If London has whet your appetite for all things English, hop on a train and visit Windsor. Less than an hour from central London, this historic city is one of the easiest and most popular day trips for foreign visitors. You can also enjoy a nice stroll to nearby Eton and visit the famous boarding school.
The main attraction is, of course, Windsor Castle. It’s one of the official residences of the Queen and she often spends her weekends here (tough life!). It’s the oldest and largest continually inhabited castle in the world. While there was a castle here as early as 1070, the oldest surviving parts date from the reign of Henry II (reigned 1154-1189). In 1189, Prince (later King) John was besieged here by angry barons who eventually forced him to sign the Magna Carta, the first official limitation on the monarch’s power. King Edward III (reigned 1327-1377) built much of the present structure.
The tours are lots of fun. One of the highlights is St. George’s Chapel, and elaborately Gothic 15th century house of worship that’s the place of rest for ten monarchs. Other stops include Queen Mary’s dollhouse, a lavish art collection with pieces by Holbein and Rubens, the armory, and fine views from atop the battlements. Windsor Castle is one of those rare sights that’s actually better to visit in winter, because that’s when the semi-state rooms are open. Built by George IV in the 1820s as living and social quarters for the royal family, they include elegant furniture and giant oil paintings under elaborately molded plaster ceilings.
Interesting trivia: Windsor Castle is not named after the House of Windsor (the royal family), but in fact the royal family is named after the castle. During World War Two the royals decided their actual name, the House of Saxe Coburg-Gotha, sounded too German and changed it!
After visiting the castle, enjoy a pleasant amble through Windsor Great Park and The Long Walk. This 4,800 acre park used to be hunting grounds for the Saxon kings. The Long Walk runs nearly half a mile from the southern gate of the castle. It used to be a promenade for the aristocratic set. Don’t go here after dark, though, because Herne the Hunter–a mysterious phantom rider who has antlers on his head and leads a pack of spectral hounds–has been known to ride by giving ominous predictions of doom to anyone who sees him.
If you have the time you should also check out Eton, the most elite public (i.e.–private) school in the UK. Eton has been educating future power brokers since it was founded by Henry VI in 1440. A tour gives a glimpse of what it’s like to live the privileged life, with a small teacher/student ratio and more extracurricular activities than you can count. The school is historic and beautiful, with a 15th century chapel and classrooms and serene grounds perfect for
lazing about and spending daddy’s money learning. The Museum of Eton life explains what the kids get up to in all these ornate buildings–and one thing they get up to is carving their names everywhere. You’ll see graffiti on some of the walls that’s older than many nations.
While most visitors will only see the castle and Eton, Windsor has a lot more to offer. If the weather is fine, take a boat trip along the River Thames, which flows between Windsor and Eton. You can get some great shots of Windsor Castle from the water. A picnic at Windsor Great Park is also a good way to while away an afternoon. You can also hop on a bus near the castle that takes you to Legoland Windsor with lots of rides and attractions and Miniland, a reproduction of some of the greatest landmarks of the world. You can see Kennedy Space Center, London’s Millennium Bridge, and more. Building all this took nearly 40 million bricks of Lego. That’s some serious dedication!
Windsor and Eton are compact enough that you can easily walk around and see all the highlights in a single long day. If you decide to stay overnight, the Mercure Windsor Castle Hotel on 18 High Street offers sweeping views of the castle. This 16th century coaching inn has lots of historic flair and if you have deep pockets, there’s a good but pricey restaurant that serves English cuisine and high tea. More affordable dining can be had at the Castello Restaurant and Wine Bar at 4 Church Lane. The building dates to 1423. Original oak beams crisscross the walls and ceiling and there doesn’t seem to be a straight line anywhere. For al fresco dining, step out onto the medieval cobblestone lane. Simple, reasonably priced food, big servings, and a medieval setting-you might have to go to Italy to find this combination again.
If you want to do more day trips from London, try Bath, St. Albans, and Canterbury.