If you're looking for a historic, UNESCO World Heritage site that can easily fit into a half day from London, then look no further! Stop by Canterbury - see the ancient Canterbury Cathedral, still the headquarters of the Church of England, drop by a classic pub, and take a stroll through centuries of history, before you hop on the train back to London!
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Post updated, July, 2019
Canterbury is synonymous with some of the most famous pieces of English culture, including Canterbury Tales and the murder of Thomas Becket - a mainstay of history class (I won't tell anyone if you admit that you've forgotten - you can catch up on the details below, before your trip). A good friend of mine has consistently recommended it as the perfect day trip for us from London, and I'm so glad I finally listened! And, all-in-all, Canterbury is a super cute, English town. If you're interested in the history, or you just want to escape the hustle and bustle of London for a day, check it out!
Is Canterbury an easy day trip from London?
Yes, Canterbury is an extremely easy day trip from London. There are lots of quick trains, frankly it's just not that far of a distance, and there's enough to keep you entertained. Personally, a half day was really plenty for us. It's a small town, and with the limited amount of time required to get there, we did think it was worth heading back to London after a few hours. So, I'm going to call it a "half-day" trip!
Getting to Canterbury from London
Canterbury is easily accessible by frequent and regular direct trains from London.
The trip only takes an hour and a half. My one and only complaint is that it's not a particularly attractive ride, surprisingly. Most of your views as you leave London are warehouses and outer suburbs. You get some brief views of the Kent countryside and then, next thing you know, you've arrived in Canterbury! The city is served by two train stations-check that you've reserved the correct one (we came into West, but if you're planning to hop elsewhere before going back to London, you may need East).
If you're looking for more information on traveling the U.K. by train, check out the full post.
What to see on a day trip to Canterbury from London
Thankfully, like so many English cities, it's an incredibly easy walk from the train station to the center of Canterbury, and all of its major attractions, including Canterbury Cathedral. Take the quick jaunt into the city and start your tour of Canterbury.
The first sight you'll see is the Westgate Towers (pictured above), built in 1380 (yes, you read that correctly). If you're not afraid of (minor) heights, make the climb! Additionally, once you pass through the gate, the 14th-century Guild Hall makes for a quick walk around. It's open - no tickets - it'll be on your right before you make it into the historic city centre.
Visiting Canterbury Cathedral
A church has stood on the current site of Canterbury Cathedral since 597, though the structure you'll see today was originally built in the 11th century, and then reconstructed in the 14th. It's an easily visitable site - take your time and be sure to grab a pamphlet to learn as you go!
In 1170, knights who may-or-may-not-have-been sent by Henry II murdered Thomas Becket, then Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral, no less. Not known as a devout man, Becket was selected as Archbishop by Henry in hopes that he would be an easy puppet for the King.
Finding his faith later in Life, Becket became a thorn in the side of the King, who finally declared "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"
Whether he was just frustrated and this was rhetorical, or deadly serious and proclaiming a death sentence is a matter of serious historical debate, but the undeniable end result was the shocking murder of the later-sainted Archbishop in Canterbury Cathedral and King Henry seeking absolution from an angry Pope and citizenry.
The Cathedral has survived many near misses, including several fires, heavy, unfortunately intentional during the English Civil War, and the destruction of its library during an air raid in WWII.
In the current era, Canterbury Cathedral continues to be the head of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, which includes the off-shoots of the Church, such as the Episcopal Church, which took up the mantle of the established churches in many of the American colonies after the American Revolution.
The Cathedral has a lovely gift shop - with proceeds going to a good cause, of course. I picked up a lovely Christmas ornament, a small mug, and a charming tea towel (my go-to's!).
Don't forget to check out the cloisters before you wrap up your tour of the Cathedral. They're extremely easy to miss. They're to be accessed by a door that looks like an emergency exit - ask for help if you're worried about setting off the fire alarm, like I was!
Exploring Canterbury's city centre
Once you've finished your tour of Canterbury Cathedral, spend some time wandering the labyrinthine streets of gorgeous Canterbury.
Like so many great cathedral cities, such as France's Strasbourg or Chartres, Canterbury has been playing host to pilgrims for hundreds of years, giving rise to a welcoming town centre, catering to all the daily visitors. In the city centre, you'll find branches of some of your favourite chains for a bit of shopping - M&S, Waterstones, and Jack Wills, among many others.
Canterbury is quite small and easily walkable - take a stroll around and imagine it full of thousands of pilgrims. Even today, the Cathedral gets almost a million visitors a year, though it certainly didn't feel packed when we visited in April.
If you have kids with you, or a devoted fan of English literature, The Canterbury Tales is an interactive walk through the famous stories.
Canterbury has a number of gorgeous garden areas, if the weather cooperates! Options include Westgate Gardens and Greyfriars Gardens. You'll also find several medieval buildings - including the Tower of Mary Magdelene and St. Augustine's Abbey.
Where to eat on a day trip to Canterbury
Thanks for stopping by - hope you have a phenomenal trip to Canterbury!
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