Oxford is best known for its world-renowned university. One of the charms of exploring Oxford is simply walking around town to explore the historic architecture associated with the colleges. Here are my highlights of a day out in Oxford.
Our first stop is Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford building that was constructed from 1737 to 1749 to house the Radcliffe Science Library at Oxford University. The building is named after John Radcliffe, a doctor who left a considerable sum of money, in his will, to the university for the express purpose of constructing a library of science. In 1850, the science collection was moved to a newly built science library, and the Radcliffe Library of Science changed its name to the Radcliffe Camera to reflect its new function as a reading room (“camera” meaning “room” in Latin) for the Bodleian Library. Head on over to our second stop, the Bodleian, the main research library at Oxford. Not only one of the oldest libraries in the world but also the second-largest library in the United Kingdom, after the British Library. If you’d like to go inside, both a mini tour (30 minutes) and a full tour (60 minutes) are available. Check out their website for more details.
If you’re going to Oxford, you have to tour at least one of its historic colleges. Pick one or two that you’d like to see, or better yet, book a tour with a local blue-badge guide who can get you into multiple colleges. I took a tour, and the guide’s thorough knowledge of the Oxford system, the buildings, and the history helped me to much better understand a university that is far different than anything we have in the United States. Generally, students live, eat, and attend tutorials (which is the main way in which students are taught) at their college, but the university runs lectures, laboratories, examinations, and libraries and grants degrees. Faculty and students belong to one of the colleges, and students apply for admission to a specific college, rather than to the university as a whole. My choice for the best college to visit is Trinity. Trinity College (officially the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity) is one of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford University. Trinity College was founded by Sir Thomas Pope, a member of Parliament and wealthy landowner, in 1555. The college currently has 400 students holding a wide variety of majors. Trinity College, like most of the colleges at Oxford, is open to visitors, but each college charges their own entrance fee.
Another lovely academic institution to visit is Merton College, which was founded in the 1260s. Merton contains one of the university’s oldest quadrangles, named Mob Quad, built between 1288 and 1378, which was designed to provide accommodations for members of the college. Merton’s most notable alumni include poet T. S. Eliot, theological and philosopher John Wycliffe, Crown Prince Naruhito of Japan, four Nobel Laureates, and writer J. R. R. Tolkien, who was also a professor of English language and literature from 1945 to 1959. However, it’s not all academics at Merton; while I was visiting, I took in a cricket game and watched students punting (propelling a flat-bottomed boat in the shallow river), which is a favorite pastime here in Oxford.
Don’t miss the unique columns at the entrance!
Another location that’s a must-visit when in Oxford is the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The church has been a Christian place of worship for over 1,000 years. When Oxford University was first being formed in the 13th century, students and scholars used the church as a meeting place, lecture hall, and a place of worship. Oxford University’s library and treasury were once even housed in the church. In 1420, Oxford University moved its facilities to other buildings, but the church retained its prominent position in the community and university life.
University Church is known for several important historical events. In 1556, Thomas Cranmer, who was the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, was put on trial for heresy at University Church. His trial was organized by the Roman Catholic government, led by Queen Mary, who detested Cranmer for his part in helping her father, King Henry VIII, create the Church of England and remove her mother, Catherine of Aragon, as Queen, in favor of Anne Boleyn. Cranmer was found guilty and was burned at the stake just around the corner from the church. Two decades later, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, preached many of his most important sermons at University Church. Even though he was educated at Oxford, he denounced many members of the university for “laxity and sloth”, he was never invited to preach there again.
Our last stop is a literary one, but it has more of a whimsical and sweet nature. Alice’s Shop is a location right out of Lewis’ Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland series. The author (whose real name was Reverend Charles Dodgson) was a retired Oxford professor who decided to write and illustrate a story for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church College. That book became Alice and Wonderland. One of the scenes that Carroll wrote about in its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, was a small grocery shop, called “The Old Sheep Shop”, which Alice frequented to purchase candy. Today, that shop is named “Alice’s Shop” and is frequented by visitors who want to experience a piece of literature, and perhaps, purchase some Alice in Wonderland gifts as a souvenir of the historic city of Oxford. Wouldn’t they make a unique Christmas or birthday gift!
Warwick Castle brings history alive to its visitors with many exciting and interactive exhibits and attractions.Guests can tour the opulent castle interiors, explore the dungeons where live actors and special effects bring gory tales to life, experience what preparing for medieval battle was like during the days of Warwick the Kingmaker, join the Countess of Warwick (in mannequin form) to see a Victorian high society weekend at the castle, participate in numerous children’s activities including a Princess Tower fairy tale, climb the towers and ramparts, and take part in a multimedia journey through 1,100 years of history.There’s something for everyone in the entire family at Warwick Castle.
Warwick Castle also has some incredible siege weapons on display including this ballista, a large catapult used for firing arrows or stones. Even more impressive is Warwick Castle’s trebuchet, which is the largest reconstructed siege weapon in the world. Trebuchets were designed to hurl giant projectiles at castle walls to attempt to demolish them, or at least to make holes large enough to allow foot soldiers to storm the fortress. Large rocks and stones were the usual projectiles of choice, but dead animals and manure were also used in the hopes of spreading disease among the besieged garrison and forcing them to surrender. If you visit Warwick Castle, you can see a trained crew fire the giant trebuchet, from a safe distance of course. Believe me, it’s a site not to be missed!
During your visit, you can also tour the extensive gardens, including, my favorite, the peacock garden! Although formal gardens have existed at Warwick Castle since at least 1576, when Queen Elizabeth I visited, the famous peacock garden was designed by the Victorian landscape gardener Robert Marnock. The castle has over 20 peacocks wandering the gardens, bearing their name, among manicured hedges, fountains, ponds, and topiary peacock sculpture. Explore this and over 64 acres of landscaped grounds at Warwick Castle.
Warwick Castle is located just 40 minutes, by car or rail, outside of Birmingham, U.K. Click on the map below for specific directions.
The medieval city of wells is located two hours outside of London by train. That makes it a lovely day trip from the British capital. Visitors come to explore its magnificent cathedral, moated bishop’s palace, and the oldest street in Europe.
Beautiful scissor arch above the main altar
Officially the Church of St. Andrew, Wells Cathedral was built between 1175 and 1490 and is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The church is most famous for its glorious facade featuring over 300 life-sized sculptured figures, including Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, early Christian missionaries to Britain, bishops and abbots, kings and princes, angels, and the twelve apostles. All of these sculptures were designed to help the illiterate parishioners learn stories from the Bible. For example, a series of small niches under the upper course depicts a scene of the dead rising from their graves at the Last Judgement, and, above the central portal, the Virgin Mary is shown being crowned Queen of Heaven. Wells Cathedral was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in the Gothic style which had developed on the European continent.
The cathedral is also known for its Chapter House, which is considered by many to be most beautiful in England. Like other chapter houses, it was designed to be a place where the chapter, or group, of clerics would meet to advise the bishop or to lead the diocese in his absence. The staircase, seen in this picture, was built from 1265 and 1280, while the attached octagonal Chapter House was constructed between 1286 and 1306. One branch of the stairs leads to the Chapter House, while the other brings one to Chain Gate, a two story structure which connects the cathedral to Vicar’s Close, located across the road from the cathedral.
Vicar’s Close, located next to Wells Cathedral, is believed to be the most intact, continuously inhabited, medieval residential street in all of Europe. The 27 residences were built over 650 years ago to accommodate the members of the church’s choir, who could lived in this small community apart from the temptations present in the town of Wells. In addition to the vicar’s houses, the close included a common hall, kitchen, bake house, chapel, and library. Originally there were 44 residences built around a quadrangle, but in 1582, a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I reduced the number to the current 27 and converted the quadrangle into a close, or dead end street. Today, nine vicars choral and three choral scholars live on Vicar’s Close, and along with boy and girl choristers, provide all of the choral music for Wells Cathedral.
Heading back to the center of town, you can get a bite to eat at one of many cute cafes and pubs or stop into browse in some of the quaint shops. Next, head on over to the medieval Bishop’s Palace, which has been the residence of the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years. Cross the flagstone drawbridge to explore the historic site. It may be a tranquil site now, but in the 1300’s, this gatehouse and moat were designed to protect the bishop in times of war and disease and to project an air of authority and power. Explore the original bishop’s palace, the 13th century chapel, and the ruined Great Hall, which was once the largest medieval hall in England, after Canterbury and Westminster Hall in London. The site also includes the current bishop’s home and offices (located in the north range and tower) and over 14 acres of gardens, including beautiful pools which are fed from natural springs, or wells, for which the city is named. Each of these man-made pools flow into the swan-filled moat surrounding the palace. How dreamy!
Wells makes an interesting day trip from London, Bristol, or Bath. Click on the map below for driving or rail directions.
Brighton is one of my favorite day trips from London. The seaside resort and city of Brighton is located just a one hour train ride outside the British capital. Since the mid-1800’s, Brighton has been a popular destination for tourists who come to enjoy its beaches, amusements, shopping, art and cultural scene, and historic structures. Brighton is also considered to be the unofficial LGBTQ capital of the country. With over 7.5 million visitors a year, Brighton is the most popular seaside destination in the UK for overseas tourists.
Brighton Palace Pier is one of the highlights of any visit to Brighton. Originally opened in 1899, the pier became an entertainment venue until the theater was damaged in 1973 and demolished in 1986. Today, Palace Pier features an amusement park with rides, arcades, roller coasters, games, concession stands, a carousel, trampolines, and an indoor soft play area for children. Brighton Palace Pier is old fashioned fun for the entire family!
While in Brighton, you can’t not visit the truly mesmerizing Royal Pavilion. The Royal Pavilion was built in stages between 1815 and 1822 as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV while he was Prince Regent. Instantly recognizable, the Royal Pavilion is an Indian-style palace, complete with domes and minarets. The interior is lavishly (and that’s an understatement) decorated with French antiques as well as furniture and objects in the chinoiserie decorative style, which was popular at the time. The palace also featured the latest technologies of the day including gas lighting, fully-plumbed bathrooms, and water closets. In 1845, Queen Victoria, who disliked the public attention she attracted when staying at the palace, had the British government sell the Royal Pavilion to the city of Brighton. During World War I, the Royal Pavilion functioned as a military hospital for soldiers from the British and Indian armies. After the Second World War, the palace was renovated to return it to its original appearance during the reign of George IV, and the Royal Pavilion was subsequently re-opened as a tourist attraction. The interiors are breathtaking, and I was most impressed by the sumptuous Banqueting Hall with its 30 foot high chandelier hanging from the claws of a giant silver dragon. Below it, six smaller dragons appear to be breathing light into lotus-shaped shades to illuminate the room. I’ve never seen anything like it! Unfortunately, photography is not allowed inside, so you’ll just have to visit the Royal Pavilion to see it for yourself.
The lovely gardens at the Royal Pavilion are the only fully restored Regency Era gardens in the United Kingdom. The creation of the original gardens took over 40 years. To achieve this feat, rows of houses were demolished and the main road of the town was even diverted! The original gardens featured plants brought in from all over the world, but the restored Regency garden purposefully only includes plants known to be grown in England before 1830. Today, the Royal Pavilion gardens are tended using organic principles and are a haven for migrating wildlife. Bring a picnic and a good book and enjoy!
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, commonly referred to as the Neasden Temple, is a Hindu temple located in the Neasden area of northwest London. The mandir is the largest Hindu temple in the UK, and until the year 2000, it was the largest Hindu temple outside of India. The London temple enthusiastically welcomes visitors to explore or to worship. During my last visit to London, I made the short bus trip out to the temple and was blown away by the incredibly intricate stonework decorations and the sheer immensity of the structure. An engaging “Understanding Hinduism” exhibit provides visitors with a basic yet comprehensive introduction to the temple and the worship practices that you might experience there. In looking back to my numerous trips to London, my visit to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was one of my most memorable experiences in the city. Good travel is about exploring and opening your eyes to places, cultures, and experiences that are new to you. A visit to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir provides you with just such an opportunity.
Kew Palace is most famous for being the summer home of King George III. Originally built in 1631, the palace was leased by Queen Caroline, wife of King George II, to house her three eldest daughters. The next monarch, King George III, purchased the palace, and he and his family occupied it during his “fits of madness”, which was most likely the disease porphyria, from November 1788 to March 1789 and again in 1804. After that Kew Palace was rarely used until it was closed up in 1818, upon the death of Queen Charlotte. Although the Dutch House is the only part of Kew Palace that remains standing, I found the visit to be a fascinating exploration of the lives of the London royals who lived there and of George III”s illness and the strange treatments that he had to endure. While at Kew, be sure to take the time to explore the immensely beautiful Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew with over 40,000 different species of plants spread across a 326 acre site including 40 historic buildings.
Most people know Buckingham Palace as the London residence of Queen Elizabeth II, but did you know that Buckingham Palace wasn’t occupied by a king or queen until 1837? The palace was originally Buckingham House, a three story residence owned by the Dukes of Buckingham. In 1761, King George III bought Buckingham House for his wife to use as comfortable family home close to the main royal palace, St. James. In 1826, King George IV began to transform it into a true palace, nearly doubling the size. However, he never moved in, leaving Queen Victoria to be the first British monarch to occupy the Buckingham Palace in 1837. Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, found the new palace to be too small for court life, so they added an entire wing, which is the facade that most people see today and the one that is in my picture.
Today, Buckingham Palace is not only the main residence of the Queen but also the administrative center of the monarchy. The palace contains 775 rooms including 19 official state rooms, 52 principal bedrooms, 188 staff bedrooms, 92 offices, and 78 bathrooms. Buckingham Palace is used for receptions and ceremonies to recognize people who have provided extraordinary services to the country in the realms of industry, government, charities, sport, medicine, military affairs and other fields. That’s over 50,000 guests a year! In addition, the Queen and the Royal Family entertain visiting heads of state and government leaders from other countries. Even if you’re not invited by the Queen, you can still see the inside of Buckingham Palace since it’s open during the summer for tours. Visitors can also tour the Queen’s Gallery, to see selections of the priceless works of art owned by the Royal Collection, and the the Royal Mews, to see the horses, carriages, and automobiles that the Royal Family use for ceremonial transportation. For more on the latter, see my blog about the Royal Mews.
The Palace of Westminster
Most people refer to the structure as the Houses of Parliament because both the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet there. Why is it called a palace then? The Palace of Westminster is owed by the Crown and is still considered a royal palace for ceremonial purposes. This arrangement continues a long tradition of Westminster being the home of both the Crown and Parliament. The kings of England lived in a royal palace that stood on the site from the 11th century to 1512, when it was destroyed by fire. The only building that remains from the original palace is Westminster Hall, which was built in 1097. The fire caused the king to move out and Parliament to move it, making Westminster the seat of government. Another fire in 1834 destroyed the Houses of Parliament again, and a competition was held to find an architect to redesign the palace. The new Palace of Westminster, completed in 1870, was built in the Neo-Gothic style and contains over 1,000 rooms spread over 8 acres, some of which were reclaimed from the Thames River. The new palace contains two famous towers: Victoria Tower and Elizabeth Tower. The largest and tallest is Victoria Tower which stands at the southwestern corner of the palace and holds the Sovereign’s Entrance, used during the Queen’s State Opening of Parliament, and over three million documents in the Parliamentary archives, spread over 12 fireproof floors. At the north end of the palace, the Elizabeth Tower, named after Queen Elizabeth II on her Diamond Jubilee, contains the Great Clock of Westminster and the 13.8 ton bell known as Big Ben, which chimes every quarter-hour. Yes, you read that correctly. The bell, not the tower or the clock, is named Big Ben. That’s a fun fact that you can impress your friends and family with. Don’t forget to tell them you learned it at Fit to Embark! Visiting London? Members of the public are welcome to enter the Houses of Parliament to see debates in either chamber. You’ll need a ticket, so check out their website for details. During the summer, while Parliament isn’t sitting, visitors can take fascinating audio tours of the entire palace. Seeing the magnificent interiors and learning about the history of the building and the functions of Parliament is, in my opinion, a must when in London!
If you thought this structure was London Bridge, you are mistaken, my friend. This iconic piece of late 19th century engineering is Tower Bridge, named after the famous Tower of London that sits close by. The rather unimpressive London Bridge sits further upstream and was built in 1976. Yes, I said 1976. The previous London Bridge of Victorian fame was sold, in 1968, by the Council of the City of London to Robert McCulloch, a Missourian entrepreneur, who purchased the bridge for a little under $2.5 million dollars. He had the bridge shipped, piece by piece, via the Panama Canal, to California and then overland to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it was reassembled spanning the Bridgewater Channel Canal. So you don’t even have to leave the United States to visit London Bridge! You’re probably wondering why McCulloch bought London Bridge and shipped it all the way to America. He was hoping to attract tourists and home buyers to the region, and indeed, succeeded in doing so. Since the land was an abandonded military airstrip, McCullogh had been able to obtain it for free from the state of Arizona, with the promise he would develop the property. McCullogh sold so many homes that he recouped the entire cost of the bridge’s purchase, transportation, and re-assemblage. Now that’s what I call a wise investment!
The Tower of London
The famous or infamous (or both!) Tower of London, originally built in 1078 and expanded over a series of decades, has served as a royal palace, fortress, prison, mint, zoo, barracks, and armory, all at different times of course. Today, Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London (its official name) serves mainly as a tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although the days of the Tower being a military installation are over, a detachment of the Queen’s Life Guard is posted at the Tower, as it is still considered a royal residence. In addition, the Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, live on the premises and serve as the ceremonial guardians of the Tower and the Crown Jewels, which are safeguarded and open to the public on site. Where does the term “beefeater” come from? No one really knows. Some historians believe it refers to the fact that the Yeoman Warders were provided large rations of beef by the sovereign, at a time when meat was expensive and, therefore, uncommon in the diet of most Englishmen. Just don’t call them “beefeater” to their faces. The Yeomen Warders are retired from the Armed Forces of Commonwealth Realms and, to qualify, must have at least 22 years of experience as an officer and must hold a Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. And they’re still continuing to serve Crown and country. That’s impressive! If you visit the Tower be sure to take one of their excellent daily guided tours.
Horse Guards Parade
You can see the changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at 11:00 on weekdays and at 10:00 on Saturdays at Horse Guards Parade. The ceremony is far less busy than the one at Buckingham Palace, so you’ll be able to stand up close to see the horses and soldiers in all of their regal splendor! In addition, you can see mounted soldiers standing guard at Horse Guards Parade until 4:00, when they dismount and stand guard on foot. For more information about changing the guard at Horse Guards Parade, see my blog about that very subject.
The Queen’s Life Guard is made up of mounted cavalry soldiers from the regiments named the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. Since 1660, they have stood guard at Horse Guards Parade, which serves as the official entrance to St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace.
Historically, Horse Guards Parade served many functions. It’s built on the land that one served as the tiltyard (the field for jousting) of Whitehall Palace, which tragically burned down in 1689. The current buildings, which date from the 18th century, originally served as headquarters of the British army. The Duke of Wellington, as commander-in-chief, once had his office there. Today, Horse Guards Parade is best known as the location of Trooping the Color, a military parade (held in June) which serves as the official birthday celebration of Her Majesty the Queen.
Camden Market is my favorite place to shop in London. It’s actually not just one but six adjoining markets selling crafts, clothing, souvenirs, food, and much, much more. The markets are located in Camden Town surrounding Camden Lock of Regents Canal. With it huge variety of stores and merchandise, you can find just about anything and spend several hours there. They even have an outdoor food court featuring vendors cooking up a wide variety of tasty international dishes. While the markets are open daily, some vendors are there only on weekends, when crowds are also the largest. While there, walk along the locks themselves, which used to aid barges moving up and down Regents Canal and check out the fantastic Stables Market, located in what was once the stables of the horses that pulled barges along the canal. If you’re looking for London souvenirs, Camden Market is, in my opinion, the best place to buy them.
Guards at St. James Palace
If you’re looking to see the Queen’s Guard up close and personal, head on over to St. James Palace. Two guards are posted in their sentry boxes outside the palace, right on the street. They’re so close, that I got yelled at by one of them for taking a picture while he was walking his patrol. A little scary but kind of fun! You can also see a smaller but much less crowded version of the changing of the guard at St. James Palace at around 12:15 on weekdays.
St. James Palace is actually the most senior of the royal palaces in the UK. Built by King Henry VIII, between 1531 and 1536, St. James served as the residence of British monarchs until 1837 when Queen Victoria took up residence in Buckingham Palace. Today, the royal court is still formally based there, and ambassadors to the UK are officially assigned to “the court of St. James”. The palace is used for royal receptions and ceremonies and also serves as the London home of the Princess Royal, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and Princess Alexandra.
St. Fagans National Museum of History is a living history and open-air museum located outside the city of Cardiff, Wales. According to TripAdvisor, St. Fagans is one of the top ten free attractions in the entire United Kingdom, and in 2011, Which? Magazine named the museum as Favorite Visitor Attraction in the United Kingdom. What draws so many people to St. Fagans? In my opinion, there’s no better way to learn about the past than by going to a living history museum, and St Fagans is one of the best one that I’ve been to (and as a history buff and teacher, I’ve visited many!). At St. Fagans, you interact with historical interpreters, dressed in period costume, in order to experience how the Welsh lived, ate, dressed, worked, behaved, worshiped and played, from Celtic times to the present.
The museum is made up of more than 40 buildings, from throughout Wales, that have been moved to the site. You can definitely spend all day at the museum! Some of my favorites buildings are:
St Teilo’s Church may seem plain from the outside, but once you step inside, you’ll be blown away! The church was built in the 12th or 13th century and shows off how religious structures were once elaborately decorated with brightly colored wall paintings all over. The church was taken apart, moved, and reconstructed at St. Fagans, piece by piece.
The Abernodwydd Farmhouse is a timber and thatch farmhouse that shows how a relatively well-off Welsh family would have lived in the 17th century.
The 1936 post office is made up of two adorable rooms and was originally run by a father, his daughter and her husband. Deliveries were made by bicycle, and the counter also served as a wireless (that’s radio) repair shop. The building was moved to St. Fagans in 1992.
The row of houses for iron-ore miners allows visitors to marvel over how entire families lived in tiny homes consisting of only three rooms! Visiting each row house shows how living conditions and styles have changed over time, as the contents of each portray a different period of history: 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955, and 1985. These row houses will make you appreciate how lucky we are today to have as many things as we do.
The tailor’s workshop, which was originally built in 1896, is stocked as it would have looked in the early 1950’s. I got a kick out of seeing the fashions of the time and how they were hand-made.
The 1880 general store is divided into three sections over two floors. The store once served as a bakery, ironmongery (place to buy items made of iron), grocery, gentlemen’s outfitters, chemist, and animal feed retailer. Today it’s still stocked to the brim!
The 1771 toll house represents a time when local landowners built private roads (also called turnpikes) and charged tolls for their usage. Sound familiar? Local riots caused the eventual banning of toll houses by Parliament in 1864.
St Fagans Castle was built in the 16th century and later remodeled in the Victorian Era, as it became part of the Earls of Plymouth’s estate. Some of the mansion’s rooms contain original 16th century features, while others, such as the marvelous Victorian kitchen, contain furnishings from later time periods. In 1947, the family donated the mansion and its estate to the National Museum of Wales, who transformed the grounds into St. Fagans National Museum of History. Behind the castle are a reflecting pond and beautifully manicured gardens that would be perfect for a picnic.
Take a trip back in time to see these and over 30 other structures at St Fagans National Museum of History. Before going, check their website for special events and programs that are commonly held at the open air museum.
Location of St. Fagans
St. Fagans National Museum of History is located just four miles outside of Cardiff. For specific driving directions, please click on the map below. For satellite navigation purposes use the postcode CF5 6XB.
When I went to St. Fagans, I took the bus from Cardiff. You have 3 different bus options:
If you’re visiting the Welsh capital city of Cardiff, Cardiff Castle should be on your “must-see” list. The castle is a hit for people of all ages and interests. Children will love exploring the tunnels, the ruined motte and bailey castle, and the wide open spaces. Adults will enjoy touring the magnificent interiors of the Gothic mansion and experiencing what it was like to live in air raid shelters during World War II. The easiest way to visit the castle is to divide it up into three parts, each of which represents a different period of history.
The oldest part of the castle is a motte and bailey structure that was originally built by the Norman invaders of England all the way back in the 11th century. The year is 1066; William the Conqueror wins the Battle of Hastings and establishes himself as king of England. He needs to assert his power over the conquered English and Welsh people, so he builds a series of castles and fortifications across those lands. In Cardiff, he orders the construction of a wooden motte and bailey castle, which was later converted into a stone structure in the 12th century. The bailey, also called a keep, is located on top of the artificial hill. The lord and his family would live inside, and this keep would serve as a final defensive structure if the bailey was taken by attackers. The bailey is the lower courtyard, surrounded by a wooden palisade (later, a stone wall), where outbuildings, such as stables, kitchens, and storehouses, were located. In the 1400’s and 1500’s, Cardiff Castle was expanded beyond the motte and bailey to become a full-sized medieval castle with outer curtain walls as a means to prevent Welsh rebellions against the English crown. After the English Civil War, a garrison was established at the castle to protect against an invasion by the Scots. This military presence prevented Cardiff Castle from being destroyed, like many other fortifications, by Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell. During the early 19th century, the wealthy Marquesses of Bute inherited the castle, and the aristocratic family spent millions of pounds to remodel it into a Gothic fantasy mansion, to conduct archaeological work, to landscape the grounds, and to restore the motte and bailey castle to its 12th century design, which can still be seen today. Explore these medieval parts of the castle castle by taking a walk around the battlements and by climbing up into the Norman keep to see the ruined interior of the 12-sided structure and to take in the incredible views of the city.
Next up on our visit are the opulent interiors of the Gothic mansion. The third Marquess of Bute hired architect William Burges to redesign the castle into a stunning Gothic revival mansion. If you only have enough time to take one tour of the mansion, make it the 50 minute guided tour of the castle apartments, including the Guest Tower, the Arab Room with its incredible ceiling, the Chaucer Room filled with images from the works of the medieval author, the Nursery, the bedrooms full of religious imagery, the Library with its immense collection of books, and the armor-filled, two-story Banqueting Hall. For me, the highlights of this tour were the elaborately decorated, first on-suite bathroom in Cardiff and the gorgeously-mosaiced roof garden with its quirky fountain. The decoration of the mansion’s rooms is so elaborate that Cardiff Castle has been called a “three dimensional passport to fairy kingdoms and realms of gold” and the “most successful of all the fantasy castles of the nineteenth century.” If you have time, you can also take the 30 minute guided tour of the inside of the 150 foot tall clock tower to see the Marquess’ bachelor suite of rooms (which he used before he married), including a bedroom, servant’s room, and fantastical summer and winter smoking rooms.
The final stop is a trip down into the tunnels beneath the battlements. During the Second World War, the tunnels were used as air raid shelters for an estimated 1,800 citizens of Cardiff. The self-guided tour allows visitors to see recreated bunks, kitchens, toilets, and first aid posts and to experience, through the use of multimedia, what it was like for people to shelter in these tunnels from German bombs being dropped on the city around and above them.
A visit to Cardiff Castle is a trip back in time through Welsh and British history that the entire family will enjoy. For more information about the castle and for opening times and special events, visit their website.
Cardiff Castle is located on Castle St. in Cardiff. For specific driving or walking directions, click on the map below.
Nuremberg is a city filled with top-notch cultural, historic, and culinary sites. There’s so much to do in the city that Germans call “Nurnberg”, you might have a difficult time planning an itinerary. Don’t worry! I’ve done the on-site and online research for you. Here’s my list of the top seven places to visit in Nuremberg.
7. Craftsmen’s Courtyard (Handwerkerhof)
Although it looks medieval, the Craftsmen’s Courtyard was built in 1971 as a collection of half-timbered structures to house artisan’s shops, local restaurants, and pubs. The setting evokes a feeling of walking around a medieval courtyard, albeit a very touristy one. All of the artisans are locals, and many demonstrate their crafts for visitors inside their stops. We really enjoyed the woodworker’s shop and the “arts and craft’s shop,” especially the latter’s Christmas items. The Craftsmen’s Courtyard is located just inside the medieval city walls next to the Frauentor, one of four towers that once served as an entrance to the city. This website has a nice map of the courtyard and a list of the stores.
6. St. Lawrence Church (Lorenzkirche)
Located on Konigstrasse, the main pedestrian street in the old city, St. Lawrence Church was completed in 1477, and the main attraction here lays inside, suspended above the choir in front of the high altar. The Angelic Salutation is a carved wooden sculpture of the Annunciation of Mary, created by the German artist Veit Stoss in 1518. When seeing it for the first time, my initial thought was: “Wow! That’s made out of wood?!” The sculpture portrays the angel Gabriel bringing the news to the Virgin Mary that she is bearing the child Jesus. Surrounding the pair smaller angels ringing bells to joyously announce the news and medallions portray scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus. Be sure to walk around to the back to see the cascade of Mary’s hair and depictions of the sun and moon. During the Protestant reformation, many religious works of art were destroyed, but the Angelic Salutation was saved and preserved as it was seen as the private property of the Tucher family who paid for its creation. This amazing piece has remained on display for generations and provided artistic and spiritual inspiration to countless worshipers and visitors.
5. Hauptmarkt of Nuremberg
The Hauptmarkt is the main market square in the old city in Nuremberg. It’s located on Konigstrasse immediately in front of the Frauenkirche. All year long, the square is alive with vendors selling fresh fruits, beautiful flowers, souvenirs, and tasty treats. During the holiday season, the Hauptmarkt hosts Germany’s largest Christmas market. No matter the season, take a stroll around the square and sample the local produce and delicacies. Then walk across the Hauptmarkt to take a look at the gilded 14th centuary “Beautiful Fountain” (Schoner Brunnen). The fountain is built in the shape of a spire, and each level features significant people in history such as Moses, King Arthur, Julius Caesar, King David, and Charlemagne. You’ll also likely spot people turning two rings mounted to the fountain. Local legends states that spinning either of these brass rings brings the person good luck. Go ahead and give it a whirl. It definitely couldn’t hurt!
4. Tanner’s Lane
For one of the two best photo opportunities in the city, head over to Tanner’s Lane (Weissgerbergasse). Walk down the street until you reach house #35 and then turn around. In front of you are the best collection of half-timbered houses to survive the bombing of World War II. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that many houses feature a dark red colors in their beams. It’s oxen blood! Soaking the lumber in the blood of this work animals helps to prevent rot and termite damage. Take a photo and be sure to put that information in the caption to get everyone’s attention!
For another fun sight, cross the street and walk through the beer garden (Biergarten Kettensteg) to find the old iron footbridge (dated 1824) in Europe. It’s a chain bridge that allows pedestrians to cross over the river Pegnitz. The bridge has no particular name, so locals simply call it the pedestrian bridge (Steg) with chains (Ketten). Take a walk across just so you can say that you’ve crossed the oldest iron footbridge in Europe!
3. The Best Photo Opportunity in Nuremberg
For the best photo opportunity in Nuremberg, go across the chain bridges (as described above) and cross the island of Kettensteg. After you’ve crossed two bridges, take a left to walk up Pegnitzstufer which runs alongsidethe river. You’ll catch glimpses (and some nice photos) of the river and small waterfalls. You’ll be dumped onto a wider street called Untere Kreuzgasse. Take a right and walk up to the next major street, where you’ll take a left onto a bridge called Maxbrucke. Stop in the middle of the bridge and look down the river to see what is, in my opinion, the best view in town. What could be more picturesque than a medieval water tower, a covered bridge, the largest half-timber buildings in the city (a former hospital and wine cellar) and weeping willow trees, all in one photo!
2. The Imperial Castle (Kaiserburg) of Nuremberg
From 800 to 1806, Germany was ruled by the Holy Roman Emperors. Germany did not exist as a country but was rather divided into kingdom, duchies, principalities, counties, free imperial cities, and other domains, each of which having their own rulers. The Holy Roman Emperor, unlike other monarchs, was elected by the highest ranking nobles, called prince-electors, of the land. The emperor also has no capital city, but instead, travelled throughout the empire to hold court and dispense justice, staying at various castles in larger cities. Being a free imperial city and an economic powerhouse, the Imperial Castle at Nuremberg was one of those castles at which the Holy Roman Emperors spent time. A visit to the castle is a fascinating look back in time to understand how the Holy Roman Empire worked and how the emperors lived. A self guided tour will take you into recreated chambers used by the royal court where you’ll encounter both traditional displays and state of the art interactive multimedia terminals that allow you to explore topics to whatever depth of information you prefer. My fiancée, who isn’t nearly as interested in history as am, spent a great deal of time using the terminals and commented on how engaging they were. After your tour inside the castle, take a walk around the castle grounds for some great photos and be sure to check out the incredible city view from the front ramparts. When purchasing admission, I wouldn’t waste my money buying tickets to see the Deep Well. It’s not worth your money or time.
1. Eat at Bratwursthausle
You’re probably wondering why I choose a restaurant at my number one choice of what to do in Nuremberg. A visit here will explain exactly why. Bratwursthausle is a wonderful restaurant to enjoy the local Germany cuisne during all seasons of the year. If you’re visiting during warmer weather, be sure to sit outside on the lovely, street-side patio. If it’s too cold to site outside, enjoy the cozy interior that makes you feel like you’re eating in a big, old farmhouse. Whatever the case, you must order the local sausage, the tiny Nurnberger Bratwurst. Little Nurnbergers are my fiancée and mine favorite German sausage. At Bratwursthausle, they’re made in house by the restaurant’s butchers and are cooked over an open, beechwood fire. You can order them in groups of 6, 8, 10, or 12, and with traditional Germany side dishes such as sauerkraut, potato salad, pretzels and more. The restaurant has other items on the menu, but you absolutely must order Nurnbergers! Ever since eating them for the first time at Bratwursthausle, we continue to eat them at our local German sausage shop in Massachusetts. They’re absolutely delicious and are my favorite memory of Nuremberg!
Want dessert? Head over to Gelateria 4D on Konigstrasse. You’ll recognize it by the long lines of patrons and long counter of countless flavors.
Click on the map below to open up a Google My Maps with all of the locations above marked.
The Craftsmen’s Courtyard (Handwerkerhof) is the located Am Königstor.
St. Lawrence Church (Lorenzkirche) is located at Lorenzer Platz 1.
St. Goar, or Sankt Goar, is a small tourist town dominated by a huge, ruined castle, located on the west bank of the Rhine River in an area known as the Romantic Rhine Valley. The town is named after a monk who converted local people to Christianity and constructed a hospice and chapel, making the town a pilgrimage site. Today, tourists, rather than pilgrims, trek to St. Goar to partake in the great local shopping, pass the time in sidewalk cafes, and explore the ruined castle.
My favorite cuckoo clock shop and stein shop in all of Germany are both located on the main pedestrian street in St. Goar. The Montag family runs both stores, and you definitely can’t miss them. Look for the tourists taking pictures under the largest free-hanging cuckoo clock in the world. That’s the cuckoo clock store, and immediately across the street, you’ll spot the large beer stein sign of the other shop. Even if you’re not a fan of cuckoo clocks or steins, stop into both for an impressive introduction to two authentically German traditions. The staff are incredibly friendly and helpful and delight in telling you all about their wares. In the stein shop, you’ll be amazed by the variety of German beer mugs. We were warmly greeted by one of the Montag brothers who taught us how to recognize quality Germany steins over foreign-made cheap alternatives and informed us about the decoration of the different types of beer mugs. You’ll see steins depicting various cities, countries, hobbies, professions, holidays, and more. We left with a Christmas present for my fiancée’s father. Across the street, one of the Montag sisters told us about the history behind the cuckoo clocks, which are made in the Black Forest. We couldn’t help but bring home a cuckoo clock for ourselves! The Montag family securely packs both clock and steins and ships them overseas to any country. We received ours less than two weeks after our trip.
After a bit of shopping, you’ll need a treat to re-energize. Stop into Café St. Goar for a huge slice of the most delicious strudel that we had in all of Germany. I scarfed down the mixed berry, and my fiancée devoured the rhubarb. The café also features many other types of desserts as well as pretzels and light lunches. Across the street, they have a lovely sidewalk seating area with table service. Don’t visit St. Goar without stopping here for strudel!
Kids and adults alike will love exploring the ruins of Rheinfels Castle, which towers over St. Goar. To get up to the castle, you can hike about 15 minutes, board a small “tourist train” (that usually waits for customers near the Catholic Church), or take a short taxi ride. If you’re hiking, walk up the main pedestrian street, and just after the tourist information center, turn onto a street named Scholossberg, and then take a right onto another street named Bismackweg. At the fork in Bismarkckweg, stay left, and at the end, you’ll find the steps leading up to the short hike to the castle.
Built in 1245, Rheinfels Castle (Burg Rheinfels) was designed to protect the St. Goar tax collectors. After the construction of another castle immediately across the river, the local rulers were able to block the river valley and levy a tax on all traders passing through. That’s why all of the Rhine castles were built . . . money, money, money! When the castle passed into the hands of the House of Hesse, Burg Rheinfels was heavily developed and impressive fortifications were added, making it one of the largest and strongest fortresses in Germany. In 1796, armies of the French Revolutionary government captured and blew up parts of the castle, which is why it remains in ruins today. Evens in ruins, the Burg Rheinfels is quite impressive and fun to explore. Be advised that, starting in 2017, parts of the castle are undergoing renovations, so the outer fortifications can only be explored via guided tour, which is included in the price of admission. However, you can explore the inner parts of the castle on your own. Start in the museum that has exhibits (with English descriptions) on the castle and local history and has models of the castle, to give you a sense of what it was once like. Then explore the remainder of the ruins. Don’t miss the incredible view of the Rhine from the highest tower. While you’re up there, take a look around you and remember that the castle was once five times as large as it is now. It’s a reminder of the tremendous importance that Burg Rheinfels played in shaping local history and in making the town of St. Goar the lovely tourist stop that it is today.
St. Goar is located along the stretch of the river known as the Romantic Rhine, approximately minutes south of Koblenz or 80 minutes west of Frankfurt. It makes an easy day trip from either of those cities, especially if you’re flying in or out of Frankfurt Airport. Click on the map below for driving directions.
A visit to St. Goar can also be combined with excursions to:
Walking through the walls and into the market square of Oberwesel, it’s clear why visitors are drawn to this quaint town. Locals take great pride in preserving the precious medieval architecture, for which their town is famous, and in keeping up their long-standing traditions. For example, if you’re visiting during the spring or summer, you can’t help but notice the giant wine chalice in market square. The chalice represents the importance of Riesling wine to the region’s economy and culture. Each year, the community elects a “wine witch” who emerges from the chalice as that year’s ambassador for the area’s vintners. The tradition of the “wine witch” dates back to much earlier days when “witches’ fires” were lit in the spring on the banks of the river and in the mountains to scare away the winter demons and, supposedly, improve the quality of the local wines. Each year in Oberwesel, the tradition continues with the election of a new “wine witch” and a community-wide festival. Even if you’re not visiting during the festivities, Oberwesel’s market square features many tourist-friendly cafes and wine bars where you can enjoy the bountiful fruits of the region, including its famous Riesling wine.
The other reason that visitors come to Oberwesel is to see the best-preserved medieval town walls and towers in the Rhine Valley. However, don’t just take my word for it. An expert in medieval fortifications stated: “Of all the Middle Rhine town fortifications, those in Oberwesel are the most extensive, the proudest and the best preserved”, and a government agency in charge of historical preservation stated that Oberwesel’s walls and towers “number amongst the most significant and best preserved medieval fortifications in the entire Federal Republic of Germany. “ In other words, if you’re in the Rhine River Valley, you absolutely must go to Oberwesel to see its walls and towers. As a historian, I’ve seen many walled cities and towns, but I was truly impressed and enamored by those in Obserwesel. Walking along the town walls on the riverside is simply enchanting. One of my most vivid memories of Germany is looking across a sea of lavender to see the eight-sided Oschenturm (Ox) Tower towering above a ballet-like bend in the boat-filled Rhine River. While exploring the cobbled streets and circling the medieval walls, you’ll experience many similar moments of serenity and awe.
After a break at a café or wine bar in the market square, it’s time for a stroll along the oldest stretch of walls and towers in the rear of town. Even if you think you’re “all walled out”, it’s not to be missed! To reach this area, pick up a map at the tourist information office in market square or take a picture of any map publicly posted around town. Exploring the rear walls and towers is like a peaceful walk through the countryside. You may even come across some friendly local horses, like we did. If you don’t have an equine encounter, you’ll still get to see several of the town’s 16 amazing, original medieval towers that have survived to the present. Can you find the one with the drawbridge? It’s now a private residence! If you’ve been dreaming of living in a medieval castle, I’ve got a deal for you. The town council will rent you a tower for 100 years for only one Euro! What’s the catch, you ask? You just have to fund the tower’s renovation. If you decide to take up residence in an Oberwesel tower, be sure to send me an invite! I make a mean schnitzel. Continuing along the rear wall walk, you’ll catch views of the former moat and of historic Schonburg Castle, which now houses a restaurant, hostel, and small museum. Finish up your walk with a visit to the lovely Town Wall Gardens, a gift from a local who used his wealth to start a foundation to beautify his town for generations. Like his gift to the residents of Oberwesel, a visit here will you provide you with vivid memories of medieval German splendor for years to come.
Oberwesel is located in an area known as the “Romantic Rhine”. It’s an hour and a half drive from Frankfurt, and therefore, makes for an easy day trip if you’re flying in or out of that airport. Click on the map for specific driving directions to Oberwesel. A visit to Oberwesel can also be combined with excursions to: