London remains a popular destination for American travelers, who
frequently return for subsequent visits thanks to affordable
airfares and the ease of getting around in an English-speaking
country. But for those who say “been there, done that” to the usual
sights Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey and so forth and who
long to escape the bustle of the big city for a few hours, there
are several wonderful, affordable and often overlooked options,
most of which are also more family-oriented than many of London’s
The breathtaking Leeds Castle is, fortunately, not in faraway
Leeds, but in Maidstone, Kent, just an hour southeast of London by
rail or car. Although it’s a major draw for British tourists, I am
surprised that so few Americans are aware of this incredible place.
The castle itself past home to several generations of English
royalty, most notably Henry VIII is the stuff of fairy tales and
romantic landscapes, a grand stone palace right in the middle of
its very own lake. A day pass to the grounds not only includes an
extensive tour of the castle but also access to rolling hills, lush
gardens, shops, restaurants, a menagerie of rare birds (including
black swans and albino peacocks), the world’s only dog collar
museum and my personal favorite, a real-live hedge maze, with an
enchanting “secret grotto” as a reward for those clever enough to
find their way to the center.
Less extravagant but still lovely are the Royal Botanic Gardens,
Kew, close enough to the heart of London that they can be reached
via the Underground, yet worlds away from the crowded city. A short
walk from the Kew Gardens Tube station takes visitors to the main
gate, beyond which lies an extraordinary collection of gardens,
wooded glens, lakes and greenhouses including the gigantic
Temperate House and the sprawling Princess of Wales Conservatory,
which features 10 different climatic zones. There are both dining
and shopping opportunities on site, as well as a delightful
botany-themed playground tailor-made for younger children.
At the opposite end of London is Kenwood House at Hampstead Heath.
The Heath itself is a vast wilderness of a park, the sort of place
where clients might encounter old men in tweed caps with walking
sticks. Bordering the Heath is the venerable Kenwood House, a
manor open to the public free of charge. The Manor is notable for
housing one of only 36 Vermeer paintings in the world, as well as a
haunting Rembrandt self-portrait and other masterpieces. Movie
buffs will note that part of “Notting Hill” was shot here, too.
There’s a surprisingly tasty cafe at Kenwood, and tickets for Music
on a Summer Evening outdoor concerts can be purchased in advance.
(Art Garfunkel and the Buena Vista Social Club performed here in
Finally, nothing says “offbeat” quite like the Chislehurst Caves,
a 20-minute train ride from Central London in the peaceful village
of Chislehurst. It took me nine visits to the U.K. before I finally
made it out to the caves, but they have since become my favorite
thing to do in the London area. Obscure as they are, I recommend
them to everybody who visits.
Carved entirely by hand over thousands of years, these mysterious
underground chalk caves date back to the ancient Saxons and Druids.
The Romans used them as well. They served as a bomb shelter for
thousands of Londoners during World War II and were truly an
“underground” venue for rock bands during the 1960s.
As rich in atmosphere as they are in history, the caves make an
intriguing half-day trip for those seeking something truly
different. I especially recommend them to families with older
children; as teens may quickly tire of all the museums in town and
crave a bit of adventure, the Chislehurst Caves provide a great
alternative to the grisly and touristy London Dungeon. Experienced
guides lead 40-minute tours, and visitors even get to carry around
their own oil lanterns to help light the way, which is absolutely
charming. A cafeteria on the premises provides hearty meals.
“Music on a Summer Evening”
at Kenwood House
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew