Day trip to Canterbury: How to spend a day in Kent’s medieval city

by Jan

Thinking of a day trip to Canterbury?  Canterbury in Kent has been attracting hordes of visitors since the Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered here in 1170.  Since then, pilgrims from all over the world have made the journey by foot to this beautiful cathedral city.

Today Canterbury is one of England’s most beautiful historic cities.  It is an easy train ride from London and perfect for a day trip or weekend getaway. It has plenty of olde-world charm, independent shops, and a cool café culture.  Expect to be bowled over by its architecture, heritage and vibrant atmosphere.

In our Canterbury travel guide, we’ll show you the best attractions and things to do.   You’ll discover all the top historical sights and places to go, so you can have the most memorable visit to Canterbury.

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A day trip to Canterbury - morning

Arrival in Canterbury

On arrival in Canterbury, head to the main historic quarter by the cathedral. This area with its cobbled streets and narrow alleys is home to some of Canterbury’s top medieval buildings.

Canterbury is a compact city and it’s easy to navigate by foot.  If you are coming from the train station, it is about 11-minutes’ walk, passing under the Westgate Tower.  If you’ve arrived by car, it takes about 5 minutes to walk to the historic centre.

Canterbury Walking Tours

Tour Guide leading Walking Tour around Canterbury. Kent, UK

Although it’s very easy to do a self-guided walk around Canterbury, one of the best ways to start your day trip is with Canterbury Walking Tours.  Not only do you get to explore the city centre, but you’ll get a potted history of the UK’s most famous cathedral city.

Now, you really don’t need to be a history buff to enjoy the tour.  Our local guide, Colin, provided us with quirky facts about the pilgrims, unusual information about the city and of course the gruesome details of the murder in the cathedral.

Did you know that poor pilgrims would sleep standing over a washing line! (yes, quite literally)  or that the word canter comes from the speed at which pilgrims would arrive by horse?

The walking tour takes you into the cathedral precincts, the King’s School, and old monastery.  However, the tour does not include admission to the Cathedral.

The walking tour lasts 90 minutes and costs £15 per person.  I did it on my second visit to Canterbury and would really recommend it.  Book your Canterbury Walking Tour here.

Visit Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, UK

A visit to the cathedral is one of the best things to do in Canterbury.

If you don’t fancy a walking tour, start your Canterbury day trip with a visit to Canterbury Cathedral.

Established in 597 AD by St Augustine, Canterbury Cathedral is England’s oldest cathedral.  It is one of the UK’s most significant religious buildings and is now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (which also includes St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church) .

Canterbury Cathedral is one of Canterbury’s top attractions and best things to do.   However, as one of the UK’s most visited historic sites, you can expect it to be busy.  Go early, so you’ll be able to beat the crowds.

The Cloisters at Canterbury, Kent, UK

Once in the cathedral grounds take a stroll around the cloisters before heading into the cathedral.  Look out for the magnificent stained-glass windows, the tombs of Henry IV and the Black Prince, or the spot where Thomas Becket was murdered.

Explore the Cathedral Quarter

Statue of Geoffrey Chaucer, Kent, UK

The Cathedral Quarter has many reminders of Canterbury’s historic past.  It is the area where pilgrims arrive before entering the cathedral.

Just in front of the cathedral is the Old Buttermarket, an 800 year old former Bull Market.  You can still see a bull’s head mounted in nearby Butchery Lane.  (Plus this is a great spot for a photo of the Cathedral).  Butchery Lane is also home to Canterbury’s Roman Museum.

In the High Street, you’ll find a statue of Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales in the centre.  You’ll also see the Eastbridge Hospital of St Thomas, where pilgrims stayed overnight.

However, one of the most recognisable historic houses in Canterbury is the Old Weaver’s House.

The Old Weaver's House

The Old Weavers House, Canterbury, Kent, UK

The Old Weaver’s House is also one of Canterbury’s most photographed buildings.  This beautiful half-timbered 14th century building overlooks the River Stour.  As the name suggests, it was once the home of Flemish weavers but is now a restaurant.

You can get the best photo of the Old Weavers’ House from the King’s Bridge at the side of the building.  If you look further up the river, you’ll see Canterbury’s infamous ducking stool.  In medieval times they used this wooden ducking stool as a means of punishment for nagging wives or “scolds.”  The one here is most likely a replica of the medieval original.

The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge

The Beaney Institute, Canterbury, Kent, UK

The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge is home to Canterbury’s art gallery, library, and several exhibitions.  You’ll find this stunning building on the High Street.  Admission is free, so it’s worth a quick visit (or a bit longer on a rainy day!)

You’ll see lots of paintings, plus art and treasures from around the world.  Our favourite collection was Bagpuss and friends in the Small Films Gallery, a throw-back to 1970s children’s tv.

The Beaney House of Art & Knowledge is one of the best things to do in Canterbury for free, especially on a rainy day!

Sir John Boys House (the Crooked House)

The Crooked House, Canterbury, Kent, UK

Another of Canterbury’s top attractions is the quirky 17th century Sir John Boys House.   Also known as the Crooked House, it was named after the MP of that name.  You’ll find the wonky house at the far end of Palace Street, just behind the cathedral.

This half-timbered building is on such a slant it looks ready to collapse.  But don’t worry, it has been like this for years and won’t be falling down any time soon.

The crooked door at the Crooked House, Canterbury, Kent, UK

The top is still bulging over the street and the lower level is leaning to one side.  The front door is skewed and looks like it doesn’t fit its frame.

The Crooked House is a popular photo spot.  Visitors can go inside the building, which is now a Catching Lives charity bookshop.

Canterbury’s Crooked house was bulging as far back as the times of Charles Dickens, who in 1849 said…

““…a very old house bulging out over the road…leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below…”

Lunch in Canterbury

You’ll find plenty of choice for lunch in Canterbury, especially in the cathedral quarter.  Try one of the old pubs, such as the Buttermarket or the Parrot, the oldest pub in the city.

Another excellent choice is Gil’s Café at the farmer’s market, the Goods Shed, which is just out of town by the Canterbury West station.

A day trip to Canterbury - afternoon

A historic boat tour on the River Stour

Punting on the River Stour, Canterbury, Kent, UK

One of the most fun things to do on a sunny afternoon in Canterbury is a boat trip up the River Stour.

So, after a busy morning of sightseeing, book yourself onto one of Canterbury’s Historic River Tours.  You’ll experience Canterbury sights from a different angle as you journey up the River Ouse in a boat.  Or you could choose from a more traditional punt with Canterbury Punting Tours.

The tour guides do all the work, whilst you sit back and enjoy.  Plus, they’ll fill you in with more information about Canterbury’s medieval days.

Book online or look out for the sales reps on the bridge by the Weaver’s House.  The river tour lasts about 45 minutes.

The Westgate Tower & Gardens

Westgate Tower, Canterbury, Kent, UK

For the best views over Canterbury climb to the top of Westgate Towers. You could do this on the way in or out of the city, depending on which way you arrived!

Dating back to 1380, Westgate Tower is one of the best examples of a medieval gate in England.  The impressive city gateway shows how significant Canterbury would have been at the time.  It later became the city Gaol and you can still climb in one of the cells.

If you are coming by train, you will pass through the tower on your way into the city centre.

Please note that Westgate Tower is closed Saturdays.  A family ticket currently costs £10.

St Augustine's Abbey

St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, Kent, UK

The last stop of your day trip to Canterbury is at the ruins of St Augustine’s Abbey.  Along with the Cathedral and St Martin’s Church, this makes up the UNESCO World Heritage Site.  You can take a short walk outside the city walls to get to the Abbey.

The Abbey was founded by St Augustine just after 597.  It has been rebuilt several times since then, but fell into disrepair after Henry VIII dissolved the Catholic monasteries.  Visitors can wander the abbey ruins, before heading inside to the museum.

It now belongs to English Heritage and admission is free for members.  Admission prices for non-members can be found here on the English Heritage website.

The best things to do near Canterbury

If you want to extend your day trip to Canterbury, you’ll find plenty of things to fill your second day.  Turn your day trip into a weekend break in Kent, with a visit to the coast or countryside.

A day trip to Whitstable

Whitstable Harbour Fishing boat, Kent

One of the best places to visit near Canterbury is Whitstable, on the Kent coast.  This popular harbour village is only 20 minutes’ drive from Canterbury.  You could even hire a bike and cycle on the Crab and Winkle Way.  This flat route is only 7.6 miles.

As well as its picturesque harbour, Whitstable has an arts market, castle and lots of independent shops.  Read here for more details on how to spend a day in Whitstable.

A hike on the Kent Downs

The Kent Downs, Kent, UK

If you prefer a day in the country, Kent is the perfect choice, as it has miles of beautiful rolling countryside.

The Kent Downs National Landscape is an area of outstanding natural beauty.   It offers a stunning landscape, which stretches from Surrey to Dover.  It’s easy to see why they call Kent the “Garden of England.”

You could even follow in the footsteps of the pilgrims with a walk on the North Downs Way.  This National Trail leads all the way from Farnham to Canterbury and then to Dover.

We headed out to Hastingleigh and did a circular walk to Stowting, where we found an amazing gastropub, The Tiger Inn.

Practical information for your Canterbury day trip

Accommodation in Canterbury

If you want to extend your visit, how about a stay in one of Canterbury’s historic houses?   You could stay right near the cathedral in the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge or in the High Street in ABode.

If you prefer to stay out of town, we stayed in The Stables in Hastingleigh, which is perfect for a group stay.

Getting to Canterbury

London to Canterbury by train

A high speed train from St Pancras International will take you from London to Canterbury West in less than an hour.

Other trains depart from London Victoria station, London Bridge, and Liverpool Street.  The average journey is 1h 35 minutes.

Both Canterbury West and East stations are walking distance from the city centre.

Click here on trainline for prices and timetables.

Getting to Canterbury by car

It’s an easy drive from London to Canterbury on the A2 and M2.  It takes about 1.5 hours.

If you driving from outside London, get the M25, then M2.

We'd love to hear from you!

We hope you like our suggestions for a day trip in the historic city of Canterbury?  We’d love to hear from you in the comments box below.

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