Despite covering an area just one third the size of Texas, the British Isles have many diverse facets. You can indulge your love of remote wilderness with a drive through the Scottish Highlands, or relax with a pint in a pub with a seanchaí (a traditional Irish storyteller). Discover the royal passions that shaped history at Hampton Court or get up-close with thatched-roof stone cottages in the Cotswolds.
Our specialists have each chosen a side of the UK and Ireland they hold dear, along with suggestions for how to experience it from a different angle.
Architecture: A photography tour of the Cotswolds
By Jackie R.
Visiting the Cotswolds is like strolling through the illustrations of a child’s storybook. In the villages, the golden stones of the cottages glow like honey in the sun. Birds sing from thatched roofs. Outside the villages, the hills and vales seem stitched together, a patchwork of green fields and hedges, dotted with trees.
However, I’ve always found it hard to capture the Cotswolds with my camera. Something about the warm light and contrasting scale of the experience — the tiny houses and broad meadows — simply eluded my lens.
So a workshop tour of the region with a professional photographer seemed like a relaxed way to see its architecture and landscapes again with new eyes. She took me to her preferred vantage points, including a hidden spot in a meadow overlooking a valley and a converted mill.
Sarah also provided one-on-one help choosing the best angles, framing and lighting, and advised me on other technical aspects. With her assistance, I ended the day with an impressive photographic record of my visit.
Other ways to explore the architecture of the UK:
Beautiful drives: Through the Highlands
by Emily S.
In all the varied landscapes of the British Isles, I can’t think of a more beautiful drive than the one I took recently through the western Highlands.
The road to Glen Etive was rutted and narrow, and my guide had to pause when a small herd of red deer spilled across the one-lane road, unhurried and unafraid. Out the car’s window, I could see birds of prey spiraling over the sweeping glens. The heath-covered hills were reflected in the rippled waters of Loch Etive.
We continued on to Glencoe Village on the banks of Loch Leven. I explored the town’s short walking trails and a small local museum tucked into a thatched cruck cottage (cruck means ‘built with bent timbers’).
My driver then took me up through the heart of the Great Glen toward Fort William. Out of the left-hand window, the Highlands rose and fell on the far shore of Loch Linnhe, distant and bleakly beautiful.
The high point of the tour was riding the Nevis Range mountain gondola, which carries visitors up 655 m (2150 ft) to the peak of Aonach Mòr. At the top, you can see the Great Glen laid out below you, a giant green valley split up the middle by the loch, with Ben Nevis looming to the south. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Inner Hebrides.
Other scenic drives in the UK and Ireland:
Food: Whisky tasting and chocolate in the Highlands
By Jasmine H.
A dram of single malt whisky is an integral part of the Scottish spirit, so I made my way to Dalwhinnie Distillery, perched at the western edge of Cairngorms National Park. The low white buildings, trimmed in black, are an arresting sight set against the distant purple mountains.
The tour of the distillery gives you a strong sense of the history of the place and the drink. Walls are hung with photographs that document its long history and some of the workers are following in the footsteps of their fathers or even grandfathers. You learn a lot about the production process as the tour wends past the giant copper stills and oak aging barrels.
After the tour, you can indulge in a tasting of different single malt whiskies on offer. The warm amber drinks range from smooth to intense, and each glass is paired with an artisanal chocolate, made by The Highland Chocolatier.
Other culinary tours in the UK:
History: Explore Bath on foot
By Elizabeth M.
Located in the southwest of England, on the cusp of the Cotswolds, Bath is a city that wears its history proudly. Though there’s evidence of earlier habitation, the story really begins with the Roman bath complex that took advantage of local hot water springs.
The majority of the Roman Baths’ above-ground buildings aren’t original, but the deep pool with its arsenic-green water does date back to Roman occupation. Archeological digs have uncovered a treasure trove of information and objects. I’m particularly fond of the curse tablets — thin pieces of lead inscribed with curses that beseech the goddess Sulis Minerva to punish thieves, often suggesting remarkably specific punishments.
The tour also included a behind-the-scenes visit to Bath Abbey, a former monastery with a striking Gothic edifice of golden-hued stone. Lastly, we visited the Jane Austen Centre, a museum that provides an informative introduction to the author, who visited the city and set two of her novels in here. In proper Austen style, we ended with afternoon tea at the Pump Room Restaurant.
Other ways to step into history in the UK:
Landscapes: visit Connemara, Ireland
By Marissa M.
The Sky Road is a narrow but well-marked scenic trail along Clifden Bay. As soon as I left Galway, the landscape opened up, spreading out into a tapestry of wide green valleys and farmers’ fields. Mountains, islands, and white-sand beaches came in and out of view as we wound along the rugged shoreline.
The Aran Islands — a group of three islands off the coast of Connemara — are home to more unspoiled landscape. Inis Mór is the largest of the islands, and with more rental bicycles than residents, cycling is an unhurried way to enjoy the area. A highlight is Dún Aonghasa, a semi-circular stone fortress that was built at the edge of a high, windswept cliff that overlooks the ocean.
If you venture a bit further south to County Clare, the Cliffs of Moher will offer a more extreme view of the sea. You can walk along the edge of the steep rock face to look down at crashing waves hundreds of feet below. The dark, spray-slick cliffs look west and offer unobstructed views of the sun setting over the Atlantic.
Other beautiful landscapes in the UK and Ireland:
Culture: Pints and playwrights in Dublin
By Andea M.
Home to bards, poets and the Blarney Stone, Ireland values those with a gift for words. Dublin is the only city to produce three Nobel-Prize-winning authors — Beckett, Shaw and Yeats — as well as dozens of other authors like James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, Oscar Wilde, Mary Lavin, and Michael Longley. To understand Ireland, you need to understand its literature.
Which is why, on a chilly spring evening, I found myself in the backroom of a pub called the Duke, listening to Colm Quilligan and Frank Smith. These two storytellers in bowler hats lead the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which provides an excellent introductory crash course to Irish authors.
Our voluble guides opened with a scene from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, before leading us out of the warm pub into the misty night. The tour took us from pub to pub through Dublin’s narrow streets. Between pints, they deftly switched between historical anecdotes and performing two-man snippets from plays, pointing out significant sites and putting the stories in context.
Other cities with rich cultural offerings in the UK and Ireland:
People: Storytelling in Killarney
By Shannon D.
In Ireland, the art of telling stories isn’t limited to the page. There is a long tradition of settling into a snug pub with a pint and listening to a raconteur spin tales, ranging from bawdy to touching to tragic. They even have a word for a skilled storyteller: seanchaí.
Ray O’Sullivan is a fifth-generation seanchaí and listening to him is like a trip back to an era before television or even radio, when people only heard stories in person. A matchmaker by day, he cuts a striking figure with his gray sideburns, waistcoat and top hat. His warm voice and amiable smile made me feel immediately welcome as he got to know my small group.
Once we all had our drinks, Ray regaled us with stories that he insisted were, ‘pure true, though some of them never really happened.’ We learned about the unlikely exploits of Old Ignatius, a lovable granddad, and Garda William Finbarr Feeley, Ireland’s alternative to James Bond.
Ray also explained the habits of the local fairies and the dire consequences if they were mistreated. The evening felt like a privileged glimpse into the true soul of the country.
Other ways to get to know the people of the UK and Ireland:
- Let Don and Barry guide you around Kinsale
- Go fly fishing with a ghillie (a fishing and hunting master) on the Isle of Skye
Royal history: Visiting Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle
By Max B.
Britain’s history has been defined by the passions and personalities of its monarchy. I recently visited two royal residences.
The solemn pomp of the Changing of the Guard reflects the formal nature of Buckingham Palace. This is the London residence and administrative headquarters of Queen Elizabeth II, and the soldiers perform real protection duties for the royal family.
The stiff scarlet tunics and towering bearskin hats form a bright display in front of the pale gray stones of the palace. The ceremony, accompanied by a full military band, takes just under an hour and has been carried out since the 1660s.
Just an hour’s drive away is Windsor Castle, another current resident of the reigning royal family. It’s the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, and has been a popular residence for monarchs over the last nine centuries.
The State Apartments are lavishly decorated, with enormous crystal chandeliers, ornate gilt trim and paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens and Canaletto. I also visited Saint George's Chapel, a Gothic masterpiece that houses the tombs of ten sovereigns, including Henry VIII.
Learn more about other royal residences in the UK:
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