You may already be a connoisseur of British culture, but we’re here to show you a different side to this deliciously diverse country. If you’ve already marvelled at Big Ben and seen Stonehenge, now’s the time to discover what else Britain has to offer, beyond her world-famous landmarks. From wonderfully bizarre traditions to inspiring up-and-coming art scenes, prepare to discover Britain’s lesser-known, but equally cool, icons.
Westminster Cathedral is the largest Catholic church in the UK that English writer Sir John Betjeman dubbed as “a masterpiece in striped brick and stone”. The impressive structure has no steel reinforcements to keep it upright, and its neo-Byzantine orange and white brickwork is quite the eye catcher, as are the varying marble mosaics on the inside.
St Luke’s Church roof was destroyed in the Liverpool Blitz of 1941, and the now named Bombed out church is a hotspot for culture and creativity. The roof has never been repaired, which means visitors can revel in live performance, a night of music, or even a film alfresco within the four still standing walls.
The renowned Bristolian artist – whose identity is still a secret – has triggered conversations worldwide due to his politically charged street art. His graffiti pops up all over the place, particularly in war-torn countries. Have you spotted his home-town pieces like the Mild Mild West or the Well Hung Lover?
Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a flood with colour and art, thanks to the Outhouse Project. If you’re on the hunt for floor-to-roof murals and colourful graffiti, start at Stevenson Square and Tib Street and wander the surroundings, always on the lookout for the more conspicuous pieces down the back streets.
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We all love a birthday party, and the Trooping of the Colour has to be the most glamorous affair for the British Sovereign. You’ll stand in awe – and respect – as over 1,400 parading soldiers and 200 horses all head-to-toe in uniform and topped with a bearskin parade past. You have to wonder how hot they must be amidst a June heatwave?
An astonishing party kicks off every year on the first weekend of August, at Brighton Pride. It’s the UK’s largest LGBTQ+ Pride festival, and there’s no uniform. You can wear whatever you want, whether that’s rainbows, speedos or neon. Get ready for a weekend of parades and sing-a-longs to Britney, Kylie or Nile Rodgers – you’d better know all the words!
Perched above Edinburgh Old Town on Castle Rock, you’ll easily spot the castle’s impressive battlements from below. Edinburgh Castle was built over 900 years ago, on an extinct volcano. Inside, take an audio tour, follow a guide or find your own path, to discover how the Kings and Queens of Scotland once lived.
A less famous, but equally fascinating castle stands proudly in the Welsh capital, Cardiff. Here, the Normans rebuilt the castle when they discovered Roman ruins. Check out where the locals waited out the air raids within the castle’s walls in World War II. Depending on the time of year, you can even ice skate or boogie to big name bands within the castle grounds.
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Two of the UK’s most prestigious universities go stern-to-stern along a section of the River Thames between Putney and Chiswick. Catch the thrilling four-mile dash from the riverside parks and pubs or, if you don’t mind a squeeze, get a view of the race from one of the many bridges.
For another exciting - and unusual - competitive atmosphere, head to Cooper’s Hill annual cheese rolling contest. There’s far less spandex on display than you’ll see at the Oxford vs. Cambridge event, but there is a four kilogram wheel of Double Gloucester cheese rolling down a steep hill. If you love a firm, buttery cheese then why wouldn’t you run, roll or tumble after it? If you get to it first, you will win the cheese – or what’s left of the cheese.
In the mediaeval market town of Stratford-upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s birthplace – is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Here you can revel in his finest plays, catch a performance of the classics like The Tempest, Julius Caesar or Hamlet. It’s an experience that every literature fan should try at least once.
One of the most scenic theatres in the world, the open-air Minack Theatre is hewn into the rocky outcrop and overlooks the sea. While Stratford-upon-Avon will always be the undisputed mecca for Shakespeare fans, at the Minack Theatre you can experience plays like The Tempest among the elements, with the waves crashing behind the dialogue. This is England though, so wind and rain are a high probability – come prepared.
Harry Potter fans ready to head to Hogwarts will know you need to get to platform 9 and ¾ at Kings Cross Station by running through the wall. Once you’ve given yourself some brain damage, as us muggles would do, why not experience the same train route as features in the films.
It’s the West Highland Railway from Glasgow to the small fishing town of Mallaig, and it majestically trundles across the 21-arch Glenfinnan Viaduct. Made famous by the Hogwarts Express scene. It has to be one of the UK’s most scenic railways – and pleasingly nostalgic for Potter fans remembering the first time Harry travelled to Hogwarts. You’ll travel through dramatic, isolated and sometimes harsh scenery, but this is Scotland at its finest.
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From Egyptian mummies to contemporary art, the Ashmolean’s collection is world famous. You’ll find everything from archaeological specients and antiquities from Egypt and Sudan to Pre-Raphaelite paintings and fine art. There are drawings from Michelangelo, paintings from Picasso and much more.
The immersive exhibitions at 180 The Strand are where you should go for a multi-sensory journey of video, lights and electronic music. You’ll experience the future of art through CGI and AI technology, which create thought provoking pieces. Past exhibitions include A Journey Through Wes Anderson’s Aesthetic, Japanese visual artist Ryoji Ikeda and British interior designer Ben Kelly.
Once you’ve had your fill of finger sandwiches, freshly baked scones with clotted cream and tea cakes, what comes next? After an afternoon of bubbles and limitless cups of tea, it’s time to experience The Pudding Club.
Head to the Three Ways House in Mickleton for a light meal, followed by a succession of baked, steamed and boiled cakes – with a ladle of custard, of course. Gorge on puddings like Sticky Toffee Pudding, Spotted Dick or an Eton Mess. The next pud will only be brought out when you’ve finished the one you’re on, and then you have a chance to vote for your favourite.
Whether you’re cheering on a vast wheel of cheese as it tumbles down a hill in Gloucester, or dancing in rainbow speedos at Brighton Pride, Britain is alive with unexpected cultural experiences – if you know where to look. Get to the core of what makes our country tick, how British culture evolves over time and experience something completely new. Your next trip to the UK has so much in store for you if you’re willing to adjust your perspective and experience Britain beyond her best-known landmarks.
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Lucy looks after the Rough Guides social media and is a freelance travel writer specialising in adventure travel, culture and lifestyle. You can follow her on Twitter @LucyPierce