The pound sterling, also known as GBP or simply the pound, is the main currency of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In England, the pound is made up of 100 pence or “pee,” in a similar way to dollars and cents, and a one-pound coin is often referred to as “quid.” Visa and Mastercard are commonly accepted at shops, restaurants, and attractions, but it’s always recommended to get some pounds at your local currency exchange or at the airport upon arrival in case of shopping at smaller spots without machines or sites out in the country.
English is the official language of England and Great Britain. However, there are some linguistic differences and phrases that would be good to know. North Americans are assisted in understanding English phrasing through exposure to British movies and TV shows, so while the language may sound overly formal or sometimes amusing to our ears, it does seem familiar. If someone directs you to the “lift,” they are indicating an elevator. The “toilet” or “loo” means the washroom or bathroom. British “chips” are what North Americans call french fries, while “crisps” are what we call chips. “Biscuits” meanwhile are not crumbly breakfast pastries, but rather cookies, typically of the crispy variety.
Best Time to Go
The best time to travel to England is generally between March or April and late September. Of course, it all depends on what you’re looking to see in the country. The spring is the driest time of year and boasts some wonderful countryside gardens, as well as famous flower exhibits like the Chelsea Flower Show. However, the summer is packed with activities and festivals, and some sites, like Buckingham Palace, for example, are only open for tours during the summer months. Autumn is wonderful for seeing the fall colours in the Cotswolds and Lake District, although it is the wettest time of year.
England has a fairly mild temperature, but generally rainy climate, so the spring and summer tends to be the driest with the most possibility of sunshine. In spring between March and May, average temperatures sit between 12–16°C/53–60°F and not typically lower than 6°C/42°F. The hottest summer month is July, with highs about 24°C/75°F, but averages a very pleasant temperature of 19°C/66°F. Then in the fall months of October and November, the temperatures typically mirror the spring temps, but the average rainfall amount doubles.
The ideal traveler to England is someone looking for an iconic metropolitan experience in the big city of London and to experience its variety of cultural influences. Someone who is looking for a mix of the modern and historical should spend time in the countryside in addition to the city. It’s a great country for families as well, with so many kid-of-all-ages experiences available from Harry Potter sightseeing, stage shows, and plentiful outdoor activities.
Getting There From North America
The largest airports in England are London Heathrow Airport and London Gatwick Airport, serving over a billion travellers per year between the two. The next most frequently visited airports outside of London are Manchester and Birmingham Airports, which are both north of London and known as both soccer and industrial powerhouses, respectively.
Recommended flight route from the United States
To get to London from the United States, major airports like New York JFK and EWR, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington operate great-value direct flights daily with United, Delta, and British Airways.
Recommended flight route from Canada
London is a major destination from Canadian airports like Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, and Calgary. Direct flights operate frequently during the week with Air Canada, British Airways, and American Airlines into London Heathrow, whereas Westjet flies directly into London Gatwick.
Essential Sights of England
England’s capital city of almost nine million people sprawls across 1,500 square kilometers, full to bursting with British culture, history, fun pubs and nightclubs, royal-spotting locations, and enough activities to fill a holiday. In just a half an hour in the heart of London, one could walk from the London Eye to the SeaLife Aquarium, over the River Thames to see the Houses of Parliament (also home to Westminster Abbey), and continuing past St. James Park to Buckingham Palace for a view of the Queen’s home and offices. This is only a small section of the city though; always worth a visit is the historical British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. At a more relaxed pace, one could visit the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in beautiful Hyde Park, dine in the fashionable boutique area of Covent Gardens, or visit a funky coffee bar in artsy Camden.
One of the most well-known prehistoric sites in the world is Stonehenge, a collection of upright stone monuments that have been dated at over 5,000 years old. Located under two hours from London, the neolithic structures and the nearby exhibits in the Stonehenge Visitors Centre will help travellers learn more about how these complex structures were likely constructed using the limited tools of the era and what the purpose of the stones was. Visitors can also see over 250 excavacated tools, bones, and artifacts.
Tower of London and Tower Bridge
The Tower of London, strategically located on the banks of the River Thames in the heart of London, was built as a mighty fortress almost 1,000 years ago. It functioned effectively as a prison for the enemies of the kings, safehold for the country’s most prized possessions, and even a royal mint for a while. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and museum, where you can see the Crown Jewels and the chapels and prison cells that the royals of the past used. The “beefeaters” or Yeomen Warders in their jaunty red uniforms are happy to share the tales of the past with visitors. Tower Bridge, another iconic landmark that crosses the Thames, is located very close to the Tower of London, not to be confused with London Bridge, the original version of which can now be found in Lake Havasu City, Arizona!
Rising above London’s Houses of Parliament and overlooking the River Thames is the historic clock tower known as Big Ben. Technically the name “Big Ben” actually refers to the enormous Great Bell inside the clock tower that rings hourly—although due to some restoration work happening in the tower, Big Ben is not currently ringing but will resume in 2021. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most iconic London landmarks and sits over Westminster Abbey (where all British kings and queens are crowned), and Westminster Palace, the seat of British government.
The city of York is one of England’s largest and most intact medieval walled cities. York Minster, located in the heart of the city, is one of the most impressive cathedrals in the world and has been the heart of the Church of England since the 7th century. Not only are the city walls impressive to look at, but it is possible to walk along the top edge of the walls and take in the historic Roman and medieval ruins, gardens, signage describing the significance of different areas, and the beautiful views found here.
Another of the Queen’s official residences, Windsor Castle has been in constant use by royal families for over 900 years. Also built on the River Thames but about one hour outside of the heart of London, this impressive medieval castle hosts many official state functions and royal receptions in its State Rooms. The impressive castle grounds and gardens surround the living quarters of the castle and the beautiful St. George’s Chapel is where many royal weddings take place (including the recent wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle).
Lake District National Park
In the north of England, just before crossing into Scotland, are some of the most beautiful national parks that the country has to offer. Lake District National Park is a popular international and local vacation destination, with its many clean lakes and fresh air, and abundant wildlife and beautiful waterfalls. Also located within the national park are quaint country towns like Windermere and Hawkshead (home of the famous children’s book author Beatrix Potter, and location of the grammar school that poet William Wordsworth attended and later wrote about). Interested travellers can wander the streets of the charming towns, cycle along pathways, or take a boat ride on one of the many lakes.
If you are seeking a part of England to get that “charming country cottage” feeling, then look no further than the Cotswolds. An officially designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” by the British government, the thatched-roof homes and historic inns found here seem to call back to a slower time, with villages that time forgot when compared with modern London. This area is also now famous for being featured heavily in the popular BBC drama Downton Abbey. Highclere Castle serves as the setting for outdoor castle shots featured in the show, while nearby Cotswolds towns set the tone for the local village scenes.
Other Highlights of England Off the Beaten Path
The well-preserved ancient Roman baths located in Bath, England are a bright reminder of the fact that the Romans conquered Britannia as early as 50 BC and brought their distinct bathing habits and rituals with them. They then made their way far into northern England, where the Roman emperor Hadrian built Hadrian’s Wall, which today is mostly in ruins but still impressive to see. The city of York was mostly undeveloped land before the Romans arrived, but the convergence of the Foss and Ouse Rivers here created a perfect system of transportation between the north and south of England. Eventually, almost 500 years after invading Britain, the Romans withdrew in about 406 AD.
Many international sports have found a place in London and other large cities across England, such as football (soccer), rugby, cricket, and even WWE wrestling recently. One of the most popular and distinctly British though is Wimbledon, the renowned tennis championship and the oldest and most prestigious tournament in the world. Every June and July for over 140 years, Wimbledon has showed off the best tennis players in the world to crowds of spectators that include celebrities and royals. British Premier League football is considered some of the best soccer in the world, and rugby and cricket are played passionately at all levels.
Evidence of the Bard’s impact on British history and on the world can be found in several places across England. The famous Globe Theatre in London on the south bank of the Thames is a faithful reconstruction of the original Globe, which burned down at one point in the early 1600s. You can tour this theatre and see how they constructed the building with ideal acoustics and where commoners versus London’s elite used to observe Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Outside London, you can visit Stratford-upon-Avon to see where Shakespeare was born, where he attended school, and where his wife Anne Hathaway grew up, as well as touring Holy Trinity Church where he is buried.
White Cliffs of Dover
Fans of classic music and literature will recognize the White Cliffs of Dover, an important natural cliff formation on the south coast of England. The cliffs are white due to being composed almost entirely of chalk and are the closest part of Britain to mainland Europe. Illustrated in Dame Vera Lynn’s 1942 song of the same name, the White Cliffs of Dover are a symbol of hope and strength, in a similar way to what the Statue of Liberty means to Americans. Because the cliffs are almost 400 feet from the water’s edge in spots, these cliffs were also written about by Roman emperors who failed to invade Britain at this point in 55BC, as well as being featured in a dramatic scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear.
Banksy and Bristol
There are not very many specific details known about the now-famous street artist called Banksy, but the power of his work has set a standard for political and moving street art in England and across the world. He got his start in Bristol, on the west side of England not far from Wales, but soon moved his attention to London. What started as graffiti became known as street art because of Banksy’s distinct style and subversive messages in his creations. Street art tours in London will show off the dozens of artworks still present, graffiti-style, on London buildings and galleries have preserved some of his work as well. Banksy’s influence has spread worldwide, with his art showing up in Los Angeles, Toronto, Mali, Jerusalem, and New York City.
Top Activities and Experiences in England
Harry Potter Filming Locations
Most people are aware of the phenomenon that is the Harry Potter book series, later turned into blockbuster movies by Warner Bros. There are sites of interest all over London and the United Kingdom to attract any level of Harry Potter movie fans. Tours of filming locations within London will show places from the books and movies like Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross Station, the Millenium Bridge destroyed by Death Eaters, the inspiration for the winding streets of Diagon Alley, and the Great Scotland Yard building that served as the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. Outside London, you can visit the Warner Bros. London Studio Tour to walk through indoor set pieces and see costumes and models from the movies. Even further outside London, you can find a major outdoor filming location for the distinctive Hogwarts halls and walkways at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.
While big cities like London, Manchester, and Liverpool have bustling metropolitan atmospheres, the mark of England’s long history touches every corner of the country, from prehistoric sites like Stonehenge and Rollright Standing Stones, to the Roman baths and ancient walled city of York, to the medieval quarters of cities and castles galore. Windsor Castle, Dover Castle, Warwick Castle, Leeds Castle, and more recall a time of kings and lords, queens and conquerors. More modern historic locations will illustrate to travellers the impact of World War I and World War II on the cities of London and Kent area, as well as the possibility of seeing where favourite classic artists and movie stars lived and worked within the last century.
See a Show in London’s West End
The 40 major theatres of London’s West End dazzle Londoners and visitors with epic productions every night, some even having been in operation since the 1600s! Considered London’s version of Broadway (though the West End has been around longer), the West End has large-scale shows like Phantom of the Opera, The Lion King, and Wicked along with many classic and new favourites. The West End theatre district is bordered by the exciting areas of Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square as well as the trendy Covent Gardens area, so there’s lots of fun to be had before and after seeing a show.
The Beatles and Rock n Roll
The Beatles are one of the most iconic and well-known British rock bands. You can learn more about their domination of the British Invasion of the 1960s in London and also Liverpool, where they first formed as a group. Visit The Beatles Story in Liverpool, a permanent exhibit and UNESCO World Heritage Site where you can get an insight into their early career. In London, visit their Abbey Road recording studio, and don’t forget to take a picture at the famous Abbey Road zebra crossing! Beyond the Beatles, British rock icons like Eric Clapton, David Bowie, The Who, Queen, Amy Winehouse, the Rolling Stones, and Elton John have captivated audiences worldwide and ensured England’s place in the annals of rock’n’roll history.
Hang Out in a Pub
Some of the best local experiences that you can in England come from hanging out in an English pub. The pub culture is so predominant to the British that it’s not just for partiers but is popular for students, backpackers, a social hangout spot, and integral to local communities. Pub quiz teams and pub league football (soccer) teams form here and enjoy pints of lager, ale, and spirits. Fancy cocktails are not usually served here, and it is encouraged to strike up a conversation with a stranger and you will likely make a new friend. Gastro pubs even serve some restaurant-quality staples like bangers and mash, Sunday roast, and sticky toffee pudding.
Essential British Foods to Try
A full English breakfast is a great way to start off your day of touring in London, with plenty of hearty dishes like eggs, grilled tomato and beans, bacon and sausage (or Black Pudding, a blood sausage dish). More modern and vegetarian versions of English breakfast may include avocado to spread on toast with the above dishes, as well as fried Halloumi cheese.
Fish and Chips
No food is more iconic and British than fish and chips. Delicately battered with flour and fried in hot oil, most often codfish and other white fish serve as the fish, while the chips consist of chunks or slices of potatoes that are also fried till crispy on the outside. Fish and chips is sometimes served in restaurants, but is most often served in a takeaway format, from a roadside fish and chip shop or “chippy” as they’re known to locals. Fish and chips are so important to British culture that they were the only food never rationed to citizens during the first and second World Wars.
The concept of Afternoon Tea first developed with ladies of high society who were using the time between lunch and late supper (traditionally around 8pm) to advance themselves to the upper echelons of the social ladder. It began in the 1800s with tea, delicate finger sandwiches, and pastries and to this day still occurs all over Britain, often as a special occasion or celebration. To a smaller extent, many British people will at the very least stop for a tea break and snack in the afternoon, typically around 4pm. High Tea, meanwhile, often denotes a version of afternoon tea that takes place later on in the day and is served at a table rather than in a parlour, and often is accompanied by hot food and not just sandwiches.
Yorkshire puddings are not a sweet dessert, as most North Americans would traditionally think of a pudding. They are instead a crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside savoury pastry baked in the shape of a muffin and served with a full Sunday Roast spread. Typically, the diner will poke a groove in the top of the pastry and fill it with hot gravy.
A pasty is a hand pie, an enclosed pie shell that you can eat with your hands, filled with meats and veggies. Other countries and cultures have their version of hand pies, but in England they are referred to as “pasties.” The Cornish Pasty, a specific variety of pasty filled with beef and turnip with onions and potatoes, has a special Protected Geographical Indication from the European Union due to its cultural importance.
Scones and Crumpets
Scones with clotted cream are a common afternoon tea time staple, and not usually a breakfast food as you’d expect. A buttery and crumbly scone (sometimes with raisins) topped with clotted cream—a cooked cream topping, a delicious halfway meeting of butter and whipped cream—and sweet jam. Crumpets are also a fairly well-known British pastry as well, which are essentially a softer and more spongy type of English muffin. Because of all the nooks and crannies in a crumpet, the best toppings for the crumpet to soak in is butter and jam or perhaps Marmite spread.
Tips for Sustainable Travel
The subway system (in London called the Underground or Tube) is extensive and can take visitors across the city quickly and efficiently, while the iconic red double-decker public transport buses allow you to see the city from street level. At the national level, the UK is committed to making various industries, including tourism, more sustainable and since 2018 have topped the list as a sustainable tourism world leader according to the The Economist Intelligence Unit. Private and public corporations as well as medium to large tourism companies in the UK are working to prevent overcrowding at tourism hotspots, improving socio-economic and environmental protections at important historical and cultural sites.
Where to Go Next
Once you’ve discovered London and other areas of England, the next logical step for you to visit would be other areas of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Scotland is just five hours north of London via a beautiful train journey, and a lot of royal history is shared between the neighbouring countries. You will love the castles you can visit in Wales, which is also very close to Bristol, England, and a quick two-hour flight or less will take you to Belfast, Northern Ireland or Dublin to see the green rolling hills of Ireland. Also close to England via Eurostar trains are Paris, Brussels, or Amsterdam.
Most Popular Itineraries for England
For a wonderful way to see London and parts of the English country, consider the Discover London and the Countryside 6-night itinerary where you’ll see all the main sights within London as well as the Cotswolds and Stonehenge in a short, intimate coach tour. The Royal Tour of England is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the locations of important happenings in the life of the British Royals, as well as see many popular and off-the-beaten-path historical locations. Starting in Scotland and ending in England, you will discover many castles, towers, and royal estates. For a wonderful high-end London experience for five nights, the Luxurious London itinerary provides you with a stay at the prestigious 5-star Royal Horseguards Hotel and includes private tours of main sights within London and out to Windsor Castle and Oxford. A luxury experience at the London Eye is also included as well as tickets to a West End Theatre production.