Canterbury has been a place of pilgrimage since the 12th century, and its world-famous cathedral within a UNESCO World Heritage Site still draws in the crowds more than 800 years on.
You might know it as the site of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom and Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic book the Canterbury Tales, which is about pilgrims visiting Becket’s shrine. The city of Canterbury was also one of the five designated ‘Magna Carta Towns’ in England.
With Roman and Norman ruins, and streets lined with pretty timber-framed 16th and 17th century houses, this is a city steeped in history. What’s more, with a new high speed service running from Kings Cross St Pancras, it’s only an hour’s train ride away from London.
So whether you are down for the day, or for a long weekend – here’s where you can visit, eat and busy yourself while you’re there.
1. Start with Canterbury’s World Heritage Site
In 1988 Unesco designated Canterbury as a World Heritage Site, which is made up of Canterbury Christchurch Cathedral and Precinct, St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church.
We’ll come to the cathedral, but St Martin’s Church should not be missed – this is the oldest church still used as a place of worship in the English-speaking world. In the churchyard you’ll see the gravestone of Mary Tourtel, the creator of Rupert Bear.
Some of its architectural importance relates to the large nave, the first Anglo Saxon structure made of mortared brick and stone instead of wood, and it has a fine Caen-stone Norman font.
You should also take a stroll around the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey, built to bury the Anglo-Saxon Kings of Kent in 597.
2. Take a closer look at Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most famous places of worship in the world, and it remains the Mother Church of the global Anglican Community as well a seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
It took a grisly place in history when Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered inside the Cathedral in 1170 – hence its historic attraction to pilgrims.
Since its founder St Augustine’s time, the building has been rebuilt by the Saxons and then the Normans in 1070, and bits and pieces have been added and removed over the centuries.
You can still see some parts that date back to the 12th Century. And look out for the stained glass, they have one of the largest medieval collections on the world.
3. See some rhinos nearby
Just south east of the city, you can visit Howletts Wild Animal Park which has lions and tigers, including a pair of the rare Sumatran breed, among the animals.
The charity-run park also has a huge herd of African elephants, black rhino and a family of Western Lowland gorillas in their natural enclosures, designed to make the animals feel at home.
Check out the map of their 90 acre park to work out what you want to see on a trip there.
4. Watch the native wildlife
If you want to learn more about British animals, visit Wildwood Discovery Park, which has more than 200 animals, including owls, red squirrels, deer and badgers.
While wolves, bears, lynx, bison and beavers are among the animals hunted to extinction in this country, this conservation charity has examples of all these mammals at the park – but don’t be fooled if the wolves wag their tails – they’re trained hunters.
If woodpeckers and butterflies are more your thing, take a walk around the RSPB Reserve Blean Woods.
There are plenty of trails to take you round this ancient woodland.
5. Discover more about one of the most famous books in literature
The author Geoffrey Chaucer and Canterbury are inextricably linked, thanks to his 14th Century masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales. – Telling the stories of people on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, it’s written in the English language of the time.
The Canterbury Tales at St Margaret’s Church has costumed guides to take you on five of the pilgrim’s journeys from London to Canterbury. The featured tales include The Knights Tale, The Miller’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, before you end up at the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
6. Explore even more literary links
Christopher Marlowe was born in Canterbury, and one of the most legendary rumours in literature is that he didn’t just contribute to some of his friend, William Shakespeare’s works – some say he wrote them.
An Elizabethan scholar, poet and spy, his most famous play is probably Doctor Faustus. He also wrote the only on-ship account of Francis Drake’s battle with the Spanish Armada.
While he came to an undignified end, stabbed to death in a tavern brawl in Deptford, this famous hellraiser and dramatist is honoured by The Marlowe Theatre, named after him.
You can go and watch plays, dance and comedy at this venue.
7. Delve deeper into the city’s history at a museum
The Canterbury Roman Museum is built around the remains of a Roman town house. It had all the mod-cons, including a mosaic floor with under-floor heating, which were revealed after the shops above were blitzed in a German bombing raid.
Look out for the footprints of dogs and children left in the Roman floor tiles.
One of the newest museums, libraries and art galleries in the city is The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, which has had a multi-million pound restoration.
Among the highlights in the collection are a mummified Egyptian cat, a stuffed duck-billed platypus and ‘the severed hand of Sir John Heydon’ – removed in a duel he fought in 1600.
The Kent Museum of Freemasonry offers you an insight into the secretive Masonic society, along with a rich history of the city and the county of Kent.
8. Visit Canterbury’s cartoon characters
Bagpuss lives in a display cabinet at Canterbury Heritage Museum – but don’t worry, he isn’t lonely; the mice, elephant and ballerina are also there for when it’s lights out.
Not to be outdone, Rupert the Bear also resides here. His creator, Mary Tourtel, was born and studied art in Canterbury.
You can also learn more about childhood classic characters the Clangers, the Pogles, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, whose TV appearances were made at the Smallfilms animations studios in a barn just outside the city.
9. See the sights from the water
The River Stour flows through the city and was the main source of commerce connecting the continent to Canterbury in Roman and Medieval times. Now it’s a much more tranquil place.
You can walk or cycle along the Great Stour Way, part of the National Cycle Network Route, and the journey taking you from Chartham to Canterbury is three miles long.
If you’re not feeling as energetic Canterbury Historic River Tours offer guided tours by boat or punt.
The Canterbury Punting Co also does a spooky river tour, complete with lanterns.
10. Sample Canterbury’s cuisine
The city has fine dining options along with gastro pubs to keep you fed and watered.
Deeson’s British Restaurant grows a lot of its food in a smallholding on the outskirts of the city – called The Bunker. Not only does the five-acre site provide a lot of the fruit and veg, but they also have livestock, poultry and bee hives producing honey – find them near the cathedral.
Abode has three different places to suit every palate: The County Restaurant does Modern European food, The Champagne Bar for fizz and a something light, and their pub, The Old Brewery Tavern, gives you the gastro experience.
11. Try a local pub
The Lady Luck has built a reputation as a great live music pub, or choose your own sounds on their jukebox. Among the usuals, they serve real ale and specialist rums, and if the weather’s nice, the beer garden is always tempting.
For cocktails in an intriguing venue, try The Pound Bar & Kitchen and see if you can spot the original features of what was once a city gaol, gaoler’s house and police station – it stays open late.
At The Foundry Brew Pub – you can actually watch the beers being brewed while you wait. Housed in a former Victorian foundry (hence the name) they have plenty of cask beers, ales and ciders to try.
The Tyler’s Kiln is a gastro pub which also hosts live music nights, along with quizzes and other events.
It’s worth the four mile drive to Westbere to the Ye Olde Yew Tree Inn, which claims to be the oldest pub in Kent (1348) and is quite possibly haunted. This is a proper countryside pub, with a large outdoor beer garden to sip your beer in.
Back in the centre of the city is another old pub, The Cricketers, which has a courtyard garden to escape the busy high street.
Finally the Artichoke Inn is a timber-framed pub, dating back to the 15th century. It’s a great place to pop into during the colder months, as they have two large open fires.
12. Be bowled over by the sporting entertainment
The Spitfire Ground at St Lawrence in Canterbury is one of the home grounds, and headquarters, for Kent County Cricket Club.
The club was officially formed in 1842, but they played matches against London in the 18th century and neighbouring county Surrey in 1773.
You can go and watch a match during the season in the day or watch the action under floodlights for a T20 game.
13. Browse for bargains in Canterbury’s shops
The Buttermarket, next to the Cathedral, has been a part of Canterbury commerce for hundreds of years. They have sweet, gift and pottery shops, along with cafes and restaurants, where you can take a break from sightseeing (it’s actually built on top of some Roman ruins and underground tunnels).
The Goods Shed Farmers Market is a good place to buy local produce.
14. Enjoy Canterbury’s parks and open spaces
The site of Westgate Parks was once used as a place for Iron Age settlers to cross the river, and throughout the centuries this has been a prime spot in the city. Now its four riverside locations have been modernised and improved.
Westgate Gardens have been popular since the middle ages, and is one of England’s oldest parks, while the area known as Toddlers Cove is a lovely picnic spot with a children’s play area and outdoor gym recently added.
You can also meander through the meadow at Tannery Field (where Stone Age families once lived) or the wooded Bingley Island with its wildlife.
15. Explore more historic buildings
The ruined Canterbury Castle was originally built by William the Conqueror in c1070 , although Henry I made the biggest changes when he made it one of his three major fortifications in Kent in the 12th Century.
It formed part of the city walls, and you can climb partly up inside one of the towers to get an idea of its scale, or wander through the grounds.
The restored Stelling Minnis Windmill and Museum, is on the outskirts of town, and this pretty wooden smock mill, now Grade I listed, is open every Sunday from Easter through to September.
Eastbridge Hospital of St Thomas the Martyr has been providing hospitality to travellers, pilgrims and the poor for more than 800 years, and you still get a warm welcome now, along with a tour.
The remains of the first English Franciscan Friary, Greyfriars Chapel is worth a visit for some fine 13th Century architecture – you can also stroll in the grounds of the Franciscan garden.
16. Visit during a festival
The city hosts a major international arts event, the Canterbury Festival, every October, and you can see more than 200 acts and performances from the areas of music, theatre, dance and comedy.
They also have a fringe event, which runs at the same time, and showcases local talent.
17. You won’t get lost in Canterbury’s labyinth…
…but you will get great views of the city.
Purpose built by Haywood Landscapes Ltd at the University of Kent, the Canterbury Labyrinth has a medieval design you can negotiate your way round.
If our guide has inspired you, why not make it a longer visit. We have plenty of hotels in Canterbury and the surrounding area.
If you want to combine this trip with one to the seaside – then you’re only a half hour drive to the coastal town of Margate – here’s 17 things to do there.
It takes around an hour and a half to get to Canterbury from London by normal train via southeastern trains.
However you can do the journey in under an hour on the special high speed service if you want to save time. The train, which goes from St Pancras, can reach speeds of up to 140mph.
If you’re driving, it can take one and a half hours (depending on traffic).
There’s plenty of car parks to choose from, including three Park and Ride parks, if you don’t need your car in the city centre.
See Canterbury City Council for locations and charges.
Do you have any Canterbury tales of your own?
Maybe you live in Canterbury or maybe you’ve visited the historic city before? Either way we’d love to hear what your favourite things to do in Canterbury are.
Please share your recommendations and experiences by leaving a comment below.