Stonehenge is one of the most famous tourist destinations in England. But right beside it (literally a 20-minute drive) lies a lesser-known town that is definitely worth a visit. Especially if you’re after a weekend filled with history and culture.
Salisbury, located in Wiltshire, is a beautiful cathedral city in the centre of the South West of England. And it was once the seat of Britain’s royal power. Founded over 2500 years ago in the Iron Age, many merchants settled in the town during the medieval ages due to its perfect position slap-bang between London and Exeter. It then gained even more fame when William the Conqueror chose it as the perfect location for his Oath of Sarum. Since then it has slowly lost its power but retained all its historic interest.
We visited Salisbury for the second time last month, on a trip organised by Visit Wiltshire. And although our sunny weekend was jam-packed with activities, there is still plenty left to see on a third visit.
This blog post is a thorough guide on how to spend a weekend in Salisbury. It includes the best things to do in Salisbury and around this quaint historical town. Some of the activities I suggest might seem obvious to the experienced weekender, but others are definitely unique to this area.
HOW TO GET TO SALISBURY
Salisbury is surprisingly easy to get to. The drive from London takes as little as 90 minutes to two and a half hours, depending on your departure point.
There is also a good connection by public transport to Salisbury, with trains running from Salisbury Station to Bath, Bristol, Exeter and London.
Note that this itinerary assumes that you get to Salisbury by Friday evening or early on Saturday. There is a lot to do and see in town, so you definitely want to maximise the amount of time you spend here . So plan for an early morning.
Gary and I left London at 7am and checked into our B&B at 10am. From there we walked into town. This took about 15 minutes.
WHERE TO STAY IN SALISBURY
I would recommend that you stay in Salisbury for at least one night and extend your trip to a weekend getaway. This way you can make the most of the city on Saturday and its local surroundings on Sunday. Afterall you wouldn’t want to miss out on Stonehenge and Salisbury Plain, now would you?
Salisbury has a whole host of nice hotels and quaint B&Bs. The choice is really yours, depending on your preference. In the UK, Gary and I always prefer staying in a B&B. We find that they are generally more personable and have more character than hotels.
This time around, we stayed at Websters B&B, which was perfectly located near the train station and a ten-minute walk from the town centre. We were particularly happy to find that the B&B had a small but accessible car-park. And breakfast in the morning was incredibly delicious. I recommend the blueberry pancakes. Yum!
If you prefer the amenities of a hotel, you might want to consider the White Hart Hotel, located in the town centre. Or if you prefer to have your own kitchen and laundry room, then you might want to stay at the Pear Tree Serviced Apartments.
THINGS TO DO IN SALISBURY ON A SATURDAY
Your entire Saturday will be spent exploring the town of Salisbury, voted by Lonely Planet as one of the Top 10 Cities to visit in 2015. This is going to be a busy day and if you follow my itinerary exactly, you might feel somewhat rushed off your feet. But then if you are anything like me, then you like to stay busy. Do pack a bottle of water though if you are visiting Salisbury in Summer. Temperatures can’t get pretty hot.
TOUR SALISBURY CATHEDRAL
Your best bet is to start the day with a tour of Salisbury Cathedral, once known as the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mady. Let’s be honest here, no trip to Salisbury would be complete without a visit to one of its most famous buildings. And you will notice the appeal of this site, as soon as you approach the lawn that surrounds the building and spot all the tourists lounging around in the sun.
The story of the cathedral’s conception is particularly interesting. This cathedral has actually existed in three different forms. But both of its predecessors were located near Old Sarum. However, due to disagreements with the nearby army base, lack of water and an ever-growing population the Bishop asked for the building to be moved. According to local legend, the current location of the Cathedral was chosen by the firing of an arrow. Today Salisbury Cathedral sits, as the name suggests, in the heart of its city.
Salisbury Cathedral has lots of hidden nooks and a fascinating history, so I highly recommend you join the official tour. The tour usually lasts 105 minutes and will have you climb to the top of the cathedral’s spire. Did you know that Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest spire in the UK? It was actually never intended to have one at all, but the spire was added to the design right at the end of its construction. Your tour guide will probably point out the impact the weight of this last-minute addition has had on the centre of the building. He will also tell you that in contrast to most of its comrades (usually built over several centuries) Salisbury Cathedral only has one architectural style – English Gothic. And it is one of only three cathedrals in England to not feature a peal of bells.
Here are a couple more things not to miss on your tour. Salisbury cathedral houses the oldest working clock in the world. The mechanical clock dates back all the way to 1386.
One of the four remaining original copies of the Magna Carta (an incredibly important document in English history that dates back to 1215) can be found in the Chapter House of the Cathedral. Whilst you can also see exemplars of the Magna Carta in Lincoln and the British Museum, Salisbury Cathedral allegedly owns the best-preserved version of the manuscript. Make sure you visit the exhibition to see why it’s such an important document and how it influenced politics and laws today.
Furthermore, several notable historic figures have been interred in this cathedral, including King John’s brother.
Finally, if you are lucky you will see one of the modern art installations Salisbury Cathedral hosts on a regular basis. At the time of our visit, the cathedral was home to Les Colombes – an art installation of 2500 white paper doves arranged in a spiral flight pattern as a symbol of peace.
Salisbury Cathedral is open every day. Whilst entrance is free, a donation £7.50 per adult is highly recommended. There are free tours of the Cathedral floor available throughout the day. But if you want to join the Tower Tour, you will need to pay £13.50 per adult.
POP INTO SALISBURY MUSEUM
Salisbury has so many quirky, unusual, and unique museums and galleries. There really is a cultural experience for everyone. So escape the sun and lose yourself for a couple of hours in one of the exhibitions.
The Salisbury Museum is located right opposite to the Cathedral, literally a two-minute walk away. So that is where Gary and I decided to head next. But if you are not in the mood for old artifacts, Mompesson House is close by too. If you are only spending one or two days in Salisbury, I recommend you only visit one or the other. But don’t worry, you can always return to the one you didn’t see, next time you are in Salisbury.
Most British Towns have at least one historic museum and they are almost always worth a visit, if you are interested in the evolution of the place you are visiting. In fact, the Salisbury Museum is a particularly good one to visit.
It houses quite a varied collection, from archaeological finds of the surrounding area, to a ceramic exhibition, photography collection, the Salisbury Giant and a reconstruction of one of the first NHS Dental Practice. One of the museum’s most famous exhibits however has to be the Amesbury Archer who was buried near Stonehenge more than 4,000 years ago with a large number of items, including gold!
ALTERNATIVELY VISIT MOMPESSON HOUSE
If Skeletons aren’t your thing and a grand manor is more to your taste, then you will enjoy Mompesson House. This beautiful 18th-century townhouse is owned and managed by the National Trust and sits just off Cathedral Green. We stumbled across it purely by chance last time we traveled to Salisbury and decided to pop in. A good decision!
Like many other locations in Wiltshire, Mompesson House was used as a filming location. It was used as the set for Mrs. Jennings’ London townhouse in the award-winning 1995 film Sense and Sensibility. Pretty much every room, apart from the small drawing room and library, feature in the film.
Apart from that, this National Trust property is a magnificent building to walk through. It’s a magnificent example of English Baroque architecture and features ornate plasterwork, as well as ornate woodwork. Look out for the beautiful collection of glassware and the beautiful furnishing. There are some delightful antique pieces, for those who are fans of such things. And you might even get a little jealous and dream of your own home looking like this. I certainly did.
Outside there is a somewhat secret but rather large landscaped garden. Here you can play a game of croquet on the manicured lawn or enjoy afternoon tea and cake in the outside tea room.
Mompesson House is open Every day and an adult ticket will set you back £6.80. That is unless you are a National Trust Member like Gary and me. And if you are a fan of filming locations, then you might also want to check-out Lacock, a very quaint British village, that was used as a set for the Harry Potter series.
GRAB LUNCH IN A GALLERY AT FISHERTON MILL
At this point, your stomach is probably grumbling, and your feet might be aching. It is time for a break! So, head slightly out of town to the award-wining Fisherton Mill for lunch.
This unusual café is located in a beautiful restored red-brick Grain Mill. And it not only serves up some delicious food but also offers its punters access to an art gallery and store. In fact, Fisherton Mill rents out its studios at an affordable price to local artist. And the art store on the ground floor sells works of art at a reasonable price from over 200 different artists in the South West of England.
Peruse the paintings, sculptures, jewelry, glassware, and ceramics. Perhaps buy a gift for a loved one. Then grab a seat outside and order one of the café’s fabulous sandwiches. I was honestly surprised at the freshness of the ingredients. My open focaccia sandwich was filled to the brim with creamy goats cheese, sweet roasted vegetables and salty pesto. Gary, on the other hand, opted for the garlic roast chicken, tomato and olive sandwich, which served on homemade sourdough bread. Then, to round things off, we both dug into the selection of freshly baked cakes.
Note that Fisherton Mill isn’t open on Sundays, which is why we made sure to visit it on Saturday.
GET TO GRIPS WITH SALISBURY BY GOING ON A TREASURE TRAIL
Once you are refueled and have given your feet a well-deserved rest, it’s time to explore the medieval town of Salisbury in depth. We actually did this in the morning, but I would advise you wait until the afternoon.
Also, don’t forget your camera for this part of the itinerary. I swear, I didn’t put my lens down for more than a couple of seconds. There were just too many beautiful historic streets and timber-framed houses that begged to be photographed.
Gary and I always tend to explore new locations on foot. This way we don’t miss out on the smaller nooks and crannies of a place. So, we were particularly intrigued when Visit Wiltshire presented us with a Treasure Trail map.
Treasure Trails goal is to introduce visitors to some of the lesser-known historic sights, easily missed by the average tourist. Each map is filled with a set of clues that guide you through the town or city. Resolve one clue, then move on to the next location. You can even win a price if you complete the entire map. But let me tell you it is more challenging than you might think. And while it is a good way for the whole family to have some wholesome fun, this treasure trail isn’t just designed for kids.
Treasure Trail maps can usually be found at the local Tourist Information Centre and are available in several towns across the UK. Each map cost £6.99 and is well worth the expense. The suggested time-frame to complete the entire map is one and a half hours. But it definitely kept us busy much longer than that, probably because I was taking so many pictures.
SHOP YOUR HEART OUT AT REGENT TAILORING
A Weekend in Salisbury wouldn’t be complete without a browse at Regent Tailoring. Salisbury has many quirky independent shops, but this tailor recently made headlines across the country when it was featured by Condé Nast.
This independent retailer not only offers men stylish fashion with a strong English Heritage but an entire lifestyle brand. Exploring the shop, set over five floors of a small brick-faced building, is an experience by itself. Every corner hides another unusual object.
This certainly was the first shop either of us ever visited, that offered us a free drink of our choice as soon as we walked through the front door. Gin or a Whiskey anyone? And the unique fashion pieces, each selected for their one-of-a-kind story, will certainly tempt you to spend all your hard-earned cash.
Finally, head-up to the top floor and enjoy the shop’s stunning views of Salisbury’s iconic cathedral.
GRAB SOME FUDGE AT ROLY’S PANTRY
Do you have a sweet tooth? Then pop into Roly’s Fudge Pantry to satisfy it. It is located just around the corner from Regent Tailoring and its unusual and hilarious shop front tempted us in. At which point we were hit by the unmistakable smell of fresh fudge.
Here at Roly’s Pantry, Fudge is still made in the traditional way. Each batch is cooked up in a giant copper cauldron and then poured out onto a marble slab, where it is folded into a meter-long log. This process gives the fudge a really crumbly texture. It is fascinating to watch and even better to taste.
And there are always at least ten different flavours of fudge to choose from, some of which are rather unusual (ale or hot-cross-bun for example). But perhaps that isn’t all too surprising, since the shop was opened by a former food journalist. Some of the most popular favours include Butterscotch, Chocolate and Maple & Walnut. But I would particularly recommend the Rum ‘n Raisin Fudge.
ENJOY DINNER AT THE OLDEST PUB IN TOWN – THE HAUNCH OF VENISON
After a long day spent sightseeing, it’s time for a well-deserved dinner. And what better place to have it then in Salisbury’s oldest and most haunted pub. The Haunch of Venison opened its doors other 700 years ago and every corner is brimming with history. There is even a tale of a severed hand. But don’t let that put you off your food. This is one of the UK’s top 25 pubs you must visit before you die.
Wiltshire as a county produces a large variety of fresh ingredients. But on this particular occasion, we had the opportunity to taste an array of venison dishes. Perfect for carnivores such as Gary and me, but perhaps less suitable for vegetarians (or so I was told by some of the vegetarian bloggers that joined us on the trip).
Gary and I however really enjoyed our meal. As a starter, Gary ordered a platter of freshly baked bread which came with a delicious tapenade. Whilst I was delighted to find pigeon breast on the menu, which was served up with leeks and a balsamic berry juice. Gary then moved on to the Venison Burger, whilst I couldn’t get enough of the locally produced venison sausage, mash, and root vegetables.
Our bellies filled to the brim, we headed for bed. A busy itinerary was waiting for us the next morning.
THINGS TO DO NEAR SALISBURY ON A SUNDAY
On Sunday morning we got up really early, considering it was a weekend. After a filling breakfast, we jumped into our car and drove out into the countryside of Wiltshire.
The second day of your weekend trip to Salisbury will be spent exploring the local surroundings of the historic town. As a county, Wiltshire has a lot to offer, from quaint picturesque villages with thatched roofs to sprawling panoramic landscapes. There is so much to see and do in this part of Britain, that it can be hard to decide where to start. But perhaps this itinerary will provide you with a bit of inspiration.
GO ON A SAFARI ACROSS SALISBURY PLAIN
If I had to choose just one of the many activities we enjoyed in and around Salisbury, it would be the hair-raising adventure we had on the Salisbury Plain Safari.
I first got a taste for Safari’s on a trip with my dad and sister to Namibia, so I was amazed when I found out that similar fun could be had in the South West of England. A Safari in the UK? No really! There is just something about climbing into a 4×4 to drive through a barren landscape, that makes the little girl inside me feel like Lara Croft.
Each safari-like tour is led by one of six experienced guides and takes places in the vast territory of the Salisbury Plain, a stone’s through away from Stonehenge. Our transportation of choice, a Land Rover Defender, just about comfortably fit six people – two at the front, three in the middle and two at the back. This had the added benefit of keeping our tour group relatively small. Always a bonus in my eyes.
We met our guide, who seemed particularly knowledgeable and passionate about the area, in a pre-arranged location at the edge of the plain. Then suited and booted, we headed off on our morning adventure. Please ensure you wear comfortable clothes, by the way. And note that the air-con can be a bit hit or miss in such an old vehicle.
Whether you will spot any local wildlife, depends on the season, the weather and pure chance. In our case, it wasn’t meant to be. If you manage to see a bustard though, one of the largest flying land birds in the UK, count yourself particularly lucky. Sadly, bustards are in danger of extinction and the Salisbury Plain is one of the few locations where this species still thrives.
One way or another though, fun is guaranteed on this bumpy off-road drive. Your guide will point out many archaeological sites throughout the two-hour drive. Whilst Stonehenge is the most famous landmark in the area, it is not the only prehistoric site in the area. If the sky is clear, your guide will draw your attention to the white horses of Pewsey and Westbury which can be seen from afar. And at the right time of year, you might even pop into the ghost town of Imber.
Salisbury Plain is used as a training zone for the military, so we spent a lot of time driving around the perimeter of the army’s red flag zone. We were greeted by military vehicles and the photographer inside me rejoiced when we stopped to explore an abandoned army train. Photo-opportunity galore!
In fact, we had so much fun on this safari, that I was just a little sad when it ended and we had to move on to our next destination.
Let’s be honest, Stonehenge is pretty much a must-see for any tourist visiting the UK. But it is such an important part of our history, that I believe that every British person should see this Neolithic site with their own eyes at least once in their life. After all, Stonehenge is one of the best known ancient wonders of the world.
Stonehenge is actually located only a twenty-minute drive away from Salisbury, so it is perfectly combined with a trip to the medieval town.
At this point, I have visited Stonehenge four times and it has never disappointed me. Even though it has become ever so touristy since the new visitor’s centre was built.
Entrance tickets cost £18 per person unless you are an English Heritage member like Gary and me, in which case it is free. After braving the queue at the entrance, you can either walk up to the stone structure or take a shuttle bus. I would suggest you do both, bus on your way and a stroll through the countryside on your way back. There are two circular routes around the stones. One gets a little closer to them than the other, but both offer ample photo opportunities.
Once you have had your fill of seeing the Neolithic Stones with your own eyes, head back to the visitor centre to find out more about their history. I have to say the exhibition is really well design and interactive, so perfect for visitors of all ages. Find out how Stonehenge came to being, see it’s various guises throughout history, gaze at 5000-year-old artifacts and learn how its creator once lived by exploring the Neolithic village next door. Then head to the cafe and buy a rock-cake, a local delicacy that tastes a lot better than its name might suggest.
ALTERNATIVELY, LEARN ABOUT THE HISTORY OF OLD SARUM
If you have already been to Stonehenge, or want to avoid its crowds, then you might want to visit Old Sarum instead. Located two miles to the north of Salisbury, it will only take you ten minutes by car to get there. In fact, you can enjoy breath-taking views of the city from the top of this Iron Age hill fort, it is that close.
I have mentioned this already, but Old Sarum is where the first incarnation of Salisbury Cathedral once stood. But there is so much more to explore here than the ruins of the old cathedral. Romans, Normans, and Saxons have all left their mark on this ancient hill fort. Old Sarum is a history lover’s paradise as there are over 5000 years of history to be uncovered.
The attraction is owned and managed by English Heritage. If you are not a member, then the entrance ticket will set you back £5.20. Which, can I point this out, is a lot more affordable than Stonehenge. The entire site is well sign-posted and various boards describe life in the old fort. Did you know for instance that the water well was once a popular spot to gossip? No surprise there.
LATE LUNCH AT THE OLD ALE AND COFFEE HOUSE
Once you have buffed up on history, head back to Salisbury for lunch. There are many delightful cafes and restaurants in this medieval town. In fact, I have already introduced you to two of them. But this post would not be complete if I failed to mention the Old Ale and Coffee House.
Located near Salisbury’s river Avon, this is the place to go for scrumptious food, cheeky décor, and warm hospitality. It’s main selling point though, is the gigantic beer garden at the back of the property. The perfect place to spend a summer afternoon. Several beach huts complete the alfresco seating area and will definitely solicit holiday vibes.
The mixed tapas style starter seamlessly set-off my Aperol Spritz. But the highlight of the afternoon was definitely Gary’s Sunday roast. Yum!
FINAL THOUGHTS ON OUR HISTORIC WEEKEND TRIP TO SALISBURY
And that concludes our history-filled weekend in Salisbury. As you can see, we had loads of fun in the sun. And you can too!
Salisbury is easily reached from London either by car or train. All the sites within the town are accessible by foot and you can take a local taxi to any of the sites mentioned in the locals surrounding of the town.
If like Gary and me, you are a bit of a history-geek, then there really isn’t a better location to spend a weekend. It really is the ideal destination for a micro-adventure.
I would like to thank Visit Wiltshire for hosting us on this press trip. The accommodation, food and entrance tickets were complimentary for the purpose of this review. But as always all opinions are my own.
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