I visit Britain regularly and travel alone. Although I spend most of my time visiting with family or friends, I travel around the country alone, by air, car, rail or bus. Travelling to Britain for me, always involves transfers through London. I consider myself an experienced solo female traveller in this respect, and highly recommend Great Britain as a destination for other solo female travellers.
What is Great Britain and where is it?
If you’re not from the UK (and even if you are), you might not actually realize that Great Britain and the UK aren’t quite the same. It’s not surprising really that there’s some confusion, as Great Britain, or Britain for short, and the United Kingdom (UK) are often used interchangeably, but sometimes incorrectly. And if you’re from Canada, you may not even know exactly where it is.
Great Britain only comprises three countries, England to the south, Scotland to the north and Wales to the west, whereas the United Kingdom also includes Northern Ireland (the full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
Geographically, Great Britain, is the largest island in the British Isles, which is an archipelago made up of over 6,000 islands located in the North Atlantic Ocean, north of France across the English Channel.
The British Isles includes the whole of Ireland (or Eire), which comprises both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and is the second largest island in the archipelago. (I won’t go into the politics, but you can read here and here, if you want to learn more about the history, geography and politics of the three names.)
Just to confuse you even further, I either say I am from England or the UK and that I’m British (or a BritCan since becoming a Canadian citizen in 2005). I grew up in both London, near Twickenham and Richmond, as well as Northamptonshire (the Rose of the Shires) in the East Midlands – almsot smack dab in the middle of the country.
I have travelled to and around both Scotland and Wales many times, and have been all over England apart from some of the north east of England. I have travelled as far south as Land’s End, Cornwall, the most southerly point in Great Britain, and as far north as Ullapool, Scotland, and across to the Outer Hebrides. I’ve been to various points East, I’ve been West, and many places in between.
You could say I’ve travelled quite extensively in my homeland and still visit Britain regularly (once or twice a year) for several weeks at a time to visit family and friends.
Why visit Britain?
Of course, I might be somewhat biased, having been born and raised in the UK, but there are so many reasons to visit Britain that I would need an entire book to list them all. So, I’m going to try and keep this short and sweet! (haha)
Simply put, if you love history, architecture and heritage, or culture, arts and movies, that’s a very good reason for you to visit Britain. Great Britain has all that and more in abundance. If you love breathtaking landscapes, amazing coastlines with beautiful sandy beaches that stretch for miles, national parks and nature trails, hills and valleys, rivers and lakes, you’ll find them all if you visit Britain.
It’s also a hop, skip and a jump across the English Channel to France (by ferry, hovercraft or by rail through the Channel Tunnel) and an ideal jumping off point for a European vacation. But, while many people only think it’s worth visiting London before heading to Europe, Great Britain is also an ideal standalone vacation destination.
You could easily spend a few days in England visiting iconic sites such as Stonehenge, the Roman Baths, Shakespeare’s Cottage and Windsor Castle, or venturing off-the-beaten-track for a week or two to discover some of its other hidden city treasures, such as Manchester Ship Canals, York Minster, Stoke Bruerne, or Arthur’s Seat. Or you could just as easily head southwest to explore the stunning Jurassic, Devon and Cornish coasts for a week or more—the options are endless.
Foodies will love to visit Britain too!
If you’re a foodie looking for authentic culinary experiences, you’ll be surprised to find them in Britain. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Great Britain is actually a fantastic destination for anyone wanting to sample international cuisine as well as traditional British fare. London alone has 67 Michelin starred restaurants—that’s more than Madrid, Rome and Berlin combined.
Venture out of the capital and you’ll discover an abundance of traditional English pubs, restaurants and cafés serving a variety of traditional English fare, such as Ploughman’s Lunch, Steak and Kidney pudding, Pan Haggerty, or Cream Teas (my favourite), as well as a diverse range of restaurants and other eateries serving international cuisine (including the Brit favourite, Indian curries).
A Ploughmans lunch – a traditional English snack or lunch with cold meat, cheeses, pickles and fresh bread. In this case pork pie is inlcuded, sometimes, you’ll see celery sticks and fruit. Many rural pubs still include the traditional ploughman’s lunch on their menu, but they’re a little harder to find in central London these days. So, you may need to go off-the-beaten-track in London or venture out of the city to find one. Best place to find one will be a traditional English pub. (Photo via Pixabay.)
Want a taste of British Classics in London, York & Edinburgh?
Travel independently, visiting three of Great Britain’s most historic and beautiful cities—London, York and Edinburgh—and walk through some of their oldest neighborhoods, sampling and learning about the highlights of English and Scottish food and drink.
It doesn’t always rain in Britain!
Yes, also contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t always rain in Britain—in fact, most of the time it doesn’t rain anywhere near as much as people think. Although, of course, it does depend in which area of the country you’re visiting and the time of year.
In London, for instance, the average number of days it rains annually is 106 (TripSavvy), which is less than 1 in 3 days. So, by the law of averages, even if you only stay for three days, you’re often likely to get two days without rain. Of course, it depends when and where you travel. Hopefully, the rain won’t follow you!
So, when’s the best time to visit Britain?
Ideally, from my own experience, I’d recommend you visit Britain in the spring time (late March to early June) or Autumn (September to November) which tend to be the best times to visit—and are generally when I visit.
I always find May to be a lovely time of year to visit Britain. No matter where I go the days are usually warm and sunny (sometimes hot enough for summer clothes), and you’re guaranteed beautiful spring flowers and green trees everywhere you go (unlike back home in Ontario, where the flowers are yet to bloom and the trees are usually only just in bud). May is definitely my favourite time to visit. Note though that schools are closed for the May Day Bank Holiday Week (first Monday in May), so you may want to avoid going to touristy areas that week.
September is also a great time to visit Britain especially on the south coast, as the weather is still warm, the children are back at school after the summer holidays so the beaches are empty and popular family spots are much less crowded. Plus the days are still fairly long (about 12 hours).
When I visit in October, since the days are a bit shorter than the nights, it’s usually cooler and it can sometimes be windy (especially in Cornwall where my mum now lives). However, there are usually several sunny days, the trees are turning different shades of yellow, orange, red and brown, and there can often be unseasonably warm, dry spells. You’ll need to wear layers, as the weather can change quite quickly throughout the day. This is actually a good idea throughout the year.
Since the weather can be unpredictable all year, it’s a good idea to pack a rainproof jacket or coat for those unexpected rain showers (which often don’t last more than a few minutes) and a warm cardigan as it can be chilly in the evenings even in the summer.
When I visit family in England for the holidays (Christmas and New Year), there’s usually more rain (often just drizzle though) and it’s obviously colder because it’s winter, but it’s rarely below freezing in the south of the country, where my mum lives (but very pretty when there is a frost). It can be quite blustery this time of year as well, but there are often many sunny days. You’ll need a warm, waterproof coat as well as gloves and scarf.
You can probably leave your Canadian winter thermals behind; you shouldn’t need them for most activities, especially in southern England unless you really feel the cold. However, if you’re planning a winter wilderness journey somewhere like the Peak District in northern England or Snowdonia in Wales, or a skiing trip on Ben Nevis in Scotland, make sure you pack them. Temperatures can be quite a bit colder in these more northerly locations (all year in fact) especially, and there’s a higher chance of snow in winter, especially at higher elevations. So you’ll need to dress for the colder weather.
You may also need to wear thermal pants/leggings at the coast on a really blustery winter day, or if you plan an extended time outdoors when the temperature does dip below freezing, but generally you should be OK as long as you dress warmly and are active.
Perranporth pond, a boat shaped pond in the middle of the seaside town of Perranporth, Cornwall in January 2019. Albeit cold, we had a lovely day on the beach in the sunshine. It’s warm enough for palm trees and the spring flowers were already out in abundance on the other side of the pond. (Photo via my mum.)
How to get to Britain?
Arriving from Canada
If you’re going from Canada, the best (fastest) way to visit Britain is to fly, although you can take a Trans Atlantic cruise between seasons in one direction and a flight in the other direction (unless you plan to spend several months in Europe in which case you may be able to cruise both ways).
Flight times are around six and a half hours to eight hours depending which direction you’re travelling, the windspeed and whether there’s a delay (I know this from experience). However, a Trans Atlantic cruise will take about a week, but what a fun way to travel!
You’ll find flights from all of Canada’s International Gateways (current at time of writing), many of which fly non-stop to London Heathrow (Air Canada) or London Gatwick (WestJet) or with one stop. You can also choose to fly via Iceland (Icelandair) or Ireland (Aer Lingus) with a stopover of one or more days to explore either of these two countries first. Icelandair offers 1-7 day stopovers at no extra charge!
Generally, one checked bag is included with your Trans Atlantic flight, even with economy but watch out for changes to this rule as airlines are constantly changing their baggage allowance. Meals are usually served as well. However, if you are planning a domestic flight once in Britain, note there will usually be baggage fees for both checked and carry on luggage over a certain size and/or weight. So check your baggage allowances before booking.
Arriving from Europe
If you’re coming from northern Europe, there are ferry crossings from Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Denmark, as well as Ireland. Ferries arrive at various ports in Britain, including Dover, Portsmouth, Southampton, Harwich, Newcastle, Immingham and Liverpool, depending on the crossing.
If you prefer, you can travel by rail through the Channel Tunnel. You’ll need to board the train in Paris, and the train will take you directly to London. You can travel to Paris by rail from most major cities in Europe, although you may need to change trains and include overnight stays (depending where you’re coming from), but that is all part of the travel experience.
If you’re driving through Europe, and your rental company allows it, you could choose either a ferry or Channel Tunnel crossing. You don’t even need to get out of your car on the Channel Tunnel crossing! However, instead of Paris to London, you would board the train in Calais and drive off at Folkestone. In a mere 35 minutes you’d be in England, but don’t forget to switch to the left hand side of the road (see more below). It’s probably not the best idea though, as you’ll be seated on the wrong side of the car. Instead, it would be better to cross the Channel as a foot passenger and rent a new car when you arrive in Britain.
Of course, you can also fly from many airports in Europe (too many to list) to a multitude of airports in Britain (not just London). As usual, this is the fastest, and often the cheapest, option, but you don’t see anywhere near as many sights along the way, and your carbon footprint will be a lot higher. Time permitting, consider including a much more experiential and sustainable transfer from Europe to Britain as part of your vacation itinerary.
Whichever method you choose, it is recommended to book your transportation (and any accommodation along the route) in advance, even in the winter, to be sure you don’t miss the boat (so to speak). A lot of Brits travel to Europe, so flights, ferries and trains can fill up fast.
Is it safe to visit Britain as a solo female traveller?
Britain is no less safe than any other European country, and I would say from my own experience, it is a safe destination for a solo female traveller from Canada, especially since you speak the same lingo (albeit with a different accent).
Obviously, like most countries, even Canada, there are places that are unsafe for a lone woman, particularly densely populated urban areas, and I definitely would not advise you to walk anywhere alone at night (heck, I wouldn’t even walk alone at night in the village where I live). However, most places are safe to travel solo during the day by car, public transport, and even on foot, but call a taxi (or hale an official Black Cab in London) at night.
As with any destination, take the usual precautions when out and about, such as keeping an eye on your belongings and keeping jewellery and other valuables hidden from prying eyes, especially while travelling on the Tube in London, not posting your whereabouts on social media, avoiding unsavoury areas, and trying not to look like a lost tourist.
Always let someone you trust know where you’re going, especially at night, never leave your drink unattended in a pub or bar, don’t accept drinks from a stranger unless you see it being poured, and, if you use an Uber, send somebody the driver’s details, just to be on the safe side. (More safety tips for solo female travellers can be found here.)
What about driving in the UK?
If you plan on driving in the UK or the Republic Ireland, at any point during your travels, remember that unlike the rest of Europe, they drive on the left. The roads are generally well paved and very safe but can be very busy in urban areas especially during rush hours. Rural roads are often narrow and winding, with the view ahead obscured by high hedgerows. While nowhere near as busy as in larger towns, you’ll need to watch out for oncoming cars, slow down, or even stop, to enable you both to pass each other safely. In some situations, one driver may need to reverse back to a passing spot. If driving on rural roads at night, look out for oncoming headlights and be sure to turn yours on. They are generally not automatic in the UK.
There are also lots of roundabouts on British roads which range in size from very large with traffic lights to control the flow, to mini roundabouts you can drive over. However, you might come across a series of mini roundabouts that can seem quite daunting the first time you navigate them (even for someone who’s used to roundabouts like me). In general, if you stick to the speed limit, you should have time to react and figure out your next move. If in doubt, always give way to traffic in the roundabout which will be coming from the right not the left.
If travelling alone in Britain worries you, or if the thought of driving on the left has you coming out in hives, an escorted coach tour, self-guided rail tour, or a planned itinerary with a selection of guided walking tours, boat excursions, and other day trips, may be better options for you.
Visit Britain’s Undiscovered Treasures
If you’re a foodie and you love history, architecture and heritage, or culture, arts and movie trails, or you love breathtaking scenery, you’ll want to visit Britain’s undiscovered treasures.
If you want to visit Britain and are looking for an off-the-beaten-track and authentic experience, as your Certified BritAgent Travel Advisor, I would love to help you plan your trip. I’ll design the perfect itinerary that meets all your needs, interests and desires so you can immerse yourself in Britain’s history, heritage, culture and culinary traditions as well as discover hidden national and natural treasures too.
Contact me to plan your visit to Britain now.