Best things to do in St Albans

by Jan

Have you ever wondered what the best things to do in St Albans are?  Or how this commuter city in Hertfordshire got its name?  We went on a day trip to St Albans to find out.  Luckily, we had a guided tour from two locals, who took us to see all the top attractions in one day.

With a rich neo-roman history and heritage, there’s plenty to see and do in St Albans.  In this post, we’ll share the highlights of our day trip and ideas for the very best places to visit.   So, if you’re thinking of a day trip or weekend getaway, our St Albans’ itinerary is just what you need.

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Getting to St Albans

St Albans is a very easy day trip from London by train .

You can travel there from St Pancras International in as little as 20 minutes.  This makes it an easy day out if you want to escape the bustle of the city.  Being so close, it’s also one of the cheapest cities to travel to by train from London.

If you are travelling by road, St Albans is easy to access from the motorway, as it is nestled between the M25, M1 and A1 (M).  We travelled by car from Surrey in an hour.

Getting around St Albans

St Albans is a small city and fairly compact, so it’s easy to navigate by foot.  We had guides to show us around, but it’s well signposted so would be fairly easy.

If you prefer to learn some information as you walk, you could do a self-guided heritage walk and treasure hunt on your phone.

What is St Albans famous for?

Roman Mosaic, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

St Albans is famous for its rich history and association with the Romans.

When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, they took over the former Celtic settlement and named it Verulamium.  In fact, St Albans was once the third largest Roman city in Britain and even bigger than London!

Boudicca destroyed the first city on an attack against the Romans in 61 AD, but they later rebuilt a new city.  The new Verulamium included several public buildings, such as the theatre, basilica and a forum.  Visitors can still visit many of the Roman remains today.

As well as its rich Roman heritage, St Albans was also famous for its printing industry.  England’s third printing press was set up in the Abbey Gateway in 1479.

Another claim to fame for St Albans was it was home to the first hot cross buns. You can still buy them in the Cathedral café.

This post lists all the best places to visit in St Albans to help you plan your day trip or weekend away.

Who was Saint Alban?

Now, if you’re wondering where the city got its name, Saint Alban was the first recorded Christian martyr in Britain.

Historians maintain that the Romans beheaded him in Roman Verulamium, the city now known as St Albans.

Top things to do in St Albans

So, what is there to do in St Albans today?  Well, there’s loads, especially if you are interested in Roman history.

Expect to be impressed by the number of unique historic attractions, including a magnificent cathedral, Roman ruins, and ancient clock tower.   Plus, there’s plenty of outdoor activities and family attractions in St Albans too.

Read on to discover all the best places to visit for a brilliant day out in St Albans.

Verulamium Museum

St Albans Museum, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

For first-time visitors, a good way to begin your day trip to St Albans is at the Verulamium Museum.

The museum has an enormous collection of Roman artefacts, including mosaics, coins, and tools.  You can even see a couple of Roman skeletons in their ornate coffins.  It’s a very good place to start to understand how life would have been like in Verulamium and how the Romans influenced the city.

Although it’s not the most interactive museum we’ve ever been to, they do have an impressive collection of Roman treasures.  Plus, for children they have a dressing up area and brass rubbings.

The Verulamium Museum is on the edge of the park of the same name.

Click here for admission prices and opening hours.

Verulamium Park

Verulamium Park, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

Although we’d planned to start at the museum, it doesn’t open until 11am, so we took a stroll around Verulamium Park first.

Now whether you’re a history-lover, nature-lover or just want some outdoor space,  Verulamium Park is definitely worth a visit.  In fact, with over 100 acres of parkland, it’s probably the best outdoor space in St Albans.

The River Ver flows along one side of the park and there’s a large pond, Heron Lake, which attracts lots of birds.  When we were there, many of the birds had their young with them.

Keep a look out, as you’ll find several important Roman treasures in the park too.  Verulamium Park is on the site of the old Roman city, so you can still see some key archaeological discoveries.

The Roman Museum and Hypocaust

Hypocaust mozaic, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

The first of the Roman treasures in Verulamium Park is the impressive Roman Mosaic and Hypocaust.  You can find this in an inconspicuous building to the west of the park.

Only discovered in the 1930s, the mosaic shows the foundations of one room of a large Roman townhouse.  What’s particularly special about this archaeological unearthing is the evidence of a Hypocaust (an ancient underfloor heating system) below.  It just shows goes to show how clever those Roman engineers were all those years ago!

So, if you’re keen on history, remember to pop into St Albans’ Roman Hypocaust.  It doesn’t take long to visit, but you’ll be impressed.

Admission is free.  Check here for opening times.

Roman Wall and Old City Gates

Old Roman Walls, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

At the other side of the park, you’ll find the ruins of the old Roman walls, built in AD 265 to defend the city.   Quite amazing when you think about it!  The defence wall stretches for nearly 2 miles.

Another of the interesting Roman attractions to look out for in Verulamium Park is the remains of the old London Gate, one of four gateways to the walled city.

Playground and Splash Park

As well as historic sites, Verulamium Park has several attractions for children and is a popular place for families.

The park provides plenty of green space for kids to play and let off steam.  Plus there’s a small playground and Roman-themed mini golf.  On a sunny day, one of the best places to take toddlers in St Albans is the Splash Park.  What a fantastic way to cool off!

Hire a bike

If you like cycling, exploring St Albans on two wheels would be a good way to see the local area.  St Albans is a designated Cycling City and is connected to many green spaces and heritage sites.

One of the post popular cycle routes in St Albans is the Alban Way, a traffic-free route between Hatfield and St Albans.  This family-friendly cycle route follows Route 61 and is about 6.5 miles each way.  It follows a disused railway line and takes you over a cool train bridge.  You’d probably have to bring your own bike, as there don’t appear to be any bike rental shops.

Roman Theatre of Verulamium

Roman Theatre of Verulamium, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

After a visit to the museum, we walked a short way to the Roman Theatre of Verulamium.  Constructed circa 140 AD, it is believed to be the oldest producing theatre in England today.

The Roman Theatre is unique, as from the excavated site you can see it has a theatre with a stage, rather than the usual Roman amphitheatre.  For history-lovers and theatre-goers, the Roman Theatre is a must-see attraction in St Albans.  However, we decided to give it a miss and go for food.

The Waffle House

Banana Waffle, Waffle House, St Albans

There’s a really good choice of cafés and restaurants in St Albans.

We headed to The Waffle House in St Michael’s Street, a charming 16th century watermill with a scenic riverside location.  The Waffle House is one of St Albans’ most popular lunch venues, serving a choice of sweet and savoury waffle dishes.

You can’t book in advance, and there’s generally a queue at weekends.  But be patient, it’s worth it – the pancakes are excellent.

Fishpool Street

The next place to visit on our one-day itinerary in St Albans is Fishpool Street in the Old Town.

The first thing you will spot is that Fishpool Street is really, really old.  There is even evidence it was built before the monastery was founded in AD793.   Now that is ancient!  The street was used for 900 years as a section of the main road between Liverpool and Manchester.  It was extremely busy, as there was so much traffic.

Nowadays, Fishpool Street will charm you with its quaint medieval houses and tiny doors.  It’s like taking a step back in time!

St Albans Cathedral

St Albans Cathedral view, Hertfordshire, UK

The next on our list of things to do in St Albans is a visit to the magnificent cathedral.

St Albans Cathedral is the city’s top attraction, bringing in thousands of visitors every year.

Built on the site where St Alban was buried over 1,700 years ago, the holy landmark was originally an abbey.  However, along with most other abbeys it was dissolved under the reign of King Henry VIII.  It was not until later, in 1877, that it became a cathedral.

Today, a visit to the cathedral is one of the best reasons to visit St Albans.  It is a truly impressive building and the second largest cathedral in England.  What’s more, it has the longest nave in England.

Once inside, you can see medieval wall paintings, a shrine to St Alban and a stained-glass window depicting Alban with Saint George.  It also has a dressing-up area for children.

St Albans Cathedral is open from 8.30 to 5.30 and admission is free.

Abbey Gateway

Abbey Gateway, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

Next stop on our day trip to St Albans was a quick walk under the Abbey Gateway.  This is just in front of the cathedral.

The Abbey Gateway is all that remains of the original Benedictine Monastery in St Albans.  Built in 1365, it provided the main access to the Abbey.  Following the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381, the gateway became the the key focal point for any unrest from the townspeople.

Later, from 1553 to 1869, the Abbey Gateway served as a gaol, before forming part of St Albans School in 1871.

St Albans Clock Tower

St Albans Clock Tower, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

One of my favourite things to do in St Albans was climb its medieval clock tower.

Located in the Market Place, the clock tower was built between 1403 and 1405.  It is 19.6 metres high and has thick walls of up to 4 feet.  What makes St Albans Clock Tower so significant is that it’s the only medieval town belfry in England.

Visitors can climb the 93 steps of the spiral staircase to the top.  Be warned – it is very steep and narrow.

However, admission to the clocktower is only £2, so it’s very cheap.

On the way up you’ll see the shopkeeper and clock keeper’s lodgings, as well as an enormous 600-year-old bell.  At the very top you can climb out for views over the whole city, including the cathedral.

A climb up St Albans Clock Tower is one of the most interesting things to do in St Albans.  However, those spiral stairs are not very accessible, so it’s not for everyone.

Clock Tower Views, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

St Albans Museum & Gallery

Old Court House Cafe, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

One of the most unusual things to do in St Albans old town is visit the Museum and Gallery in the High Street.  The former townhall is a stylish building, which showcases art from around the world.

However, even if you don’t like art, you should visit the old Courtroom, which is now a quirky café.  Admission is free, so it’s worth going, even if it’s just to drink tea in the judge’s chair!

Afterwards, slip into the dock and head down the prisoner steps, where the one-time prison cells now house the toilets and more contemporary art.

The museum is open from 11am-5pm every day.

St Albans Market

St Albans market, St Albans, Hertfordshire, UK

The market is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays, so these are good days for a day trip.  It’s a large market, which dates back hundreds of years.  You can buy everything you need from food to clothes and crafts.

If you like shopping, St Albans also has an impressive choice of shops and boutiques.  I could have happily whiled away a couple of hours browsing on the High Street.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks claims to be the oldest pub in England!

So, the last stop on our day trip to St Albans was a visit to Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.  This traditional inn dates to the 8th century, though the current pub was built in the 11th century.

Inside Ye Olde Fighting Cocks it has an old-world feel and plenty of unique historical features.  Rumour has it there’s even some tunnels that connect to the Abbey, used by the monks of the time.

It also has a beer garden, so we could enjoy the last of the summer sun outside.

St Albans - need to know

Places to eat

You will not be stuck for places to eat in St Albans.  The High Street has a good choice of restaurants and several pubs.  Or, like us, you could head to the Waffle House.

Getting to St Albans

By car

If you are travelling by car, St Albans is easy to access from the motorway, as it lies between the M25, M1 and A1 (M).

By public transport

St Albans has two train stations.  If you are coming from London, you will arrive at St Albans City on the Thameslink line.

St Albans Abbey station links to Watford Junction, for connections to London Euston.

Parking in St Albans

We parked at the car pay-and-display Verulamium car park by the museum and park.  This was ideal as it is very central.  However, it is fairly small and does fill if you don’t get there early.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of other car parks near the city centre.

Accommodation in St Albans

If you want to stay for more than a day, you’ll find a good choice of accommodation in St Albans.

For luxury hotels, try the Sopwell House Hotel, a luxury Georgian Country House just one mile from the centre.

If you prefer somewhere more central, take a look at the White Hart Hotel, a 600-year-old coaching in the centre of the city. Alternatively, Torrington Hall is set within a Victorian mansion and has a fantastic location near the cathedral.

For those on a tight budget, you’ll also find a good choice of serviced apartments in the city.

We'd love to hear from you.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading our guide to St Albans.  We’d love to hear your questions or comments below.  Or even better, share the post with a friend!

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