The best day trips from London to save your sanity

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The best day trips from London to save your sanity

Beat cabin fever with these easy-to-reach, pick-me-up places to visit outside London

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir21 January 2021

As Samuel Johnson famously said, ‘If you’re tired of London, then get the hell out’ … something like that, anyways. After all, even the most cosmopolitan capital dwellers crave a romp through a field or some by-the-seaside frivolity – especially so at the moment – and that change of scene can be just a train ride or a couple of hours in the car away. We’ve picked the best day trips from London to suit city escapees of all sorts – we’re sure even Johnson would approve – so start planning your future brief sojourn from urbanity.

THE HISTORIC DAY TRIP:
HAMPTON COURT

Hampton Court Palace © Historic Royal Palaces | Mr & Mrs Smith

Where to? Hampton Court for riverboat rides and leafy edge-of-London stretches.

Travel time A 40-minute direct train ride from Waterloo or take this day trip from London by car – it’s just under an hour’s drive from the city centre.

What’s there? This is one of the easiest and best day trips from London by train: your royal appointment is a mere five-minute walk from the station and you can squeeze in riverine views from Hampton Court Bridge on your way. Hampton Court Palace has upwards of 1,000 rooms and 60 acres of kitchen, privy and sunken flowering gardens, so there’s more than enough to amuse for 24 hours. It’s a lavish testament to the power of its most famous owner King Henry VIII – who came into ownership after dropping heavy hints about how much he liked the property to original owner Thomas Wolsey. Be sure to spy the astronomical clock, gaze up to the rafters in the Great Hall, wander the once bustling kitchens and ooh and aah over the gilded ceiling in the chapel. Then get lost in the UK’s oldest puzzle maze and run wild in the expansive verdure of Bushy Park – home to the descendants of Henry’s original herd of hunting deer. There’s a playground for kids and serene water gardens, and fairs and festivals come summertime. To travel as royal residents would have done centuries ago, book a riverboat tour from Hampton Court Pier to cruise to refined Richmond for designer shops and chichi bars or see the eco extravagance of Kew’s Royal Botanical Gardens.

Where to eat and drink
Pitch up at popular drinkery the Mute Swan to compare cask ales with the punters at the bar and slug down picks from the well-curated wine list. The menu, with its pheasant burger, pigeon breast with beetroot risotto and heavy-duty puddings set it aside from the edible competition.

The Mitre Hotel, Hampton Court | Mr & Mrs Smith

Pack an overnight bag for
A stay at newly revamped hideaway the Mitre, handily set just across the road from the palace. Decor embraces cheery colour throughout, afternoons can be lost on the Whispering Angel wine terrace, and the 1665 Brasserie zhuzhes up Brit produce with global flavours: miso-glazed suckling pig, Goan seafood curry and crab toasties with harissa.

THE SEASIDE DAY TRIP:
SUSSEX

Where to? The chocolate-box charm of fortified hilltop town Rye and the curvaceous dunes of Camber Sands.

Travel time Rye Station is just over an hour’s journey away from London St Pancras International with one change at Ashford International. Or it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from central London.

McCully and Crane, Rye | Mr & Mrs Smith

What’s there? A sole Rye day trip from London may not be long enough – those with a yen for medieval half-timbered houses, cobbled streets and inns heavily weighted with history will likely want to put down roots in this Sussex scene-stealer. First you’ll want to get your Insta money shot of Mermaid Street, a beauty-queen backdrop with all of the above, which is hung with wisteria in spring. Have a nose around Lamb House, a grade II-listed property with a manicured walled garden where writer Henry James once lived. Vintage-seekers will feel their find-ey sense tickling in shops such as packed-to-the-rafters Wishbarn Antiques, tastefully curated Pale and Interesting, eclectic jumble Crock and Cosy and emporium of retro art McCully and Crane (pictured above). Breathe in for a spree in the true-to-its-name Tiny Bookstore, scarf down fat scones and dainty cakes off mismatched crockery in the toothsome Cobbles Tea Room and – if you still need a sugar hit – swing by Knoops where you can customise high-quality hot chocolates with herbs, fruit, spices and homemade marshmallows. And, if you want to spend this day trip from London communing with wildlife and getting plenty of fresh air, set course for the Rye Harbour Nature Reserve, a patchwork of marshland, shingle beach and lagoons that houses endangered species and the climbable ruins of Camber Castle. Then skip over to Camber Sands for some beach time and to wander amid the undulating dunes, followed by a 20-minute drive north for some insight into British viniculture and to sip sparkling flutes at Chapel Down vineyard.

Where to eat and drink With 600 years of history under its belt, the Mermaid Inn has a few straggling guests in the form of grey ladies, chairs that rock by themselves and old-fashioned gents who walk through walls. Whichever kind of spirits you visit here for, this famed stopover is a must-visit. You can’t arrive via the secret smugglers’ tunnel that connects the two pubs – sadly – but 14th-century hangout the Old Bell Inn is also a beamed beauty. Dine in more modern style on scallops with cauliflower pannacotta and miso-glazed hispi cabbage at Landgate Bistro or fennel, orange and pomegranate salad and mushroom gnocchi at the Fig. Rye Waterworks Micropub is also a quirky whetting-your-whistle spot.

The Gallivant Hotel, Camber Sands | Mr & Mrs Smith

Pack an overnight bag for the Gallivant hotel, a motel turned good with coastal hues, ‘wood cabin’-style rooms and some fairground colour. Camber Sands’ quieter parts are just across the road and the hotel’s a huge champion of Sussex wines. Plus chefs plunder the surrounding countryside for ingredients.

THE CULTURED DAY TRIP:
OXFORD

Where to? The collegiate city of Oxford for an (engaging) lesson on one of Britain’s most esteemed establishments and a spot of museum-hopping. A day trip near London for the curious of mind.

Travel time This is an easily doable day trip from London by train: just board at Paddington and you’ll be in Oxford in under an hour. Alternatively, drive there in 90 minutes via the Chiltern Hills.

What’s there? Oh, only the university that’s sired nobility, world-changing scientists, top-brass politicos, a flurry of A-listers and more of the finest minds since the 11th-century. As such the whole city has a febrile sense of discovery and cajoles you to dive in and learn something new. First, get the inside scoop on this esteemed branch of uni life on a guided walking tour with a current student; as they regale you with anecdotes (more highbrow than snakebite chugging), they’ll take you to lesser-trodden areas and show you the Bodleian Library and Harry Potter film sets. Then, let the Ashmolean Museum peak your interest – a top day trip from London in and of itself, its collection has thousands of story-holding objets from prehistoric sun discs to samurai armour to Guy Fawkes’ lantern. Afterwards, go even more off-piste with a diversion to the Pitt Rivers Museum, who have hauled in shrunken heads, totem poles and out-there body piercings to delight and disgust in equal measure. You may need a drink to steady yourself after and the Eagle and Child is the place for doing so – here’s where CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien and their lit band of ‘Inklings’ came to create and carouse. If you’re on a family day trip from London, or you’ve been moved by Oxford’s literary excellence, take a tumble down the rabbit hole at the Story Museum, a melee of fantastical worlds with costumes to wear, wardrobes to wander through and more interactive fun. To top off your day, see who’s playing at the Jericho Tavern, where Radiohead had their first ever gig, or catch an under-the-radar flick at indie cinema the Ultimate Picture Palace.

Where to eat and drink Arbequina has been hailed by the most respected of gastronomes for its confident Spanish cuisine (and chocolate salami), while big brother restaurant Oli’s Thai is beloved enough to require a booking well in advance. Casual in style but not in its approach to cooking is the White Rabbit, where local craft pints (try Siren’s Death by Caribbean Chocolate Cake stout), and in Summertown, Pompette serves accomplished French eats. To see some of the surrounding countryside take a walk beside this reach of the Thames to the Perch for sherry-braised pig cheeks, buttered girolles on toast or a pumpkin, date and wild rice wellington.

Pack an overnight bag for the Old Parsonage Hotel, which looks like somewhere Bilbo Baggins might call home on the outside and rather suave on the inside. It’s worth your while stretching your one-day trip from London out to peruse the owner’s extensive art collection, dine heartily on locally sourced game and tempting Brit favourites, and take afternoon tea.

THE COUNTRYSIDE DAY TRIP:
THE COTSWOLDS

Where to? The place to visit outside London when you need to swap city greys for soul-stirring greens – even in one-day doses, the Cotswolds delights with its centuries-old cottages, fertile farmland and laidback pace.

Image courtesy of Cotswolds Tourism | Mr & Mrs Smith

Travel time Board the train at Paddington and you’ll reach Evesham, just north of the Cotswolds’ most comely villages, direct in under two hours. If you’re doing this day trip from London by car – the best way to cruise along country lanes – the journey will take two-and-a-half hours.

What’s there? Use Broadway village, whose honey-hued, foliage-garlanded houses make it quite the looker, as a base from which to hop through picturesque hamlets. It’s not just a pretty face and has some big-hitting arts institutions: the Broadway Art Museum and Gallery often has loaned items from the Ashmolean and an intriguing collection of its own, the Gordon Russell Museum celebrates the work of the titular furniture-maker and aesthete, and the Trinity House Paintings gallery on the High Street has works for sale. Just outside the village, regal folly Broadway Tower is all set for photo opps, and Snowshill Manor showcases the genre-spanning collection of eccentric Charles Wade – the walk between the two is delightful. You may not be able to tackle the whole 103-mile Cotswold Way trail in a day, but sections of it are worth trekking, or hop onto a filly for a trot through the fields. Hill Barn Farm, close to Snowshill looks like Provence from June to August when rows and rows of lavender bushes flower; visit for heavenly scented walks and to pick up fragrant goodies in the shop. This is the best day trip from London for animal-lovers too; pull on wellies to muck around at the Cotswold Farm Park, where there are more than 50 rare breeds of animal to meet. More exotic is the Cotswold Wildlife Park where zebras and hippos grazing in front of a classic stately home make an idiosyncratic sight. And at the Cotswold Falconry Centre you’ll have the chance to get up close with owls and handle mighty birds. As a digestif to your day out, head for the Cotswolds Distillery where you can blend your own gin and whisky or simply take a tasting and pick up some for the road in the shop.

Hook restaurant at the Fish Hotel, Cotswolds | Mr & Mrs Smith

Where to eat and drink Russell’s of Broadway has a tempting à la carte with almond-granola-sprinkled torched goat’s cheese mousse, pork with pickled kohlrabi, malted-milk panna cotta and more. The Swan is an alluringly beamed vintage hangout with a menu starring pan-fried scallops with crab bonbons, chicken, brie and bacon pie and Pornstar Martini Eton mess for dessert. Or scope out Smith stays further afield: Dormy House’s Potting Shed eatery showcases the best produce of the season and the Fish Hotel’s Hook does a fine line in fish and seafood.

Pack an overnight bag for the Lygon Arms, a budget-minding, cosy-as-can-be stay in the village with a notable history. King Charles I, who has a suite named after him, stayed here before battle and royalty and A-listers alike have checked in since. A mod-rustic look is sympathetic to the original features and crackling leather couches and tartan throws feature throughout. Plus the restaurant is one of the best in the area.

THE ALL-OUT DAY TRIP:
BRIGHTON

Where to? The bold and brassy seaside town with a cosmopolitan edge and an anything-goes attitude. One of the best seaside day trips from London, Brighton will keep you going for 24 hours.

Travel time If you’re taking this day trip by train, then you can travel direct from London Victoria or London Blackfriars and be beside the sea in around an hour.

Image courtesy of Beach Box Brighton | Mr & Mrs Smith

What’s there? Plenty from Brighton’s previous heyday as a holiday haven. The coast itself is bluer and sparklier than other Brit seaside spots, and while the beach is pebbly, it doesn’t stop people perching on it with plastic cups of takeaway beer which most bars along the beachfront offer. Pick a spot by Brighton Music Hall and you can listen to singers playing live on the terrace. There are basketball and volleyball courts to play on too and the curious floating doughnut of the British Airways i360 viewing tower. An equally intriguing sight just below is the Upside Down House, where you can take gravity-defying photos. Shopping in the Laines is a no-brainer: treasure-hunters should set aside a chunk of time to nose around in Snooper’s Paradise where quite literally everything is up for grabs, from collectible toys to pre-loved clothes to retro board games and antique brasses. Part of it is Snooper’s Attic, where handmade wares by local artisans are sold. Further inland, Brighton Open Market is the place to pick up can’t-get-anywhere-else items direct from the makers. Pause to admire the Indo-Saracenic architecture of the Royal Pavilion, and have your breath taken away by the Booster ride on the Pier. Outside art errs towards the quirky here: in Powis Square two red telephone booths are known as the Dog & Bone Gallery, whose exhibitions are updated monthly, and if you head north to Upper Lewes Road, you’ll see house-front murals painted by residents, depicting Rick and Morty, Adventure Time and The Simpsons. The Booth Museum of Natural History has hundreds of taxidermied critters (including a ‘mermaid’) if that’s your bag, and if not, go for a svitz at Beach Box Brighton, who have three horse-box saunas and a fire pit to gather round. Or dedicate your day to learning a new skill: artist Andy Doig holds workshops in neon-light making in his beachfront studio.

Where to eat and drink Yes, a day trip to the seaside isn’t complete without fish and chips, but we suggest elevating your experience with dinner at the Salt Room, whose mackerel ‘nduja and just-right calamari we’re still craving. For a picnic, pick up crab rolls and a dozen oysters from the Brighton Shellfish and Oyster Bar truck by the beach. In recent years, Brighton’s earnt a rep for finer dining and exciting, more experimental ventures have moved in. One such is Isaac At, hidden away on Gloucester Street, whose tasting menu takes some wild turns (be warned, there are three dessert courses) and a handy overhead camera lets you watch the chefs do their thing. 64 Degrees is equally outside the box with a menu that reads like a posh shopping list (and sounds rather delicious). Outré cocktail bar Mrs Fitzherbert’s may have a neon-backlit Jesus, but don’t worry, he’s not judging. And vinyl-obsessed bar Dead Wax Social (which has 5,000 records to throw on the turntable) has a killer soundtrack and serious craft brews.

Artist Residence Brighton | Mr & Mrs Smith

Pack an overnight bag for the Artist Residence Brighton. This seriously cool stay earned its name when the cash-strapped owners called on local artists to design the rooms, creating individual spaces for hip DFLs to rest up in. It’s perfectly positioned by the waterfront (rooms on the higher floors have views of the West Pier), has sociable spaces to sip cocktails and fine dine in and captures Brighton’s bohemian spirit within.

If you want a sleepover in this ‘sceptre’d isle’, see our list of luxury hotels in the United Kingdom for dynamic cities, charmed countryside and classic seaside spots for not-so minibreaks.

(Header image: Bodleian Library, Oxford by Dan Paton, ©Bodleian Libraries)