Canterbury is an ideal day trip from London, where you’ll explore Kent’s historic, hidden gem of a town.
Being only 100 km from London, Canterbury is a short 2-hour train ride or you can opt for the high-speed train and arrive in just 50 minutes. If you’re a driver, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll arrive by car in just over an hour!
Two things usually spring to mind when thinking of Canterbury; the famous Canterbury Cathedral and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and you’ll see why.
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You’ll quickly understand the appeal of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time as you enter through the gates of Canterbury and into a maze of charming alleyways and medieval buildings. It was here in this town that St. Augustine converted the first Anglo Saxons in 597 and where pilgrims travelled to for centuries due to its holy roots.
Then you have the tranquillity of Westgate Gardens along the riverside, with an array of benches and green space, which will have you stepping back in time to a slower-paced life.
This highly walkable and extremely charming town is well worth the trip for the Cathedral alone, but I’m going to give you a guide of all the best places to see and things to do in Canterbury to help plan your perfect day out. And being within easy reach of Whitstable and Herne Bay, you might decide to spend a couple of days exploring the area around Canterbury as well.
So here’s how you can easily explore historic Canterbury in a day, without feeling rushed at all.
The Goods Shed
I recommend getting off the train at Canterbury West so you can start your day at The Goods Shed for a coffee. It’s literally right next door to the station. If you’re driving, there’s also a multi-story car park, where you can park for just $10 for the day.
The Goods Shed is a fabulous little gem with lots of options for fresh food and photo ops. Being a farmer’s market, food stall and restaurant, it’s a foodie paradise. This is a great stop for chatting with locals and getting the freshest farm-to-table produce imaginable. You’ll find delectable cheeses and an olive selection to make your mouth water, along with local jams, olive oils and wines.
Treat yourself to a full breakfast before your walking tour of Canterbury or have a pastry and coffee from The Bread Shop to perk you right up!
It’s just a quick 5-minute walk from The Goods Shed to the Westgate, which is impossible to miss. The Westgate will give you a grand entrance into the cobbled streets of Canterbury. This 60-foot medieval gatehouse is the largest surviving city gate in all of England, and the last survivor of the seven original gatehouses in Canterbury, erected in 1379.
Walk through these stout, towering gates and emerge into another world.
Beany House of Art and Knowledge
As you make your way down the high street, you might find yourself smiling in awe as you enjoy the character of the medieval buildings, inns and pubs. Even the doorways are fun places to admire and get more photos.
If you haven’t stopped too many times by now, in just 5-10 minutes you’ll come across an eccentric-looking building, with a gothic err on the left-hand side that will bring you to a halt. You might be tempted to keep walking, but follow the pull to go inside and you’ll find the most unexpected surprise; the Beany House of Art and Knowledge.
Within this Victorian-era building you’ll find Canterbury’s Museum, Art Gallery, Library, Visitor Information Centre, and the best part; a public toilet! And all of this is free upon entry.
I was really impressed with how much the Beany House had to offer. As you walk up the winding stairs, there’s a sign near the entrance that reads,“This collection has been filled by global travellers and is formed from the finds of mercenaries and missionaries, soldiers and diplomats, artists and writers.”
The Museum has a sizeable collection of Victorian taxidermy, artefacts from the ancient civilizations of Rome, Egypt and Greece, and exotic ethnographic objects from the time of the British Empire. It’s quite the collection and worth a visit to see.
After the Beany House, just a few minutes walk up the main road, you’ll turn left onto Butchery Lane to head towards Canterbury Cathedral. This is the most famous street in Canterbury and is a great place to stop and snap a photo of the cathedral from the street at a distance.
Canterbury Roman Museum
If you’re not in a hurry to get to the cathedral, consider stopping off at the Canterbury Roman Museum, located on Butchery Lane. It’s a delight for history lovers. As Kent’s only Roman Museum, it’ll give you insight into Roman life in Britain. Here you’ll find the remains of a large Roman house, incredible mosaics, jewelry, and unusual glassware from ancient times.
The Canterbury Cathedral is a jaw-dropper, aptly named the most striking cathedral in all of Europe, and those are some big shoes to fill. I was in complete awe walking up to and through the cathedral and grounds. It’s easy to see why this is the main attraction in Canterbury. Give yourself a good two hours to explore here.
With more than 1400 years of Christian history, the Canterbury Cathedral has seen it all. It’s the Mother Church of the Anglican community, had an influential role in the Magna Carta negotiations, and was the exact spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. It really is the holiest of holy places in England.
The Cathedral was established when St. Augustine arrived in 597 AD as a missionary. He founded the cathedral within the Roman city walls and was made the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Pilgrims then began their pilgrimages to the city for prayers and religious services.
Centuries later, Thomas Becket, the Archibishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, was murdered by Henry II of England over a conflict, which became a key element in the history of the cathedral. After his death, it was decided the cathedral would undergo expansion.
Then a fire in 1872, completely tore down the Trinity Chapel roof and when the building was restored, it was restored in Gothic style.
As you enter the cathedral through the imposing gates, you’ll first see the intricate, grand wooden door. Then make sure and look all the way up at the ceiling. It’s so high, I got a little dizzy, but it’s so beautiful, the breathtaking ceiling is not to be missed. The cathedral is famous for its fan-vaulted ceilings throughout the building.
The massive crypt beneath the east end of the cathedral is the next place to visit once inside. It features Romanesque murals and carved pillars, with multiple rooms to explore.
Take the time to marvel at the beautiful masonry on the exterior walls of the cathedral and the cathedral cloister. The cloister is where the monks would have meditated and studied, under a covered walk. Then there are statues that include the greatest of the archbishops, influential kings and queens who were connected with the cathedral.
There’s also a corner that tells the history of the monastery that was part of the cathedral and what life was like on the monastery grounds for the monks. There’s really so much to learn at the Canterbury Cathedral and it’s all highly fascinating.
Note: Unfortunately, they have been undergoing a series of renovation work, inside and outside, since 2014. But all that means is your view will be partially obstructed by scaffolding. I’ll admit, I was a little disappointed by this so I thought I’d mention it so you’re not surprised by it like I was. I was told that the construction is due to be completed by Spring 2022.
The King’s School
A short walk from the Canterbury Cathedral and still within its grounds, is the oldest operating school of England, The King’s School. The school has been in the exact same spot ever since the arrival of St. Augustine in 597 AD.
If you visit Canterbury on a weekday, you’ll see loads of students roaming about, but you can only get a guided tour of the school if your child is interested in studying there. It’s worth taking some photos of the outside though and the high energy of the children makes it feel a little enchanting.
Shrine of St Thomas of Canterbury
Once you’ve left the cathedral grounds, turn left and you’ll find the Catholic Church and Shrine of St. Thomas of Canterbury up on the right-hand side about 5 minutes away.
After the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket, Canterbury became one of the major centres of pilgrimage in Christendom. Thomas’ shrine became the centre of great devotion and prayer until its destruction in 1538 under King Henry VIII.
Fortunately, some relics from the original shrine in Canterbury Cathedral survived. They can be seen in the Martyrs’ Chapel. This is a sacred space to visit and offer up prayers and intentions for those who have spoken out against corruption and injustice.
St Augustine’s Abbey Ruins
Keep walking in the same direction (east) and you’ll come across St. Augustine’s Abbey. These ruins are an English heritage site that is part of Canterbury’s UNESCO heritage centre. It’s located to the east of Canterbury Cathedral and right outside the city walls. This is one of the most important religious sites in England.
Ruins of the abbey and other buildings are now accessible by grass paths and gravel walkways and you can get a partial view from the gates at the road.
There’s an exhibition within the ruins that traces the story of the abbey and its founders and there’s also a museum where you can check out excavated artefacts. And if you want the full-on experience, you can use the virtual reality headsets to experience firsthand what life in the abbey would’ve been like.
Sir John Boys House
After the Abbey, head back west towards the heart of town. You must visit the crooked Sir John Boys House, one of the most photographed buildings in Canterbury. It looks unreal! The crooked house with a crooked door tilts to the side at an angle that doesn’t seem possible for it to stand and you might wonder if it’s going to topple over any minute. But alas, it’s actually habitable!
Sir John Boys House is located at the end of Palace Street, close to the cathedral. It houses a charity bookshop and is free to enter, but check online because it was closed as of January 2022. But it’s a fascinating stop for a photo and a must-see in person either way!
The Parrot Pub
By now you might be ready for a pint or a drink. The Parrot Pub is one of Canterbury’s oldest buildings and is the oldest pub in town. The Parrot was built on Roman foundations in the 14th century, at the same time the famous cathedral was under construction.
You’ll find The Parrot tucked away down a picturesque cobbled street and inside you’ll find the historic style of the pub still holds true today. With medieval beams, enormous oak floorboards and authentic open fires, you can’t get much more atmospheric than this.
After you’ve stopped for a pint or grub, you’ll be feeling nice and relaxed and ready for your final destination. One of the most enjoyable things to do in Canterbury is to enjoy a scenic walk through the Westgate Gardens. I ended my day doing just that.
Westgate Gardens has 11 acres of public gardens, which are set around the Tower House, a medieval bastion constructed to defend Canterbury’s city wall.
The Tower House was first made 100 years ago and has a 14th-century tower of the city wall. Have a walk following the River Stour upstream or take a historic river tour.
If the weather’s nice, during your river tour, you’ll have a chance to learn the rich history of the city and even see the best architectural and historical sights, as well as hear some of Canterbury’s oldest myths and legends.
Enjoy watching the swans in the river, passing over the small bridges and taking in the unique fauna. And check out some more crooked buildings across the river!
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed your historic day in Canterbury. I know it’s a day you won’t soon forget. I’m sure you’re thinking the cathedral alone will be worth your trip, but I’m sure you’ll see everything in Canterbury is worth visiting. Make sure and add this to your list of ideal day trips from London and gems of England you must see.
Hi, I'm Kat, an Australian that moved to London in 2013 to start a new adventure. What a roller-coaster that was! I love helping others move to the UK and people explore the world! I’d be honoured if you’d say, “Thanks!” with a £3 coffee on Ko-fi.