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**This post was updated in September, 2019.
Train travel in England and Scotland
It is safe, easy, and (relatively) reasonably priced to see much of England and Scotland relying solely on public transit from the major cities, and continuing to rely on it to get around when you arrive in your destination.
Many first-time tourists overspend on private day tours or rent expensive rental cars, mistakenly believing that is the only way to see disparate sites through England and Scotland. While private day tours may sound appealing, they allow for less freedom than you'd expect and, if you're anything like me, you may end up stuck with a guide providing more commentary than you'd actually enjoy.
The Tube, in London is one of the greatest metros in the world. It can get you - quickly and easily - essentially anywhere a tourist wants to be in the capital. London, and large and small cities in England and Scotland, have efficient bus systems as well, to aid you beyond the train travel we're discussing. Edinburgh is not large enough to require a metro/subway, but it does have a tram-on-tracks that tools around the city. We haven't ever taken advantage of it, as we're huge walkers and Edinburgh is a very walkable city, but it's an option, if you're interested!
Also, if the best part of a day trip is visiting the local pub (which it just clearly is), I'd rather do this without someone I don't know waiting in the car. Renting a car in foreign countries is also, of course, expensive, and driving with different rules of the road is complicated, to say the least.
And, finally, of course with no language barrier if you're coming from the US, you have the added public-safety-usage key fact of being able to ask for help if you get confused, understand the signs, etc., though I will say that it is all extremely straight forward, once you get started! So, have a I sufficiently established that you can handle public transit in the U.K.? Then let's talk tips!
General Tips for Train Travel in England and Scotland
UK train travel: Money saving tip
It is often significantly cheaper to buy your train tickets in advance. Rail Europe is my usual choice. That said, sometimes the convenience of being able to change your plans or a desire to take a spur-of-the-moment trip, makes the extra expense worth it! Be sure to check into ticket prices for your awareness, so you don't have an unpleasant surprise at the station.
UK train travel: Restrooms on the trains
I don't know about you, but one of my main questions about public transit is restrooms - is that silly? There are not restrooms on the subway (the Tube), obviously, though sometimes there are in the Tube stations, especially if there are actual trains leaving from there as well (more on that later). While the train station restrooms are generally OK, I wouldn't rely on Tube station restrooms - they're hard to find, not widely used, and often in sort of remote locations. I'd just pop by a coffee shops/pub/etc. if that's on the agenda.
More importantly for those day trips, there are restrooms on essentially all light-rail trains, and they are the nicest of any I've been on in Europe. I've only been on one that had run out of paper (one - ever!!). The train stations upon arrival in your destination also generally have free restrooms, and more so recently in the large stations, though some of the more remote ones aren't monitored often, in smaller towns, etc.
UK train travel: Eating and drinking on trains
What will likely be surprising for my American friends is that you can drink on trains in the U.K. (after 10 AM - don't be ridiculous). You can even bring your own booze onto the train. They actually sell small, safely packaged booze in the train station shops, for this purpose. Additionally, many of the trains will have a bar and food sales area, or a cart that comes through.
But why risk it - bring supplies on board with you, just to be safe! I'm all for one of those lovely canned gin and tonics and some salt and vinegar "crisps!"
Starting your trip off right with the Heathrow Express:
While we're discussing trains and public transit, we can't move on without discussing the Heathrow Express! When you start off your trip, don't forget that the Heathrow Express is undoubtedly the easiest way to get from Heathrow to central London. Buy your tickets, online, in advance (here), and hop on the direct train, which takes you straight to Paddington Station. From there, you can either hop on the tube, or just take a cab to your hotel.
You'll save yourself so much hassle and stress - it's worth every penny.
Top 10 U.K. day trips accessible solely on public transit:
Alrighty, we've gotten through most of the tips and logistics - let's start talking about the actual destinations! I've intermingled Scotland and England in here, so if you're only looking for one, feel free to brush up on the others - hopefully you'll be heading there soon enough.
It is worth noting that I have taken all of these trips, by train and public transit as described. I've also noted some of my mistakes and things I would do differently. I generally link to full blog posts, if I've written them, rather than re-hashing everything here. Just follow the links if you want to read more!
Feel free to drop your thoughts into the comments below!
We're heading to England again next spring, so I'll add even more when I get home!
London to Stamford
Stamford, Lincolnshire, is a lovely and prosperous town on the way up North, and quite far off the beaten tourist path. The most salient point about Stamford, I find, for a day trip from London is that you even can walk/or very quickly bus to its Elizabethan masterpiece, Burghley House, from town. I will note that this is fairly unusual, and actually is one of the reasons that many people turn to guided tours when stately homes are on the agenda. These estates were often situated on hundreds of acres, and though the towns were generally part of their ambit, it might not been comfortable or convenient to walk from the house to town, as a modern day tourist, especially if the weather isn't cooperating. So, visit Stamford - it's incredible. One of my favorite days out of all I've spent in the U.K. And that- is saying something!!!
For more about visiting Stamford : here's the full blog post
London to Windsor
Windsor is home to Windsor Castle, which hosts The Queen every weekend (not a bad weekend retreat!) and which spectacularly hosted two royal weddings in 2018. Incredibly close to London, the pristine town could easily be visited only as a half-day from the capital. The tour of Windsor Castle alone is worth the journey. Additionally, depending on when you visit, Buckingham Palace may not be open for tourists (it's only open when The Queen is not in residence in London, but is instead at Balmoral in Scotland for the latter part of the summer). A visit to Windsor Castle allows you to explore the grandeur of a royal palace if you do not visit when BP is open. I've been to both, and while Buckingham obviously holds special significance, Windsor really is quite stunning as well.
If you want to spend a bit more time in this area, Eton - the bastion of the English "public" school system, is walkable from Windsor, though I'll admit I have not been there. As you can see, our visit was one of those weather-isn't-cooperating days!! Next time.
Edinburgh to Inverness
Let's talk Scotland! On our visit to Scotland, we've made Edinburgh our home base and it really is a good one for train travel (though obviously Glasgow would be as well).
The train trip itself from Edinburgh to Inverness alone is worth the journey, gorgeous scenery, and the Highlands, once you get there, are incredible. The minute we stepped off the train, the first thing I said to my husband was "I would gladly hop back on and go home and pay double for the privilege!" That said, it's not a high-speed train and it makes a lot of stops. It's a bit of a haul for a day trip. We stayed just one night in Inverness and headed home to Edinburgh the next day. I love trains, so I didn't feel this was inconvenient, but of course that's personal preference.
Inverness is the capital of the Highlands, and you can certainly tool around from there, if you're staying. Access via public transit is easy once you arrive in Inverness, but really it's small and you can basically walk everywhere you want to go. It's a bus to Culloden Moor, for my history buffs.
If you're a fan of Outlander, Braveheart, or Outlaw King, you will not be disappointed! Check out the Full blog post for all the details!
London to Oxford
Oxford is home to one of the greatest universities in the world, and a lovely town in its own right. Oxford is one of the cities that people most commonly visit via group tour from London - however, it's a direct train journey and easily walkable from the train station to the city and the school. Then, you can have the day to yourself and do as you wish! I haven't actually written a full post about Oxford, partially because there is just so much information out there about it!
Edinburgh to St Andrews
St Andrews, Scotland is not just for golfers! This historic city is home to yet another incredible British university, The University of St Andrews, alma mater of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, along with a number of incredible medieval ruins, including its stunning ruined Cathedral, pictured below, and St Andrews Castle.
PUBLIC TRANSIT NOTE: The main train from Edinburgh to St Andrews actually takes visitors to Leuchars Rail Station. You must take a bus or cab from that train station to St Andrews (it's not far). We did both and both are fine - it's not far, so a cab is not an extravagance, but just FYI. Check out the Full blog post for more!
London to Bath
Bath is the perfect Regency city and setting of so many of Jane Austen's greatest works. The trip from London will take you due West, through the lovely English countryside. Bath was a largely planned town, so it's perfectly orchestrated and easily walkable. It's a pretty major tourist attraction, so there's no shortage of things to see, including Bath's stunning Abbey and tons and tons of Regency-related sights!
For more: check out the full post.
Edinburgh to Stirling
Very much off the beaten tourist path, Stirling, Scotland is a charming town, and very much the opposite of Bath, in many ways. Home to the Wallace Monument and the stunning Stirling Castle, it's rugged and small. Probably more of a half-day trip from Edinburgh, it's a nice respite from the Royal Mile!
Check out the full blog post for more information!
London to Hampton Court Palace
Henry VIII's beloved palace, Hampton Court, is actually not far from Windsor, which we discussed above. It can be a half day in its own right, or combined with Windsor for a full day (though, admittedly this combination ends up being a bit of a strange train route, sending you through Clapham Junction twice). A visit to Hampton Court is very much a "must-see" for any true lover of English history, and it has the benefit of having been expanded by Henry VIII's successors, including William & Mary, in a completely different architectural style, so it's like multiple palaces in one!
London to Canterbury
Canterbury, a quaint, English town - home to the head of the Anglican church, Canterbury Cathedral, is an easy half-day from London. The Cathedral is stunning and the historic town is just as welcoming to visitors as it has been for thousands of years!
Check out the full post for more details.
London to Winchester
Winchester is a beautiful, prosperous cathedral town, with more than enough to keep you occupied for a day. It's one of my favorite cities in England and extremely accessible from the capital. For more information, check out the full blog post.
Thanks for stopping by!
Happy Travels!! Consider checking out Rick Steves' helpful tips in his UK guidebook - a must-have for any traveler!
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