The island of Britain has a rich and diverse history that has witnessed the rise and fall of tribes, kingdoms, empires and nations. From stone-age cultures to the Ancient Romans, Norman conquerors to the achievements of the British Empire, the UK’s historic sites are as diverse as they are wondrous.
In fact, historical places make up some of the top attractions in the UK – and some of the most popular tourist sites – from Stonehenge to Westminster Abbey, Roman Bath and Edinburgh Castle. The countless examples of ancient sites, medieval castles and industrial revolution monuments ensure that no visit to Britain goes without its historical highlights.
We’ve put together an experts guide to Heritage Sites in Britain, with our top ten places to visit as well as a full list of UK Historic Sites, which shouldn’t be ignored if you have the time.
What are the best Historic Sites in the United Kingdom?
Portchester Castle in Hampshire offers a fantastic insight into various periods of British history and originally dates back to the Roman era. Built during Roman times, probably in the third century AD, Portchester Castle is the country’s only example of a Roman fort whose walls still stand complete up to around six metres.
Today, Portchester Castle is run by English Heritage who offer audio tours and exhibitions about the site as well as children’s activities.
Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to the Duke of Marlborough following his victory over French forces at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. On 30 November 1874, it also became the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, one of Britain’s greatest leaders. Today it is home to the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough.
Whether you choose to wander Blenheim Palace independently or as part of a guided tour, you can enjoy endless artistic masterpieces such as the Blenheim Tapestry depicting Lord Marlborough accepting the surrender of the French and the stunning ceiling paintings of Louis Laguerre. The 18th century house itself is an architectural marvel in its own right with its Baroque design.
Portsmouth Historic Dockyard contains three of the Britain’s most famous warships, namely the HMS Victory, HMS Warrior and Mary Rose. Also housing the Royal Navy Museum and still part of an active naval base, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard offers visitors a great insight into the British navy, both its past and present.
Visitors can also explore the Royal Navy Museum, one of the Britain’s foremost maritime museums and the only one to focus on the navy’s ships and serving members.
First discovered in the nineteenth century, the Roman Baths are one of the best preserved ancient Roman sites in the UK and form a major tourist attraction. The baths offer an incredibly comprehensive insight into the lives of the ancient Romans in the town and around Britain. The site looks quite small from the outside, but it is actually vast and a visit can last several hours.
Amongst the other sites at the Roman Baths, there is a comprehensive museum dedicated to exploring the lives of the ancient Roman citizens of Bath and an ancient drain used as an overflow system. Around the Great Bath itself, visitors can explore the numerous saunas, swimming pools, heated baths and changing facilities at the site.
Audio tours, available in English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Japanese and Mandarin and are included in the ticket price or visitors can join one of the hourly guided tours. The audio tour includes sections by the famous author Bill Bryson, and there are also children’s audio guides.
Caernarfon Castle is a stunning medieval stronghold in Wales built by Edward I and listed by UNESCO. Caernarfon has fared very well through the centuries, remaining exceptionally intact. It has also continued to play host to important events, including the investiture of Prince Charles as the Prince of Wales in 1969. Today, the site offers exhibits and tours.
Highgate Cemetery is a graveyard in London where the famous philosopher and political economist Karl Marx is buried. It is also the burial site of several other prominent people, including several novelists, artists, political activists and professionals. A list of famous internments can be found on Highgate Cemetery’s website.
Guided tours of the East Cemetery, where Marx is interned, take place on the first Saturday of each month starting at 2:15pm and last around an hour.
One of the most significant historic attractions in Britain, Ironbridge Gorge is an icon of the industrial revolution and a World Heritage site. Today, visitors can immerse themselves in this fascinating period of history. Not only can they see the bridge itself, but also a variety of other sites including homes, factories, mines, warehouses, foundries and the infrastructure of the 18th century Ironbridge Gorge.
There are ten Ironbridge Gorge museums, each telling a different aspect of the area’s story. From exploring the world of a Victorian town at Blists Hill and the Coalport China Museum to the Jackfield Tile Museum and the Tar tunnel, there’s lots to see.
Corfe Castle is the stunning ruin of a castle which has been everything from a royal residence to a military stronghold and even a prison. Today the site is one of the UK’s most picturesque historical places.
The current incarnation of Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in around 1066, although even before this, the site was of great historical importance, Indeed, it is said that King Edward the Martyr was murdered here in a plot to position Ethelred “the Unready” as monarch.
Corfe Castle would be expanded and altered over the coming centuries, especially in the 12th to 13th centuries under King John. Not only did this monarch further fortify the castle, he also used it as a prison and even a home. The demise of Corfe Castle and the cause of its current ruined state came with the English Civil War. Having survived one siege in 1643, it would fall to another only three years later, then being demolished by the Parliamentarians.
Today, Corfe Castle is open to the public under the remit of the National Trust.
Edinburgh Castle is a medieval fortress and royal castle turned national monument and World Heritage site. It is one of the top attractions in the United Kingdom.
Known by its English name since the invasion of the Angles in 638AD, the first mentions of Edinburgh Castle occurred in 600 AD during Roman Britain, when it was called “Din Eidyn” or “the fortress of Eidyn”.
It initially became a royal castle in the Middle Ages and has since been the site of many significant events in royal and military history. As a royal residence, Edinburgh Castle was the site of the birth of King James VI, also James I of England from 1603, to Mary Queen of Scots in 1566. However, Edinburgh Castle’s main role was a military fortification.
From as early as the thirteenth century, the castle was a focal point of the war between England and Scotland, swapping hands numerous times in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By this time, much of the original castle had been destroyed, to be rebuilt under the order of David II, who later died here in 1371. However, the buildings of Edinburgh Castle were to suffer further destruction in battle and David’s Tower, which was built in honour of David II, was razed during the Lang Siege. The final siege at Edinburgh Castle would take place in 1745, carried out by the Jacobites.
Today, visitors to Edinburgh Castle can explore the castle’s history through a series of guided tours and exhibitions. Among its many attractions are the Scottish National War Memorial and National War Museum, the Mons Meg, a giant cannon gifted to James II in 1457 and the Great Hall, built by James VI in 1511. Royal exhibitions include The Honours of Scotland jewels which, along with Scotland’s coronation stone, the Stone of Destiny, can be found in the castle’s Crown Room. Edinburgh Castle is also home to the oldest building in the city, the 12th-century St Margaret’s Chapel.
Durham Castle is an eleventh century building and the former home of the Bishops of Durham.
Originally commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072, Durham Castle was intended to ensure Norman control in the North of England. Once under Church control, each bishop, on his appointment, would put his own stamp on the castle, and duly altered it to reflect his own glory.
However, despite the many changes, Durham Castle retains the layout of a Norman motte and bailey castle. It has a well preserved Norman chapel, dating from 1080, and many other features of interest.
Durham Castle is now a residential college for the University of Durham, but is open to visitors on guided tours.