“The Sun Never Sets on the British Empire.” From the late 18th Century to mid-20th Century, these words rang true as the British Empire held colonies in nearly every area of the earth. The days of the empire may be a thing of the past, but the impact of the United Kingdom on the world is everlasting thanks to William Wallace, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, Robert Burns, Charles Darwin, Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chaplin, Dylan Thomas, Alfred Hitchcock, James Bond, The Beatles, J.K. Rowling and Afternoon Tea, Scotch Whisky, the Industrial Revolution, Golf, Stonehenge. The list of iconic British contributions to human culture is massive, an impressive feat for such a small country.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, commonly referred to as just the “United Kingdom,” or “UK” for short, is a union of four distinct nations: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is a term sometimes used to describe the entire sovereign state, but is actually the name of the island that comprises England, Scotland & Wales. The present-day UK has existed since 1922, after the Anglo-Irish Treaty gave independence to approximately 80% of the counties of the island of Ireland to form the Republic of Ireland. Together, the islands of Britain and Ireland make up the British Isles, along with the Isle of Man and Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey.
The United Kingdom shares its only land border with the Republic of Ireland along the southern and western borders of Northern Ireland, which is located in the northeastern-most part of Ireland, and is the smallest country within the UK. England is the largest, comprising 55% of the landmass of Great Britain in the south and east of the island. Bordering England to the north is Scotland, which encompasses 34% of Great Britain, and to the west, on the Irish Sea is Wales.
As an island nation, Britain’s sea borders are the North Atlantic Ocean north and west of Scotland, the Irish Sea to the west between Ireland and Britain, the English Channel to the south facing France and the North Sea to the East facing Northern Europe. It’s geographic position and proximity to Western Europe, Scandinavia and North America (relatively speaking) as well as its millennia of immigration from around the continent and world has enabled the United Kingdom to be one of the hubs for culture, finance, entertainment, food, science, industry and exploration.
The United Kingdom has a similar population to France, approximately 64.5 million people, but with twice the population density. The islands of Ireland and Great Britain are small, but each country of the United Kingdom are dramatically different from one another in both obvious and subtle ways. Their rich, dense histories and culture are worthy of a lengthy write-up unto themselves, respectively.
When to Travel – Weather
The UK’s reputation as a rainy, cloudy country is well justified, but it is far from the deluge that some people believe.
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all humid, temperate countries, that rarely get blisteringly cold in the winter or swelteringly hot in the summer. The Atlantic Ocean provides plenty of wind and moisture though, especially in Northern Ireland and along the western coastal areas of England, Wales and Scotland. The more inland and eastern parts tend to be a little bit dryer.
Sunny days are a welcomed sight across the UK as the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish peoples are all well accustomed to gray skies. That being said, London actually has fewer rainy days and receives less rain than Bangkok, Tokyo, Rome, Sydney & New York City. Nonetheless, it’s wise to bring a light rain jacket or have an umbrella handy.
Snow does happen around the UK, mostly in the hills of Wales, the northern parts of England and across Scotland (especially in the Highlands) as it’s the northernmost part of Britain. Average temperatures around the UK rarely drop below freezing, blizzards are rare, and snowfall rarely accumulates to levels seen in wintery countries. As a result, outdoor winter sports are not common, although there is minimal skiing.
On the other hand, since Spring, Summer and Autumn are all relatively comfortable (minus the overcast mist), outdoor activities like hiking, biking, camping or playing football (soccer) are readily available.
Food and Drink
British cuisine used to be the butt of many jokes, and was often derided for being overcooked, bland and boring. Much of this comes from governmental rationing during the 20th century due to wars, which limited the access to ingredients and spices. Today, British cuisine is influenced by cultures around the world, and traditional British dishes have attained been revitalized and attained a new level of sophistication by focusing on sourcing local ingredients and preparing dishes with a refinement learned from French, Italian, Middle Eastern and Indian chefs. It’s this diversity of cuisine that has contributed to London’s 65 Michelin-star rated restaurants (and more around the UK), which includes many restaurants serving international cuisine (Asian, French, Spanish) and also features celebrity chefs Gordon Ramsay and Alain Ducasse.
The influence of Indian cuisine on Britons has resulted in the creation of mulligatawny soup, chicken curry sandwiches, and what has become a national dish: chicken tikka masala, all which are credited as distinctly Anglo-Indian dishes.
Some of the most famous British dishes include the ubiquitous fish and chips (fried cod or haddock and fried potatoes), bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes), black pudding (pork blood sausage), haggis (a pudding of sheep’s organs & spices), shepherd’s pie, Sunday Roast (a hearty roast beef dinner traditionally served on Sundays), and a full breakfast consisting of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, tomato and potato.
As evidenced by the traditional dishes, British food is full of meat and potatoes. Farms around the UK produce high quality beef, lamb and pork, as well as cheddars that rival the US and bleus that rival France. But of all the crops grown in the UK, barley is one of the most cherished, as it’s the main ingredient in beer and whisky, produced in large quantities in England and Scotland, respectively.
Tea is to Britain as espresso is to Italy: an essential part of life. Afternoon tea has become an important part of British culture, and a variety of shops and services are available for tea lovers of all varieties.
Popular Vacation Spots
London – Few cities are as important to the world as London. Settled during the time of the Roman Empire, London has been a center of government, commerce, industry, food, drink, entertainment, shopping, sport, art, architecture and literature for nearly two millennia. London is a complex set of boroughs and cities along the River Thames within the Greater London area. The City of London, or simply “The City,” is home to most of London’s business & finance and is the site of the original Roman settlement Londonium. The City of London is so small that its nickname is “The Square Mile” due to its size which is barely larger than the name implies. The only other city within Greater London is Westminster, seat of the crown and government of the United Kingdom (and England’s). The Palace of Westminster, home to the Houses of Parliament & Big Ben, sits on the Thames. Across the street is Westminster Abbey. At one end of St. James’s Park is 10 Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister, and the other, near Green Park, is Buckingham Palace, home to Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
Her Majesty is not the only Royal to live in London. Across the famous Hyde Park, in the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, Princes William and Henry reside at Kensington Palace, former palace of Queen Victoria, and one of six royal palaces looked-after by Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity that also maintains the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace and makes them available to the public to connect with the long history of royalty in England and the UK at large. Walk along the Thames by the Tower of London to see the iconic Tower Bridge.
Palaces and Royals are not the only noteworthy attraction of London, though. The British Museum is one of the world’s largest history museums (4th most-visited), full of some of the most renown and controversial artifacts, such as the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and antiquities from every region of the planet. The Royal Albert Hall is one of the finest performance stages in the world, the West End rivals only Broadway in New York City for theatre, and sporting events such as Wimbledon or the Football Clubs Chelsea and Arsenal provide sporting enthusiasts with a great opportunity to catch a game.
Shopping in London is a sport unto itself, and fashion plays an important role in the culture on the street. London is home to a number of world-renown fashion designers, retailers and department stores, like the historic Harrod’s, Victory and Fortnum & Mason.
Afternoon tea is a staple of British culture, and London of course has some of the most refined afternoon tea services. If refinement isn’t your thing, do as the locals do and hop in to a pub around 6 in the evening for a pint or two. English beers, Scotch Whisky and plenty of pub food will be sure to delight as much as the conversation you’re bound to have with the folks all around.
No matter your fancy, London is truly a world-class city that’s reputation is well-earned.
London may dominate the South of England, but there is more to the South than the imposing capital city. Dover’s white cliffs, Brighton’s arts and architecture, Bath’s hot-spring baths, the Cotswolds quaint villages and rolling hills, and Stonehenge, the finest structure from prehistoric Britain and a defining ancient landmark. All of these places are easily accessible from London.
The Midland counties of Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire (to name a few) provide a direct connection to the development of English culture as the crossroads between north, south, east and west, and thus England, Scotland & Wales. The Peak District is a perfect place for rock climbers and outdoor enthusiasts, Birmingham, England’s second largest city, was once the heart of the industrial revolution has now revitalized itself into a cultural, artistic and shopping mecca, and quaint Stratford-Upon-Avon allows visitors to immerse themselves in a world of Shakespeare.
Northerners are immensely proud to be from the north of England. Their culture, and accents, are quite distinct from the south, and from one another. Cities like Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle & York have dominated their respective counties for centuries and have matured into cities deeply connected to their origins, celebrating their unique histories and constantly reaffirming what makes them special and worth visiting.
The north is also home to the majestic Lake District and Hadrian’s Wall, the ancient northern border of the Roman Empire in Britain that was meant to keep out the Picts of what is now Scotland. Today, you can walk or bicycle on a path along Hadrian’s Wall stretching from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, stopping in forts, museums and inns along the way, before traversing further north into Scotland.
Edinburgh - The historic capital of Scotland, with its famous castle high on the hill is a gorgeous city with friendly people and incredible events. This city is undeniably vibrant, with close ties to its history while remaining a hub for culture, arts, literate and performance. The city is home to some of the most famous festivals in the world, including the Edinburgh International Festival, Military Tattoo (kilted bagpipe band performance) and the world-famous Fringe Festival. The poet Sir Robert Burns is celebrated around Edinburgh as the national poet who so eloquently expressed the heart and soul of the Scottish people, and the city was home to authors Sir Walter Scott, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Adam Smith, and is the birthplace of Sean Connery, better known as the original 007, James Bond. The culture of Scotland extends to the drink. Scotch Whisky has been around for at least 500 years and experienced a huge resurgence in the past decade. Step into a pub in Edinburgh to taste all of the finest Lowlands, Highlands, Speyside & Islay malts.
Glasgow - So close, yet so far. Whereas Edinburgh boasts the history and culture, Glasgow is industrious, modern and artistic, with great countryside all around in the Clyde Valley. It’s the style capital of Scotland, as well as the largest city, and is full of museums, parks, music halls, theatres, and some of Britain’s most delicious cuisine.
The cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow may be the cultural hubs of Scotland, and home to most of the population, but the Highlands are inextricably important to the culture of the Scottish people, and is a major part of their identity. Idyllic rolling hills & mountains, like Ben Nevis, lakes, such as the famous Loch Ness & castles galore, have contributed to a people deeply connected to their land, with names and cultures directly connected to their homes. Take a break from all of the hiking, biking and climbing by enjoying Whisky straight from the distilleries scattered around the Highlands, and be sure to enjoy it with some fine Scottish shortbread.
If you need a break from all the Comedy, Castles and Whisky, and feel the urge to get in a round of golf, well then you’re in luck, as Scotland is the birthplace of the game as we know it (early 16th Century) and is home to nearly 600 courses, including the world famous Old Course at St. Andrews, which is not only affordable to play at, but like many of the other courses around the country, publicly owned.
England and Scotland may dominate Britain, but Wales should not be forgotten. With 641 castles, 3 national parks, 750 miles of coastline, Wales is full of adventure in the city, on the water, or in the countryside. Cities like Cadriff (the Welsh capital) and Swansea are beacons of Welsh culture and offer incredible sightseeing activities and jumping off points into the quaint villages of Wales.
The only country of the United Kingdom not on the island of Great Britain, Northern Ireland shares much of its culture with the Republic of Ireland to the south and west. A tumultuous history of a land stuck between two nations, Northern Ireland has some of the richest history of the British Isles, and is the birthplace of Saint Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, and inextricably linked to the cultural/religious conflict that has since died down between the people of Ireland and Britain. The hit TV show Game of Thrones is filmed in many locations around Northern Ireland (the book-series, A Song of Ice and Fire, of which A Game of Thrones is the premiere publication, has many correlations to British history), and the popularity of the show has shown the world the beauty of the land and the gorgeous historic castles dotted throughout the country.
The capital city of Belfast is the second largest city on the island of Ireland, located on the west coast of the island, and is as important to the development of Irish culture as is Dublin. After 30+ years of violence, today Belfast is a city undergoing a renaissance as it simultaneously celebrates its complicated history while showcasing the warmth of the Irish people via restaurants, bars, parks and attractions. On the eastern border of Northern Ireland is Londonderry, commonly referred to as Derry. Bordering County Donegal in the Republic of Ireland, Derry is a walled city like Carcassonne in France and Lucca in Italy, and is the only one remaining in all of Ireland. It’s significantly older than Belfast, and is the historical heart of Northern Ireland, and a great entry/exit point for traveling between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The British “Pound sterling” (GBP or £) is the world’s oldest continually used currency and its high value (1GBP≈1.5USD) and stability have made it one of the world’s primary trading and reserve currencies. For these reasons (and more) the United Kingdom elected not to join the Eurozone and forfeit their prized, independent currency that has become an important symbol of British nationalism.
Pounds, as they’re simply referred to, or “quid” for short (similar to “bucks” in the US), have different issuers depending on country of origin, which can be confusing to an outsider. In England, pounds are issued by the Bank of England, the United Kingdom’s Central Bank and come in denominations of £5, £10, £20 & £50. £1 banknotes were withdrawn from circulation in 1984. Scotland has three currency-issuing banks: Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) that collectively issue banknotes in £1 (RBS only), £5, £10, £50 & £100 denominations. Northern Ireland’s four authorized banks (Bank of Ireland, Danske Bank, First Trust Bank & Ulster Bank) issue bills in denominations of £5 (Ulster & Ireland only), £10, £20, £50 & £100 (Danske no longer produce £50 & £100 notes). Wales does not have a distinct banknote to their nation and defaults to the standard British Pound issued by the Bank of England.
Needless to say, if you’re traveling around the UK, be sure to pay attention to your banknotes, as each bill may come from a different issuer and may be easily confused. Most currencies are standardized by size and color, but the UK is also transitioning from paper to polymer banknotes, which is sure to add another layer to the confusion.
Making matters ever more complicated with British currency is the possibility that a business will reject a banknote not from their nation, either due to unfamiliarity with a particular bank’s note (such as a Northern Irish £5 note from Ulster Bank being used in southern England) or due to feeling’s about national identity, such as a Scottish Pound not being accepted in England or vice versa.
Coinage in the UK is much less complicated. The Royal Mint regularly issues £1 & £2 coins, although the latter is not as common. One Pound sterling is divided into 100 pence, in denominations of 1p (penny), 2p, 5p, 10p, 50p. Britons typically say “fifty pee” when describing fifty pence.
Crown dependencies, like the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands (Jersey & Guernsey), as well as the British Overseas Territories of Gibraltar, Saint Helena and the Falkland Island all issue their own Pound which are typically pegged with the British Pound sterling but aren’t typically accepted in the UK. On the other hand, British Pound sterling may be accepted at businesses and banks in these respective locales.
All major credit cards are widely accepted at businesses and ATMs around the UK. Many restaurants will add a service charge to the bill, in which case tipping is not needed, but be sure to check. If the bill does not include a service charge, 10-15% is customary. Tipping in bars is not customary in London but is certainly appreciated, if the bartender doesn’t hand the change back to you because of not expecting a tip. A 10-15% tip or simply rounding up to the nearest £1 for “black cabs” is also polite.
Measurement systems & Direction of Traffic
The UK’s standard measurement system is “Imperial”, which includes miles (similar to the US, but not the rest of the world), yards, feet and inches for distance, gallons, quarts, pints (larger than a US pint) and ounces for volume, stones and pounds for weight. Confusingly, the UK also adopted the metric system, so it’s not uncommon to see measurements in liters or kilograms.
The UK is also the country that instituted driving on the left side of the road (and right side of the vehicle), which remains in many Commonwealth nations, like Ireland, India, South Africa & Australia. This applies not only to motor vehicles, but also to trains like the London Underground subway system. If you come from a right-hand traffic nation, it’s very important to remember to look both ways as though you’re a child, since traffic comes from the opposite direction. This confusion is so problematic that many cities around the UK paint the crosswalk to tell you which way to look.