A medieval city surrounded by well-preserved walls. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a place of pilgrimage. Historic pubs, restaurants and river trips… And all within easy reach of London. Here’s why you should take a day trip to Canterbury, and what to do when you get there.
Why Visit Canterbury?
Canterbury was founded by the Romans – who called it Durovernum Cantiacorium – in the 1st century CE. But it is better known for its medieval and religious history: it has the oldest church in England; it is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury; and it has been a place of pilgrimage since the 12th century. The city’s three most important churches now collectively form a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You will also find a historic town centre with tiny streets, medieval buildings, and numerous shops and restaurants. And some of the best preserved city walls in the south of England.
Then there are the literary connections. Geoffrey Chaucer immortalised the city and its pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales, Christopher Marlowe was born here, and Charles Dickens featured the city in his work.
What To See And Do On A Day Trip To Canterbury
There is far more to see in Canterbury than you could fit into a single day trip. I have listed the main attractions below. I have then mentioned some of the extra things you could do on a longer visit.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
The UNESCO World Heritage Site known as Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church celebrates the city’s religious history and the fact that the spiritual head of the Church of England has been based here for nearly five centuries. The site includes three churches that trace milestones in English Christianity, from St Augustine to Thomas à Becket to the modern church.
St Augustine’s Abbey
Canterbury’s religious history begins in 595 CE when St Augustine arrived in Kent as part of a mission to re-introduce Christianity to Britain. He was successful in converting the local King Æthelberht and many of his subjects, and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
The abbey that Augustine founded just outside the Canterbury city walls was originally intended as a burial place for the kings of Kent. However it subsequently became one of the most important monasteries in England, a major centre of learning. Much of the building was destroyed in the 16th century during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Today you can explore the impressive ruins of the abbey and visit the Abbey Museum which has artefacts recovered from the site. St Augustine’s Abbey is owned by English Heritage, and entrance is free to members (use discount code EHAFF2024 for 15% off English Heritage Membership).
St Martin’s Church
Although the history of British Christianity really begins with St Augustine, there were some Christians already in the country, including Queen Bertha, the wife of King Æthelberht. St Martin’s Church was the queen’s private chapel, and was also used by St Augustine until the Abbey and the Cathedral were built.
St Martin’s is both the oldest church in Britain that is still in use and the oldest parish church in the English speaking world. However there is some dispute as to its date. We know that it was in existence in the 6th century but it has been suggested that it was a former Roman church. Whether this is true or not, you can certainly see some Roman brickwork in the current building.
The church is open for services. It is also possible to visit from 11am to 3pm Wednesday to Sunday (but note that the church may occasionally be closed at these times).
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Canterbury Cathedral (also known as Christ Church Cathedral). It has always had a central place in English Christianity, both before and after the establishment of the Church of England. It is also notable for its architecture, a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic.
The earliest cathedral was built by St Augustine, but was mostly destroyed by fire in the 11th century. It was rebuilt in 1070 but redesigned in the 14th century. However the most significant event in the cathedral’s medieval history was the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket (or Thomas à Becket) in the nave in 1170. Canterbury immediately became a major pilgrimage site, and large numbers of visitors started to arrive in the city.
In 1540 Henry VIII dissolved the monastery at Canterbury Cathedral and destroyed the shrine to Thomas Becket. However the important role of the Archbishop of Canterbury continues to the present day.
Exploring The Cathedral
A visit to Canterbury Cathedral is an essential part of your day trip, even if you only walk through the magnificent Christ Church Gate and admire the building from the outside. If you do go into the cathedral make sure you allow plenty of time to explore. You will find magnificent stained glass, royal tombs, and a crypt. And, of course, you can stand in the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered and where countless generations of pilgrims have come to pay their respects.
You can walk around the Great Cloister and come to the remains of the monastery. And, if you have more time, you can walk around the extensive gardens, both monastic and modern.
Medieval City Walls
Although they are no longer complete the Canterbury city walls are very well preserved and large sections remain. The original walls were built by the Romans between 270 and 290 CE. The 2.7 km circuit included seven gateways and a number of wall towers, and it was surrounded by a deep ditch. The wall seems to have remained in use for defensive purposes throughout the Middle Ages. It was substantially rebuilt in the 15th century but fragments of the original Roman stonework remain.
Today it is possible to walk around more than half of the original route of the walls. There are good sections near the Park & Ride stop at Whitefriars, and you can see the old St George’s Gate. Further round is the Westgate, the largest surviving city gate in England. Today the Westgate Towers are home to a museum covering different aspects of local history. And there are spectacular views from the battlement viewpoint.
The Old Town And The King’s Mile
Close to the High Street and the modern city centre you will find the narrow lanes of the old town. The so-called King’s Mile starts from the Cathedral and runs along Sun Street and Palace Street towards the King’s School. This is an area of medieval buildings, independent shops and numerous places to eat and drink.
As you walk along the cobblestone streets stop to look at the varied architecture and the plaques on the historic buildings. At the end of Palace Street is the famous Crooked House, said to have inspired Charles Dickens: a quote from David Copperfield above the door says “A very old house bulging out over the road … leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below”. It is now a second hand bookshop.
More To Do In Canterbury
If you have some spare time in Canterbury you might like the following.
Canterbury Roman Museum
The Canterbury Roman Museum is a must for anyone who wants to discover the city’s early history. It is based around the remains of a Roman house and includes a large mosaic pavement. The museum also contains many locally discovered Roman artefacts, including the Canterbury Treasure, an important silver hoard. And you can explore reconstructions of the Roman city.
Beaney House of Art and Knowledge
The Beaney is the main museum of Canterbury. Housed in a grand Tudor Revival building it contains a library, art gallery and visitor centre as well as museum exhibits. The museum is family friendly and has regular events and activities.
Two historic pilgrim routes start or end at Canterbury, and can still be walked today. The Pilgrim’s Way is the route taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims from London to Canterbury, ending at the Cathedral.
And the Via Francigena was a major pilgrimage route to Rome in medieval times. It starts outside the cathedral and passes St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church before heading towards Dover and the channel crossing.
Planning Your Canterbury Day Trip
- Canterbury is an easy day trip from London, just 87km away. Direct trains to Canterbury West run from a number of London stations. The fastest is from St Pancras and takes just over 50 minutes.
- Car parking in the city centre can be tricky. I recommend using one of the Park & Ride car parks and taking the bus to the centre.
- You might like to get a deeper insight into the city and its history by taking a guided tour of Canterbury.
- If you are thinking of staying overnight have a look at the accommodation options on booking.com.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.