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Top UK City Breaks in 2021

Posted on February 8, 2021 by Jennifer Hudson
The Shambles in York

If you’re looking for holiday inspiration this year, exploring a new UK city is a fantastic alternative to going abroad.

You’ll find history, culture, museums, restaurants and shops on your doorstep, as well as superb options for biking, walking and spending time in nature.

Read on to see which top 12 UK cities we think you should visit on a short break.

Aerial view of London

1. London

With two thousand years of history, world-class museums, shops, and restaurants, London is one of the best city break destinations in the UK, if not the world.

From Big Ben to Buckingham Palace, the capital has many magnificent landmarks — the best ways to see them are from an open-top, hop-on-hop-off bus, or sailing down the Thames on a cruise.

The Royal Parks, full of statues, monuments and landscaped gardens, offer an insight into London’s history and, like St James’ also have lovely cafes. Afternoon tea at Claridge’s, the Savoy or the Ritz is another London experience not to be missed.

Bullring shopping centre in Birmingham

2. Birmingham

Historic, multicultural Birmingham is another excellent choice for a UK city break.

The Heritage Trail takes you on foot to the most interesting places: Victoria Square, Edwardian Bennett’s Hill and the medieval Bull Ring.

Pay a visit to the Jewellery Quarter too, which employed 70,000 people in its heyday.

The huge network of canals and waterways are perfect for walking and biking, and you’ll find plenty of cafes and pubs along the towpaths. You can still get a top-notch curry in one of the many Pakistani restaurants, some of which have been around since the seventies.

Salford Quays in Manchester at night

3. Manchester

Home to Britain’s first modern railway, the Ship Canal, and grand Victorian buildings, Manchester is a top destination for architecture and history fans.

Most places of interest can be reached by jumping on and off the tram that runs through Greater Manchester.

Discover everything there is to know at the Manchester Museum, Imperial War Museum North and Science and Industry Museum, which has a brand-new gallery.

Also worth a visit is the 154-acre RHS garden at Worsley New Hall, which opens in May.

Don’t leave without attending a concert by Manchester’s historic symphony orchestra, the Halle, at Bridgewater Hall – a very special experience.

View of Edinburgh from Carlton Hill

4. Edinburgh

Full of ancient history and folklore, Edinburgh has plenty to capture your imagination on a short break.

A guided bus tour is a great way to see the sights, including the Royal Mile, Parliament House and St Giles’ Cathedral. Take in the view from the castle, the scene of epic sieges, and home to Britain’s oldest crown jewels.

The medieval old town is best explored on foot, on a walking tour with a local guide. And of course, you can’t visit Edinburgh without sampling a Scotch whisky. There are whisky bars all over the city and a handful of distilleries within an hour’s drive.

City Hall in Belfast

5. Belfast

Belfast is famous as the city where the Titanic was built in 1909, and the fun, interactive Titanic Experience is a top attraction. But there’s much more to this city than shipbuilding.

Learn about the hugely significant Northern Ireland Conflict on a walking tour, and visit the imposing Stormont Estate, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Belfast’s food scene has been flourishing in recent years, and there are many sensational fine-dining restaurants, seafood bars and cafes creating dishes from the region’s excellent produce.

And the city’s nightlife isn’t just for the students — you’ll find authentic Irish pubs, cocktails, live jazz, wine bars, and more.

Pulteney Bridge in Bath

6. Bath

With Roman ruins, Georgian terraces and a 500-year-old abbey, Bath is packed full of history and splendid architecture.

Explore the Holborne Museum, which houses a growing collection of fine art. Or, take tea in the Pump Room, where Jane Austen studied Bath’s High Society for inspiration for her novels.

Bath is also one of the best UK city break destinations for active pursuits. Cycle paths run alongside the River Avon and the Kennet and Avon Canal, while a National Trust walk encircles the city, showcasing views of the UNESCO-protected heritage buildings in all their glory.

In the summer months, stand up paddle boarding* on the River Avon may provide a ‘refreshing’ way to take in the views. Or for the adrenaline seekers, try out clay pigeon shooting at the Team Pursuits activity centre.

Information Sign at York Cathedral

7. York

From Viking invasions to Plantagenet kings, York has a rich, colourful, often bloody history, which is brought to life perfectly in their fabulous museums, interactive experiences and tours.

Trace back time and walk along the city walls, or the medieval alleys and footpaths — known as Snickelways. For a different view, sail down the River Ouse on a riverboat. These have open decks and plenty of space for social distancing.

For an atmospheric shopping trip, head to The Shambles, one of the UK’s best preserved medieval streets.

Sun loungers on Brighton beach

8. Brighton

Brighton is arguably the liveliest seaside city in the UK, with shops, restaurants, museums and nightlife to suit all tastes.

The Lanes, the retired fishing port, now houses an array of unique, independent shops and galleries. The Indian-Chinese inspired Royal Pavilion, originally built as a Royal seaside retreat, is a must-see as one of the city’s most intriguing, attention-grabbing buildings.

There are some fantastic places to eat, whether you fancy seafood, pub food, or Michelin-starred dining. And with miles of beach to explore, and the Sussex countryside a few minutes away by bus, Brighton is also an excellent choice for walkers.

River Cam in Cambridge

9. Cambridge

The lively university town of Cambridge is the perfect size for exploring on foot, and offers visitors some wonderful bucket-list experiences — peeking inside the famous colleges, punting along the River Cam or listening to the King’s College Choir.

Museum fans will find the Fitzwilliam, Zoology Museum and Kettle’s Yard fascinating.

Stop for a Chelsea Bun in one of the many tea rooms or coffee shops, and watch earnest students working away on their laptops. The Botanic Garden, founded in 1762, is perfect for an open-air stroll.

Welsh dragon sculpture in Cardiff

10. Cardiff

Cardiff is known for its bay, parks, outdoor spaces and of course, castles! 

Did you know Wales has more castles per square mile than any other country in Europe?

Cardiff Castle, arguably the most famous castle, has a spacious public square, set on the open castle lawns with plenty of tables and seats for a midday picnic.

Then there’s Hensol Castle, which is opening a gin distillery this year and the 13th-century Caerphilly Castle, with its romantic moat, and the Victorian Castell Coch, which boasts fairytale turrets.

As one of the UK’s greenest cities, Cardiff has many walking and cycle routes — one of the best is the 55 mile Taff Trail, which runs between Cardiff Bay and Brecon and follows the course of the Taff River.

The Bay is home to notable buildings like the Senedd, designed by Richard Rogers, and the marina, a starting point for the motor boats and yachts to begin their voyage.

Radcliffe Camera in Oxford

11. Oxford

Oxford has two of the UK’s most interesting small museums, the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers. A plethora of famous authors have called the city home, from CS Lewis to Philip Pulman, making it also a fantastic city for book-lovers. Be sure to stop by the beautiful libraries, and pop into the backstreet shops selling vintage and rare titles. But ultimately, there’s no better way to spend an afternoon in Oxford than wandering the streets, admiring the colleges and churches with their steeples, spires and towers, before stopping for a pint in a quirky old pub.

View of Pier Head in Liverpool

12. Liverpool

Possibly one of the best UK city breaks for art, culture and music, showcasing some of the country’s best museums, galleries and as well as quite the line-up of modern and historic buildings.

The waterfront and Royal Albert Dock is home to many attractions and the most Grade 1 listed buildings in one location in the UK.

There’s Tate Liverpool and the Maritime Museum to visit, but when the weather’s good it’s just as nice to walk around in the open air, taking in views of the River Mersey.

Finally, no guide to Liverpool is complete without a mention of Beatlemania. The Beatles Trail offers a whistle stop tour of many key locations, including the Cavern Club, where the band played hundreds of gigs — and Cilla Black worked in the cloakroom.

If you’re feeling inspired after reading this, check out our top 50 beautiful places to visit in the UK.

Don’t forget to buy UK travel insurance if you’re going away for more than two nights in pre-paid accommodation to cover for cancellations and mishaps.

*for paddle boarding to be considered an accepted activity that’s covered in our travel insurance policies, you would need to be an experienced swimmer and wearing a life jacket. You also need to be aware of the risks associated with paddle boarding.

Jennifer Hudson

by Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson is a freelance travel journalist and content creator. Her favourite UK city break experience is a food tour of London’s Borough Market.