Why the UK's most popular cities can still surprise you

Regularly escaping the UK with its temperamental climate had always been the plan.

Whether it was by ticking off the bucket list and trekking the rugged Wild Coast of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, or doing the budget list and navigating through boozy hen dos on the streets of Ayia Napa – If I could fly there, I would try there.

Then 2020 happened and suddenly we were put on a seemingly never-ending naughty step.

So when lockdown lifted in 2021 and the skies opened up again, I thought I’d have been the first to grab a golden ticket out of here.

But the random red-listing of countries and having to possibly quarantine on arrival and departure made me slink right back under my duvet.

It was only when a fellow travel loving pal, who was just as apprehensive, suggested that I follow her lead and play local tourist, that I finally saw a light – albeit a very dim one – at the end of the long tunnel.

Staycations may have long been a thing, but it just hadn’t clicked to me that the UK could be an escape from, well, the UK.

But I would soon discover that from London’s hidden ‘mini countries’ with their diverse cultures to the stunning villages on the fringes of towns like Oxford that there’s more than meets the eye and truly no place like home.

My first stop was Oxford, one of the most beloved and visited cities in the UK, but it was its lesser known Iffley – a seriously pretty little village on the outskirts – that brought me here.

Peppered with wildlife, fantastic walking trails, beautiful cottages and flora, it felt a world away from the hustle and bustle of the well-trodden Oxford city centre despite it only being 10 minutes away.

With its cottage-like homes, which all sit in a leafy conservation area on the Oxford Canal, historic bridges and delightful pubs alongside the Thames, it’s hard to just take it all in and not capture every moment on your phone.

Especially when chilling on the 7th-century Iffley Lock and watching the sun set as Oxford University rowing regattas sail by.

Escape from reality by cycling, walking or canoeing around this postcard-come-to-life little oasis.

Things to do in Iffley, Oxford

St Mary Church

While this little 12th century Romanesque building may not be as ‘epic’ as other churches in Oxford, underestimate it at your peril.

This church, which looks a bit like a mano house, is hard to beat when it comes to history and the sheer serenity and peace it exudes.

Locals escape here daily with many describing it as a ‘magical place’ that gives them complete peace of mind.

Take a moment to muse about life and relax on its perfectly placed garden bench right in front of it.

Chances are you’ll have the entire place all to yourself too. Heaven!

To get there, walk or cycle along the picturesque Thames Path.

What to eat in Iffley, Oxford

Isis River Farmhouse

With its nearby river views and enormous garden seating area, this delightful establishment is not your bog-standard local pub.

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The gorgeous, tree-shaded spot will have you happily lose all track of time as you sip on unusual cocktails and tuck into their delicious, inspired dishes – from Steak & Devon Blue pie to Vegan chilli and spiced tomato chutney.

Where to stay in Iffley, Oxford

Mercure Oxford Hawkwell House Hotel

This manor house, Mercure, not to be confused with the hotel Mercure Oxford in the city centre, is perfectly placed.

The quiet recently renovated 77-room establishment with its cosy interior and lovely restaurant id in the heart of Iffley and the perfect base.

Rooms from £90 per night

Windsor

No one’s met a castle they didn’t like, but not everyone’s fussed about going out of their way to see one.

But Windsor, a town that’s famous for its castle and a reinvigorated hot spot – thanks to Harry and Meghan getting hitched there in 2018 – is not just a pretty facade.

Beneath the Queen’s favourite town, lies some gems, including Windsor Great Park Illuminated – a striking special light trail that sees the famous park come alive for a few months every year.

There’s also history to be made by simply stepping foot on Queen Charlotte Street – the shortest road in the country – before heading over a footbridge to the historic town of Eton.

If you’re as lucky as I was, your fairytale visit may even end with a rainbow forming over Windsor Castle.

Two amazing towns for the price of one train journey from London? A must stop!

Things to do in Windsor

Windsor Illuminated

The stunning light trail that will take you on a multi-sensory journey through the famous Windsor Great Park at the Windsor Great Park Illuminated event.

You’ll pass through trippy lasers, a ‘cathedral’ of light features, and past fountains of striking flowers while sipping on mulled wine or hot chocolate and tucking into a variety of treats from stalls along the way.

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Opening on November 17, 2022 and running until January 2, 2023 will show off new installations, including a gigantic light installation of Windsor Castle itself.

Along with sparkles of interactive fireflies, a holographic deer, birds and wildlife, this award-winning light trail – produced by the team behind Hyde Park Winter Wonderland – is the true winter wonderland.

Windsor Totem Pole

The kaleidoscopic treat that is the 100ft and weighs 12 tonne sits in Windsor Park.

It was gifted to the Queen – who said it’s one of the most unique gifts she’s ever received – by Canada in 1958.

It’s height marked every year since Queen Victoria proclaimed British Columbia as a Crown colony in 1858.

Queen Charlotte Street

Just 50 yards from Windsor Castle, take a short walk down this old cobblestone pathway.

At just 51 feet long and 10 inches wide, it’s quite literally a hop skip and a jump to head down one of the world’s shortest streets.

It’s also next to the Crooked House of Windsor – a slanted 17th-century property that is a quirky Windsor landmark before grabbing a pint at the delightful Carpenter’s Arms pub, which is perfectly positioned at the end of tiny road.

Eton

Take a leisurely stroll across the bridge to this historic town with its famous landmarks, independent restaurants and quirky shops and feed the ducks and swans with the bread bits sold by vendors along the way.

Pop into the Eton Antique Bookshop, which was featured in an episode of Midsomer Murders, and riffle through its old prints, maps and weathered publications.

Where to stay in Windsor

Castle Hotel Windsor

This 16th-century Georgian building is just a 10 minute walk from both Windsor and Eton Riverside station with magnificent views of the epic stone walls of Windsor castle.

Bang in the centre of Windsor High street, Castle Hotel Windsor is just a stone’s throw away from all the amenities.

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Tuck into their scrumptious – easy-on-the-wallet – afternoon tea.

Fun fact: The hotel’s grand entrance looks on to Sir Christopher Wren’s Windsor Guildhall building that served as the venue for Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles’ 2005 wedding.

Rooms from £130 per night

What to eat in Windsor

Cinnamon Cafe

While high tea is hard to beat at Castle Hotel, the Cinnamon Café for breakfast or brunch is a must.

The independent business founded in Windsor old town in 2021, had faced permanent closure after losing money during the lockdown.

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However, locals so adore it they signed a petition and organised fundraisers that has keep it afloat.

It’s easy to see why when you bite into its scrumptious cinnamon buns and sip on its delicious coffees.

Bath

This city is known for its architectural grandeur, stunning rolling hills and – most recently – its appearance in Netflix hit, Bridgerton.

But what many of the almost four million visitors a year may not realise is that checking out landmarks such as the Roman Baths and Bath Abbey is just scratching the surface.

I avoided the congested tourist-riddled pavements by trekking the quiet backstreets and grassy pathways through the hills overlooking the city.

But hitting the famous beaten path can still be painless if, like I did, you avoid weekends and opt for significantly quieter weekdays.

Also hop on the early morning tours when the historic spa city is ’empty’ and learn the history behind the town’s amazing history.

What to do in Bath

The Private Unconventional History of Bath Walking Tour

This incredible excursion has you popping into a silversmith selling Jane Austen era artifacts, a centuries-old bakery and old chapels converted into art galleries and fall in love with all the quiet, pretty backstreets.

From £135 per group of up to nine people

The Holburne Museum

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Sat on beautifully manicured gardens, this gorgeous building away from the busy main streets, is Bath’s first public art gallery and home to traditional art and modern works, including the fascinating light installations.

This eclectic art museum, which Pride and Prejudice author Jane Austen lived just opposite from in the 19th century, also has a gorgeous sculpture garden, and holds regular classical music concerts, some of which are free.

Bathwick Meadows

One of the best way to take in Bath via boat, but if staying firmly grounded is more your speed, trek up Bathwick Meadows.

Bathwick comprises of a series of lush fields with unreal views of the city Bath, is a must.

You can only fully appreciate the famous skyline of the spa city from this spot, including views of Bath Abbey and the rows of Georgian terraced houses the town is renowned for.

What to eat in Bath

Sam’s Kitchen

This may be a small and understated café, but it hits big when it comes to food, atmosphere and views.

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It stands apart from the soulless restaurant chains, with its cosy atmosphere, seriously tasty offerings, including the mouthwatering roasted joint of meat dish and scrumptious salads.

The cakes and pastries, made on site, are also a top treat.

Chez Dominque

It would’ve been a total missed opportunity to not have tried out a restaurant bearing one’s moniker, right?

It may not have been on my list, but what a happy accident bumping into Chez Dominque on a stroll near my hotel as it totally lived up to its epic name.

Dominique is understated, yet awesome with fantsatic flair and sophistication, but that’s enough about me.

This restaurant, with it’s delicious A-class French fare, incredibly patient staff and cosy atmosphere that all comes with an unbelievably reasonable price point, is a total must visit.

Where to stay in Bath

No.15 Great Pulteney

The recently renovated Georgian townhouse is quiet and cosy and only a 15-minute walk from the centre of all the action and just across the road from The Holborne Museum .

Great Pulteney, with its stunning original features alongside modern decor, has unique little touches.

These include a record player with vintage albums in every room and a fully-stocked pantry with complimentary homemade treats such as flapjacks, brownies and vintage sweets.



There’s also a sublime underground spa, carved to look like a luxury cave, which is also home to a stunning and huge copper bathtub to chill in before or after a treatment.

Rooms from £180

London

I ended my journey full circle – back in my hometown.

The capital is one of the world’s most visited places due to its rich history but, bizarrely, is also an ‘off the beaten track’ city.

The tucked away little cobbled alleyways that veer off almost every busy high street almost always lead to independent cafes, art galleries, markets and multi-cultural communities hidden in plain sight.

Spots like Little Ethiopia and the gastronomical heaven that is Bokan restaurant, that gives The Shard’s famous 360 degree views a run for its money.

What to do in London

Little Ethiopia

Sat perfectly in the heart of West London’s Shepherd’s Bush, Little Ethiopia is a gem of a find that gives a unique insight into the lives of the Ethiopian community in London.

Organised by Intrepid Travel, your guide, Sefanit Mengiste, who arrived in London from Ethiopia at age 14, will take you through passages of the quiet market.



There you’ll chat with local traders and try their produce, which includes a strong Ethiopian freshly blended ginger juice known for its ‘healing properties’.

Youll also participate in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony and tuck into a delicious traditional lunch.

You’ll be forgiven for forgetting that you’re in London while walking by rows of brightly-coloured shops with Ethiopian artifacts and aromatic spices.

£82pp, with 15% of all customer ticket sales going to Women in Travel.

Emalin gallery

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Once a pop up spot that showcased contemporary exhibitions in a variety of venues across the city, including at a church, Emalin has found its permanent home in Shoreditch where it’s been since September 2016.

Run by art-loving pals, Leopold Thun and Angelina Volk, even if you’re not a fan of contemporary art, the exhibitions at this gallery are still very much worth a look.

The art is thought-provoking, unconventional and unlike anything else out there.

Emalin’s exhibitions are contemporary showcases of 11 international artists who work in a range of media.

Repose

With anxiety at an all-time high in this time of uncertainty, in the manic city sits a solution.

Repose describes itself as a ‘wellness and fitness destination, providing individuals with a sanctuary in the heart of London’.

As you step through their doors on the busy Kensington High Street, you’ll feel as if you’ve stepped into a cocoon of calm.

It may then seem odd to be put through your paces with EMS training (Electrical Muscle Stimulation), which has you in a wearable device that stimulates your muscles through tiny electrodes that doubles the effect of any workout.

But after soldiering through it, then drifting off like a baby in an infrared pod and leaving Repose feeling fitter, calmer and totally refreshed – it all made sense.

The introduction package, which treatments includes a private EMS session, cryotherapy and Infrared Sauna is £89

What to eat in London

Bokan 37

Just a five-minute walk from Canary Wharf tube with mind-blowing views sits this stunning restaurant that’s been scandalously overlooked.

Towering above the city, every corner of this bar, restaurant and rooftop terrace with daybeds, shows off breathtaking views of the capital.

Bokan 37, which is located on the 37th and 38th floor of Novotel, is hard to beat with its views but it’s food is also a winner.


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An array of modern European and British with international influences and quirky twists, of which every dish has a vegan option.

Diverse, delicious instagrammable dishes that won’t break the bank.

After your hearty main meal, do tuck into the tofu cream with strawberries and flamed meringue clementine tart or the strawberry gariguette desert.

Where to stay in London

The Marylebone

This stylish hotel nestled in Marylebone ‘village’ and close to all the , is the perfect base.

Friendly, cosy and known for its great restaurant, The Marylebone, with its gorgeous terraced suites giving a bird’s eye view of the capital, is tucked behind busy Oxford Street and great or its close proximity to all the action and great transport links.

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It’s just a stone’s throw from historical independent shops such as Daunt Books, smart designer boutiques, galleries, restaurants and walking distance to the likes of Selfridges.

Rooms from £280 per night

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