London is one of Europe's top places for a city break, but there is lots to do beyond the capital. Thanks to its location in the south of England and good rail links, you are spoiled for choice for day trips from London by train.
From fish and chips at the seaside to tea and scones in a stately home, we’ve made a list of the ultimate British days out by rail. Read on for eight excursions from London, each possible by direct train in 2 hrs or less.
Day out to Margate by train
Once loved by 19th Century day trippers, Margate is now back in fashion. And just 1 hr 25 mins by direct train from London, it is an easy day out by rail. Margate has everything you’d expect from a day trip to the seaside. A sandy beach, arcade and fish n’ chips come as standard. But Margate is also home to the excellent Turner Contemporary art gallery on the seafront and restored iconic amusement park, 'Dreamland'. It’s well worth a visit. If the weather’s decent, there’s an easy coastal walk from Margate to Botany Bay. Or to make a weekend of it take the train to Ramsgate or explore nearby Broadstairs. The Viking Coastal Trail covers this whole 'Thanet Peninsula' so you can take most of it in by bike, off-road,, just stopping for quick dips and ice cream along the way.
High-speed trains from London to Margate take 90 mins from St. Pancras. They run frequently - around three an hour in both directions. There is also a slower (and cheaper) train from London Victoria to Margate.
Visit Brighton by rail
Probably the best seaside town near London, Brighton has long been number one for a day trip or weekend away. Famous for its pier, pebbles and parties, visitors to “London on sea” will find it’s a great escape from the capital on a sunny day. But even on a typically British (cloudy) day, there’s still plenty to do. Head to the South Lanes for boutique shopping. Or hit the North Lanes for retro clothes, antiques and more cafes than you can shake a stick at. For some culture, explore the exotic Royal Pavilion - and former royal residence - in the centre of town. Brighton, and nearby Lewes, are gateways to the sprawling South Downs National Park, accessible by a short shuttle bus from Brighton and on foot from Lewes.
It’s no surprise that Londoners think nothing of just going to Brighton for the afternoon. Trains from London to Brighton can take an hour or less. The fastest trains to Brighton leave from London Victoria. Slower, cheaper trains leave from other stations - there are direct services from Kings Cross St Pancras, Blackfriars and London Bridge (weekdays only). Adults travelling in groups of three to nine can take get a discount - 1/3 off Off-Peak tickets, or keep an eye out for our bargain Pricehack split ticket fares.
Epping Forest by train
It is amazing how many Londoners haven't even explored this vast forest on their doorstep, with 24km2 of ancient trees, meadows and tranquil hiking routes within easy reach of the city centre. There are various ways to access this superb green space which was once a royal hunting ground, with a 15th century Tudor hunting lodge still one of its landmarks. As it is so vast, you can access its outer edges on the London tube system by taking the Central Line east to Epping, which is the last stop, although any of the stops from Snaresbrook onwards will lead you into the Forest. You can also take a train on London's Overground system from London to Chingford. Another option is to stay at Lee Valley Youth Hostel, one of many UK hostels accessible. by train at Cheshunt, and then enjoy a 7km walk to the Forest, following the River Lee to get there.
Visit Hever Castle by train
It’s just 40 mins by train from London to Hever Castle in Kent. So the childhood home of Anne Boleyn makes an excellent day out from London. Surrounded by gardens, the historic castle and boating lake are ideal for a day in the countryside in spring or summer. Or visit the gardens in April to see 20,000 tulips in bloom. An adventure playground and maze make Hever castle a fun day out for families, too. And the house itself is a fascinating glimpse into Tudor life - especially good for a rainy day. Another great castle to visit by train is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, famous for being the location of the TV show Downton Abbey. Read more in our blog about how to get to the real Downton Abbey here.
Direct trains leave London Bridge for Hever every hour. It’s a quick journey, taking just 40 mins. Hever Station is a one-mile rural walk to the castle. Or alight a stop earlier at Edenbridge Town Station. It’s around 5km by taxi to the castle.
A day out in Cambridge
Just an hour by train and home to one of the world's oldest universities, Cambridge is a popular choice for a day trip from London. Highlights include punting on the river Cam and a stroll down the “Backs” for a peek into college gardens - both giving a glimpse of university life. Beyond the university, there are many historic buildings, exceptional museums and some excellent walking tours. If you’d rather sit and watch the world go by, Cambridge has lots of traditional pubs. You might even find yourself at a bar where the likes of Charles Darwin or Stephen Hawking did their drinking and thinking. There are frequent trains from London to Cambridge. Fast trains from London Kings Cross to Cambridge run non-stop twice each hour on weekdays and hourly on weekends. This service takes under 50 mins.
Slower trains leave London Liverpool Street to Cambridge on weekdays. These take around 1 hr 12 mins.
Visit Bath by train
The fastest trains from London to Bath take 1 hr 30 mins. Though longer than the other journeys we’ve featured, Bath is worth the effort for an excursion by rail from London or a weekend away. Walking around Bath, it’s obvious why the city ranks as one of the top day trips from London. The historic Roman Baths from which Bath Spa takes its name are worth the trip alone. And when you’re ready to relax, check out the stunning rooftop thermal spa. Besides the waterworks, there’s fabulous architecture: the famous Royal Crescent and Pulteney Bridge as well as plenty of good shopping and markets, too.
There are direct trains every hour to Bath Spa from London Paddington. The journey time is just under 90 mins. If you can book tickets in advance, do. London to Bath trains are among the most expensive in Britain when bought at short notice, so don’t be caught out. If you can’t book ahead, travel off-peak or on weekends to save.
London to Bletchley Park day trip
The top-secret home of the World War II codebreakers, Bletchley Park is a fascinating day out from London. Fans of the Imitation Game and history buffs alike will enjoy exploring the home of the codebreakers and their extraordinary machines. Visitors will also find a museum dedicated to computing and other exhibitions throughout the year. Kids under 12 get free entry to Bletchley Park. And adults travelling in groups of three to nine get a discount of 1/3 off Off-Peak train tickets.
The fastest direct trains from London to Bletchley take 36 mins on weekdays. Even the slower services take less than 50 mins, so visiting Bletchley is possible for an afternoon excursion from the capital. Both depart from London Euston.
Canterbury has welcomed pilgrims from around the world since the middle ages. But whether you’re coming from Santiago de Compostela or London, one of the easiest ways to get there is by train. Canterbury is less than an hour by rail from London. And there is lots to do, making it a relaxing day out for pilgrims and tourists alike. The famous Gothic cathedral is a must-see on any day trip to Canterbury. But there is much more to do besides. Walk the city walls, boat down the River Stour or relive Chaucer's famous tales of medieval misadventures. This is also a great spot to take on the 12km Crab and Winkle Way hiking trail, but also suitable by bike, to Whitstable, a beautiful seaside town where you can get a train back to Canterbury.
Direct trains run from London to Canterbury daily. Fast trains depart every hour from St Pancras, arriving in Canterbury West in 50 mins. Slower trains (which take 1 hr 40 mins) leave more regularly from various central London stations to both Canterbury East and Canterbury West stations. Both the East and West stations are a 10 mins walk to the city centre.
Hastings to Rye cycle route
We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to great cycle rides in the British countryside. So if you want an active day trip from London, saddle up and load your bike onto the train to the south coast. It’s around 1 hr 40 mins from London to Hastings. Here you can pick up National Cycle Route 2. It spans several hundred kms of the south coast of England. But it’s easy to pick up for a 5 or 10-mile ride with families or longer with overnight stops along the way. Hastings to Rye is a good route to start with. It’s 16km of coastal paths and quiet roads through an area of outstanding natural beauty. And the route is dotted with pubs and secluded pebble beaches.
Direct trains run from London Charing Cross or London Bridge to Hastings. This is a SouthEastern service where bikes are permitted without reservations off-peak and on weekends, subject to space on board.
Image credits: Margate Harbour by Alan Glicksman, CC0 1.0 Public Domain, Brighton Pier, CC0 Creative Commons, Cambridge, Epping Forest martin_vmorris, CC0 Creative Commons, Bath England by szeke, CC0 2.0, Bletchley Park, CC0 Creative, Commons Canterbury, CC0 Creative Commons, Hastings by Ben124, CC0 1.0 Public Domain
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