The heavyweights of UK staycation seem to get all the attention. Most tourists seem to gravitate to the same handful of (admittedly beautiful) destinations: Devon, Cornwall, Lake District, Cotswolds, Isle of Skye. And while they are worthy and great locations in their own right, over-tourism is definitely a growing issue in the peak seasons. Just think of the mass weekend pilgrimage to Durdle Door on the Jurassic Coast or the crowds that descend on Bournemouth beach soon as the sun pops out. Thankfully for us, the UK is no Liechtenstein – the country boasts a plethora of equally great alternative hidden gem destinations with a fraction of the tourists. And usually friendlier on the wallet.

So I’d like to share 8 of my favourite under-the-radar UK staycation spots, perfect for a short weekend break or a longer, multi-day getaway.

Applecross Peninsula, NW Scotland

 

Bealach Na Ba, Scotland's Applecross Pass Road

What to expect: 100% dramatic Isle-of-Skye-style scenery with 10% of the tourists

While the nearby Isle of Skye takes the limelight, the mainland across from it is no less stunning in that distinctly rugged Scottish way. The “cherry” of Applecross Peninsula is the picturesque mountain pass that gives the area its name: the Applecross Pass. Also known as the Bealach Na Ba in Gaelic (the “pass of the cattle”), it was once the only way to the seaside village of Applecross. It’s now a bucketlist route for cyclists with masochistic tendencies, beardy bikers and daredevil caravan drivers who shouldn’t really be on this steep twisty pass in the first place.

The rest of the peninsula is hardly less stunning, the coastal drive interrupted by crossing sheep, tiny fishing villages and views that will leave you wanting to stop every few minutes. The village of Shieldaig is particularly worth a stop as well as the walled garden cafe near Applecross. At the other end of the peninsula is Loch Torridon, with an impressive backdrop of some of the steepest “Beinns” (mountains) you’ll find in UK.

Needless to say, there is plenty of fresh seafood and a ridiculous choice of outdoor activities – if the weather gods smile on you. Just be sure to pack midge repellent if you’re coming June to September.

Sunrise at Loch Torridon, Scotland's Hidden Gem

How to get to Applecross Peninsula

You really want your own transport here. If renting, start in Inverness (closest city – 1.5 hours’ drive) or Aberdeen (~3 hours) – both have airports with flights to across UK.

Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland

Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland Travel Itinerary

What to expect: Fascinating history, local whisky & beautiful scenery that inspired Game of Thrones location scouts.

Relatively compact in size and with plenty of domestic flights from across UK, Northern Ireland makes for a great yet often-overlooked long weekend option. The Causeway Coast is especially worth a few days for the nature, the culture, unique history and some of the friendliest people you’ll meet in UK.

Dark Hedges Road, Northern Ireland

To the region’s North lies the beautiful Giant’s Causeway route, its jewel being the otherworldly rock formation sat among a dramatic coastal backdrop which gives the route its name. But there’s far more: Game of Thrones fans will be well aware of the numerous filming locations that put Northern Ireland on their travel map. Unwittingly you will find yourself in Winterfell and Iron Islands as you make your way along the route. Equally for non-fans there is still plenty to see and do with cliffside walks, ropey rope bridges, vast beaches and the Bushmills whisky distillery just some of the highlights.

Giants Causeway Route

The reviving capital Belfast absolutely deserves a day at the start or end of your trip. Besides the surprisingly strong food & bar scene (check out St George’s Market!) and the impressive Titanic Museum, Belfast offers something else pretty unique – the ‘Peace Walls’. Built to separate the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods, the tall mural-covered walls are a stark reminder of the country’s turbulent history and the still-uneasy present and make for a fascinating walk.

Alternatively you’ve also got Londonderry in the country’s West, the second biggest city with its own peace walls still in place.

Belfast Peace Walls Graffiti Artists

How to get to the Causeway Coast

Fly into one of Belfast’s two airports from just about anywhere in UK and beyond. Just over 1hr flight from London. Then a car is recommended for best flexibility. But there are trains to some coastal places like Portrush, and the local bus network should will you to most points of interest.

Mid Wales

What to expect: Some of the most striking yet rarely-visited outdoors, sheep and impossible-to-pronounce place names

Craig Goch Dam, Elan Valley

While Snowdonia gets the bulk of visitors to Wales, the country’s central and Eastern regions largely remain remain under the radar.

Elan Valley in Mid-Wales is probably my top pick in the region. Its 6 dams are stunning feats of Victorian-age engineering that are sights to behold in their own right. They form the scenery here, shaping out vast reservoirs stretching along the valley. It’s very serene here and sparsely visited, probably thanks to the relative remoteness of the area. The area offers an array of walking, hiking and cycling options. The nearby charming town of Rhayader makes for the perfect base for this.

Elan Valley Reservoir

Further Southeast towards the English border you have the Gospel Pass, the country’s highest mountain pass that cuts into the Black Mountains. Along the pretty (but anxiously narrow) road heading to the pass you’ll find the ruined Llanthony Priory, a aurreal and idyllic picnic spot with a small café. It might leave you wondering (but thankful) as to why Stonehedge gets its hordes of tourists and this little spot just a handful. As you reach the top of Gospel Pass, stunning views open up ahead with wild horses roaming the hills, Black Mountains to one side and England to the other.

Beyond that, the area has endless hiking and cycling routes, and pretty market towns like the book paradise Hay-on-Wye or Llanidloes always worth a stop.

Llanthony Priory, Wales

Gospel Pass Wales

How to get to Mid Wales

Car is best here as we’re talking fairly remote. Yet from London it’s just over 3 hours’ drive (or 1 hour from Cardiff). Head up to Abergavenny then up the small road past Llanthony over the Gospel Pass. Then carry on further in to Rhayader, and beyond!

Read more: (if you’re up for a stunning but challenging Wales bicycle tour): Cycle Touring Across Wales

Jersey, Channel Islands

Argueil Castle

What to expect: Excellent seafood & dairy, beaches, castles & French legacy

Situated just off the French coast, Jersey is as close to mainland Europe as a staycation gets. Once you make the short domestic hop by plane, just about everything on this channel island is within 20 mins’ drive away. This makes the island ideal for a weekend break without feeling like you’ve only just seen a tiny bit of it. 

Jersey is a peculiar island with French place names, German WW2 bunkers and very much English culture. Expect a wealth of fresh seafood and delightful dairy; castles, cliffs and countless beaches of every kind that literally double the island’s size at high tide.

Jersey Coastal Paths

With the sun out, Jersey’s beaches and coastal paths offer some of the most colourful and stunning seaside views. If you’re not so lucky with the weather, book yourself a spa with a beach view or indulge in the island’s renowned seafood. Oyster fans will not want to leave ever again – for this I recommend Oyster Box or Crab Shack.

Jersey’s history is also quite special. The defenceless island was occupied by Germany during WW2 and the Jersey War Tunnels museum (set in a bunker hospital built by POWs during the occupation) tells powerful stories of the hard times. For seaside castles, head to Mont Orgueil or Elizabeth Castle near the capital St Helier, the latter only reachable by foot at high tide.

How to get to Jersey

Short flight from London in 40 mins, and plenty of other UK cities too. Then rent a small car (or even a bicycle!) to get around.

South Downs National Park

South Downs National Park Sheep

What to expect: Quintessentially English villages, history, wine & green rolling hills

The picturesque rolling hills, thatched roof cottages and ancient forests of South Downs at times make it seem like you’ve been teleported into The Shire. Even better, the vast National Park is one of the most beautiful places in England that’s reachable from London and SE England as a day trip. Equally South Downs are a hiking and cycling haven, with plenty of attractive low-traffic country lanes on offer for the latter.

South Downs stretch a long way from Winchester in Hampshire all the way to the seaside cliffs near Eastbourne in East Sussex, but my hidden gem tip is to focus on the parts within West Sussex. Some of the particularly charming villages worth visiting here are Petworth and Amberley. Petworth especially stands out for its antiques, art galleries and cute cafes while on the 4th Saturday of every month you will find an impressive farmer’s market. Amberley (with its own train station) is surely one of the prettiest villages in England, with thatched roof houses, tea houses, a castle-hotel and even a vast open-air museum just outside of it.

Amberley West Sussex

Amongst the bigger towns, the impressive Arundel closer to the South coast is full of history and character. It’s dominated by the towering Arundel Castle and the magnificent gothic cathedral at the town’s upper edge. And let’s not forget the most eye-catching post office building you’ll ever find. The nearby Chichester is an even bigger alternative for historic destinations, most famed for its Chichester Cathedral.

Fancy a glass of sparkling wine? South Downs has an offering of vineyards too. Stopham, Upperton and Trotton vineyards are just some of the establishments offering tours and tastings if you book ahead.

How to get to the South Downs

South Downs are just a 2-hour drive from London, and trains from London Victoria take around 1.5 hours depending on the stop. There are plenty of train station options including Arundel, Chichester and Amberley.

Isle of Wight

Military Road Isle of Wight

What to expect: Easy-to-reach nature getaway, beaches to suit every taste, festivals & beautiful cliffs

A short ferry hop across from England’s South Coast, the Isle of Wight is an easily-reachable option that can (at a stretch!) even make for a day trip from London. Although you’d be wiser spending 2-3 days here instead.

For a small island, there is an impressive variety of scenery as you make your way around. The Needles in the far West is perhaps the most spectacular and iconic sight of the island. 3 rows of chalky columns sticking 30m out of the sea, they’re worth the journey (the coastal Old Military Road heading towards the cliffs makes for a lovely drive too). A chairlift down to the beach below offers spectacular views of The Needles and the cliffs surrounding them. 

Ventnor Isle of Wight

There is a scattering of quaint seaside towns well worth exploring – Ventnor (above) is one good option, with a strong Victorian legacy and a botanic garden. For great beaches, you have plenty of choice with the award-winning Sandown Beach in Southeast, Compton Bay or Freshwater Bay in the Southwest being some of the best sandy spots.

How to get to Isle of Wight

Ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde (passenger only) / Fishbourne (for cars) or Lymington to Yarmouth in the East of Isle of Wight. The passenger/bicycle ferry from Portsmouth to Ryde only takes 22 mins and leaves from next to the Portsmouth Harbour train station. Or if you fancy something more unique, try the faster (but more expensive) hovercraft leaving from Portsmouth Southsea to Ryde that only takes  Public transport on the island is served by the Southern Vectis bus network and a small railway line operating from the Ryde ferry pier to Sandown & Shanklin. Public transport isn’t great in some parts of the island, so a car or a bicycle is always the more flexible option.

Gower Peninsula, South Wales

Rhossilli Bay, Gower, Wales

What to expect: An impressive selection of some of UK’s finest beaches all in a small space

It’s no wonder Gower was designated UK’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. A relatively small bit of Wales that sticks out of the rugged coastline, Gower peninsula is packed with some of Britain’s most dramatic beaches of every variety.  There are small secluded coves hugged by cliffs like Pwll Du and the Blue Pool, or the extremely panoramic long sandy stretches of Rhossili Bay, once voted the 9th best best in the world. At one end is the majestic Worm’s Head, a vaguely worm-shaped island that you can walk to in low tide (and hopefully not get stuck on the way back). Some of the best beaches involve some hiking to reach them, but these paths are often as stunning as the destination, like with the 30-minute walk to Three Cliffs Bay. Most of the Gower beaches are connected by a coastal walk, offering as much walking as your legs will take (or just do bits of it like most!).

Beyond nature there’s also the lively and picturesque seaside village of Mumbles, it’s houses scattered along the steep cliffy bay. Complete with a pier, a lighthouse, a castle and even its own annual fancy-dress raft race that’s quite the spectacle. Even better, Mumbles is an easy 25-minute drive from Swansea just across the bay.

How to get to Gower Peninsula

You can take the train to nearby Swansea (a little under 3 hours from London) then use the local bus network to reach near most beach destinations. But having a car will certainly make things far easier for exploring Gower (4-5 hours’ drive from London)

Norwich, East Anglia

Norwich, Norfolk, UK

What to expect: A pretty English city with the best-preserved medieval old town – perfect for an overnight break 

If you’ve been-there-done-that for the usual city breaks (Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Bournemouth, York etc.), England has a few equally-worthwhile and less obvious destinations, of which Norwich is definitely one of my biggest recommendations.

With its cobbled streets, leafy riverside walks, and countless historical buildings including the impressive Cathedral, there is just something very enjoyable about visiting the city for a day or two. Be sure to check out the nearly 1,000-year old Norwich Market (closed on Sundays) with its ~200 colourful stalls. I’d also recommend hiring a bike and making your way up to Mousehold Heath for some of the best views of the castle and the cathedral.

Norwich Old Town, UK

How to get to Norwich

Easy – 2 hours by train from London Liverpool Street, similar time by car from London. Or alternatively Norwich Airport from a few Northern destinations.

 


And there you have it, my favourite “secret” destinations in UK. What do you think – any places you’d add to the hidden gem list above?

— Hidden Gem UK Staycation Guide Updated September 2022 —

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