travel guide: day trips from london

One of my favorite things to research when planning a trip is if there are any points of interest particularly close by our primary destination. In general, I like to keep the distance between locations under 2 hours, anything over that can get exhausting. While in London, we decided to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare, and Windsor, home of Windsor Castle

It took us about 2 hours to get to Stratford on a train we took from London Marylebone Station. Roundtrip tickets for the both of us cost only £25.25, (40.00 USD). We found tickets on thetrainline.com where the earlier you purchase, the cheaper it is. The shot above of the funky eclectic train station at Stratford reflects such a different vibe than the rest of the town center. This is the rear of the train station, so you only see it when you are coming back for your return journey (or if you happened to turn around and look back when you are heading into town). The place is so Shakespeare focused; much of it seems trapped in time, always striving to preserve as much authenticity as possible. To me, this exit serves as a beckoning to return; it suggests that there might be more to see outside of the town center. For me, there may as well been a banner reading “we’re not just Shakespeare”, to which I replied “alright, I didn’t realize, I’ll come back!”.

So, seeing as we were there for Shakespeare, the town did not disappoint. We took an early train so we could spend the whole morning exploring before we attended a matinee at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I was delighted that Stratford really looked much as I imagined it would with timber-framed Tudor houses and cobbled streets. You could easily spend an hour or two people watching and wandering in and out of shops. Underestimating how chilly London and the surrounding areas would be, we were relieved to find a wool shop that was actually selling sweaters in July!

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The store owner thought we were a little crazy; I guess 60 degrees fahrenheit is warm for them! We had been freezing, especially in the shade, so the sweaters made it so much more comfortable to walk around. They were also a great investment and souvenir. They came in handy on several other chilly days we encountered across Europe and we can’t wait to recall those adventures when we pull these over our heads in the fall and winter here.

If you have the time, I might recommend joining the Stratford Town Walk, which lasts about 2 hours and starts every weekday at 11am and weekend at 11am and 2pm. Since our show started at 1pm and we had to get to the theatre about a 1/2 hour before, we did not join this tour. However, we did run into the group while visiting Holy Trinity Church,where Shakespeare is buried. I was fascinated by the guide just from the brief snippet I heard. I was tempted to stay with the group and just dash out when we had to leave but my husband pulled my sleeve and reminded me that we didn’t want to be “those” people (the ones who just happen to simultaneously visit all the same sites as a group and listen in on the guide–but haven’t actually paid for the tour). Anyway, the leader of the walk really seemed like he knew; it would undoubtedly be worth the £6.00 and 2 hours to check it out.

If you are like us and decide to explore on your own, I recommend starting at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Here you can purchase a ticket to visit all 5 houses in Stratford that are associated with the famous playwright. After you’ve purchased your ticket, you make your way through a brief exhibit which leads you into his childhood home. If you are like me then your Shakespeare fandom carries with it a fascination with the era in which he lived, which makes walking through this period house an absolute ball. My husband, an only slightly more casual fan of the playwright, also enjoyed walking through the house and listening to the amazing tidbits of history conveyed and even acted out by the wonderful guides and performers. Near the end of our walkthrough we ended up in the courtyard where a few of these performers motioned to us to take a seat and then encouraged anyone to shout out anything they might like to hear. Without hesitation I yelled out “Much Ado About Nothing!”, and almost immediately, one of the men and a woman jumped right into character and into one of my favorite scenes between Benedick and Beatrice. I was beyond delighted. In fact, I actually think I got a little bit teary-eyed; the words were just so beautiful and I couldn’t help but have one of those “oh my God, look where I am” moments.

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When you finish at Shakespeare’s birthplace, using the map provided makes it really simple to get around and see the other significant sites. While we didn’t get to see everything, we were not disappointed with our decision to spend the rest of the afternoon taking in the Merchant of Venice at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. I cannot say enough about how wonderful the performance was. There was a lovely local couple who frequent the theatre that we chatted up during the intermission and the woman kept saying how shocked she was that we were able to find tickets; I guess matinees sell out quite quickly. I told her I had actually bought the tickets months ago and then silently fist pumped and cheered in my head– “that’s one for the planners!”. If you can’t catch a matinee I say make it an overnight with a lovely dinner and show and a cozy hotel. Leaving Stratford-upon-Avon without seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company just would not do it justice.

The other day trip we took was a shorter one; it took us less than an hour by train to get to Windsor where we were anxious to see the royal residence where Queen Elizabeth actually spends most of her weekends. Although this train ride was even shorter, it cost us a bit more (£36.60 or 57.36 USD) when we purchased our tickets for Southwest Trains because we didn’t book as far in advance (it took time to decide between visiting Windsor Castle or Highclere Castle, where they film one of my faves, Downton Abbey!).

Windsor Castle was beautiful. I was actually hesitant before I bought the tickets online (which I HIGHLY recommend doing to avoid horrendous queues!) because of some lackluster reviews I read on tripadvisor. In the end though, I am so glad we went for it. Photography was strictly prohibited inside the castle and it was easy to see why. We visited other palaces in other countries on our trip and many were more ornate and even ostentatious. This just seemed so much more personal and lived in and also in proper taste, which I am sure can be attributed to traditional English style. The audio guide does a great job of leading you from room to room and gives you a history of each space as well as a description of how they are used today.

The outside of the castle and the exterior grounds are stunning as well. We saw gardeners and other workers constantly throughout the property and learned that about 150 people actually live and work there, making it the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. It was clear how much pride is taken in the upkeep of the estate and I found myself wanting to thank every worker I saw; it just felt like such a privilege to be walking through their home.

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You can see from the first pic that Windsor is quite a cute little town. I was a little bit taken aback though at how much trendy commercial real estate there was. We took a wrong turn somewhere and it was a teenager’s dream–H&Ms and Forever21s everywhere! Still, we had such a pleasant morning exploring the castle, grabbed a nice salad for lunch, and jumped back on the train and arrived in London with much of our afternoon and all of our evening still to enjoy. Windsor is definitely a day trip that won’t take the wind out of your sails!

I recently found out a good friend of mine took a temporary job out in London for the next 9 months or so; my head is already swirling with ideas for more outings. Who knows, I might be back sooner than I thought! Until then I leave you to share in my perplexed wonderment…what is everyone’s fascination with these guys?

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Wherever we were in London or in Windsor, they never failed to draw a crowd!

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