“When a man is tired of London,” Samuel Johnson famously declared, “he is tired of life”. With all due respect to Sam, much as we at Time Out love everything about living in the city (well, nearly everything; there’s nothing that lovable about being wedged on the Northern line at 6pm), we disagree. From time to time we all need a change of scene – but preferably without too much faffing. So, whether you’re in the mood for bracing sea air or a forest frolic, here are ten sweet spots, complete with pretty pubs and ace restaurants, that are close enough to the capital to get there and back in a day.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page for more amazing day trip ideas, from floral getaways to boozy breaks, and check out our guide to the best weekend breaks from London if you fancy escaping the city for more than a day.
RECOMMENDED: Things to do in the UK and beyond
The best day trips from London
If Brighton were a stick of rock, it would have GOOD TIMES! running right the way through it. With its perfect pebble beach, wall-to-wall live music venues and buzzing LGBT+ scene, there’s nowhere like it for topping up your Vitamin Sea levels. Start by dodging seagulls on the Palace Pier, then shop up a storm in the Laines, which are packed with independent boutiques, record stores and vegan eateries. Sit down to a zero-waste late lunch at Silo, and finish up with a couple of pints in the Brighton Beer Dispensary, which champions small Sussex breweries like the Hand Brew Co.
How far?A little over 50 miles
Get there by direct train from Victoria, Blackfriars or London Bridge; the journey takes just 54 minutes if you catch a fast one.
The New Forest
A trip to the New Forest is about as close as you can get to going on safari without buying a plane ticket. As you make your way down dappled lanes and across the heather-covered heath you’ll be watched the famous ponies, which have grazed there for thousands of years, plus free-ranging Highland cattle and pigs hoovering up fallen acorns. Don’t fancy being stuck in the car day? Hire a two-seater electric Twizzy buggy to explore in, or book a beginners’ hack at one of the stables. Don’t forget to make time for a proper ploughman’s lunch at the Royal Oak in Fritham.
How far? 90 miles
Get there by car. Just remember that animals, not drivers, have right of way.
Water wonderful day awaits you here! Start as you mean to go on with a tour of the baths the Romans built (no paddling allowed), before making a splash in the Thermae Bath Spa – the rooftop pool has stunning views of the city. Once you’ve dried off, make like Jane Austen and stroll along the Royal Crescent, then try on some reproduction Georgian garms at the Fashion Museum. Peckish? Sally Lunn’s teahouse is home to the Sally Lunn Bun, a kind of sweet brioche bap – for a Bath take on the cream tea, order one toasted and spread with strawberry jam and clotted cream.
How far? 115 miles
Get there by train. The direct service from Paddington takes an hour and 24 minutes.
Dungeness’s shingly, shipwreck-dotted beach is so spookily empty that it’s often described as Britain’s only desert (though the Met Office refuses to recognise it as such, the party-poopers). But look a little closer and there’s plenty going on. It’s a nature reserve, for one thing – follow the two-mile trail around RSPB Dungeness for the chance to glimpse glossy ibises and marsh harriers. Come lunchtime, queue up at the famous Dungeness Snack Shack: they’ll serve you their catch of the day in a warm bun, lobster and crab rolls or smoked cod chowder. Finally, go in search of the huge concrete ‘sound ears’, which date from the First World War and were designed to listen out for planes.
How far? 86 miles
Get there by car – it’s about two hours’ drive from central London.
Image: Phillip Roberts/Shutterstock
Smaller, quieter and (whisper it) prettier than Oxford, Cambridge has its own language: bumps, backs, quads. Start your day with a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, then refuel at Fitzbillies and buy a box of the sticky Chelsea buns to take home. Spend a couple of hours wandering around the colleges and King’s Chapel before taking to the river for a spot of punting: behatted guides will do the hard work, or you can hire a boat of your own (beware: it’s trickier than it looks). Come tea time, head for Grantchester and feast on scones in The Orchard, just like poet Rupert Brooke.
How far? 64 miles
Get there by direct train from King’s Cross (46 minutes) or Liverpool Street (one hour and ten minutes).
Biking to green and pleasant Surrey is a wheely nice way to spend a Sunday (sorry) – plus, Box Hill was part of the 2012 Olympic road-cycling route. Start in Richmond Park and pedal down past Hampton Court – it should take you about two hours. After a 1.6 mile climb and some hairpin bends (easier than it sounds!), you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the North Downs from the top of Box Hill itself. Grab a slice of cake from the National Trust café, but save space for lunch at The Tree, which serves homemade pies and crumbles. Your last stop is Box Hill and Westhumble station, where you can load your bikes on to a train back to Waterloo. Whewf!
How far? 30 miles
Get there by bike (obviously). Plan the route carefully before you set out, and take a map and a puncture repair kit, plus water and snacks.
Attached to the mainland by a causeway that floods (and pub quizzers, take note: this is the UK’s most easterly inhabited island), Mersea feels properly, peacefully remote at high tide. The big draw is The Company Shed, which serves seafood platters that pull in crowds from all over the country every weekend. It’s BYOB – bring your own bread – and they don’t take bookings, so get there before noon to make sure you can feast on prawns, smoked fish, oysters and dressed crab. Speaking of which, catch-and-release crabbing is encouraged – there are specially marked areas near the water, and shops selling the kit. Or you can book a boat trip around the bay.
How far? 69 miles
Get there by car. And don’t forget to check the tide timetable before you set off...
It’s hard to think of a lovelier seaside spot than Whitstable. Kick off a day there at Blueprint Coffee and Books with a pot of something strong and ethically sourced (and maybe a mini orange-and-rosemary bundt cake). Next, rent a bike from Whitstable Cycle Hire and pedal your way along the five-mile seafront Oyster Bay Trail. And for lunch? Oysters, natch – watch them being shucked in front of you at The Forge. Stay on the beach for a drink as the sun sets: Whitstable is one of the few in the UK with a pub, the Old Neptune, right on the shingle.
How far? 61 miles
Get there by train – the high-speed Javelin from St Pancras takes just an hour and 16 minutes.
With its antique shops and higgledy-piggledy cobbled lanes, Rye feels like a little piece of the Cotswolds on the coast. After a browse in The Tiny Book Store (does what it says on the tin), treat yourself to a seafood lunch surrounded by lobster pots at Globe Inn Marsh, followed by Sussex real ale or a glass of local wine at The George Tap – the Chapel Down vineyard is just up the road and well worth a visit. Ten minutes away are the pillowy dunes of Camber Sands: roll your trousers up and splash through the shallows, take a kite for a spin or just park your towel and stretch out.
How far? 79 miles Get there by car.
Leave early: the roads leading into Rye get busy on the weekends.
The Turner Contemporary opening in 2011 was the long-neglected Margate’s invitation to the ball. Today, the Kent coast’s most famous Cinderella story is awash with cold-brew coffee and craft beer, with just enough salty charm to still give it an edge. Start at the Turner, then mosey over to retro theme park and roller-disco Dreamland. Once the effects of the Waltzer have worn off, head to Hantverk & Found for a lunch of the freshest seafood and natural wines. Spend the rest of the afternoon shopping: browse immaculate vintage piece in Breuer & Dawson, and stock up on seaweed-based skincare at Haeckels.
How far? 76 miles
Get there by train. Parking can be tricky on the weekends – save yourself the bother by catching the fast train from St Pancras (1 hour 36 minutes).