The 15 Best UK Cities to Visit in the Autumn | Oxford Royale Summer Schools
The crowds have died down a little from the summer. The days can still be long and warm in many places, but even when they’re cold and rainy, you’re visiting somewhere that’s still got lots for tourists to do in bad weather. You’re surrounded by falling leaves and rich autumnal colours. And when autumn begins to turn into winter, British cities come alive with cheerful Christmas markets for you to explore.
So if you’re lucky enough to be in the UK at this time of year, we’ve assembled a list of the top cities to visit for a weekend or longer, to explore the best of what British food, culture and scenery have to offer.
This pint-size city has a population of less than 20,000 (though it’s still not the smallest on our list). It’s the only city in the county of Cornwall, which is a must-visit for visitors to the UK. As the most southerly city on the British mainland, its autumn weather is notably mild. Truro may be small but it’s perfectly formed; its heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries left its mark in the form of beautiful Georgian, Regency and Victorian architecture.
Truro is also the ideal base for exploring the rest of Cornwall. Nowhere in Cornwall is more than 8 miles from the sea, and this county is probably best known for seaside pursuits as a result – it’s a magnet for surfers. Cornwall’s food is also celebrated, including fresh fish (unsurprisingly), ice cream, fudge and the world famous Cornish pasties.
If you’re interested in medieval England, Lincoln is a great place to visit. This Midlands city is home to a beautiful 14th century Gothic cathedral, a 12th century bridge, and an 11th century Norman castle; the latter holds one of only four preserved copies of the original Magna Carta. The city’s fortunes declined in the later Middle Ages – which though unfortunate for Lincoln – helped ensure that medieval buildings that might have been torn down and replaced in more prosperous cities were instead preserved.
Moving forward to the present day, Lincoln is also well known for its range of street markets throughout the year, so it’s a good place to pick up an unusual souvenir of your time in Britain or to buy some delicious traditional English.
Brighton is one of several British seaside cities that boomed in Victorian times as the railways enabled daytrippers and holidaymakers to go there from London to lounge on the beach, tip their toes in the water and maybe enjoy some fish and chips as well. Many other towns and cities in this position struggled once budget foreign holidays became available and colder British beaches didn’t seem like so much fun any more, but Brighton has managed to find a new lease of life.
There’s still an element of the old seaside resort there, of course – you can still play games on the pier and buy sticks of rock and candy floss. But at the same time, Brighton has gained a bohemian edge, and with it a reputation for a lively arts scene and exciting nightlife.
The most popular time of year to visit Edinburgh is at the height of summer for the Edinburgh Festival, where all kinds of actors, musicians, comedians, circus performers and just about any other kind of entertainer occupy its venues and streets to the delight of tourists. It’s also the time of year when the city, with its steep, often narrow streets is so crowded that locals make sure to escape to somewhere quieter.
That’s why autumn can be the best time of year to visit Edinburgh; when the crowds have (mostly) gone home, you can enjoy striking architecture, delicious food and maybe even catch an event like the Storytelling Festival.
Liverpool is one of Britain’s most distinctive cities. Heavily influenced by immigration, particularly from Ireland, Liverpudlians have a culture all of their own – not to mention an unmistakable accent that everyone learning English ought to encounter.
Liverpool has an amazing collection of museums and galleries, including art galleries housing both historical and modern art; museums celebrating the city’s sporting and musical heritage; those looking at the darker parts of the city’s history, such as its pivotal role in the slave trade; and the quirkier options like the British Lawnmower Museum not far away in Southport. All this means that even if the British weather means you can’t stroll around the docks in the sunshine, there’ll still be plenty to do.
Britain’s capital city is a must for any visitor to the country. There is so much to do in London that you could spend every weekend for a year on a particular theme – jazz in London, say, or Roman London – and have plenty to keep you occupied. If it rains, you can always hole up in one of London’s huge, free museums, such as the British Museum or the V&A, and explore their endless galleries until closing time.
That’s before you’ve even started on many of the must-visit destinations for tourists, such as the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, or Buckingham Palace – or thought about doing some shopping in famous department stores such as Harrods or Fortnum and Mason – or gone to any of London’s plays, musicals, operas and more.
Home to perhaps the most famous of Britain’s many beautiful cathedrals, Canterbury has been a notable city since before the Romans arrived in Britain, when it was the capital of the Celtic tribe Cantiaci. Its place was secured by 597, when it became the centre of Christianity in Britain. The martyrdom of its archbishop, Thomas Becket in 1171, made it a centre for pilgrimages – such as that undertaken by the pilgrims in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.
All this means that Canterbury is another city that you have to visit if you’re interested in British history. There are surviving structures and a mosaic from Roman times, and then various ruins and remnants from almost every period in Canterbury’s history since.
One of Britain’s two most famous university cities, Cambridge is a delight to visit in the autumn. It’s when the new lot of students have arrived and the city hums with excitement. It’s also when there are few enough tourists that you don’t have to queue in order to go punting, but the days are still long and warm enough for Cambridge’s evening-hire punts to be a treat rather than a recipe for frostbite; some punting companies will even take you gliding along the Cam by candlelight.
Cambridge is also known for its festivals and open-air events. While these are most packed into the summer months, in autumn there’s the Dragon Boat Festival, in which crews race Chinese-style dragon boats down the Cam, and later on the Cambridge Jazz Festival filling venues across the city.
We couldn’t mention Cambridge without also mentioning Oxford. Britain’s other most famous university city has many of the autumnal delights of other cities on this list, such as late-opening museums where you can explore the exhibits with the accompaniment of live music, or by torchlight.
But perhaps the star of the show in the Oxford calendar is the 5th of November – Bonfire Night, when we celebrate that the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament in 1605 failed. All across the country, fireworks are set off and bonfires lit. But Oxford really takes this to heart, with a bonfire in South Park that’s the size of a house, and an array of food stalls and other entertainment besides.
Another city with Roman roots, Newcastle is a city on the rise. Once struggling because of the closure of its coal mines and shipyards, it’s undergone something of a revival and has become an exciting destination to visit, shop and explore. It’s particularly known for its nightlife.
Just outside Newcastle is one of the most loved pieces of public art in Britain: the Angel of the North. This statue is 20m tall, with a 54m wingspan, and looks out from a hill over motorists on the A1. A little further away, you can visit the open air living museum of Beamish, which recreates everyday life in North East England in the 1820s, 1900s and 1940s. If you’re there in autumn, you might be able to visit on one of their spooky Hallowe’en evenings and go trick-or-treating around the village.
Manchester is Britain’s second or third largest city, depending on whether you ask someone from Birmingham. It’s internationally famous for football, but there’s a lot more to the city than that.
It has a huge shopping centre, complete with great markets (especially in the run up to Christmas). Manchester was the driving force behind the industrial revolution in Britain, for which its museums, particularly the Museum of Science and Industry and the People’s History Museum, are fascinating to visit. You could also admire the beautiful John Rylands library or Manchester Town Hall as you wander around the city. And if football is your top interest in Manchester, then the Manchester United Museum and Old Trafford stadium tour can’t be missed.
One of York’s many claims to fame is that it was once a capital city – first as Eboracum, of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior, then of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, then of the Viking kingdom of Jórvík. There are still substantial remains of the city’s Roman walls, and its medieval walls are the most complete example of such defences in England. Its winding medieval streets are also well worth visiting.
If you’re visiting in September, you might be lucky enough to catch the city’s annual Festival of Food and Drink. Alongside markets, events, and demonstrations, you can follow the Taste Trail around the city, where participating retailers offer free samples of treats like cakes, canapés, Yorkshire puddings and ice cream.
Britain has many beautiful cities, but it’s hard to think of one where the architecture is so flawlessly of a piece as the Georgian splendour of Bath. Bath has been visited for its natural hot springs since prehistoric times, when the Celts worshipped the goddess Sulis there. On the arrival of the Romans, spa baths were built there and Sulis incorporated into the Roman pantheon as an aspect of the goddess Minerva. The Roman baths can still be visited today – and you can see the curse tablets written by Romans asking Sulis Minerva to grant them revenge on their enemies. You can also enjoy the modern spa today.
Bath has lots to do in autumn specifically: there’s the Jane Austen Festival in mid-September, celebrating Bath’s most famous resident; the Great Bath Feast, a food festival from late September to early October; and the Bath Film Festival in November.
Salisbury is small, but there’s a lot to do both in and around the city. The first stop on every tourist’s list is Salisbury Cathedral, which has Britain’s tallest cathedral spire and the best-preserved original copy of Magna Carta on display. You can also see the world’s oldest working clock there. Beyond the cathedral, there’s Salisbury Museum, and a pleasant walk along the river (or a bus journey) brings you to the remains of Old Sarum, the site of the earliest settlement of Salisbury.
Salisbury’s position in Wiltshire also makes it an ideal base for exploring the surrounding countryside. The New Forest National Park, and Cranborne Chase and North Downs Areas of Natural Beauty are not far at all – plus, it’s just 8 miles from Stonehenge.
15. St David’s
St David’s is Britain’s smallest city, with a population of just 1,841 at the last census. It has a vast cathedral given its size, and a nearby ruin of the 13th century Bishop’s Palace.
But St David’s is mostly worth visiting for its splendid location on the most westerly point of rural Pembrokeshire, where you can wander along the coastline, paddle in sandy beaches, or even take a boat trip where you might have the chance to see puffins, porpoises, dolphins and whales. It’s particularly worth visiting in the autumn because that’s when the seals come ashore to have their pups – you might be able to spot them from the coastal path, or by visiting one of the uninhabited islands nearby.