From hilltop castles to impressive gothic cathedrals, from Roman ruins to mysterious stone circles, from the snow-capped mountains of the Highlands to the sandy beaches of Cornwall, the landscape of the United Kingdom tells of a history that stretches back in time for over 5000 years. Iconic cities such as London, Edinburgh, York, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Cambridge are stuffed with astonishing architecture, plenty of historic sites and attractive culture. Beyond the charm of big cities, there are thousands of small quite villages spread in the British countryside and fifteen large national parks which cover more 10% of the territory.
The United Kingdom, as the name would suggest, is not actually one country at all but it is made up of four countries rolled into one. England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland show some evident differences which have actually enriched the character of this unique land. Scotland and Wales are like separate countries from England, with their own legislative assemblies and their own Gaelic languages.
Britain’s character in particular has been shaped by its geographical position as an island, separated from the rest of the European continent by the English Channel. This has contributed to the preservation of its traditions and culture.
The civilization of Britain started in the far 43 AD, with the gradual conquest of the so-called Britannia at that time by the Roman army led by the Emperor Claudius first and then by Julius Caesar. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Viking incursions went on for centuries before the arrival of William the Conqueror. Wales was conquered in the year 1282, followed by Scotland in 1296. However, the Scots gained their independence again in 1314 under the rule of Robert the Bruce. The Hundred Years’ War marked a period of severe conflicts between 1337 and 1453 between the House of Plantagenet (Kingdom of England) and the House of Valois (Kingdom of France) for the succession to the French throne. The kings of Scotland were allied with France during this period. The rule of Scotland will become very important again in 1603 when James VI, King of Scots, unites the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, inheriting the crowns of England and Ireland and moving his court from Edinburgh to London. With the foundation of Royal Society in the 17th century, science discoveries and technological development were strongly encouraged throughout the country. Massive naval power deployment and global colonialism characterized most of the following centuries. Contemporarily, the Industrial Revolution pushed the country on a new edge of manufacturing potential. Hand production methods were gradually substituted by mechanization, thanks mainly to the increasing use of steam power and hefty capital investment. With the reign of Queen Victoria, a huge empire was established, with colonies and controlled territories in any corner of the globe. Challenged by the rise of the USA and URSS as new superpowers during the world wars, British influence started a sharp decline, compounded by the loss of all its former colonies in the 1970s.
British society today is a melting pot for people coming from any part of the world. Immigration from the nearby Ireland has been a constant in the history of the UK, and since the 1950s-60s people have arrived from former colonies in the Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The result of this successful integration is visible today in the full range of music, art, traditions and food present in any British city.
The most densely populated and developed part of the country is the Southeast, around the capital London. Service sector and high-tech industry are pushing British economy to an incredible level, considering the lack of many raw materials and the rigid climate. London is definitely also the main attraction of the UK, being the principal residence of British monarchs as well as the governmental, cultural and financial centre of the country. In addition to several art galleries and museums, London boasts a vast array of entertainments. Despite its massive radius, London can be travelled from one edge to the other in a relatively short time, thanks to its super-efficient system of public transportation and the extensive subway system (also commonly known as “the tube”).
Beyond London, there are many other noteworthy towns to visit, such as the historic centres of York, Bath, Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland), the university cities of Cambridge and Oxford, the legendary cities of Liverpool and Manchester, and the lively modern Bristol and Glasgow. For a deep dive in the mystical and mysterious, the best choices are represented by Stonehenge and Lock Ness.
Cardiff and Belfast, the capitals of Wales and Northern Ireland respectively, also deserve a visit of few days in order to make the most these dynamic and vibrant cities.
For nature lovers, it is impossible to leave the UK without first climbing on the steep mountains of Peak District (near Nottingham), exploring any corner of Lake District (in the English region of Cumbria) and Snowdonia (Wales) and spending one night looking at the northern light on the windswept Isle of Skye (Scotland).
Independently from where the visit will take place, an absolute must in visiting this variegated country is to participate in one of the most popular English ceremony: the afternoon tea. Statistically, English people consume more tea per capita than anybody else in the world (2.5 times more than the Japanese and 22 times more than their American cousins). According to the story, the custom of the afternoon tea was introduced by Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford, in 1840 who felt the need for an extra meal between lunch and dinner. She began then inviting her friends to join her, and this custom quickly spread around British society and throughout the British Empire.
Some people may want to go for something a little stronger than tea, and then the choice could easily fall on a frothy pint of stout or real ale beer or even on warming glass of Scottish whisky. About British beer, everybody knows the extraordinary variety present in the country. Regarding whisky, it is probably worth it to remind that more than 2000 different brands are produced in the UK! However, the two main types are “single malts”, made from malted barley, and “blended whisky”, made using unmalted grain blended with malts. Single malts are rarer and consequently more expensive as well.
If too many pints of ale or glasses of whisky have made the morning wake up a little bit difficult, one of the best secrets of British people to restart the day with a better mood is to have a full English breakfast. It generally consists of sausages, bacon, scrambled eggs, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms and toasts. Occasionally it is possible to find on the plate also the black pudding (also known as blood sausage). When it comes to main meals instead, a classic British dish is roast beef, usually with the Yorkshire pudding as traditional accompaniment and some thick tasty gravy on the side. The most famous beef meat comes undoubtedly from Scotland’s Aberdeen Angus cattle. Among the British classics, the one which certainly cannot be forgotten is the fish and chips, often purchased as takeaway. More local specialities include pork and fish pies and for the faint-hearted there is the controversial “Scottish haggis”: a sausage-shaped piece of meat mixed with oatmeal stuffed in a sheep’s stomach. People who have tried it swear it is an absolute delicacy!