8 great alternative UK city breaks

written by Greg Dickinson
updated 3/22/2021
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London, Edinburgh, Cardiff… These are the usual suspects when visitors are thinking about city breaks in the United Kingdom. But there are actually 66 other cities to be explored throughout this land, each with something different to offer. Here’s our pick of the 8 best alternative UK city breaks, covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

1. Belfast, Northern Ireland

Belfast rarely makes the cut on UK weekend getaway lists, but there’s plenty to lure you to Northern Ireland’s port-side capital for a 48-hour minibreak. On these lanes you can get educated at the Titanic Museum or wet (or drench) your whistle in the pubs along Great Victoria and Donegall streets.

If the hubbub of the city overwhelms, Belfast is a good springboard to explore the rest of the region; the mountains of Mourne and the Giant’s Causeway are within easy reach. Just be sure to pack for any weather you could possibly imagine. This is a “four seasons in a day” kind of place.

What to do

Take a guided tour of the Giant's Causeway and explore the settings of Game of Thrones in a day trip from Belfast.

The Giant’s Causeway, near Belfast © Jon Chica/Shutterstock

2. St Davids, Wales

To the untrained eye, St Davids could be mistaken for yet another tiny Welsh town. But locals will be quick to tell you that this is as much of a city as London or Manchester, thanks to its handsome cathedral where Wales’s patron saint, St David, is buried.

Beyond a mooch around the cathedral and posting a cryptic status update saying “I’m in the UK’s smallest city. Where am I?”, there’s not a great deal else to do here. Try the Pebbles Espresso Bar and Gallery for a caffeine hit while looking at world-class photography, or escape to the country into nearby Pembrokeshire National Park.

Pembrokeshire National Park © Mike Charles/Shutterstock

3. Canterbury, England

OK – Canterbury can’t really be described as a “hidden gem”. High-speed Javelin trains hurl visitors from London to the Garden of England in their thousands every year. But, so long as you can overlook the selfie-stick wielding mob, the car-free centre and creaking lopsided Tudor coaching inns might well transport you back to a simpler time.

Most of Canterbury’s modern-day pilgrims come here for the city’s rich history, and few will miss its blockbuster sight: the cathedral. When you need refuelling, make a beeline to the Goods Shed farmers’ market for organic picnic fodder or, upstairs, to the excellent restaurant.

Where to stay

House of Agnes - A 10min walk from Canterbury East station, this excellent self-catering hostel – with mixed en-suite dorms plus single and double rooms – is clean and very friendly, with homely touches and a large cottage garden. Regular events mean you can be sociable, but it’s more a home from home than a party place. No curfew.

What to do

If you prefer to stay in London, Canterbury and Leeds make a great day trip. Visit the Leeds Castle before it opens to the public in the morning on a private tour before heading to the white cliffs of Dover and visiting the cathedral of Canterbury.

Canterbury Cathedral cloister, Canterbury © Numage/Shutterstock

4. Stirling, Scotland

Touted as the “Gateway to the Highlands”, Scotland’s smallest city offers a charming mini city break as part of a longer trip in the region. The comparisons between Stirling and Edinburgh are hard to ignore, with its omnipresent castle, the ankle-knackering cobbled streets and the studenty atmosphere. Only it’s far more manageable to explore in a day or two, and the university grounds are among the most elegant in the country.

During a city break here, you could head to the Smith Arty Gallery and the Macrobert Arts Centre for a dash of culture, or spend your wilting Scottish banknotes in the shops of the Thistle Marshes or the bijou boutiques of the Stirling Arcade.

Where to stay

Hotel Colessio - Bling, with a cheeky self-knowing wink, this born-again Victorian building is the closest Stirling gets to five-star luxury. Its forty rooms are unashamedly glam (sleek monochrome interiors, widescreen TVs, marble bathrooms), but the wow factor really comes with the Scotch beef and cracked lobster at the Grill Room restaurant.

What to do

If you're staying in Edinburgh, take a day tour to discover the castle of Stirling as well as the West Highland Lochs.

Stirling Castle © Marten_House/Shutterstock

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5. Sheffield, England

Once upon a time Sheffield was best known as a producer of steel. These days, it’s better known as being a city break steal (sorry). For consecutive years it has been voted Tripadvisor’s cheapest place for a UK city break, which shouldn’t be sniffed at when you calculate just how much a weekend in London or Edinburgh can set you back.

While the postcards of Sheffield might not offer that chocolate-box appeal, there’s something soul-cleansing about peeking between two blackened stone buildings to see the Peak District National Park looming in the near horizon. During your weekend here check out some of the recent additions to the city, like the Winter Garden glass house and the Millennium Galleries, and head down Division Street for indy shops and a lively night out.

Where to stay

Leopold Hotel - Once a boys’ grammar school, this place is immaculately modernized but retains some original features. Centrally located, the hotel backs onto remodelled Leopold Square, which has an appealing array of places to eat.

Winter Garden glass house, Sheffield © Adrian Lindley/Shutterstock

6. Durham, England

Rolling into Durham after a long journey from Kings Cross is about as close as you can get to experiencing the journey made by Harry Potter and friends. Indeed, the centre has a distinctly cut-off feel to it, with an atmosphere much closer to Cambridge than Carlisle thanks to its oft-gown-cloaked student population.

Compact and consciously cute, Durham is a good option for a low-stress city break in the far north, with its charming old inn accommodation, winding café-lined streets and circular river walk.

Where to stay

The Castle - Out of term time you can have the unique experience of staying in Durham Castle. Accommodation ranges from standard rooms with shared bathrooms to two grand “state rooms”, one with a four-poster and seventeenth-century tapestries. Breakfast is served in the thirteenth-century Great Hall.

What to do

Learn about the history of Durham on a guided walking tour and discover the people, places and events that have shaped Durham over the centuries.

Durham Castle University entrance, Durham © Robin Nieuwenkamp/Shutterstock

7. Derby, England

Probably the most eyebrow-raising choice on this list, but hear us out. This was once considered as a pragmatic springboard in the heart of a Midlands for rambles in the Peaks or thrills at Alton Towers, but after a £2.2 billion city centre regeneration, there’s plenty to keep you here.

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In-depth, easy-to-use travel guides filled with expert advice.

And beer lovers won’t be disappointed: CAMRA claim Derby is the best place in the UK for a pint of the warm brown stuff. A good starting point is the haunted Ye Olde Dolphin Inne, or consider Victorian brewer The Tap with its airy roof terrace overlooking the Derwent.

The Silk Mill and the River Derwent in Derby © Caron Badkin/Shutterstock

8. Lincoln, England

It may be small, but Lincoln packs a punch. A good place to begin exploring is the almighty eleventh-century castle, where you can climb the walls for a panoramic view of the city and the flat farmland that sweeps beyond.

Just across the cobbled square from here is Lincoln Cathedral, one of Europe’s finest pieces of Gothic architecture and home to one of only four original copies of the Magna Carta, signed by King John in 1215.

If making your way from Castle Hill down to the city centre, don’t underestimate just how true Steep Hill is to its name. If your calves need a break, pop into one of the many boutique shops, rickety pubs or bookshops that line the street.

Where to stay

The Old Palace Lodge - Easily the best place to stay in Lincoln, this excellent hotel occupies a rambling, largely nineteenth-century mansion – once a bishops’ palace – within earshot of the cathedral. The hotel has 32 rooms, half in the main building, including a tower suite, and the remainder in an immaculately reconfigured 1920s chapel. The hotel’s grand drawing room is in the former library and most of the furniture has been made by local carpenters. Smashing views, too.

Lincoln Cathedral © Angelina Dimitrova/Shutterstock

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written by Greg Dickinson
updated 3/22/2021
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