For so long, London was one of those “fantastic place, bit of a shame about the food” cities—top of its class in so many ways, but never quite in competition when it came time to eat. That all seems so long ago, now; the same food revolution that swept through most North American cities since the turn of the century quickly found a toehold in the British capital. In short order, London has become a place where you can eat and drink everything and anything, almost whenever you like. (Also, bring money.)
This isn’t the only way London has progressed, of late—costs are higher these days on just about everything, from housing to commercial space to the labor that enables such a transformation; often out of necessity, the revolution long ago began its march out into the countryside, to less high-stakes cities and towns. Follow the lead of these innovators and leave London, if only for a day. Here are five excellent (and very tasty) quick trips from the capital.
A jarring note in an otherwise hypnotically harmonious swath of East Sussex, this scruffy seaside burg of 90,000 is quite suddenly back on the map. Dramatic geography, an active fishing fleet, those pebbled beaches, a rusticated funicular that grinds its way up lovely East Hill and the quaint Old Town all combine to charm the socks off of Down From London types who’ve come for fresh breezes and cheap housing. The town center may be burdened by very nearly everything that’s sad about too many modern English town centers, but Hastings no longer feels held back by its weaknesses. Rather, if feels emboldened, charging ahead into what looks to be a much, much brighter future. The classic pier, not long ago victim to fire, is now a beacon of sleek, Scandinavian simplicity. The ye olde fishing village is now also home to a striking modern art gallery, the Jerwood. There’s a magnificent underground skate park, open to spectators. There are fashionable places to stay. The Old Town, a short walk and a world away from the town center, is now pleasingly vibrant, with dashes of out right chic, while inventive new play equipment and improved amenities have made the actual beachfront more family-friendly. Oh, and the food, of course. Start your day with coffees and nibbles at No. 23 Coffee Bar & Roastery or Penbuckles Delicatessen before tackling the hike up East Hill, followed by a stroll along the beach and out to the sun-drenched pier. Lunch is fish and chips at Maggie’s, directly on Fisherman’s Beach, featuring daily specials straight off the boats. Save room, however, for drinks and dinner at The Crown, a thoroughly modern pub that feels as if its gone missing from one of those impossibly cute towns in Devon or Cornwall where television stars early-retire to renovated barns and their neighbors run organic farms or rental yurt villages. Except here, you’re just an hour and a half from Charing Cross.
The perfect day in this medieval city begins and ends, rather conveniently, right where you hop off the train. Steps from West station, The Goods Shed isn’t just another food hall, it happens to be one of the most-sought after culinary destinations in the Southeast, thanks to a blissfully simple seasonal restaurant on its upper mezzanine, inspired by whatever’s on offer down in the stalls where smart locals come to do their shopping. Sip a cocktail and watch the goings on at the butcher’s, the baker’s—everything but the candlestick maker, really—while you wait for lunch. (Two tips: Reserve a table. Also, save room for dessert.) Afterwards, do the obligatory jaunt to the cathedral and through the storied city—even in England there are towns that can’t take for granted nearly as much historical significance as Canterbury—before repairing back to the Shed for a glass of wine (or two) and some well-crafted nibbles at the excellent Wild Goose Bar while you wait for your train.
If England had a California, Bristol might be its San Francisco. There’s a lighter, sweeter energy here than some visitors might expect to find in the UK, a flair for the countercultural. There are handsome rows of Georgian townhomes in pleasing pastels, dramatic views (there’s an actual gorge, right in town, complete with historic suspension bridge) and a laidback vibe that encourages sticking around. It’s hard to imagine, in fact, that you’re just over an hour and a half by train from go-go London. Where to start? Let’s say Wapping Wharf, a reinvented bit of the harbor (yes, this is a waterfront town) with stacks of old shipping containers housing a growing mix of boutiques, bars and—of course—places to eat. Sample the best work of West Country artisans at Bristol Cheesemonger, check out the local ciders at the Bristol Cider Shop and stop for a bite at Woky Ko—a low-key Asian spot from a MasterChef UK finalist—for crispy duck pancakes, steamed buns and kimchi rice bowls. Get to know the city on foot before retiring to the pool bar at Lido Bristol, a historic private swimming club in the Clifton neighborhood that’s still private—well, the pool, anyway; everything else is open to the public. On a sunny day, you could sit here forever, or, at least until dinner at Bulrush, a smart little neighborhood bistro operated by a trio of London expats doing a proper British Modern menu, to the delight of diners that trek here to try it out. Absolutely book ahead.
Looking to leave the city behind entirely, but not its creature comforts? Get to this sleepy-cool Kent town historically famous for oysters. Then keep going, out into the marshy, coastal nowhere that’s inexplicably home to a Michelin-starred pub, The Sportsman. Self-described as “grotty and rundown,” this humble spot next to a trailer park was awarded Best Restaurant of the Year in the 2016 National Restaurant Awards, an honor that doesn’t seem to have distracted Chef Stephen Harris and his team much from their mission of honoring the regional bounty with both tasting and a la carte menus that feature (of course) oysters and other fruits de mer. The tasting’s a steal at around $70 per head. If you didn’t walk out here—the seaside route from Whitstable is actually part of a heritage pathway—definitely hoof it back, if only to work up an appetite for dinner one town over in Herne Bay, home to the first certified Neapolitan-style pizzeria to open in the UK, A Casa Mia. The chef began his career delivering you-know-what in Naples, opening his dream spot here after decades of the London grind.
#5 The Cotswolds
Anyone familiar with The Hamptons will get a chuckle out of their first visit to this postcard-darling region that attracts the sort of Londoners who always like to feel rather at home, even while out getting their bespoke Wellingtons muddy. (There’s even a Soho House Hotel.) This is easily one of England’s most civilized rural areas, a veritable theme park of scrubbed up quaintness. For daytrippers, the destination is absolutely Daylesford, an organic farm/Instagram influencer magnet that calls to mind New York’s revered Stone Barns Center, a food-centric respite from city life offering educational opportunities, a chance to explore a working farm and the surrounding open lands, a luxurious day spa, plenty of things to buy and—of course—places where you can sit down and eat. The farm is a gorgeous spot in any weather, no need to hang around waiting for sunshine. If it’s not pouring down rain, spend an afternoon on the footpaths, eventually finding your way to the nearby Wild Rabbit, a sleek rethink of a country pub (it’s part of the Daylesford empire) that, you guessed it, currently lays claim to its very own Michelin star.
Booking a trip?
If you’re looking for the lowest airfares to London, start by noodling around on CheapFlights or BookingBuddy—both will compare multiple sites at once, saving you a lot of running around. When you’re ready to book, we recommend Orbitz or Expedia—both offer 24-hour cancellation policies, allowing you to lock in the lowest fare while you finalize your plans. (As always, read the fine print first.) Just on here looking for the best London hotel deals? Start by searching TripAdvisor, or Hotels.com, but don’t book anything without a stop at Priceline, where you can save up to 60% on any given night by taking advantage of their Express Deals feature. (This simple tool has probably saved us—no joke—thousands of dollars, over the years.). Finally, if you need a rental car, begin your search by swinging wide to get a sense of the market—BookingBuddy lets you check pretty much every site worth knowing, with just a couple of clicks.