If you’re used to catching the train to Luton Airport, St Albans may sound a bit familiar to you. Apart from just being a regular pause on the train journey, St Albans is equally known for being part of London’s commuter belt, where people escape central London prices yet still live close enough to be able to commute into the city for work.
A few months ago, Chris and I celebrated our two-year anniversary. Since we have been in the middle of saving for something big (keep your eyes peeled for an announcement in the coming month), we decided to explore destinations close to home by taking two day trips over the course of that weekend. The first one was to Cambridge, where we spent a day exploring the colleges and dabbled in a bit of punting too. On the Sunday, we took the train to St Albans.
If you’re after an action-packed day trip, keep reading for my guide to St Albans. An ancient cathedral, delicious treats, Roman ruins and an eye-achingly beautiful park – there’s plenty to keep you busy in St Albans.
– How to get to St Albans –
First things first… what’s the best way to get to St Albans?
You could drive there, which will take you about 50 minutes from central London. There are also bus services, but, for me, the most hassle-free way to travel here has to be by train. You can jump on the Thameslink at a central London station (including the likes of Kings Cross, Blackfriars and Farringdon), and then hop off at the St Albans City Station. Note that there are two St Albans train stations – St Albans City and St Albans Abbey. Both of these are central, although we found that the City station had more frequent services.
– Get an incredible view for £1 –
Now that you’re in the city, the first thing you need to do is to get your bearings. Of course, you can do this on ground level by wandering through the narrow roads and pedestrian streets of St Albans’ historical centre, but I always love finding a higher vantage point when I visit a new destination.
The place where you can do so is pretty special. St Albans’ Clock Tower is the only medieval town belfry in England and it’s been standing here since 1403. Impressively, the tower’s bell has been in use for a staggering 600 years. For only £1, visitors can climb the 93 extremely narrow steps to the top.
You can take little breathers along the way, as there are small rooms off to the side of the stairs where you can find additional information about the history of the Clock Tower. The physical effort is completely worth it, though, as the views are incredible up here. You can see a full 360-degree view of the city centre, and you’ll also get a visual confirmation that the countryside is really not that far away. The best view, however, has to be the unimpeded one of this city’s most iconic attraction – St Albans Cathedral.
Note: Unfortunately, the Clock Tower isn’t wheelchair friendly, so keep this in mind when planning a visit!
– Admire the city’s famous cathedral –
St Albans is referred to as a cathedral city; it would be a travel crime if you didn’t visit the landmark that gives St Albans this status.
Having seen St Albans Cathedral in its entirety from up high at the Clock Tower, I was very excited to get a closer look at this unique historical building.
While every perspective of the cathedral looks more beautiful than the next, as you make your approach, you’ll notice that it appears to be a massive jigsaw of different building materials. There are smooth slabs of stone in the exterior but then there’s coarser, irregular brickwork in the cathedral tower.
This is due to the fact that St Albans Cathedral was built over a long period of time. Much of the current structure reflects construction carried out in the Norman times (from 1077). But a religious building has been standing on this site from long before then too, with writings mentioning that there was a church here from the 4th Century. As if the cathedral’s age isn’t noteworthy enough, that brickwork in the tower – and some other parts of the structure – was repurposed from Verulamium, a Roman settlement located nearby.
I could’ve spent hours admiring the exterior, but it’s only once you’re inside that you can appreciate another famous fact about the cathedral. St Albans Cathedral has the longest nave of any cathedral in England. Although the cathedral may not be the most extravagantly decorated one I’ve ever visited, it still contains a lot of beauty. I loved spotting details like the faded painted murals behind some of the pillars, as well as the ornate tomb of St Alban.
The cathedral was named after this particular saint; Alban was a Roman who converted to Christianity. Eventually, he was executed for his beliefs, and he is now considered to be the country’s first Christian martyr.
Entry to the cathedral is free, and there are also free guided tours at set times. In addition, there is a tower tour during the summer months, but this carries a fee.
– Pick a peaceful spot in the Vintry Garden –
We spent well over an hour exploring the interior of the cathedral and, upon exiting, we found this lovely little garden right next to it.
The Vintry Garden was named thus because the area in which it lies used to be called ‘Vintry’. This is due to the fact that St Albans Abbey (another name for the cathedral) had vineyards growing here from the 14th Century. There are a few vines in the garden nowadays, acting as a nod to the area’s medieval uses, but this compact garden is an ideal location for strolling past plantlife, or to have a spot of lunch if you brought yours with you.
As an added bonus, the Vintry Garden enjoys a location right in the shadow of the cathedral, which provides a spectacular backdrop for your moment of relaxation amid nature.
– Make a lunch stop at Bakehouse –
If you haven’t brought along your lunch, there are a number of excellent dining spots in the city centre.
We opted for Bakehouse, which is tucked away in a courtyard close to the high street. We were immediately drawn in by the branding, as well as the countertops laden with all sorts of cakes, pastries and sandwiches. Set over two levels, Bakehouse doubles up as an events space, but we were there because we were absolutely starving by this point in the day.
Settling for iced coffee and one of the tastiest soups I’ve had in ages (broccoli and rosemary), Chris went for a tomato, mozzarella and pesto sandwich. Everything was freshly made and delicious, and we couldn’t resist picking up something sweet on the way out. If you’re in St Albans and are looking for an affordable, high-quality lunch, Bakehouse is the place to go.
– Discover Roman Verulamium –
I’ve already made reference to St Albans’ Roman past – and I readily admit that this was one of the main reasons we chose to visit the city in the first place.
While you can see Roman ruins in central London, much of this is underground. In St Albans, you have the rare opportunity to see some ruins out in the open. But first, a little context: Verulamium was a large Roman city, thought to be the third-largest settlement in Roman Britain. Verulamium had the Roman architectural staples of a forum, basilica and theatre, and the city thrived until the end of Roman occupation in the 400s.
Verulamium is about a 10/15-minute walk out of central St Albans (the routes are well signposted). If you are keen to learn more about this historical phase, you need to pay a visit to the Verulamium Museum, which is located just outside Verulamium Park. You have to pay an admission fee, and I’d advise going for the combined ticket (£6.50), which allows you to see the nearby Roman theatre as well.
Inside the museum, you’ll find displays on all facets of life in Verulamium, as well as key finds from the ruins. These include colourful mosaics and large collections of Roman-era coins.
Once you’ve learned more about the Roman city, you can find the Roman theatre a quick 5-minute walk away. This had to be one of my favourite discoveries in St Albans. The remains of the theatre were buried for hundreds of years before being unearthed by 1935 – and the sight of such a complete Roman structure is a memorable one.
This is a very rare structure too, as unlike any other Roman amphitheatres, Verulamium’s theatre had a stage, yet it was also used for gladiator games and other combat-based shows. At its heyday, it could seat a total number of 2,000 spectators! Inside the theatre complex, you can also see the foundations of shops and workshops, which would’ve had a prime location right next to this major entertainment venue.
– Find not-so-hidden gems in Verulamium Park –
The Roman theme continues in Verulamium Park, which was once the site of the Roman city. As we were told at the museum, much of Verulamium remains unexcavated, so the random bumps and ridges you find in this 100-acre park are more than likely caused by the unseen foundations of this hidden Roman city.
Thankfully, not all of ancient Verulamium is buried. You can stop by the Hypocaust, which is housed in its own building and showcases the ingenious methods behind Roman heating systems. In other parts of the park, you can find stretches of Roman walls; note the similarity between the appearances of these walls and the tower of the city’s cathedral.
Even if you’re not a fan of Roman history, this park is impossibly pretty, with various walkways, forested areas and an ornamental lake. We were there on a weekend, so the families were out in their forces, and I can’t blame them for choosing this spot. I’d love to return here soon to explore more of Verulamium Park.
– End your day with a visit to a historical pub –
At this point in the day, you’ve done enough sightseeing that will warrant a well-deserved drink. Luckily, St Albans is perfectly positioned to help you in such matters. In fact, St Albans allegedly has the largest number of pubs per square mile in the entire country, so you’re bound to find something no matter where you are in the city.
Since we were in Verulamium Park, we went for the first option we stumbled upon – and inadvertently found what is considered to be Britain’s oldest pub. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks (you can’t make up names like these anymore) is located just outside the park in a octagonal, half-timbered building.
This pub dates back to the 8th Century, and the curious name stems from the fact that cock fighting once took place within the main bar area. It’s said that you can access ancient tunnels via the beer cellar, which lead to the cathedral and were once used by monks. Even Oliver Cromwell once spent a night at the inn here during the 17th-Century civil war.
Apart from its long-stretching history, nowadays Ye Olde Fighting Cocks is a great, popular pub with an even better beer garden, and I couldn’t recommend it enough as the place to conclude your day trip to St Albans. If you’re lucky, you may be able to make it in time for the Sunday roast too.
As evidenced by this post, there’s plenty to do on a day trip to St Albans. I admit, a lot of the places I’ve chosen to highlight here have been steered by my love of history. To me, it’s impossible to look past St Albans’ age, as, even when simply wandering through the city, chain restaurants are housed in photo-ready historical buildings and even the smallest of cottages had me reaching for my camera.
With so many titles attached to its name – Britain’s oldest pub, Roman Britain’s third-largest settlement, the longest cathedral nave – St Albans offers an easy, but rewarding day trip out of London. I hope this post has convinced you to venture out to St Albans; writing it has made me want to return immediately.
As I’ve discovered on many of my UK adventures so far, you need to move away from stereotypes and labels when travelling to destinations in this country. St Albans proved to be so much more than just a commuter city or a stop on the railway line – it’s a must for anyone remotely interested in British history.
Keen to retrace our steps? Take a look at the map below for my day trip itinerary to St Albans.
Have you been to St Albans? Did you love it as much as I did? Let me know in the comments below.
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