the ancestral home of the Spencers, best known in recent years as the family home of Princess Diana. Here, on a tiny island in a lake known as the Round Oval, is Diana's final resting place. A lakeside temple is dedicated to her memory. The house has no permanent Diana exhibits on display, but it does have rooms filled with paintings by van Dyck, Reynolds, and Rubens—all portraits of the Spencers going back 500 years—and an entry hall that architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner called "the noblest Georgian room in the country." Two paintings by contemporary artist Mitch Griffiths stand out in complete contrast. A literary festival is held here in mid-June. On the west side of the estate park is Great Brington, the neighboring village where the church of St. Mary the Virgin holds the Spencer family crypt; it's best reached by the designated path from Althorp. The house is closed throughout the winter, but seasonal opening times vary so check the website in advance.

    Rugby Rd., St. Albans, Hertfordshire, NN7 4HQ, England
    01604-770107

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: House and grounds £25; grounds only £17.50, Closed Sept.–June
  • 13. Ascot Racecourse

    The races run regularly throughout the year, and Royal Ascot takes place annually in mid-June. Tickets for Royal Ascot generally go on sale in November, so buy them well in advance. Prices range from £29 for standing room on the heath to around £90 for seats in the stands. Car parking costs £40 in advance or £45 on the day.

    A329, Ascot, Windsor and Maidenhead, SL5 7JX, England
    0344-346–3000
  • 14. Carfax Tower

    Passing through Carfax, the center of Oxford and where four roads meet, you can spot this tower. It's all that remains of St. Martin's Church, where Shakespeare stood as godfather for William Davenant, who himself became a playwright. Every 15 minutes, little mechanical "quarter boys" mark the passage of time on the tower front. Climb up the 99 steps of the dark stairwell for a good view of the town center.

    Queen St. and Cornmarket, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 1DZ, England
    01865-792653

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £3
  • 15. Chiltern Conservation Board

    Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England
    01844-355500
  • 16. Chiltern Way

    Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England
    01494-771250
  • 17. Christ Church

    Built in 1546, the college of Christ Church is referred to by its members as "The House." This is the site of Oxford's largest quadrangle, Tom Quad, named after the huge bell (6¼ tons) that hangs in the Sir Christopher Wren–designed gate tower and rings 101 times at 9:05 every evening in honor of the original number of Christ Church scholars. The vaulted, 800-year-old chapel in one corner has been Oxford's cathedral since the time of Henry VIII. The college's medieval dining hall contains portraits of many famous alumni, including 13 of Britain's prime ministers, but you'll recognize it from its recurring role in the Harry Potter movies (although they didn't actually film here, the room was painstakingly re-created in a studio). Plan carefully, as the dining hall is often closed between noon and 2 pm during term time. Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, was a teacher of mathematics here for many years; a shop opposite the meadows on St. Aldate's sells Alice paraphernalia.

    St. Aldate's, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 1DP, England
    01865-276150

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £16 (£16.80 on the door), Sometimes closed for events; check website to confirm
  • 18. Christ Church Picture Gallery

    This connoisseur's delight in Canterbury Quadrangle exhibits works by the Italian masters as well as Hals, Rubens, and van Dyck. Drawings in the 2,000-strong collection are shown on a changing basis.

    Oriel Sq., Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX1 1EP, England
    01865-276172

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £6, Closed Tues. and Wed. Oct.–June
  • 19. Cliveden

    Described by Queen Victoria as a "bijou of taste," Cliveden (pronounced Cliv-dn) is a magnificent country mansion that, for more than 300 years, has lived up to its Georgian heritage as a bastion of aesthetic delights. The house, set on 376 acres of gardens and parkland above the River Thames, was rebuilt in 1851; but it was the rich and powerful Astor family, who purchased it in 1893, that made Cliveden famous. In the 1920s and 1930s this was the meeting place for the influential salon known as the "Cliveden Set"—a group of strongly conservative thinkers who many accused of being Nazi sympathizers. Its doyenne was Nancy Astor, an American by birth, who became the first woman to sit in the British Parliament. The ground-floor rooms of the house are open, as is the Octagon Chapel, with its beautiful gilt-painted ceiling and wall panels. You can wander the lovely grounds, which include a water garden, miles of woodland and riverbank paths, a kids' play area, and a yew-tree maze. Book your timed ticket for the house beforehand or early on the day. Boat hire and trips are available daily in July and August. Note that opening times of the house can be unpredictable, even at the busiest times of the year; always call before setting out.

    Cliveden Rd., Maidenhead, Windsor and Maidenhead, SL6 0JA, England
    01628-605069

    Sight Details

    Rate Includes: £16
  • 20. Compleat Angler

    Bisham Rd., Marlow, Buckinghamshire, SL7 1RG, England
    0344-879–9210

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